Joining the Dance – A Theology of the Spirit: A Book Review

02.19.20 | Theology | by Rev. Mark Harmon

    Molly T. Marshall holds Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At the time of the writing of this book she was Professor of Theology and Spiritual Formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary which was then located in Kansas City, Kansas. Currently Dr. Marshall is president of Central Seminary (previously Central Baptist Theological Seminary) which now has its main campus in Shawnee, Kansas with satellite campuses in a variety of locations around the country and one in Myanmar. In addition to her academic career, Dr. Marshall is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches denomination and in that capacity has served in ministerial roles and is frequently called upon to lecture and preach in a variety of venues. As an alumni I had the privilege of getting to know Dr. Marshall and to say that she is a great woman is an understatement - she is a great human being.

    Early in the first chapter, Marshall identifies the purpose of the book as an effort to redefine the scope of our understanding of the Holy Spirit by way of “a more holistic pneumatology” that captures not only the Spirit’s nature, but also “the Spirit’s movement and transforming work in all creation” (p. 6). The mutual indwelling – the perichoresis – of the three persons of the Trinity is a foundational concept in her study of the Spirit and she relies heavily upon Jürgen Moltmann’s doctrine of the open Trinity. It is the Spirit’s movement within the open Trinity that Marshall envisions as a dance that flows out of “the Trinitarian life” (p. 6) to every dimension of creation.

    As a starting point, the author summarizes the historical development of the concept of perichoresis, its use in Christology and how it is inseparable from the doctrine of the Trinity. Based on her conclusion that the story of God can be characterized as an “outward movement to include” (p. 8), the author posits that perichoresis must pertain to “more than intratrinitarian relationships” (p. 8). As evidence of this outward movement, Marshall points to the incarnation. However, that outward movement is not confined to the life of Jesus. Her stated goal in this study of the Spirit is to demonstrate the inclusive relationship between God and all of creation and that the Spirit is the conduit “between the life of God and created life” (p. 9).

    In defense of her position that perichoresis applies to both the relationships within the Trinity and the relationship between the Triune God and creation, she states that “God does not dwell in a parallel universe” (p. 11) and as such there is an intrinsic relationship between God and all of God’s creation. This does, however, present a risk to the transcendence of God. In response to this concern, she points to the concept of kenosis – the “sharing of power through pouring it out on behalf of other agents” (p. 11) – as the means of protecting the transcendence of God while still allowing for a perichoretic relationship between Creator and creation.   

    Before moving on, the author provides six formative theological factors of the pneumatology she is proposing. The first is a panentheistic position – “God is in the world, and the world is in God” (p. 11) – that underpins the presence of an interactive relationship. The second is the self-limiting nature of God that provides the space and freedom for creation to achieve the fullness God intended – even allowing for our “participation in the life of God” (p. 12). A third factor flows logically from the second – the space and freedom God has provided precludes understanding all events as representing the will or action of God. In the fourth factor, any concept of the Spirit “forcefully” taking control of our personality is negated. She identifies Moltmann’s open Trinity as the fifth factor. The concluding factor is the understanding that the Spirit is the “universal contact between God and history, between God and all creation” (p. 13), facilitating the “evolutionary movement of creation and transformation through resurrection” (p. 14).

    Marshall next explains how the movement of the Spirit is the force that enlivens and animates all of creation. She divides the discussion into three parts. The first considers the theological dimension of “the life-giving Spirit breathed into the world” (p. 20). In the second dimension she examines the ecological implications of the Spirit participating in all of creation. She then moves on to our personal experience of the presence of the Spirit in the world.

    Moving forward, the author turns her attention to the mission of the Holy Spirit – the gathering of a people to God. She explains this mission in terms of the Spirit “indwelling leaders, forming community, instructing in word and wisdom, and promising a messiah” (p. 39). In her explication of the Spirit’s indwelling of leaders, she points to biblical examples such as Samson and Saul.[1] From these examples it can be seen that the Spirit’s choice of persons to empower through this indwelling is not based on being fully obedient (as in the case of Samson). Furthermore, the Spirit does not automatically remain with those who are repentant (as in the case of Saul). However, the reason for the indwelling is consistent – it is to equip an individual to accomplish a corporate purpose and that purpose is to gather and form a specific group of people to be God’s own.

    The author examines the frequent references of the Spirit’s activity in Hebrew Scriptures to correct any understanding “that the Spirit was not present, at least not in an encompassing way, until after Christ ascended” (p. 56). In her analysis she notes that God was known “preeminently as Spirit” prior to the “advent of the messiah” (p. 56). Her objective at this stage of the study is to view the work of the Spirit through a Christological lens. In so doing, the author reveals the ways in which the Spirit worked in the life of Jesus and in the lives of those who encountered him. She posits that the Spirit is the force that allows Jesus to be Immanuel – God with us – while being “one of us” (p. 56) at the same time. 

