The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church

The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church

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by Phyllis Tickle, Jon M Sweeney

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A thousand years ago, the church experienced a time of tremendous upheaval called the Great Schism. The one faith became two churches, East and West, and the course of world history was forever changed. And it all swirled around one Latin word in the Nicene Creed, filioque, that indicated the Holy Spirit proceeded both from God the Father "and from the Son."…  See more details below


A thousand years ago, the church experienced a time of tremendous upheaval called the Great Schism. The one faith became two churches, East and West, and the course of world history was forever changed. And it all swirled around one Latin word in the Nicene Creed, filioque, that indicated the Holy Spirit proceeded both from God the Father "and from the Son." From the time that phrase was officially instituted onward, the Holy Spirit's place in the Trinity and role in the lives of believers would be fiercely debated, with ramifications being felt through the centuries to this very day.

In this fascinating book, readers will encounter not just the interesting historical realities that have shaped our faith today but also the present resurgence of interest in the Holy Spirit seen in many churches across the theological spectrum. Tickle and Sweeney make accessible and relevant the forces behind the current upheaval in the church, taking readers by the hand and leading them confidently into the Age of the Spirit.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Reading this pair of veteran authors is like being invited as a freshman into the office of an admired professor and then being brought up to speed like a colleague. Tickle (The Great Emergence) and Sweeney (The Pope Who Quit) embrace the reader of this book, third in a series about the emergent church movement: they use “we” and never patronize. The back story from early Christian history, comprising enigmas and heresies, confusions and creeds, and “Breath, Bread and Beards,” covers the greater part of the text. The front story is today’s emergent church, based in the spiritual more than the religious, the holy more than the hierarchy, and in the image of “God as an activity more than as an entity” and the Holy Spirit as “like unto fire.” With poetic prose, Tickle and Sweeney mix known words (“trinity”) and new (“nescient”); they stir in big ideas, sweeping summaries, and don’t-miss footnotes, in laying the intellectual foundation for their analysis. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Tickle (founding editor, Publishers Weekly religion dept.; The Great Emergence) and Sweeney (editor in chief, Paraclete; The Pope Who Quit) have undertaken a challenging task: a recounting of the history of the cult of the Holy Spirit and how its repercussions have led to division, cultural misunderstanding, and even bloodshed. Yet all is not lost; Tickle and Sweeney seem hopeful that some new age is about to arrive, ushered in by the Spirit, that will sweep away institutions and creeds. VERDICT Even those less confident that what we see is an Emergent Church rather than ceaseless change will be swept along by the deft account of the shifts in doctrine and the characters who drove it. For thoughtful church groups and divinity schools.

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The Age of the Spirit

How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church

By Phyllis Tickle, JON M. SWEENEY

Baker Books

Copyright © 2014 Phyllis Tickle and Jon M. Sweeney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8010-1480-2


Beginning at the Beginning

As a rule, the best way to approach a really loaded question is to commence where the question itself commenced: at the beginning. Sometimes, though, it is even wiser to begin by reminding ourselves of exactly why it is that we are taking on the question in the first place. This is one of those times,

... because, whether we like it or not, we live in an era when our fellow citizens tend to be "more spiritual than religious" and yet, despite that surrounding emphasis, we are not quite sure of what the "Spirit" is in mainline and/or historic and/ or orthodox Christianity.

... because we face renewed charges and/or perhaps an internal concern about whether or not Christianity is truly a monotheistic religion. That concern has never been more important than it is in the present moment. The roots of Islam's early, dramatic growth in the sixth and seventh centuries of the Common Era can be traced, in part, to the furor over the Trinity and all its representations and descriptive presentations. Certainly, in our own time, the charge of polytheism is the one being increasingly laid at Christianity's doorstep by contemporary Islam. Without a full and rich contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity, we Christians stand defenseless against such summations.

... because Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing expression of Christianity, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, where the demographic heft and bulk of global Christianity have now shifted. And whatever else it pivots on, Pentecostal Christianity is poised forever upon the engagement of the Spirit.

... because the early Church and our post-apostolic forebears in the faith started life with councils as their ultimate authority. As a result, they—and by extension, we—inevitably ended up with the top-down hierarchies of today, all of which are in some distress and many of which are in extremis. How, then, is religious authority to be determined today? Many—most, in all probability—would say by discernment through the Spirit, which means what?

... and because, ready or not, we find ourselves alive and Christian in a time of almost unprecedented upheaval. And this upheaval which we find ourselves in the midst of is apparently going to do nothing less than attempt to discover a fuller and more complete understanding of the Trinity during our lifetime or, barring that, most certainly within the lifetimes of our children and their children.

... and because, if that be true, what we are going through right now, which we call the Great Emergence, is indeed more cataclysmic than the Great Reformation or the Great Schism or the Great Decline and Fall ever were. It is right up there with the Great Transformation, when our Lord Himself brought the Christian movement out of Judaism and everything changed, even our way of dating and marking time.

