Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

From Pentecost to the Triune God

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 by Christopher Stephenson

StudebakerSteven M. Studebaker, From Pentecost to the Triune God: A Pentecostal Trinitarian Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6530-4. $34.00.

Steven M. Studebaker’s pneumatological trinitarian theology undertakes two basic tasks. First, he wishes to demonstrate the implications of pentecostal experience for the doctrine of the Trinity. In this respect, his work stands in continuity with Frank D. Macchia’s efforts to reestablish baptism in the Holy Spirit as the centerpiece of pentecostal theology. Second, Studebaker wants to make the biblical narrative’s witness to the Spirit a primary resource for the doctrine of the Trinity. His methodological move, then, is from pentecostal experience of the Spirit to biblical texts–to the triune God.

Studebaker’s driving theological principle is that in the Trinity “economic activity arises from immanent identity” (3). This indicates reciprocity between the Spirit’s work and the Spirit’s identity. Like many other theologians, he believes that the economic Trinity is the source of knowledge of God. Whereas they usually begin with Jesus Christ, however, Studebaker begins with the Holy Spirit, in part because he maintains that a proper Spirit christology implies that pneumatology conditions Christology.

Much of Studebaker’s thought is funded by the trinitarian theology of David M. Coffey, but this is not an uncritical reduplication of Coffey’s mutual love model of the Trinity. Studebaker does not simply offer a pentecostal deployment of Coffey’s trinitarian theology but an improvement of it. Most notably, Studebaker wisely inverts Coffey’s move from the immanent Trinity to the economic Trinity and bases his claims about the eternal divine persons on their activity within the economy of salvation. What Studebaker calls the liminal, constitutional, and consummative works of the Spirit in creation and redemption suggest that the Spirit plays a constitutive role in the immanent Trinity. The Holy Spirit completes the fellowship of the Triune God, but not simply as the mutual love between Father and Son hypostasized.

The common accusation that systematic theologians sometimes read historical theological texts with little care or precision will find no basis here. Studebaker—himself assistant professor of both systematic and historical theology (McMaster Divinity College)—easily moves back and forth between premodern and modern sources from Gregory of Nyssa to Jonathan Edwards to D. Lyle Dabney. One example of his careful reading comes in the third and most important chapter of the book, namely, his avoidance of the nearly pervasive caricature of Western trinitarian theology beginning with the one divine essence and Eastern trinitarian theology beginning with the distinction of the three divine persons. This foundation gives even surer footing to his legitimate criticisms of Western and Eastern models of the Trinity, one of the most poignant challenges to them since the first volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology. In fact, Pannenberg may deserve a little more direct engagement than Studebaker gives him in light of Pannenberg’s similar accomplishments.

Studebaker’s primary concern is that the traditional models do not exhibit the Holy Spirit’s constitution of the personal identities of the Father and the Son in the immanent Trinity, something that must be maintained since the Holy Spirit constitutes fellowship between Father and Son in the economy of salvation. The Spirit completes the economic work of redemption and completes the immanent fellowship of God. Of course, Studebaker does not reverse the relations of origin, but maintains that those relations do not exhaustively define the divine persons. Thus, in the immanent Trinity the Holy Spirit is not merely passive, and the Spirit’s identity is not merely derivative.

Before rounding out the volume with contributions to theology of religions and creation care, Studebaker offers equally insightful evaluations of evangelical and charismatic trinitarian theologies. His theology of religions furthers recent pentecostal discussions and develops an inclusivist account of the soteriological ends of those outside the church. His engagement with ecology provides the theoretical basis for viewing acts of creation care as spiritual disciplines.

This is constructive pentecostal theology at its best: bold, clear, in conversation with multiple Christian traditions, and thoroughly informed by the biblical witness without bypassing the dimensions of speculative theology frequently lacking in pentecostal theology. This book is one of the constructive highlights of the Pentecostal Manifestos series.

The Theology of Amos Yong and the New Face of Pentecostal Scholarship

Monday, July 29th, 2013 by John Sylvest

yongWolfgang Vondey and Martin William Mittelstadt (eds.). The Theology of Amos Yong and the New Face of Pentecostal Scholarship: Passion for the Spirit. Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies 14. Leiden: Brill, 2013. ISBN: 9789004251748. $141.00.

