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The Pneumatological Perspective to Inter-faith Dialogue

September 2016 Feature Article

The Second Vatican Council teaches that the Holy Spirit acts not only in the Church but also outside it, and above all, in other religions.

The Council while defending the unique saving work of Jesus Christ, recognizes the universal salvific will of God. This means that Jesus wants to save all of humanity and indeed Scripture says that the whole of creation longs for this redemption (Rom 8:22).

Although the Council spoke of the Spirit’s action outside the boundaries of the Church and in all things that are good and true, it was Pope John Paul II who went further by recognizing the activity of the Holy Spirit in non-Christian religions.

Pope John Paul II never suggested that salvation could be found in non-Christian religions. He merely pondered on questions like: How does God work in the lives of peoples of different religions? How does the saving activity of Jesus effectively extend to those who have not professed faith in Him?

In fact, it was Pope John Paul II who vigorously took up the direction of the Council in expanding on the theme of interfaith dialogue in his writings, in line with his firm belief that the Holy Spirit also guides non-believers and the activities of non-Christian religions.

The document, Presence and Action of the Holy Spirit in the World and in other Religions issued by the Vatican’s Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, invites Christians to reflect on the presence and action of the Spirit not just in the Church but in other religions, and in fact, the whole world. It says that all humanity live under the action of the Holy Spirit, which in “these last days has been given to all humankind” (Acts 2:17).

Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit is like the wind. No one can control the Spirit or monopolize Him. The Holy Spirit like the wind blows wherever it pleases (Jn 3:8). In the Psalms, one is often told that the Spirit of the Lord fills the whole earth (Ps 139). Galatians 3: 1-5 and Acts of the Apostles 2:17-21 remind us that the Spirit has been given to all humankind.

These verses are not exhaustive of scriptural references to the Spirit’s action upon the entire world and on all of humanity.

Some theologians refer to this mode of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the whole of creation as the ordinary presence of God in creation. They argue that it would be meaningless to discuss the extraordinary presence of the Holy Spirit in believers without first accepting His ordinary presence in all creation.

This discussion is termed by theologians as the presence of the Holy Spirit in ‘its universality and its particularity’. It recognizes God’s presence and activity in the Church and beyond it. It recognizes all of history as salvation history since it is the same Spirit who is at work among all peoples and whose presence fills the whole earth.

Therefore, there is a need for a greater appreciation of the Holy Spirit’s activity and presence in the world.

The Holy Spirit can touch, empower and inspire anyone He chooses. It is clear by reason and revelation that the person who is open to life, truth, wisdom, goodness, holiness and desires such things in his or her heart, is indeed guided by the Holy Spirit, who is Life, Truth, Wisdom, Goodness and Holiness itself.

God is not just the God of the baptized. He is the Father of all and it is from Him that every family in heaven and on earth derives its name (Eph 3:14-15). In fact, Ephesians 4:6 continue to say, “There is one God and Father of all people, who is Lord of all, works through all and is in all.”

Pope John Paul II in a general audience on 16th Oct 1985 said, “The fatherhood [of God] does not regard only the chosen people. It reaches every person and surpasses the bonds existing with earthly parents.”

Theologians like Gavin D’Costa have concurred on this point by stressing the universal presence of the Spirit in all human culture. D’Costa sees God as the God of all who fills, sustains and saves the world with His life-giving Spirit. He writes, “The riches of the mystery of God disclosed by the Spirit are measured and discerned by their conformity to and illumination of Christ, who is the normative criterion.”

Clark H. Pinnock in an article entitled, Religious Pluralism: A Turn to the Holy Spirit, explains D’Costa by saying that “while the Spirit reaches beyond Jesus in extent, it does not go beyond Jesus in content.”

Jacques Dupuis says that Christians do not have a monopoly over all truth. Although he believes that the fullness of Revelation comes in the Person of Jesus Christ, in terms of quantity, it does not exhaust the divine mystery. Dupuis says although the fullness of revelation comes in Jesus, we still need to relate this to what the Holy Spirit is accomplishing in the world.

Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jurgen Moltmann both talk about a universal pneumatology. Both see the Spirit as necessary not just for redemption but for sustenance.

Moltmann in his book, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, writes, “In both Catholic and Protestant theology, there is a tendency to view the Holy Spirit solely as the Spirit of redemption.”

He continues, “Thus, the redemptive Spirit is cut off from bodily life and the life of nature. It makes people turn away from this world and hope for a better world beyond. They then seek and experience in the Spirit a power that is different from the divine energy of life which according to the Old Testament interpenetrates all the living.”

Moltmann sees the Holy Spirit meeting people not only in religious spheres but in secular events and even in the most mundane activities of life. Nothing is untouched by the finger of God, not even non-Christian religions. Theologians call this action of the Holy Spirit, ‘prevenient grace’.

Prevenient grace is a theological concept that has its origin in St. Augustine. For him, it is the divine grace that precedes any human actions. Prevenient grace is God drawing people to Himself prior to any human decision.

Thomas A. Langford in his book, Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition, discusses the position of John Wesley’s prevenient grace. In Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace, God offers every person the opportunity to be saved, although the ‘how’ is known only to God. Wesley recognizes that everyone is provided with prevenient grace to a larger or lesser extent. This is the activity of the Spirit upon the hearts of each human person.

It is this prevenient grace that produces what is good and positive even in non-Christian religions. Prevenient grace is the work of the Holy Spirit which he gives freely to those who are opened to his goodness, Christians and non-Christians alike.


Rev Fr James Yeo

Rev. Fr. James Yeo is currently the rector of the Catholic Theological Institute of Singapore.