    Marshall begins with an examination of the way God’s power is expressed through the presence of the Spirit. At the heart of the discussion is the overshadowing presence of the Spirit in specific times and places throughout human history. The author finds the image of overshadowing valuable in that it connotes an “almost overwhelming” (p. 58) experience that still provides “space and opportunity for creaturely action” (p. 58). The Spirit’s overshadowing presence brings God near to us and brings new life. In the overshadowing of Mary, new life came in the form of the Son of God – the promised Messiah. 

    The author next speaks of the Spirit resting upon Jesus – anointing him to carry out his ordained ministry. She identifies Jesus not as one who delivers the Spirit to humanity, but as one “marked out as an instrument of the Spirit at every stage of his life”  and “the whole of messianic promise realized in Jesus is empowered by Spirit” (p. 61).

    While warning about the perils of a literal understanding of gender attribution to God, Marshall offers an explanation of the reasoning for speaking of the Spirit (and also Wisdom) in feminine terms and the importance of a pneumatic Christology as opposed to a Logos-based Christology. A pneumatic Christology, with its injection of the feminine Spirit, prevents the assumption of a solely masculine God that a Logos-based Christology can lead to. Beyond the gender attribution issues, a pneumatic Christology also provides a better understanding of the relationship between the Spirit and Jesus while avoiding the dismemberment of “the being of God” that results from understanding “the First and Third Persons remain in heaven, while the Second Person, the Son, descends to inhabit human form” (p. 64). This relationship is one “in which Spirit is both the giver and the gift of the Christ” (p. 62).

    Having addressed the anointing work of the Spirit, the author moves on to the Spirit’s role in “inaugurating the reign of God” (p. 64). Despite the temptation to do an in depth examination of Jesus’ role in this, Marshall keeps the focus on the activity of the Spirit – albeit from a Christological perspective. The discussion begins with the temptation of Jesus as a way to illustrate that being led by the Spirit is not always easy – especially “in a world that demands material proof” and in the midst of the adversary’s attempts to mislead us (p. 65). The presence of the Spirit upon Jesus is seen as the source of his empowerment to carry out his ministry of revealing the reign of God and this is evidence of the fallacy of self-reliance in carrying out God’s calling.

    The final element of the Spirit’s work in inaugurating the reign of God is the movement of the Spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Marshall opens this discussion with the question: “How does Jesus die and yet live?” (p. 68). She explains it as the temporary withdrawal of the breath of God – God’s Spirit – and the subsequent return that “recreates life, stirring the Christ toward reunion with the Sending One and the scattered disciples” (p. 68). However, the author acknowledges the difficulty the death on the cross brings to any discussion of the perichoretic relationship of the Trinity. She asks, “How does the Spirit sustain the dance of giving and receiving when even death enters the divine movement?” (p. 69). While acknowledging the mystery that engulfs this question, Marshall sees the answer as a transformative process carried out by the life giving power of the Spirit.

    In describing the role of the Spirit in the birthing of the church, Marshall plots the trajectory of the Spirit’s movement that has already passed through creation, the equipping of leaders and the empowerment of Christ. That trajectory now passes through the conception of “a new corporate identity that expresses life with Christ in the power of the Spirit” (p. 73). The power of the Spirit overcomes the distinctions that have served to divide us and ignites a unifying sense of compassion in us. The Spirit incorporates us into this community through baptism, then in the Eucharist the Spirit makes us “present to one another” (p. 89) and it is the Spirit that brings life to the prayers and singing of the worship of this community. 

    Marshall then addresses spiritual formation, not in the Catholic sense of a strictly disciplined life, but in the sense of the interaction of the Spirit with open and receptive human beings. She emphasizes that spiritual formation is not something that takes place in isolation, but rather in the midst of “the full range of human experience” (p. 97). The author warns there are no quick-fix approaches to spiritual formation. On the contrary, spiritual formation is an ongoing “collaborative process with the divine Spirit” (p. 99). It is through the Spirit that we experience the divine presence and the fullness of our formation is relative to the fullness of our vision of God. The author contends that we keep a veil between us and God’s face out of our fear of the divine presence, but the Spirit works in us and around us to lift that veil. The more the true face of God is revealed to us by the Spirit, the more we are transformed – “We become what we behold” (p. 106).

    The author then turns her attention to our need to distinguish “between authentic and fraudulent claims for the activity of the Spirit” (p. 115). She employs the agricultural the process of winnowing – the separating of what is valuable from what is not – as a means of distinguishing the work of the Spirit of God from those fraudulent claims and also as the means by which the Spirit prepares us to carry out God’s mission.  She cautions, however, that the winnowing power of the Spirit is not limited to the confines of the church. The Spirit also moves within social, political and economic structures to achieve freedom and justice.

