Book Review: Giver of Life

Book Review: Giver of Life

Author: Fr John W. Oliver

Publisher: Paraclete Press ISBN: 9781557256751

Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition

I love this book. I must admit I was captured from the preface, technically, even before I started the book. It was the humility and profound wisdom of the following words, which grabbed my attention with such an unrelenting grip:

A man is lost in the woods. He’s been wandering there for many years, doing enough to survive but perpetually uncertain how exactly to find his way out. With each wrong turn, he learns a little more about both the forest and his lostness. Signs of life are everywhere. Even though he is lost, hiss internal compass grows gradually sharper over time, so he never panics. He just keeps moving.

One day, while walking down a path, he meets a group of people who are also lost, but they’ve only been lost for a few hours. The frightened group pleads with the man—please, can you tell us how to find our way out of this forest? No, the man replies, but I can tell you how not to get more lost.

That story is one of my favorite descriptions of the priest hood. My priesthood, at least. While I am an Orthodox priest, I stumble through the woods in my own way and cannot offer anything of lasting value about much, and especially not about so lofty and sacred a topic as the Holy Spirit in Orthodox tradition, a topic that require such precise reflection that a single wrong word could lead to the thicket of confusion or over the ledge of heresy. So, in this book I try to stay to the paths worn smooth by the reflections of the saints through the ages, those men and women who have found their way—or, more precisely, allowed themselves to be led—out of the woods.

Then, nearing the end of the preface, Fr John adds these words:

“…We need the Holy Spirit to understand the Holy Spirit.”

It was this preface that set the tone for me of the entire book. I looked forward to engaging the sacred mystery of the working of the Holy Spirit. I anticipated wrestling with the early church fathers as they discussed and debated the revelation and embodiment of the Holy Counselor who came to dwell in the hearts of men just as the Christ had promised. I was eager to learn about things much loftier than my capacity to learn—ideas and doctrine—that have been established as foundational faith-building blocks since the earliest days of the Church. Fr John Oliver delivered on all these and then some.

Using one of the most common prayers to the Holy Spirit from the Orthodox Church, Fr Oliver exposits rich doctrine and historical teaching about this Third Person of the Trinity. The prayer follows:

O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.

Each chapter takes a portion of this prayer as its title and Fr John follows with a wonderful commentary highlighting the history, tradition, and Orthodox teaching behind that particular portion of the prayer. The chapter titles are as follows: (1) O Heavenly King (2) The Comforter (3) The Spirit of Truth (4) Who Art Everywhere Present and Fillest All Things (5) Treasury of Good Things (6) Giver of Life (7) Come and Abide in Us (8) Cleanse Us from Every Impurity, and Save Our Souls (9) O Gracious Lord.

This is another book I have sticky-noted and highlighted into oblivion. There is so much of it that I have “favorited” that it is difficult to choose what impacted me most, although chapters five and six seem very heavily trafficked by my pen and book marks. Fr Oliver chooses to write in Treasury of Good Things a parallel with the “good things” and Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25). His exposition on this equation of new creation and bearing fruit of the Spirit is one of the most insightful pieces written about the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer I have read in a long time. Likewise, in his chapter six, Giver of Life, there is a poignant and beautiful discussion on the sacramental life that I will not soon forget. Chapter eight details the Wesleyan equivalent of sanctification in my estimation as Fr John writes; “The Holy Spirit cleanses, renews, transforms. He dwells within the human being, and we become something that we could never become without Him: pure.” (p.105)

In his endorsement of Giver of Life, Mark Galli writes; “As an evangelical, not surprisingly, I found things to disagree with. Then again, I also found myself writing on almost every page, ‘Amen’!” I think I might echo similar sentiments, but I would also add that I am eternally grateful for the deeply rich and wonderfully robust theology that is the Orthodox stream of the Christian faith. If you’ve never drank from this stream, Giver of Life, will certainly be living water for your soul.

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