Holy Spirit, Wilderness Guide of Love #PENTECOST

An excerpt from an essay I wrote as my integrative faith statement at Palmer Theological Seminary. It’s written as a letter to my daughter, Isla, and uses an extended metaphor of faith as “walking through the wilderness” to describe who God is and who God call us to be.

Love is our Trailblazer, but Love is also our wilderness Guide. We know this Guide as the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guided Jesus throughout his entire life in the way of Love and led him all the way through death and into new life. When Jesus left the wilderness, he said the Guide would come to invite all people to become like Jesus as they follow the way of Jesus as a caravan of Love.

Just like Jesus, the wilderness Guide is God. But unlike Jesus, the Guide was not born as a human being. The Guide is unseen. She is like our breath – we have no life apart from her. She walks within our caravan to give us power to love ourselves and others the way Jesus does. She brings us together in friendship with people who are different from us. She comforts and encourages our caravan when the trail gets tough. The Guide gives us special gifts to keep our caravan strong. She leads us back to the way of Love when we walk in sin. In fact, She’s always leading us, but we need to practice the spiritual disciplines so that we can hear her voice more clearly.

But the Spirit of Love is also working in the wilderness beyond our caravan. She gives life to the entire wilderness and protects the wilderness from harm. She is present with all who are lost and alone in the wilderness trying to show them the way of Love. She gives strength to all who must journey over hard terrain and purifies the polluted air that causes us to walk in sin. As we walk with the Guide, we join in this greater work of making the wilderness a place for all people to find a home.

I’ve experienced the Guide all throughout my wilderness journey. I felt her comforting, guiding presence when I was in the middle of a jungle in Bolivia. Even in the most remote part of the wilderness, the Guide was with me. I also felt the special presence of the Spirit when you were born, Isla. I was in awe as your mom gave birth to you and I still remember that first time I held you in my arms. It’s the Spirit who has given me the power to love you as your dad. I have also seen the Spirit at work healing hurt people and bringing very different people together as friends. I feel the Guide when I work in the garden or play at the park. The wilderness is alive with the Spirit of Love!


Lent, Fasting, and Learning Our Limits

This post originally appeared on the 6:8 Community Church blog. Click to read the original.

In just 2 short weeks, billions of Christians around the world – mostly those of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but some Protestants too – will be on the cusp of beginning their yearly 40 day pilgrimage with Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and, ultimately, to the cross. You probably know this 40 day season as Lent. It is a season of prayer and fasting in preparation for the greatest celebration of the year (no, not Christmas)…Easter.

We’ve probably all had different experiences with Lent in the past. Growing up as a pretty strict Baptist kid, I had never heard of Lent until I went to college and got involved in the United Methodist campus ministry. Maybe you know about it through Catholic or Orthodox friends or from those in more liturgical faith traditions – Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others. You’ve probably heard that you’re supposed to “give something up” for Lent. More or less, that is true, but there is so much more to know. The notion of “giving something up” refers to the ancient Christian and Jewish practice of fasting and it has held a very special place in the church since our very inception.

In the Jewish world, fasting had 2 purposes: expressing repentance for personal/national sins and inward preparation for receiving God’s grace in order to be faithful in completing a specific mission for God. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness just after he was baptized in order to prepare for his 3 years of ministry, which would end in the crucifixion and resurrection. If you recall, Jesus was tempted by Satan while he fasted in the wilderness. Do you remember the first temptation?

Satan knew Jesus was hungry, so he commanded him to turn the stones into bread. Jesus refused and quoted a phrase from the end of Deuteronomy 8:3, “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This verse was apparently on Jesus’ mind while he was fasting and we’d do well to pay attention and see what we can learn from it.

Notice the references to hunger and food as the verse begins. Traditionally, fasting has been associated with abstaining from eating. Some fast during the day, or only during one meal, or only certain types of food, and in several other ways. Why food? Because it’s a basic necessity of life. When we choose to go without a basic necessity like food, we are humbled. We come face to face with our limits as human beings.

Think back to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God gives them all the fruit of the garden to eat except for one fruit; God gave these humans one limit. Of course, we know what happened. Adam and Eve refused the limit God had given them. They had plenty of food to eat; it would be difficult to believe that this one limit on their choices represented any kind of hardship to their diet. They were not going to go hungry because they couldn’t eat from one tree. So, why did they do it?

They didn’t want life with limits. They didn’t just want some of the fruit of the garden – they wanted it all. Again we can ask, why? I think it has something to do with dependence. Look back to the end of Deuteronomy 8:3. Limits teach us that we are dependent – absolutely dependent – on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Fasting is about returning to and honoring our God-given limits, which is a way of returning to and honoring our dependence on God as the Source and Creator of our lives. Just like Adam and Eve, we refuse to live within limits. We want it all. Our lives are driven by compulsions to control, to succeed, to be free from others, to enjoy pleasure, and to fight for our own security.

Fasting is not so much a season of joyless, gloomy faces – Jesus actually taught against this sort of fasting in the Sermon on the Mount.  Fasting is about returning to life the way God intended it to be. Is it challenging? Of course! We are sinful people and we like the way we do things! We are created to live in communion with God, with others, and with all creation, but that life is impossible for us to receive when we refuse to acknowledge our dependence on God. We are not in control. Fasting recognizes God’s sovereignty over our lives and all creation. And guess what?

This is GOOD NEWS! Fasting is about restoring life, restoring joy, restoring peace, restoring justice, and restoring love. We can’t do it all and be it all and have it all. Rather, God is our ALL IN ALL.

Remember, God wasn’t calling Adam and Eve to go hungry in the Garden by placing one limit on their menu. There was an abundance of food to enjoy. Fasting is not about rejecting the goodness of God’s creation, or even about rejecting pleasure. It’s about putting pleasure in its place and restoring a right relationship to creation by loosening our stranglehold on everything we think we need to build successful, secure, and pleasurable lives on our own apart from God. Using creation in this way actually destroys it. Fasting recognizes the sacred value of all creation as we learn to embrace our limits and worship God instead of ourselves.

Fasting can take many forms though. Our lives are filled with things we over-consume, that keep us from a relationship with others and with God, and that eventually consume us. One great food alternative for fasting is media – TV, internet, radio, those flat, crinkly things called “newspapers”, and all our little gadgets and devices. Two years, my Lenten fast was to uninstall the Facebook and Twitter apps and disable the email accounts on my smartphone as a way to let go of those constant distractions, which are really just shallow, selfish ways for me to measure my importance. You could fast from things like judging others or judging yourself. Maybe you need to fast from an over-packed schedule?

The question to ask is: What do I do to excess? In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson reminds us that “what we do to excess reveals our inordinate desires, our compulsions, the attachments that have control over me. They are precisely the areas of our lives that need the freeing lordship of Christ rather than our own abysmally ineffective efforts at control.” Anything coming to mind for you?

I hope this post has got you thinking a little more about the upcoming season of Lent. God is always calling us deeper on our journey of spiritual growth. How will you respond? In the season of Lent, we find an invitation to return to a good life of limits; a life dependent on the grace and goodness of God. Does your life have limits? Are you living on “bread alone” or on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”? That is the question Lent asks us to answer.

Sabbath People

Our sermon this morning was on keeping the Sabbath and I’ve been thinking about it all day. In the fall of 2012, I led a small group at our church through a book by Lynne Baab on keeping Sabbath – and then proceeded to keep the Sabbath ZERO times. Sabbath is hard.

There’s also a book on the Sabbath by Walter Brueggemann I would really like to read (oh, also the one by Abraham Joshua Heschel) called Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. It was released in January so I haven’t had time for it, but since its Brueggemann I know its worth reading. The title connects to the thoughts I’ve been having today on the Sabbath.

During the sermon, our pastor described the Sabbath as a law that brings freedom; a kind of protective cage that gives us space to rest and be replenished emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It made sense to me, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Is Sabbath just a matter of regularly marking off space in our lives for rest? Surely that would be a good thing but, as the title of Brueggemann’s book suggests, Sabbath runs deeper than “discipline”.

