Missional Pneumatology

Since “missional pneumatology” came up in conversation on Alan Hirsch’s blog today I thought it could be helpful for me to elaborate on where I am up to in my own thinking.

I suppose people could be forgiven for not immediately recognising my interest in missional pneumatology since I rarely use the phrase in public. But that’s just because I aspire to being accessible and don’t find that sort of jargon is particularly helpful in conversation with non theologians. I mean, I might use such language in closed forums, but in the real world I try to work through how the Spirit and the interests of irreligious spirituality consumers intersect in more general terms, and where I do invoke spiritual jargon it is generally the language of chi, ki, qi, prana, kundalini, etc (see here for example). So forgive me for all the theologicalese that comes next.

So what is missional pneumatology? Maybe I should explain that first. Pneumatology is the theology of the Spirit. It is worth noting that the word pneuma (πνευμα) is Greek for “breath and spirit”. By extension, a missional pneumatology is a theology of the Spirit that is grounded in a missional-incarnational rather than an extractional-attractional framework. It’s what a Christian theology of the Holy Spirit looks like when its fully engaged with culture and with the alternative spiritualities therein. Maybe you begin to see now why I find the phrase a little oxymoronic when used in public.

But since we are using the phrase here for the moment let me spell out some of the challenges.

The most critical challenge as I see it is the denomination of world religions and irreligious spiritualities by evangelicals, especially the counter-cult and strategic level spiritual warfare leaders, but also by everyday believers. To be blunt, it is difficult to engage sensitively with alternate spiritualities where you are convinced they, and the spiritual experiences they testify to, are 100% of the devil. Of course, that statement proves nothing in and of itself, but if we loosen up and look at the Bible afresh, we may just be surprised by what we might find.  I won’t elaborate further right now, but just suggest that Acts 17 and the story of Balaam turn up some very interesting things.

This is one of the reasons I like to focus on engaging with Wicca. If you can find the Spirit at work even within Wicca, the perennial boogie man of evangelicals, well, where should you not expect to find the Spirit moving then?

This brings me to my essential challenge to Charismatics and the rest of the institutional church. Your Spirit is too small. Your Spirituality is too small. You think the Spirit only falls in the house of the Lord? Pfft! You think there are territories where demons rule with impunity? Henotheism! Have you forgotten the teaching of omnipresence? The Spirit does not send us anywhere where he is not already at.

But wait. And I advocating Universalism? Panentheism? Relativism? No. Not by a long shot. Instead I say this, in the same way that we speak of general and special revelation I think it is equally valid to speak of the Spirit moving generally and specially. I do not relativize the significance Pentecost, I just do not limit myself to a post-Pentecostal pneumatology.

This brings me to another challenge, the filioque which western Christians inserted into the Nicene creed. Guys, we made a bad call. The Spirit did not just proceed from the Son, in another important sense the Spirit proceeded from the Son and sent the Son. The Spirit did not just appear suddenly in Acts. Check out Luke’s other book, you know, his gospel. It mentions the Spirit more than any other gospel. It attributes the conception of Jesus to the Spirit and even a prophetess prophesying in the Spirit pre-Pentecost. So who proceeded who? A missional pneumatology must be grounded in a multi-pronged understanding of how the Spirit moves.

But we do need to understand that, although the Spirit was here from the moment of creation, and can be found moving in other religions, Jesus changes everything. Do you want a deeper gnosis of the mysteries of the Spirit? See the guru of gurus.

Now, this is only scratching the surface. It is not the end of the matter, only the beginning. Many of us connected with Thin Places have been working through this for years and still new implications are turning up (go back to Phil’s comments in that last link for example).

5 thoughts on “Missional Pneumatology

  1. Great post, Matt. I am excited to see what appears to be the right timing for these things to get a bigger exposure…and I am grateful for your leadership in this area.


  2. I followed the link to your earlier post and conversation with Phil…my brain is still a bit numb (or should that be spelled pnumb 😉 ) as it is so much to take in! So very helpful, though. I really do need to get some of the books Phil has written….


  3. Matt, I think you’re spot on. I’ve not too much experience with working with other religions but I get what you’re saying.
    A couple of core problems come to mind that I think have distorted contemporary understanding of the Holy Spirit and goes into your points. The first is that the church has almost entirely neglected the Old Testament when it comes to understanding the Spirit. An Old Testament pneumatology opens the door for all kinds of work of the Spirit not limited to the church, and certainly not limited to post-Jesus. You note Balaam, but in explicit and implicit ways we see the Spirit working all sorts of places, in all sorts of ways. And it’s my contention that a lot of other religions are taking note of some of these ways much better than Christianity. There is a yearning for a holistic pneumatology that isn’t expressed through the church.
    The second is that the Protestant church has very little of it’s own study of the Holy Spirit. Uncritical adoption of so much Catholic doctrine that arose during struggles of power and hierarchy have made the Protestant/Evangelical movements quite myopic. The Spirit’s role was increasingly lessened, so as to increase the power of pastors and hierarchy. The Spirit comes from Christ, and since the Church is the representative of Christ, the Church sends the Spirit. That’s heresy really. But, pastors and churches really do think they are the only locations of the Spirit and can tell God how and when to work.
    Theologian Jurgen Moltmann ends his book on the Holy Spirit with a call to permanently remove the filioque clause, for pretty much the reasons you talk about.
    It’s a small phrase with massive implications not only about the Spirit but about church government, God in this world, and all sorts of other things.
    Not only does Luke mention the Spirit a lot before Acts, but I really love the fact that the very first mention of the Spirit in the New Testament is in Matthew 1. The Spirit comes upon Mary and conceives Jesus.
    The Spirit is mentioned before Jesus. All through the Old Testament, and even in the New. But saying that undermines the authority of the church and church leaders. Who can control religion if the Spirit just works all sorts of places, conceiving Jesus then and still in our day in all kinds of people.


  4. Yes, Ive read Moltmann and though I have some hesitations with his stuff (specifically, his panentheism, which I find to be a problematic and ill defined concept in light of the way different groups interpret panentheism in radically different ways) I am in basic agreement with him on removing the filioque clause from the creed. An understanding of Pneumatology which is not subsumed into Christology, and by implication Ecclesiology, is desperately needed. Christian thinking on the Spirit should culminate with Jesus, but need not necessarily commence with Jesus.


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