Pneumatology refers in general terms to the study of spiritual phenomena and beings, particularly the spiritual element of people and the ways in which God and humans interact. The etymology of the word is based on the Greek word pneuma, which refers to breath but serves as a metaphor for an influence or being that is not material in nature. In Christian theology, the term pneumatology has a somewhat different meaning, the study of the Holy Spirit. This includes studying the Holy Spirit as a person as well as the works of the Spirit. Most pneumatology writings focus on Christian teachings about spiritual gifts, new birth, Spirit baptism, prophetic inspiration, sanctification and the Holy Trinity's indwelling in the believer. However, the precise theological approach to pneumatology often varies widely, depending on the denomination within the larger faith. Amos Yong's article “On Divine Presence and Divine Agency: Toward a Foundational Pneumatology” outlines a basic overview of the identity of the Holy Spirit and its function in contemporary society. Within the Pentecostal tradition, Yong's article serves as a primer among three lines: What is a foundational pneumatology or set of beliefs regarding the Holy Spirit? Why is identifying this set of beliefs important for theologians? Finally, why is pneumatology an area of interest for Pentecostals and Charismatics? Given the powerful role that the Holy Spirit plays in so many areas of the faith for Pentecostals and Charismatics, it should come as no surprise that pneumatology is a particularly important area of exploration and study.
The first area of discussion in Yong's paper is the definition of a foundational pneumatology within the Pentecostal tradition. He begins with a look at the work that Donald Gelpi has done toward outlining that pneumatology. Of particular interest is Gelpi's insistence on an epistemology that is not foundationalistic. This is helpful, in Yong’s view, because it Gelpi has abandoned the “strong Cartesian foundationalism that bases all beliefs ultimately on self-evident intuitions” (Yong, p. 168). Instead, “all knowledge is provisional, relative to the questions posed by the community of inquirers, and subject to the ongoing process of conversation and discovery” (Yong, p. 168). This is an important step when one considers the work and role of the Holy Spirit, because the aggregation of human experience in this area is quite diverse. Depending on which denomination one follows, the work of the Holy Spirit can be considered to be quite limited, perhaps only to the role of a glorified conscience. When one is tempted to fall into sin, and the Holy Spirit speaks out in a form of correction, that can provide some moral leadership. The Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, of course, allow for a significantly wider range of influence for the Holy Spirit, with experiences ranging from healing to speaking in tongues and providing a translation being fairly commonplace. Some denominations, such as the Church of God in Signs and Wonders, include the handling of snakes as part of the work of the Holy Spirit; the implication is that if one is able to handle snakes or even drink strychnine and fail to suffer from any long-term ill effects, the protection of the Holy Spirit is responsible, according to their beliefs.
Yong rightly wonders, though, whether Gelpi’s insistence on conversion as a requirement for understanding the Holy Spirit is valid. The most famous case of a nonbeliever yet understanding communication from God may well be the conversion of St. Paul. As a committed opponent to the budding religious movement “The Way,” Saul took as his mission to eradicate this particular heresy from the planet, by killing its adherents if they would not disavow their new faith. He was still on this mission when he was blinded on the road to Damascus, and even his confrontation with God did not immediately convert him, as he had to spend several days in the darkness of the blind while his spirit became a fertile place for conversion to take place, setting the foundation for a lifetime of evangelism that was even more fervent than the slaughtering of “The Way” had been. If Gelpi’s rule about conversion were effective, then the confrontation would not have produced the proper results within Saul.
Gelpi’s idea is a dangerous one, because it suggests that the Holy Spirit is the property of a particular group. While the Jews have long referred to themselves as God’s chosen people, that is on the basis of a thoroughly documented sobriquet that God Himself applies in the Old Testament. Note that the possessor in that terminology is God; at no point does the Bible say that God belongs only to the Jews, or to any other group. Gelpi would turn the entire formulation around and argue that the Holy Spirit belongs only to a set group of people, when that is clearly not the case.
The next question that Yong takes up is the relative importance of the task of devising a basic pneumatology, and he takes this up from three different perspectives. The first of these is to recognize that developing a foundational pneumatology is important because of the large role that the Holy Spirit plays. Pentecostalists and Charismatics believe that the Holy Spirit is the symbol of God’s agency and presence in the world, which means that pneumatology serves to describe the more visible functions of God for humanity. Yong points out that the “notion of God being present to and active in the world is surely problematic” (p. 176) because of a lack of unaniminity even in the Christian establishment about that statement. The idea of an actively present God often brings howls of protest, not least because of the amount of suffering in the world. Why on earth would a loving, present God permit such a horror as the Holocaust? Why would children contract cancer even before they enter elementary school? Why are children permitted to grow up in homes in which unspeakable abuse takes place? Why are there conditions like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, which eventually kill but spend the intervening decades eroding the very dignity of the people who suffer from them? Are those things really necessary for people to undergo the sort of life lessons that God has for us on the planet? The simple existence of these horrors is just a starting point, of course. Why are there some people who appear to go through life with no concern for the well-being of others but instead subsist on a lifestyle of scandal (the Kardashians come to mind, of course), with no retribution from God? How can an active, present God stand by and watch the sort of things that go on without bringing any sort of justice to bear?
