The Pneumatological Turn

The Pneumatological Turn

Written by: 
Published:
February 10, 2022

Adventism proposes both a noble and potentially legitimate version of an end times scenario. However, it is not the only possible one. It would be contradictory and paradoxical to want to subordinate the end times as such to the historic Adventist vision. Both would lose. The end times itself because only one version of it would be given—an Adventist view—but Adventism would also lose because it would be left holding a distorted version of the end times. The important thing here is the eschatology, not Adventism. Adventism will be important only to the extent that it best testifies about the end times.

And the same observation applies to the book The Great Controversy. This book is enlightening, insightful, and valuable for understanding the end times, when it is read and understood properly. But it represents one version and not the totality of possible descriptions of the end, especially considering the fact that it was written more than a century ago.

And yet the same can be said of the Sabbath, which, according to Adventism and The Great Controversy, will be a central category in determining the validity of any religious experience at the end of time. The Adventist version of the Sabbath is one possibility but not the only one. The Sabbath, as well as the end, is larger than the versions of them that the various denominations try to work out.

For these reasons, it is important that Adventism, while standing firm in its legitimate convictions, remains sober and humble in its interpretation of the end and above all promotes, both internally and externally, a plural understanding. This is not only because the end is a complex reality that can be perceived from various diverse perspectives but above all because the Bible itself, which we reference authoritatively, has always given multiple and not always complementary versions of the important events of history. This fact introduces a tension in which a more complete perspective of events is manifested. In fact, the Bible gives us different versions of Creation (Genesis 1 and 2), different versions of Jesus (genealogies of Matthew and Luke), different versions of the primitive church (Jewish-Christian church with Peter as the reference point but pagan-Christian church with Paul as the central figure). So, it is not only important to talk about the coming end, which Adventism does well, but we still need to ensure that different perspectives are considered, which Adventism does less well and sometimes even seems to not care about at all.

The “Pneumatological Turn” is a reading hypothesis that I am articulating in this series of articles. Pneumatology is the branch of Christian theology concerned with the Holy Spirit. My hypothesis is meant to suggest an alternative vision on both the end times scenario and reading of The Great Controversy. This hypothesis does not disdain the traditional one but simply tries to update and complement it. And in its essence, it says that regarding the end scenario, Adventism has constructed an excessively Christocentric and deontological version, probably one that corresponded better to the time when Adventism was born. In our day, however, this version not only appears rigid but seems unresponsive to the questions of our time. It is the Holy Spirit who is the true protagonist of the end, and therefore Adventism would gain by refocusing on the Spirit's role in the final events.

The centrality of the Sabbath, the Ten Commandments, and the purification of the sanctuary have given an original version of the end but at the same time risk deforming it by reducing it to an experience of coherence, fidelity, and obedience. In the end time, obedience will certainly be necessary, but will it be sufficient? And it is here that the Holy Spirit comes into the picture.

In fact, at the beginning of the second part of The Great Controversy, there are three chapters that represent the heart of the book and speak of the fulfillment of the 2300 year prophecy (chapter 22), the purification of the sanctuary (chapter 23), and the intercessory ministry of Christ (chapter 24). These three chapters speak of the Trinity from the perspective of the Holy Spirit. Also, in chapter 22, behind the description of the prophecies, we find content centered on the Holy Spirit. In chapter 23, behind the description of the sanctuary, we also find a description of the Father and his presence through the Spirit. In chapter 24, behind the description of Christ's intercession, we also find a presentation of the Spirit interceding. These chapters are thus a mini-treatise on the Trinity and the Trinity as seen through the Holy Spirit.

But it is Ellen White herself who introduces this “Pneumatological Turn.” And she introduces it at two crucial moments in the book: in the introduction and at the beginning of Part II, in chapter 22. First, the introduction of The Great Controversy is a bold and revolutionary treatise on pneumatology. She writes:

In harmony with the word of God, His Spirit was to continue its work throughout the period of the gospel dispensation. During the ages while the Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testament were being given, the Holy Spirit did not cease to communicate light to individual minds, apart from the revelations to be embodied in the Sacred Canon. The Bible itself relates how, through the Holy Spirit, men received warning, reproof, counsel, and instruction, in matters in no way relating to the giving of the Scriptures. And mention is made of prophets in different ages, of whose utterances nothing is recorded. In like manner, after the close of the canon of the Scripture, the Holy Spirit was still to continue its work, to enlighten, warn, and comfort the children of God. (GC viii)

