Monday, August 16, 2010

Phyllis Tickle: the Age of the Spirit?

In the twelfth century, Joachim of Fiore, abbot of a monastery in a remote area, San Giovanni da Fiore, wrote his apocalyptic visions of the future which included three religious ages. That is, an age of the Father, an age of the Son and an age of the Spirit. Fiore tied his ideas to the monastic life and saw the age of the Spirit as the age of two perfect monastic houses who would battle against the anti-Christ.. (Picture by Stephen Larson)

Some post-modern thinkers, writers and even pastors in the United States also think in terms of an age of the Spirit. Several times Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why has referred to both Joachim of Fiore and a coming age of the Spirit.

In her book in a footnote to page 162 on the possible changes coming to Christianity, Tickle writes:

“As many readers may know medieval mystics like Joachim of Fiore would regard that development [changes in Christianity which include a rewrite of theology] as nothing less than prophetic fulfillment, inasmuch as they believed history was to be divided up into bi-millennial units. For them, from the beginning to the birth of Christ was the two thousand years of primary emphasis on God the Father. From the coming of Christ to 2000 was to be the two thousand years of primary emphasis on God the Son. From 2000 CE to 4000 CE would be the two thousand years of the primacy in worship and in human affairs of God the Spirit.” (165 n8)

In a recent paper on Patheos Tickle writes: The Age of the Spirit has come, just as many of the mystics had promised it would. Authority will rest not only in scripture, as Luther and Protestantism had argued, but also in the intentions of the Spirit as they are revealed to, and discerned by, the devout in prayer and in congress with one another. It is a shift of historic proportions.”

I first want to correct Tickle’s understanding about Joachim and other mystics’ views of an age of the Spirit. But then I want to explain the problems that exist when Christians lift up such an age. (And it is nothing new within Christianity)

Joachim saw three states of time that overlapped each other. The first began with Adam and lasted until the time of Christ. For Joachim this was the time of the Father and those who married. The second state began with Josiah and lasted into the time of Christ and past. This was the time of clerics. The third stage, the Holy Spirit, is the time of the monastic orders and started with Saint Benedict. The time of the Father is the Old Testament, the time of Christ the New Testament. But, the time of the Spirit is unclear –it is now but it is also future. Joachim’s position on this is argued about by Scholars.[1]

There were others who followed Joachim; some were considered orthodox by the church of their time others were not. Some of the more heretical appeared in the thirteenth century. They were called the Amaurians. Norman Cohn in his fascinating book, The Pursuit of the Millennium writes of them:

“Like Joachim the Amaurians saw history as divided into three ages, corresponding to the three Persons of the Trinity; but unlike him, they believed that each age had its appropriate Incarnation. From the beginning of the world until the birth of Christ the Father had acted alone; and he had been incarnated in Abraham … The age since the Nativity had been the Age of the Son. But now there was the beginning the Age of the Holy Spirit, which would last to the end of the world. That age was to be marked by the last great Incarnation. It was the turn of the Spirit to take on flesh and the Amaurians were the first men in which it had done so-the first ‘Spirituals’, as they called themselves.” (155)[2]

And here is one of the clearest problems with an idea of an age of the Spirit. In such thinking the Holy Spirit is so easily untied from his position as the one who turns our attention to Jesus Christ. Jesus, in John, states that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin because they do not believe in him (Jesus. ) He convicts the world of righteousness because Jesus is with the Father. The Holy Spirit convicts the world of judgment because the ruler of the world (Satan) has been judged. And this is the work that Jesus did on the cross. (Col 2:15)

In Tickle’s thinking the community of believers will now find authority within their interconnectedness’ as the Holy Spirit guides. She speaks of the “intentions of the Spirit” and lays that beside the Holy Scriptures. But it is through the illumination of the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit to the heart of the believer, and always centered on the Lord of the Church that both believer and Church are guided.

The 19th century Romantic Movement was also a time when the Holy Spirit was lifted above Christ in emphasis. It was another age, like ours, that turned in interest to monasticism, cathedrals (but broken ancient ones), candles and gothic themes. It began with mystery and nature and ended in despair with the works of Nietzsche and the art of Francisco Goya.

H.G. Schenk in The Mind of the European Romantics, also writes of this problem of emphasizing the Holy Spirit over Christ. He explores the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, a romantic and the father of liberal theology. Using Karl Barth’s critique of Schleiermacher, he writes, “Adoration of the Holy Ghost, at the expense of the other Persons of the Trinity, emotionalism and finally, pantheism are, as it were, natural allies.” (116) And this is the direction many in the emergent movement, Tickle’s main subject, are headed. Moving away from the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Christ places believers in a very dangerous position.