And in view of all of that, what matters is not whether, as individual believers, we are Emergence Christians or traditional Christians. What matters is that we have arrived at the point in our conversation where we are to begin tracing the strange story of how, as a people of faith, we Christians have envisioned, engaged, and all too often even tried to engineer the Holy Spirit over the millennia. As we do so, however, at least one imperative is upon us. That is, we must remember always—and again, without regard to whether we are Emergence Christians or traditional Christians—to do our storytelling and our discerning with an eye on our own time and with the ears of our souls and of our minds ever and always attuned to the guidance that this story can lend us in this time of our upheaval.

* * *

There was, of course, a beginning for this "Holy Spirit and Us" story of ours, and it is recorded, predictably enough, even before we get to the one about Adam and Eve. Within the first two or three dozen words of Scripture, we are told: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:1–2 NKJV).

The Hebrew word used here for Spirit is ruach, which means, basically, a disturbance of the air and is, as a result, translated sometimes as breath, sometimes as wind, sometimes as Spirit. As words go, that is, this one, right from the beginning of things, enjoyed not so much a specific definition as it did a connotation of being both the agency and also the proof of the invisible made visible in its consequences. One of the great witticisms or bits of wordplay attributed to Jesus rests, in fact, on His use of this very ambiguity. In telling Nicodemus that unless one is born of water and the Spirit (pneuma in Greek), he cannot enter the kingdom of God, Jesus immediately proves His point by citing the wind (again, pneuma) as blowing where it wishes, yet none can tell where it comes from or goes to (John 3:5–8).

Ruach itself, with its multifaceted subtleties and teasing nuances, occurs almost four hundred times in Hebrew Scripture. It does everything from inspiring the art of Bezalel, the master craftsman who oversaw the furnishing and decorating of the Tabernacle of Meeting (Exod. 31:2–6), to giving Samson his strength (Judg. 14:6), to bestowing intellectual prowess and understanding (Sir. 39:6), to conveying wisdom and religious knowledge (Wis. 7:7; 9:17). It is also the ruach, the prophets say, that will rest upon the Son of David who is to come as Messiah and as Israel's hope (Isa. 11:2; Ezek. 36:26; Joel 2:28; etc.).

The ruach, or Spirit, was, in fact, the inspirer of all the great prophets of Judaism right up until the time that prophecy ceased in the land because of the disobedience of the people. There is a rabbinic tradition, however, that holds that Y-H-W-H in His mercy did not entirely withdraw from His people. Instead of speaking to them through the ruach, He spoke through the Bath Qol: that is, through "the daughter of the Voice of God."

When Messiah comes, that tradition teaches, there will be little or no more need for the Bath Qol, for the people will again have direct, and even greater, access to the Spirit. This tradition—this sadness of lost prophesying, this consolation of the daughter of the Voice of God, and this promise that when Messiah came, the Spirit would once more be among us—was well known amongst the disciples and early Jewish Christians. Thus it is that at Jesus's baptism, Mark tells us that the Spirit (pneuma) descends on him like a dove and that it is the Voice (phone in Greek), and not the daughter of the Voice, that proclaims him as the well-beloved Son in whom Y-H-W-H finds delight (Mark 1:9–12). It is the Voice, or phone, and neither the pneuma nor the daughter of the Voice, who will appear again at the Transfiguration, where it is the Voice Itself that declares, "This is my beloved Son: hear him" (Mark 9:7 KJV). The power of that distinction and the power of its implication, while usually lost to most Christians today, were certainly not lost on those first disciples and converts.

But with or without the extracanonical tradition of the Bath Qol and its suggestive effects, we still must at some point address four things if we are to pursue our story any further. The first of them is easy to accept: Judaism is deeply and wholly monotheistic.

The second thing we must recognize certainly comes out of Judaism's characterizing monotheism, but it is considerably trickier to pin down. That is, as we have seen, Judaism uses a system of multifaceted and suggestive namings when it is speaking of the Spirit that is and is not Y-H-W-H, but is of Him.

The third thing is closely tied to the second but is fairly painless. We must understand, as we begin our story of the Spirit among us, that at least two or three of those Jewish suggestive, rather than definitive, namings came bouncing into Christianity's continuation of the story right from its very beginning.

The fourth thing that impacts our tracing of the Spirit's story is more difficult to resolve. That is, we as Christians can neither think nor speak of the Spirit without thinking or speaking, either directly or by implication, of the Trinity itself. The truth of things, however, is that neither the Hebrew Bible nor our New Testament ever employs—or even mentions—the word Trinity as such at all. What that means, at a working level, is that there is no better or more available way into the heart of our adventure than to look at the Spirit's story chronologically. That is, we are best served in our study if we look first at the Spirit as Spirit, and then at Spirit as within a Trinity, and then, finally, at Spirit as one of three distinct and approachable and "personed" Great Truths within a Great Truth.

On, then, to the next stage of our exploration.