In The Theology of Amos Yong and the New Face of Pentecostal Scholarship, an inspired group of authors have interpreted his hermeneutic. Most succinctly, in essence, what they have proposed is that Yong’s leit motif suggests that pneumatology models phenomenology. For Yong, it appears, this is really the very same premise as John Polkinghorne’s epistemology models ontology. Yong’s extensive oeuvre suggests that the amplified epistemic risks that are entailed in taking this pneumatological turn, epistemologically, are warranted by the augmented values to be realized, axiologically. This is no vulgar pragmatism but is, instead, grounded in a fallibilist realism, one that requires a rather rigorous discernment process. The major thesis is that a pneumatological imagination can better engage science, religion, philosophy and culture, mining those resources and bringing their gifts - not anxiously, but – urgently, to a world in need. In discerning the truth, then, we journey – not always directly, but – inexorably, guided – not always by the robustly truth-conducive, but, rather – by the weakly truth-indicative, overcoming such weaknesses by sharing our success stories and, as a discerning eye must surely see, the greatest story ever toldRead the rest of this entry »

The Problem with Evangelical Theology: A Review of Ben Witherington III

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013 by Graham H. Twelftree

Ben Witherington III. The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism and Wesleyanism. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2005. 294 pp. $34.95

For Witherington, Evangelicalism—that “many-splintered thing” (ix)—has three main tributaries: Reformed theology, which contributes the emphasis on soteriology, Dispensationalism, which renews the focus on eschatology, and Wesleyan/Pentecostalism with its stress on the experiential (3). Important for Witherington, in their distinctive elements, each of these systems is “only loosely tethered to detailed exegesis of particular texts” (6).

Witherington applauds the Reformed tradition for its high Christology, its Trinitarian emphasis, its belief in the atoning death of Jesus and its omnipotent God (3–89). It is its TULIP that is dead and ought to be thrown out (167–68). It is not God but human response that limits the atonement: “God’s grace is resistible at the outset and rejectable later” (88).

Dispensationalism (93–168) is certainly not Witherington’s favorite form of Evangelicalism, wed to “the all-too-American gospel of success and wealth” (93). He draws some no-holds-barred-conclusions. “There will be no Armageddon between human armies . . . all divine solutions to the human dilemma descend from above . . . . One should not look to the modern secular state of Israel as some sort of fulfillment of biblical Israel;” from the Christian point of view, all OT prophecies are fulfilled in or by Christ, not apart from him or the church (109). Also: “Unless by rapture one merely means being taken up into the air to welcome Christ and return with him to earth, there is no theology of the rapture to be found in the NT anywhere” (130). For Witherington, much of the Dispensational system collapses.

“Mr. Wesley Heading West” (169–237) focuses attention on Wesleyan concepts. As a cradle Methodist, Witherington admits the difficulty of criticizing his theological parent. Not surprisingly, he is more restrained in his criticism, declaring that to him there appear fewer weaknesses in the Arminian approach to biblical texts than in other systems (171). Witherington concedes that Wesley’s notion of sinless perfection has imperfectly followed the text of the NT. An encounter with the perfect love of God may have a profound effect on a person, but there is no suggestion that perfection, in the full sense of that term, will result (214).

In a glance at “The People of Pentecost” (216–222) Witherington takes issue with consequence or subsequence, which he argues cogently is weakly based, and in some cases distorts the biblical text (218). On the question of there being any particular gift Christians must manifest to demonstrate being Spirit-filled, Witherington is clear: “absolutely not” (220).

In the final part, “The Long Journey Home—Where Do We Go from Here?” (225–54), Witherington argues that the story of God’s people is to be read starting from Jesus. This would involve not only reading the OT, but also ourselves and our non-Christian neighbors, through the lens of Jesus. Indeed, the foundation of Evangelical Christianity, at present apparently a Book, needs to be replaced by a Person, Jesus. For, if we read the Book carefully it points us beyond itself to the incarnate Person. Though, even Jesus is not the ultimate object or, as Rowan William says somewhere, the terminus of our faith.

