Voices from the Communion: Professor Dr Cheryl Peterson on the Spirit in the life of the church
(LWI) - “Well, okay – if you insist,” her mother answered when young Cheryl Peterson asked to go to church to learn more about God.
Rev. Dr Cheryl Peterson, Professor of Theology and Associate Dean for Academics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University in Ohio, is now one of those people who talks to and about God with a focus on “Pneumatology” the theological study of the Holy Spirit.
She has written extensively about Lutheran and Pentecostal identity and the Holy Spirit, is a member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Lutheran-Pentecostal Dialogue Commission has served on the planning team for LWF’s 2019 Addis Consultation, We believe in the Holy Spirit: Global Perspectives on Lutheran Identity and has had countless ecumenical relations with Catholics and Charismatics.
In this Voices from the Communion, Prof. Peterson, who is a systematic theologian, shares her studies and encounters with the Holy Spirit and the Church.
What was your religious or spiritual life growing up as a child?
I didn't grow up in a church home. Largely due to my grandmother’s influence, I was baptized around 11 months old, but my parents were not active Christians. We never prayed at home. We never read the Bible at home. We never went to church except for Christmas and Easter. I am not sure why, but sometime around grade school, I got the church bug. I remember watching Davey and Goliath [a Lutheran animation that was broadcast on religious and secular television stations] when I was a little girl, and I remember being really interested in God and not knowing who to talk to about God, because my family rarely talked about God. I thought, ‘Well, the church is where you talk about God.’ I asked my mother if she would take me there and she said, “Well, okay if you insist.”
I became active in the church youth group by the time I was a preteen.
I grew up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, called Worthington, and our church there would always receive interns from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, which is where I teach now. But one year in 1980, we got our first intern who was not from Trinity Seminary, but was from Harvard Divinity School, and who was also a woman, and everybody said, “Oh, my gosh, a female intern! We've never had a female intern before.”
Her name was Elizabeth Eaton, and she is now the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I was 16, and at that moment, she became an extremely formative person in my life and a significant person in my faith development.
When did it become apparent that you were being called to ministry?
During the summer of 1984 between my junior and senior year at Wittenberg University in Ohio, I took a summer course through Wittenberg called, Global Issues and World Churches, in Geneva and for the last two weeks of the course, we attended the LWF Seventh Assembly in Budapest, Hungary. It was when the LWF Vice-President was Bishop Dr David W. Preus.
I was blown away at how many Lutherans and from so many countries were in one place, talking about how to live out their faith in the world, and how to act for justice, and how to address the evils of Apartheid. It was the year delegates suspended the membership of two white Southern African churches for their refusal to end racial division in their churches. It was the year that the women took over the stage because of the lack of female representation during Assembly business. It all knocked me off my feet in amazement.
Returning home, I decided to minor in religion and eventually enrolled in seminary at The Lutheran School of Theology – Chicago and there the call became stronger and stronger.
What would you say prepared you for work with the LWF Lutheran-Pentecostal Dialogue?
A few years ago, when I was turning my dissertation into a book during my first sabbatical in 2012-13, my goal was to begin work on a Pneumatology book.
I joined the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS), and even before that, I presented a paper at the LWF theological consultation, “Theology in the Life of Lutheran Churches: Transformative Perspectives and Practices Today,” 25 – 31 March 2009 in Augsburg, Germany, for the Systematic Theology Seminar group, called, “Pneumatology and the Cross: The Challenge of Neo-Pentecostalism to Lutheran Theology” which led to my first publication on the topic.
Marquette Seminary, where I earned my PhD is a Jesuit institution, but many of my classmates there in the theology department were Pentecostal, many of whom are leading Pentecostal theologians, today.
When I arrived at the SPS annual meeting to give my first paper, I surprisingly knew many of the people in attendance because they were Marquette Seminary classmates.
Globally, the fastest growing movement among Christians, is Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, possibly because there is a real belief that the Spirit is present, moving alive and transforming us throughout the world, and that is what attracts people.
I continue to attend SPS regularly and to write on the topic of Pneumatology. My next book, which is under contract with Baker Academic, The Holy Spirit in the Christian Life, engages the topic from both Lutheran and Pentecostal theological perspectives.
How did these ecumenical experiences lead you to study Pneumatology?
