The Spirit of academic research

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Today, as I write, it is Pentecost.  We marked the festival at church this morning, and the coming of the Holy Spirit is regularly celebrated at churches throughout the world.  But what does Pentecost mean for research?  Should scholars celebrate it outside of church services?

The inspiration of the Bible is due, theologians tell us, to the Holy Spirit.  Whether written by prophets or chroniclers or by the Apostles after Pentecost, the Scriptures are due to the one Spirit of God through many human writers.  So at Pentecost we can celebrate God's gracious revelation to us through the Bible.  But the Bible itself isn't the basis for scholarship in general.  Outside of theological research, the Bible doesn't provide significant data, and it shouldn't, in my view, be used to sanction or censor conclusions in most areas of scholarship.   So how can the Holy Spirit be relevant for scholarship?

I find the biblical theme of God's word of power immensely relevant to the nature of scholarship.  The spoken word of God, we are told, was the means by which the cosmos was structured (Gen 1); all things were made through the Word that became flesh (John 1), and all things are upheld by the word of God's power (Heb 1).  In the sense of these passages, the word of God seems to be something like an ordering principle that gives the creation its robust structure - something like what scientists call the laws of nature.  I'd go as far as to suggest that in all academic disciplines, research outputs are some kind of attempt at either making or applying generalisations about the structure of the world, in either its human or its non-human aspects.  Now because the Spirit seems to be a vehicle for the word of God (in all three senses [1]), and it was He who moved in the days of creation (Gen 1:2), we might say that the Spirit is behind the regularities that scholarship deals with.  Is that enough reason for scholars to celebrate Pentecost?

Perhaps we need to go further.  Does the coming of the Spirit somehow guide our research?  First let me mention a couple of ways in which I don't think this happens.  I take it that the Scriptures are not theoretical texts: they don't teach specific theoretical principles about how the cosmos is structured or functions.  (It can be debated whether some kind of anthropology and theology are actually given within the Scriptures, but it's by no means a foregone conclusion that any theoretical truths were revealed to the biblical writers. [2])  I also doubt that the Spirit reveals theoretical insights to modern-day scholars prophetically – at least not directly.  But if someone told me that they conceived of an important theoretical advance by the inspiration of God's Spirit, after praying, I wouldn't want to dispute this, because I do think the Spirit is active in the dynamics of our culture.  Let me try and explain, then, why I especially think scholars should celebrate Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit seems to be God's dynamic presence in the world.  In the biblical narratives, when the Spirit moves, things happen!  Jeremy Ive, building on Dirk Vollenhoven's thought, has shown how the Spirit may be seen as the dynamic 'pole' of the Trinity, driving forward God's purposes over time – not just 'salvation history' but the overall unfolding and development of the created order as envisaged in the opening chapters of Genesis.  Calvin attributed advances and insights from the whole sweep of history to the work of the Spirit (Institutes II,2,14-16 [3]).  I would combine this with the thesis about the Christian origins of modern science to suggest that perhaps only after Pentecost could theoretical knowledge advance and diversify so impressively as in the world of scholarship that we now see – contorted and fallible though it may often be.  So I propose that we researchers celebrate Pentecost as the day when God's Spirit began to do new things not only within the church, but within the whole of history.  This is not to deny that the kingdom of Satan maintains its deceptions, of course, and that idolatries of many kinds retain power throughout much academic culture, so that much of what is touted as 'progress' does not point towards the Kingdom of God after all.

But if we believe that God is the author of real progress, in scholarship as in all of history, and that we are His co-workers, then Pentecost can stand as a foundational event for our contemporary callings, and also a signpost for the destiny of creation, which, by the work of the Spirit, is Jesus Christ himself.  What do you think?  I'd love to have some discussion about this.

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[1] Spykman, GJ (1992) Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics, p85

[2] Ouweneel, WJ (2014) What then is Theology? An Introduction to Christian Theology

[3] cited in Spykman​, p425

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