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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Will Willimon: The Holy Spirit, by Willimon and Hauerwas, Part 2

September 16, 2015



This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, the latest collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. In this book, we attempt to lure fellow Christians into the riches of Pneumatology, thinking about the Holy Spirit. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Pentecostal Embarrassment

The Holy Spiritʼs lack of prominence in contemporary theology is odd given that the movement generally known as Pentecostalism is the fastest growing form of Christianity.Charismatic Christianity has grown exponentially over the last century. The movement which many think began in 1906 in modest circumstances on Azusa Street in Los Angeles has exploded into a world-wide phenomenon producing some of the most lively churches in South America and Africa.

Of particular note is the Holy Spiritʼs special relation with the poor and the dispossessed. The sermon that Jesus preaches in Luke 4, claiming that the Spirit is upon him to preach good news to the oppressed, deliverance to prisoners, is taking form in worldwide Pentecostalism today.

The charismatic, Holy Spirit induced movement has not been restricted to Protestants. In 1967 during a retreat at Duquesne University a number of the participants were "reborn" in the Spirit. It was not long before the movement spread to the University of Notre Dame spawning summer meetings that for a number of years attracted thousands. This Catholic charismatic movement has generally had the support of the Popes and bishops.

Charismatic forms of Protestantism have often received a different response from the churches. In fact, the "enthusiasm" of the charismatics may be one of the reasons the Holy Spirit does not have, at least among mainstream Protestants, the same status as Father and Son. "Enthusiasm," (infused with God) was a frequent charge against John Wesley and his Methodists.

Some fundamentalist churches ostracize members who claim to have received charismatic gifts, seeing such claims as dangerous undercutting the authority of Scripture and disrupting congregational order. As mainstream Protestantism loses the social and political status it once enjoyed, unable to attract new members, it becomes fearful about the future. Mainline Protestants sense that just identifying themselves as Christian is enough of a threat to secular culture; they are anxious not to be counted with Christians who speak in tongues, perform signs and wonders, believe in miracles, and are possessed by the Spirit. "Progressive Christians" know that many of their secular friends think that Christianity can no longer be rationally defended. That some Christians in the name of the Holy Spirit claim to be possessed by God in a way that seems irrational to modern, Western people only reinforces the secularist suspicion of the absurdity of Christianity.

In a field education seminar, Will had a student present a case study in which a parishioner asked her pastor, "What does the United Methodist Church believe about speaking in tongues."

The pastor was rather pleased with himself to respond, "Oh my God, donʼt tell me youʼve gotten into that!"

She reported that she had experienced glossolalia, ecstatic speech, during a session of her Bible study group.

"Perhaps you are still dealing with grief over the death of your daughter," said the pastor.

"I am. Is that what causes this?" she asked.

"Perhaps you ought to seek professional help," persisted the pastor.

"Thatʼs why I came to you," she concluded.

We find this a rather brutal policing of the Holy Spirit to assume that a report of unusual spiritual gifts should be responded to with, "You are insane."  

- Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

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From Will's blog, A Peculiar Prophet

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