Day: July 30, 2010

we believe in the Holy Spirit … don’t we?

Each Friday for the next 5 weeks I’ll be sending out some pre-reading for a course on the Trinity, which I’m aiming to post here too.

Some Christians appear unusually reticent to talk about the Holy Spirit. Indeed, at times, you might be forgiven for thinking they’re suffering from ‘Spirit-phobia’. Others, however, have the opposite problem — a kind of ‘Spirit-mania’. These Christian can sound like they’ll never run out of things to say about the Spirit!

For centuries, Christians have declared that they believe in the Holy Spirit alongside the Father and the Son. In fact, those who confess their faith using the words of the ancient Nicene Creed, have said:

We believe … in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorifed, who has spoken through the prophets.

But do we really mean this? Sometimes the way we summarise the Christian message can suggest that there isn’t much need for the Spirit (or really any cause to make much of — let alone worship — the Spirit). My hunch is that this tends to happen when the problem that the gospel solves is laid out like this:

  • The main problem that has to be dealt is, How can the transcendent and holy God be present within a time-bound and sin-stained creation?
  • The assumption is that there’s a gap between ‘God’ and ‘the world’ that must be bridged. The question is therefore, By who (or what) can it be bridged?

Although there is obvious truth to this way of putting it, there are also some problems.

For instance, when you give the obvious answer to the question of who can bridge the gap — someone with a foot in both camps (ie. God in the flesh) — you’re left without a clear idea about where the Spirit fits in. But if you flip out to the other extreme and start claiming that it’s actually the Spirit who bridges the gap then you’re immediately in danger of denying what the New Testament says about the completeness and effectiveness of what God has done in Jesus — e.g., ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ (2 Cor 5.19).

I think we need is a much clearer sense of the Spirit’s role in the story of Jesus — the story of the Spirit-anointed Son sent by the Father — and, by extension, a clearer sense of the Spirit’s role in making us a part of that story as adopted sons and daughters of God. Only if we can manage this will we be faithful to the New Testament, and be able to avoid both Spirit-phobia and Spirit-mania.