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The Progressive Mystery: Tracing the Elusive Spirit in Scripture and Tradition

Book Review: The Progressive Mystery: Tracing the Elusive Spirit in Scripture and Tradition

Derek Tovey —

Myk Habets. Bellingham: Lexham, 2019. xv+220pp. ISBN: 9781683592785. $32.51.

In this “primer” on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Habets provides an overview of the development of an understanding of the Spirit as found in both Scripture and the Church’s tradition. Though written with graduate students in mind, the book is accessible to all readers with an interest in the topic. The word “Progressive” in the title indicates that understanding of the person and the work of the Spirit is both revealed progressively through Scripture and develops over time within the Christian tradition.

After a brief Introduction (Chapter 1) in which he outlines the scope of his survey and summarises the content, Habets launches, in Part 1, into a survey of the Old Testament material on the Spirit. He begins (Chapter 2) by providing an overview of the semantic range of the Hebrew word ruach, which may be understood as an energy or power, linked with God, as e.g. wind, or breathing/breath, through anthropological applications as an indicator of mood or disposition, or an influence, or linked with some ability to perform a task with wisdom, knowledge or insight, and finally in a “metaphysical or numinous sense” to refer to God’s Spirit.

A couple of chapters (3 & 4) examine the role of God’s Spirit in creation (“God’s presence in action”, 23) in planning, executing, initiating, sustaining and preserving creation. The Spirit’s role in the community (the people of God) is found in bringing deliverance from Egypt, acting “behind the scenes” in its theocratic government, providing leadership ability to leaders, and inspiring and speaking through prophets.

Chapter 5 (“The Spirit, Christ, and Consummation”) explores the way in which the divine Spirit would especially endow and enable the promised and expected Messiah, as well as the Spirit’s endowment on the community, and on the individual. Chapter 6 raises the question of when the concept of the Spirit as a person arose, an understanding that lead eventually to the “amazing” Trinitarian faith of the New Testament. Habets states that this idea is not absent from the Old Testament, where vestiges of it are to be found and where the Spirit may be seen as an extension of the presence of God.

A brief survey of the intertestamental period considers how linguistically the concept of the Spirit moved from that of ruach to (the Greek) pneuma, and takes on the function of psyche (“soul”) and thus “coterminous with life itself” (47). Nevertheless, Hebrew ideas of ruach are imported into Greek ideas of pneuma. In this period, too, Spirit is identified with Wisdom and is personalised. The understanding of spirit is influenced by Hellenism so that spirit often refers to otherworldly good or evil beings. God’s Spirit, however, was thought to have departed from Israel’s prophetic ministry, but would return powerfully in the Messiah and the final eschatological age.

Moving, in Part 2, to a New Testament Pneumatology, Habets notes that one inhabits an entirely different environment, but where, nonetheless, one encounters the same Spirit as in the Old Testament. Moving through the various books and types of writing in the New Testament, Habets notes how Matthew and Mark present the Spirit “in a thoroughly Old Testament sense of God’s power to perform special tasks” (59), while Luke-Acts places both the ministry of Jesus and that of the early church in a pneumatological framework. A special concern for Luke’s understanding of the Spirit is the relationship of his (sic) involvement in “conversion-initiation” and later reception of, or anointing by, the Spirit. Habets notes the difficulty (in English anyway) of choosing a suitable pronoun when referring to the Spirit but defends his use of the masculine pronoun in Chapter 2 (10-11, especially in footnote 8).

John’s Gospel (Chapter 11) provides an especially rich source for pneumatology as here there is a specific linking of the Spirit to new birth and the Spirit’s role as agent of regeneration. Above all, the Spirit is personalised as “the other Paraclete” who “replaces” Jesus (though Habets does not see it this way, 77, fn. 20), and is a counterpart to Jesus. The Spirit provides a continuation of Jesus’s ministry. In 1 John, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, while in Revelation the Spirit of prophecy is most prominent. The Spirit is the exalted Lord, but is related to the community rather than the individual.

“The Spirit in Pauline literature” (either Paul himself or of Pauline influence), Chapter 12, examines the role of the Spirit in engendering new life and obedience in a new covenant, the work of the Spirit as agent of both individual and corporate new creation, and in bringing eschatological transformation. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ or “God’s empowering presence” relating to Christ in the same way as the Spirit relates to Yahweh in the Old Testament.

Finally, in Hebrews and the Petrine Epistles (Chapter 13), the Spirit interprets the Old Testament, and effects sanctification and a perception of the good news in the believer. A very brief chapter (14) concludes this part by noting that the Spirit is encountered not so much as a doctrine as an experience.

Part 3, “The Spirit and the Early Church: Towards Orthodoxy” details, in Chapters 15–19, how the church fathers thrashed out a doctrine of the Holy Spirit as they debated the nature of the Trinity. Indeed, it was the doctrine of the Holy Spirit that brought the debate of the “Homoousion Framework” to a head and helped to formulate the understanding of Christ’s divinity (see e.g. 118). Much in the understanding of the relation of the three persons of the Trinity to one another remained unstated or undefined. However, Augustine, in the western church at least, brought Trinitarian doctrine to its final state, with the Spirit understood as co-equal with the Father and the Son, but fulfilling the role of binding all together, and enabling the union of God with believers.

In the fourth and final part, “The Spirit and the Contemporary Church: A Third Article Theology”, Habets covers the ground from the Reformation to the present day. The Reformation saw interest in the Holy Spirit revive, but the focus of development shifted from the person of the Spirit to the Spirit’s work. Calvin, the preeminent theologian of the Spirit, defended the complete deity of the Spirit, and put a strong emphasis on the Spirit’s work of renewal, sanctification and the believer’s assurance of the truth and divine authority of Scripture.

Schleiermacher, Barth, Moltmann, Congar, Rahner, and Vatican II all receive brief analysis in Chapters 20-21. Here the focus is on such matters as the relationship of the Spirit to the Church or humans, whether as an essentially non-metaphysical essence, or opening people to new possibilities, or understanding pneumatology as essentially ecclesiology.

In the final three chapters (22-24), Habets considers the two important twentieth century movements regarding the Holy Spirit: Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement; as well as exploring some implications of Evangelical pneumatology. To this point, Habets’s exposition has been largely descriptive and summative of various developments. Suddenly, he seems to find his own voice. He engages in critique and analysis of shortcomings (e.g. of the individualism and undue emphasis on experiential aspects in the charismatic movement) and potentialities (of “Third Article Theology” in the Conclusion). As might be expected, he is more dependent upon others’ scholarship when discussing the Spirit in the Old and New Testament, though he is still able to provide succinct and pertinent summaries.

Chapters, though many, are short and pithy. The book contains a few typographical and grammatical errors. The ones calling for comment are a reference to the estimation that Pentecostalism “has nearly 279 billion adherents” (162, fn. 3; obviously he means “million”) and Kärkkäinen gets spelt three different ways (see page one where it is correct; 131, 193).

Derek Tovey is the book review editor for Stimulus.