James Dunn on the Spirit —Human and Divine— in Paul of Tarsus

This is the twenty-fifth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“. Here, I am digressing into a series of posts on the secondary literature, for a bit, regarding πνεῦμα (“spirit”) in Paul, in the Hebrew Bible, in Stoicism, late antique Neoplatonic texts, and in some North African Christian texts from before Nicea. I may jump back and publish posts related to the main thread in between publishing the posts that are slotted for this subset.

The previous follow-up posts were becoming so numerous —and the text block listing and introducing them was so large— that they were soon going to take up more space than the posts themselves. Thus, I organized and listed them here.

In his magisterial The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), James Dunn notes that “[t]he number of uses of pneuma denoting human spirit in Paul is uncertain, since it is unclear in several passages whether the divine Spirit or the human spirit is referred to.” [76] In Paul, there are far more unambiguous references to the divine Spirit.

The immediate inference which can fairly be drawn is that for Paul the gospel is not about an innate spirituality awaiting release, but about the divine Spirit acting [77] upon and in a person from without. More to the point here, the spirit is evidently that dimension of the human person by means of which the person relates most directly to God. Hence passages like Rom. 1.9 (“I serve God with my spirit”) and 8.16 (“the Spirit bears witness with our spirit”), the analogy between the Spirit of God and the human spirit in 1 Cor. 2.11, and the idea that the person “who is united with the Lord is one spirit” (1 Cor. 6.17) […]. Indeed there has been a persistent view that for Paul the human spirit is but a manifestation of the divine Spirit. This could well reflect the influence of Hebraic thought. [Theology of Paul, 76-77]

(The analogy between the human and divine spirit —an analogy that he notes and emphasizes— seems to complicate his initial assertion in the above passage that “the gospel is not about an innate spirituality awaiting release”; the spirituality that he seems to find in Paul is like that, but is more erotic, more exocentric.) In support of this last point about the influence of Hebraic thought on Paul, Dunn cites a number of passages from the Hebrew Bible such as Job 27:3 & 32:8, Eccl. 12:7, Isa. 42:5, and so on. He notes that there is a contrast between the Hebraic notion of “spirit” as the highest element in humanity vs. the Hellenistic understanding of “intellect” as the highest faculty. In fact, “spirit” and “soul” share “an overlap in meaning” because both “express an original identification of “breath” as the life force.” [77] Pneuma denotes “more the Godward dimension of the human being”, while psyche is “limited more to the vital force itself.” [77] In passages like 1 Cor 15:44ff, however, psychikos can be contrasted with soma pneumatikon, however, to denote a person “limited to the present bodily existence”. [78] There can be a contrast. Paul “both implies and teaches that it is only by functioning at [the higher reality of the person associated with the pneuma] and by opening the human spirit to the divine Spirit that the human being can be whole.”

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With regard to the divine Spirit, Dunn notes that the reception of the Spirit marked the “third way” in which Paul notes the transition into Christian life (the first being “restored status”, or justification, the second being Christ mysticism, or “being in Christ”). [414] For Dunn, the second and third are “two sides of the one coin”. [ibid.] There is a “safe way” that has often been taken within the interpretation of the western churches, a way that collapses Christ mysticism and Spirit possession to ecclesiology and right preaching and baptism. [415] Justification and Christ mysticism are more distinctive of Paul and the Pauline tradition than the reception of the Spirit for early Christian literature. [416-417] The experience of the reception of the Spirit, however, was not only Pauline, but seems to have been a ubiquitous phenomenon of early Christianity as a whole. It also seems that it was eschatological. [417-419]

