052 Pneumatology: Protestant and Catholic


Jurgen Moltmann, one of the most influential Protestant theologians in the world today, has consistently insisted on the reality and importance of the Holy Spirit. This concern is climaxed in his recent work, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). Convinced that “the dialectical theology of Barth, Brunner, Bultmann and Gogarten” (p. 5) failed because of its singular commitment to doing theology “from above,” Moltmann seeks to root his theology in the living Spirit who comes to us “from below.”

Moltmann is, of course, the chief theological source of “liberation theology,” and that lifetime commitment still structures his thinking. (His praise for Latin American revolutionaries, such as Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, reminds one of how easily theologians lose credibility when they tie their views to political fashionable trends.) Differing with the Chisto-centric, Word-rooted stance of Barth and Neo-orthodoxy, he in many ways reverts to the 19th century Liberalism which has so thoroughly shaped much modern Protestantism.

To understand who the Spirit is, Moltmann focuses on our experience of life, for the Spirit is, as the Nicene Creed declares, the Lord and Giver of Life. Thus “The experience of God’s Spirit is not limited to the human subject’s experience of the self. If is also a constitutive element in the experience of the ‘Thou’, in the experience of sociality, and in the experience of nature” (p. 34). Immanently present in all things, God’s Spirit speaks to us from within our experience of all things. Sensitive to ecological issues, Moltmann insists we listen to creation and walk gently this good earth.

Historical experience bears witness to the Spirit’s presence. The Hebrew scriptures routinely refer to the ruach, the breath, of Yahweh. God’s Word (the Son) and His Breath (the Spirit) join together, giving life to creation. As some ancient thinkers envisioned, the Word and Spirit are God’s two hands, pulling all that is into being. The Spirit also gives life to God’s people, actively imparting Wisdom as well as life.

The powerful presence of the Shekinah further underlines the role of the Spirit, for the “Shekinah is not a divine attribute. It’s the presence of God himself” (p. 48). That presence, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel declared, would be fully realized, in time, when God “will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ez 37).

We further understand the Holy Spirit as one of the divine Persons in the Holy Trinity. Moltmann proposes a “social” construct for truly trinitarian thought, clearly recognizing three distinctive persons within the godhead. He faults the view of St Augustine, Boethius and St Thomas Aquinas, who defined person as rationalis naturae individua substantia–an individual substance rational in nature.

Moltmann departs from that traditional definition and seeks to establish the unique personhood of the Spirit while insisting on the essentially social nature of the Trinity. This requires, he thinks, contra Boethius, that the Holy Spirit as a “person” is “not indivisible,” “not a ‘self-existence'” and more than “rational.” After much analysis, he offers this definition: “The personhood of God is the loving, self-communicating, out-fanning and out-pouring presence of the eternal divine life of the triune God” (p. 289).

As was evident earlier, in his The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, Moltmann seeks to move away from what he considers the unitarian tendencies of Western theology, evident in the modalism of Karl Barth, et al. He further suggests Westerners abandon the filioque clause in the Creed, taking the original definition of the Council of Constantinople in 381 which said the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” alone. This allows him to argue: “The Orthodox theologians are right when they talk about a reciprocal ‘accompaniment’–the Spirit accompanies the begetting of the Son, and the Son accompanies the procession of the Spirit” (p. 307). Retaining that definition, he thinks, keeps us from subordinating the Spirit to the Son. “The Son and the Spirit–if we keep the image of Word and Breath–proceed simultaneously from the Father. The one does not precede the other” (p. 72).

Having discussed how we know the Spirit through our experience of Him, Moltmann turns next to what theologians have traditionally called the ordo salutis, the steps whereby we are brought from sin to salvation. A typical Reformed ordering of topics included: “faith, justification, calling, illumination, regeneration, mystical union, renewal and good works” (p. 81). Catholics and Wesleyans arrange things a bit differently, though the same elements appear in most sequential lists. But Moltmann wants to thoroughly re-order it all, focusing on “the concept of life” which flows into us, along with all of creation, from the eternal Spirit of Life, infusing liberation, justification, rebirth, sanctification, and charismatic powers.

This enables him to emphasize a spirituality which “means life in God’s Spirit, and a living relationship with God’s Spirit” (p. 83). The dynamic process of salvation gives and sustains life. This life must not be restricted to our “soul,” for the life of the body, Moltmann thinks, is as divinely-imparted as that of the soul. He routinely rejects the tendency to restrict God’s activity to the inner depths of the human heart. Thus he dismisses the dualism which underlies the Platonic/ Augustinian, mystical/pietist streams of theology. (Augustine, particularly, receives rough treatment throughout this treatise. In my judgment Moltmann’s hostility to pietism tends to distort his treatment of mystical thinkers as well as Augustine, though he does devote a chapter to the “theology of mystical experience,” noting with approval some aspects of the mystical way of knowing, of meditation and contemplation. Yet it’s clear he dislikes the inward-focus, the detached other-worldly “spirituality” of many mystics. He seems to think, one gathers, that social reformers and revolutionary liberationists bless us far more than monks.)

