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Veli-Matti Karkkainen: Spirit and Salvation

Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Spirit and Salvation: A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016), xi-498 pages, ISBN 9780802868565.

As a constructive theologian, Kärkkäinen works to create a coherent explanation of religious belief (in this case Christian) by honest engagement with a variety of voices, including Christian (i.e. Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, third-world, feminist and mainline.), non-Christian (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist), and scientific. In this sense, Kärkkäinen’s work is negatively described as non-foundational and non-dogmatic and positively as inclusive and dialogical flowing from an attitude of hospitality. This text is Kärkkäinen’s fourth of five installments in the development of that coherent theology.

As in the previous volume, Kärkkäinen divides this work into two main but interrelated topics, the Spirit (third person of the trinity) and Salvation. Readers are cautioned that while this project gives the appearance of a systematic theology, it is not a typical one. Kärkkäinen’s approach engages questions that have been neglected by traditional theologies as well as discusses questions typically never asked. In light of this non-traditional approach, readers must read Kärkkäinen’s ideas carefully lest they make premature judgments about what is being proffered.

While this project gives the appearance of a systematic theology, it is not a typical one.

Kärkkäinen’s stated goal is to develop a holistic theology of the Holy Spirit (p.19). By this he means that the doctrine must engage humanity in its fullness both regarding our individuality and our corporate institutions. In addition, the doctrine of the Spirit must account for the community of creation, both human and non-human alike. Kärkkäinen argues that a fuller appreciation of the person and work of the Holy Spirit (designated with the female pronouns she/her to show that God is beyond gender) is necessary to fight environmental degradation. The Holy Spirit is the source of life that empowers humanity to live out in a fullness of life that blesses not only ourselves but the wider creation as well (see chapter 3).

Chapter 2 is where Kärkkäinen discusses the theology of the Spirit in earnest. He properly reviews some key theological points concerning the Spirit and then delves into the challenge of the filioque. Following a brief historical-theological discussion of the debate surrounding the topic, he ultimately concludes that the clause can be removed or amended in a manner that satisfies the eastern church without undermining the Spirit’s place in the Godhead.

Kärkkäinen’s stated goal is to develop a holistic theology of the Holy Spirit.

In line with his holistic goal, Kärkkäinen takes up the topic of principalities and powers. He correctly rejects the physicalism of the modern worldview noting that spiritual beings, such as angels, do exist. Strangely, he argues that the belief in angels does not require acceptance of “outdated biblical cosmology” (p.101) such as a six-day creation. That assertion may be true in that many interpreters are highly selective in their beliefs, but readers should ask if a consistent exegesis could accept one idea without the other. Charismatics will appreciate the discussion surrounding spiritual warfare. Kärkkäinen is quite right to rebuke many western theologians for neglecting the invisible reality of demonic forces.

Kärkkäinen is quite right to rebuke many western theologians for neglecting the invisible reality of demonic forces.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking section of the book asks whether and to what extent the Spirit can be seen in other religions. The question is certainly a logical one. If the Spirit is the source of truth, then whenever we encounter truth, is that not evidence of the Spirit’s work or presence? Kärkkäinen writes, “A work in progress, discernment [which he means discerning the Spirit’s presence] is not only provisional but also communal and deeply ecumenical in nature; ultimately, it calls for engagement beyond faith traditions” (brackets mine, p.175). My question, however, focuses on the biblical foundation. Where does scripture call Christians to look for the Spirit in other traditions?

In part 2, Salvation, the author reviews different steps of the Ordo Salutis. He is somewhat critical of the way the topic has been historically discussed, noting that the early church did not investigate the steps of salvation and that the church (Reformational?) had not paid sufficient attention to the role the Spirit played in salvation.

As with other doctrines, Kärkkäinen surveys how other major religions conceive of salvation, noting areas of agreement and divergence. What is useful about these explorations of other faiths is that readers can discover different illustrations and descriptions to articulate Christian doctrine. In this regard, this theological series can jump start a theologian’s entry into understanding non-Christian religions.

As a relatively newcomer to Calvinism, I had difficulty reading Kärkkäinen’s treatment of the doctrines of grace as taught by Reformed theologians. My challenge lay not with the author’s rejection of TULIP, but the nagging suspicion that his characterization of the system was not fully accurate. I will leave the ultimate verdict to those more grounded in Calvinism than myself. But I will say that very little attention was paid to the exegetical foundation of Calvinism’s view of salvation. This was disappointing. For even though Kärkkäinen is correct that Calvinistic understanding of salvation is somewhat absent in the church fathers, that fact does not by itself answer the question of whether Calvinism’s view of salvation is correct.

Kärkkäinen is to be commended for discussing the healing work of God and the thorny question of baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Protestant theologians should also be aware that Kärkkäinen spends a great deal of energy dismissing the substantive distinction between justification and sanctification. By undermining this positional versus developmental distinction in salvation, he attempts to diminish the divide between Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox views of salvation. I certainly think that Kärkkäinen is correct to note that salvation is not just “fire insurance” (my term not Kärkkäinen’s) and that God empowers us to change, but I am not so sure that the divide between Trent and Geneva can be narrowed so easily.

Chapter 12 covers the often-neglected topic of healing, restoration and empowerment. Kärkkäinen is to be commended for discussing the healing work of God and the thorny question of baptism of the Holy Spirit. While rejecting cessationism, he does not accept the Pentecostal notion that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is always subsequent to conversion. He strangely accepts the sacramentalist notion that Spirit baptism can, but not exclusively, occur at the event of water baptism. Here, as in his treatment of salvation, a greater focus on key scriptures would have been helpful.

Readers interested in ecumenical and constructive theology will find much in this book and Kärkkäinen’s previous volumes to stimulate and challenge ideas.

The final chapter engages the question of reconciliation at the corporate level. The chapter is quite short as Kärkkäinen openly acknowledges that the precise nature and character of corporate reconciliation, (e.g. post-apartheid South Africa) remains to be worked out. This gap in our understanding certainly will require more work, especially given Kärkkäinen’s view that reconciliation is “the most inclusive soteriological concept” (p.407).

At times, however, the theological discussion seemed quite disconnected from a biblical foundation. I often had this nagging suspicion that key theological issues (e.g. justification/sanctification) whose edges are established by scripture were weakened or ignored in order to bridge divides toward an ecumenism. I could be wrong. Perhaps the resources Kärkkäinen appeals to provide the evidence for his positions. But by not providing that evidence in his volume he undermines the impact of his argument. Readers interested in ecumenical and constructive theology will find much in this book and Kärkkäinen’s previous volumes to stimulate and challenge ideas. The breadth of his reading across the major religions and leading lights in mainline Christian theology is truly remarkable. Sadly, the author paid little attention to evangelical theologians and so should be read with that understanding.

Reviewed by Stephen M. Vantassel

 

Publisher’s page: https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/6856/spirit-and-salvation.aspx

Preview Spirit and Salvation: https://books.google.com/books/about/Spirit_and_Salvation.html?id=EIy9CwAAQBAJ

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2020

About the Author: Stephen M. Vantassel, Ph.D. theology (Trinity Theological Seminary), M.A.T.S. Old Testament (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), B.S. Biblical Studies (Gordon College), is a Tutor of Theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity School in Broadstairs, U.K. and Assistant Editor for the Evangelical Review of Theology and Politics. His dissertation was published in expanded form in Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Wipf and Stock, 2009), explains how biblical teaching on the use of animals provides a rubric for how God wants humanity to use the earth. He lives with his wife in Lewistown, Montana. He regularly posts articles at kingsdivinity.academia.edu/StephenMVantassel.

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