Published: RTR 73, no. 2, 2014
Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith
Jack Levison, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.
Levison’s books have been greeted with rave reviews. James Dunn thinks that the present work ‘signals something of a revolution in contemporary understanding of the spirit of God’. Eugene Peterson has it as a tour de force. Levison is similarly enthusiastic about his own works, referring readers to Filled with the Spirit for ‘more in-depth exegesis’ and to Fresh Air ‘[i]f you yearn for a deeper spirituality’.
This reviewer was left underwhelmed. There is no doubting Levison’s passion, writing as one who has yearned for the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. He is knowledgeable in the gamut of second temple Jewish literature, and works closely with the Scriptures. However, the premise of the book is that the word, ‘spirit’ in Scripture (ruach, pneuma) is intentionally ambiguous. The reader does not have to decide between it meaning spirit, breath or wind, between it referring to the human spirit and God’s spirit, and the lack of the use of definite articles should be respected. This misunderstands that ambiguity can be present but not intended (and context works to relieve ambiguity), that definiteness in Hebrew is not indicated in the same way as in English, and that there is no reason to suppose that Scripture intends on blurring the line between the human and the divine.
Levison’s first effort at applying his principles is tenuous. The Holy Spirit in Ps 51:11 is said to refer to the human spirit being sustained by God. The human spirit is ‘the locus of God’s presence’ (23). Why, though, does David say ‘your’ holy spirit? Again, Gen 6:3 is taken as thus: ‘My spirit shall not remain in adam’ (26). This is said to be of an ilk with Gen 41:38, which is a reference to the ‘divine character of the spirit within him [Joseph]—not to the divine spirit that has come upon him’. However, in Gen 6:3, ‘remain’ does not translate the Hebrew well, and why does Yhwh say, ‘my spirit?
Levison speaks of the holy spirit—the reservoir of virtue—being present from birth with non-Christians, which he demonstrates by arguing that Joseph et al had the spirit but were not Christians (65-67). One does not need to pray for non-Christians to have the holy spirit come upon them, but for the spirit within them to stir.
The anthropological and soteriological paths taken in this book are challenging. Is it German Idealism with Wesleyan garnish? It will require one to turn afresh to the text of Scripture for adjudication.