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Veli-Matti Karkkainen: Pneumatology


Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International, and Contextual Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 195 pages.

When a writer sets out to produce a book on a generalized topic, the attempt can often end in one of two results: either an intimidating 500-page tome is published, or the many sub-topics are rushed through and incomplete. However, when it comes to Kärkkäinen’s new book, neither one of these disappointments were seen. Instead, I found a brief yet comprehensive introduction to the field of pneumatological thought.

Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen is an associate professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, as well as an active member of the World Council of Churches (WCC). This places him in the perfect position for a fully ecumenical yet scholarly summary of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. For some, the task of covering such a wide topic can be quite daunting. Kärkkäinen, however, takes on the challenge with an obvious love of the subject, and has produced for us an interesting and very readable book.

In his preface, Kärkkäinen tells us that the reason he wrote his book was “to offer an up-to-date survey of the most noteworthy and theologically pregnant orientations to the Spirit in the worldwide ecumenical and intercultural situation at the beginning of the third millennium” (p. 10). His means to reach that end was to cover the topic of pneumatology from a wide range of perspectives, beginning with the biblical revelation and the understanding of the early church fathers, and up through history to the present day (including the contributions of the medieval mystics, the Anabaptists, and classical liberalism, among others).

From there he moves onto the various ecclesiastical understandings of the Holy Spirit and his role in the world, effectively describing the contributions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Lutheran tradition, the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, and ecumenism (represented specifically by the WCC). Of course, the contributions of any ecclesiastical body cannot effectively be addressed without considering the contributions of the individual members of that body. Therefore, Kärkkäinen naturally follows with a chapter on the pneumatological thinking of a number of contemporary theologians, representing a range of Christian traditions, including John Zizioulas (Eastern Orthodox), Karl Rahner (Roman Catholic), Wolfhart Pannenberg (Lutheran), Jürgen Moltmann (Reformed), Michael Welker (Reformed), and Clark Pinnock (evangelical).

At this point Kärkkäinen offers his readers what I believe is a relatively unique chapter on the topic of pneumatology. After approaching this subject from biblical, historical, ecclesiastical, and individual perspectives, many writers may be tempted to believe that they have sufficiently covered all perspectives. However, Kärkkäinen continues: “The one Spirit of God is not a numinous power hovering above the cosmos but a person living in and permeating people in various life situations and contexts … In our contemporary world, theology has the burden of showing its cultural sensitivity … [I]t must be context specific as it addresses God and God’s world in specific situations and in response to varying needs and challenges” (p. 147). Therefore, Kärkkäinen includes a chapter on contextual pneumatologies; that is, theologies of the Spirit that arose out of specific contexts and environments. These include process, liberation, ecological (“green”), feminist, and African pneumatologies. In the midst of all of these controversial perspectives, Kärkkäinen avoids making judgments on these specific theologies, but instead he simply presents them for what they are, and allows his readers to come to their own conclusions.

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Category: Spirit, Summer 2003

About the Author: Michael J. Knowles earned his Bachelor of Theology degree at Summit Pacific College in Abbotsford, BC, Canada, and has published numerous articles and book reviews. He and his family currently live in Washington state, where he teaches health education at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, and also works as a pharmacy technician in Bellingham.

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