Breath of Life: God as Spirit in Judaism

Written by Rachel Timoner Reviewed By Stephen Jenks

Rachel Timoner, Breath of Life: God as Spirit in Judaism

Perhaps most unexpectedly from a Christian publisher is Breath of Life: God as Spirit in Judaism by Rabbi Rachel Timoner. Timoner is aware of the curiosity of a Jewish thinker writing for a Christian audience on the topic of God as Spirit. In an important introduction she provides for her readers an orientation to Jewish theological reflection and some signal issues such as the importance of care with religious terms and especially the name of God. She also discusses the challenge the word “spirit” poses in contemporary discourse (theological or otherwise) for Christian and Jew alike. In addition to the familiar Hebrew term for spirit, breath, and wind (ruach), Timoner mentions the terms neshamah (soul) and neshimah (breath).

Christian readers may find several aspects of Timoner’s presentation intriguing. Her main structural motif for the book is the story of redemption, so she divides the work into three parts—Spirit in Creation, Spirit in Revelation, and Spirit in Redemption—categories with which the reader will be familiar and comfortable.

Part one, “Creation: Breath of Life,” discusses the role of God’s spirit in forming the cosmos, in the creation of humans, and as the link to transcendence. Beginning in Gen 1, she surveys various ways to understand the reference to the ruach elohim in Gen 1:2 without ever settling on a particular understanding. The chapter “Spirit in Us” spends far more time explaining the Jewish understanding of the makeup of humans—the various “spirits” in us—than it does relating the question of God’s Spirit to the human. A third chapter addresses spirit as what links us with the divine.

The longest section of the book, “Revelation: Sinai’s Inspiration,” discusses the role of spirit in the process of God’s revealing of himself in the world both by extraordinary and ordinary means. Those familiar with the Christian articulation of the role of the Holy Spirit in prophecy, inspiration, illumination, and even personal guidance will find much overlap with those concepts here. She speaks of the extraordinary way that spirit was revealed in the leadership of biblical prophets and kings (ch. 5) and contrasts that with the “Ordinary Spirit” (ch. 6). Curiously, she focuses far more on the need for spirit-impacted individuals to “bring about the messianic age” (p. 71) than she does addressing the role of the spirit in the ministry of the messiah.

The final section of the book investigates the role of spirit in redemption. Timoner looks first at the role of the spirit in acts of redemption in the Hebrew Bible and then examines the role of spirit in the prophetic literature. It is here that this reader hoped for the richness of centuries of Jewish reflection on profound passages from Ezekiel and Joel about the spirit in God’s plan of restoration. Instead, Timoner skips lightly from prophet to prophet with fuzzy reflections on wind, spirit, and breath. In the final chapter, “Spirit in Action Today,” Timoner once again lapses into discussion of the human spirit rather than on God as Spirit.

While there may be points of contact, there are also several aspects of Timoner’s work that will be off-putting to Christian readers. She hints at one in the introduction when she says of Judaism’s approach to Torah, “The meaning of any word in Holy Scripture is not fixed or finite; it is shaped by both the words that surround it and the generations of interpreters that fill the white space around it” (p. xxii). This open-endedness of biblical words is manifest throughout Timoner’s text where she frequently moves between the meanings of ruach in discussing particular texts and from discussion of the spirit of God to the spirit of humans in ways that approach word association.

Though the book is putatively about God’s Spirit or God as Spirit, Rabbi Timoner’s reflections on spirit lead her almost as frequently to speak about the human spirit. So much so, in fact, that it is not overstating the case to say that one learns more about the makeup of the human spirit in Judaism than one does of the distinct perspective on God’s Spirit. This reminds the reader, of course, that theological issues are organically connected and meaningful speech about the interaction of God’s Spirit with humans necessitates a richer theology of spirit than the Hebrew Bible offers. Unable to speak about the Holy Spirit as a person within the Godhead, Timoner is forced to turn to only slightly more stable ground in Judaism’s careful analysis of human spirit.

Perhaps the most disorienting feature of reading Rabbi Timoner’s reflections is how often one alternately hears proto-Christian language about the role and work of (the) Spirit alongside the voice of modern spiritual sensitivity. In one place she writes, “If we look at the pattern of usage in the Hebrew Bible, we find that God is more than spirit. God’s ruach is of God and identified with God but not the same as God” (p. 37). As a Christian it is almost impossible not to read this as evidence of the Hebrew Bible hinting toward the doctrine of the Trinity revealed more fully in the NT. However, a few sentences later Timoner remarks, “When we pay attention to our spirit within us, we find ourselves yearning to be in God’s presence” (p. 37). This sort of reflection would fit quite easily within the vague spirituality so popular in the contemporary milieu.

At its best a book such as this could provide useful background on the specific topic of the Spirit in Judaism while also serving as an introduction to Jewish theological reflection in general. In the end, however, one struggles to hear the distinctive voice of Judaism. One wonders whether a more definitive statement could have been offered by a member of a different sect of Judaism. It is doubtful whether most Christian readers would gain much appreciation for Judaism, Scripture, or God as Spirit from interacting with Timoner’s volume.

John W. Oliver, Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition

Interestingly, John W. Oliver’s Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition succeeds at exactly the point where Rabbi Timoner fails. His contribution to this series offers the uninitiated a wonderful introduction to the unique ethos of Orthodox Christianity while also providing rich theological and devotional reflection on the Holy Spirit.

