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John Levison: Filled with the Spirit

John R. Levison, Filled with the Spirit (Eerdmans, 2009), 490 pages, ISBN 9780802863720.

As Pentecostals and Charismatics, we are people who have been confronted by an intense experience of the Holy Spirit. This has led us to reappraise the importance we attach to the Holy Spirit within our Systematic Theologies, as well as reviewing our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. But this can lead us into territories of exciting and worrying discoveries. Does the Holy Spirit really do that? Can that person really have the Holy Spirit too, as they claim?

Fundamental to Levison’s thesis is his discovery that the Spirit is not only the bearer of charismatic endowment, but the very spirit of life that brings our life into being and on which we, as living beings, are contingent. From the Genesis narratives onwards, Levison traces life itself as contingent on the presence and empowering of the Spirit: the breath of God or wind of God are synonymous with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is there in Creation and giving birth to all life of all kind.

“Pentecost encapsulates not merely the ecstatic or the intellectual but a rare, inspired blend of both.” – John Levison

It is this refusal to dichotomise the activity of the Holy Spirit, into that of the Creator Spirit and the Regenerative Spirit, that is the distinctive mark of Levison. He sees the action of the Spirit of God in the perception and experience of those without the Judaeo-Christian tradition as well as within it. So it is that he can refer to experience of ecstasy in the Graeco-Roman cults, comparing these writings to contemporary Jewish and Christian texts (see for example page 346).This is very much engaged at the level of literary comparison.

The challenge arises in that, in this reviewer’s perspective, Levison does not appear to engage with the challenge of discussing where the real experience and engagement with the Spirit of God ends and that of counterfeit and demonic spirits begins.

“The Spirit exists in the community in a way that transcends individual believers.” – John Levison

Levison emphasises the vision of the Spirit in Ezekiel, and the dynamic dimension of the Spirit, life-giving in phases from prediction, to partial reality to complete fulfilment (p 97). He argues that we need to build our reading of the early church’s intensified experience of the Spirit on this basic perspective.

This insight is found by Levison in the writing of Luke. The Pentecostal experience is seen to combine both comprehension and incomprehension, not either or: “To opt for either ecstatic tongues or comprehensible foreign languages in the interpretation of the Pentecost experience, not to mention subsequent moments of inspiration in Acts, is to diminish the fulness of the spirit and to deplete the levels of resonance that Luke, like Philo and the author of 4 Ezra, preserves. Pentecost encapsulates not merely the ecstatic or the intellectual but a rare, inspired blend of both” (p 345).

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Category: Spirit, Winter 2014

About the Author: James Purves, Ph.D. (University of Aberdeen, Scotland), has been serving in pastoral ministry since 1980 and is presently Mission and Ministry Advisor to the Baptist Union of Scotland. He is a research tutor at the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, Czech Republic and author of The Triune God and the Charismatic Movement (Paternoster, 2004). His blog is http://jimpurves.blogspot.com

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