Within the Hebrew Bible, the outpouring of the Spirit usually carried with it meteorological images of downpour (Isa 32:15, 44:3; Ezek 39:29; Joel 2:28), lining up with the cosmological suggestions that I have been outlining in many of the other posts. Paul’s imagery of the Spirit can line up with this traditional meteorological image of downpour (1 Cor 12:13). Water and life, rain and life, are easy to associate — water comes down from the sky, and gives life to the Earth. Water comes to the earth, and gives life. The spirit is associated with life; the associations are so very strong. Just as Dunn notes that the human spirit is “the vital force” [77] in a person within the Jewish tradition more broadly (and Paul specifically), so the divine Spirit is “the Spirit of life” in Romans 8, and, in 8:10, Paul notes that “the Spirit is your life”, or as Dunn notes “the Spirit is […] the life of God in the Christian.” [423]

These associations may be strong, but they do not answer the question that inevitably arises at one point: What is the spirit, and the Spirit? Just life? Dunn asks: “[W]hat did Paul have in mind when he spoke of the gift and reception of the Spirit? How did he understand “the Spirit”?” [425] I wanted Dunn to say something about what the scholarship had offered regarding this question: Exactly what kind of a thing is the human spirit, or the divine Spirit? After noting a passage from Bultmann, Schweizer’s TDNT entry on “πνεῦμα” (which I should cover here soon, together with the TDOT entry on “ruach”), and a set of conceptual distinctions from Horn, Dunn warns us of “a double danger” [426] in this. Firstly, the “clinical analysis” obscures the character of this language about the Spirit as primarily metaphorical and imagistic. Secondly, as Schweizer noted, “Long before the Spirit was a theme of doctrine, he was a fact in the experience of the community.” [427]

The second point here seems more apt than the first, and Dunn somewhat grants this — experiences need to be clarified, for “any attempt to “grasp” an experience inevitably involves some sort of conceptualization — including the conceptualization of it as an “experience.” [427] Granted, “there are experiences which come to individuals […] prior to conceptualization or uncontainable within available linguistic resources” [428], but this can’t always be a hard and fast rule regarding whether the early Christians, in general, or Paul, in particular, conceptualized the divine Spirit as such-and-such a kind of thing. Yes: “Paul and the other first Christians did not simply conform their conceptualized experience to traditional formulations” [428], but that does not mean that their concepts were entirely original; we all draw on our heritage to account for what we experience, even if there is a strong degree of novelty. To some degree, Dunn explicitly acknowledges this.

“Spirit” was an experiential term from the first. […] [T]he Hebrew term ruach was itself the word coined to give a name or explanation to what we might call the basic experience of vitality. As we saw earlier, ruach denotes the breath of life, the life force from God. It was conceived as an animating power, analogous to or even continuous with the force of strong wind, a power which could invigorate or be invigorated in exceptional circum[429]stances. Common to such a range of usage was the sense of an invisible, mysterious, aweful force. The word itself (ruach) is onomatopoeic — the sound of wind. Thus coined, ruach became the common denominator to denote analogous experiences of mysterious, otherly power, including a sense of the numinous quality of life itself. This basic sense continues to adhere to the Christian use of the Greek equivalent, pneuma […]. [428-429]

Thus, “[t]he basic experience and manifestation of the Spirit, for Paul as for those before him, was life —the Spirit as the animating breath of life.” [434] Dunn notes that “[i]n Christian tradition it has become customary to think of the gift of the Spirit as a deduction to be drawn [430] from a correct confession or properly administered sacrament.” [429-430] He obviously finds this lacking, and perhaps even frustrating — it is certainly not the Pauline picture, as he notes in passages like 1 Corinthians 14:12, where the Corinthians are “zealous for spirits” (not “spiritual gifts”, as some translations have it).

He asks the Galatians, not “How did you receive baptism? What confession did you make?” but “How was it that you received the Spirit?” Their reception of the Spirit was something he could refer them to directly, not merely as a deduction from some other primary factor. [430]

This stress on the lived experience of early religious communities is important and right, but it barely scratches the surface in terms of the conceptual clarifications of this in the literature and the cultured discussions of people who belonged to these communities. Were there philosophical-theological clarifications of what was meant by “pneuma”; was there anything cosmological to it? Dunn does not say much.

