Sunday, 19 February 2017

Come, Holy Spirit, by Leonardo Boff



Leonardo Boff, Come, Holy Spirit: Inner Fire, Giver of Life and Comforter of the Poor, 2015 Orbis Books

It is very telling that Boff uses just one sentence to deal with the role of the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of Scripture. This should not be a surprise. He really does not like the idea of a permanent, unchanging absolute revelation. This unchanging revelation might be the work of the Holy Spirit, but Boff presumably hoped that having dealt with that in just one sentence, the reader would forget about it and go with the idea that the Holy Spirit is a sort of renengade who constantly does cool right-on things.

Leonardo Boff attributes a number of things to the work of the Holy Spiri; the Second Vatican Council, the rise of Latin American Liberation Theology and Base Communities, the Charismatic movement (though he worries a bit about their tendency to fundamentalism) and the election of Pope Francis. Basically, the Holy Spirit does all the thing that Boff thinks are cool. Of course, I imagine some less right-on people might attribute Vatican I, the conservatism of John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI's 'Reform of the Reform' to the Holy Spirit.

Boff has been accused of copying and pasting material from dogmatics textbooks and then inserting his left-of-centre insights. True to this, quite a few of the early chapters have a theology textbook feel to them. When he explains the doctrine of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, he does not stray that far from orthodoxy. He does imply early that he takes a Process Theology view of God, that God is in the process of becoming, though he does not go anywhere with this less orthodox idea. He also follows Torrance in seeing the unity of the Trinity in perichoresis. The danger of that approach is tritheism, that the persons are no longer united by a common substance. He seems to imply on page 81 that the Holy Spirit indwells all human beings, but he fails to explain or elaborate on this. This is a habit we see continually in this book; our author makes a point that might be insightful or might be heretical (usually the latter), but does not spend any time elaborating or clarifying his point.

Boff's ecclesiology is problematic. He argues that the Church is the body of the risen Christ and therefore is not subject to limitations. We must not therefore, he argues, limit the Church to an institution. Yet we are then left in the dark as to how to identify the Church. There must be limits to what we can define as the Body of Christ. Boff continually attacks the institution of the Catholic Church throughout this book. He urges us to the see the working of the Holy Spirit as something spontaneous and dynamic. One might ask whether the Holy Spirit never works through institutions and formal procedures. It appears that Boff actually does think so. He views the Second Vatican Council as a work of the Holy Spirit. Well, guess what, the Second Vatican Council was a council of lawfully ordained bishops called by the lawfully-ordained Pope and which followed a set of formal procedures. He also views the election of Pope Francis as a work of the Holy Spirit. Funnily enough, Pope Francis was chosen by the cardinals following the same procedure by which previous popes were chosen. So it looks like the Holy Spirit is perfectly happy to operate through the traditional institutional procedures of the Catholic Church. It might have been helpful if Boff had spent a little more time talking about the sacraments, in particular the role of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Rather worryingly, Boff sounds like a Protestant when he identifies Peter's faith as the 'rock' in Matthew 16:16. Amusingly, he sounds like a Dispensationalist when he argues on page 142 that the Church was introduced because of the rejection of Jesus' Kingdom mission. I imagine that he has no idea that many American fundamentalists would agree with him on that point.

Our author loves the idea of dynamic and charismatic movements and dislikes institutions. Yet he offers no concern about the dangers of charismatic power. Often radical movements empowered by charismatic authority tend to produce authoritarian leaders and sometimes abuse of that power. Those of us who have come from the Charismatic Evangelical movement are aware of this. It may be largely forgotten now, but the Nine o'clock services in Anglicanism (1986-1995) are instructive as to these dangers. Many thought the Spirit was moving in the Nine O'cloc services, but in fact conditions were forming in which abuse was allowed to take place. The usual institutional checks that could have prevented this abuse were let down. Boff sees the Charimatic movement as a movement that is complementary to the Base Community movement. However, some have argued that Pentecostal groups have grown in reaction to the Base Communities. The Pentecostal groups have attracted people from the Base Communities because they offer more personal morality, are less politicized and show more concern to the needs and concerns of women.

There is a chapter on the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary, a subject dealt with at greater length in his boo, The Maternal Face of God. Boff has been accused of teaching that Mary is an incarnation of God the Holy Spirit, but this is not exactly what he says. He argues that there was a permanent perichoretic indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Mary, such that they are fundamentally united, while not being an hypostatic union, as the incarnation of our Lord was. In Mary we see the revelation of the Feminine Divine. This is the part of this book that I like best. Boff says of the implications of Mary's Pneumatization:

"The spiritualization/ pneumatization of Mary is not only about her. Mary belongs to the human community, men as well as women. We are all touched by this trinitarian event of infinite tenderness and mercy, revealed through the person of the Holy Spirit. Something in us has become divine, brought into the Kingdom of the Trinity by Mary. Something of our warm, mortal humanity has become eternal."




Boff admits his debt to Jurgen Moltmann in the chapter on cosmology. Here he identifies the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of life, sustaining the universe. Likewise, he also follows Moltmann in seeing the end of the universe in becoming a temple of the Holy Spirit:

"This is how the Bible describes the good end of the universe: the moment when the Spirit will prevail over all the hostile and divergent powers of life, and will bring about a new heaven and a new earth (Joel 2:28-32, Revelation 21:1). We will all be drawn together into the dynamic and loving life of the Trinity."


At times Boff attempts to theologize speculative ideas within Quantum Physics. I am not altogether sure this is helpful and I have my doubts that he completely knows what he is talking about. He probably makes a little too much of the media-spun theory of the "God-particle."

This is an interesting book with some good ideas, plus a lot of rot. The bulk of it is Jurgen Moltmann with a progressive Catholic gloss, plus an unconventional high Mariology.

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