This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Holy Spirit Between Wittenberg and Azusa Street, Simeon Zahl, London and New York: T & T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, 2010, (ISBN: 9780567645913) Pp. x + 206. $130.00. The title of Simeon Zahl's exciting new book leaves little ambiguity as to the immediate matter at hand. Born out of his dissertation at Cambridge, this book is without doubt the best close analysis of Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt’s mature pneumatology. It is a major contribution to the recent and welcome burgeoning of Anglophone Blumhardt studies. Given the outsized influence of Johann Christoph Blumhardt (the father) and Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (the son) on the emergence of the counter-liberal German Protestant theological tradition in the late 19th and 20th centuries – most notably on Karl Barth – the paucity of theological work on them in English is quite surprising. Zahl has done English-speaking theologians a great service simply by mastering the broad German primary and secondary literature in order to interpret Christoph Blumhardt's historically significant theology in the four chapters that form the center of the book. They are a pleasure to read – lucid, concise, interpretations that are laden with fresh translations of important passages as well as insightful contextualization of Blumhardt’s cross-centered pneumatology.
But Zahl has bigger aspirations than just a faithful reconstruction of Blumhardt’s theology from its sources in sermons and letters. The book’s subtitle reveals his constructive program: attempting to establish some dialogue among Protestant accounts of the Holy Spirit ‘between Wittenberg and Azusa Street’ by drawing on resources in Christoph Blumhardt’s thought. Zahl avers that attempts to find common ground between ‘classical Protestant’ (read: Lutheran) and ‘contemporary Pentecostal’ pneumatology
Caleb Maskell / July 2012 have reached a ‘fundamental impasse.’ (23) They appear, by his account, to operate from irreconcilably different theological starting points, originating from their divergent understandings of the human person.
The tension, as Zahl sees it, works like this. When Luther prioritized the doctrine of sola scriptura for discernment of true knowledge of God, he did so as a safeguard against the human capacity for ‘self-deception’ (6), particularly in the form of individual subjective revelations and interpretations spuriously ascribed to the Holy Spirit. It was on these grounds that Luther famously blasted the Schwärmer – the ‘enthusiasts’ of his day who claimed to be prophets, experiencing direct revelation from God, apparently apart from the mediation of scripture. Luther argued that such subjectivism could never be trustworthy, because human beings were so prone to ascribing divine fiat to whatever doctrine was most convenient for them to believe. Zahl suggests that pentecostal theology, on the other hand, takes unmediated personal experience of God to be a sine qua non of Christian faith, the beginning point from which all other rightly-ordered knowledge and love of God flows. To quote from one of his sources on pentecostal thought, ‘the Bible has no significance when ripped from the context of the experience of the Spirit…[the Spirit is] prior to the written word of God.’ (4) Thus Zahl argues that pentecostal faith is irreducibly rooted in the notion that human experience of God’s presence is epistemically reliable – that people can trust their subjective sense of God’s presence to be a normative catalyst for their faith and practice.
Caleb Maskell / July 2012 In the early 21st century, when one in four Christians around the world identify as some version of pentecostal, Zahl believes that attention to this tension is of paramount importance – and he is absolutely right. What is at stake is nothing less than the relevance of classic Protestant theological paradigms, specifically sola scriptura, to the world’s largest Protestant movement. Zahl argues that Christoph Blumhardt’s crucicentric pneumatology offers a previously unexplored bridge that goes some distance to spanning this divide.
To make his case, Zahl focuses on the second – and most theologically fertile – phase of Blumhardt’s career, dating from roughly 1888 to 1896. It was in this period that Blumhardt moved away from the emphasis on spiritual liberation from extrinsic demonic oppression that had so famously characterized his father’s ministry, and began to develop his own emphasis on the problem of besetting sin intrinsic to the instincts of ‘the flesh.’ He continued to affirm the reality of demonic oppression, but simply argued that it was not the main problem that human beings face. Zahl summarizes the shift this way: ‘the primary locus of effective eschatological opposition to God, and, therefore, the true target of the divine [contestation] is the sinful heart of humankind, not the forces of supernatural evil.’ (32)
Zahl suggests that this shift tracks Blumhardt’s increasing sympathy with Lutheran anthropological pessimism about the depth of human sinfulness and the possibility of personal transformation, over against pietistic ideas of self-improvement (which more characterized his father’s ministry). Practically, his message shifted from being a call to
Caleb Maskell / July 2012 healing and victory over the devil to being a call towards self-abnegation and Sterben – death: ‘Die, so that Jesus may live!’ (40) Christians must willingly embrace the humiliation and mortification of their flesh, the judgment of God upon their self-centered, ‘egoistic’ will, rather than pursing God’s liberation of their bodies as a tacit endorsement of their present way of life. Blumhardt spoke often in this period about his weariness with Christians who often sought God’s power for healing from sickness or deliverance from demons, but were not interested in subsequently giving their lives over to God’s lordship. Such people exemplified the fact that human entanglement with forces in opposition to God was a fundamental, ontological problem, not a contingent, historical one.
