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Shrinking pigeon, brooding dove: the Holy Spirit in recent works by Sarah Coakley and N. T. Wright

  • Joshua McNall (a1)


This article contrasts recent works by Sarah Coakley and N. T. Wright as they pertain to Paul's treatment of the Holy Spirit. In particular, Coakley reveals the inadequacy of Wright's claim that the early fathers were impeded in developing a high view of the Spirit because of an allegiance to ‘Greek philosophy’. Likewise, Wright's more comprehensive treatment of Paul helps to reveal potential problems with Coakley's apophatic tendency to describe the human encounter with God as ‘a love affair with a blank’. In the end, however, both thinkers are united in acknowledging the leading activity of the Spirit, both in prayer and in enabling the Christian to declare that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (1 Cor 12:3). In these ways, both authors converge in an attempt to restore the Holy Spirit to a rightful place in Christian theology and devotion.



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1 Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘God's Grandeur’.

2 Coakley, Sarah, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ [hereafter GSS] (Cambridge: CUP, 2013).

3 Wright, N. T., Paul and the Faithfulness of God [hereafter PFG] (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).

4 Ibid., p. xvi.

5 While the truth of this claim will become obvious with regard to Coakley, its veracity with regard to Wright may be seen, for instance, in his claim that, ‘The Holy Spirit is, in fact, the usually forgotten element in justification.’ PFG, p. 914.

6 Coakley, GSS, p. 128.

7 Ibid., p. 212. Subsequent biblical citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted.

8 Ibid., p. 111.

9 Ibid., p. 352. For more on Coakley's unique method, see the book review by Sonderegger, Katherine, ‘ God, Sexuality and the Self’ , International Journal of Systematic Theology 18/1 (Jan. 2016), pp. 94–8.

10 Coakley, GSS, p. 316.

11 Ibid., p. 26.

12 Ibid., p. 6 (emphasis added).

13 Ibid., p. 15.

14 Ibid., p. 24.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p. 23.

17 Ibid., p. 45.

18 In the glossary included at the end of GSS, Coakley defines contemplation as ‘prayer or communing with God that does not use ordinary propositional language, but rests in silence or near silence’ (p. 346). While her meaning of ‘charismatic prayer’ is not defined, it would seem to involve praying ‘in the Spirit’ through the use of tongues, as well as a general openness to the Spirit's guidance as it blows where it will, sometimes in surprising ways. Coakley advocates for all of this while attempting to avoid the sectarian and emotive ‘embarrassments’ that she also finds within charismatic traditions. See GSS, ch. 4.

19 Ibid., p. 55.

20 Ibid., p. 112.

21 Ibid., pp. 112–13. While there may be other ‘exegetical’ or ‘logical’ pressures towards ‘hypostatizing’ the Spirit, Coakley here limits herself to ‘experientially based’ arguments.

22 This claim builds on Coakley's contribution, ‘Why Three? Some Further Reflections on the Origins of the Doctrine of the Trinity’, in The Making and Remaking of Christian Doctrine: Essays in Honour of Maurice Wiles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 29–56.

23 Coakley, GSS, p. 126.

24 So says Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 8.12; cited in Coakley, GSS, p. 121.

25 Coakley, GSS, p. 117.

26 Coakley locates the occasional exceptions to this trend in certain statements from Origen, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and, chiefly, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. On this point, see also Coakley, Sarah, ‘Prayer, Politics and the Trinity: Vying Models of Authority in the Third-Fourth-Century Debates on Prayer and “Orthodoxy”’, Scottish Journal of Theology 66/4 (2013), pp. 379–99.

27 See Coakley, GSS, ch. 5.

28 Ibid., p. 212. Coakley credits her former colleague, Meg Twycross, with this evocative description of the ‘diminished’ Spirit within much of Christian iconography.

29 This ‘flock’ of metaphors can be glimpsed by a mere perusal of Wright's table of contents.

30 Wright, PFG, p. 1265. This same page cites Hopkins, ‘God's Grandeur’.

31 Coakley, GSS, p. 9.

32 Wright, PFG, p. 721.

33 Here, as elsewhere in this volume, Wright does not capitalise his references to the Holy Spirit.

34 Ibid., p. 710.

35 See Martin, Dale, ‘Paul and the Judaism/Hellenism Dichotomy: Toward a Social History of the Question’, in Troels, Engberg-Pedersen (ed.), Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001). For a patristic-based critique of the so-called ‘Hellenisation thesis’, see Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2004), esp. pp. 388–92.