Sabbath is about identity.

We see this clear as day in the Deuteronomic version of the Sabbath command:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day (Deut. 5:12, 15).

The Sabbath command is directly linked to Israel’s memory of how God liberated them and thereby transformed their identity from oppressed slaves to God’s covenant community. 1 Peter 2 brings this identity forward and applies it to an early Christian community: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” God’s Sabbath-people that is.

Sabbath-keeping cannot be merely a discipline that we apply to ourselves externally – as if it were something that existed outside of us that we could grasp. Sabbath is who we are – not just something we do.

This is what makes Sabbath so hard for me (and maybe you too). If it were just something I could do, I doubt I would have much trouble with it. I struggle to keep Sabbath because Sabbath means letting God be God and recognizing that I, ultimately, do not and cannot sustain my own life. Sabbath is realizing that only God can save me and set me free for new creation life.

It’s a change in identity.

This change happens in two dimensions. We’ve seen the first already. Sabbath is being set free from the sin that keeps us enslaved to evil and death. There is no rest in Egypt; we are commanded to produce (or consume?) more and more with less and less. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God is leading all creation out of this restless, suffocating slavery in Egypt. We’re headed to the promised land. God’s liberation is for a purpose: to create – or re-create – covenanted community.

We’re freed from the forces of sin and evil but we’re freed for covenanted community. This takes us back to Sabbath’s first appearance in the Bible: creation. Sabbath was, first and foremost, something that God did which is perfectly reflected in God’s being. God’s created the world and then God stopped and rested and thereby named (created) the Sabbath. God kept Sabbath because God wanted to enjoy communion with creation, to take a stroll as it were through this new home. Being-Sabbath means being a creature, specifically one created in the image of the triune God who exists as a personal community of Parent, Christ, and Spirit. Our promised land is the new creation, the reign of God, in which humanity fulfills its original vocation: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

Sabbath people are liberated slaves who cultivate and sustain flourishing community with God and all creation.

Yes, Sabbath is something we do and maybe that’s where we have to begin. Lord knows we need help stopping and resting. As we do that, let’s not forget that Sabbath-keeping is not just a “discipline” that we can choose to practice – it’s who we are.



A Review of Elaine Heath’s “The Mystic Way of Evangelism”

In The Mystic Way of Evangelism, Elaine Heath draws from the vast wealth of Christian mysticism to reimagine the present and future for the church and its evangelistic mission in the U.S. Her vision is not merely based on the mystical sources; it uses the threefold mystical path of purgation, illumination, and union as the lenses through which to view the church’s vocation. Before laying out this mystical vision of evangelism, Heath provides a helpful definition of key terms. She defines evangelism as a local faith community’s practice of initiating people into God’s reign that ends only when those people are fully incorporated in and active with that faith community. For Heath, holiness is at the heart of the mystical tradition and central to her mystical way of evangelism. Holiness is being set apart to be in partnership with God in God’s mission. Therefore, mysticism is not a way of escape from the world through private, spiritual experience but a way of being holy that is concerned with bringing wholeness and healing to persons who then increasingly pursue the love of God and neighbor.

According to Heath, the U.S. church has already entered the first step in the mystical journey – purgation. She bases this conclusion on a series of dismal statistics about falling church membership and participation along with a loss of authority in the lives of individuals and communities. The church’s days of power and influence as an institution are over; this includes both mainline and evangelical denominations. However, instead of fighting this decline, Heath calls the church to a posture of surrender which acknowledges God’s faithful, yet hidden presence in the church’s struggles and suffering. As the church surrenders, God is working to free it from its deeply held idolatrous views of God as a being it can control as well as its accommodation to the consumerist and individualist ways of the world. God longs to restore the church, but this time of exile is necessary for its holy transformation.

In order to emerge from this “dark night of the soul,” Heath unearths and integrates the work of ten Christian mystics both ancient and modern over the course of five chapters to “illuminate” five central, theological themes the church must consider as it pursues a renewed way of being holy. Julian of Norwich and Hans Urs von Balthasar reveal love as the essence of God’s meaning. Phoebe Palmer and Father Arseny embody a life of kenosis – self-emptying – lived for the sake of others. Thomas R. Kelly and Henri Nouwen mark the journey through the false self into the true self at home in God’s love. Julia Foote and Methchild of Magdeburg expose the church’s great need for healing from its threefold wound of racism, sexism, and classism. Finally, St. Bonaventure and John Woolman cast a vision of ecological redemption that grounds the practice of evangelism in the stewardship and care of creation.

In the five remaining chapters, Heath explores how the practice of evangelism will be transformed if and when the church takes the step past illumination into union. Since love is God’s meaning, evangelism becomes a way of serving and loving Christ in the persons we meet. The life of kenosis highlights how radical self-giving beyond the typical financial tithe leads to new, more light-weight yet more costly ways of doing church which are vital to the work of evangelism. For Christians to be truly hospitable towards those they evangelize, the practice of evangelism must be grounded in a life of contemplative prayer that facilitates personal healing and wholeness. Evangelism that takes the threefold wound of racism, sexism, and classism seriously calls for egalitarian church leadership structures, intentional church plants in poor neighborhoods, and ministries devoted to violence prevention and recovery. Finally, the mystical way of evangelism must include multi-dimensional efforts to steward the evangelistic witness of creation by confronting consumerism and teaching simplicity and sustainability as core values.

In this work, Heath has masterfully developed a thorough, compelling, and holistic vision of evangelism in a mystical key for the church today. Her command of the ten mystical sources she uses in the “illumination” section is impressive and her ability to synthesize the works of two sources – sometimes across vast distances in history and culture – shows great skill and creativity. While every chapter in this section is a gem, I want to make special note of Heath’s chapter on Hans Urs von Balthasar and Julian of Norwich which lays the foundation for the rest of the section. This chapter illuminates God’s being as pure love in a unique, provocative way. When God’s being as love is discussed in typical fashion, one usually finds a discussion on God’s being as Trinity, as a perfect communion of equal, mutually self-giving and other-receiving love. Heath avoids this typical Trinitarian discussion and focuses instead on how God’s being as love shapes our view of eschatology via Hans Urs von Baltahasar and sin via Julian of Norwich. This move is important not because it “skips over” Trinitarian theology but because it extends Trinitarian theology in a way that entirely subverts the project of evangelism that has dominated the Protestant church in America for decades which has been characteristically a-Trinitarian. With von Balthasar’s hopeful, inclusive eschatology, evangelism is freed from its tendency to devolve into manipulative fear tactics. With Julian’s definition of sin as “original wound,” evangelists can address the actual pain and violence of sin endured by those who live apart from the loving God instead of abstracting sin to an otherworldly realm of divine transactions. Upon finishing this chapter, I felt excited about evangelism for the first time – and I was raised in a Southern Baptist church! Evangelism is no longer about convincing someone to feel bad about their sin to save themselves from a god of wrath; it is an introduction to the God who exists as love and is moving all creation towards a hopeful future where all its wounds are healed.

In the third and final section, Heath looks for ways the church’s practice of evangelism will need to change as it seeks a “union” of holiness with God. Unfortunately, this section seemed very repetitive and Heath’s goals for it were unclear to me. At first I thought she was “applying” the “theory” she had developed in section two. In most of the “union” chapters, she does focus on practical applications and changes to be made, but she had already discussed many of these changes in the “illumination” chapters. The chapters in this section also included short vignettes which follow the life of a man named Sam who encounters a church which practices a mystic way of evangelism. These vignettes attempt to communicate the truth of each chapter in a narrative format. However, I found these stories added little to what had already been said in each chapter. The stories were too brief and underdeveloped to say anything new. This added to the sense of repetitiveness I found throughout this section.

