The Lord Is the Spirit by Andrew K. Gabriel

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Monday, February 14th, 2011

Andrew K. Gabriel. The Lord Is the Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Divine Attributes. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011. pp. 237. $27.00.

In a theological world increasingly interested in Pentecostalism and its celebration of the Holy Spirit, The Lord Is the Spirit represents an extraordinary contribution to the doctrine of God by a Pentecostal scholar. Gabriel’s account examines the divine attributes–omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, impassibility, immutability, and the like–and proposes that classical theism has not adequately taken into account the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. As a result, theology has overemphasized the transcendence of God. In response, Gabriel proposes that a pneumatological approach to the doctrine of God recovers an emphasis on divine immanence. The book offers a renewed emphasis on the Spirit in the understanding of the divine attributes and promises to do so from a distinctly evangelical and pentecostal perspective. What results from these efforts is a crisp, well-written, insightful, and highly instructive volume that should find its place into theological libraries not only among Pentecostals. The Lord Is the Spirit is a rewarding read for many audiences.

Gabriel’s intention to integrate pneumatology into the doctrine of the divine attributes is carried out in three steps: he begins with an overview of classical theism, its neglect of pneumatology, and its emphasis on divine transcendence. The next chapter engages a critical review of classical theism and contemporary attempts to revise the doctrine of God (with emphasis on process theology, evangelical theology, and trinitarian theology). Gabriel then outlines a pneumatological approach to the divine attributes, potential obstacles and the means to overcome them. The remaining chapters illustrate such a revision of the classical accounts of divine impassibility, immutability, and omnipotence by considering the passion, presence, and power of the Holy Spirit.

Gabriel’s work is rich without being overbearing. His critique of classical theism points out a surprising lack of trinitarian reflection on the divine attributes, accounts that remove the doctrine of the Holy Spirit often to a mere afterthought in the doctrine of God. In contrast, the contemporary approaches of evangelical theologians, trinitarian theologians, and process theologians present God in a more immanent fashion, yet they also fall short of developing a more comprehensive pneumatological presentation of the doctrine of God. Pneumatological insights are necessary for a more complete understanding of the divine attributes, even if such insights alone are not sufficient for a full revision of classical theism. The book reaches a number of important conclusions: The notion of the suffering of the Holy Spirit in creation, the community, and the individual, presents God as passible in the sense that the Spirit’s passions are affected by creaturely actions. The notion of the Spirit’s presence in the world, the church, and the Christian posits that God actively changes his presence and in this sense suggests a revision of the classical doctrine of divine immutability. Finally, the notion of the Spirit’s power expands the classical notion of omnipotence as an abstract, transcendent power to a more reciprocal theology of the activity of the Spirit within the economy of salvation. In the end, The Lord Is the Spirit speaks to more than the divine attributes but provokes, as the title indicates, a more thorough revision of the doctrine of God in light of the doctrine of the Spirit of God.

Gabriel’s work represents a significant contribution to contemporary formulations of the doctrine of God as well as to pentecostal scholarship. In these regards, however, not every reader will be satisfied. Despite the initial promise to present a contribution to pentecostal theology, Gabriel engages pentecostals only marginally, limiting interaction to a few sections and sources yet with few explicit formulations of what exactly constitutes the pentecostal contributions to the doctrine of God. Gabriel does not dialog substantially with contemporary pentecostal proposals on the doctrine of God (for example Macchia’s Justified in the Spirit, Yong’s The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh, and Vondey’s Beyond Pentecostalism, or Solivan’s The Spirit, Pathos, and Liberation) or classical formulations of Pentecostal testimonies (for example, the significant discussions of Oneness Pentecostals and the trinitarian views among others). Hence, the book does not offer a revision of the doctrine of God that is in a particular sense “pentecostal”. In that regard, Gabriel shows more clearly what kind of theology can and should be produced by pentecostal scholars but not what it means to formulate that theology concretely from the insights and traditions that make up the history and depth of the global pentecostal landscape.

Another critique of this otherwise fine work is the use of sources that are taken into account for a revision of classical theism. Gabriel uses only English-speaking sources and translations, and in some cases only a few available texts. The rich formulations on the doctrine of God as well as on pneumatology in German and French-speaking schools during the 20th century, for example, are hardly consulted. For example, Gabriel uses the pioneering thoughts of Heribert Mühlen from the very beginning and in very prominent places, yet his resources are limited to a single article available in English, ignoring more than 50 years of Mühlen’s scholarship as I have presented it extensively in Heribert Mühlen: His Theology and Praxis (UPA, 2004). The same can be said for the writings of Congar, Rahner, and others, and for contemporary writings, such as the work of David Coffey that not only makes these and other non-English sources accessible but that engages the doctrine of God explicitly from a pneumatological perspective. Gabriel’s work is a significant step forward that nonetheless calls for a more thorough consultation of theological traditions for painting an ecumenical picture of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, some readers will read Gabriel’s theological proposal with a more critical eye. Significantly, Gabriel does not entertain at all the contributions of pneumatology to an understanding of the divine essence. The book is almost exclusively dedicated to the notion of the Spirit as person. The question how God is Spirit–or in Gabriel’s own words, how the Lord is the Spirit–seems to speak only to the trinitarian question of personhood without questioning how being-spirit is also a biblical and theological way of understanding what it means to speak of the divine nature. The question of the contributions of pneumatology to questions of both divine nature and divine personhood were also central to many of the writings from Augustine to Mühlen and may present the presence, power, and passion of God in a slightly different light than a restriction of pneumatology to the notion of divine personhood. Gabriel is at times also somewhat inexact with his vocabulary in this regard, for example, in speaking of the “role” of the Spirit in the immanent Trinity or in the economy of salvation instead of the more widely used and accurate terminology of the “function” and “property” of the Spirit. At other times, he defends the neutrality of the Spirit in the hypostatic union (p. 123) while later attributing a participation in the suffering of the incarnate Jesus to the same Spirit (p. 146). One should wonder if this co-suffering of the Spirit does not entail a “participation” in the hypostatic union both with regard to the divine nature and the personhood of the Spirit that further illuminates the divine attributes.

These critiques are necessary for an assessment of Gabriel’s exceptional work. They would be superfluous if his text did not represent a significant contribution to theological scholarship, a significant advancement in pentecostal contributions to constructive theology, and a solid proposal for revisioning the doctrine of God. The Lord Is the Spirit invites a broad engagement of ecumenical scholarship.  It is a fine text for courses on the doctrine of God and a good companion to other texts, especially in pentecostal seminaries. We can look forward to many more writings from this author and perhaps from those who want to join a new generation of scholars who engage in conversation on the doctrine of God.

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Wolfgang Vondey
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One Response to “The Lord Is the Spirit by Andrew K. Gabriel”

  1. Jeff says:

    Larry King once declared, “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” That is totally how I feel. I am grateful to have learned something new today.