Book Review: The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience by Simeon Zahl

[1] Just months before his untimely death in 1963, H. Richard Niebuhr issued a rousing call for “a recovery of feeling in theology.”[1] Though he affirmed Barth’s rejection of any point of contact between revelation and human experience, he felt the pendulum had now swung too far. In securing the objectivity of the Word of God, theologians had forgotten that “the Biblical witness speaks of a God […] who is objective, but objective to man [sic] as emotional being.”[2] The way forward, Niebuhr argued, was to recover a powerful theological tradition that emphasizes the passionate, affective dimensions of the human encounter with God which, for him, culminates with Jonathan Edwards.

[2]  Nearly sixty years later, Simeon Zahl has issued a similar call, albeit in a less Reformed key. He, like Niebuhr, detects an enduring tepidness amongst Protestant theologians on the theme of Christian experience, an error that he also attributes to Barth’s legacy. This affliction extends even to contemporary pneumatology, the doctrinal locus in which a textured analysis of Christian experience would be most fitting. The absence of such analysis is even more remarkable given the field’s otherwise encouraging return to patristic soteriologies of participation, which promised to locate the Spirit’s activity firmly within the ordinary, natural processes of human life. The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience seeks to diagnose this enduring allergy to experience in theology, and the methodological intervention it proposes might, if heeded, bring systematic and practical theologians into a more generative alignment. But the work’s most provocative claim lies in its constructive proposal. For Zahl, the way to recover feeling in theology is to return to the founding experience of Protestantism itself, Luther’s so-called Turmerlebnis, as well as the affectively charged pneumatology that occasions it.

[3] This may have a certain intuitive appeal for readers of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, but the truth of Zahl’s proposition is hardly obvious. As he readily notes, the recent turn toward patristic and Neo-Thomist soteriologies has largely come in response to a criticism of Lutheran models of forensic justification as experientially arid, amounting to little more than a rational calculation of merits coram deo. Zahl’s constructive task is thus twofold. The first is to defend the phenomenological richness of justification as a full-blooded experience. He does this through sharp, lucid studies of Luther’s own writings, as well as those of Philip Melanchthon and the deep historical source for both, the late Augustine. These form the pillars of what Zahl names the affective Augustinian tradition, and his second task is to show that his own hermeneutical reconstruction of this tradition surpasses the alternatives, which either privilege participation or habituation as their central soteriological motif.

[4] But before developing this alternative, Zahl must first explain why experience has become so fraught for Protestants. The story is a familiar one. Theologians in the shadow of Barth avoid experience for fear of confusing it as theology’s ground or starting point. But Zahl argues persuasively that this is only one way experience can figure theologically. Whether one is formulating a dogmatic proposition, reading a theological classic, or assessing the plausibility of a theological claim, each activity occurs within embodied, socially embedded creatures whose subjectivity simply cannot be extricated from these processes. Conceived in this manner, as “the complex effects of the theologian’s subjectivity on the processes by which they arrive at and are persuaded of theological conclusions,”[3] experience is the ineradicable coefficient of all theology. We ignore at our peril.

[5] But ignore it we have, according to Zahl. Unfortunately, he makes only passing reference to feminist and queer theologians, both of which most certainly embrace experience.  Zahl focuses his critique elsewhere, arguing that some of the most prominent systematic theologians working on pneumatology, including those who embrace soteriologies of participation, actively ignore the role of experience. Through attentive readings of T.F. Torrance and Kathryn Tanner, prominent advocates of participation soteriologies, Zahl identifies a consistent preference for “purely ontological” or “metaphysical” categories (i.e., union with Christ, participation in the Godhead, or deification/theosis) at the expense of “experiential” ones. Even when these theologians make reference to the anthropological correlates of the Holy Spirit’s activity, their formulations remain so vague and abstract (i.e., “new dispositions,” “new capacities,” “new powers”) that they provide little to help Christians distinguish the Spirit’s activity from their own idolatrous projections. In response, Zahl argues that any “full-orbed pneumatology”[4] must specify the “affective predicates”[5] that follow from, or are perhaps even constitutive of, such ontological transformations. This principle of “practical recognizability”[6] charges theologians to supplement their conceptually abstract or symbolic figurations of Christian salvation with more concrete descriptions of phenomena that a) transpire in space and time and b) are closely “tethered” to human bodies. While Torrance explicitly refuses to specify any affective predicates for fear of sullying the “complete objectivity”[7] of God, Tanner’s comparatively greater attention to the Spirit’s effects on human bodies in time falls short because she relegates all experiential dimensions of faith to the domain of sanctification, thus reserving the more theologically significant event of justification for purely ontological description.

[6] The principle of practical recognizability marks Zahl’s central methodological contention, which he casts as a corrective “recalibration”[8] to contemporary theology’s penchant for abstraction. It also motivates his constructive retrieval of an affective Augustinian alternative. In Melanchthon, he finds an account of salvation that emphasizes the forensic character of justification as well as the incongruous, “disjunctive” quality of divine grace that Torrance and Tanner are eager to protect. But in contrast to these figures, Melanchthon construes saving faith as a “practically recognizable affective sequence”[9] that moves from existential terror to the peace and joy of divine consolation. The difference with Tanner lies in Melanchthon’s readiness to call this experiential sequence itself “justification,” which according to Zahl, effectively dissolves any strict distinction between consolation and regeneration.[10] The once-terrified sinner who finds their fear of divine wrath replaced by a warm, affectionate love for God just is the one who participates in the activity of the Holy Spirit, whose comportment toward God is transformed, and who discovers new powers and dispositions emerging from this sequence. The ontological and the experiential need not – indeed, should not – be separated.

