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The geography of biblical studies

11 March 2016

Your view of the Holy Spirit probably relies on where you’re reading this, suggests Daniel Castelo

Wellcome Images/WIKI

Hovering: The Spirit of God upon the Deep from the Caedmon m/ss (10th/11th c.), Bodleian Library, Oxford

Hovering: The Spirit of God upon the Deep from the Caedmon m/ss (10th/11th c.), Bodleian Library, Oxford

I HAVE heard, on more than one occasion, an Eastern Orthodox voice remark in relation to Western Christianity that, whereas the latter is trying to recuperate from the ills of modernity, Orthodoxy has stayed the course from the very start.

Part of the irony in all of this is that some Westerners are responding to the inadequacies of modernity by returning to more ancient forms of Christianity, including Orthodoxy. One of the underlying premises in these developments is that how we understand the world and how we express our faith are interrelated.

A world view makes certain things possible, and disqualifies others, simply because it provides the lens or framework for what counts as significant to a culture or society, and to those who live in it.

One need only look at Christianity around the globe for proof of this point: whereas Christianity (including Anglicanism) is blossoming in what can be termed the global South, in the transatlantic North it is either stable or sadly in decline. One could narrate these developments along spiritual lines (“look at what God is doing in the world”) — but also cultural ones (“look at who is responding to what God is doing in the world”).

Pneumatology — thinking theologically about the Holy Spirit — stands at the heart of these dynamics. World views and pneumatology are intricately related themes, because accounting for “the spiritual”, or even “the Spirit”, necessarily involves lenses that allow for those kinds of realities, rather than rule them out. In a secularised and demythologised environment, reference to Spirit-matters may seem antiquated, and no longer viable today. But within other contexts, such references make good sense, not simply in terms of the Christian narrative but also in the wider cultural narrative.

The field of biblical studies, as with all forms of inquiry, reflects the domains in which it is pursued. In other words, it, too, reflects a worldview. With the rise of historical-critical scholarship in the European academy, more and more efforts were made to contextualise the biblical materials within their “original” setting, because it was assumed this was the way to arrive at a text’s “objective” meaning.

From this kind of study, we have come to realise important insights, such as that early New Testament pneumatology owes quite a bit to the Judaism of the time; that the words ruach (Hebrew) and pneuma (Greek) have a wide range of meanings, even if they can simply be said to be “spirit”, and so on.

In this contextualisation effort, however, as in any, some things rise to prominence and others are overshadowed or neglected. Notice a basic but crucial example: the Authorised Version translates the second part of Genesis 1.2 as “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” whereas the more recent New Revised Standard Version has, “while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”. The first translation allows the reader to think in Trinitarian terms as the first verses of Genesis are read; the second translation does not do so, perhaps because the translator would have found such a move anachronistic. Either translational choice reflects an operative worldview.

Some recent trends in biblical studies, however, would be more open to allowing the first reading, on several grounds, and these reasons are also world view-related. Rather than assuming that a text’s meaning is strictly grounded in its historical situatedness, some contemporary biblical scholars recognise that meaning is more fluid. Readers bring themselves to the hermeneutical task, and this recognition allows for meaning-generation of a different sort.

Therefore, for this post-critical perspective (which is a world view of its own), Christians can recognise the original context of the texts as well as operate out of their Trinitarian commitments. In other words, they can read the Old Testament as Christian scripture without necessarily compromising academic integrity as it is understood in the Western academy.

Of course, not all biblical scholars assume this, but many have come to do so as they see how modernity perpetuated the fallacy that faith and reason needed to be held at some distance from one another for their own good. Talk of the Spirit as presented throughout Christian scripture need not be understood as simply historical evidence of a bygone mythologised age. It certainly is that, but it is also talk that Trinitarian Christians can claim as vital for understanding God’s self-disclosure and activity in the world here and now.

Simply put, biblical studies in the Western academy is being reshaped by a paradigm or world view shift that, in some quarters, will allow for talk of miracles, spiritual gifts, demonology, and so forth: all of which, after all, are part of the “original” biblical context, too.

And these kinds of developments are timely and much needed, since the growth of Christianity in the global South is often in contexts in which their world views already accommodate the possibility for such “spiritual” realities. In other words, a rapprochement between Northern and Southern Christianities might be sustained via the Western academy’s capacity to articulate and account for what is happening globally.

The intersection between pneumatology and world view-matters seems, therefore, to carry much promise, as the worldwide Church deliberates and engages itself, constructively moving forward.


Dr Daniel Castelo is Professor of Dogmatic and Constructive Theology at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary.

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