Book Review of Anthony Thiselton’s “The Holy Spirit—In Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries, and Today.”

Expect another post in the “Where Heaven and Earth Meet” series soon. For now, I present the following book review:

Thiselton, Anthony. The Holy Spirit—In Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries, and Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. 565 pages. 

thiselton

In The Holy Spirit—In Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries, and Today, Anthony Thiselton aims not only to produce a “thorough biblical and historical study of the Holy Spirit in systematic form,” but also to initiate and develop “a mutual dialogue with Pentecostals and those influenced by the Renewal Movement” (ix). Thiselton, for the most part, achieves these aims in a modest 565 pages (considering the magnitude of the topic).  

While Thiselton writes from a non-Pentecostal background, he is very fair and respectful to the Pentecostal position. His tone is non-polemic, as if he is speaking with a friend about an area of common interest. Thiselton regularly points out as many positives to the charismatic (Thiselton prefers “Renewal”) movement as negatives. In his survey of scholarship, Thiselton includes top scholars in the Renewal movement as well as scholars from diverse branches of Christendom.

Although works on the Holy Spirit are legion, The Holy Spirit—In Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries, and Today is worth reading for those interested in an up-to-date biblical and historical overview of pneumatology that also engages contemporary debates surrounding the Renewal movement. Tracking any area of theology across history broadens perspectives and can give new insights to readers not familiar with older writers. I plan to use this book like an annotated bibliography for major contributors to pneumatology throughout history.

The breadth of the subject matter brings some limitations. The book often reads like an overview or summary of major contributions, interspersed with some in-depth engagement with the Renewal movement. The first part (chapters 1-8) covers “The Holy Spirit in Biblical Teaching” and provides an adequate presentation of important texts and issues. If one is interested primarily with the biblical texts, they would be better served by other works that delve deeper into the pneumatology of the biblical writers. That being said, Thiselton’s treatment of the Spirit in Acts and in Paul’s letters is more involved because these texts form the primary arena in Charismatic debates—debates that Thiselton examines as he pursues the book’s aim to dialogue with the Renewal movement.

Part two (chapters 9-16) covers “The Holy Spirit through the Centuries.” This unit runs through 1500 years of church history, from the apostolic Fathers to the post-Reformation Jonathan Edwards. Of necessity, this second part offers not much more than a catalogue of major theologians and their contributions to pneumatology.

In the final part, “The Holy Spirit in Modern Theology and Today” (chapters 17-24), the catalogue of theologians and their contributions continues. However, as the time frame approaches our own, the presentations contain more critiques. The reader feels like they have moved from an annotated bibliography with expanded content summaries to a series of book reviews. The shift is understandable since the Pentecostal movement reaches prominence in this time frame, and Thiselton aims to dialogue with this movement.

The most interesting and original section of the book is the last chapter wherein Thiselton presents reflections and conclusions drawn from the preceding 23 chapters. He offers “seven fundamental themes” with corresponding “practical consequences.” These themes emerge in and through the centuries of Christian thinking and include: “The Personhood of the Holy Spirit” (469), “The transcendence, distinctiveness, and ‘otherness’ of the Holy Spirit” (470), “The Holy Spirit is shared out as a common possession of the whole people of God” (474), and others.

This last section also includes a summation of six issues requiring more dialogue with the Renewal movement as well as seven warnings from church history.  At the very end of the chapter, Thiselton draws on his extensive work in hermeneutics and presents five issues in hermeneutics that permeate the Pentecostal-traditionalist dialogue. One issue is the common complaint that non-Pentecostals read Luke-Acts through a Pauline lens (or pre-understanding). Thiselton points out that pre-understandings are not fixed and unmovable. Rather, a pre-understanding can be modified as one integrates new information. Whether one approaches “baptism in the Spirit” wearing Pauline or Lukan lenses, that person can and should integrate the whole counsel of scripture to further develop that understanding. In other words, the existence of bias and pre-understanding should not stop dialogue and is no license for immovability. Both sides of the debate should not hunker down in a fixed position based on different pre-understandings.

The aforementioned hermeneutics issue is just one example of the many relevant insights that fill this last section. These insights take into account the preceding chapters, but are understandable on their own. Even if one does not have the wherewithal to work through the beginning and middle of the book, the last chapter is a rewarding read.

 

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