However, for all of its emphasis on ontological problems, this sterbet gospel was also thoroughly eschatological. It is here that Zahl’s reclamation of Blumhardt becomes especially interesting. Blumhardt argued that the presence of Christ would only come to earth as Christians embraced the practice of learning to how to die the sake of God’s kingdom. He was convinced that, apart from it, the Kingdom of God – whose full consummation his father had believed was just around the corner – literally could not fully come to earth. The thorough application of a sterbet gospel was an eschatological ‘station’ on the world-historical road to the return of Christ in the consummation of all things. Offering an important exposition of Blumhardt’s understudied monograph, Gedanken aus dem Reiche Gottes (Thoughts from the Kingdom of God), Zahl compellingly argues that, in this way, Christoph Blumhardt’s theology at once affirms and amends his father’s unfulfilled eschatological vision.
Caleb Maskell / July 2012 As goes eschatology, so goes experience. Zahl also shows that Blumhardt’s sterbet theology never gave up a pietist embrace of ‘unmediated’ experience. Rather, he modified it to fit his pessimistic turn. As Blumhardt’s anthropology plummeted, Zahl argues that he became increasingly committed to what he calls ‘negative’ experience of God’s judgment in the life of the believer. This ‘negative’ experience was a subjective, sensible awareness of the crushing and, ultimately, killing effect of divine ‘Truth and Righteousness’ – something akin to the undoing of the prophet in Isaiah 6 as he falls apart in the presence of God’s holiness. It is, in essence, the inner experience of Luther’s ‘theological use of the law.’(174) Without categorically undermining other types of experience – prophecy, healing, private revelation, etc. – ‘negative’ experience becomes for Blumhardt the primary agent in the process of dying to self which he had come to believe was the irreducible element of Christian discipleship. Where the work of the Holy Spirit could be held in doubt in other circumstances, in the context of ‘negative’ experience, Blumhardt held that God was indubitably at work, advancing the process of death, ‘so that Jesus may live.’
Zahl’s analysis of Blumhardt is brilliant, a profitable read for anyone interested in the history of modern theology, pastoral ministry, or Christian spiritual experience. In his provocative final chapters, Zahl makes explicit his constructive thesis about Blumhardt’s position ‘between Wittenberg and Azusa Street’ that he has been implicitly advancing throughout the book. His theological relation of Blumhardt to Lutheran spirituality is very important, and essentially irrefutable. It highlights both the strengths (relentless attention to self-
Caleb Maskell / July 2012 deception) and the weaknesses (aggressive bracketing of private experience) of much application of Lutheran doctrines of discernment to theologies and practices in the latemodern era. Zahl distills a wide variety of Luther scholarship to show that it can no longer be responsibly argued that Luther’s sola scriptura meant that he was opposed to spiritual subjectivity. Indeed Zahl’s argument is so compelling that it raises a critical question: if Luther would have recognized ‘negative’ experience as legitimate spiritual experience, what resources does Blumhardt’s only tentative acknowledgement of the value of other ‘positive’ experiences do to move contemporary Lutheran-Pentecostal dialogue beyond Luther? ‘Negative’ experience is, in some sense, a fact of Christian life, while ‘positive’ experience of God has been so energizing to pietist traditions precisely because it is unusual, a rupture in the fabric of everyday existence. Can Blumhardt do more to bridge the gap between Wittenberg and Azusa Street than simply redeeming Luther from spurious charges of radical anti-experientialism?
My instinct, which I suspect that Zahl shares, is to answer this question with a resounding Yes. However, this question can only be properly addressed via further engagement with pentecostal theology, across the great divide. Zahl acknowledges that his book is an opening volley intended to provoke theological conversation between pentecostals and Lutherans on this issue. Also, he acknowledges that his account of pentecostal theology is not comprehensive, but drawn from a handful of representative, synthetic sources, especially the work of Frank Macchia, Allen Anderson, and Stephen Land. This generalization is understandable and necessary, given the major work of synthesis that Zahl himself is undertaking in Blumhardt’s primary sources and in Luther studies. One
Caleb Maskell / July 2012 wonders, however, how Zahl’s argument would have been affected by engagement with newer sources in pentecostal theology, such as the work of James K. A. Smith, Amos Yong, and Nimi Wariboko in the Eerdmans Pentecostal Manifestos series. While they sometimes lack the historical contextualization of theological self-understanding that Zahl wisely champions, these thinkers, among others, offer a hermeneutical richness and a theological sophistication that represents an important new point of departure for contemporary studies of pentecostalism.
Zahl’s wonderful study seems to set itself its own follow-up task, namely to offer a theological account of the place of ‘positive’ spiritual experience in Christian discipleship. After all, it is these unusual ‘positive’ experiences, in concert with their selfdeferential theological acuity, that put the Blumhardts on the map in the first place. Happily, one is left with the sense that Zahl himself has much more to say about such questions. His voice is as vibrant as it is wise. I hope and expect that he will continue to offer historically-grounded, intellectually creative, and pastorally helpful insight into this most crucial of questions for the theological self-understanding of the 21st century global church.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.