theological instincts


I’ve been thinking a bit about our instincts — and what place (if any) they have in Christian living and thinking.

How are our theological instincts formed (and re-formed)?

I guess that almost by definition instincts are hard to bring into the cold, rational light of conscious thought.

This isn’t necessarily a drawback. I’m post-modern enough to be suspicious of pretty much every aspect of cold, rational conscious thought.

But it is something to factor in when it comes to trying to get a grip on our theological instincts — and potentially work at developing and honing them.

Something I find helpful is picturing instincts as more like muscle groups that you isolate, exercise and work on than like ideas you research (read: ‘Google’), weigh up the arguments for and against, then assimilate more or less directly.

That said, I think I have begun to become aware of some of my own theological instincts.

To begin with, I have long noticed how I start to squirm internally when some other Christian I’m listening to starts talking about how they’d answer a question about their faith — perhaps cataloging the evidence for Intelligent Design but not once mentioning or even getting close to talking about Jesus.

In contrast, I instinctively find myself wanting to start with and talk a lot about Jesus.

It just feels more ‘natural’ for me to adopt an approach that says, ‘Hey – I know this whole Christianity thing seems foreign and strange. But most worthwhile things take time understanding and becoming familiar with. Why not come in, take a look around, try out the furniture in here? You know, give Jesus a chance…’

Likewise, I’ve recently been struck by the way my theological instincts were on display in this article I wrote about guidance for the Bible Society.

The article began life as a pretty raw blog post, where I tried to put something I’d noticed about my own prayer life into words.

But when I was invited to expand it, I realised I needed to say more about the vision of Christian ‘adulthood’ I was fumbling towards — inexpertly in my original post, and (hopefully) slightly less inexpertly in my article.

And this is where my theological instincts kicked in. Because almost before I knew it, I’d reached for Galatians 5 and Ephesians 4.

The first is a passage about the work of the Spirit in creating Christian character. And the second is a passage about the work of the risen Christ (by his Spirit) in creating Christian community.

Pneumatology and ecclesiology. The Spirit and the Church. These weren’t so much carefully considered topics — calculated for maximum punch and polemical usefulness — as they were just the things I instinctively reached for when asked to flesh out my vision of Christian growth and maturity.

So I’ve isolated Jesus (and the Trinity and union with Christ), the Spirit and the Church as a few of things I instinctively turn to when I’m asked to approach something as a Christian.

The challenge is now to figure out how to exercise and work on them. (Or maybe to compensate for any lop-sidedness by working on some other theological ‘muscle groups’.)

then I’m too small to wield the key

So I’ve started to realise that the real work of discipleship — changing hearts and shaping our desires and abiding habits — is too massive and demanding for me.

Like Alice after drinking from the bottle labelled “DRINK ME”, I’m left feeling small and inadequate.

The enormity of the task is overwhelming. And I certainly can’t get a handle on the key that opens the all-important door. Only God can break up the stony ground of our hearts and reorder our affections — so we love the right things in the right way.

I’m not sure whether this realisation is deflating or liberating. (Like I said when I invited you to join me on this adventure, things are kind of out of proportion down here!)

But before I let myself — and you — off the hook too quickly, let me remind you that God uses means.

What this means is that in his sovereign and loving freedom God typically chooses to work with and through the ordinary stuff of creation. His Spirit did preside over his ordinary week’s work of making everything in Genesis 1.1-2.3, after all!

And this also means God often chooses to use us — in our inadequacy and insufficiency to the task of changing hearts — and our ordinary human words and actions to achieve his life-realigning purposes.

The theologian John Webster would put this under the heading of the sanctifying work of the Spirit — which he describes as “God’s unceasing, ever-fresh act of bestowing holiness upon the creature by the creature’s consecration” (Holiness, page 77).

But it’s what Webster goes on to say that I find most helpful — and dizzying: “the primary mark of creaturely holiness is … its external orientation, its ordering towards God as its source and the object of its praises”.

If I ‘ve understood this (and there are no guarantees I have), then I think it means that as we — in our stumbling and faltering way — learn to delight in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as the source of our life and the infinitely-praiseworthy centre of everything, we can be confident God is at work in us — making us holy and, ultimately, fit to achieve his purposes.

