Friday, May 20, 2011

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.

Mohr Siebeck 2009, £57, pp 390
ISBN 978-31-6149-895-4

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)

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At 6/03/2011 7:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 6/24/2011 8:23 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

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At 6/03/2012 1:20 PM, Anonymous Volker Rabens said...

Thanks a lot for this fair review. I am happy for so many positive reviews of the book. However, as at least one review has appeared that misrepresents my study in many ways (written by Gitte Buch-Hansen), I want to clarify here that I do NOT argue that the Spirit is an immaterial substance in Paul. My study avoids many of the either-or approaches of current scholarship, and this is one of them, as my conclusion on p. 249 demonstrates:
"In line with the fundamental point of the book Paul Beyond the Juda-ism/Hellenism Divide, edited by Engberg-Pedersen (2001), it is an over-simplification to try to connect Paul to either a ‘Hellenistic-materialistic’ or to a ‘Jewish-immaterialistic’ pneumatology. However, it is likewise a false dichotomy when one forces a division between either a Stoic or a Platonic reading of pneuma in Paul, as Engberg-Pedersen appears to do. Engberg-Pedersen does not reckon with a third option, which is that Paul did not follow the agendas of either of these philosophical schools. Paul does not inquire into the (im/material) nature of pneuma. The closest Paul comes to this interest in ontology is when, upon the question of the Corinthians, he discusses the nature of the resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:35–54). However, it is the resurrection body that is in focus, not the nature of pneuma. It is therefore misleading to make this the starting point not only of one’s conception of Pauline pneumatology but also of Paul’s theology in general (but thus Engberg-Pedersen...)." Cf. my "Excursus 1: The Alleged Concept of the Spirit as Immaterial Substance" (82-86).
Likewise, I do not speak against an ontological transformation of the believer by the Spirit. Rather, I repeatedly say that my relational approach encompasses this dimension. See particularly my discussion of this matter on pp. 141-43 ("... The adjacent pairs which are often conceived as opposites (i.e. relational versus substance-ontological transformation; [functional] empowering versus [ontological] transformation; new self-understanding versus a completely new self) thus converge in our concept of transforming relationships. ...").


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