One redeeming feature of the “union” section was Heath’s discussion of a “new kind of Pentecostalism” in chapter ten. As a member of a charismatic church, I appreciated how Heath reformulated the Pentecostal doctrine of “initial evidence” from a performance which somehow proves an individual’s holiness to a life committed to the creation of communities which have been divided by race, class, and gender. The “evidence” of the Spirit’s work is renewed life in community, i.e. the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” which the apostle Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 13:14. Evangelism that is Spirit-filled will invite others into a renewed and renewing community which embodies the new creation reconciliation Christ has made possible.

I would recommend this book to all Christian leaders who are concerned about the future of the church in the U.S. Heath has provided a refreshing and hopeful way forward that does not ignore the church’s issues but nevertheless trusts in God’s active presence to renew and restore God’s people. This book would be especially helpful for church planters who are forming their vision for the community God has called them to cultivate. They may find Heath’s stories about “Sam’s” experience with the mystic way of evangelism more helpful than I since they paint an explicit image of how her process could work. This book may also be helpful for the typical church member to help them deepen their understanding of evangelism. However, the second section may be too theologically in-depth for some general audience readers. On the whole, I give this book a very hearty recommendation because it has given me new hope and excitement about how evangelism can be practiced in truly life-giving ways for both our churches and our communities.

A Psalm for Peace

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.

Barada River Damascus, Syria

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
Be still [Stop making war] and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Engaging Amos Yong’s Foundational Pneumatology and Theology of Discernment from Latino Pentecostal Perspectives


As the twenty-first century unfolds, Amos Yong, a highly-regarded theologian writing from a Pentecostal, Asian-American context, sees an array of challenges facing the task of theology: modern science, religious plurality, and the crumbling of modernity along with its various epistemological structures.[1] However, he remains hopeful about these challenges because he is convinced that the Holy Spirit of God is still present and active throughout all creation. In his work on a foundational pneumatology, Yong establishes a theological, metaphysical basis for this hope by articulating “who the Holy Spirit is relative to the world as a whole and what the Spirit is doing in the world.”[2] This kind of pneumatology, according to Yong, “requires a theology of discernment in its widest and most robust sense” in order to distinguish the Holy Spirit from the diversity of spirits who are also present and active in the world.[3] In this paper, I explore Yong’s foundational pneumatology along with his theology of discernment from the perspective of a Euro-American male who is a member of a charismatic evangelical church in Ardmore, PA.[4] I have chosen to engage Yong on this topic because I am discouraged by how evangelical churches in the United States tend to domesticate and limit the person and work of the Holy Spirit within the confines of the church and private, individualized spirituality. For this reason, I was excited to read how Yong’s foundational pneumatology suggests that “divinity is present and active not only in the world that Christians inhabit, but also on the cosmic or universal level.”[5]

After presenting Yong’s foundational pneumatology along with his theology of discernment, I will explore two important aspects of his work through the voices of two other Pentecostal theologians – Samuel Soliván and Eldin Villafañe. I endeavor first to show how Yong’s foundational pneumatology is at risk of depersonalizing the Spirit, while suggesting a way he can maintain the Spirit’s personhood within his pneumatological framework. Second, I explore the relationship between christology and pneumatology in Yong’s theology of discernment and conclude that he successfully holds the Spirit and Christ together in mutual relation.

Amos Yong is the Dean and J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology at Regent University’s School of Divinity as well as a licensed Assemblies of God minister.[6] He was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents who served there as Assemblies of God ministers after converting to Christianity from Theravadan Buddhism.[7] At the age of ten, Yong immigrated to California with his parents who began pastoring a Chinese church.[8] As a scholar, Yong holds research interests in various fields including “global Pentecostalism, Pentecostalism and science, political theology, theology & disability, theology of religions and the interfaith encounter/dialogue, and Buddhist-Christian dialogue.”[9] The portion of his work I explore in this paper arises from  his work on a theology of religions, which he describes as “part of my own quest to learn about the Christian culture [my parents] handed down to me, even as I come to appreciate the truths, beauty, goodness, and values of other cultural-religious traditions.”[10]

Amos Yong’s Foundational Pneumatology

How does one construct a foundational pneumatology that accounts for the universal presence and activity of the Triune God in a way that the whole world can hear and understand? For Yong, the divine act of creation provides the best starting point because of the “perennial connection made between the Spirit and universality in the history of Christian thought,” which in recent times has led to a fresh affirmation of the Spirit’s cosmic role in creation.[11] Yong examines the act of creation from a Trinitarian perspective using a metaphor developed by the 3rd century theologian Irenaus who described the Trinitarian missions of the divine Word and Spirit as the “Two hands of the Father [sic]”.[12] Using this metaphor, Yong argues that “every determination of being exhibits the presence and activity of the divine being: Father [sic] creating something through the [Word] by the Spirit.”[13] Yong’s description coincides with Heinz-Josef Fabry’s analysis of the Genesis 1 creation account in which the ruah elohim – “the vitalizing spirit of Yahweh” – “drives back the waters of chaos” and creates space for the creative word to be actualized.[14] In this way, the Spirit is the “field of force” in which every “determination of being is what it is by virtue of the presence and activity of the Logos within the force fields set in motion by the Spirit, the supreme field of force.” [15] Therefore, all created things exist in outer “concrete forms” that can be experienced and manipulated by virtue of the divine Word, while each thing is simultaneously constituted by an inner “energetic force that shapes its processive actuality and directs its temporal trajectory” – by virtue of the divine Spirit.[16] This creation account allows Yong to describe the presence and activity of the Triune God in creation using pneumatological categories which are distinct from – yet inextricably related to – the Word.

With this Trinitarian groundwork in place, Yong proceeds to lay out his foundational pneumatology using three intentionally vague categories of general religious experience: divine presence, divine activity, and divine absence. He builds on Donald Gelpi’s statement that “present experience of the reality of the Christian God begins… in a conscious encounter with the Holy Breath”[17] by claiming that “all experience… [is] essentially of the Spirit.”[18] Yong then develops the category of divine presence as “our experience of relationality, and through this, of God, [as] mediated by the presence of the divine Spirit.”[19] He agrees with Ralph Del Colle who describes how “the more we discover our relation to other humans, to the non-human creation, and recognize the interconnectedness of all things, we experience the One who transcends all things and yet is in all things as the source of their dynamic interrelation.”[20] By virtue of being created by God through Word and Spirit, all things contain particular qualities and norms which must be recognized and honored for their created goodness if true relationality is to be experienced. With this category, Yong discloses how the divine Spirit of the Triune God whose being is communion can be universally present in all peoples, cultures, and places to the degree in which the community of creation is authentically experienced as unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity.

However, this relational experience of divine presence is never static because the Spirit is a dynamic field of force. Yong’s category of divine activity describes the “force fields of faith, hope, and love” created by the Spirit which “enable human beings to move from estranged, wounded, broken, and destructive relationships into reconciling, edifying, healing, and saving ones.”[21] Therefore, the universal activity of the Spirit is “to integrate a thing into its environment in a way such that it can be authentic to itself and of service in its relationships with others.”[22] The norms for judging this divine activity are derived from the created purpose of each thing so that “the question is whether a greater degree of aesthetic harmony is possible for a thing measured against its ideal norms.”[23] When the “harmonies of things are heightened and intensified in their interrelatedness,” Yong sees the divine activity of the Spirit.[24] This category discloses the character of the Spirit’s universal action in all peoples, cultures, and places.