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There is, however, a great deal of stress that Dunn lays —persuasively following Paul’s emphasis— on the spectrum of ecstatic experience associated with the divine Spirit. These range from the miraculous, to strong emotional experience, experiences of deep conviction, and, “[a] little further along the spectrum we could speak of experiences of intellectual illumination”, specifically citing 2 Cor. 3:12-16. [431] “Finally, […] we would have to speak of the moral impact of the Spirit” [432], citing 1 Cor. 6:9-11. Dunn is aware, and hopes that his readers are aware, of the dangers involved in a religious life that is too indebted to a religious experience. The sociology of such groups can become rife with “elitist factionalism, destructive of all community and fellowship.” [433] Paul, however, was aware of this, and had a “practical theology” to address it. The most important of these is an identification of the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ — a “critical conceptual tool” [433] regarding the discernment of spiritual experiences. The “fruits of the Spirit”, and the elevation of love, also serve in this practical theology. “Christ and the remembered character of Christ” were, for Paul, “the fundamental norm by which all claims to experience the Spirit should be measured.” [434]

In the final section, “The blessings of the Spirit”, Dunn notes the Spirit’s role in granting liberty (either from the desires of the flesh or from the written law), Christian conduct (“the charismatic character of Christian daily living” [435]), sonship/adoption, spiritual longing and hope, prayer, spiritual insight and charisms, and the fruits of the Spirit.

The conclusion largely reiterates these points.

Dunn has penned two other pieces on the ascension of Jesus of which I know, both of which I’ve read; they both engage with some of the kinds of problems that this whole series was meant to address. His answers, in the end, may not be fully satisfying, but at least they knew the scope of the problem, and tried honestly to address it. I wish he was willing to press into a similar set of questions relating to the question: What is the Spirit?
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4 thoughts on “James Dunn on the Spirit —Human and Divine— in Paul of Tarsus

  1. I’m foggy on how this subset regarding πνεῦμα (“spirit”) relates to the main thread instigated by “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens.“ Are the questions you raise in the present post, on the nature of spirit and the Spirit, and the nature and import of experience, cosmological?

    You write, “was there anything cosmological to it? Dunn does not say much.”; but I have no idea what kind of thing you thought Dunn might say.

    I searched your blog for Dunn and the best result was “Stars Down to Earth” (JULY 21, 2015), where you quote him: “… if not the stars, then supra-mundane forces of some sort…”; is that a clue?

    How would spirit/Spirit and/or experience read as cosmological? What do you mean by cosmology? Aren’t “cosmology” and “experience,” as you use them here, both modern categories, and if so, hermeneutical or even heuristic categories when used to illuminate “spirit/Spirit” in biblical and antique texts? Are you thus looking for constructive theology?

    By the way, the questions I posted belatedly under the first Luther post were not rhetorical; I’m really interested in what you might have to say.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m foggy on how this subset regarding πνεῦμα (“spirit”) relates to the main thread instigated by “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens.“ Are the questions you raise in the present post, on the nature of spirit and the Spirit, and the nature and import of experience, cosmological?

      —yes; yes they are. I am trying to see whether a suspicion that I have is correct: that Platonization _via_ Origen is responsible for the de-cosmographizing of the proper location of the Spirit. So far as I can currently see, prior to Origen, Christianity (Paul, Tertullian, _&c._) largely followed the line of the Stoics and saw spirit as both divine and pervading the cosmos.

      You write, “was there anything cosmological to it? Dunn does not say much.”; but I have no idea what kind of thing you thought Dunn might say.

      —I had hoped Dunn would try to coordinate or else differentiate Pauline ideas of spirit with Stoic ones. What is S/spirit, in Paul?

      I searched your blog for Dunn and the best result was “Stars Down to Earth” (JULY 21, 2015), where you quote him: “… if not the stars, then supra-mundane forces of some sort…”; is that a clue?

      —well, sort of: that’s really just the background for why I thought that.

      How would spirit/Spirit and/or experience read as cosmological?

