The Spirit Among the Dissenters

Other Voices in Understanding the Spirit of God

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William H. Brackney
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , February
     166 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Typically, a book treating the doctrine of the Holy Spirit would focus on the councils of the church, weaving the thinking of patristic figures into a whole tapestry that is passed on in the historic creeds of the Christian faith and later confessions of various denominations. But what is left out of this tapestry? How does it function for various constituencies after its completion? Because of the usual approach to discussing the Spirit, these questions remain at the margins for many students of Christian theology.

In The Spirit Among the Dissenters, William H. Brackney aims to bring these questions and the voices that ask them to the center of the conversation. These figures—called “dissenters”—“work beyond the boundaries, fall below the expectations of the mainstream, or deliberately call into question a prevailing rule or idea” (xiv). As such, they are often outsiders in ways that are more than theological.

After cataloging select sources of the mainstream position concerning the Holy Spirit, Brackney’s survey is organized historically, examining the dissenting voices regarding the Spirit in each century since the Reformation. While it is not possible to name all that are included, it is worth noting some: English Separatists such as Francis Johnson and John Smyth in the 16th century; John Milton, George Fox, and German pietists in the 17th century; John and Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Shakers in the 18th century; Friedrich Schleiermacher, G. W. F. Hegel, Charles Finney, and Walter Rauschenbusch in the 19th century; and Pentecostalism, African-American theologians, Karl Barth, and Jürgen Moltmann in the 20th century. When the names are listed in this way, it becomes clear that this relatively brief book is full of conversation partners. Brackney concludes with a list of seven affirmations intended to present these dissenting voices to the mainstream perspective for a more robust theological dialogue.

As a whole, the book introduces readers to more than thirty dissenting voices. Each chapter contains discussion of multiple examples (and these often do not all move in the same direction), which means that there is a rather quick movement within each chapter. There is often mention of the nature of the dissent from the previously articulated mainstream perspective, which is important for a reader since the dissenting trajectories are abundant. The breadth of these dissenting approaches is impressive, including new religious movements (e.g., Society of the Universal Publick Friend, Latter Day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and fictional sources (e.g., William P. Young’s The Shack).

Moreover, Brackney highlights the ways in which numerous dissenting voices draw from developments in other fields, such as the increased use of electricity as a metaphor for the Spirit’s activity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Brackney should be commended for his use of primary source quotations, which allow readers to encounter a given dissenter in his or her own words. This seems quite consonant with his stated goal “to describe [the dissenters] in a manner respectful of the writers’ quest to understand better the Spirit” (xvi).

At the same time, there are several places where Brackney could have offered more framework when discussing the thought of some dissenters. As a result, some reflections on the Spirit may seem to be extraneous to the center of a dissenter’s theological work rather than integral parts of it. For example, while mentioning Tillich’s emphasis on correlational method between religion and culture (95), he does not describe how this plays a role in Tillich’s particular understanding of the Spirit. Related to this is a tendency, especially in the earlier chapters, to rely on extended quotations almost exclusively with little or no clarification or summary. This can lead to misunderstandings of the quoted material as well as confusion about what the dissenter is actually saying about the Holy Spirit.

Additionally, while it is important to acknowledge that Brackney’s book cannot include every dissenting voice, there are some notable omissions, of which I will mention three. First, he rightly acknowledges that the postcolonial school should not be neglected (112), but he does not provide the same treatment of its reflections on the Spirit, only listing several representative figures. Second, James William McClendon, Jr. hails from Brackney’s own Baptist tradition and would be a helpful representative of development within a dissenting tradition. Finally, Anglican Sarah Coakley does not come from a dissenting tradition, but her recent work on the Trinity is grounded in engagement with feminism, Christian art, and fieldwork related to charismatics. As such, she offers an approach that would be a worthy inclusion in this conversation.

Despite these modest criticisms, The Spirit Among the Dissenters is a remarkable book that provides a unique set of perspectives on the Holy Spirit. This work would be of significant use in classrooms, where its brevity makes it a solid candidate to be paired with primary texts from some of these thinkers. In this mode, the final chapter’s affirmations would serve to bring students back to the mainstream perspective with a renewed search for ways to allow the dissenting voices to challenge and shape the understanding of the Spirit going forward.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Derek C. Hatch is Associate Professor of Religion and Endowed Chair of Baptist Studies at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William H. Brackney is Pioneer MacDonald Professor of Baptist Theology and Ethics at Carey Theological College in Vancouver, British Columbia.


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