A Divine Spirit Transforming Humanity Divinely – By Gregory K. Hillis

Gregory K. Hillis on Thomas L. Humphries, Jr.’s Ascetic Pneumatology from John Cassian to Gregory the Great

Thomas L. Humphries, Jr., Ascetic Pneumatology from John Cassian to Gregory the Great, Oxford University Press, 2013, 237pp., $99
Thomas L. Humphries, Jr., Ascetic Pneumatology from John Cassian to Gregory the Great, Oxford University Press, 2013, 237pp., $99

Prior to the late fourth century, so the story goes, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) was in flux. Christians were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but were more than a little unsure about precisely who or what that last figure was. Theological controversies over the question of the divinity of Jesus Christ dominated much of the fourth century, and the doctrine articulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325, that the Son of God is united to the Father in his divinity, eventually carried the day. Nicene Christianity later defined the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, as the Council of Constantinople affirmed in 381 that the Spirit is the “Lord and giver of life” who “proceeds from the Father.”

Although the Nicene-Constantinople doctrine of the Trinity became orthodox doctrine for Christians thereafter, the story continues. Affirmation of the Spirit’s divinity alongside the Father and the Son didn’t prevent theologians in the Latin West and the Greek East from developing differing portrayals of the Spirit’s eternal relationship with the Father and the Son. The Latin West’s most significant theologian, Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), exemplifies the differences that emerged between East and West. Whereas the Greek East preferred to articulate the divinity of the Spirit while maintaining strict fidelity to the Council of Constantinople’s declaration that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, Augustine of Hippo and others argued that the Spirit must proceed from the Father and the Son. The double procession of the Spirit gradually gained traction in the Western church, and by the eleventh century the creed recited in Rome included the affirmation that the Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the Son” (filioque). Filioque became a point of contention between the East and the West and was a major contributing factor to the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054. That one word remains a theological sticking-point.

Thomas L. Humphries, Jr. doesn’t think this narrative tells the whole story about the early Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit. In his telling, early Christian theologians — particularly Latin theologians in the fifth and sixth centuries — focused their attention not on the divine relationship of the Spirit with the Father and the Son, but on the Spirit’s role in transforming humanity. Theologians of the Latin West in the fifth and sixth centuries understood the doctrine of the Spirit’s divinity to be firmly established. Whereas earlier theologians pointed to the Spirit’s saving work of transformation as proof of the Spirit’s divinity, later theologians could study the Spirit’s work specifically for what it tells us about how God in the Spirit transforms us.

Although Humphries does not describe his task exactly in this way, he wants to demonstrate how fifth and sixth century theologians in the West understood the established doctrine of the Spirit’s divinity to have relevance for the spiritual life. It is not that theologians prior to the fifth century were unconcerned with the relationship of the Holy Spirit to what we call spirituality. Humphries points to both Ambrose of Milan and Basil of Caesarea as key fourth-century figures who discussed the Spirit in these terms, and he could have pointed to many others. But from the fifth century onwards, theologians in the West were able to focus their attention on the Spirit’s relationship to Christian spirituality unconstrained by having to defend the Spirit’s divinity. It is typically thought that, after Augustine of Hippo, Latin pneumatology focused primarily on solidifying and justifying the filioque and so was concerned almost entirely with the intertrinitarian relations. Rather than denying this facet of how the Latin doctrine of the Holy Spirit developed, Humphries enlarges the picture by demonstrating that Latin theologians were deeply, even primarily, interested in exploring and experiencing more profoundly the transformation made possible in and through the Holy Spirit.

John Cassian. Image via Wikimedia Commons
John Cassian. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This study of fifth and sixth century theologians has relevance today because of its focus on the relationship between theology and spirituality. There has long been a disconnect in Western Christianity between theology and spirituality. Its historical causes are complicated, but most often blamed is the twelfth-century rise of theology as reasoned speculation in conversation with philosophical categories, exemplified by a theologian like Peter Abelard (d. 1142). Theological exploration moved from the cloisters of monasteries to the ivory towers of emerging universities, and theology as a discipline came to be studied as an intellectual pursuit that could be separated from the life of prayer and ascesis. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) and Bonaventure (d. 1274) are viewed as exceptions to this trend.

Whatever the historical causes, the divorce between theology and spirituality is a real one that continues down to the present day. The growth of “Nones” in the North Atlantic countries — those who consciously choose not to belong to a religious tradition but who frequently identify as “spiritual” — illustrates that Western Christian traditions continue in their struggle to articulate an understanding of theological truth that carries relevance for everyday life. In my classroom and elsewhere, I have spoken to those who identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” and in almost every case they have expressed their inability to see how doctrine, particularly Trinitarian doctrine, could possibly influence their spirituality.

