The Liminal Spirit: Reading the Ritual Framework of Luke and Paul – by David J. McCollough

The anthropological concept of liminality provides a solution to the apparent conflict between data from Luke-Acts and data from Paul’s epistles regarding Spirit reception.  Paul’s statements about a universal Christian experience of the Spirit were predicated upon a common liminal initiation practice.  Paul does not describe the liminal experience of initiates, he simple assumes that his readers are fully initiated. Luke, however, details scenarios in which candidates for Christian initiation experience liminality. That is, Luke shows initiates traversing the ritual space between being outsiders to The Way, and being insiders. That in-between part is called the liminal stage ( from limen, or “threshold”).

The conflicting data can be highlighted by comparing Peter’s instructions to the crowd on Pentecost with Paul’s statements to the Romans. Peter declares:  “repent, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” As 3,000 were not baptized all at once, there was liminal space between the moment of decision to get into the line of repentant people, and the moment of immersion in water, at or after which the Spirit was to be given. The gift of the Spirit was distinct from the moment of repentance/belief, but not subsequent to the liminal initiation ritual.

Paul, however, states that, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his.” A conflation of the two apostles might result in the idea that the Spirit was given silently at the moment of the faith of the Pentecost crowd, and then, at/after baptism, was given with accompanying manifestations. However, this does violence to Peter’s preaching. Peter envisions only one coming of the Spirit. So too, to propose that Paul spoke of an indwelling experience which may be subsequently followed by a second distinct experience of the Spirit adds to Paul what he has not written. Both authors know of only one coming of the Spirit.

Paul however, when speaking of water baptism, assumes all have been baptized.  Moreover, Paul links water baptism to identification with the burial and resurrection of Christ – with the believer’s very identification with Christ. Clearly Paul is not claiming that water baptism occurred at the moment of decision to follow Christ. What is Paul doing? Paul is theologising from a common, universal initiation ritual. He is using elements of that standard ritual process as boundary markers of Christian identity.  All Christians were water baptized. All Christians publicly confessed Jesus as Lord.  All Christians received the Spirit. Paul does not address the matter of exceptions to his general statements. He does not speak of a person who has not yet had the chance to be baptized. He does not address the question of belief in isolation from the opportunity to publicly “confess with your mouth.” Most significantly, he does not theologize about the status of the initiate who has believed but not yet experienced the Spirit in/after baptism.

David J. McCollough is the author of Ritual Water, Ritual Spirit (Paternoster 2017, ISBN: 9781780781792). He has a BA in Church Ministries at Southwestern Assemblies of God University, a Master of Divinity from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, and a PhD from Middlesex University (supervised at The London School of Theology). Contact David on Twitter – @DavidMcCollough

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