Witherington also argues that we should “do our theologizing in the very same manner as Jesus and the biblical authors—using stories” (239). However, so far as I can see, the theologizing that comes to us from the NT was not only done “out of various paradigmatic stories” (240). The gospel is neither limited to nor embodied in a message: Jesus did not simply tell stories. A case can be made that he only told stories because something had already happened both in his coming and in his ministry. Without the coming of God in him, without the expression of the coming of God’s powerful presence in his activities (not least the miracles), Jesus would have had no stories to tell. Yes, the early Christians told stories of the Jesus event, but they were also compelled to connect that story with their own stories. For, the power of his Spirit, manifest in events (including the miraculous), required new stories.

If this is right, I would suggest that the way forward in re-conceptualizing (Evangelical) theology is not in finding new ways to do hermeneutical tricks with old stories. Instead, as we look carefully at those stories, I suspect we will want to find new ways to allow the powerful presence of God access to our present. The result would mean—as it did for Jesus and his early followers—that we would then be obliged to explain what was happening, as well as retell the Old story about the One whose powerful presence was being experienced. In short, theologizing is not done merely by interpreting paradigmatic stories. Theology is describing and interpreting God, including both his speaking and acting, in relation to present experience.

Does such an approach put theology at the mercy of experience? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that, from a biblical perspective if there is no experience there is no theology, only history. But no, in the sense that just as contemporary stories (our words) do not replace the message of Jesus—they can reflect on, enliven and enlighten it—so contemporary experience (healings, tongues, prophecy, miracles) does not replace or eclipse the activities of Jesus but, like the stories, can give them contemporary expression and significance as it did for the early Christians.

The problem with Evangelical theology is certainly in the distinctives having poor exegetical foundations. But, if the devil is in the distinctives, the heresies are in what we hide with our present theologies: the person of Jesus and his ongoing powerful presence among us through the Spirit.

The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit

Thursday, November 8th, 2012 by L. William Oliverio Jr.

Nimi Wariboko. The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6697-4. $25.00.

Paul Tillich’s The Protestant Era (1948) spoke of the “Protestant principle” wherein an anathema was placed upon absolutizing truth claims and systems. Perpetual reform corrects finite aspirations to ultimacy and drives a movement between substance and principle. The Pentecostal Principle takes inspiration from the “Protestant principle” while superseding its claims by offering the “pentecostal principle” as a third, dynamic, and kairotic surplus of the interrelationship of substance and reform. Developing a special vocabulary throughout, Wariboko offers a meta-ethical and religious vision in this dense monograph, one full of asides (e.g., a lengthy one on ecstatic language and tongues, pp. 56-65) as well as the use of conceptual images and analogs (e.g., his use of “Apelles’ cut,” the division of divisions, to illustrate something of the “pentecostal spirit,” pp. 143-149).

 The Pentecostal Principle sets out to explain the essence of pentecostalism. In doing so, Wariboko is also explaining something more fundamental than just a religious movement, extending to the question of humanity and reality itself. The book is explaining the essence of the “pentecostal” as a “spirit,” a principle or a transformative creative energy within the materiality of existence. Like a psychologist accounting for a client in the psychologist’s own private assessment, Wariboko is accounting for the underlying historical impulses exemplified in global pentecostalism. By operating with the assumption that he knows the clients better than they themselves do, Wariboko challenges the reader to deep reflection on the nature of the pentecostal.

The book begins with a lengthy introduction followed by five chapters and concludes with an epilogue. The introduction and the first chapter provide readers with the background and framework for understanding the “pentecostal principle,” recounting Tillich’s “Protestant principle” and providing philosophical meditations on scriptural and philosophical themes from which Wariboko derives his own principle. The “pentecostal principle” is understood to be triadic in nature. The “Catholic substance” is met by the “Protestant principle,” which perpetually reforms and critiques the closure of the former. The “pentecostal principle” meets this tension of excess and reform as the kairotic force, breaking in and out from both outside (the transcendent) and within (the immanent). Such a triadic structure notably parallels Amos Yong’s triadic hermeneutics and metaphysics in Spirit-Word-Community (Ashgate, 2002), and this parallel raises the question if a common pentecostal triadic metaphysics is currently developing– despite Wariboko’s denial that he is developing a metaphysics (p. 18).

