3. The Epistemology of the Spirit

ttg.jpgPlacher, William C.

The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology

Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007. Pp. x + 163. Paper. $24.95.

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In books on the Trinity it is quite common to go through the motions in showing the personality and deity of the Holy Spirit but such is not the case here.  In this chapter Placher addresses the Spirit as the one that enables our belief in God.  Indeed, it is the Spirit who is the foundation of anything that we may know about the Trinity.  We don’t find the truth of the Trinity by meditating on God’s natural revelation, and it is not an idea that finds its origin in the human psyche.  Placher says:

Since God’s self-revelation is self-revelation, moreover, the triune character of the way the one God is revealed to us, and even more specifically the way in which the Word reveals and the Spirit enables our belief in that revelation, mirror the truth about how God is, though the truth they mirror is beyond our imagining [. . .] But Just as human efforts to understand God necessarily fall short apart from Christ, so human efforts cannot manage to believe in Christ apart from the Holy Spirit [. . .] In either case, neither careful observation nor historical research can establish Jesus’ divinity. It is the Holy Spirit that brings Christ within us… [p. 84]

A quick look is taken at the word ‘spirit’ in scripture and the parallels with ‘wind’ and ‘breath’ — nothing really innovative or earth shattering there.  But one would be hard-pressed not to agree with Placher’s view that “[a]s with the work of the Spirit in the period of the judges, the Spirit serves community. Paul emphasizes that community is the goal of all spiritual gifts.” [p. 90]  I think this is perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of pneumatology yet the aspect that should be appreciated most.

And as a Charismatic-Pentecostal I was pleased to read the following:

The unknown tongues spoken by first century Christians, and by charismatic and Pentecostal Christians today, speak of and to God in a way beyond human capacity or comprehension. For Paul the Spirit shapes every stage of our lives as Christians. [p. 90]

What follows are brief summaries of John Calvin’s, Jonathan Edwards’, and Karl Barth’s views of the Spirit.  Placher believes that “the Reformed tradition, which can be a bit thin on other aspects of Trinitarian theology, has a particularly rich contribution to make when it comes to the Holy Spirit…” [p. 92]  For Calvin he focused on faith as the principle work of the Spirit.  I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly wowed with this section.  But the section on Edwards was a treat to say the least.  Of Edwards he says:

He did not focus on individual “mystical experiences,” but on a way of experiencing anything in the world. And he was convinced that those who concentrated on the character of their own experience were not really subject to the work of the Spirit, which would manifest itself in focusing attention on God. [p. 99]

As a Charismatic-Pentecostal these words gave pause for both deep introspection and retrospection of past experiences in my home church setting.

I enjoyed the section on Barth but my woeful ignorance concerning Barth and his theology prohibits me from making any concrete judgments on how well Barth has been represented.  One statement that I found thought-provoking was that:

Barth maintained that Jesus’ resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, and the Parousia, Christ’s return, are “three forms of one event.” They are separated in time but one in God’s eternity. Between the times of Jesus’ earthly life and the end of all things in God, the Spirit functions principally to form the community of Christ. [p. 110]

I believe I understand what Placher is here describing as Barth’s thought, but I find it hard to wrap my head around the idea of temporal events taking place in “God’s eternity.”  And with what I’ve heard about Barth and his use of modalistic language (although he vehemently denied any form of modalism from my understanding) this idea seems somewhat economically modalistic (if such a thing is possible).  I will certainly endeavor to get better acquainted with Barth so I can better evaluate this idea.  If I gained nothing else from this chapter, at least I gained more curiosity of Barth’s Trinitarianism.

This chapter closes with some brief remarks on the filioque that left me feeling vindicated in my rejection of the clause.  Placher noted that Greek Catholics (those who practice Eastern rites yet recognize the authority of the Pope) do not recite the filioque when reciting the N-C Creed.  Protestants have also by and large dropped it from their confession.  He is quite right to note however that “the theologians of the early church simply did not think in any technical way about the procession of the Spirit.” [p. 116]

What I enjoyed most about this chapter is the interconnectedness that the Spirit enjoyed with the Father and the Son.  Many works on the Trinity seek to treat all three persons in isolation from the others in the respective chapters that focus on them, but I feel that this can be a huge mistake.  If we know all three in relation to one another then it only seems right that while one takes emphasis the other two are always present in our examination of them.  I believe that Placher has accomplished this here.


3 thoughts on “3. The Epistemology of the Spirit

  1. The general absence of the Holy Spirit in my Reformed tradition is evidenced quite clearly in the lack of hymns devoted to the God the Spirit as compared to God the Father or God the Son.

  2. Yes. The reformed tradition has a rich pneumatology? Since when? This is an area protestants have been very weak in until the past century. One good thing all should admit about the pentecostal-charismatic movement is that it has stimulated other traditions to develop their pneumatologies.

    Regarding Barth: it is on this very point that he has been accused of modalism, despite his denials, precisely because it looks very much like it. Barth, too, is frequently criticized for his weak pneumatology.

  3. I agree. I don’t think that Calvinists are particularly strong in the area of pneumatology either. I found myself scratching my head when I originally read that comment. But since he believes in speaking in tongues it was easily forgiven. :-P

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