And that is a towering responsibility!

beyond Pentecostal Christology (ii)

I want to comment on one other aspect of Edward Irving’s Christology before I turn to examine his contention that regeneration and baptism in the Spirit are two separate experiences. In particular, I want to ask:

What are we to make of Irving’s focus on the mighty works of Jesus as evidence of his Spirit-empowerment?

Take this typical example (from his article ‘Facts Connected with Recent Manifestations Of Spiritual Gifts’ in Frasers Magazine, 1832, where Irving is summarising the content of what he had already been preaching for the previous six or seven years):

[A]ll the works of Christ were done by the man anointed with the Holy Ghost, and not by God mixing himself up with the man. The person is the Son of God; the bounds which he has consented to speak and act in are the bounds of mortal manhood; the power by which, when within these narrow bounds, he does such mighty things, against and above the course of nature, death, and hell, is the power of the Holy Ghost; and the end of the whole mystery of his incarnation is to show unto mortal men what every one of them, through faith in his name, shall be able to perform; as it is written in the first of these chapters, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works which I shall do he do also, and greater works than these shall he do, because I go unto my Father.” (John 14:12)

Of course, I wouldn’t want to deny that Jesus did do his mighty works by the power of the Spirit. And, as I’ve already mentioned, there is lots to commend this brand of ‘Spirit Christology’.

However, I do wonder why Irving focuses so narrowly on the spectacular mighty works in this connection — even while maintaining that it’s all the works of Christ that Jesus does in the Spirit’s power. And this presumably should include the climactic achievement of Jesus’ atoning suffering and death.

Some of the summaries in Acts could be swung in this direction (e.g., Acts 10.38 — although the context widens the scope significantly). But a close reading of the narrative of Luke-Acts calls for something broader — as emphasised by David Hohne’s important work on the Spirit’s role in locating Jesus as the Messiah, enabling him to fulfil his vocation, opening up the possibility that we might share in Christ’s sonship through faith, and ‘activating’ that possibility as the ascended Jesus pours out the Spirit on all flesh.

I wouldn’t want to repeat in Christological terms the old — and thoroughly gridlocked — attempt to play off gifts of the Spirit against the fruit of the Spirit. But, as with that debate, what we need is a way of integrating the two strands of New Testament evidence.

We need, in other words, to think together the (messianic) mighty works of Jesus with his work on the cross. And the way to do that, I’d suggest is by paying closer attention to Christ’s Sonship — something, once again, that trinitarian theology would tie very closely to his sharing in the Spirit…

beyond Pentecostal Christology (i)

When I outlined the Christological basis for Edward Irving’s move into what today we would call Pentecostalism, I promised that alongside my appreciation of its merits (which are considerable) I would also share a couple of reservations. Although, maybe ‘reservations’ puts things around the wrong way.

Rather than a dead end that we should notice but not walk down (a sort of theological cautionary tale), I believe Irving’s Christology is an incredibly fruitful and necessary step along the way to recovering a richer understanding of Jesus — and, consequently, of the shape and dynamism of the Christian life.

Let me explain how I see this working.

As far as our understanding of Christology, Irving has highlighted the significant role of the Spirit in Jesus’ incarnation, life, and ministry — raising questions about his humanity and to what extent he might be a role-model for us and not simply God stepping in and doing what we can’t. Instead of backing away from this, I think we should embrace it.

What embracing this means, on the one hand, is that we must affirm the trinitarian backdrop that makes sense of classical formulations of the full divinity of Jesus.

That is to say, what it means for Jesus to be fully God (as well as fully human) is that he shares in the unique divine identity with Israel’s God — co-eternal, co-equal, and united with the Father in essence and will. And Irving’s close work in the biblical text helps us see that Jesus does this by the powerful agency of the Spirit.

On the other hand, embracing the role of the Spirit in enabling Jesus to walk the path he does in his ‘incarnate career’ helps us see his representative humanity as a full and genuine humanity. So we can admit that in his life — and supremely and climactically in his death and resurrection — Jesus does do what we cannot do. And yet he does it as one of us.