    As the book draws to a close, Marshall points to the often omitted role of the Spirit in eschatological doctrine. This omission is unfortunate because, as the author notes, the “Spirit as life-giver, healer, and sustainer continues the Trinitarian project with creation to its ultimate realization” (p. 142). She sees the “resurrection as the paradigm for all creation” (p. 142). With her prior explanation of the Spirit’s role in the resurrection of Christ as a foundation, she expands the Spirit’s role to our “rising with Christ and consummating creation” (p. 142). As this statement implies, Marshall posits that resurrection is not only for humans, but for all of creation.

    At the conclusion of this study, Marshall identifies her preference for the word “participation” (as opposed to “communion”) to describe our life with God and with one another. She feels it better represents the reality that we not only indwell but are also “indwelt by the lives of others” (p. 159). This indwelling and being indwelt “is true of our relation with God and with one another” (p. 159) and it is the Spirit that invites us into this relationship of mutual indwelling that is the divine dance.

    The primary strength of this work is Marshall’s thoughtful theological reflection, insightful biblical exegesis, inclusion of the thoughts of scholars from many eras and creative metaphors to develop a fresh and inspiring way to envision the Spirit of God. The true strength of this work resides in the middle chapters. In the fourth chapter – EMPOWERING CHRIST – Marshall provides a fresh insight for understanding the relationship between the Spirit and the Christ through her “pneumatic Christology” (p. 62). By shifting the focus from Jesus as the expression of the Word to an expression of Spirit, Marshall provides a plausible (and hopefully palatable) way to allay the resistance to abandoning a purely masculine understanding of the nature of God. In addition, her explanation of the Spirit’s role in the anointing of Christ illuminates the fact that following the leading of the Spirit may take us into uncomfortable and evening dangerous places. Finally, her analysis of the Spirit’s role in ushering in the reign of God elevates the necessity for us “to stretch the boundaries of the people of God” (p. 66) if we are going to be successful in participating in God’s mission.

    The strength of the fifth chapter – BIRTHING THE CHURCH – is the new understanding of the way the Spirit both uses and infuses baptism, the Eucharist and worship. If the church were to accept her teachings here, baptism would become a way to overcome individualism and become a community. The table would become a symbol of welcome and hospitality that would extend into the world. Our time of worship would be transformed from an event we attend to a time that “makes us present to one another” (p. 90) and to the Spirit.

    Finally, the strength of the sixth chapter – TRANSFORMING UNFINISHED PRESENCE – comes out of the understanding that the fullness of our transformation is relative to the fullness of our vision of God. Although we may long for God’s presence, we also fear it, and, in response to that fear, we keep a veil between us and God. The more clearly we see the image of God, the more closely we can reflect that image into the world. This is the objective of spiritual formation. Despite our tendency to think of spiritual formation as a private and personal endeavor, Marshall sees it as “a relational, communal concept that beckons us to see one another” (p. 107).

    There is little to take issue with in this work, but, there is one point that is confusing. In Marshall’s explanation of what it means for us to be risen with Christ, she seems to be saying that our resurrection will be spiritual rather than physical – it will be “a new kind of communal, corporate embodiment that is spiritual in nature” (p. 146). However, in citing Ann Primavesi, she describes the consummation of creation to be the Spirit’s act of restoring “each species to be what it is intended to be within the ecosystem which surrounds it” (p. 149). Given that the strict definition of an ecosystem involves biological organisms interacting in a physical environment, this says the renewal of the remainder of creation will be physical. Even though the details of what it means for us to be “united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5) are shrouded in mystery, it is unlikely that only humanity’s spiritual dimension would be resurrected while the remainder of creation would be fully restored to the glory God intended in the original creation.

    Although this book is best categorized as a scholarly work, it does provide insights beneficial to daily life. If the church were to adopt the pneumatic Christology Marshall proposes, perhaps some of the lingering gender biases in the church would have less traction than they have historically had. If the church were to redefine baptism, the Eucharist and worship in the way the Marshall proposes, perhaps the body of Christ would be healthier, stronger and more effective. Perhaps, if we all allowed the Spirit to lift the veil shrouding the face of God just a little higher each day, we might be a better reflector of God’s righteousness in the world today.


     [1] It should be noted, however, that Samson and Saul are not the only instances where we find biblical authors attributing actions of individuals to this indwelling of the Spirit. Marshall provides a number of examples from the Old Testament and explains how, while present, New Testament authors provide “a more nuanced and inclusive” account (p. 45).



    Marshall, Molly T.. Joining the Dance – A Theology of the Spirit, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003. 198 pp. $16.00. ISBN 978-0-8170-1413-1.