Joel Elowsky, executive director of the Center for Early African Christianity, edits the fourth volume, which focuses on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed confesses, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.” Roman Catholics and Protestants also confess that the Spirit proceeds from Father “and the Son,” which is the source of a longstanding theological tension between Christians in the East and West.
Elowsky’s introduction demonstrates how the orthodox consensus concerning the Holy Spirit developed alongside the fourth-century debates concerning the relationship between the Father and Son. He helpfully outlines the various ministries the early church fathers connected to the Spirit, including inspiring Scripture, indwelling and empowering the church, creating and granting life (both natural and eternal), and ushering believers through their progress in the faith. He also shows how early thinkers were considerably less settled as to the divinity of the Spirit than they were the Son. The Desert Fathers emphasized the Spirit’s ministry, but said little of his place in the Godhead. Origen was imprecise, vacillating between the subordination of the Spirit and a high view of the Spirit’s divinity. As a general rule, prior to the mid-fourth century the fathers focused more on the Spirit’s work than his person. It took the low view of the Spirit’s deity championed by the Pneumatomachi (“Spirit-fighters”) to push the church, led by Athanasius and the especially the Cappadocians, to affirm the Spirit’s divinity at the Constance of Constantinople. And even then the Council adopted language that was arguably simplistically biblicist in an effort to build as wide a consensus as possible; the Spirit’s deity is clearly confessed, but not with the same degree of clarity as that of the Son. Augustine added further nuance to the orthodox understanding of the Spirit through his constructive, post-Constantinople proposals about relations within the Trinity.
Not only is Elowsky’s introduction exhaustive, but the explanatory material in each chapter is more in-depth than that of his editorial colleagues in the ACDS. This is simultaneously helpful and frustrating. Elowsky is helpful because, as a general rule, he provides more background information and historical context than his fellow editors; his volume is an excellent starting place to begin studies of such controversial issues as the doctrine of theosis (deification) and the debate over the filioque clause. But this material, while immensely helpful, also leads to a greater degree of repetition between the volume introduction and the individual chapter introductions than is characteristic of the other volumes in the series. Elowsky’s primary source selections not only delve deeply into Patristic Pneumatology, but also touch upon several other key doctrines, many of them controversial. Evangelicals will respond in a variety of ways, but it seems likely that many will be less comfortable with at least some Patristic emphases in this volume (and the fifth volume) than in the first three; simply put, the earlier volumes speak to areas of greater theological consensus (Trinity, Christology) than the final two volumes (soteriology, ecclesiology).
The early church confessed the deity and personhood of the Spirit and affirmed his place in the Godhead, but some used feminine language to describe the Spirit while others were hesitant to ascribe any gender to the Spirit (4:18–19). It seems likely that many complementarian evangelicals will at least be hesitant to discount gendered understandings of the Spirit.
The fathers commented widely on the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit; Augustine’s view that an unrepentant spirit constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is quite common, though by no means uniform, among evangelicals (4:36).
Evangelicals will appreciate the Patristic emphasis on the Spirit’s role in inspiring Scripture (4:269–274), providing unity in the canon (4:274–76) and helping believers properly interpret the Bible (4:286–87). Charismatic and Pentecostal evangelicals may frown upon the Patristic contention that the miraculous gifts, particularly tongues-speaking, gradually diminished or even ceased in the post-apostolic era (4:283–84).
Evangelicals will appreciate the Patristic emphasis on the Spirit’s role as the giver of life, and Elowsky helpfully breaks down this broad concept into several subcategories. But the particulars will surely elicit varied responses from evangelical readers. Few will reject the idea that the Spirit plays a key role in creation and recreation, both physically and spiritually. But the widespread Patristic belief that the Spirit incorporates believers into the church through water baptism will be too close to a form of baptismal regeneration for most evangelicals (4:56). The extended discussion of church discipline in the early church is extremely helpful and will be welcomed by many evangelical readers, though most will likely reject the common Patristic tendency to disallow, or at least limit opportunities for post-baptismal repentance for public sins (4:66–68).
Evangelicals will greatly benefit from engaging Patristic thoughts on justification, which constitutes a lengthy chapter (4:90–136). Though the church fathers were less nuanced in their views of this central doctrine, they were in fact closer (though not always identical) to later Protestant views than is often assumed. It is true that they did not always make as clear a distinction between justification and sanctification as the reformers later would, but it would be both anachronistic and unfair to ascribe a belief in some form of “works salvation” to the Patristic era. Patristic controversy centered on the Trinity and Christology in the fourth century and free will in the fifth century, so these doctrines received greater attention than doctrines that became more controversial during the sixteenth century, including justification, imputation, and sanctification.
Elowsky’s selections on theosis and the procession of the Spirit, as well as his contextual remarks, provide an excellent introduction for evangelicals interested in studying these Patristic themes. As mentioned in reference to McGuckin’s volume, most evangelicals will likely be hesitant to uncritically embrace deification, at least as a better alternative than progressive sanctification and final glorification; the latter seem to flow more naturally from a reformational (and biblical) emphasis on justification by faith alone. Evangelicals will probably react in various ways to the procession debate. Some will no doubt agree with the Western addition of the filioque clause because of the Johannine emphasis on the Son’s sending of the Spirit. Others, perhaps for ecumenical reasons, will likely prefer the older Eastern idea that the Spirit proceeds at least primarily from the Father.