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A Profound Ignorance: Modern pneumatology and its anti-modern redemption, by Ephraim Radner

29 May 2020

John Saxbee reviews a theologian’s critique of pneumatology

A MOTHER keeps vigil by the bedside of her small child as his life ebbs away. She derives little comfort from contemporary theodicies that attempt, and fail, to account for what is occurring.

Eventually, “distress opened me up, and in some fashion enlarged the scope of my engagement with life. Close to this small body, and now superimposed on my mute plea that he live, was a profound conviction that, no matter what happened, the most incredible and sublime thing was simply that he had been born.”

Ephraim Radner’s account of the theologian Marion Muller-Colard’s testimony triggered a memory in my own mind of a couple at the funeral of whose baby son I ministered almost 50 years ago. After the service, I sat in the car with them, and sensing a raw young curate’s feelings of inadequacy in such a situation, the mother took my hand: “Don’t worry,” she said. “He gave us more happiness in 18 months than most people give in 80 years. We’re just glad he was born.”

It is such affirmation of life as a gift of grace, whatever may befall, which informs Radner’s dense, demanding, but beguiling tour de force. Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, Radner is no stranger himself to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He knows whereof he speaks, and his candour compels our attention.

While his argument coheres with many other recent challenges to trends in modern philosophical theology, what is distinctive is his focus on the Holy Spirit. If you think “pneumatology” is simply a one-word equivalent to “theology of the Holy Spirit”, think again!

Radner argues that “pneumatology” is to be understood as an essentially modern discipline, critically at odds with traditional pre-modern theology of the Holy Spirit and, crucially, detached from biblical teaching about life in the Spirit as revealed to us in God the Son.

We proclaim the Holy Spirit as “Lord and giver of life”, and we celebrate Jesus as the exemplary embodiment of Spirit-filled life so that we, too, may have life, and life in all its fullness. But, as the Western world transitioned from the late Middle Ages into the age of discovery — geographical, psychological, scientific — so life came to be seen less as a spiritual gift and more as a series of problems to be analysed, solved, and sorted.

alamyFrançois Leterrier as the condemed prisoner in Robert Bresson’s 1956 film A Man Escaped, or The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth

So, during the early modern era, the category of “spirit” shifts away from its earlier focus on a purely divine sphere to focus on a sphere fashioned upon the human spirit — what Radner calls “the pneumatic human” — and “the spirit of the age”. But the fundamental incoherence of existence and its experienced facts and details cannot be escaped. They are survived only in terms of their being gifts from God. At this stage in the argument, the word “theodical” occurs frequently as the impulse to explain the ways of God to humankind dominated modernity’s theological discourse.

Modernity interprets “profound ignorance” in purely negative terms: it doesn’t do for a government minister to be “profoundly ignorant”. But Radner wants us to recover the profundity of our ignorance when it comes to comprehending the vicissitudes of our existence. Jesus as truly incarnate suffered just such vicissitudes in his living a human life. As with life itself, they are givens, and as the Spirit is as Spirit is in Jesus, there is hope.

This is the argument that Radner trails in a touchingly autobiographical introduction, and develops in the first two chapters. The remaining three chapters subject the modern “pneumatic human being” to scrutiny through the prism of 20th-century violence, and the examples of contemporary Christian and Jewish martyrs who “point to the true character of human life as it is given by God and, therefore, to the very plain inadequacies of modern pneumatalogical alternatives”.

The sheer breadth of Radner’s learning and sympathies is truly remarkable, even if at times it seems to be rather gratuitously on display. His extended focus on martyrdom could deter those who might struggle to be such heroes of faith. Also, recommending a return to pre-modern perspectives may, on the one hand, collude with a tendency towards resignation or even fatalism or, on the other, undervalue the undoubted providential benefits attributable to modernity. The Holy Spirit and the spirit of the age may, at least occasionally, be as one.

His affirmation of life as a gift of God’s Spirit in creation is timely, however; so that because of, and not in spite of, our profound ignorance of how and why things are as they are, life is a gift that goes on giving — and, with Christ as our example, we can so live that we will not be afraid to die.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


A Profound Ignorance: Modern pneumatology and its anti-modern redemption
Ephraim Radner
Baylor University Press £50.99

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