Book Review of George Montague’s “Holy Spirit: Growth of a Biblical Tradition”

Posted: April 28, 2009 by Rick Hogaboam in Book Reviews, Joel

Montague, G.T. (1994). Holy Spirit: Growth of a Biblical Tradition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

 Commenting on Joel, Montague suggests the following:

This passage from Joel, written probably in the fourth century B.C., stands on the divide between classical prophecy and apocalyptic or “end-time” prophecy. Although the immediate occasion for the prophecy seems to have been a plague of locusts, Joel sees the event as a symbol of the coming “day of the Lord” (Montague 1994:85).

Challenges abound in any attempt to date and precisely conclude what Joel was speaking of with regard to the locusts and other items in his book. The safest route, and perhaps the one most faithful to Joel, is to ascertain the symbolism of the things which he speaks. There is danger in trying to read apocalyptic literature as woodenly chronological and literal. Such books are more like picture books, whose symbol needs to be grasped. The same trappings accompany many who wish to pull out every minute detail of Jesus’ parables, whereas they end up with a meaning that defies the common sense main point that the whole story is pointing to.

Commenting specifically on Joel 2:28-32, Montague says the following:

Then follows our text, but it is only loosely attached to the historical situation which precedes: “Then afterward…in those days” (vs. 1). With verse 3 we are clearly in a final cosmic cataclysm, “the day of the Lord: (vs. 4)…The spirit that is poured out is, amazingly, the spirit of prophecy—and in this Joel goes beyond the general statement of Ezekiel, for whom the outpouring of the spirit was to be given so that the people could live faithful to the covenant (cf. Ez 36:27) (Montague 1994:86).

Montague sees two things in Joel 2:28-32. One, that it is detached from its previous context and marks a transition to a more apocalyptic theme; a transition from the here and now to the glorious future. Secondly, Montague notes an expansion on the nature of Spirit outpouring from previously related statements regarding the giving of the Spirit. Whereas it had been spoken that the Spirit would bring an internal work within the heart for the purpose of obedience to Yahweh, Joel speaks of a “charismatic” effect in the giving of the Spirit, having less to do with what Christian theologians would call “regeneration” or “sanctification”, and more to do with actual functioning in a “prophetic” nature. All such notions of the Spirit in the OT corpus ought not be seen as contradictory, but rather as complementary: God’s people need an internal working of the Spirit to transform their hearts and an external working of the Spirit which enables them to be a “witness” to God’s present kingdom.

Montague continues on Joel 2:28-32:

Another particularity about this text is that such a measureless outpouring spirit is not given, as in Ezekiel, for the reconstitution of the people in their homeland but rather as a sign of the final day of the Lord with its cosmic upheavals. What is the meaning of this scenario? Does it mean the end of the world, the collapse of the universe, as we know it today? A closer reading shows that the cosmic manifestations are “wonders” of the Lord. Earlier prophets had used just such cosmic language to describe “earth-shaking” historical events such as the fall of Babylon (Is 13:10) or the death of Pharaoh (Ez 32:7-8). The apocalypses pick up this language and apply it, without a specific historical instrument or reference, to God’s ultimate triumph over evil (Is 24:23 and here). We are not obliged to see the poetic imagery as describing the end of the world in a physical sense, for this was not the original biblical meaning. The imagery does underline the cosmic significance of this event (Montague 1994:86).


If Montague is correct in his assessment, then the main witness of the outpoured Spirit is as a sign and wonder of God’s impending judgment over evil, the triumph over it. Pentecost would therefore be a sign of both salvation and judgment, signaling that the “day(s) of the Lord” have commenced.


Montague continues to comment in regard to that great apocalyptic event:

However it is to be manifested, the event is both judgment and salvation. Thus, although the outpouring of the spirit is primarily presented as one of the wonders of the Lord, closely connected with the cosmic signs, the ethical element is not totally absent, for the remnant to be saved will be those who call on the Lord on Mount Zion and these are the ones who will have entrance to the heavenly city. It was to this prophecy, according to Acts 2:16-21, that Peter appealed to explain the event of Pentecost, harbinger of the coming “day of the Lord” (Montague 1994:86-87).


Montague rightly notices what he calls an “ethical” element of the Spirit’s outpouring in Joel. While the Spirit’s outpouring is demonstrable in the function of prophecy, it is bound by a common trait, calling on the name of the Lord, apart from which none will be saved. Though some see danger in reading Peter’s imperative (Acts 2:38) of “repent…be baptized…you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” as necessarily chronological in order, I think it no coincidence that repentance precedes both baptism and reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift of the Holy Spirit within the Lukan corpus is not to be understood as the act of regeneration per se, but rather as an impartation of power for mission. Such an understanding accords with Jesus’ words regarding the intent of Pentecost, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, ESV). While there are various nuances in Pneumatology, we must remember that it all proceeds from the one and same Spirit and that all such distinctions of His presence work together, rather than against each other.


The modern Evangelical landscape is filled with much diversity (more than some would prefer), and there has been an unfortunate stereotype of Pentecostals as emphasizing the “anointing” paradigm of the Spirit while neglecting the “ethical” or sanctifying purpose of the Spirit’s indwelling. At the same time, some Pentecostals have been know for belittling their non-Pentecostal brothers for a lack of “anointing” and zeal, questioning some Godly folks on whether they even “have” the Holy Spirit. This has all been a most unfortunate consequence of majoring on a particular distinctive within the various nuances of Biblical Pneumatology, and a failure to see the unified whole. Perhaps the Pentecostal does need to complement his theology of the Spirit with some emphasis on the “fruit of the Spirit” and other “ordinary” workings of the Spirit in sanctifying the believer. At the same time, non-Pentecostals may need to acknowledge a vocational and empowering work of the Spirit for the purpose of mission and ministry as complementary to the “ordinary” working of the Spirit in the sanctification of the believing community.

  1. roykeane says:

    Nice blog about book reviews.

  2. […] Book Review of George Montague’s “Holy Spirit: Growth of a … […]

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