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Amos Yong and Dale Coulter: The Holy Spirit and Higher Education

Amos Yong and Dale M. Coulter, The Holy Spirit and Higher Education: Renewing the Christian University (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2023), 320 pages, ISBN 9781481318143.

Amos Yong and Dale Coulter bring to bear a fruitful and constructive offering in The Holy Spirit and Higher Education whose primary audience are those engaged in work and service at institutions found within the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Not that this is their exclusive audience, but it is a helpful focal point for the intended audience. The volume is divided into two sections between the two contributors respectively where each voice may be heard (for those who recognize the writing styles) with three chapters each: historical (Coulter in chapters 2-4) and theological (Yong in chapters 5-7). Both sections offer some of the most constructive and fresh hearings in their respective areas of focus that this reviewer has engaged across the literature in both the history and theology of (Christian) higher education. The volume has helpful introductory and concluding chapters that summarize the project on both ends. Further, each chapter entails a succinct summation of the primary contributions of that chapter to the conversation.

A welcome construct utilized were terms/ideas to lead the imagination of each of the six core chapters of the volume. In the historical section by Coulter, he makes use of habitus, Bildung, and the Romanticist intuitive populism via the “triad of intuitionism, immanence, and progressivism” (in contrast to the “high culture” of liberalism and the worldview notions of Reformed approaches). In the theological section by Yong, he makes use of head, heart, hands and connects these in a pneumatologically attuned trinitarian construction for an integrative approach to Christian higher education. These ideas offer a way of remembering the movements made in each respective chapter of which the authors do hope to have some manner of “hook” to aid those who have read their works toward recall and entering into the imaginations of the writers and the world they have offered. The volume is not overly long (at 306 oversized pages), but likely many readers may find it a difficult read owing to the thickness of careful critical reflection demonstrated in the writing styles of both Coulter and Yong. In this way, familiarity with their previous work bears dividends toward understanding their particular articulations.

Yong and Coulter offer some of the most constructive and fresh engagement with the history and theology of Christian higher education.

There are numerous noteworthy contributions each has made to the field, but only a few each will be mentioned here. In part one, Coulter offers a turn to the storying of higher education involved at the Saint Victor Abbey with Hugh and Richard. This provides a helpful new insight into the particular time/location as offering a vision toward a more holistic approach to Christian higher education. Further, Coulter’s offering of the Wesleyan Holiness storying of both Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in relation to higher education may be a groundbreaking contribution toward rethinking the story of Christian higher education in general within the context of the U.S.  In part two, Yong continues his life-long project toward a radical pneumatological orientation for trinitarian thought than found in other works as entrée to his trinitarian proposal. While Yong has elsewhere written on the subject of “Pentecost” and higher education,[1] this is the most expansive and detailed project to date seeking to offer moves toward an emphatically pneumatologically determined trinitarian model of higher education. While these topics have been addressed in some fashion across the literature of the field, they have not been engaged previously to the extent and for the purposes of such a volume as this. These contributions alone are worthy of high praise and much further study and development as constructive moves toward a more holistic future for Christian higher education and careful articulation of the history and future of such framed within the narrative of Pentecost.

Coulter’s offering of the Wesleyan Holiness storying of both Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in relation to higher education may be a groundbreaking contribution toward rethinking the story of Christian higher education in general within the context of the U.S.

Further, this volume offers one of the finest displays of a critique of “worldview” focus particularly taking of the charges of Mark Noll against Evangelicalism as only telling a very limited and particular story that has predetermined the language and ideas informing the conversation. Here, the turn to the debates between George Marsden and Donald Dayton, over whose story is being told and not told, offers a potent reminder of the power of storying and story-teller in ways that shift the focus and intended outcomes. The telling of the Wesleyan-Holiness contributions has been neglected for far too long and must take its place alongside the more Reformed tellings of church history and confessional higher education. Coulter makes good use of an initial foray into retelling stories of the Wesleyan-Holiness contributions and the ways in which these were never about “worldview” but drew upon the influences of German Romanticism as a populist form of “knowledge” that required living into such rather than simply conceptualizing such.

The rooting of this volume in the ecumenical turn of “Pentecost” (bearing the marks of Yong’s distinct contribution to the global Pentecost/al conversations) functions well as a metaphor and storying that naturally seems to lend itself to ecumenical dialogue (many thanks for the persistent work in this regard by Yong). This framing/orientation for this project avoids the political dynamics of much contemporary ecumenism and instead not only allows, but specifically calls for diversity (by and through the Spirit). This is not without difficulty in how one may in fact critique such diversities as somehow outside of such storying via Pentecost. However, this makes use of the chief storying of the Church all the while reminding Pentecostals (those identifying as such) of the ways in which this story is not their own unique possession but belongs to God’s work to set all things to rights. Coulter and Yong, thus, provide a way of constructive dialogic engagements between both Pentecostals and the rest of the Church via this storying of Pentecost as the Church’s story (and in turn, as that meant to be/become the cosmic redemptive story).