[7] This raises a potent concern. Might not this emphasis on the “affective salience of doctrines,”[11] with its pressure to make the affective predicates of theological convictions explicit and concrete, obviate the need for doctrines altogether? Zahl insists that it does not, and to make this plain, he turns to Luther’s famous teaching on law and gospel. Such dogmatic propositions, he claims, not only emerge from profoundly affective patterns of experience – in this case, Luther’s terrifying Anfechtungen and the sweet consolation of grace. They also serve to interpret and generate such affective sequences. Zahl perceptively notes that, while many living in our so-called secular age are likely to interpret them differently than did Luther, we too find ourselves afflicted with fears of judgment, alienation, and death. Drawing on recent work in affect theory, Zahl argues that these represent semi-stable structures of lived reality that, while clearly shaped by the discursive regimes and cultural forms of a given historical epoch, are not exhaustively determined by them. This means that it is at least possible for historically and culturally distant interpretive schemes – in this case, doctrinal claims about law and gospel – to make better sense of these enduring affective dynamics than can more recent, non-theological ones. Luther’s formulation does this by naming the ways in which we “participate irrationally and compulsively in the generation of [our] own suffering”[12] even as we hold out “the possibility of hope for a deliverance that originates outside the system.” [13] In short, Zahl’s claim is that doctrines not only bear an affective salience; they can also provide “affective pedagogy”[14] for those of us bewildered by our own emotional restlessness. The theologian’s task, then, is to continually interpret these structures of lived existence in the light of traditional Christian symbols for the sake of rendering our life before God more intelligible and of inhabiting that life with hope.

[8] Having defended the experiential profundity of justification from its recent despisers, Zahl turns finally to the headwaters of this affective Augustinian tradition to show why this pneumatology should be preferred over its competitors. In Augustine’s soteriology of delight, he finds a nearly identical affective sequence to that of the Reformers, although here it is, unsurprisingly given his Neoplatonist sensibilities, more directly linked with a realist metaphysics of value. The Christian convert discovers a radical reorientation of desire wherein previously delicious sins now elicit disgust and formerly onerous forms of righteousness begin to sizzle with delight. This transformation owes to the Holy Spirit’s activity which move the restless soul through a process of persuasion, soliciting it gradually to discover that which truly merits enjoyment. On Zahl’s reconstruction, this affective Augustinian pneumatology accommodates many features of Christian experience that contemporary participation and habituation models struggle to explain. The fact of sin’s intransigence in post-conversion life hangs together easily with Augustine’s view of the self as a perpetual question whose motives remain enigmatic even to itself. With the virtue theorist, he can affirm the positive role of habituation even as the discourse of affect enables him to refrain from the overly optimistic view that temporally extended practice is either necessary or sufficient for human transformation. And in perhaps his most original insight, Zahl thinks alongside Sara Ahmed’s fecund conception of “affective economies” [15] to extend Augustine’s soteriology of desire to include the social breadth and material depths of our affections. The enigmas of the self, it turns out, are hardly limited to each self, but rather pervade and circulate through our social, historical, and material environments. Zahl’s affective Augustinianism thus bears a telescopic quality allowing it to move nimbly across various scopes of sin and grace, from pre-personal neurological impulses to supra-personal historical forces, tracking the affective pathways that pulse through human existence and charting the many ways these pulsations alternatively diminish and dignify human life before God.

[9] However the multi-decade story of the recovery of feeling in theology unfolds, this elegantly argued, genuinely constructive work surely makes a significant contribution and, perhaps also, a turning point. Zahl has clarified and reanimated a distinctive and, as of late, neglected tradition in affective Augustinianism. He has also demonstrated the theoretical suppleness of affect as a mediating term between human and divine agency. It thus serves as a prolegomena for future work in the theology of affectivity, indicating, albeit all-too-briefly, the value of turning to research in empirical psychology as well as contemporary affect theory as conversation partners for theology. In Zahl’s hands, these other fields serve largely to confirm the traditional theological positions he favors. One wonders if they could play a more robust, perhaps even critical, role in this conversation, prompting the reconstruction of the doctrinal positions themselves. Working in the other direction, future research might explore how Christian theological insights about affectivity challenge and expand the way those working on this theme in the cognitive sciences, social theory, and phenomenology understand the nature, function, and ultimate limits of our affections. As with the operations of the Holy Spirit, the value of this book will be known by its fruits. But from the present vantage point, Zahl’s achievement here is undeniable.


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Cole Lectures: ‘Next Steps in Theology,’” in Theology, History, and Culture: Major Unpublished Writings, ed. W. S. Johnson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 3-49.

[2] Niebuhr, 41.

[3] Zahl, 14.

[4] Zahl, 97.

[5] Inter alia Zahl, 154.

[6] Zahl, 70.

[7] Torrance, ‘Relevance of the Doctrine of the Spirit,’ 233. Cited in Zahl, 100.

[8] Zahl, 78.

[9] Zahl, 127.

[10] Zahl, 125.

[11] Zahl, 3-4.

[12] Zahl, 173.

[13] Zahl, 175.

[14] Zahl, 164

[15] Zahl, 215-225.

Andrew Packman

Andrew Packman is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics and Formation at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.