True spirituality, he believes, is worldly, devoted not to prayer and fasting but to liberating life in all its splendor. Just as Jesus came to heal broken bodies, so the Spirit comes to knit together broken relationships, to restore health and integrity to damaged ecosystems, to free the poor and politically oppressed from systemic injustice, to release women from patriarchal thralldom. Rather than Jesus’ work primarily justifying sinners, Moltmann proposes we understand Christ’s work as “the justification of life.” While allowing some truth to the “Protestant pessimism” regarding man’s sinful nature, he urges us to discover that “the consequence of justifying faith is optimism–optimism about grace, since ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds much more'” (p. 126). God-in-Christ atoned for sin, preeminently by suffering with us as God’s Son so as to show us God’s love. Moltmann discards traditional views of the atonement (ransom, expiation, satisfaction) arguing that God-in-Christ justifies us by giving us new life rather than paying some penalty for our sins.

In part, Moltmann wants to emphasize regeneration rather than justification, though he guards against restricting the truth about regeneration to the individual. The Holy Spirit, he thinks, was poured out upon the Church, following the Resurrection, to give divine life to men and women. Salvation means more than forensic justification, more than God seeing us as righteous because the blood of Christ covers our sins. Here he cites favorably ancient theologians such as Makarios as well as John Wesley, who wrote: “‘God is continually breathing, as it were, upon the soul, and the soul is breathing unto God'” (p. 161).

In an endnote, Moltmann adds a quotation from Wesley’s sermon on “the Great Privilege of those that are born of God”: “The Spirit or breath of God is immediately inspired, breathed into the new-born soul; and the same breath which comes from, returns to God. As it is continually received by faith, so it is continually rendered back by love, by prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving–love and praise and prayer being the breath of every soul which is truly born of God. And by this new kind of spiritual respiration, spiritual life is not only sustained but increased day by day” (p. 331).

“For Wesley,” as Moltmann understands (or perhaps misunderstands) him, “sin is a sickness that requires healing rather than a breach of law requiring atonement. He therefore interprets the justification of the sinner with the concepts of regeneration or rebirth rather than with those of judgment, just as the Anglican theology of his time–turning away from the legalistic theology of Rome–also cast back to the doctrine of physical redemption held by the early Greek Fathers” (p. 164).

Those of us familiar with Wesley’s own definition of sin as a willful transgression of a known law of God would seriously challenge much of Moltmann’s argument! Yet he is, at least, spiritually hungry for parts of Wesley’s message. He even prints a long, fascinating conversation (recorded by Wesley in Latin!) between Zinzendorf and Wesley, which dramatically illustrates the difference between the Reformed and Wesleyan views. Anyone wanting to see how sharply Wesleyans differ from Reformed theologians need simply consult this dialogue!

Moltmann is drawn to Wesley because of Wesley’s concern for sanctification, which Moltmann defines as “a divine act through which God chooses something for himself and makes it his own, thus letting it participate in his nature” (p. 174). Today, Moltmann thinks (in ways I think Wesley would reject) this “means first of all rediscovering the sanctity of life and the divine mystery of creation, and defending them from life’s manipulation, the secularization of nature, and the destruction of the world through human violence” (p. 171).

Having discussed “life in the Spirit,” Moltmann turns, in part three, to questions concerning “the fellowship and person of the Spirit.” Here his preoccupation with “social” bonds prevails. We primarily experience the Spirit through fellowship with others. “There is no life without its specific social relationships” (p. 219). What’s biologically self-evident applies equally to spiritual reality–symbiosis sustains bios.

Thus the Church, as community, is one context for the Spirit’s activity. Moltmann quotes with approval Irenaeus’ words: “Where the church is, there is the Holy Spirit too, and where God’s Spirit is, there is the church and all grace; for the Spirit is truth.” Unlike Irenaeus, however, Moltmann has little reverence for the institutional church, favoring instead small, voluntary communities of faith. Thus peace groups, environmental organizations, AA-modeled self-help groups, may well be more anointed with the Spirit than the parish congregation. Since the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Love, wherever people are bonded together in love Moltmann finds the Spirit.

Permeating Moltmann’s discussion are themes which have structured his other theological works: the “theology of hope,” with its blended biblical and Marxist roots, which undergirds liberation theology; ecological convictions rooted in an understanding of God’s real presence in creation, articulated earlier in his God in Creation; non-violent, virtually pacifist perspectives opposed to authoritarian and patriarchal structures of all kinds; and communitarian principles which generally sound identical to the democratic socialistic economics championed by so many European theologians.

One thing which makes this book both interesting and worthwhile is Moltmann’s appreciation for and reliance upon Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic sources, though he admittedly dislikes some of their mystical/pietistic tendencies. Wesleyans simply tracing his references to Wesley would find the book stimulating!

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For a Roman Catholic discussion of the Holy Spirit, try John Paul II’s On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and The World (St Paul Books & Media, 1986). The Pope starts his encyclical, much like Moltmann, with the phrase in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which confesses faith in the Holy Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life,” who is “the one in whom the inscrutable Triune God communicates himself to human beings, constituting in them the source of eternal life” (p. 8). He develops the theme, however, in significantly different ways.