      —in the Biblical text, the Spirit “descends”; it comes from the sky. In Stoicism…well, that’s what I’m looking into. I don’t want to write more about Stoicism in this comment thread for fear that my models for Stoicism’s cosmology are in error or fuzzy. I’m working on that imminently.

      What do you mean by cosmology? Aren’t “cosmology” and “experience,” as you use them here, both modern categories, and if so, hermeneutical or even heuristic categories when used to illuminate “spirit/Spirit” in biblical and antique texts?

      —well, yes: both are modern words, but “cosmology” would be very untroublesome for ancients. “Experience” would largely port with some remainder. I am not clear as to what you’re getting at, so I’ll hope you say more, lest there be something important I’m not considering. I’m trying to retrieve a historically distinct cluster of ideas about what S/spirit meant to ancient writers who’re anchors in a tradition in which other norms about spirit and Spirit became standard and even obligatory.

      Are you thus looking for constructive theology?

      —no? Maybe? First thing’s first: I need to investigate the questions at hand. Only then can some kind of theological construction on this topic be as responsible as it can be.

      By the way, the questions I posted belatedly under the first Luther post were not rhetorical; I’m really interested in what you might have to say.

      —I’m afraid they may wait another few days; I thought I replied to the questions on the older posts. Forgive me. I’ll look soon! Feel free to reply again if I don’t, to remind me.

      I hope these replies answer your questions. Let me know if they don’t.

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      • Your project is fascinating and seems important. In my own way, I also have a project (although it’s 99% in mind so far, not publicly expressed) that (imagining a Venn diagram) substantially intersects with yours.

        I do believe there is “something important” you are “not considering,” but that makes you no different from me or from anyone else.

        Let me begin by suggesting that the “line” Paul and the other earliest Christian writers intended to have “largely followed” when discussing spirit, was that of Jesus of Nazareth, not the Stoics. If so, the starting point for understanding “the proper location of the Spirit” in early Christianity is to ask where Jesus located the Spirit.

        Of course, we don’t have direct access to Jesus’ words. Or if we do in part, we can’t be sure which words attributed to him are exact (or near enough) quotes. But I am working under the assumption that the canonical NT (and some non-canonical and post-canonical writings) are based in good faith on the teachings and actions of Jesus (a historical person) as the central point of reference for those we call and/or who called themselves Christians.

        Jesus was steeped in what we call the Hebrew scriptures (and deuterocanonical writings), so they should loom much larger than the Stoics when we try to understand “Spirit” in earliest Christianity.

        I don’t doubt that Stoics and other schools or cultural phenomena (trying to use the most general term possible) of the Hellenistic world influenced especially someone like Paul, and certainly many 2nd century Christian writers, and perhaps to a degree even Jesus and his apostles. But certainly the Hebraic background should loom larger than Stoicism or Platonism when locating Spirit in earliest Christianity. I can’t help assuming that you’ll agree with me on this.

        Now: you say that “‘cosmology’ would be very untroublesome for ancients.” But when you say that, do you include Jesus and his Hebrew milieu among those ancients?

        More to the point (my point at least): when Biblical texts talk about things like the Spirit descending, is a cosmological interpretation on point or missing the point?

        I’d like to focus on one text that can be read as cosmological: John 3 (especially vv. 3 and 7). When Nicodemus takes ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ literally, as to “enter a second time into the mother’s womb to be born,” he is being obtuse. But if he had taken equally literally the other meaning of ἄνωθεν, protesting that surely one cannot physically be born from a cosmological location at a higher elevation, wouldn’t he have been just as obtuse?

        Therefore it seems to me that it would be “troublesome” for Jesus and early Christians for their teachings about, for example, the Spirit descending from above, to be taken as cosmological statements.

        At the moment I’m not sure whether what I just wrote is on point or has strayed from the point, but I’ll leave off here and look forward to your further response.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Live has kept me busy. Forgive me! When I get my feet planted well at my new job, I’ll start posting more. I’ve been itching to get back to everything. I have bookshelves worth of material surrounding my desk, waiting.

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