Reviewed by Kent Capps
In The Mind of the Spirit, Craig Keener explores Paul’s understanding of the human mind and of how cognition connects to other aspects of Paul’s theology and practice. Some Christian traditions have emphasized the role of the intellect above “embracing the Spirit experientially” (xx) while others have emphasized spiritual experience above disciplined study. Sometimes these emphases arise largely from natural inclinations either toward intellectual rigor or toward engaging the emotions. Most traditions would affirm the value of both emphases in principle, and many have labored to bring both emphases together with varying results, yet according to Keener serious divisions remain among modern Protestants over the relationship of these emphases. Paul himself “apparently experienced no conflict as a believer between life in the Spirit and an intellect directed by faith” (xix). Indeed, for Paul, “the two are inextricably bound together” (xx). Keener thus intends to demonstrate “that, against some circles, the Spirit does in fact work through the mind and not only apart from it” (xx). In seeking to move from righteous identity to righteous living by the Spirit, Paul stresses “the importance of right understanding corresponding to the divine perspective” (xvi).
In addition to the goal of drawing together those on various points of the intellect-experience spectrum, Keener desires to provide Christian psychologists and counselors with a deeper understanding of Pauline psychology so that they may apply these principles in their contexts.
Keener approaches the subject not primarily through lexical studies of words related to the mind but by closely examining relevant (mostly undisputed) Pauline passages, predominantly in Romans and the Corinthian letters, in comparison and contrast with discussions of the mind among Paul’s philosophical contemporaries. Giving attention to the ancient intellectual milieu on anthropological matters can shed light on how Paul’s readers would have understood him. Keener argues that Paul was a “Judean with a Diaspora background and mission” (xviii) who had interest in reaching urban Greek speakers acquainted with popular philosophies. Consequently, a variety of ancient philosophical sources may be consulted profitably to clarify Pauline particulars. He draws on a wide range of Greek, Roman, and Jewish material, often engaging these ideas in excursuses and copious footnotes.
In chapter 1, Keener treats the corrupted human mind described in Rom 1:18–32. In spite of ancient philosophers’ call to self-controlled reason, the supposedly wise pagan mind corrupts nature’s evidence for God, rejects the knowledge of God, and misconstrues reality, particularly human purpose and identity, becoming subject to the passions and giving itself to idolatry and sexual sin. However, even the Jewish mind furnished with the law without the Spirit remains the mind of the flesh, even though Jewish teachers believed that the law enlightens reason.
Chapter 2 explores the mind of faith in Rom 6:11. Believers derive a new identity not through autonomy from God or individual exertion but through Jesus’s past death and resurrection and their eschatological destiny in him. Believers must cognitively embrace God’s perspective on this identity, understanding and “reckoning” themselves according to this identity, but this is not “merely a mental reform method, analogous to that of the philosophers” (52). The mind of faith recognizes this new identity in Christ and the actual reality that Christ accomplishes the formation of righteousness in the believer. Believers now “share God’s perspective on their union” with Christ (xvi), and that union has truly been effected by God on their behalf, leading to genuine transformation.
Chapter 3 deals at length with the controversial issues in Rom 7:12–25. Keener understands this text to depict “neither the ideal Christian law nor Paul’s current experience but Paul’s graphic dramatization of life under the law” (112). The person described here possesses a “religious mind informed by God’s righteous requirements” (xvi), unlike those described in Rom 1:18–32, but even this mind remains unable to free itself from subservience to the passions. Only God’s gracious gift of new life and righteousness can free one from such enslavement.
Chapter 4 turns from the “mind of the flesh” in Romans 7 to the “mind of the Spirit” in Rom 8:5–7, a “way of thinking empowered by God’s Spirit” (xvi). In addition to the new identity in union with Christ described in Romans 6, believers have Christ and the Spirit dwelling in them. “These are greater resources for achieving moral and civic good than the sorts of cognitive resources to which most other thinkers appealed” (141). The mind of the flesh is self-focused and dominated by worldly concerns, unable to follow God’s law. The mind of the Spirit is a habitual mental lifestyle that involves life and peace.
In chapter 5, Keener discusses Rom 12:1–3 in which Paul exhorts believers to be transformed in their minds, shaping and renewing their thinking according to the age to come rather than the present age. Believers must recognize rationally what is good and pleasing in God’s sight. Such renewal of the mind leads to serving the body of Christ.
