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The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience, by Simeon Zahl

05 March 2021

Why does sin cling so closely? John Saxbee considers an answer

THIS is a subtle and sophisticated venture into pneumatology. Simeon Zahl challenges assumptions hard-wired into much modern theology when it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit — and plots a way forward that links the likes of Luther and Augustine with the insights of contemporary psychological analysis.

The result calls for a radical re-think regarding how Christian doctrines, and especially the doctrine of salvation, affect a believer’s experience and behaviour.

The key links in the chain of argument are as follows. Doctrines must have real-life, real-time implications for human experience, which are “practically recognisable”; Christianity must focus on specifically Christian experience rather than religious experience in general; and forensic doctrines of the atonement have experiential implications — they are not exclusively “objective”.

Furthermore, Protestantism’s mistrust of experience as a theological resource must be challenged; Luther, Melanchthon and, especially, St Augustine, as informed by late-20th-century “affect theory”, provide theological and psychological clues to how soteriology can influence sanctification, foregrounding “desire” as the locus for experiential outworking of the indwelling Spirit; and affecting experience in this way is the work of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism is the movement best placed to articulate and demonstrate this approach for the 21st century.

The claim that “experience” cannot be excluded in theological inquiry dominates the first of the five chapters. That to speak about “experience” in Christian theology is necessarily to speak about the theology of the Holy Spirit is the focus of chapter two. Between them, these chapters provide the methodological basis for what follows.

The remaining chapters apply these principles “to resource a new experiential account of two fundamental topics in pneumatology: the work of the Spirit in salvation . . . and sanctification”.

Appealing to “affect theory” in support of this agenda is of especial interest. “Affects” include feelings and desires, and affect theory focuses on their vital part in understanding how people behave, and why. Theology has tended to disparage such affects, favouring more cerebral phenomena. But Augustine postulated “desire” as the Spirit’s channel of choice; so Zahl embraces “affective Augustinianism”.

Not least of the attractions of this theory for him is how it helps to explain why those taught by God’s Law to abhor sin, and embrace righteousness, remain untransformed by the gospel of God’s grace.

The conclusion suggests other doctrines besides those of salvation and sanctification which can benefit from his methodology, including Christology and the doctrine of sin.

Significantly, he sees his approach opening the doors “to further engagement with Pentecostal and charismatic theologies”. This suggests movement in the direction of the Spirit invading rather than indwelling human experience.

That direction of travel, together with an attenuated account of religious experience, and a rather too sanguine rehabilitation of forensic theories of atonement, will not be to everyone’s taste.

But, notwithstanding these reservations, his approach does provide a convincing account of why those saved through faith in Christ so often fail when it comes to living sanctified lives. Anything that helps us to understand and overcome what the Book of Common Prayer describes as a “burden . . . intolerable to us” is surely worthy of our attention.

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


The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience
Simeon Zahl
OUP £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

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