The Presence of The Spirit: A Review of A Profound Ignorance

May 14, 2020
Title: A Profound Ignorance: Modern Pneumatology and Its Anti-Modern Redemption
Ephraim Radner
Publisher: Baylor University Press
Publishing Date: November 1, 2019
Pages: 463 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1481310796

There are possibly no worse times to read a theologian such as Ephraim Radner than during a pandemic. Radner’s prose is simultaneously penetrating and demanding, bordering on the opaque at times, and for a parent working from home with two children, Radner offers no respite. Likewise, his books offer theological insights which are inhospitable to a desire for cheap consolation or easily digestible goods to the reader. And during a pandemic, attentiveness is in short supply and consolation in high demand. Caveat lector. This being said, there can be possibly no better time to read this particular volume of Radner, for in this work he makes a singularly audacious claim: a pneumatology which is a solution to theodicy is not a doctrine of the Holy Spirit worth the name.

Radner begins with an account of early modern pneumatology, tying together loose threads of mystics, theological pontifications of explorers, secular philosophers, Romantic poets and German theologians. This motley and unlikely assemblage of interpreters coalesce around a version of the Holy Spirit which Radner contends is less an account of personal sanctification than it is an account of world historical reason. Put differently, the Holy Spirit in the modern era becomes the one through whom all things are reconciled, eliding any real difficulties of history and putting aside the possibility that history might simply not make sense to us apart from ignoring the real wreckage of time.

This assumption of the Holy Spirit’s role came into view alongside a new vision of what Radner names the “pneumatic human being”: a human which hovers above the fray of history, determined more by their relation to God than their belonging to the earth. Radner’s assertion that this is due to the exploratory nature of the era in which we are seeking to make sense of the plurality of the world is debatable, but what is fascinating in the vision of the Holy Spirit as a resolution of theodicy which emerges. The Holy Spirit provides knowledge which is extra-creaturely, or creates a moral imperative which is not accountable to creaturely life—for example, allowing for a resolution of difference and an imputation of meaning to tragedy where there would otherwise be simply division and confusion.

For Radner, the Holy Spirit’s work is not to clarify tragedy or to resolve difficulty, for this would be to deny what we find in no place more centrally than in the life of Jesus, the Son incarnate. For if in Jesus’ own life we find the Spirit working upon the mortal body—not to efface mortality but to bring the presence of God into mortal life—then modern pneumatology is quite simply wrong. To look to the Holy Spirit as a resolution of theodicy is to misunderstand the work of the Holy Spirit. To quote Radner: “The Messiah unveils that body’s truth in the land, of Israel, even as the earth remains one whose relationship to spirit is inescapably resolve din the inexplicable birth and inevitable death” (211).

To try to schematize the Spirit’s presence in terms of identifiable actions or particular kinds of signs—e.g. speaking in tongues, healing, or even certain designations of virtues—are misguided in that they are trying to bring certain and order to the Spirit’s work, which is characterized by an opacity which is intrinsic to the God-creature relation. God’s presence to us does guarantee our understanding it in the present moment, even in the face of death. Rather, the Spirit’s presence is one which cannot be linked to certain emotional states, activities, or actions: we must trust that, because the Holy Spirit is God, that the Spirit is at work in ways which may become clear to us in retrospect, though perhaps not immediately. This is the witness which we find in Israel—the simultaneous suffering of Israel and God’s presence—and we wish that combination away at the peril of wishing away God’s own presence to us.

Radner’s work is challenging precisely in the respect that he wants to decouple the alleviation of suffering from the presence of the Spirit; in this way, he is absolutely correct. To want a knowledge and presence of God which resolves our experience of suffering is to want a God which does not know what to make of Paul’s affirmation that our suffering fills up the sufferings of Christ. Radner’s earlier work, particularly in ecclesiology, has made much of this point—a lack of resolution and the presence of dissonance is not the opposite of the presence of God, but is, in fact, what it means for the church to be the broken body of Christ in the present.

Such a word is cold comfort. As Radner says, “To define grace in terms of assurance, or joy, goodness, healing, restoration, or liberation is true enough, but only a times and only for some and only in a few circumstances. Exclusively or exhaustively tying pneumatic reality to such gifts has, over and over again, proven inadequate to the reality of living and of life’s own inborn limitations” (304). The Spirit is ubiquitously present through the person of Jesus, but not in a way which undoes suffering or resolves the antimony of division. Rather, the Spirit’s presence in suffering invites us to seek God’s dark gifts in a world which is unresolved, to seek out God’s work all around us without dismissing the gifts which approach us in pain. The Spirit is always present, and occasionally makes us happy; but then, happiness was never the promise to the people of God.

Radner’s work is sobering, posed as a stark corrective to a centuries-long assumption about the nature of the Holy Spirit which is at times pastorally overplayed. Should we say that there is nothing of the Holy Spirit’s presence to us which might mitigate our confusion? Yes—but only if we look to the assurances of the soul, and not to the promises of Scripture. Linking the Spirit with an affective state is improper enough, and can lead to a denial of God’s silent presence in suffering. Radner would not deny this, but it remains underarticulated here: to seek the consolation of God is to seek the promise of Christ, that as He is, so we shall be. Easter this year was a bleak and sober celebration, worked out in the shadow of a global pandemic. What better time to be reminded that the presence of God’s Spirit does not invite us to deny things like viruses or death, but that God remains present even in the thick of a creation overrun by its viral enemies?

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

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