Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a series of two on the role of the Holy Spirit in Glen Stassen’s new book, A Thicker Jesus. Find the first post here.
Stassen knows this is not the way everyone conceives of the Holy Spirit, but he describes this as a “biblically realistic understanding of repentance, with realism about the fact that we live with many sources of errors, known and unknown” (99). The Book of Acts sets a precedent that should prime us to see the Holy Spirit doing this work. Not only did Peter call people to repent on Pentecost, but the Holy Spirit guided the early church through a time of repentance from “narrow and nationalistic faith” that led churches to form and exclude others around Jew/Gentile identities (20, 99-100). We find a remarkable sense of continuity here: the Spirit whose gifts of glossolalia broke down language barriers to enable the early spread of the gospel stories is the same Spirit who helps us discern when foreign grammars have wrongly influenced a distinctly Christian one (cf. 21, 23, 30). By looking to the Bible to study the specific and concrete ways that the early church encountered the Holy Spirit, Stassen has been able to move beyond abstract concepts of the Holy Spirit and demonstrate tangible actions that God is doing via the Spirit.
There are several other sorts of activity that Stassen attributes to God the Holy Spirit. While a full study of each of them is far beyond the limitations of the space allotted here, a brief survey is in order. The Spirit is that member of the Trinity that is in view when God speaks to Christians (23) or through them to others (73), when Christ-like character (the fruits of the Spirit) is cultivated in a person’s life (51), guidance and discernment are sought (76), in bringing about the incarnation of Christ (92), the developments of modern science (96) and democracy (76), and when reconciliation happens (150).
As mentioned in the first post of this series, a key component of Stassen’s book is the examination of the lives of several persons who followed Christ faithfully during difficult circumstances. We argue that the specificity of Stassen’s study is not only critical in identifying thickness as a component of these exemplars’ ethics, but also contributes to the thickness of Stassen’s ethic. By looking to precise and historical events to locate exactly where God is, Stassen is dismissing an idealistic view of God and concretely locating the real interaction of the Triune God in the lives of those he studies. Inasmuch as this study has paid attention the Holy Spirit’s interaction with these persons, it has thickened both Jesus and the Spirit.
Stassen’s examination of Bonhoeffer serves as a fitting example. He observes that, in Discipleship, Bonhoeffer
also exhibits the third theme of incarnational discipleship by repeatedly referring to the Holy Spirit and calling disciples to repentance. “When the Holy Spirit has spoken, but we still continue to listen to the voice of our race, our nature, or our sympathies, we are profaning the sacrament,” [Bonhoeffer] writes. “Baptism into the body of Christ changes not only a person’s personal status with regards to salvation, but also their relationships throughout all of life.” (23)
Having presented to readers Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the work of the Spirit in repentance, Stassen calls attention to the work of the Spirit in Bonhoeffer’s life.
He put this ethic into practice by working on his own continuing repentance, involving himself in an African American Baptist church in Harlem, in dialogues with French pacifist Jen Lassere, and in the world church, in order to learn from them. He was brought to his own repentance and conversion by those encounters. . . . Throughout Bonhoeffer’s writings after 1933, calls ring out for repentance for solidarity in the guilt that is exemplified by Hitler’s policies and by people’s silence, and for looking away from the injustices of accommodating to the ideology of the Nazis. (23-24)
Stassen’s attention to the specifics of the work of the Spirit in Bonhoeffer’s life moves Stassen and his readers toward a thicker Spirit.
While Stassen has certainly not included himself among those “heroes of the faith,” we see that his life does fit with those that demonstrate a thicker Jesus and Spirit. In recounting his activities in Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Stassen tells of an event in the Bitterfeld town square following a sermon he preached. The crowd has just finished a time of open mike sharing and concluded by singing “We Shall Overcome” when Glen sensed the divine presence in the Spirit:
I was so moved. Almost as if the Holy Spirit had picked me up by the scruff of my neck, I moved up to the microphone, and said three sentences: “I was deeply involved in the U.S. civil rights movement, and you have done exactly what we were trying to do. I am deeply moved. I am deeply grateful!” . . . Clearly what they had done was to follow Martin Luther King, but they had felt isolated, closed in by the Wall. My words affirmed the connection with the civil rights movement that they had been seeking throughout their struggle. (35)
Stassen’s account of the Spirit of God pressing upon him to share words of inclusion and affirmation, as well as their healing effect on the crowds, demonstrates his own thicker pneumatology and models it for his readers by exemplifying the kind of work that the Spirit is about.
For some, the most controversial statements about the presence of God will be found in Stassen’s chapter on “Individualism.” He offers an “[a]wareness of our interactive nature” as one helper in the struggle against secularism, for it opens us to connectivity with God and to the little ways the Holy Spirit moves in and around us (121, 217). The interconnectivity and action of God should not be understood as boundary-fixing, tribe-making activity; even Albert Camus “opens to connectedness with the infinity of the universe and with others” (121). Whether God is active outside the walls of the church is not so much the question. The question is: which criteria help us discern what is the Spirit of God? Stassen’s answer is: we can expect the Holy Spirit, wherever she is working, to be growing mustard seeds of the kingdom of God that are consistent with what we can observe in Scripture. Accordingly, he points to seven marks of the reign of God that he has distilled from Isaiah and observed in Jesus’ ministry as a criteriology for discernment (121-122, 195, 218).
We do see some room for improvement (or further thickening), like using a personal pronoun for the Spirit instead of “it,” but the Spirit is the real winner in this book (theologically speaking) because she received significantly more focus (and credit) than she often does in texts on theological ethics. Stassen’s contribution is even more unique in the context of an often-sparse conversation among baptists. Stassen’s attention to specific, concrete, and tangible examples of the Spirit’s work as recorded both in the Christian Bible and lives of great Christian women and men that are chronicled in the annals of history has made this thickened view of the Spirit possible. And emphasizing the Spirit (or Jesus, for that matter) cannot and should not lead one to a strict separation or distinction within the character of God. Stassen clearly sees the three “persons” of God as unified in tending to the growing mustard seeds of God’s reign. A thick Jesus is central to the Christian understanding of this reign, for “[w]hen we encounter the human Jesus, we are also encountering God, because God’s Holy Spirit is fully present in what the human Jesus does” (149; cf. 165). The way of the incarnate Jesus is thick in the recollecting work of the Spirit within Christians and is the telos of Christomorphic, participative grace (152).