Whatever the historical causes, the divorce between theology and spirituality is a real one that continues down to the present day

Humphries draws our attention to theologians who worked from the assumption that our understanding of God is intertwined with our understanding of how God transforms humankind. The works of prominent fifth and sixth century Latin theologians turn out to be a gold mine for examining how the doctrine of the Holy Spirit informed their accounts of human transformation. Humphries is particularly interested in examining those theologians who brought the doctrine of the Holy Spirit into conversation with their ascetic systems, that is, with their portrayal of the rigors of the spiritual life. He finds in their work an “ascetic pneumatology,” an account of how the divine Holy Spirit transforms those who devote themselves to a life of spiritual discipline.

Humphries points specifically to John Cassian (d. c. 435), Pope Leo the Great (d. 461), and Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) as exemplars of this ascetic pneumatology. Cassian was deeply influenced by the monastic spirituality of the Egyptian desert, having experienced it first-hand. Humphries argues that Cassian’s pivotal role in the development of a Latin ascetic pneumatology was to update desert monastic spirituality by incorporating into it a Nicene understanding of the Spirit’s divinity. Cassian received from the desert fathers an understanding of spiritual transformation that revolved around the reformation of perverted thoughts and desires that threaten to keep us from the contemplation of God. When describing the process of transformation, Cassian at every turn points to the operation of the divine Holy Spirit. The indwelling Spirit roots out perverted thoughts and desires, reorders them, and so brings the monk to an experience of contemplation that is a foretaste of heaven.

Cassian develops an ascetic pneumatology aimed particularly at monks who are able to devote their entire existences to the ascetic life, but what about the majority who live in the world and who are therefore unable to devote themselves so fully to a life of asceticism? Enter Pope Leo the Great. Leo directed his attention to laity and so crafted an ascetic pneumatology that took into account their station in life. He emphasized the ways in which laypeople experience the Holy Spirit, not so much through particular ascetic practices — though he does talk about the necessity of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — but through the sacraments and the liturgy. Pope Gregory the Great, like Cassian a monk but like Leo a pope concerned with the spiritual welfare of his flock, is the apex of the ascetic pneumatology traced in the book. Gregory framed his ascetic pneumatology in terms of the reformation of thoughts and desires while emphasizing the necessity of the sacramental life, thus combining predominant themes found in Cassian and Leo.

Humphries does not limit his examination to these three figures. His analysis also contains an examination of the role pneumatology played in various Augustinianisms, or theologies heavily influenced by Augustine of Hippo. These sections of the book demonstrate that pneumatology was a key concern for theologians during this period, even (or especially) in debates revolving around the sticky issues of predestination and free will. These sections — more so than the chapters on Cassian, Leo, and Gregory — will be of interest primarily to specialists in the field due to the technical nature of the theological debates covered. In contrast, Humphries’ examinations of Cassian, Leo, and Gregory have appeal to broader audiences because each figure’s concern for spiritual transformation and how such transformation occurs speaks to concerns that continue to resonate for many today.

Nonetheless, the way in which Humphries articulates the relationship between the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the ways in which various theologians depicted the Spirit’s transforming operation is somewhat problematic. He asserts that the theologians he examines were able to elaborate on the Spirit’s transformative role because the Spirit’s divinity had been established in the late fourth century. What had not been established, however, were the precise parameters of the Spirit’s relationship with the Father and the Son, and Humphries himself acknowledges that the theologians he examines wrote about this relationship and affirmed the filioque. Humphries is able to show how belief in the Spirit’s divinity affected their portrayal of the Spirit’s transforming work, but he devotes too little attention to how their understanding of the Spirit’s relationship with the Father and the Son affects the specific shape of the Spirit’s transforming work. Just as their affirmation of the Spirit’s divinity plays out in important ways in the manner in which they recount Christian formation in holiness, so one would expect that their affirmation of the Spirit’s eternal procession from the Father and the Son has implications for how the Spirit undertakes the role of transforming humankind. Humphries delves into this briefly in his analysis of Fulgentius of Ruspe (d. 533), but more assessment like this for other figures would have further demonstrated the essential link between doctrine and spirituality that Humphries endeavors to establish in the book.

In the end, Humphries’ book succeeds in demonstrating that Latin pneumatology in the fifth and sixth centuries was concerned not only with doctrine, but also deeply with developing the Holy Spirit’s role in the transformation of humanity. As such, this study has something significant to say about the theological enterprise. To study theology is not to study doctrine as if this doctrine simply fell from the sky to be accepted in toto. Doctrine emerged from a collective experience of the divine and continues to have meaning and coherence only to the extent that it engages the person and the community existentially. Doctrine was not, and is not, something to which one merely gives one’s assent. Theology and spirituality exist in unity, and it is Humphries’ exploration of their unity among fifth and sixth century Latin theologians that makes his study relevant for today.