These protests, of course, come from inside and outside the Christian community. Outside the community of believers one hears even more types of protest against the notion that God is active and present. For some, the fact that the church is anything but a place of comfort and grace for the larger community is a sign that God is not active and present. For others, the very concept of a divine being’s existence is enough of a philosophical hurdle, without having to deal with the idea that that being is active and present in the lives of people. The intersection of religions makes this an even trickier tightrope to walk. The release of 10,000 things from the interaction of Yin and Yang, which form the basis of Confucianism, the Buddhist idea of dependent origination and the cabalist notion of contraction within one wing of Judaism are just three formulations of the ways in which God interacts with the world. The considerable differences among these three visions show the sheer variety of perspectives on this interaction. Adding the notion of a Holy Spirit serving as God’s active agent on the planet brings a fourth paradigm into the conversation, making interfaith dialogue difficult at best. This is why putting together a cohesive pneumatology for Christians is of particular importance, so that the faith has its own platform from which to discuss the topic. The presence of this platform, as Yong rightly asserts, should not be a basis for exclusion but instead a starting point for conversations to find common ground.
Yong’s final question centers around the importance of a distinctive pneumatological statement for the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement. If the movement is to be taken seriously as a global influence, then it is important for adherents to develop a sense of global responsibility. Pentecostals are still in the growing stages of developing a dialogue with other wings of the Christian faith, and Yong asserts that continuing to grow in the ability to have this dialogue is vital. When dialogue takes place in a fruitful way, mutual comprehension occurs, and valid apologetics can begin to appear. Without this dialogue, it is difficult to understand the objections that those outside the denomination have about beliefs. Constructing apologetics without a sound understanding of the objections is similar to designing a missile defense system that does not know anything about the capabilities of the attack. This may well require a rethinking of the purpose of apologetics. While it is rightly viewed as a way of defending one’s faith, it is incorrect to assume an attitude of hostility toward other viewpoints. Hostility tends to bring judgment into the realm of apologetics, where it has no place. Instead, apologetics should be seen as an opportunity to eloquently express one’s system of beliefs for the consideration of others. That expression should take into account potential objections without setting them up as straw men for easy destruction.
In the case of the Pentectostal-Charismatic experience of the Holy Spirit, there is a built-in case for comparative reflection and conversation. Many people, both within and without Christianity, look at the Pentecostal view of the Holy Spirit with a fairly strong reaction. The notion that people can stand up in the middle of a service and speak in an alien tongue, as another person stands up and provides an interpretation, involves an experience of the Holy Spirit that stands strictly at odds with virtually every more of modernity. When things like this happen, the modern mind instantly looks for some sort of rational explanation. First of all, what is the source of the outburst coming from the person talking in that alien tongue? How does the other person across the room know what the outburst means? How do we know that the two of them did not collude before the service, or that the pastor has not talked to the two of them to arrange this beforehand? What assurances are there that this is a genuine religious experience?
And what about the instances of healing? When someone miraculously rises out of a wheelchair to walk or mysteriously sheds a disease that has caused suffering for months, if not years, the jaded modern consciousness often looks outward for a solution, rather than thinking that the Holy Spirit might well have been at work. The hard truth, of course, is that the Bible tells stories about both sorts of things happening. Speaking in tongues became so prevalent in the earliest days of the church that Paul had to lay down a set of rules to keep order. Healing was one of the ways that Jesus established himself as the messiah, and the fact that his disciples were able to continue healing after the ascension (and the descent of the Holy Spirit) means that this is a legitimate spiritual gift. This means that it is vital for Pentecostals to articulate a meaningful apologetic that has the heft to take on a skeptical world.
Moltmann, Jurgen. The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. M. Kohl. London: SCM, 1991.
Yong, Amos. “On Divine Presence and Divine Agency: Toward a Foundational Pneumatology.” AJPS
3(2): 167-188. http://www.apts.edu/aeimages/File/AJPS_PDF/00-2-ayong.pdf