Having said this, Yong is quick to recognize the injustice, oppression, and alienation which mar the image of the Triune God in creation. Because the divine “presence and activity are still eschatological – not yet fully experienced but punctuated here and now by the Spirit,” creation encounters what Yong calls divine absence.[25] He accounts for the possibility of divine absence through the subjective spontaneity given by God to all human creation which provides freedom “to pervert the determinate forms of being and establish force fields of destruction” that reject their divinely created purposes.[26] When this occurs, the divine absence becomes demonic and opposes the Holy Spirit’s work and leads to “a distortion of a thing’s identity and a disruption of its network of relations.”[27] The category of divine absence identifies the presence and activity of demonic realities which create “force fields or habits of chaos, irrationality, isolation or alienation, and stagnation… [that resist] the transformative and eschatological work of the Holy Spirit” in all peoples, cultures, and places.[28]

With his pneumatological categories of divine presence, divine activity, and divine absence, Yong constructs “a framework by which to understand divinity’s relation to the diverse realms of human undertaking.”[29] This foundational pneumatology sheds considerable light on how the Triune God is present by the Spirit to both form and preserve the infinitely diverse and unique qualities of all created things while working to unite “the manyness of the world in harmony.”[30] However, it also accounts for the experience of demonic forces seeking to undermine the true identity and purpose of all forms of being and destroy the communal image of the Triune God in creation.

Amos Yong’s Theology of Discernment

In a world where the Spirit is universally present and active and engaged in varying degrees of conflict with other, demonic spirits, a robust theology of discernment is absolutely essential. In true Pentecostal form, Yong builds this theology on the Pentecost event recorded in Acts 2, which reveals that the “mission of the Spirit is never abstract but concretely and historically realized and manifest” in the diverse outward forms and inner spirits of all created things.[31] This means that discernment has to take into account the full context of a thing with all its intricacies and particularities. According to Yong, this requires nothing short of a miracle; the miracle of the Spirit at Pentecost whereby “the impossible task of understanding the other in all his or her otherness, strangeness, and difference” is made possible.[32] This Spirit-inspired understanding facilitates relationships between people separated by culture, language, and religion in a way that preserves the unique diversity of each person even while bringing them together in deep fellowship and unity.[33] This Pentecostal reality of life in the Spirit allows Yong to define discernment as a “hermeneutics of life that is both a divine gift and a human activity aimed at reading correctly the inner processes of all things,” which greatly expands upon the understanding of discernment as a “spiritual gift” given to individuals “for the specific purposes of providing insight and guidance, and for edifying the people of God.”[34]

Yong constructs this expansive theology of discernment by considering the relationship between his three pneumatological categories. The category of divine presence “marks the reality of God,” while divine absence “registers the destructive, false, evil, ugly, and profane existence of the fallen and demonic world,” which means that “the symbol of divine activity is thus dynamic and mediational, calling attention to the fact that things move continuously either to or away from their divinely instituted reason for being.”[35] Since these categories must be held together to facilitate a comprehensive praxis of discernment, Yong proposes a three-fold process that uses phenomenological-experiential, moral-ethical, and theological-soteriological criteria that correlate with each pneumatological category.[36] Because he is speaking to a Christian audience in order to construct a pneumatological theology of religions, Yong focuses his theology of discernment on the religious dimension of human experience. However, his categories are vague enough to be applied to other dimensions of experience as well.

Discernment on the phenomenological-experiential level focuses on the “qualitative presentation” of religious rituals, acts, and symbols and uses “aesthetic norms” in order to “gauge the intensity and authenticity of personal religious experiences,” with specific attention to how individuals are transformed by their experiences.[37] The importance of a religious experience as understood by its practitioners becomes the initial standard by which the Spirit’s presence is discerned.[38] This requires a “careful and intensive engagement with the phenomenon in question as it is revealed in its concreteness” so that a discerning eye can peer “through its outer forms into its inner habits, dispositions, tendencies, and powers.”[39] This leads to the moral-ethical level of discernment where the primary questions posed to religious experiences and symbols are very practical in nature: “How do they work?” and “What is accomplished by practicing with the religious symbols over time?”[40] If “lives are made whole and communal relationships are continually mended, formed, and strengthened” through the religious experience in question, Yong advises Christians to say a “tentative yet hearty ‘Amen.’”[41] He recognizes that conclusions reached via discernment are provisional because discernment is an ongoing process that must continue to trace the concrete manifestations and tangible effects of the dynamic, inner spirits operating within religious experiences.[42]

Since “spiritual transformation for the better can always be succeeded by spiritual degradation,”[43] the two previous levels of discernment must be combined with a theological-soteriological inquiry that examines the possibility of divine absence, or perhaps the demonic, by asking questions concerning the transcendental reality to which religious symbols refer.[44] Usually, though, this sort of inquiry ends in confessional statements or theological claims whose ultimate truth is indiscernible.[45] In light of this, Yong states that “the final test for discerning the Spirit of Jesus on this side of the eschaton has to reside in religious praxis.”[46] Instead of getting mired in intractable theological arguments with religious others, Yong calls Christians to lead the way in “joint expressions of liberative action… for the betterment of the human condition and for the common good.”[47]

This call to action is heightened by Yong’s awareness of demonic spirits at work in all peoples and religions, including Christianity, which “[confront] us at every turn and [threaten] us in every dimension of our lives” in very real, tangible ways.[48] When these concrete manifestations of the demonic are experienced, the dialogue of discernment must give way to a “holistic understanding of spiritual warfare… [that] involves, besides the obvious spiritual practices and disciplines, concrete actions against the powers of injustice, destruction, and dehumanization.”[49] Therefore, the most reliable way to discern the truth of theological-soteriological claims made by religious others falls back to the moral-ethical question.

When Jesus warns his disciples about “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves,” he also provides them with a standard for discernment: “you will know them by their fruits.”[50] Echoing the words of Jesus, Yong’s theology of discernment offers a way for Christians to “know” the presence and activity of the Spirit outside the “official” boundaries of Christian faith. Instead of staking a priori claims that refuse to see the Spirit outside the church, Yong cautions the church to look closely for the “the fruit of the Spirit”[51] in all peoples, cultures, places, and religions in order to participate in the universal “mission of the Spirit to heal and reconcile the social, economic, political, etc., divisions and fragmentation in our world.”[52]

Dialogue with Samuel Soliván and Eldin Villafañe

Having presented Yong’s foundational pneumatology and his corresponding theology of discernment, the voices of two theologians – Samuel Soliván and Eldin Villafañe – who talk about God from a Latino Pentecostal context will be raised to explore Yong’s hypotheses. This dialogue will begin by discussing the place of the Spirit’s personhood in Yong’s foundational pneumatology and will conclude by exploring the place of Christ in Yong’s theology of discernment.

The Personhood of the Spirit in Yong’s Foundational Pneumatology

For Soliván, the Spirit is first and foremost a person who relates to human persons in all their diversity and complexity.[53] He decries how the Spirit’s full personhood has not been honored throughout the theological tradition as it has at times “been subsumed or overshadowed by Christology, ecclesiology, and soteriology.”[54] Soliván expresses his primary concern using a quote from Thomas Oden describing how “the depersonalization of God the Spirit has occurred… [through] unconstrained application of a mistaken impersonal analogy to the person of the Spirit”[55] Tellingly, Oden includes the analogy of the Spirit as “creative energy” in his list of depersonalizing analogies.[56] Given Soliván’s approval of Oden’s thoughts, one may assume that he would also raise an objection to the potential depersonalizing effects of Yong’s description of the Spirit as a “force field” throughout his foundational pneumatology. Soliván sounds a dire warning concerning the danger of these impersonal analogies: “the depersonalization of the Holy Spirit serves the interest of those who would employ a divine image to further their own desires for control” while also being “counter to the imago Dei given to all human creation through the agency of the Spirit.”[57] The urgency of Soliván’s objection arises from his context in the Latin@ culture where he is well aware of the various ways Latin@s are dehumanized and objectified.[58] From this context, Soliván seeks to protect the personhood of the Spirit “because the relationship of the Spirit to persons… can provide a transformative model of personhood and self-esteem” for all people.[59] In addition, Soliván notes how only a fully personal image of the Spirit can relate to and redeem the unique particularities of all human persons in order to create the unity amid diversity that “is the strongest evidence that we have been and are being filled with the Holy Spirit.”[60]

Soliván’s critique raises a serious protest to Yong’s foundational pneumatology. However, Yong’s description of the Spirit in terms of a “force field” is certainly not original. Yves Congar seems to imply this notion when he summarizes the Spirit’s role in Hebrew scripture as “the action of God.”[61] However, Congar does note how this general “action” was at times “intimate” and related to specific persons.[62] Wolfhart Pannenberg describes the Spirit as “the force field of God’s mighty presence.”[63] Jurgen Moltmann, says “God’s Spirit is felt as a vitalizing energy… [or] the divine field of force.”[64] Finally, Michael Welker states that “the pouring out of the spirit means that [an individual human being] stands in a force field… in which he or she is more and more filled with ‘the fullness of God’ (Eph. 3:19).”[65] While Yong’s use of the “force field” analogy may be somewhat justified in light of its use by these other theologians, he still needs to face Soliván’s concerns.