Rooting this volume in the ecumenical turn of Pentecost functions well as a metaphor and storying that naturally lends itself to ecumenical dialogue.

While the volume is targeting western models of educational theory and practice, one may wonder in what ways are these descriptions applicable in majority world contexts? To be fair there are a number of examples in the volume concerning global expressions (e.g., Ghanaian higher educational developments) however, it may be that presuming a particular Western telling already misses the unique impulses and influences within non-Western contexts. For example, in what ways has the Bildung entered non-Western academic endeavors? It is certainly present owing to colonization and the post-colonization via the West through economics and ideals exportation, yet in what ways is it challenged within the diverse intuitive cultures of global South and East? This is not to question that it has been made use of in global contexts of higher education. It has. It is only to consider (following Coulter’s own argumentation) the ways in which the populist and local expressions are at play rather than other storyings dominating the local instantiations of storying. The same may be asked of the Pentecost “German Romantic sensibilities” as the explanation for the ethos of majority world Pentecost expressions. Is this simply overlaying yet another Western narrative for explanation in global contexts? Granted this volume is not seeking to speak to and for the Global setting (though it opens toward such), but specifically to the United States. One may wonder in what ways the narratives offered here provide their own self-critique if sought to be heard globally.

Another question is whether the “trinitarian” explanations failed to appreciate the decidedly Christologic offering in a turn to the Pneumatologic? While this perhaps opens greater ecumenical dialogue within the wider Christian traditions and among Evangelicals in particular, one may wonder if there is a loss for the internal Pentecostal dialogue between trinitarian and Oneness confessions which is so aptly engaged in the editorial epilogue of the latest issue of Pneuma by none other than Amos Yong himself.[2] It is particularly in the Christologic foci of Pentecostal confession (historic and contemporary rapprochement, e.g., the “Cleveland School” of Pentecostalism) as precisely a potential contribution to the wider Church. Though knowing that this volume is not for Pentecostals narrowly, but for institutions of the CCCU in mind particularly, means this volume is not meant directly to speak into the discussions among Pentecostals directly (though doing so throughout by way of integration of who the contributors are, their work, and the impulses of their socio-historical-religious locations).

Finally, if one sought a “how-to” approach, it is not offered in this volume (intentionally) as this is more pertaining the history, philosophy, and theology of higher education than to the practices of such. It is concerned with practices throughout, but not as a “how-to”. This is not to say no such examples are given. They are offered through the storying of part one and numerous examples of applications in part two. However, this is not a “how-to” book which would have severely limited the volume to time and place. Yet readers in higher education will likely find themselves saying “Now what?” Are there embodiments of the stories and theological ideals of Coulter and Yong that might serve as testimonial exemplars, at least in part, without simply repristinating such and allowing for the particularities of such as faithful in their respective contexts?

It is in these ways (among others) that this volume would serve well to be carefully read by individuals and (preferably in) groups across institutions of (Christian) higher education. The restorying is a key that needs to be taken up. If restorying fails to be appreciated and integrated, it will most certainly result in the failure of institutions of higher education. To be healthy, higher education must move well beyond assessments based merely upon head counts or the construction of new buildings and programs; and if the Christian story is true, education is more than an ROI calculation or a path to employability.

May this volume find a wide readership among all those concerned for the state and future of Christian higher education.

Reviewed by Rick Wadholm Jr.


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[1] Not least among the book, chapter, and article contributions being Yong’s Renewing the Church by the Spirit: Theological Education after Pentecost (Eerdmans, 2020). [Editor’s note: see the review by Carolyn Tennant]

[2] Amos Yong, “Afterword: Pentecostal Systematic or Constructive Theology: Many Models, Many Witnesses,” Pneuma 45.3-4 (2023): 466-475.

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Category: Ministry, Spring 2024

About the Author: Rick Wadholm Jr., Ph.D. (Bangor University, Wales, UK), is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. Rick has pastored several rural congregations in North Dakota and Minnesota for 22 years and is ordained with the Assemblies of God (USA). He is a regular speaker for churches, camps and conferences. He enjoys reading and discussing theology and Biblical Studies, most particularly the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. Rick is an active member of the Institute for Biblical Research, the International Bonhoeffer Society, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Society for Pentecostal Studies, and was the Executive Editor of The Pentecostal Educator published by the World Alliance for Pentecostal Theological Education (2013-2019). Rick is author and editor of numerous articles and books. He has helped found the Society for Pentecostal Studies Student Caucus. He also enjoys blogging on topics of translation, Biblical studies, pastoring and theology by contributing to four different blogs—his personal blogging adventures hosted at Facebook. Twitter.

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