This means his work for us isn’t detached from us — something God goes over our heads to do, merely wielding Jesus’ humanity like some fleshly instrument. Rather, it’s carried it out in deepest connection with us and our being.

As a real human being, Jesus is able to deal with our plight from within — getting to its heart by the power of the Spirit, and becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

Likewise, as a real human being, he now lives and stands before God for us — sharing his risen life with us by the power of the very Spirit he graciously pours out.

I’ll try to tease out how I see this shaping and energising Christian living in the next post.

the roots of Pentecostal Christology?

Returning to my series on the fascinating theology of Edward Irving, I suggested in my introductory post that one of the things that propelled him out of the Church of Scotland and into his role as founder of a new Pentecostal denomination was his distinctive take on the Spirit’s role in the ‘incarnate career’ of Jesus.

That is to say, for Irving it all started with Christology — and with a desire to stick closely to the text of Scripture. So it’s worth asking what we can appreciate before I register a couple of my reservations.

(In case you think what follows is an automatic recommendation of Irving, let me remind you that Arius also began with issues of Christology — specifically a desire to secure a genuinely suffering Saviour — and a biblicist sensibility — “More Bible, less philosophy” seemed to be his mantra. And Arius ended up denying the Trinity.)

To begin with, Irving picked up on the significant — and often-overlooked — role the Spirit is given in all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, especially.

And if you think about it the Holy Spirit really does get big billing at pretty much all the decisive moments in Jesus’ life: in his incarnation and virginal conception, in his baptism, in his confrontation with Satan in the wilderness, in public discussion of the significance of his mighty works, in his resurrection, and — tracking through into Acts — in the vindication of his ascended lordship as he pours out the promised Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Irving concluded from this that Jesus was enabled to do his mighty works not so much by virtue of his divinity as by his Spirit-powered (or Spirit-perfected) humanity. Hence, Irving began to wonder whether this power might be available not just for the unique God-man but for all upon whom the Spirit was poured out.

And it’s at least worth considering this prospect, isn’t it? I mean, didn’t Jesus say that his disciples would do ‘greater works’ than him once he’d gone to the Father and left them his Spirit (John 14.12)?

a presbyterian and a pentecostal walk into a bar…

I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke (and given the possible scruples of our heroes maybe a bar isn’t exactly appropriate — a church hall perhaps, or if they’re the missional church planting variety of presbyterians and pentecostals then maybe a boutique microbrewery would be more suitable). But it’s the way I often feel in my work at La Trobe University.

Presbyterians and Pentecostals are by far the dominant two church backgrounds of members of our Christians Union group. We do have members from a smattering of other denominations, of course — including a steadily-widening stream of Australian Born Chinese from independent evangelical churches enriching the soil.

That’s why it’s particularly apt that my big task in preparing for our mid-year conference on the Holy Spirit is to get on top of the work of Edward Irving.

Irving was a nineteenth century minister in the Church of Scotland (the forerunner of today’s Presbyterians) who ended up establishing his own Pentecostal denomination — the Catholic Apostolic Church.

From what I’ve read so far, two broad factors seem to have laid the groundwork for this move:

  1. His intuition that the significant role of the Holy Spirit in the incarnation, teaching and healing ministry, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus suggests that He did these things as a spirit-powered human being (and thus as a prototype for his people, now He’s poured the Spirit out).
  2. His dissatisfaction with the way regeneration had come to be understood as a matter almost entirely of individual inward renewal. This led Irving to distinguish regeneration from baptism in the Spirit, yielding what has came to be the traditional Pentecostal emphasis on speaking in tongues as the normal initial evidence of baptism in the Spirit (subsequent to conversion/regeneration).

I’ll try to let Irving speak in his own words as I explore these things in subsequent posts.

the Holy Spirit is my strategy?

It’s time to turn a corner and leave behind my recent reflections on ministry, strategy, and time management.

This is partly because I’ve run out of puff (having felt the need to process some stuff after a stupidly frantic February and March). And it’s partly because I’ve now got to put my head down and get stuck into preparing for our campus group’s mid year camp, Summit.