As promised at the Last Supper, Jesus sent the Counselor to guide His followers, bearing witness to the final Word of God to man, Jesus Christ. In St John’s record of “the farewell discourse at the Last Supper, we can say that the highest point of the revelation of the Trinity is reached” (p. 18). Concurrently, the Eucharist “gives sanctifying grace as a supernatural gift to man. Through grace, man is called and made ‘capable’ of sharing in the inscrutable life of God” (p. 19).

From the beginning, God has sought to share Himself, giving to man the “breath of life.” That self-giving dramatically appears in Christ’s Incarnation, where God-with-us fully shared our lot, dying to redeem us from sin. Throughout Christ’s life on earth, the Holy Spirit played a dynamic role: Jesus was “conceived of the Holy Spirit,” anointed by the Spirit at His baptism, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and sustained by the Spirit in His ministry.

A few days after His Resurrection, Jesus breathed on His disciples, saying “receive the Holy Spirit.” Later the Spirit fully came upon them at Pentecost, and thenceforth they knew the reality of the promised “Counselor,” the presence of the Holy Spirit who inspired and guided them into all truth. The Spirit became the “soul of the Church,” and He “assumed the invisible–but in a certain way ‘perceptive’–guidance of those who after the departure of the Lord Jesus felt profoundly that they had been left orphans” (p. 39).

Unlike Moltmann, John Paul II sees the Spirit’s role as primarily convicting the world (i.e. individual persons) of sin, righteousness and judgment. The second part of the encyclical is devoted to this theme. Jesus came into a world inhabited by men enslaved to sin, and He died to free them from its curse and bondage. In the words of Vatican Council II, “‘He was crucified and rose again to break the stranglehold of personified Evil, so that this world might be fashioned anew according to God’s design and reach its fulfillment'” (p. 47).

Whereas Moltmann seeks to celebrate the “optimism of grace,” liberated from the gloomy pessimism of Protestantism’s fixation on sin (a la Luther and Kierkegaard), John Paul II thinks one must deal realistically with sin before being able to celebrate anything at all! With great insight one of his predecessors, Pius XII, “declared that ‘the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin'” (p. 80). (One could even say this applies to Moltmann’s theology! For though he acknowledges it, particularly as embedded in unjust social structures, Moltmann finds little need to deal with personal sin.) John Paul II has no doubt: sin– personal sin–ravages our world and the Holy Spirit struggles against it.

Original sin, which so stains our species, “presupposes a rejection, or at least a turning away from the truth contained in the Word of God, who creates the world. This Word is the same Word who was ‘in the beginning with God,’ who ‘was God,’ and without whom ‘nothing has been made of all that is,’ since ‘the world was made through him.’ He is the Word who is also the eternal law, the source of every law which regulates the world and especially human acts” (p. 54).

Applying the Word, the “Spirit of truth” convicts us when we (following Adam’s pattern) disbelieve God’s Word and believe instead the “father of lies.” Disbelief leads to disobedience, rejecting in thought and deed the divine source of morality. Since we’re not God, we can’t make up the rules for life, for we live in His world, and it’s His Law which differentiates good from evil. Reminding us that we really can’t design our own morality, our conscience (awakened in by the Holy Spirit) enables us to know with Him how we should act. It’s the voice of God.

We’re “called to participate in truth and love. This participation means a life in union with God, who is ‘eternal life'” (p. 59). We have, however, turned away from Him and lost our true identity. Having falsified the truth about God, we also falsify the truth about ourselves. But the Spirit won’t allow it. He continually reminds us of God’s Truth and our divine destiny. So the Spirit convicts us of sin in order to lead us to salvation. Prevenient grace, awakening within us a knowledge of our need, draws us to God, though we must cooperate with Him, turning to Him, converting as we respond freely to His call.

“Thus the conversion of the human heart, which is an indispensable condition for the forgiveness of sins, is brought about by the influence of the Counselor” (p. 70). In breathing on his disciples and granting them the authority to forgive sins, we see how “At the climax of Jesus’ messianic mission, the Holy Spirit becomes present in the Paschal Mystery in all his divine subjectivity: as the one who is now to continue the salvific work rooted in the sacrifice of the Cross” (p. 69).

Having emphasized the Spirit’s role in redemption, John Paul then focuses on “The Spirit Who Gives Life,” where one notes a confluence of his thought with Moltmann’s. In the fullness of time, Christ became incarnate by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary. “In the mystery of the Incarnation the work of the Spirit ‘who gives life” reaches its highest point” (p. 88). Similarly, the Holy Spirit imparts divine life to us through His sanctifying grace, which “is the principle and source of man’s new life: divine, supernatural life” (p. 89).

Still more: “He who in the mystery of creation gives life to man and the cosmos in its many different forms, visible and invisible, again renews this life through the mystery of the Incarnation. Creation is thus completed by the Incarnation and since that moment is permeated by the powers of the Redemption, powers which fill humanity and all creation” (p. 89). “Thus human life becomes permeated, through participation, by the divine life, and itself acquires a divine, supernatural dimension” (p. 90).

This encyclical gives a resolutely traditional, fundamentally biblical presentation, citing Scripture, Church Fathers, and Council documents.