The Holy Spirit as Communion

Colin Cunton's Pneumatology of Communion and Frank Macchia's Pneumatology of Koinonia

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I. Leon Harris
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock Publishers
    , September
     258 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The aim of I. Leon Harris in this book (that shares its title with his doctoral thesis at the University of Aberdeen, 2015) is to re-examine the personhood of the Holy Spirit in order to make more intelligible for Christian believers the nature and functions of this neglected and under-appreciated Third Person, both within the Trinity and across God’s economic activities of creation, redemption, and eschatology.

To achieve this goal Harris places in dialogue two eminent Protestant pneumatologists of our age: Colin E. Gunton (1941-2003) and Frank D. Macchia (b. 1952). Gunton comes from the Reformed tradition in Great Britain and Macchia is an American Pentecostal. Both are Neo-Barthians: they shun metaphysical speculations about the Trinity and commence with God’s self-revelation via scripture.

Harris opts to unfold his investigation of key elements of their respective pneumatologies by navigating through four theological loci: doctrine of God, pneumatology, christology, and ecclesiology. Although Harris approaches Gunton’s thinking in that order, with Macchia he advances in the opposite direction. His convincing rationale is that whereas Gunton begins with scripture, Macchia commences with the personal yet communal salvific experience of the Holy Spirit. Harris labels the first method as epistemological and the second soteriological. He does not “attempt to create an amalgam of the two approaches . . . (nor) prioritize one over the other” (202), but seeks to appraise systematically each theologian’s strengths and weaknesses.

Both dialogue-partners employ the economic Trinity, as revealed in scripture, to speak about the immanent one, rather than launch from a priori rationalist accounts. Like the Cappadocians, they insist on beginning with the three persons rather than their underlying consubstantiality. They are especially averse to Aristotelian substance ontology. Additionally, from both their standpoints, the filioque debate is a mistaken one, for reasons evident below. They also concur that the Incarnation would occur even absent the Fall.

These two pneumatologists similarly oppose any depersonalization of the Holy Spirit, such as that seen in Augustine’s analogy of the “bond of love” between Father and Son, which regards the Holy Spirit as a mere relation and not the active personal agent essential to forming the perichoretic communion and “interdependent dynamism of divine love” (201) among the persons of the Trinity. This unbreakable love extends itself into the relation between Creator and creatures, as well as among them. Therefore, “there is no need to postulate the unity of the divine substance” (197) as this is attained by “the reciprocal and mutual self-giving of the three persons to each other” (197).

It is impossible here to remark on all the profound and evocative particulars of each pneumatologist’s theology. Instead, I highlight salient stances they propound in their efforts to render a robust portrayal of the Spirit on the way, ultimately, to recasting the Chalcedon formulation in terms that speak to the Church and the world in a contemporary relational philosophical theology, yet remain within Christian creedal parameters.

The most striking proposal that Gunton advances, after his explication of the essential role of the Spirit in the immanent Trinity, is the role the Third Person fulfills in the Incarnation. Although the Son “assumed” human nature, it is the Spirit who “particularized” and “radically sanctified the human nature so that it could receive the person of the Son” (157). Within the Virgin the Spirit generates the human nature, which is “fallen,” as is ours. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ remains sinless because of the Spirit’s presence, assistance in growth of wisdom, and inspiration for obedience to the will of the Father.

Because the Son and Spirit both play roles here, Harris denominates Gunton’s christology as a “Pneumatic Logos Christology” (98). However, later Harris modifies this to a “Trinitarian Christology” (212), because although underscoring the centrality of the Spirit in the Incarnation, Gunton markedly separates himself from conventional Spirit Christology.

Despite a love’s being reciprocal, Gunton contends it cannot be perfect unless shared with a third party. Divine love, too, “requires a Trinity of Persons” (45) as the Spirit “perfects unity and brings communion to the Godhead” (47). Furthermore, Gunton lends implicit support to the concept of continuing creation in adopting the stance that the Spirit “brings about the divinely ordered future . . . that is open and allows creation to develop itself” (62).

Macchia, with his Pentecostal roots, not unexpectedly deploys the notion of “Spirit Baptism” that he represents as “a metaphor for some type of experience that happens in the life of the believer after coming to faith” (120). Such brings an “intense awareness of the presence of God” (119). It is a “profoundly personal but not individualistic experience” (192). Moreover, Harris asserts that Macchia expands Spirit Baptism into a more general root metaphor that comprehends the experience of salvation throughout the entire post-conversion life of both the individual and the community. Macchia’s overarching metaphor allows Harris to extrapolate reasonably to deliver a more full-bodied doctrine of God than is readily discernible in Macchia’s corpus.

Though Harris situates the two theologians in conversation, he does not operate solely as an alert spectator; rather, he vigorously criticizes the shortcomings he discovers. Then he brings insights from other Christian theologians who take contrary postures on various issues and employs them also to fill gaps he detects in the lines of argumentation of the two theologians.

This significant work is valuable not only for those desirous of a preliminary grasp of contemporary pneumatology, but also for those religious thinkers whose focus has been habitually on attaining greater intelligibility for the Spirit. A close reading constitutes a vital propaedeutic for those wishing to participate in the growing colloquy on a possible restatement of the Chalcedon formulation that will continue to intensify as trinitarian theology proceeds on its pre-established pathway of always reforming.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles G. Conway is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

I. Leon Harris is assistant professor of theology at Biola University, Talbot School of Theology.


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