Is there any space for the person of the Spirit in Yong’s foundational pneumatology? At first glance, it seems that his fully public, metaphysical proposal requires an impersonal understanding of the Spirit because he seeks to furnish “a general [public] understanding of divine presence and activity… [understood] against the backdrop of the fundamental hiddenness of the Spirit in mediating… the divine reality [emphasis added].”[66] While the public nature of his project may require a “general” way of talking about the “hidden” Spirit, Yong also frames his foundational pneumatology in “a robust trinitarianism that recognizes the Son [sic] and the Spirit as the two hands of the Father [sic].”[67] This patristic image of the Trinity does seem to capture a dimension of the Spirit and Child’s relation to each other and to the Parent in the mission of creation, yet the Spirit is still described in impersonal terms.

At this point, the work of Eldin Villafañe may help Yong respond to Soliván’s concerns. With Yong, Villafañe affirms the Spirit’s universal presence and activity in creation and highlights how the Spirit functions as a protector and provider in the Genesis 1 creation account.[68] He then connects these functions with two names for the Holy Spirit drawn from 2 Thessalonians and the Gospel of John: “’the Restrainer’ (To Katechon – 2 Thess. 2:6,7)” and “’the Helper’ (Parakletos – John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).”[69] Villafañe describes “the Helper” Spirit as the one who is present “wherever good, love, peace, [and] justice… are manifested in the world.”[70] The person of the Spirit identified as “the Helper” fits Yong’s foundational category of divine activity because it describes the work of the Spirit to bring about networks of relationships that are harmonious and authentic. Villafañe describes “the Restrainer” Spirit as the person who “maintains ‘order’… [and] restrains the ‘powers’ from bringing about total oppression and chaos.”[71] This personal image of the Spirit as “the Restrainer” fits Yong’s foundational category of divine absence as it highlights the presence and activity of demonic spirits who oppose the Spirit’s eschatological work. In this way, Villafañe provides Yong with the resources for maintaining the personhood of the Spirit within his foundational pneumatology.

The Place of Christ in Yong’s Theology of Discernment

According to Soliván, “Christ is the norm against which we are to understand and define the Holy Spirit.”[72] He notes what he describes as a contemporary “fascination” with the “spirit” and says that this situation “requires us to differentiate between that Spirit of God… [and] Spirit of the Lord, and other, false spirits that are in fact anti-Christ.”[73] Specifically, Soliván is concerned about “a monistic theology of the Holy Spirit which does not differentiate between the life force of the Spirit in creation and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.”[74] While he allows for an immanence of the Spirit in creation, he retains a tight grip on the transcendent God who is guiding creation towards redemption in Christ through the lives of individual human persons who become “instruments of the creation’s redemption as [they] are regenerated, refashioned in the image of God’s son [sic]” by the Spirit’s power.[75]

At the root of Soliván’s unease is the relationship between pneumatology and christology. Leading Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizoulas frames the issue succinctly with two questions: “should Christology be dependent on Pneumatology or should the order be the other way around?” and “when we speak of Christology and Pneumatology, what particular aspects of Christian doctrine – and Christian existence – do we have in mind?”[76] For Soliván, the answers to Zizioulas’s questions seem to be settled: christology takes priority over pneumatology so that the primary arena of the Spirit’s work is limited to the completion of Christ’s redemptive work in the lives of individuals. The Spirit is not “some impersonal force” of creation, which is then deified.”[77]

Yong addresses Zizioulas’ questions regarding the relationship between christology and pneumatology at many points throughout his work. In fact, one of the primary reasons he cites for developing a foundational pneumatology is to “free up some valuable space to reconsider the christological dilemmas” that have created an “impasse” in contemporary discussions concerning a theology of religions.[78] At the same time, he is clear that he does not mean to give priority to either christology or pneumatology.[79] Yong states that his foundational pneumatology is not an “escape from Christology” because any question about the norms, integrity, or authenticity of any created thing – questions that are essential for Yong’s theology of discernment – are, at root, questions about the presence of the Christ.[80] He further states that discernment should be “guided by the biblical and ecclesial traditions” and “normed by Jesus Christ.”[81] For Yong, “the Spirit’s work is to constitute each thing authentically in accordance with its own norms and purposes even while bringing all things together ultimately under the normative measure of all norms: Jesus the Christ.”[82] While it is clear that Yong does not seek to divorce his foundational pneumatology from christology, he seems to be in disagreement with Soliván’s restriction of the Spirit’s domain to “saved” individuals. This contrast with Soliván is on full display when Yong states that “non-Christian faiths can be regarded as salvific in the Christian sense when the Spirit’s presence and activity in and through them” is correctly discerned.[83]

At this point, Villafañe’s work is helpful once again as a mediating voice between Soliván and Yong. Villafañe notes how “Jesus’ life and mission were both inaugurated and empowered by the Holy Spirit” to the extent that Jesus could rightfully be called the “Charismatic Christ.”[84] In Villafañe’s view, Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit leaves little room for any subordination between christology and pneumatology and calls for equal, mutual relations between Christ and the Spirit. Villafañe further contributes to the dialogue by explaining how the Spirit is at work in creation above and beyond the realm of the redemptive work of Christ in individuals. He begins by examining “the texture of social existence” where he finds the presence of potentially evil social structures “that seem to have an objective reality independent of the individual [emphasis added].”[85] He then notes how “the Gospel of the Reign” witnessed in the Spirit-anointed incarnation of Jesus Christ brings total liberation from the demonic forces operating in social structures.[86] Therefore, all people baptized in the Spirit are empowered to continue Jesus’ mission through their “struggles with the forces of sin and death, with the demonic powers that-be, whether individually or institutionally manifested.”[87]

Villafañe’s insight illuminates how Soliván may come to an agreement with Yong concerning the place of Christ in the discernment of the Spirit’s work in the world. Yong states that the end goal of his theology of discernment is “our full immersion into the liberating and reconciling work of the Spirit of God in all spheres of life” because “it is empowered by the Spirit and directed to the kingdom of the Father through Jesus Christ.”[88] Seen in the light of Villafañe’s thoughts, Yong’s theology of discernment is shown to be christological to the core because it enables individuals and communities to join the Spirit in the continuing mission of Jesus. It seems that Soliván’s christological “limit” is really no limit at all because the work of Jesus is no less than the universal work of the Spirit.


The praxeological implications arising from Yong’s foundational pneumatology and its corresponding theology of discernment are as universal as the Spirit’s presence and activity in creation. As I consider how to apply his work to my own life and ministry, I believe his recent book, Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor, provides a very helpful guide for moving from his abstract, metaphysical theology into the realm of everyday life. In this book, Yong weaves his pneumatological framework together with a theology and practice of hospitality.[89] While he focuses on practicing hospitality with religious others, Yong’s work invites application in a wide-array of contexts where “otherness” may not be defined in strictly religious terms… [to be continued ;)]

[1] Amos Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 17.

[2] Amos Yong, “On Divine Presence and Divine Agency: Toward a Foundational Pneumatology,” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 3, no. 2 (July 2000): 167.

[3] Ibid., 180.

