Flame of Love

Not so long ago I finished reading Clark H. Pinnock’s book, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit. It was published by IVP in 1996. Overall, I enjoyed the book and found a lot of interesting concepts and I would recommend it to anyone. His focus on God’s Holy Spirit is commendable and an important corrective to a general neglect of the topic.

But there were a couple things that bothered me in the book and I’ve chosen to focus on them for the purposes of this post.

Near the beginning of his book Pinnock spends several paragraphs discussing the question of the Holy Spirit’s gender:

The Hebrew term…is (usually but not always) grammatically feminine; yet this may not be regarded as very significant, for personhood is relatively undeveloped in relation to Spirit in the Old Testament
(p. 15-17)

I was very pleased that he recognized this reality and even discussed the implications of it and acknowledges that it would likely be best to refer to the Holy Spirit with feminine pronouns and even that “something” in him “wants to use the feminine pronoun.” (p. 17)

But then he states in his footnote to the matter:

Plus there is a political calculation for an evangelical writer: is it worth using the feminine pronoun when the likely result is to lose a host of conservative readers while gaining approval from a handful of feminists, most of whom have their sights set on much larger and less orthodox changes? The answer is no, it is not prudent. (footnote 17, Introduction)

So he decided to ignore the truth because it might make some people uncomfortable.

Really?

Never mind that it’s a fundamental reality of who God is. He doesn’t think some people will like it and he thinks it might upset them. So he’ll just pretend that reality is different. Yes, the sky is blue, but since so many people think it is green, well, let’s just keep calling it green so we don’t rock the boat.

I find it appalling, frankly, that he was unwilling to go where the data actually led. Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable because it challenges tradition and widely held opinion. Why resist the truth? Why kick against the goads? One needs to be strong enough to simply accept the truth, proclaim it, and assume that in the end, the truth will out. It always does. Suffering for the truth is not a bad thing; uncomfortable and painful, sure, but not a bad thing. So it’s disruptive. Truth often is. So what?

Another thing I found bothersome in the book is something that I see widely: that being spiritual, being guided by God, being filled with the Spirit is somehow at odds with science, academics and rationality. I must strongly disagree with that presumption. Using our minds, being careful, being scholarly is no less spiritual than being joyful. Expressing emotions does not negate our minds, despite what fictional Vulcan’s might think. Being moved and controlled by God does not mean that our rationality is disconnected. Scholarship does not stand apart from or against God.

Quotations such as this are just flat wrongheaded:

“We surrender to God when we pray in tongues and give control even of our speech over to him. Prayer in tongues is perhaps to prayer what abstract art is to painting.

“Our love of rationality resists it. As educated persons, we do not want to say anything excessive or ill-considered. We want to be in control and keep things safe and familiar. We do not even like mysteries very much; we want theology to be as rational as possible. Academics in particular are trained to guard their speech, so as not to blurt out something they are not sure they want to say. It can be hard for them to yield to tongues. The gift places us in unfamiliar territory and requires us to be childlike in prayer. But this may be why tongues is important. It is a means God uses to challenge strategies of control. It is a humble but also a humbling gift to which we should be open.” (p. 173)

The anti-intellectualism of the passage is astounding. And it is bad theology—just wrong. In the question of what tongues is and how it functions, I think that the assumption that it is irrational is a serious error. That “losing control” as it were—which seems the implication—should be considered a good thing is, frankly dangerously mistaken.

I think James’ words regarding the matter should be taken into consideration—something that I never see done, despite the fact that he uses the same Greek word that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12:30, for instance. For whatever reason, what James has to say about the tongue is never linked with the gift of tongues. I think that’s odd, really.

Consider. In James 1:16 James points out that “Every good and perfect gift is from above…” Then in 1:26, he comments, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” Then he says in the very next verse, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Which seems to me very similar to what Paul had to say in 1 Corinthians 13, about tongues (among other things): that without love they are worthless. Certainly James’ words in 1:27 seem understandable as love in practical application.

I’m not sure that tongues or any gift of the Spirit is at odds with our control, thoughtfulness or rationality. I don’t see logic and our minds as being enemies standing in the way of God working. Despite the attitude of fictional Vulcans, logic does not stand in opposition to emotions. If so, then the whole book of Proverbs and Job 28 are really problematic. Besides the obvious: God created us with minds; why give us such a gift if he didn’t expect us to use it? Instead, I think that Pinnock—and many Christians like him—are simply out to lunch on this whole matter.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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