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The Absense of the Holy Spirit Within Academic Theology

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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


  1. Johannes says:

    Yes, this a tremendous problem. But instead of asking why Theologians are unconcerned with the Spirit, perhaps it is better to ask why Spirit-filled Christians are uninterested in academic theology– which you hit on in point two. I believe the Universities could be filled with Charismatic Christians, if they only wanted to come. And here lies a tremendous missionary field: what if we would see charismatics filling the faculties, changing what academic theology looks like, changing what are being thought in Universities around the world? The solution to this problem, which you talk about here, is perhaps more charismatics seeking a calling within academic theology?

    • Hi Johannes!

      I see what you mean, and I agree to the extent that I think all Christian academics, along with all Christians everywhere, should be Spirit-filled. I do think that Amos Yong, Jack Deere and Candy Gunther Brown does a very good job in presenting charismatic theology to the intellectual world.

      However, I feel reluctant to say that charismatics should invade the academia.

      The academia is a very privileged part of society, where one gets influential, rich and distanced from the poor and marginalized. I am very skeptical to the idea of entering privileged parts of society for evangelistic reasons, simply because it doesn’t work well; one gets so comfortable and distanced from the true stuff that the faith grows cold instead of multiplying. I am convinced that the church reaches the top through working on the bottom, like S:ta Clara in Stockholm who attracts the royal family through serving the homeless and poor.


      • Johannes says:

        Dear Micael,

        I think you are wrong in exempting this area from divine callings. Mark tells us about Christ commandment after his resurrection: He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). The whole world, no part excepted, is for the gospel to be preached, the glory of God revealed, and the kingdom of God to come. The Spirit will be poured over all flesh (including academic theologians?). The scripture is full of people who went into the highest placed of society to serve there: Joseph and Daniel being the primary examples (about Daniel, it is even said that his education was in the wisdom of the Chaldeans). But think also about the prophets who stood before kings, about Paul, who studied under Gamaliel in Jerusalem, about the Church fathers, who often was great intellectuals (Basil, the Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Augustine) and was educated in top places. Or Thomas Aquinas, who is a teacher of the Church, or Luther, who was a professor, or Calvin etc.

        I agree with your that it is great to reach “the top through working on the bottom”, but scripture and history shows that God does not exempt high intellectual places, in their own regard, from divine callings.

        And yes, temptations are there.

        But a small question. If you are so averse of going into academia. What are you doing at Johannelund?


        • Thank you for your response.

          Again, I appreciate Spirit-filled academics and of course I would like all Christians everywhere to be Spirit-filled. I don’t say that we should boycott or exclude the academia from the great commission. What I am reluctant to is that charismatics invade, or fill the academia as if it were a common strategy. What Pentecostals and charismatics have been doing is that they invade the missions field, the streets of the poor, the darkest places; and it has given amazing fruit so that the charismatic movement is the fastest growing religious movement in the world.

          In contrast, I find no glory in filling privileged places with charismatics, firstly because there is no need for more effective evangelism within the charismatic movement compared to what is already happening, and secondly because there’s nothing special in going to the privileged places, but it’s special to go to the darkest places and risk your life for the Gospel. I find no reason to criticize the early Pentecostals for going to the missions field instead of the academia, since the result was the fastest growing religious movement in the world.

          Again, that’s not the same thing as saying that we should boycott the academia. And yes I’m studying there myself, although not to become a scholar but to become a minister. What I’m saying is that I would rather see charismatics filling the unreached nations to preach the Gospel and heal the sick, instead of filling privileged parts of society in the West.


          • Johannes says:

            Dear Micael,

            Thank you for your quick response. I see you point. However, through out your answer, you are making a contrast between these two areas, the mission field of the world in reaching the poor, and academia. You use words as “rather” the first than the second, the first “instead” of the second. Could we not do “both”? Not by taking people from the mission field and putting them in academia, but there most be millions of charismatic who are working 9-5 on ‘ordinary’ jobs right now. What would be wrong in encouraging young charismatics not only to be mechanics, engineers and photographers, but also academics? I am sure there is fruit to gain there. Go into all the world, and preach to all creation. Could we not encourage young people to do precisely that?

            And, yes, in no way do I criticize the early Pentecostal movement for their focus on mission. But perhaps the movement has reach a size today in which it is possible to also encourage people to go into academia?

            Blessings my friend, keep up the good fight.


  2. brian says:

    I often feel the same way about this. My local fellowship has many Dallas theological Seminary graduates. If we had more Jack Deere’s out there, possibly it would influence acedamia. I cannot believe that the charismatic gifts have to be hidden from the wise to this level. In talking to my pastor, he has felt a little odd about strange manifestations in the IHOP movement. It is interesting that the experience is what usually dissuades rather than actual scripture. By the way, I feel so moved by the Heid Baker film, I hope I can show this to my DTS friends (if the Holy Spirit leads :).

  3. Johannes: Yes, I do make that difference, not in that the academia is not a missions field, but that there is a wide contrast between the world of the poor and the world of the rich. And we should go everywhere, that is correct. However, to encourage charismatics “Come on, go to the privileged parts of society where you make a lot of money and get influential and famous” is not the right way. They have already a lot of incentives to do that. Most people that don’t get those jobs do no lack incentives but rather skill due to where and how they grew up.

    So there’s nothing special or glorious in asking people to become privileged, in my opinion. Most people already wants that. What I found beautiful with early Pentecostalism however is that they resisted this in their eschatological critique of society. The early Pentecostals not only criticized the academia but the wealthy, the institutionalism of the church, and the lack of radicalism. They had a consistent critique of privileged Christianity.

    And I don’t agree with that the need to reach the poor and the lost has by any means decreased since then. Due to global population growth there hundreds of millions of people that have never heard about Jesus. The need is overwhelming. Again, I think we will reach the top through reaching the bottom, focusing on the lower parts of society. If someone wants to become and academic that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be a common strategy.

  4. […] course in dogmatics I’ve just taken at my seminary was, as I’ve previously written, lacking global perspectives in general and charismatic theology in particular, but our teacher was […]

  5. […] course in dogmatics I’ve just taken at my seminary was, as I’ve previously written, lacking global perspectives in general and charismatic theology in particular, but our teacher was […]

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The author

Micael Grenholm, a Swedish charismactivist, apologist and author.

Micael Grenholm, a Swedish charismactivist, apologist and author.

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