[4] My church is affiliated with the Vineyard church network. See http://www.vineyardusa.org for details.

[5] Yong, “On Divine Presence and Divine Agency: Toward a Foundational Pneumatology”: 175.

[6] “Amos Yong – School of Divinity – Regent University,” Regent University, accessed May 5, 2013, http://www.regent.edu/acad/schdiv/faculty_staff/yong.shtml.

[7] Amos Yong, Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 9.

[8] Roger E. Olson, “A Wind that Swirls Everywhere: Pentecostal Scholar Amos Yong Thinks He Sees the Holy Spirit Working in Other Religions, Too,” Christianity Today 50, no. 3 (March 1, 2006): 53.

[9] “Amos Yong – School of Divinity – Regent University.”

[10] Yong, Beyond the Impasse, 10.

[11] Amos Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 105. For examples of these affirmations, see Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 8-10 and Clark H. Pinnock, “The Role of the Spirit in Creation,” Asbury Theological Journal 52, no. 1 (March 1, 1997): 47-54.

[12] Amos Yong, “Spiritual Discernment: A Biblical-Theological Reconsideration,” in The Spirit and Spirituality, eds. Wonsuk Ma and Robert P. Menzies (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 87, 91.

[13] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 116, 120.

[14] Heinz-Josef Fabry, “רוּחַ,” in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, trans. David E. Green, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 386.

[15] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 118.

[16] Yong, “Spiritual Discernment,” 87.

[17] Donald L. Gelpi, S.J. The Divine Mother: A Trinitarian Theology of the Holy Spirit (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), viii.

[18] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 122.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ralph Del Colle, “The Experience of the Divine,” Chicago Studies 31, (November 1992): 293-294.

[21] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 123.

[22] Ibid., 125.

[23] Ibid., 124.

[24] Ibid., 125.

[25] Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh, 252.

[26] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 127, 129.

[27] Ibid., 130.

[28] Ibid., 131.

[29] Ibid., 133.

[30] Ibid., 132.

[31] Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on all Flesh, 254.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Amos Yong, “As the Spirit Gives Utterance: Pentecost, Intra-Christian Ecumenism and the Wider Oikoumene,” International Review Of Mission 92, no. 366 (July 1, 2003): 301, 305.

[34] Yong, “Spiritual Discernment,” 84, 98.

[35] Yong, Beyond the Impasse, 165.

[36] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 250.

[37] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 251.

[38] Ibid., 144.

[39] Yong, “Spiritual Discernment,” 100.

[40] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 252.

[41] Ibid., 253.

[42] Yong, “Spiritual Discernment,” 101.

[43] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 253.

[44] Ibid., 254.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Amos Yong, “The Holy Spirit and the World Religions: On the Christian Discernment of Spirit(s) ‘After’ Buddhism,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 24, (January 1, 2004): 197.

[47] Ibid., 199.

[48] Yong, “Spiritual Discernment,” 102, 103.

[49] Ibid., 103.

[50] Mt. 7:16.

[51] See Gal. 5:22-23.

[52] Yong, “As the Spirit Gives Utterance”: 307.

[53] Samuel Soliván, “The Holy Spirit – Personalization and the Affirmation of Diversity: A Pentecostal Hispanic Perspective,” in Teologia en Conjunto: A Collaborative Hispanic Protestant Theology, eds. José David Rodríguez and Loida I. Martell-Otero (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 50.

[54] Ibid., 51.

[55] Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit: Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992), 20 as cited in Samuel Solivan, “The Holy Spirit,” 53.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Soliván, “The Holy Spirit,” 53.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid., 59.

[61] Yves M. J. Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, vol. 1, trans. David Smith (New York: The Seabury Press,  1983), 12.

[62] Ibid., 11.

[63] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 383.

[64] Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 195.

[65] Michael Welker, “The Holy Spirit,” Theology Today 46, no. 1 (April 1, 1989): 17.

[66] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 98.

[67] Ibid., 311.

[68] Eldin Villafañe, The Liberating Spirit: Toward an Hispanic American Pentecostal Social Ethic (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 182.

[69] Ibid., 183.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Soliván, “The Holy Spirit,” 54.

[73] Ibid, 52.

[74] Samuel Soliván, “Which Spirit: What Creation?,” Christianity And Crisis 51, no. 10-11 (July 15, 1991): 225.

[75] Ibid.

[76] John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s University Press, 1985), 126-28, 130-32, 136, as cited in Veli-Matti Karkkainen,ed., Holy Spirit and Salvation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 283.

[77] Soliván, “Which Spirit: What Creation?”: 225.

[78] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 33.

[79] Ibid., 98.

[80] Ibid., 136.

[81] Yong, “The Holy Spirit and the World Religions”: 203.

[82] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 131.

[83] Ibid., 312.

[84] Villafañe, The Liberating Spirit, 185.

[85] Villafañe, The Liberating Spirit, 176.

[86] Ibid., 186.

[87] Ibid., 187-87.

[88] Yong, “As the Spirit Gives Utterance”: 307.

[89] Amos Yong, Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), xiii-xiv.

God is in Our Midst

Regardless of what you hear in the news this morning, or what you see on your drive to work, or what your thinking after whatever happened this weekend: God is in our midst. God is dealing wondrously with us. God is restoring all things: the land, the animals, the plants, the people – ALL creation. If you are seeking to know God and are following after Jesus today, this is the story you are walking in right now:

Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

I pray that we – myself included – would have faith in this story, in its Author and Finisher, who has been poured out on us so that we might take up our our parts in this wondrous drama. Amen.

Continual Rebirth

[This sermon reflection is going to be on the short side… just don’t have the time today ;( ]

Our sermon this week at 6:8 was based on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, knows something is different with Jesus, but can’t quite put his finger on it. Jesus blows his mind: “You have to be born again/from above, Nicodemus.” From here, Jesus pushes and prods Nicodemus along in his “faith.” I guess you could say Jesus was “evangelizing” – I mean he quotes John 3:16… BAZINGA!

What we focused on was Jesus’ method with Nicodemus; he acted as a spiritual midwife. Jesus knew Nicodemus had the knowledge of scripture, but he also knew that Nicodemus had no clue about the ramifications of Jesus’ mission. He didn’t spell it all out for Nicodemus and demand a “sinner’s prayer.” He led him from what he already knew into something deeper. He brought Nicodemus a few steps closer… but definitely not all the way. Did Nicodemus ever “convert”? We’re not sure, but the gospels do place him as one caring for Jesus’ body after the crucifixion so you have to wonder.

We too are called to be spiritual midwives. We bring people one step closer to God. Coming to God is not a simple, linear process; its more like an arc or a spiral. Too often, we short circuit this process and “cut to the chase” with people and force Jesus down their throats. Midwives don’t force birth; they help it along and care for the mother and baby. This is our job too.

My short reflection is this: if coming to faith in God is like an arc, walking in faith with God is not less arc-ful. Its not as if we “pray the prayer” and our “arc” transforms into a perfectly straight, upward sloping line leading to holiness. The lines that trace our spiritual journeys are just as spirally and wild after we profess faith in Christ than they were before. The spiritual journey comes in stages, and these stages get repeated, and sometimes we get stuck or even go backwards. We do ourselves harm when we compare our haphazard spiritual journeys to unrealistic, non-existent people with spiritual journeys that only and always increase in holiness and never lose sight of God. This just never happens. We’d be much better off if we continue to act as spiritual midwives for each other even after we come to faith in Christ. Salvation is not a one time event – its gets worked out over a lifetime. As we follow the Spirit’s lead, we are confronted to areas of our lives that need to be transformed by new birth from above. It doesn’t happen all at once. We need patience and ample amounts of grace.

Is there a difference between sight and vision?

