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.

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4 comments

  1. I love the terms “Spirit-phobia” and “Spirit-mania”. “Spirit-mania” could be a great name for a Christian wrestling channel…just a thought. Two passages come to mind which do exactly what you say – connect Christ and the Spirit together. In Luke 11 Jesus teaches the disciples to pray and what they need to ask God for is the Holy Spirit. Jesus goes on to talk about his ministry of driving out demons. A demon was cast out of man and what is interesting is that his life is described as “clean and in order”. But that is not enough because the demons come back again and possess him. What was missing in this persons life was the Holy Spirit, he was clean but what he needed was the presence of God in his life which Jesus gives to us through the gift of the Spirit. What this man needed to do was to ask God for the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you.” The other passage is Romans 5:1-11 which connects our “justification by faith” through the blood of Jesus with the pouring out of God’s love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. We always tend to focus on God’s love demonstrated in Christ dying for sinners that we miss the fact that the result of justification is the coming of God into our life through the Holy Spirit whereby we are accepted and reconciled into his family. A final question: When was the last time we heard an evangelistic sermon which promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to those who repent and believe as in Peter’s pentecost sermon? I ask that question to myself. So thanks Chris for getting me thinking about the Holy Spirit.

    1. Great thoughts, Steve. Thanks for the suggestions about passages. I was thinking of moving in a ‘sonship’ type direction (Rom 8, Gal, etc) — but there are obviously wider connections too. Isn’t justification even ascribed to the Spirit in one instance (an instance Moltmann makes a big deal out of)?

      With regard to your final question, I suspect there are probably good reasons why people don’t preach evangelistic sermons this way. I guess lots of them probably have to do with a perfectly understandably reaction against ways of talking about the Spirit that threaten to displace Jesus.

      Feel free to run with the ‘Spirit-mania’ Christian wrestling channel idea — that one’s a freebie!

  2. The reference to justification by the Spirit is 1 Cor 6:11. Orthodoxy use this verse to speak of justification and sanctification as one and the same reality. Justification is not a declaration but a transformation into righteousness whereby we are justified at the end of life, rather than justification in the present through the righteousness of God manifest in Christ’s death and resurrection.

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