In the second chapter, he correlates biological emergence and ethical methodology, with the kairotic as it emerges as “pure means” or as “evolving potentialities … eros toward open future …” (p. 100) in the play of the pluralism of human ethical existence. Yet, the third chapter seems to suggest that a precondition for ethical analysis is a telos in the particularities of a given society (p. 118). And for those desperately searching in these pages for a concretization of his ethical proposal, it can be found in the “Flowchart of Ethical Analysis” at the end of the third chapter. The fourth chapter most specifically addresses the nature of the pentecostal spirit itself: spirit is natality (new birth) and attends to the cultivation of identity. Spirit is also play understood as pure means, which is the subject of the fifth chapter. Here, play is not a counterpoint to work but the “deactivation of law and radicalization of saving grace” (p. 164). The ends are open in the pentecostal principle, where religion is not co-opted into the maintenance of order.

As Wariboko moves between social analysis, ethics, continental philosophy and theology, The Pentecostal Principle intertwines and sometimes blends these disciplines together. If there is a moment that epitomizes the book as a whole, it comes in the epilogue. There, the author recounts his own pentecostal conversion and experience, which stands at the root of his conviction that the pentecostal principle is the capacity to begin anew, with “a strong notion of self-transcendence because we served a God of surplus and possibility” (p. 208). Yet, Wariboko looks to illuminate this experience with an interpretation of grace from Slavoj Žižek who draws from Kant and Schelling. How is the former informing the latter? How is the latter being used to interpret the former? In addition, a Barthian critique arises throughout. The interrelation of Wariboko’s sources is questionable.

Nevertheless, The Pentecostal Principle is one of the most significant contributions to the nature of the pentecostal to date. His claim about its kairotic nature nicely correlates with Douglas Jacobsen’s historical claim that early pentecostalism was founded, in the plurality of its theologies, on the notion of God doing new things (see Jacobsen’s Thinking in the Spirit). Still, some may wonder if his “pentecostal principle” really is “pentecostal” enough to claim continuity with the global movement itself. I am inclined to think that, by and large, he has accomplished here what Tillich did. Nevertheless, The Pentecostal Principle will likewise be critiqued on its theological substance.

Spirit-Empowered Christianity

Monday, June 25th, 2012 by Walter Gessner

Spirit-Empowered Christianity in the 21st Century: Insights, Analysis, & Future Trends. Edited by Vinson Synan. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2011. ix + 595 pp

Vinson Synan compiles a series of scholarly essays designed to consider the future direction of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement and to offer to the future generations an “important marker . . . at the beginning of the twenty-first century and a visionary guide to the future” (3). Arranging the essays under three sections, Twenty-First Century Renewal, Protecting Our Charismatic Distinctives, and Charismatic Adaptations for Reaching this Present Age, Synan allows for each of the contributors to examine and critique the current state of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, while offering through interdisciplinary constructs the desired visionary guide to the future.

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Global Renewal, Religious Pluralism, and the Great Commission

Thursday, June 21st, 2012 by Brandon Kertson

Global Renewal, Religious Pluralism, and the Great Commission : Towards a Renewal Theology of Mission and Interreligious Encounter. Asbury Theological Seminary Series in Christian Revitalization Pentecostal/Charismatic Section. Lexington, Ky.: Emeth Press, 2011.

In the last century, renewal Christianity has exploded around the globe, particularly in the global South. In many countries experiencing the greatest growth, however, Christianity is not the dominant religion. Despite its rapid numerical growth resulting from intense evangelism and mission, little theological reflection has been done as to how the burgeoning movements should live and minister in the midst of such a pluralist world. Global Renewal, Religious Pluralism, and the Great Commission, edited by Amos Yong and Clifton Clarke, contains a series of papers presented and refined at a symposium held at Regent University in February of 2010 to address just this, the nature of the Christian mission in a religiously plural world from a renewal perspective. Read the rest of this entry »