Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Reflection on "The Holy Spirit" by Donald Bloesch

Another good theologian passed away at the end of August. Donald Bloesch, author of (among other things) the excellent seven volume Christian Foundation series, died on August 24, 2010 at the age of 82. You can read tributes to him here and here. I found Bloesch's simultaneous attention to theology and history very clarifying and helpful, and think that he served Christ well within his guild, leaving a legacy in print and among his students that I think he could look back on with satisfaction.

Below is an abridgment of a paper I wrote in seminary a few years ago (for the same class as that Pinnock one from a few days back actually) which interacted with Bloesch's brilliant book on the Holy Spirit.

"Donald Bloesch’s The Holy Spirit: Works & Gifts focuses on the diverse historical views of the Holy Spirit’s role in redemption and elucidates an eclectic position. His emphasis is that the Word (the living Christ as testified to in Scripture) and the Spirit work together to enact redemption...

Bloesch is committed to the double-edged sword of Philippians 2:13, that we are to “continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling,” while “it is God who works” in us. Trusting God to do his part, Bloesch mainly focuses on how we can learn from tradition to do our part responsibly. . . . And yet, he points out that as soon as a person’s redemption is maintained on human terms it falls short of what it was meant to be. Fundamentalists and liberals both err in taking things into their own hands and manipulating redemption to their own desires. Bloesch sees this in the unfortunate polarity between Logos and Spirit in theology and spirituality:

'Theologians who espouse the former tilt toward rationalism, whereas those who defend the latter lean toward mysticism or spiritualism. The challenge today seems to be to rediscover the complimentarity of Logos [Word] and Spirit.' Furthermore, Bloesch says, 'the Holy Spirit is not uniform but multiform. His workings cannot be systematized, nor are his gifts ever in the control of the clerics of the church. He moves in a variety of ways and bestows a diversity of gifts. His work is always surprising and unexpected.'

Even Bloesch’s use of the word “always” is suspect here, since God is as free to do things normally as he is to do things unusually. The important point in Bloesch’s mind is that the Spirit and the Word are united, so that one will not do something to contradict the other. This is too often forgotten by those who are either too trenchantly rationalistic or mystical; free-flowing or sacramental. Instead of hearing from one another and having a richer experience of redemption, many settle for a one-sided experience that eventually makes their walk with God look like a limp. The corrective is for Bloesch a theology of Word and Spirit: namely where we participate through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father.

Related to this discussion of the Trinity in redemption is the issue of the filioque clause of the Westernized Nicene Creed, which states that the Spirit proceeds from the Father as well as from the Son. This contrasts the Eastern tradition, which has it that the Spirit proceeds only from the Father, alongside but not dependent upon the Son. The ramifications on each side can be dangerous when taken to extremes. If the Spirit proceeds from the Son then can the Spirit not be active in the world where Christ is not known? If the Spirit proceeds only from the Father then could people not come to the Father without Christ? Both Bloesch and Torrance indicate a desire to see East and West meet in the middle. Bloesch says 'we should strive to achieve some measure of agreement on this perplexing issue, recognizing that the filioque preserves a truth ... that the Spirit unites his own mission with that of Christ and thereby chooses to serve the mission of Christ.'"

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