2016.07.42. Rabens, The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul

Volker Rabens, The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul: Transformation and Empowering for Religious-Ethical Life
Reviewed by Kenneth D. Litwak


  1. I am thankful for Kenneth D. Litwak’s review of The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul: Transformation and Empowering for Religious-Ethical Life (2nd ed., 2014), which makes a number of helpful points. At the same time, some clarifications seem to be necessary. In the introduction of his review, Litwak summarizes the two theses of my book. As the question of my study is how, according to Paul, the Spirit empowers ethical living, the main aim of the first part of my book is not to merely challenge that strand of scholarship which argues that Paul understood the Spirit as a material substance. My study rather investigates the mode of the Spirit’s work and Wirkung (cf. H. Gunkel’s Die Wirkungen des heiligen Geistes) with regard to ethics. For this reason, it is not necessary to resolve whether the Spirit was comprehended by Paul as a material or immaterial substance, as a person, etc., although I offer several critical considerations with regard to the method of and evidence for establishing such proposals (esp. pp. 35–120). I argue that the data in Paul’s letters is not conclusive and that it is precarious to build one’s theory of how the Spirit works on a speculative construction of the Spirit’s nature – an issue that Paul never addresses (in contrast to a number of Stoic and Philonic writings, pp. 25–35, 67–78). For those who feel pressed to define the nature of the Spirit, I have indicated that Paul’s letters seem to suggest that he comprehended the Spirit as having “personal traits” (pp. 119–20, 144–45). However, my own model of the work of the Spirit is not based on this ontology. The first part of my thesis rather challenges what I have called the infusion-transformation approach to Pauline pneumatology and ethics. According to this view, the Spirit enters a person physically through the sacraments and changes the physical interior of the person in order to bring forth ethical life. While I provide a critical discussion of a major presupposition of this view, namely the assumption that the Spirit is for Paul a material substance, my main point is that there is no conclusive evidence in Paul that could justify the thesis that he understood ethical life to be the instant consequence of a physical transformation induced by the reception of πνεῦμα-Stoff via the sacraments.

  2. Litwak summarizes the second part of my thesis as presenting a relational approach to the work of the Spirit, namely, that it is “through relationships” with God and other believers that the Spirit empowers Christians for religious-ethical living. Let me just note that I am not speaking about any kind of relationship (or even “relation”), good or bad, but about close, loving and participatory relationships that empower and (ontologically) transform people (chs. 4–6). In this second part I do not intend to discuss every mention of the Spirit in Paul (like Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence) or to provide an in-depth analysis of every passage that loosely indicates that the Spirit is related to ethical life. Accordingly, I agree with Litwak’s final judgement that “more is needed for a complete understanding of Paul’s pneumatology.” In fact, I have provided more comprehensive treatments of Pauline pneumatology elsewhere (cf. the works mentioned in the preface to this second edition of the book, pp. V–VIII; see my website for a full list). With regard to the selection of the Pauline texts that I have chosen for detailed exegesis in the second part of my book, I have explained at the outset that “The passages that will be discussed are chosen in accordance with our question, namely, how the Spirit empowers religious-ethical living not only at the time of conversion-initiation but also in the course of Christian life. … [S]ome of the passages in the list provided at the outset of this section only relate the initial action of the Spirit in the process of sanctification (as, e.g., 1 Cor. 6:11: ‘you were sanctified… in the Spirit of our God’) or simply do not move beyond the statement that the Spirit works ethically (e.g. Gal. 5:22: the ‘fruit of the Spirit’). Such passages will not receive in-depth treatment…, as we will rather bring a number of new passages into the discussion of how the Spirit empowers ethical conduct in Paul [including a brief treatment of Ephesians, pp. 231–33, which Litwak appears to have overlooked]. These texts evidence that the Spirit primarily enables religious-ethical living through creating and nourishing intimate relationships” (p. 174).

    (On a minor note, I am not sure where Litwak saw me discussing Paul in my chapter 5 on Paul’s religious context. However, I deliberately bring the results of chapter 5 into the exegetical treatment of Paul’s letters in chapter 6. To my mind, this is the natural thing to do if one wants to demonstrate how our reading of early Jewish and Greco-Roman literature may shed new light on some aspects of Paul’s theology. With regard to this religious context, I totally agree with Litwak that it is important to appreciate that Second Temple Judaism was Hellenized to various degrees – see my discussions on pp. 25, 148, etc.)