Guest Book Review: Volker Rabens The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul
My good friend, Volker Rabens, adjusted and published his wonderful and vigorously researched PhD thesis in the Mohr Siebeck WUNT series, and I wanted to draw attention to it by republishing Carsten Lotz's review for LST's INSIGHT Magazine. I can only concur with Carsten that Volker's work really was a model PhD. If you are interestd in Pauline theology, especially ethics or pneumatology, but also close exegesis of numerous Pauline passages and elucidation on Paul and 'relationality', you can't afford to miss this one.
THE HOLY SPIRIT AND ETHICS IN PAUL
One of the first words of advice Max Turner gave to me as I began a research degree here at LST was to “read a good PhD thesis to see how it should be done”. He then directed me towards his former doctoral student Volker Rabens’ recently defended thesis. This ‘model’ thesis is now available to the wider academic world as a published monograph, The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul. Rabens’ work fulfills all the requirements for a clear and simple thesis, while at the same time being detailed and creative enough to handily overturn 140 years of theological assumption regarding the ethical work of the Spirit in continental Pauline studies; not bad for a PhD thesis!
The monograph’s main task is to investigate the assumptions behind the practical realisation of Paul’s ethic; in other words how did Paul imagine Christians to actually perform his ethic in their daily lives. Rabens proceeds by dividing his study into two parts. The first part introduces, reviews, and engages the historical and contemporary theories in German academia (and the recent Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in Paul: The Material Spirit), which suggests the work of the Spirit within an individual accomplishes an inner ontological transformation thereby producing an ethical change within the person. The main assumption underwriting this theory suggests that the Spirit himself consists of an ontically renewing material, or ‘substance’ (Stoff), upon which entering a believer transforms their substance (p4).
Rabens will appropriately call this model the ‘infusion-transformation’ approach. It is this very assumption Rabens will convincingly dispute in the first part of his study, concluding: 1) While the idea of a physical ‘spirit’ is present in Hellenistic thought, particularly Stoicism, ‘it could not be found in Judaism or Paul’ (p119) and 2) Based on Paul’s own writings we can see that he ‘does not attribute such an importance to these factors [i.e., a particular mode of reception or nature of the Spirit]’ (p120). Therefore, based on Raben’s research, the evidence itself seems to suggest an alternative explanation to the ethical work of the Spirit than the proposed infusion-transformation model.
In turn, the second half of Rabens’ study lays out an alternative paradigm to the ‘infusion-transformation’ model. In Rabens’ own words, ‘It will be argued that it is primarily through deeper knowledge of, and an intimate relationship with, God, Jesus Christ and with the community of faith that people are transformed and empowered by the Spirit for religious-ethical life (p123).’ Rabens clearly and succinctly moves through the relevant Jewish and Pauline sources finding much support for his so-called relational model. The evidence in both Paul and his contemporary context suggests that it is precisely through an intensified, intimate relationship with God, Jesus and the faithful neighbour that the Spirit transforms and empowers the believer to perform the demands of the new religious-ethical life Paul advocates.
To conclude, I can heartily recommend this monograph for three reasons. One, it is truly a ‘model’ thesis in that it accomplishes its aims with clarity and simplicity. Secondly, it provides an excellent survey of Pauline pneumatology and ethics. Lastly, another benefit of this monograph is the intentional bridging of continental and English NT scholarship. As Marcus Bockmuehl notes, ‘New Testament scholarship’s fragmentation has in recent years been further accelerated by its practitioners’ increasingly restricted field of reference and linguistic competence’ (Seeing the Word, p35). Rabens’ monograph definitely helps us to think bigger and more cross-culturally by working against this trend.
Reviewer: Carsten Lotz (LST 2008-10) is researching the Spirit and Kingdom in Luke-Acts with Max Turner and serves as the Pastor of the International Christian Fellowship in Frankfurt, Germany.
Volker Rabens (LST 1992-95, 2008) Researcher of the International Consortium ‘Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe’ and Lecturer at the University of Bochum (Germany)