To structure his meditations on the Holy Spirit in Orthodoxy, Oliver uses an Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit: “O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasure of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.” Each phrase in the prayer represents a chapter and a point of departure for meditation on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. This is a beautiful device that Oliver uses to great effect.

From the introduction on, readers are exposed to the Orthodox theological ethos as Oliver stresses the importance of moving beyond mere information about the Spirit while also warning of the limitations of our understanding and experience of God. Additionally, from the earliest pages, Oliver introduces the reader to prominent Orthodox voices from church history. Early on Oliver deftly narrates the development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit from the OT through church history. His explanations of early church theological debates are succinct and perfectly pitched to a lay audience.

At many points Oliver’s treatment is quite pastoral. In discussing the Spirit of Truth he warns the reader against confusing impressions of the Spirit with our fickle emotions. He offers a particularly rich discussion of the fruit of the Spirit in the chapter “Treasury of Good Things.” First, he points out that the goal is to have the Spirit, not his fruits. He goes on to detail for each fruit what it looks like when one attempts to cultivate that fruit in one’s life without reference to the Spirit. Oliver’s easy transition from theological description to personal reflection and pastoral application is remarkable and exemplary for theological writing.

In several places Oliver walks the reader through aspects of Orthodox practice as a way to speak about the Spirit but also as a window into Orthodoxy in general. For instance, he offers a detailed explanation of the experience of someone pursuing baptism in the Orthodox church. Here the non-Orthodox reader is confronted with unfamiliar images and symbols and yet ones that communicate rich and familiar truths. His discussion of sacrament and symbol is also very helpful.

Evangelical readers will feel themselves in good company with Oliver on many important points: the exclusivity of Christ, the importance of theological precision, the sanctity of the Trinitarian titles, and the importance of Scripture as theological resource. There are, of course, points of difference as well: Oliver’s use of liturgy as a theological resource, the role of tradition more generally, and his brief treatment of the veneration of Mary. But these differences do not sour the whole.

Oliver is a gifted writer who has clearly meditated deeply on matters of the Spirit. Despite points of disagreement, the personal warmth and devotional tone of the volume repays the reader richly. While the text is probably not suited for an academic setting, it could serve as a useful resource for those looking to enrich their understanding of the Holy Spirit or Orthodox Christianity.

Edmund Rybarczyk, The Spirit Unfettered: Protestant Views on the Holy Spirit

The most “academic” of the three volumes, The Spirit Unfettered: Protestant Views on the Holy Spirit by Edmund Rybarczyk briefly surveys Protestant thinking on the Holy Spirit beginning at the Reformation and concluding with contemporary authors. From his beginning with Martin Luther, he surveys the contributions of sixteenth-century Anabaptists, John Wesley, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, J. Rodman Williams, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Clark Pinnock, and Michael Welker.

Each chapter follows a similar format. Rybarczyk first sets each thinker in his historical context, explaining the unique challenges facing the church of that day. He then surveys their teaching on the Holy Spirit and orients it to other aspects of their thought. Each chapter concludes with a section called “Abiding Influence” in which he tries to draw lines from that thinker to contemporary thought about the Holy Spirit. At the close of each chapter Rybarczyk also signals the relationship between that chapter and the next, a move which ties together the book as a historical narrative rather than it being a collection of essays or dictionary entries. It should be noted that Rybarczyk offers little by way of critique of these thinkers’ contributions. Though no bibliography is provided, the endnotes for each chapter direct the reader to source material for each thinker.

One of the greatest benefits of this book is the historical perspective that it could offer to Christians who are very often unaware of our theological heritage. It can be eye-opening to discover that popular ways to speak about the Holy Spirit and his work in our lives are relatively “new” theological developments. Rybarczyk’s presentation of the historical Protestant thought on the Spirit provides an excellent narrative to put our current language and practice in perspective.

While his effort to provide a lay introduction to Protestant thinking on the Holy Spirit is generally successful, fair treatment of many of the thinkers requires that he introduce theological language and concepts that may tax the casual reader. However, his presentations of these matters are clear and he has provided a brief glossary to assist the reader unfamiliar with special terminology such as Pentecostalism, pietism, and panentheism.

Surveys of this sort will always be faulted by some for their omissions and by specialists for their cursory treatment of major thinkers. However, the selection and treatment of these thinkers is more than adequate for the curious pastor, layperson, or college student. Furthermore, the format is well-executed to maximize appreciation of both the historical development as well as our debt to previous generations of thinkers.

Stephen Jenks

Stephen Jenks
Union Christian Church
Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Other Articles in this Issue

The gist of this new book by Peter Enns is that evangelicals should revise their expectations of Genesis and Paul—with reference to Adam and the fall—in order to relieve perceived tensions between Christianity and evolution...

In June 2011, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) passed an overture entitled, “A Call to Faithful Witness...

I was very grateful to David for sending me a copy of his essay before publication...

Is it stating the obvious to say that a children’s bible is not a Bible? Perhaps...

Martin Salter has recently argued that Reformed paedobaptists are mistaken in citing Col 2:11–12 ‘as evidence that baptism replaces circumcision as the covenant sign signifying the same realities...