When I entered Marquette, my interest was in ecclesiology, or doctrine of the Church, but my doctoral advisor, an American United Methodist theologian named Dr D. Lyle Dabney, was a student of Jürgen Moltmann, and he said, “I think you need to look at the church from the perspective of the “third article,” which is where the church is found in the historic creeds. Pneumatology is his area of specialization. He encouraged me to “start with the Spirit.” I ultimately wrote my dissertation on the doctrine of the Church, as planned, proposing the idea of a “Spirit-breathed church.” I revised my dissertation into the book, Who is the Church? in 2013.
The shift in my interest to Pneumatology really started growing in graduate school, partly because of Dabney, and the relationships I had with my Pentecostal classmates at Marquette.
What would you like Lutherans to know about the Holy Spirit?
In our tradition, the Holy Spirit is present in our theology, we just have not emphasized it as contemporary Lutherans.
One of the things my book does is to show that Pneumatology plays more of a role in Lutheran theology than we would know by looking at contemporary Lutherans in the north and west, and there are things we can learn from the Pentecostals and Charismatics, as well as things that we can teach them – it is a dialogue. I would also like to highlight some of the similar concerns we both have, such as our critique of the “prosperity gospel.”
Luther wrote in length about the Spirit, so I am interested in retrieving some of his ideas about the Spirit. For example, Luther writes in the Small Catechism, “the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with the Spirits gifts,” and so, it's part of our tradition, it's there, and we have not emphasized it out of fear perhaps, or fear of being too exuberant or overly pious. In what Timothy Wengert calls “Luther’s reversed Trinity” (Timothy J. Wengert, Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009), 43-44), it is the Holy Spirit who reveals to us Jesus Christ the Son who reveals to us the Father’s heart and thus, the self-giving of God.
Christians often talk about the Spirit often as “Gift,” but the historic creeds call the Spirit, “the Giver of Life,” the one who gives us the gift of life and new life in Christ. Therefore, my book focuses on how the Spirit gives us this new life, this rebirth, when we are justified by faith. And then I ask, “How do we walk and live in that new life being accompanied and led by the Spirit and in the movement of what we call sanctification?” We are being made holy, but for the sake of the other, and then empowered for a life of service.
What are some practical ways a Lutheran can make the Holy Spirit a starting point?
Lutherans might learn to give testimonies of their spiritual life, how they have encountered and experienced the Spirit as the Giver of Life, and to engage in one-on-one encounters, a method that community organizers use.
To give testimony about how the Spirit empowers us for mission in the world, not just evangelism testimony, but how it moves us to be justice workers in the world. The Spirit gives us the power to speak truth, but also to act justly and to work for justice.
The one-on-one method can also be called “holy listening,” a way in which we invite the Spirit to lead us to work on behalf of those who are in need.
As Lutherans we do justice ministry well, we just don't often talk about it in terms of the Spirit. I want people to connect justice to Pneumatology. John calls the Holy Spirit the “Paraclete,” in Greek meaning comforter or advocate, but literally it means “one alongside of another,” or as I like to say, the accompanier. The Spirit is the great accompanier or one who accompanies us. In that accompaniment we receive voice, power, and strength to be God's people in the world together – in unity.
How do we access the Spirit? The Spirit is God reaching out to us in the person of the Spirit. Because the Spirit is the one who calls us to faith. In the Large Catechism Luther has this beautiful language about how the Spirit takes us by the hand and places us in the lap of the church and tells us about Jesus.
How do you define what it means to be spiritual?
I define it as a deep connection to God and attention to the way God is moving in your life and a desire to move with God and not against God. I think people can be spiritual without being religious, of course I want to introduce people to Jesus, but there are some programs that experience spirituality in a way that is more generic or accessible to people.
For instance, a person can find this understanding of Spirit in programs like the 12-Step Recovery Program for alcoholics, which says in Step Eleven: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” This gives the person in recovery the opportunity to know themselves in God and the power to allow Spirit to work through them for others.
To be spiritual is to find your identity and purpose in order to lead you into the world for the care of others.
Being spiritual does not take us out of the world.
What does it mean for your work and you to be a part of the communion of churches?
The Addis Consultation in 2019 was a highlight for me to attend and participate. The opportunity to come together as a communion to say we believe in the Holy Spirit and worship was exciting to be involved in and that study process was the seed of the LWF Documentation #63.
That is why it is important to talk with as many other Christians, and in many different contexts about what the Spirit is doing in this place? And how can we better listen to the Spirit. Therefore, I love being part of the global communion, because there are many voices from so many contexts and that is when we really get the full picture, when we listen to how we are all experiencing the Spirit in our community and beyond and ecumenically with Pentecostals and with Catholics and other Protestants and Anglicans and each other.