If we hear the voice of the Spirit but do not hear of Jesus Christ and his redeeming, transforming life and death-it is not the Holy Spirit we are hearing. If we tend to listen for the Spirit but fail to obey the word of God, the Bible, we are listening for the wrong spirit. It is eternally the time of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] Trans. Intro. Bernard McGinn, Apocalyptic Spirituality: Treatises and Letters of Lactanntius, Adso of Montier-En-Der, Joachim of Fiore, the Spiritual Franciscans, Savonarola, (New York Paulist Press 1979) 102.

[2] When I first began ministering to families and Christians who had friends and children involved in cults and new religions, I encountered a whole ‘Christian’ radio station whose various pastors from all over the United States were teaching a similar doctrine.


Clay Allard said...

If we allow that there is any distance between the Spirit of God and the Word of God, this deathforce is the result. I think Tickle is right on the times that we live in, but dead wrong on the direction we are moving, and should move.
Too many of us evangelicals are still trying to prop up the corpse of Christendom. It is dead, and there's no bringing it back.
Clay Allard
Dallas, TX

Debbie said...

One of my favorite illustrations by Dale Bruner is this: He writes "Jesus" on a board, then, himself portraying the Holy Spirit, he steps behind the board, reaches around it, and points to Jesus.

That is an important work of the Holy Spirit.

I read the article by Phyllis Tickle in "Patheos", and frankly, I found it to be a lot of babble! (I'm saying what I really think here.) She didn't speak about God, not really. She only spoke of the church. Is she truly interested in God, or is she only interested in the church as a social construct?

Debbie Berkley
Bellevue, WA

Viola Larson said...

I'm not so sure yet if Tickle is right about where we are at the moment. It seems to me that she might be too focused on a western parochial movement while the rest of the world, the Southern cone and Asia are all involved in a vibrant Christianity that has nothing to do with the emerging church. So I guess what I am saying is that while she may be right about the shape of Christianity in the US or/and the UK these other movements dwarf her grand sweep of Christianity. Its like she is writing about a tiny sect in the midst of a huge traditionally focused church. And she almost never has anything to say about the revival of the Reformed faith in the United States. And that is huge.

Viola Larson said...

I will go with 'social construct.'
Dale Brunner is always good on the Holy Spirit. And now that you mention him somewhere among my books I have one of his that probably has some very cogent things to say-about those who uplift the Holy Spirit over Christ. I know that he wrote about perfectionism and the Holy Spirit.

Viola Larson said...

I forgot to say I like your term deathforce. That definitely fits.

John McNeese said...


I find the idea of breaking history into ages of this or that is irrelevant and simplistic whether by Joachim of Fiore or Phyllis Tickle.

The idea that the Romantic Movement was a time when the Holy Spirit was lifted above Christ, whatever that means, is absurd.  My favorite writers and artists are romantics.  I would rather spend time with these folks than those whose lives are built around  classicism and reason. They would certainly be more fun. I believe Jesus was romantic in his outlook, certainly not rational. 

Interesting analogy but whatever happened to God the Father? Is Jesus, now, the first among equals

Viola Larson said...

Many of my favorite writers are Romantics, in particular Christian romantics such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. But even Lewis noted some of the failures of the romantics. They were a rebellion, it is true, against a sterile rationalism, however, many of them indulged in drugs and committed suicide. It is perhaps because of their search for meaning in nature minus God or their awareness of the grandeur of the world without knowing its creator. I cannot remember where I read it at the moment, but Lewis writes of one of the great Romantic books, The Well at the End of the World, by Morris and how it does not end with any real satisfaction because it simply ends with human love.

Debbie can answer for herself, undoubtedly better than I can, but Jesus is the final revelation of God. There is nothing that we know about the love and care of God that we do not know through Jesus Christ. As Torrance puts it there is not a different God behind the back of Jesus Christ. Because the Father has chosen to reveal himself in Jesus Christ we are to pay attention to the Son.

John McNeese said...

And so, Viola, Jesus is no longer on the right hand, but has, in fact, usurped the Throne of God. And you criticized the recent Trinity report?

Viola Larson said...

John, the Father and the Holy Spirit pointing to the Son does not usurped the Trinity. It tells us of the Trinity.
"When the Helper comes, whom I [Jesus] will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me, and you will testify also, because have been with me from the beginninf." (John 15: 26-27)

Pastor Bob said...

Maybe it is easier to talk of periods in which different theological, philosophical and artistic schools were dominant. One problem with this idea is they do tend to overlap. There was a period in which reason was dominant - (at least in learned circles - the enlightenment. The enlightenment writers chose the name of their school very carefully to show that they had emerged out of the darkness of the Church and Christianity. The enlightenment theologians and philosophers, in a sense thought they could think their way to God. During the same time period however the first great awakening occurred with a great deal of expression of emotion and the German pietists came along too. This horrified theologians with a more rational bent. At the same time enlightenment Biblical criticism arose with Reimaris.

