It’s here! After years in the making, Simeon Zahl‘s new book The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience is now available in the US! This groundbreaking, interdisciplinary research covers everything from Pentecostalism to affect theory, from Augustine to Luther, and much, much more. In short, Zahl delivers a dynamic account of the work of the Holy Spirit within our theological discourse.

Theology might give elegant descriptions of God and theological doctrines like salvation and sanctification, but it usually ignores how these ideas might feel in relation to the everyday realities of life. Our “experience” isn’t just some extra reference for us to pay attention to (or not) when we think about God. Rather, our experiences — our relationships, memories, moods, prejudices, habits — already influence how we think about God and shape the potency of theological doctrines.

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The following is a sneak peak from Chapter 2, “Experiencing the Spirit”, pp. 70-74:

Perhaps the chief contemporary theological target in this book is a certain kind complacency with theological abstraction that is often apparent in discussions of the Spirit, and indeed in doctrinal and dogmatic statements more generally […]

The more widely you read in modern theology, the more you notice that … [o]ver and over, at just the point when you expect some attempt at a description of the experiential dimensions of the Spirit’s work in, for example, salvation or sanctification, theologians make a kind of swerve into non-experiential, usually metaphysical language. Instead of talking, as the New Testament so often does, about the effects of the Spirit’s work on real bodies in time, theologians revert instead to ontological language about union with Christ, about salvific participation in the Godhead, or about deification and theosis. Through these strategies, the concrete historical experience of the Christian in the world quietly slides out of view. Such experience remains present in these cases only implicitly, in that presumably these concepts and images do at some point acquire existential purchase, but how exactly this happens the theologian does not say. At best, the ‘concrete’ side of salvific experience gets swallowed up in the sheer bald fact of participation in baptism and the eucharist, regardless of how such participation ‘feels’.

A good example of what I mean about making a swerve away from experience in favor of ontological categories can be found in T. F. Torrance’s The Trinitarian Faith. Early in the volume, in answer to the question, what does the Spirit do in salvation, Torrance makes the following assertion:

[W]e must regard the activity of the Holy Spirit as actualising our union and communion with God through Christ in the actual structure of our human, personal and social being.[1]

On its own terms, there initially appears to be little to object to in this claim. Torrance is expressing a theologically traditional, scripturally warranted view of the Spirit’s work in unifying believers with Christ, and then asserting that this union will have concrete (‘actual’) implications in their lives. His claim furthermore fits well within the larger project, exemplified in The Trinitarian Faith, of recovering patristic language to deepen, enrich, and expand contemporary Protestant reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity. From the perspective of the argument of the present book, the problem here is not the content of the claim but the fact that Torrance then stops short of specifying what such changes to the ‘actual structure of our human, personal and social being’ might look like in practice. Taken in isolation, language about the ‘actualising’ of changes in the ‘structure’ of our ‘being’ is so vague that it could signify virtually anything: our affections and desires; our ethical conceptions; habits and virtues; a general sense of existential telos; deep psychological structures that affect how we engage in relationships with others; the sorts of practices in which we are drawn to engage — the possibilities are almost endless.

Viewed strictly from the perspective of practice and experience rather than theological ‘correctness’, then, the sum of Torrance’s claim is the banal and almost contentless assertion that union with Christ will entail deep unspecified changes in our ‘being’. In its lack of specificity, it risks giving theological cover to all sorts of projection. We can potentially take anything we like and call it a form of ‘actualising our union and communion with God’.

Given this indeterminacy, the effect of the choice of terms here is to create the illusion of an experientially integrated and pastorally attuned doctrinal claim, while deferring the greater theological challenge of operationalizing the claim for the life of the church.

[…] My point in bringing up [examples like this one] is to draw attention to a widely used register of theological speech that relies on ontological language that may sound and even be theologically ‘correct’ but which serves in practice to obfuscate the question of how doctrines actually come to have experiential impact in human lives. In my view, general statements about the Spirit ‘bettering’ our union with Christ through the eucharist, or ‘actualizing’ changes in our ‘being’ through participation in the Godhead need to be tempered by some kind of theological attempt to show how these metaphysical realities actually relate to the lives of real people in time. Otherwise, the Holy Spirit—theoretically the agent of this saving and sanctifying union with Christ—risks being reduced to a generic divine power, banal, clinical, and dehistoricized. And our ontological statements risk becoming mere theological words that will ‘pass athwart us’, ‘unable to make themselves felt’[2]—a register of theological speech that gives the illusion of having said what needs to be said but that is unable to address fundamental questions about the plausibility and practical meaning of theological claims […]

Without further augmentation or experiential mooring, such language is unable to do much to bridge the divide between general theological claims and the way that doctrines actually function in the world. And if the Holy Spirit is indeed the bridger of such gaps, the actualizer of divine realities in the world, as I argued above, then profoundly pneumatological loci like soteriology and sanctification must engage directly and explicitly with the question of experience. We cannot hide behind either methodological anxieties or metaphysical generalities. To do so in these cases would be to eclipse the Spirit from our theology.


[1] Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, p. 9.

[2] Eliot, Janet’s Repentance, p. 236. See the discussion of this novella in Chapter 1.