This is an assignment I’ve written for my dogmatics course at Johannelund Theological Seminary.
Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology is a standard introduction work for thousands of students that take courses in Christian dogmatics, including the people at my seminary. On 500 pages, McGrath talks about the most central issues of systematic theology. Five of those 500 pages are about the Holy Spirit. In comparison, 50 are dedicated to the doctrines of the church and the sacraments.
McGrath admits that the Holy Spirit should deserve a chapter of his own, especially with the popularity of the charismatic movement in mind, but still he doesn’t create such a chapter but restricts himself to five pages. Here, he writes about how the Holy Spirit is described, the debate concerning the Spirit’s divinity and finally what the Holy Spirit does. Only one paragraph is dedicated to charisms, the emphasis of the charismatic movement. One paragraph in a 500 page-book.
I would say that this priority is out of touch with reality. There are around 600 million charismatics and Pentecostals worldwide, most of them in developing nations, that are very interested in the Holy Spirit and his gifts. They have realized that the New Testament very often connects the Spirit to miracles, and that the miraculous power of the Spirit is accessible to all believers. Sharing this common knowledge, there is disagreement however on how one gets baptized or filled with the Spirit, how to pray for healing, how to hear the voice of God, the role of speaking in tongues, etc. In other words, there is certainly enough material for McGrath to fill a chapter.
Yet, he doesn’t, and I think it is not so much his personal fault but rather a tendency within academic theology as a whole: charismatics are excluded from theological discussion. This can also be seen in Norwegian theologian Jan-Olav Henriksen’s introduction to dogmatics: the chapter about the Spirit is combined with the chapter about the church, to hide the embarrassment of only giving six pages to the Holy Spirit. Just as in McGrath’s work, emphasis lies on the Spirit’s soteriological role, while charismatic phenomena are de-emphasized.
Why does it look like this? Let me share some theories.
Firstly, the Holy Spirit has been de-emphasized throughout church history. Until the birth of Pentecostalism in 1906, there was not so much theology at all about a Spiritual baptism that would release supernatural gifts in a believer’s life. Catholics and orthodoxs believed in miracles but it was rather seen as something restricted to saints rather than gifts to all believers. Protestants mainly believed that miracles had ceased with the apostles. Furthermore, while theology and Christology was developed early in the history of the church because of the debates concerning the trinity and the divinity of Christ, the Holy Spirit was not the focus of theological controversy.
However, this should not be a reason to ignore the 600 million Pentecostals and charismatics that live today. McGrath is careful to include a lot of modern theological developments in his book, including feminist theology, eco-theology, liberation theology and historic-critical theology. He even gives a lot of space to Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), who claimed that supernatural phenomena doesn’t exist and that no supernatural event described in the Bible has happened. To include this extreme minority view while excluding the hundreds of thousands of charismatics that claim that they have experienced supernatural phenomena themselves, is very disturbing.
Secondly, Pentecostal and charismatic academics are rare, partly because the revivals have mainly spread among lower classes and in developing countries, and partly because many charismatics have avoided academic theology for dogmatic reasons, believing that intellectualism will hinder the work of the Spirit. Since many academic theologians focus on academic theology and seek deeper theological reflection than what Pentecostal preachers may present in their sermons, they simply exclude charismatic theology because it doesn’t live up to their academic standards.
Yet, this is in my opinion also an inadequate reason to leave out the Holy Spirit. The Bible is not an academic book, and many church fathers and other influential theologians that are frequently discussed would hardly live up to modern academic standards. Furthermore, the goal of academic theology is not merely to analyse the work of colleges but also influential theologies – and I think it is safe to say that charismatic pastor Bill Johnson’s view on healing has a much greater impact on millions of believers compared to Bultmann’s view on demythologization.
Furthermore, there are some great Pentecostal and charismatic academics who have done a lot to present the theology and practices of their movement to fellow scholars; Amos Yong and Candy Gunther Brown are two examples. It is embarassing that McGrath completely ignore their works in order to make room for other things than the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, I believe charismatic theology is ignored simply because most academic theologians don’t believe in it and lack charismatic experience. Of course, if McGrath would have viewed the Holy Spirit as important he would have written more about him. At least McGrath is a believing Christian, but today this is not a requirement to become a theologian, and the whole theological community is suffering from secularization. Because of this, miracles are viewed as non-real, and thus, the extreme view of Bultmann becomes influential in academic circles even though most ordinary Christians would probably find his views absurd.
Here, I think we need to re-think theology, and what brings spiritual authority. Why should theology primarily be an academic discipline if Jesus said that he hides spiritual truths from the wise and reveals them to the meek (Lk 10:21)? Why should those that do not heal the sick, raise the dead and preach the Gospel be viewed as Christian authorities when they are disobedient to the Lord? In May 2013, I met a South African pastor called Surprise Sithole who has seen eight dead people come back to life, and who has planted hundreds of churches in southern Africa. He said “If you are a true believer, you have to believe in miracles… There is no single doubt in me. I believe fully that God is alive.” This is Biblical theology that has impacted hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and it’s time for academic theology to recognize that.
References: Alister McGrath, Christian Theology – an Introduction, Wiley-Blackwell 2011, pp. 227-232. Jan-Olav Henriksen, Guds virkelighet, Luther forlag 1994, pp. 202-207