Excerpted from The Age of the Spirit by Phyllis Tickle, JON M. SWEENEY. Copyright © 2014 Phyllis Tickle and Jon M. Sweeney. Excerpted by permission of Baker Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the religion department at Publishers Weekly, is the author of more than two dozen books on the subject, including The Great Emergence. She is frequently quoted and interviewed in such media outlets as the New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, Time, CNN, C-SPAN, and PBS. A lector and lay eucharistic minister in the Episcopal Church, she holds the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from both Berkeley School of Divinity at Yale University and from North Park University. She makes her home on a small farm in Tennessee. For more information, go to or

Jon M. Sweeney
is the author of several books, including the remarkably timely The Pope Who Quit. He is well-known for his ability to take complicated religious history and make it accessible and fascinating to non-scholars. He is the editor-in-chief of Paraclete Press and lives in Illinois with his family.
Jon M. Sweeney is the author of several books, including the remarkably timely The Pope Who Quit. He is well-known for his ability to take complicated religious history and make it accessible and fascinating to non-scholars. He is the editor-in-chief of Paraclete Press and lives in Illinois with his family.

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The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
AnnetteOC More than 1 year ago
Disputes over ecclesiastical authority and dissimilar political and doctrinal threats, along with cultural and language barriers (e.g., Latins who misunderstood Greek), drove the “western” Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches apart. Geographical isolation helped keep them apart. But globalization has torn down that barrier, and the West is now confronting eastern perspectives on all things religious, including the Holy Spirit. As Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Emergence Christianities continually challenge Catholic and Protestant norms, Episcopal author Phyllis Tickle suggests that Joachim of Fiore’s “Age of the Spirit” may now be upon us. Western Christians cannot continue to conveniently ignore the “Third Person” of the Trinity. What? Isn’t the Holy Spirit is a staple of Christian conversation? Being honest we’d have to admit otherwise. The average Christian doesn’t want to think about the Holy Spirit. Speaking of “discernment” or “being led by the spirit” will draw dirty looks from other church members, who dismiss such talk as only befitting a Pentecostal…you know, those weird people. Add in Jesus’ terrifying warning about blasphemy against the Spirit (Mark 3:28-29), and no one dares question the far-fetched extra-biblical diagrams our teachers present in attempt to illustrate the Trinitarian “mystery” for fear of putting their souls on the line. We don’t necessarily intend to ignore the Holy Spirit. We just don’t know how to talk about “it”…or “him.” Even the most passionate Trinitarians recognize that their views require a lot more biblical support than we are given. Being unable to “own” their opponents in debate is greatly unsettling to Christians, so it’s easier to dismiss questions with a quick “This is the way it is” and cease further discussion. It should be of no surprise then that many people are converted to some form of Christianity without ever being introduced to the “Third Person.” Its absent from many tracks, Bible correspondence courses, and after-sermon invitations (i.e., alter calls) is deafening. Individuals “raised in the church” rarely fair better, lacking a definite understanding of what the Holy Spirit is and the role it plays in their lives. Unless one belongs to a religious movement that is all about the influence and work of the Spirit, then the whole of pneumatology is unofficially declared off-limits. Some of us, however, would like to have a deeper understanding of the Holy Spirit and thoroughly investigate what is usually considered a major pillar of the Christian faith. However, balanced and easy-to-read resources are often difficult to find for us lay-Christians. (By “balanced” I mean only in the sense that the author analyzes the history and arguments for variety of views, allowing a well-informed reader to draw his own conclusions.) What is clearly needed is a way of opening up the discussion and allow for questions, especially if Christians are ever going to be expected to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy. That’s what’s provided by Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of Publishers Weekly’s Religion Department, with Jon M. Sweeney in The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church (Baker Books, 2014). Part history and part theology, this book examines how the Holy Spirit has been defined and redefined over the millennia and what effects those definitions have had on Christian doctrine, worship, and living. As you might have guessed, The Age of the Spirit is not an apologetic for any particular view. However, Tickle does present an argument that the filioque addition to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Lutheran doctrine of sola scriptura effectively limited the power of the “Third Person” in the minds of western Christians. In the wake of what she says might be a major turning point in Christian history, Tickle challenges her readers to find new ways of engaging the Holy Spirit. Whether that might mean accepting an ancient “heresy,” mysticism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, or Emergence Christianity, or something else remains unsaid. What I appreciated most about The Age of the Spirit was its easy read (which I suspect was Sweeney’s contribution). Although Tickle made some unconvincing claims and odd speculations at times, I came away with a clearer understanding the ecumenical creeds, the Great Schism, and the infamous ancient heresies. The book didn’t validate my beliefs, but that wasn’t why I picked it up. It gave me a different perspective and made me rethink some of my own assumptions about the Spirit. As for the more technical details: Phyllis Tickle has a well-known presence within the “emerging church” movement, and the book, lightly peppered with their lingo, seems written for an audience more familiar with it than I. In addition, she makes reference to biblical content without necessarily including a citation, preferring a more fluid style of writing. While this is should be a minute problem for Christians well-read in Scriptures and having at their disposal every means of looking up these passages, it would likely annoy a number of readers who rely on chapter and verse. For that same reason, an index of Bible references would’ve also been nice.