Proverbs 22:9 tells us: “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.” Is there a difference between sight and vision? At first we might think these words are synonyms, but we’d be mistaken. Sight is just a bodily sense, but vision is something more. With my sight, I can observe two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. With my vision, I can recognize the face of a friend. I can use my sight to monitor the road in front me as I drive home tonight, but my vision reveals a picture of the house beyond my headlights. My sight may notice the hungry man begging for food, but my vision sees Jesus. Sight is concerned with what lies directly in front of us, but vision sees beneath the surface, beyond our present circumstances, to energize new hope for a brighter future that can transform our present. May God create in us today the “bountiful eyes” of faith that combine a sighting of needs with a vision to see those needs fulfilled.

Against Disembodied Spirituality: An Exegesis of Colossians 2:16-19

Translations of Colossians 2:16-19

Personal Translation

16 Therefore, do not let anyone judge you in eating or in drinking or in participation of feasts, new moon festivals, or Sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of the (things) to come, but the reality (is namely) Christ. 18 Let no one rule you out, taking pleasure in false appearances of humility and the worship of angels, which he has seen upon close scrutiny, being puffed up without cause by the mind of his flesh, 19 and not holding fast (to) the head, from whom the entire body, being supported and held together by (its) ligaments and bonds, grows out of the growth of God.


The New Revised Standard Translation

16 Therefore, do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.


Historical Context


The apostle Paul has traditionally been held as the author of the letter to the Colossians. The letter claims Paul as its author in three separate locations: in the greeting,[1] once within the body,[2]  and again in the letter’s conclusion.[3] The case for Pauline authorship is bolstered by the mention of Timothy in the letter’s greeting[4] and by the structure it shares with other Pauline epistles.[5] Finally, some evidence of the letter’s acceptance as Pauline exists in the writings of early church fathers. However, Pauline authorship has been challenged by noticing differences in the letter’s vocabulary, style, and theological viewpoint from other Pauline epistles.[6] The understanding of Paul’s apostolic office in relation to the Colossian church, along with evidence of reliance on five other Pauline letters, presents further challenges to those who claim Pauline authorship.[7] Dunn takes evidence from both sides into account and offers a middle perspective: he believes that Paul signed off on the letter, which was written by one of his contemporaries, possibly Timothy, while he was in prison.[8]


The city of Colossae was one of three major cities in the Lycus River Valley of Asia Minor along a crucial east-west trading route linking the Aegean coast to the Asian interior. Approximately four to five centuries prior to New Testament times, the city had become wealthy and prosperous by dealing in the wool industry, which was bolstered by the city’s prime trading location. However, by the time of Roman rule, the city’s significance in the region had waned in comparison to the neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. The entire region seems to have been heavily populated by Jewish peoples at the time of the letter’s writing. Unfortunately, the city of Colossae, along with Laodicea and Hierapolis, were devastated by a major earthquake in 60-61 CE. Archaeological evidence suggests that Laodicea and Hierapolis were quickly rebuilt but Colossae seems to have lain dormant until late in the second century.[9] Colossae’s character as a city experiencing economic downturn may be a factor that was motivating the Colossian philosophers’ desire for a religion that emphasized spiritual and other-worldly experiences as a means of escaping their grim reality.


The letter to the church at Colossae seems to have been written in response to a certain “philosophy” that was prevalent in the region. This philosophy was apparently beginning to threaten, or at least undermine, the Christian community.[10] The author hints at the letter’s purpose for its readers in 1:23 by sharing a hope that they “continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that [they] heard.” Some have compared the letter with the letter to Galatia suggesting a similar harsh and polemical tone, but other commentators suggest that, while it does contain some polemical content, its purpose is focused more on encouraging and building up the church at Colossae as it faces criticism and judgment from the Colossian “philosophers”.[11],[12]

Much ink has been spilled attempting to reconstruct the nature of the Colossian philosophy which prompted this letter and no scholarly consensus currently exists on this topic. However, the letter seems to suggest four primary features of the Colossian philosophy: ascetic practice, worship of angels, cosmic elements, and full knowledge of God.[13] The nature of this philosophy is important to consider because the passage this paper addresses contains evidence for both ascetic practice and worship of angels.

DeMaris identifies five broad interpretive streams used to describe the “Colossian Controversy” throughout recent history: Jewish Gnosticism, Gnostic Judaism,  Ascetic or Apocalyptic or Mystical Judaism, Hellenistic Syncretism, and  Hellenistic Philosophy.[14] He departs from these five streams and suggests that the Colossian philosophy is composed of “a distinctive blend of popular Middle Platonic, Jewish, and Christian elements that cohere around the pursuit of wisdom.”[15] According to his analysis, the Colossian philosophy is centered upon the acquisition of wisdom.[16] He notes a deep concern for purity evidenced by the philosophy’s food and calendar regulations, seen in 2:16, and suggests that the worship of angels and the practice of false humility make up the core of the philosophy’s praxis.[17]

Literary Context

This passage begins a brief section of the letter that gives warning about rules and regulations being imposed on the Colossian community that the writer views as unnecessary and dangerous. These warnings about worthless regulations conclude the author’s polemical discourse that begins in 2:8. This discourse began with a general warning about the perils of “human tradition” or “philosophy” and then offered several affirmations of this warning. Prior to this discourse, the author has gone to great lengths to affirm the apostolic gospel of Christ. Afterwards, the letter transitions to a set of exhortations for Christian living.[18] It is important to note this passage’s position at the heart of the author’s argument against the Colossian philosophy.

Interesting Words and Phrases

σκιά vs. σῶμα

The writer uses these two terms to contrast the three categories of judgment – eating, drinking, and the keeping of the religious calendar – with the person of Christ.  The term σκιά translates as “shadow” and refers to a “faint archetype which foreshadows a later reality.”[19] On the other hand, σῶμα translates as “reality,” which is the fulfillment of a corresponding archetype.[20] Together, these terms denote a copy-original type relationship that originated from Jewish Hellenistic theology.[21] However, this Hellenistic thought finds a new depth of meaning when the eschatological and Christological dimensions found in 2:17 are considered. The copy-original relationship becomes a new way for the author to describe the well-known Pauline theme of “old-aeon-new aeon.”[22]


The term ταπεινοφροσύνη is a compound word that combining ταπεινός, “humble, lowly,” with φρήν, “thinking, understanding” to form a word that is translated simply as “humility” in the six other New Testament passages in which it appears.[23] It occurs three times in the book of Colossians and each occurrence has a unique meaning.[24] Within the polemical context of 2:18, ταπεινοφροσύνη takes on a sense of inauthenticity and suggests the false appearance of humility while remaining proud. This connotation can only be discerned from the word’s context since nothing in the word signals this change in meaning. [25] Danker interprets the term to mean “wrongly directed humility”[26] while Grundmann suggests “mortification” because he believes the term describes a specific cultic practice that was operative in the Colossian philosophy that has prompted the writing of the letter.[27] As seen above, the NRSV has translated ταπεινοφροσύνη as “self-abasement,” which offers a sense of false humility in the performance of some sort of practice. This paper has chosen the more general phrase “false appearances of humility” in order to include a wide array of practices to which the author could be referring.

