Holy Spirit painting

Holy Spirit painting (Photo credit: hickory hardscrabble)

As a result of a recent conversation I have begun thinking about what a Brethren pneumatology would look like. As a theological tradition Brethren have avoided putting what they believe in writing for the purpose of avoiding a rigid orthodoxy among other reasons. Unfortunately this has also resulted in an un(der)developed theology of the Holy Spirit with undefined Brethren distinctives. In the process of our conversation the uncertainty of a starting point became clear. Where do you start when developing a pneumatology in conversation? Obviously scripture is foundational for any theology; however, theology is essentially the conversation about God or as Augustine put, “faith seeking understanding.” If this is so then it is necessary to engage what others have already posed in this conversation. As I was considering this, I also recognized that like everyone before us, we necessarily choose who our conversation partners will be. After all it is impossible to engage every statement ever made on the subject. In light of this do we begin with Basil’s foundational work regarding the Spirit’s divinity?[1] What about Jürgen Moltmann’s articulation of the Spirit as the breath of God whistling from God’s mouth breathing life into creation[2] or Clark Pinnock’s theological reflection of God’s Spirit as the flame of love dancing passionately binding not only the Father and Son in fellowship but inviting creation into the divine dance of fellowship?[3] Each of these would be significant conversation partners. It seems to me that whichever direction this conversation takes, works such as these are essential to the conversation.

In addition to choosing previous works as conversational partners, I am equally convinced that contemporaneous theological conversation (whether through joint writing projects or presentation and response) with folks from other theological traditions is equally essential. I believe that in the process of these conversations, not only are we formationally affected through the relationships, but in the process the hermeneutical perspective or distinctives of our own theological tradition become more apparent. For example, I have been in an ongoing theological conversation with a good friend, Ken Archer, for about ten years. Ken is part of the Pentecostal tradition being an ordained Bishop in the Church of God and Professor of Theology at Southeastern University. The topic of our conversation has revolved around the themes peace and justice in our theological development. In our first joint paper we considered these themes as an outgrowth of our ecclesiological beliefs.[4] In the process it became evident that the Brethren have a robust ecclesiology consisting of significant theological practices, which include feetwashing. It also became evident that the Pentecostal tradition held to a finely developed soteriology which was synergistic. As our conversation came together it soon became apparent that of the exciting potential witness of our communities in partnership. The strengths of each of our traditions informed the other providing opportunity to further develop our understanding and belief in light of the conversation.

Even as this group of Brethren begins this conversation regarding God’s Spirit, there are already some apparent distinctives in place. For instance, historically Brethren have been committed to a communal understanding of spiritual discernment. In other words, the leading of God’s Spirit is discerned primarily and most significantly through the gathered community of believers. This is not to say that the individual cannot discern the Spirit, but that this discernment necessarily takes place in community. This is most explicit in the polity of the church as it gathers as a congregation, a district, and at Annual Conference. So perhaps I have come full circle to say that this communal distinctive could be the thematic starting point as we engage our conversation partners regarding the Spirit of God.

[1] St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1980).

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

[4] Kenneth J. Archer and Andrew S. Hamilton (2010). Anabaptism-Pietism and Pentecostalism: scandalous partners in protest. Scottish Journal of Theology, 63 , pp 185-202 doi:10.1017/S0036930610000049.

  1. Monica Rice says:

    Anna Mow wrote extensively about the spirit in several of her works. Maybe you’ve already considered some of her contributions, but in case not, you should look her up. She started as a Bethany student specifically to consider the work of the Holy Spirit, how it interacts with traditions of mysticism, and what that meant for her Brethren context.

    A quote of hers about the spirit that I enjoy is:

    “A church that has a spacial dip in baptism for the Holy Spirit should be the most experienced in the function and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit, but I am afraid that our historic emphasis on the “good life” weaned us away from the essential importance of the Spirit for a true life of God.”

  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks Monica, I’ve read some of Anna Mow’s work. Good reminder though.

  3. Humbly speaking of course, I think any conversation that begins with Basil and Gregory of Nyssa is one with a fine foundation!

  4. I’m glad you mention communal discernment as a venue for the Holy Spirit’s work, Andy. In seminary, when I told my “call story” a hundred times, it became clear to me in the telling and re-telling that communal discernment in the Spirit has played a central role in my ongoing call to ministry.

    It was also in a closing prayer circle at NYC in 1994 that I first felt, with my whole body, the power of God’s Spirit moving in a social body, gathered for prayer in Christ. Powerful stuff.

    Corporate worship practices, then, become a powerful unifier of one-and-many, finally erasing any “split” between group and individual. Partner this with a similar understanding of the Trinity, and you’ve got some powerful things to say, pneumatologically speaking! 🙂

  5. Dana Cassell says:

    Monica, in my dream life, I’m picking out Anna Mow’s pneumatology from her writing + preaching. It’s so intuitive and woven into practical stuff, and I want to be able to read it more explicitly…but she wasn’t really about systematics.

    And I like the idea of the communal discernment as distinctive starting place, Andy…my wheels are spinning on that one.

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