Monday, October 21, 2013

Review of Atkinson's Baptism in the Spirit

Atkinson, William P. Baptism in the Spirit: Luke-Acts and the Dunn Debate. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011. Pp. x + 154. ISBN 978-1-60899-971-2. $19.00 paper.

William P.Atkinson, Vice-Principal Academic, Director of Research, and Senior Lecturer in Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies at the London School of Theology, reviews critiques of James D. G. Dunn’s Baptismin the Holy Spirit by various Pentecostal scholars and concludes that the Pentecostal understanding of the doctrine is correct. The reception of the Spirit is not related to the inception of new covenant life; rather, it is an empowerment for service in the life of the church.
Chapter one surveys Dunn’s work and outlines the six key scholars who have engaged his arguments. Here Atkinson defines baptism in the Holy Spirit as “a charismatic empowering for Christian service distinct from and thus, potentially, chronologically subsequent to initial regenerating faith in Christ” (p. 3). Dunn clearly rejects this definition, following instead a conversion-initiation understanding of Spirit baptism. Thus, Pentecostal scholars (or ex-Pentecostal in the case of Max Turner) have responded, since they see the doctrine of subsequence as central to Pentecostal identity. Their critiques are outlined in chapter two: Dunn reads Luke-Acts through the lens of Paul and assumes an identical pneumatology. Furthermore, the terminology was much more fluid at this early stage than Dunn is willing to admit. Dunn brings together what Luke kept separate, i.e., salvation and the gift of the Spirit. Finally, it is clear that different understandings of salvation history, especially the three pneumatological epoch distinction, result in diverse readings between Dunn and his debaters. Taken cumulatively, Atkinson concludes that Dunn’s debaters have cast doubt on his claim that to become a Christian is to receive the Spirit (p. 65).
Chapter three then provides an assessment of the various intra-Pentecostal alternatives. Atkinson’s most significant disagreement is with Max Turner’s view, one closely aligned with Dunn. He thinks Turner has missed the subtlety of Luke’s idea that “the Spirit may be directly at work in the process of people’s coming to faith; that these new converts, despite such prior ‘soteriological’ work of the Spirit, still need to receive the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit” (90). At this point, Atkinson’s approach may neither be convincing among Pentecostals (his primary audience) nor non-Pentecostals (though he is not trying to convince this group).
Chapter four addresses the canonical context of the debate by looking specifically at the writings of Paul and John (1 Cor 12:13; John 20:22). While Atkinson’s reason for choosing these two verses based on his engagement with Turner is clear, it seems that a test case from Romans 8:9, the putative “‘killer blow’ to Pentecostal doctrine” would have been in order and that more than a restating of various Pentecostal interpreters would have strengthened Atkinson’s argument. However, his claim that Dunn has misread Pentecostal doctrine is well placed since the majority of Pentecostal Pauline interpreters maintain some sort of soteriological pneumatology. Atkinson contends that John 20:22 provides the strongest evidence for “two distinct experiences” of receiving the Spirit (p. 118).
Chapter five summarizes and offers several practical suggestions for contemporary expressions of the present-day work of the Holy Spirit. Atkinson suggests using the term “Baptism in the Spirit” to describe an equipping for service that is experienced by modern-day Pentecostals. This book is quite useful for those seeking to understand this distinctly Pentecostal doctrine. It is not designed to convince non-Pentecostals; rather, it is a fine survey of intra-Pentecostal discussions using Dunn’s work as a dialogue partner. In this way it meets its stated goal (p. 1).