θρησκείᾳ τῶν ἀγγέλων

Translated literally, this phrase simply means “worship of angels” but it could have at least three meanings.[28] The first view follows the literal translation and regards the angels as objects of specific acts of worship by the Colossian philosophers and their followers. A second meaning is based on the interpretation of θρησκείᾳ in a broader sense to denote a whole system of religion. With this meaning, the phrase could be translated as “religion instituted by angels.”[29] Finally, Dunn suggests that τῶν ἀγγέλων should be classified as a subjective genitive.[30] If this classification is accepted, the genitive, “angels,” would become the subject of the genitive’s verbal noun, “worship”, which would result in a translation akin to “worship rendered by angels” or “angels worshipping.” Dunn argues for a subjective genitive reading because he believes the Colossian philosophy to be rooted in a Jewish synagogue, where “worship of angels” would not be accepted. Instead, Dunn links the “worship rendered by angels” in Colossae with the recorded visions of angelic worship found in apocalyptic Jewish literature at the time of the letter’s writing. He suggests that the members of the synagogue viewed their worship as a participation in the heavenly worship described in the apocalyptic visions. This evidence leads Dunn to believe that the Colossian synagogue belittled the “low church” worship of the Colossian Christians.[31] However, this paper has chosen the first view which interprets τῶν ἀγγέλων as an objective genitive due to the rarity of the subjective genitive in extant Greek literature.[32]

ἃ ἑόρακεν ἐμβατεύων

The meaning of this phrase has eluded commentators for centuries. The key term is ἐμβατεύων, which does not occur at any other point in the New Testament. Literally, it could mean “to set foot upon” or “to enter” or possibly “to come into possession of.”[33] In Jewish writings, such as 2 Maccabees 2:30 Philo, it is used to denote “intense concern with or enquiry into something.”[34] However, it is also found in mystery religion writings where it described the second act of an initiation ceremony in which the celebrant enters into, or finds completion in, the true mystery.[35] Preskier rejects this view because in all the sources where it occurs ἐμβατεύων is always paired with the term that describes the first act of the initiation ceremony and the setting is always a sanctuary. Since none of these conditions are met in 2:18, Preskier argues for the Jewish sense of the term and relates it to Colossian philosopher’s desire for ecstasy.[36] According to DeMaris, “the careful inquiry conducted by one of the philosophers has produced an insight regarded as authoritative,” which the philosophers then use to coerce their followers into their practice of false humility and angel worship.[37] Danker agrees and concludes by saying simply that “the context suggests an element of posturing or pomposity.”[38]

κεφαλήν, ἁφῶν, σῶμα, and συνδέσμων

All four of these terms appear in 2:19 where the author provides the final description of those who should be allowed to disqualify the Colossians and then goes on to explain why these “disqualifiers” are themselves disqualified. These words are interesting because they all refer to physical, bodily things: κεφαλήν is “head”[39]; ἁφῶν is “ligaments”[40]; unlike in 2:16, σῶμα now refers to a human “body”[41]; συνδέσμων refers to physical “bonds.”[42] This series of physical, “down-to-earth” terms provides the reader with a sharp contrast to the high-minded philosophers who boast about their false humility, which may have included practices that diminished the body, and their worship of angels.


While many scholars have used this passage in their attempts to uncover the true nature of the Colossian philosophy, the letter’s original audience would have no need for these explanations. Rather, they simply needed encouragement in the truth to sustain them while they endured the attacks of those who were judging them and attempting to disqualify them. In this passage, the author makes two bold exhortations to the Colossian Christians that provide to this end.

First, the writer declares that the practices of the Colossian philosophers are mere shadows; only copies of the one reality that they truly desire. They are relics of the old age that are fit to be discarded now that the new age has begun. In this new age, Christ is the reality from which all of those shadows are cast. Now that the true reality is here, the claims of those who cling to the shadows have lost all authority.

Second, the writer paints a vivid contrast between the puffed-up, angel worshiping, ecstatic visionaries of the Colossian philosophy and the Colossian Christians who make up a physical body, held together by bonds of flesh and blood that remain connected to the head. The message is clear: the Colossian philosophers, along with their beliefs and practices, are nothing more than disembodied shells. They do not “hold fast” to the head; they are not part of one body; they are not held together and supported; and they cannot grow. In turn, the Colossian Christians are reminded that they need each other to sustain their life together under Christ.

Alternative Voices

In his commentary on Colossians, John Paul Heil provides further insight into the σκιά vs. σῶμα contrast found in 2:17. He explains that, since the readers belong to the body, they also belong to Christ, who is the body’s ruling and sustaining head. He then links this idea with the Christological statement in 2:9-10 that “in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” in order to reveal the author’s message to the Colossian church that they too are being filled with the fullness of deity. As a result, they can enjoy in the present what the σκιά can only anticipate.[43] Heil’s thoughts are helpful because they establish a stronger connection between the conclusions of this paper and the broader context of the letter’s argument against the Colossian philosophy.

Commentator Eduard Lohse shares an interesting ecclesiological insight from 2:19. In his view, the key relationship in this verse is between the “head” and the “body.” Similar to Heil, Lohse recalls two previous statements from the writer that define the body, of which Christ is the head, as the church.[44] He then concludes that “a person can only adhere to the head insofar as he belongs, as a member of Christ’s body, to the ‘church’ which is the domain of his present lordship.”[45] Lohse takes this paper’s conclusion one step further by issuing a direct call to active participation in “church” as a necessary requirement for belonging to Christ.

A Bible Study Outline

  1. A look at Colossae
    1. Illustrious past, bleak future
    2. The “runt” city of the region
    3. Do you know any cities like Colossae? What would it be like to live there? How would you be a different person growing up in a city like Colossae?
  2. The Colossian Philosophy
    1. Read Colossians 2:8-23 :: What does the letter writer seem to be so upset about?
    2. Briefly review scholarly opinions on the Colossian philosophy
  3. Let no one judge you
    1. How have you experienced judgment in the past?
    2. Briefly review the nature of the practices listed in 2:16
    3. Explain “shadow” vs. “reality” concept
    4. What “shadows” is our church clinging to that we may need to surrender in order to embrace the “reality” of Christ?
  4. Let no one rule you out
    1. Share a concise summary of those who are attempting to “rule out” the Colossian Christians
      1. Practiced false humility
      2. Worshipped angels in visions
      3. Puffed up and arrogant
    2. Point out the sharp contrasts between the individualist, super-mystical Colossian philosophers and the down-to-earth, communal Colossian Christians
    3. How are we disqualifying people in our church today? What values do we exalt and use as gateways for membership in our exclusive church clubs?
    4. What are some ways our church could encourage mutual support and cooperation and challenge our society’s extreme individualism?

[1] Col. 1:1 NRSV

[2] Col. 1:23

[3] Col. 4:18

[4] Col. 1:1

[5] Victor Paul Furnish, “Epistle to the Colossians,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, A – C, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1092.

[6] Ibid., 1092-3.

[7] Ibid., 1094.

[8] James D. G. Dunn, “Letter to the Colossians,” in The New Interpreters Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, A – C, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 705.

[9] James D. G. Dunn, “Colossae,” in The New Interpreters Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, A – C, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 701-2.

[10] Dunn, “Letter to the Colossians”, 703.

[11] Ibid., 703.

[12] Furnish, 1090.

[13] Furnish, 1091-2.

[14] Richard E. DeMaris, The Colossian Controversy: Wisdom in Dispute at Colossae, Journal for the study of the New Testament supplem. (Sheffield: JSOT, 1994), 38-39.

[15] Ibid., 17.

[16] Ibid., 73.

[17] Ibid., 99.

[18] Furnish, 1090.

[19] J. P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), 593.

[20] Ibid.

[21]Gerhard Friedrich ed. Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VII, Σ (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 398.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ac 20:19; Eph 4:2; Phil 2:3; Col 2:23; 3:12; 1 Pe 5:5.

[24] Gerhard Friedrich ed. Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VIII, Τ – Υ (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 22.

[25] Louw and Nida, 748.

[26] Frederick William Danker, ed. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000),989.

[27] Friedrich, Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VIII, Τ – Υ, 22.

[28] DeMaris, 59-60.

[29] DeMaris, 60.

[30] Dunn, “Letter to the Colossians,” 704.

[31] Ibid., 705.

[32] DeMaris, 60.

[33] Louw and Nida, 593.

[34] Gerhard Kittel ed. Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. II, Δ – Η (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), 536.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] DeMaris, 66.

[38] Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 124.

[39] Louw and Nida, 95.

[40] Ibid., 101.

[41] Ibid., 93.

[42] Ibid., 222.

[43] John Paul Heil, Colossians: Encouragement to Walk in All Wisdom as Holy Ones in Christ (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 122-3.

[44] Col. 1:18, 24.

[45] Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, Hermeneia, ed. Koester, trans. Poehlmann and Karris (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 122.