John Levison’s FILLED WITH THE SPIRIT (Part I)

I have been slowly working through Levison’s Filled with the Spirit (Eerdmans) – a fascinating study of ancient Jewish and early Christian pneumatology.  When you pick up the book, you are immediately struck by the excessive language in the endorsements: ‘Anyone writing seriously on the spirit in the biblical literature needs now to start with this book — and will probably keep it as a constant dialogue partner’ (Max Turner); ‘[A] scholarly tour de force – breathtaking in its scope, depth, and erudition…’ (Brueggemann), ‘Deserves to be read closely and appreciated for its innovations’ (Alan Segal).  And the list goes on (John J. Collins, James Dunn, Susan Garrett, etc…).

I am about halfway through the book and it is at the same time refreshing, dense, difficult, poetic, confusing, stimulating, and truly magisterial.  If one learns nothing academically from this book (which is impossible), one will certainly walk away having seen what good writing looks like.  He is one of a few scholars that makes monograph-writing an art.

OK, now to the arguments of the book.  In this part, I cannot deal with all levels of his discussion, but I will focus on his main point vis-a-vis ancient Israel.  Essentially he argues that we cannot keep separate the notion of the human spirit (given at birth) and the later endowments of the Spirit that inspire special activity or give power.  Though there may be some later-in-life experience of the Spirit for some (a ‘filling’), it is not divisible from the original giving of the spirit at the birth of life.

His research question is crafted this way: What is the relationship between the spirit that human beings possess by dint of birth – the life principle or breath within – and the spirit that exhibits awesome effects? (11)

And here is his extended thesis:

‘I hope to redraw the relationship between the initial endowment of the spirit and what Gunkel would refer to as the mysterious effects of the spirit. It is time to supplant Gerlemann’s distinction between anthropological-psychological spirit and the charismatic spirit, between Lampe’s soul and the actual spirit of God, and between Horn’s essentially physical breath and the charismatic spirit that inspires judges and prophets. The two, the so-called life principle and the spirit of God, I am convinced, were understood to be one and the same. The initial endowment of God’s spirit at birth must not, therefore, be understood as an inferior presence, a merely physical reality, in comparison to the charismatic endowments, but rather in its own right as a vital and powerful presence with its own supernatural effects’ (12)

In the first few chapters, he points out that the spirit of God is breathed into humanity to give life, but that is a gift that God sustains and by it he keeps away the flood of death.  The taking away of the spirit would be to leave the flesh stranded in the shadow of death.

More to his point about filling, he argues that when we see people being “filled” in the Hebrew Bible, it is not that they have been zapped (my term!) with brand new skills that they never had before.  The spirit within has been working all along throughout their life (and training and education).  This can be demonstrated in all of the instances of spirit-language and skill-development in the HB (and Levison goes through many of them).  To pick one, in Exodus when special workers are chosen to aid in constructing temple materials and garments, Levison writes that God chose ‘artisans who in the past had developed their skills and who now, in this pivotal moment in Israel’s history, were fully prepared to exercise these skills in the extraordinary task of making Aaron’s priestly vestments and constructing the tent of presence’ (55).

So, what does it mean to be ‘filled with the Spirit’ at one special point in time?  Levison explains that part of the problem is with the terminology of “filling” – ‘Filling connotes completion, full-filling, fruition, wholeness, fullness.’ (57)

and

‘…the emphasis lies upon lavishness of this filling much more than upon the initial gift of the spirit’ (58)

and

‘Their skill, their wisdom, increased to an extraordinary extent’ (62)

and he further explains filling as involving ‘…the expansiveness of the spirit within’ (66).

What Levison points out (ethically) is that when the people of God want to be obedient to him, they are not just sitting around waiting to be zapped with the Spirit.  They have been honing their skills, walking faithfully, and the “filling” is supernatural, but it is an overflowing of the “filling” that has been taking place all along.  This emphasizes that God does not just wait to work in the 11th hour because he can just “fill” someone and the work will be done.  He is involved in the whole process of bringing skilled people together from beginning to end – even from the beginning of their lives!

In part II we will look at Levison’s reflections on the NT.

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