36 Wright, PFG, p. 711. Wright even goes so far as to say that ‘Paul's aims and intentions could be summed up as the vocation to build and maintain the new Temple.’ Ibid., p. 1492.

37 Ibid., p. 712.

38 Ibid., pp. 716–17.

39 Ibid., p. 716.

40 Ibid., p. 727.

41 Ibid., p. 1517.

42 Ibid., p. 717.

43 For instance, ibid., pp. 1127, 1493.

44 This translation is that of Wright himself.

45 Ibid., p. 719.

46 Ibid., p. 721.

47 Ibid.

48 See again Wright, PFG, p. 721.

49 Ibid., p. 710 (emphasis added).

50 For a recent and fascinating confirmation of this reality, see Soulen's, R. Kendall retrieval of the Tetragrammaton for use within trinitarian theology. The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011).

51 Coakley, GSS, p. 116. She makes this claim in contrast to that of her mentor, Maurice Wiles.

52 This view is also affirmed by Thiselton, Anthony, The Holy Spirit: In Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries, and Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), p. 180 .

53 Anatolios, Khaled, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), p. 133 .

54 For a recent summary of the period, see Thiselton, The Holy Spirit, pp. 218–19.

55 See especially the recent patristic scholarship by Lewis Ayres, John Behr and Khaled Anatolios, each challenging the so-called ‘Hellenisation thesis’ set forth by Harnack and a previous generation of scholars. Anatolios, Retrieving Nicea; Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy; Behr, John, The Formation of Christian Theology, 3 vols. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2004).

56 Coakley, GSS, p. 316.

57 Ibid., p. 89.

58 Ibid., p. 342.

59 Pseudo-Dionysius, Mystical Theology 1. Cited in Coakley, GSS, p. 323.

60 Coakley, GSS, p. 342. As Coakley acknowledges, this ‘wonderful’ phrase is that of Moore, Dom Sebastian, ‘Some Principles for an Adequate Theism’, Downside Review 95 (1977), pp. 201–13. For additional engagement with this theme, see Coakley, Sarah, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), chs. 2 and 9, respectively.

61 Coakley, GSS, p. 43.

62 Wright, PFG, p. 414.

63 Coakley, GSS, p. 343.

64 Ibid., p. 1.

65 E.g. ‘The vertiginous free-fall of contemplation [is] the means by which a disciplined form of unknowing makes way for a new and deeper knowledge-beyond-knowledge.’ Coakley, GSS, p. 43. Both here and elsewhere the prose is impressive, yet one wonders if it might be better to ‘speak five intelligible words, than ten-thousand’ (1 Cor. 14:19) such as this.

66 See Coakley, GSS, p. 96.

67 See, for instance, Coakley's refusal to address ‘the so-called “problem” of “homosexuality”’, (ibid., p. 11) and her rather vague hints regarding ‘gender fluidity’ (e.g. p. 65), which are rooted in the way Romans 8 speaks of Christians generally as being adopted as ‘sons’, and of the creation itself as ‘groaning’ like a woman in labour. For further context, see also Coakley, Powers and Submissions, ch. 9.

68 See Wright's treatment of this, for instance, in PFG, p. 1117.

69 In a related reassessment of one of Coakley's favourite patristic sources, Nathan Eubank has recently argued that the culminating moment of mystical ascent within Gregory of Nyssa's De vita Moysis is not the apophatic experience of ‘darkness’ (as argued by Coakley and others), but rather the encounter with the person of Christ, the ‘tabernacle not built with human hands’. While the present article is not focused on patristic sources, Eubank's research fits nicely with my own attempt to dampen Coakley's enthusiasm for apophatic ‘darkness’ as the culmination of contemplative prayer. See Eubank, Nathan, ‘Ineffably Effable: The Pinnacle of Mystical Ascent in Gregory of Nyssa's De vita Moysis ’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 16/1 (January 2014), pp. 2541 .

70 Wright, PFG, p. 1516.

71 Coakley, GSS, p. 341.

72 Wright, PFG, p. 917.

73 Ibid., p. 1265.

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