Second, at the beginning of Part II, in speaking of the Trinity, White implicitly corrects the traditional pneumatological subordination not only of Adventism but of all western Christianity, as embodied in the classic form of the "Filioque." How? By reversing the presentation order of the Trinity. The work of the Spirit is not subordinate to that of the Father and the Son, but it is only through the presence and action of the Holy Spirit that the work of the Father and the Son can be configured as such. The end is comprehensible only from the action of the Holy Spirit. White writes in chapter 22, commenting on the parable of the ten virgins of Matthew 25:

But while "they that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them," "the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps." The latter class had received the grace of God, the regenerating, enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, which renders His word a lamp to the feet and a light to the path. In the fear of God they had studied the Scriptures to learn the truth, and had earnestly sought for purity of heart and life (GC 393).

This is an extraordinary theological move by White to describe the end times through the Holy Spirit. It is one that we Adventists should recapture and exploit to better answer the questions that the vision of the end raises in our time. However, as considered in The Great Controversy, it remains an incomplete exposition. By cultural context, by religious background, by personal biography, pneumatology is not fully explored by Ellen White. It remains mostly latent. Her strong emphasis on sanctification, which she inherits from Wesleyan Methodism and reinforces with her law-and-Sabbath-centered Adventism, prevent her pneumatology from flourishing.

In fact, hers remains a pneumatology of sanctification. In the New Testament, understanding of the Spirit is not monolithic. We are faced with several possible pneumatologies that coexist in tension. The typical "Pneumatology of Sanctification" of the Epistles (Galatians 5:13–26) is contrasted, for example, by that of the Gospels, according to which the Holy Spirit does not come until Jesus has returned to heaven. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit precedes Jesus’s birth and even makes it possible (Matthew 1:20). But Matthew's pneumatology not only describes a temporal precedence of the Holy Spirit over Jesus’s incarnation. It also qualifies it differently by linking the Spirit to the generation of Life itself. Jesus is born from the biophilic exuberance of the Spirit. In this "Pneumatology of Life" as explicated by Matthew, the work of the Holy Spirit does not end by the effort of controlling life and its intemperance (sanctification) but expresses itself above all in making it both possible and exuberant (vivification). This is the bio-centric vision of the Holy Spirit, also masterfully described in chapter 37 of the book of Ezekiel.

With White, her pneumatology tends to remain one of sanctification, not of life. And this subordination of the Spirit is visible in her subordination of the Holy Spirit to the Bible. Indeed, White writes about this recurring pair (Spirit-Bible) in chapter 22:

The spirit and word agree. If a man judges himself by the word of God, and finds a perfect harmony through the whole word, then he must believe he has the truth; but if he finds the spirit by which he is led does not harmonize with the whole tenor of God's law or Book, then let him walk carefully, lest he be caught in the snare of the devil. (GC 396)

What is missing in White and The Great Controversy, therefore, is a “Pneumatology of Life” as expressed, for example, in Revelation 11:11. "And after three days and a half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them."

It is the spirit who gives life to the two witnesses and thus to the Bible. The purification of the sanctuary has nothing to do with a moral or spiritual purism but is preparatory to the affirmation of life. The Sabbath itself is not a matter of purely chronological or legal observance but of witnessing life. And even the mark of the beast described by the third angel cannot be reduced to the formal sign of the imposition of a day of rest but has to do with the renunciation of life, even through a purely chronological defense of the Sabbath.

Therefore, the end times are times of the Spirit, and it is the Spirit who guarantees three essential characteristics:

– First, the universality of eschatological times. There is no eschatology without universalism because it is this which makes the end times eschatological through the Spirit. The concept of “Remnant” is, therefore, a legitimate category but secondary to the universalist horizon of eschatology, and it is in light of this that it must be read and not the other way around.

– Second, through the Spirit, the end times are inclusive times. The noble and legitimate categories of moral and spiritual purity and perfection are therefore dependent categories and must be read from this inclusiveness of the Spirit, not the other way around.

– Third, in the time of the end, the Spirit is revealed as the Spirit of Life. The category of "Sanctification" therefore is a necessary but still incomplete secondary category that must be read in light of the Life of the Spirit, and not the other way around.

Therefore, in this order of ideas at the end of time, the central question is not that of "truth or falsehood," of "moral correctness or moral incorrectness," of "sanctification or libertinism," of "obedience or disobedience," but essentially of "life or death." And it is the Spirit who is the guarantor of a religiosity of Life.

 


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Image Credit: Rich Hannon, Spectrum Magazine

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