Chapter 6 looks at the mind of Christ in 1 Cor 2:15–16. The Corinthian believers were tempted by worldly wisdom that prized status and power, which diminished their ability for spiritual and moral discernment according to God’s perspective. It created division and strife. God’s wisdom and the mind of Christ are displayed in the cross. As believers deepen their understanding of the cross and the love of Christ by the Spirit, they mature in the character of Christ and the wisdom of God, gaining “a foretaste of eschatological reality as well as experience of God” (xvi).
Chapter 7 explores the Christlike mind according to three passages in Philippians. When believers set their minds on virtuous things, they will discover peace that guards their hearts and minds (Phil 4:6–7). Philippians 2:5 exhorts believers to think according to the example of Jesus, which fosters unity with and service toward one another rather than division. Philippians 3:19–21 encourages believers to set their minds on heavenly matters rather than earthly ones.
Chapter 8 compares Paul’s heavenly focus on Christ with the way philosophers, mystics, and apocalyptic visionaries sought to visualize heaven and envision deity. The philosophers’ deity was often abstract and transcendent. Paul’s thought was christocentric. Contemplating Christ produces Christlike character rather than a life marked by earthly passions. Christ’s position in heaven also has implications for the Christian’s future hope.
Keener concludes by suggesting that, for Paul, “the mind of love, the mind of faith, the mind of the Spirit, the heavenly mind, the mind of Christ focused on the weakness of the cross, and so on are all the same mind. They are simply different entrances into the same reality in Christ and in the Spirit” (253). When Christ rather than self is the object of trust, when the mind depends on and is driven by the Spirit rather than the flesh, when the mind evaluates matters from an eschatological rather than a present-age perspective, when the mind looks to the cross rather than the wisdom of the world, a believer finds strength to live according to God’s character. Conversely, a mind devoid of God’s Spirit and gospel transformation, even one that possesses knowledge of the law (Rom 7:7–25), will be subject to the passions in spite of philosophers’ exhortations to overcome the passions by rational repose.
The book closes with a postscript of implications for divided churches, divided hearts, pastoral psychology, and worldviews and with two appendices on the soul in ancient Mediterranean thought and on Paul’s understanding of God’s wise plan in the biblical narrative.
Keener makes a welcome contribution to scholarship on Christian anthropology and psychology not only by working carefully through key Pauline texts that connect the mind to the Spirit and Christian character but also by situating these themes among the philosophical ideas at work in Paul’s world. Keener’s pervasive knowledge of ancient texts enables him to draw out many insights into Paul’s thinking which at times parallels and at times deals polemically with ancient philosophies. The book repays careful reading due to the manner in which Keener has brought these texts and topics together into one organized study. Even though Keener regularly engages with ancient philosophies, he judiciously avoids seeing more cultural focus than is there, acknowledging when interactions with Greek and Roman philosophies are merely suggestive and recognizing when Paul’s language and ideas arise more readily from Old Testament and Jewish backgrounds.
The book offers balance to recent evangelical currents emphasizing the non-cognitive, intuitional, habit-driven elements in shaping Christian character (see, e.g., the work of James K. A. Smith). Undoubtedly these currents have brought fruitful insights to evangelical spiritual formation, but Keener’s book can help evangelicals avoid overcorrection by drawing detailed exegetical attention to Paul’s concern with cognitive elements of faith and maturity in Christ. Keener persuasively demonstrates that cognitive elements are integral to Paul’s spirituality.
On the one hand, Keener’s copious references to ancient sources in footnotes are impressive and welcome. Readers get a sense of how various ancient writers thought about the issues Keener addresses. If one wishes to pursue further information, Keener shows his work and provides extensive research material. On the other hand, the footnotes are so numerous that they can cause distraction from following the argument. As one who desires to read everything, I often felt like I was watching a vertical tennis match as my eyes bounced from top to bottom of the page and back again on almost every sentence. The body of the text is written clearly and in a non-technical manner. Readers could benefit from working through the book twice, once slowly, pausing over the technical research contained in the footnotes, and a second time simply moving steadily through the body of the text, focusing on the overall argument.
Not everyone will agree with Keener’s understanding of the debated issues in Romans 7, but everyone can benefit from absorbing the coherent portrait that he paints of Paul’s psychology that involves a Spirit-formed mind in union with Christ. Keener’s portrait springs from careful and patient exegesis of key Pauline texts and from a mature understanding of the philosophical trajectories of Paul’s Greco-Roman-Jewish environment and therefore deserves to be grappled with as Christians strive to be conformed to the image of Christ in the church, in counseling contexts, and in daily life.
Ph.D. Candidate in Biblical Spirituality
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
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The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking