The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience: A Review

NOTE: this piece was first published in the Summer 2021 edition of Ad Fontes.

When I was sixteen, I took a friend to a revival meeting put on by a traveling evangelistic ministry. After an evening of Christian rock music, emotional testimonies, and vague promises of Christianity’s power to improve one’s quality of life, the event sponsors asked who was ready to make a “decision for Christ.” The whole evening was like a modern parody of a Billy Graham crusade. To my surprise, when they gave the altar call, my friend answered. Afterwards, as we walked to the car, my friend turned to me and said “I don’t feel any different. Is something supposed to happen?” I searched for a theologically satisfactory answer, but eventually settled for “No, Christianity isn’t about feelings, it’s about faith; just have faith something happened in there.” But I was troubled. I had a dramatic conversion experience to Christianity as a pre-teen and never looked back. In the Christianity of my youth (Charismatic and Pentecostal churches where emotional experiences were the norm) the burden of generating the emotion was on the worshippers; the easier the tears came, the more the Holy Spirit was said to be present over the service. Though I eventually became an Anglican, I never could understand why Christianity wasn’t emotionally moving for most people most of the time. In other words, even in denominations and movements centered upon individual emotional experience, it seems that the proper emotional states do not come easily to parishioners; if they wish to “feel moved,” they must move themselves.

It appears I am not alone. Simeon Zahl’s new book, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience[1], takes as its starting point the problem of the disjointed relationship between Christian doctrine and lived experience. Two theses guide Zahl throughout the book. First, the relationship between doctrine and experience is a two way street: on the one hand, doctrine exerts an emotional influence on us and colors our experiences, and in turn, theological ideas are shaped by the “affective texture and atmosphere in which we encounter them, by our personal history and temperament, by our social context, even by our mood” (14). Second, Zahl notes that Christianity contains its own unique theological framework for understanding religious experience in the ways we speak about the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Thus, Christians need not appropriate the terms and concepts used by general philosophers of religious experience like William James, Ruldoph Otto, and Wayne Proudfoot, who tend to lump all religious experience together as part of the same phenomenon. Rather, Christians should pay close attention to the passages of the Biblical text that describe the Holy Spirit’s work in manifesting the Father and Son to us. This occurs not only in the “dramatic and episodic (e.g., conversion experiences), but also [in] the Spirit’s involvement in longer term affective-dispositional change (for example, the kindling of the affections and dispositions that St. Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’), as well as specific, less easily categorizable instances of guidance, gifting, calling, and healing ” (53).  

 One advantage of Zahl’s book is its unwillingness to accept vague language about the ways in which we experience the Holy Spirit. Zahl is particularly suspicious of accounts of religious experience that start with the “presence” of the Holy Spirit, in which whatever the worshipper happens to feel (so long as something is felt) is regarded as sufficient indication of this “presence,” without the term ever being really defined. Zahl means to develop a pneumatology that pinpoints the working of the Spirit in ways that are “‘practically recognizable’ in bodies and in time” (49) and any theology of the Holy Spirit that does not meet this criterion is “pneumatologically problematic” (49). Zahl notes that Scripture often  tends to focus on the work rather than the person of the Spirit, writing “The New Testament authors as a whole are substantially more interested in the particular effects the Spirit has on human beings in the world, especially in salvation, in sanctification, and in mission [than in trinitarian questions about who the Spirit is or how the Spirit relates to the Father and Son]” (67). Thus, Zahl spends the majority of the book working out a constructive account of salvation and sanctification that makes clear and unmistakable the work of the Spirit in the Christian life. In the final three chapters Zahl demonstrates how the Holy Spirit makes use of our subjective experience to shape our desires and thus bring about our salvation. Building his account in large part around the Spirit’s use of the Law to strike fear and the Gospel to console, he writes:

“Faith thus represents a key moment, inspired by the Holy Spirit, in a practically recognizable affective sequence of moving from existential terror over sin and death to a new state of consolation, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. And as a set of affective experiences, and therefore something irreducibly dependent on human embodiment, the sequence is not just conceptual or metaphorical: it is something that takes place in time, in the actual historical experience of a given individual” (127). 

Zahl undergirds his account with insights from the writings of Philip Melancthon, Martin Luther, and St. Augustine, and more than once makes reference to how these insights are beautifully and pastorally expressed in the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer.  Useful to pastors and academics alike, Zahl’s treatment of Christian experience brings theology into conversation with the increasingly prevalent modern disciplines of the cognitive sciences and critical theory, bridging the gap between our understanding of the Holy Spirit and the role experience plays in shaping our theology.