We’re tackling the topic of the Holy Spirit this year.

I’m really excited about this. Largely because one of my tasks is to wrap my head around the theology of Edward Irving, a ‘pentecostal’ theologian from 70 years before Pentecostalism hit the world-wide church scene.

So to mark this change of direction, I want to quote from Tom Wright’s recent appreciation of Rowan Williams (originally published in the Times and made available in abridged form at Fulcrum):

Rowan’s style has been private and unstrategic. Once, questioned about strategy, he responded crossly, “I believe in the Holy Spirit!”, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the Spririt might work through long-term planning.

My hope is that the Christian Union at La Trobe will emerge from a five-day soaking in what the Bible says about God the Holy Spirit not only believing more deeply and sharply in Him but also thoroughly energised by Him to take on the strategic and long-term challenge of being a mission fellowship on campus!

are you Christ-centred or Spirit-remembering?

I’ve occasionally heard Christian people contrast being Christ-centred with being Spirit-remembering.

Either that or accuse evangelical Christians of being binitarian (rather than trinitarian) or believing in ‘Father, Son and Holy Bible’.

What I’ve noticed, though, is that the people who say these sorts of things can quite often end up working with a ‘binity’ all their own: Father and Spirit. (I’ve especially noticed it in their prayers.)

Honestly, how is that any better?

As though you can have Christianity without the Lord Jesus — except maybe as some sort of cosmic switch the Father flicks to deal with our sin!

What a sick, twisted joke.

This is just one of the reasons I’ve appreciated the approach Andrew Cameron takes in his fantastic book Joined-Up Life: A Christian Account of How Ethics Works.

On the one hand, Cameron says that ‘to be “Spirit-powered” is to be finally, truly human’ (page 117). And, on the other hand, he keeps insisting that to be truly human we have to participate in Christ — where we discover that our best humanity is Jesus-shaped.

It’s brilliant!

Not only does it make so much sense of the New Testament presentation of Jesus as the Spirit-anointed and -empowered human being. Jesus was enabled to be fully himself by the power of the Spirit.

But it also gives us a work-around for this whole binitarian thing — especially when we factor in the biblical emphasis (impossible to miss in, say, the Sermon on the Mount) on the fact that the true humans are the children of the Father.

when the answer you give doesn’t answer the question!

No. I’m not talking about essays I wrote at College (although there may have been a couple that fitted in this category).

I’m talking about what Christians do when we invoke particular doctrines as the All Purpose Answer — the sovereignty of God and the Holy Spirit spring to mind (but they’re only the most common).

They function as conversation-closers. Problem is, they often don’t answer the question. They just relocate it.

Last week I asked some people: “How does Jesus transform and liberate us so that we can now please God?”

After not too many attempts, they hit on the ‘answer’ — he gives us the Holy Spirit!

Of course, this can’t possibly be wrong.

And it’s not. It just doesn’t get us quite as far as we imagine it does.

This became obvious when I pressed them: “How does having the Holy Spirit transform and liberate us so that we can now please God?”


That question is much harder to answer! But it’s only when we can answer it that we’ll be on our way to helping people experience lasting change and genuine freedom.

splashing around in the (spiritual) shallows…

I’ve recently kicked off a bit of a personal R&D programme. This year, I’m planning to invest a significant — although not necessarily major — portion of each week in thinking through the person and work the Holy Spirit (appropriately enough off the back of Pentecost, which for the liturgically-uninformed was this Sunday just past).

I’m already under way. Although, I definitely feel like I’m splashing around in the (spiritual) shallows. There are some serious depths to explore. Depths that I also find vaguely terrifying — better people than me have drowned in them!

Such pretty colours!

So far I’ve accumulated a small stack of ‘must read’ books — at this stage mainly to help me wrestle with the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit (appropriately enough again in view of the fact that this coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday!).

You’re looking at:

  • Oliver Crisp’s Divinity and Humanity and God Incarnate,
  • Jurgen Moltmann’s The Spirit of Life,
  • Paul Molnar’s Incarnation and Resurrection, and
  • Church Dogmatics IV/2.

If you’ve got any suggestions/favourites you’d add to this list, please let me know!