Kant came along and critiqued pure reason, if I may be allowed a small joke. The romantics in theology, Biblical criticism and philosophy (I am not at all able speak of romantic literature or painting from the period but I know what I like!) in some ways moved away from rational thought to feelings. They went out of their way to show how the enlightenment thinkers had gotten off the track by ignoring feelings. The period also saw a movement in music from Mozart to
Beethoven, classical to romantic.

You can see this in Schleiermacher who reacted against rationalistic thought and theology by moving toward feelings. While the rationalists tried to think their way to God Schleiermacher said in essence that we found God through feeling or rather that God sought us in our feelings with his statement that God is found (or rather finds us) when we experience a feeling of absolute dependence. The rationalists and Schleiermacher introduced paths to God that did not depend primarily on the Bible for revelation or as a check against thought or feeling as equal to the Bible or even surpassing the Bible. One can see this earlier in Fox and the Quaker movement when personal revelation was held higher than Scripture.

After theological romanticism one finds a short period of romantic Biblical Criticism which consisted of writing what are essentially novels. Ernest Renan is one example of this school of thought. It was popular for a short period of time, died quickly and is unmourned. See Schweitzer for all of this.

One could also throw transcendentalism into the mess along with Mary Shelley.

As for periods of time I gave most them up when I read the dispensationalists and saw their various failed predictions about the return of Christ. I would say we are the time in between the Pentecost and the return of Jesus.

Viola Larson said...

Your input is a great read Bob. I have had a Church bulletin on my refrigerator door for around ten years now that says, "Hail Him Lord of years." that is sufficient.

will spotts said...

Viola - I think you are right that Tickle is parochial in outlook. For some reason or another, her 'grand theory' seems to apply to large chunks of Christianity in its previous points of 'flux', but now substitutes mostly American, British, Australian trends.

At the same time - while this is myopic at best - I wouldn't fall into the temptation of thinking that other developments in the world are without problems or even characteristic errors. There just not *our* characteristic errors.

I find myself agreeing with Clay that we should move in a different direction than Tickle seems to imagine. And perhaps we are (without even entirely being aware of it) trying to 'prop up the corpse of Christendom'.

will spotts said...

Bob - well articulated.

While I share John's distaste (and belief that it is inaccurate) for dividing up history into this age or that age, I do think we can see trends over time.

I don't think the two are the same thing - I can trace 'minority' presences of ideas from the first century that have been consistent. Just sometimes they held more sway than others.

To me, the more important question is not whether something enjoys the label 'romantic' or 'enlightenment' or 'modern' or 'progressive' or (gasp) 'evangelical'. Instead, it is (and has always been) - is it true?

Doug Hagler said...

I find I can't help myself. I just detest a theology where the Holy Spirit is relegated to sign-pointer for Christ. That's not a Trinity - that is like those people paid to stand on the sidewalk holding sandwich boards for shops in strip malls. But this is a weakness of Reformed theology that I've often pointed to - a profound deficiency where theology of the Holy Spirit is concerned. I don't think that Phyllis Trickle is the answer, but I'm certainly not going to worship a part of the Trinity as a glorified sandwich board.

I'm also still waiting for an age when people focus on Christ - an age of radical nonviolence, enemy-love, selfless sacrifice, community where all things are held in common, lifting up the helpless and the least of these? That sounds great. Let's try that someday.

Pastor Bob said...


It seems to me that if we look at the early chapters of Acts we quickly discover that the focus on Christ you describe is also the action of the Holy Spirit. I agree with you that at least the modern Reformed tradition has failed to state a clear theology of the Spirit. And while there are significant points in earlier times in the Reformed tradition when a theology of the Spirit was articulated I suggest that our continuing to divide the Church into the clergy and the laity is a part of the problem. If we really believe that the Spirit gives gifts to all we should try and find them in all and not just in those who went to seminary.

Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the Pentecostals. Maybe we could even avoid some of their errors.

Viola Larson said...

As long as we remember that their authority is also the word of God not some extra revelation.

Pastor Bob said...

@ Viola

Of course! Claimed personal revelation must always be measured against Spirit inspired Scripture. My concern is that Reformed tradition may have a truncated theology of the Spirit in part because we do not emphasize the gifts of the Spirit for all God's people and limit them to the clergy.

Viola Larson said...

But Bob, here is a thought that changes that a bit. After all being a pastor and a preacher is a gift. And not all are gifted that way. So not all laity will have all gifts. And we come back to the understanding that there are differences. In reality those who go to seminary should be those who have that gift. But I believe all are given gifts. I was just listening to a talk on video yesterday about the Welsh revival, and the speaker was pointing out the difference between Billy Graham as an evangelist and Robert Evans the leader of the Welsh revival as a prophet who led others in prayer, etc.

Pastor Bob said...

I agree that being a pastor and/or a preacher is a gift of the Holy Spirit. I have two concerns:

1. We seem to be less concerned about discerning whether the Inquirers have the callings than we are about education.

2. We celebrate the gifts of being pastor/preacher much more than gifts like hospitality. If all have gifts then all gifts should be celebrated. We don't do that.