The book is not without its weaknesses, however. One such point lies not in Zahl’s constructive account, but in his historical review. Zahl makes note of the recent turn in Protestant theology to try to reintroduce experiential theology into our vocabulary. As a result, some Protestant theologians have moved away from the Reformed doctrine of forensic justification in favor of a theory of justification by participation, in which an individual is made righteous by God (on an ontological level, which may or may not have any bearing on lived experience) as opposed to merely declared righteous. In seeking to recover and defend forensic justification, Zahl deals with T. F. Torrance and Kathryn Tanner’s accounts of justification by participation, attempting to  show that they get us no closer to an experiential account of salvation than they imagine the standard account of forensic justification does. However, particularly in the case of Torrance, Zahl perhaps makes too much of his refusal to give the experiential correlate of his ontological account, attributing his unwillingness to do so to an inability to do so. Zahl writes:

“Torrance makes no attempt to answer these questions. Again and again he describes the saving activity of the Spirit in terms that could be read as implying some sort of experiential correlate, but then fails to specify what such experiences might be in practice…Faced with his near total silence on the relationship between participation and experience, and trying to understand the affective salience of his soteriological scheme, we are presented with two equally unsatisfactory possibilities: (a) the work of the Spirit in salvation never affects actual human bodies in time; or (b) there are experiential correlates of participation, but the task of theologically analyzing or describing them is so laden with problems that it should never be attempted” (97).     

One is left scratching his head to see exactly how one can conclude either of the possibilities Zahl draws from Torrance’s silence, particularly as Zahl gives a compelling portrait of the theological landscape in which Torrance was working earlier in the book. In short, following Barth, thinking about experience was deeply unfashionable. Torrance’s silence on the experiential consequences of his theology might be better explained by trends in academic theology rather than his hitting a theological wall. Zahl deals with Tanner more gently, entertaining the possibility that Tanner’s account, which differs from Torrance by drawing the distinction between salvation and sanctification more sharply, might be extended to have some experiential correlates, though Zahl does not clarify what he thinks they might be.

Despite his disagreements with Tanner and Torrance, Zahl maintains that any adequate soteriology must accommodate the New Testament’s participation language. However, rather than take this language as his starting point, Zahl argues that forensic justification accounts for it better than recent accounts of salvation by participation. Drawing on Eastern theologians like Maximus the Confessor and Didymus the Blind, Zahl posits that the site of participation must be in the material body, in the affections and desires, not in an abstract, ontological register. Forensic accounts address this best for Zahl, as in these the Holy Spirit shapes our desires by causing us to understand our sin in light of the Law, before consoling us with the Gospel.

If this seems like a fairly minor point of critique, that’s because it is. As a whole, the book is rich and cohesive. Most importantly, Zahl has given us a theological model which can do things, and make sense of what we are already doing. Zahl’s work provides us with a framework by which to interpret our experiences of God in the world, as well as a framework by which to evaluate what Zahl refers to as the “affective salience of doctrines,” i.e., why some doctrines seem to affect us emotionally while others fall flat. Central to the book is Zahl’s use of affect theory, which Zahl uses quite poignantly to rescue the idea of the “troubled conscience” from our modern cultural apathy toward religion in general. Zahl argues that our conception of sin has narrowed from a pervasive force restricting the freedom of men to a question of where to assign guilt. He writes, “It is not so much that we no longer undergo the sorts of experiences that earlier Christians associated with the burden of sin, the desire for forgiveness or the longing for redemption and healing. It is that we tend not to associate these experiences with God or with sin anymore” (162). In other words, our experiences and emotional responses have not changed, only the way we interpret them. Thus, one takeaway from Zahl’s book, which he does not make explicit but which is clear in the writings of Tim Keller and others, is that in the course of the Spirit shaping our affections, our mental categories of “things that have to do with God” and things that do not will begin to blur together as we recognize the Spirit beginning to touch every area of our lives as all of our concerns find their root in our relationship to Christ.

 While not everyone will agree with every particular, Zahl’s argument is compelling, clear, and insightful. If nothing else, this book carves out an important place for experience in theology and refuses to accept theological accounts that skirt real pastoral issues with vague language. In this, Zahl’s book should be a model for future theologians, particularly as theologians begin seeking to bridge the gap between academic and pastoral theology. Perhaps the greatest evidence of his success lies in his having helped me interpret my own experiences more fruitfully: even if my friend’s conversion did not feel how he thought “being saved” should feel, the Spirit was at work. And, as the Spirit continued to shape his affections, he grew to recognize the presence of God even in those first moments.

Michael Riggins (Assistant Editor) holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. He teaches literature at Great Hearts Lakeside in Fort Worth, Texas. His academic interests lie chiefly at the intersection of literature and theology, with an emphasis on how liturgy, sacraments, and devotional practice are represented in novels and poetry, especially in the poetry of John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins.


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