The Turn to Pneumatology in Christian Theology of Religions: Conduit or Detour?

By Yong, Amos | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Turn to Pneumatology in Christian Theology of Religions: Conduit or Detour?


Yong, Amos, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


A few years ago, Paul Knitter reported on the "turn to pneumatology" in Christian theology of religions taken by the dialogue subunit of the World Council of Churches at the theological consultation that met in January, 1990, at Baar, Switzerland.(1) He observed that, while the traditional emphasis on Christology had produced almost unbearable tensions in theologia religionum as evidenced in the intense debates between advocates of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism, a pneumatological approach to the religions may be suggestive of the way out. Whereas traditional formulations had perhaps unwittingly subjected the economy of the Spirit to that of the Son, recognizing the relative autonomy of Spirit and beginning with this rather than with Christology allows Christian theology to affirm the "saving presence" and "saving power" in the religions.

The corollary emphasis on the relationes subsistentes (subsistent relations) of the trinitarian persons also leads to a view of all religions as complementary and relational, leaving open to definition the exact relationship between the economy of the Word (incarnate in Christianity) and that of the Spirit (instantiated in the religions). On the one hand, this allows for the uniqueness of Christ - both the emphasis on the universality of Jesus' saving work without insistence on either explicit knowledge of or confessed commitment to him as a prerequisite, and the requirement for a decisive Christian response as appropriate in the face of absolute relativism. On the other hand, it also accentuates the continuous activity of the Spirit in the world - essentially related to but not bound by the economy of the Word, thus requiring ongoing dialogue, interpretation, and clarification, and resulting in a deepening awareness of new (unseen or unresponded to) facets of the mystery of salvation. A pneumatological approach to the religions would thus issue forth in an essential transformation of the theological landscape since the loci of theology would of necessity include adherents of other faiths: "Because the Holy Spirit is alive and well among those persons, ours must be a dialogical theology."(2)

As a veteran theologian of interreligious dialogue who had wrestled long and hard with the question of the religions during the previous two decades, Knitter's endorsement of the "pneumatological turn" seems initially assuring. For all its promise, however, this theme has remained surprisingly untapped in that a full treatment of the subject has yet to appear.(3) While Knitter himself would have been expected to make much more of the pneumatological structure of salvation than he actually has, given his movement toward liberation and ecohuman soteriocentrism, he has actually returned to Christology in his latest book and left the pneumatological insight largely undeveloped.(4) In fact, one detects a certain retreat on Knitter's part, especially in his discerning the greater extent to which the independence of the economies of the Spirit and the Word need to be qualified. Rather than emphasizing the distinctiveness of the Spirit's economy, Knitter writes instead that

the Spirit exists within the Word, just as the Word exists also in the Spirit. Thus the genuine difference of the Kingdom in other religions must be related, understood, and clarified within the Word incarnate in Christ and living in the Church. As the Word and Spirit have their existence in each other, so does the Kingdom within the church and the Kingdom beyond it.(5)

While an emphasis on the distinctive economy of the Spirit seems initially to inspire Christian theologizing on the religions, Knitter's work demonstrates that such attempts have not been able to proceed very far before reencountering Christology. There is an almost inseparable connection between Spirit and Word that reasserts itself in Christian theology whenever it has been suggested that the two economies are distinct and perhaps autonomous. …

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