Experiencing the Spirit

Formal training in theology isn’t always reliable. I’m thinking of the disaffected vision of God, and the rationalistic faith, offered in too many schools. Such settings represent cooling embers of once bright fires. With students who arrive with lively faith and then graduate with chilled hearts.

The “fire” is the Bible portrayal of a living God who so loved the world that he sent the Son to offer eternal life to all who love him in turn. This much was clear to an early saint like Augustine of Hippo (c. 400). His vision of love in the communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit reassured me that my own reading of God’s affective love in the Bible was well grounded. So God’s triune, eternal love is the motor for all of sound spirituality. And Augustine made that truth central to his own mature faith.

Yet today among many Christians there is a suspicion of emotions—the affective responses of every soul—because they’re unstable. Cognitive and will-based faith, concentrated in doctrines rather than in experience, are better! But, with Augustine, I believe sound faith is anchored in a deep experience of God’s love through the ministry of the Spirit. An experience of God himself.

I also realize the chutzpah of criticizing major institutions, and challenging people of real ability. But anyone can report a house fire once they spot it. So, please forgive my presumption here and look for yourself—you may see the problem in many churches that have lost their first love. 

Here’s the aim for today. I want to note two academic books—dense reading—on Augustine’s faith that underline his continuing importance. The first is Matt Jenson’s, The Gravity of Sin (T&T Clark, 2006). The second is Simeon Zahl’s, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience (Oxford, 2020).

Let’s start with Zahl’s own words. He offers “key insights from Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, as well as Augustine, to resource a pneumatological and experiential soteriology for the present day” (p. 5). That is, he shows how the fifth century Augustine shaped crucial views in Luther, the major sixteenth century reformer, and his associate, Melanchthon, on the necessity of heart-based salvation.

The pneumatology and experiential salvation he cites looks back to Augustine’s certainty that Christian faith relies on the Spirit from beginning to end. And, according to Zahl, Augustine’s “core engine of Christian sanctification is the divine gift of love” (p. 208) as promised in Romans 5:5—“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Salvation, in other words, relies on the experience of the Spirit’s love perceived by a soul.

Zahl goes on to trace some of the broad rejection of experienced love in later forms of both Roman and Protestant faith. I invite any who are curious about all this to read his book. And his argument about the rise of more disaffected (“cooler”) salvation certainly meshes with Janice Knight’s thesis in her Orthodoxies in Massachusetts (Harvard, 1994) where she shows a deep division among English Puritans over two versions of faith: one driven by law and the other by love. And I found the same divide in my doctoral work: “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology” (Kings College London, 1997).

In Sibbes’ case (d.1635) his combination of confidence in God’s love and in the immediate, active ministry of the Spirit in human hearts—Zahl’s “experience”—shaped his mature theology. One contemporary parishioner reported the impact Sibbes’ preaching had on him: “His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much [so that] my heart held firm and resolved and my desires [were] all heaven-ward” (Frost diss., p. 88).

In Jenson’s book, The Gravity of Sin, he also points to Luther’s core continuity with Augustine. In this Jenson features the way both men spoke of human sin as the soul “curving in on itself”—in Latin, homo incurvatus in se. This differed from the widely held view of sin as “trespass” or “violating God’s will.” For those in the Augustinian-affective tradition the behavioral definition of “trespass” overlooks the underlying motivation of sin: proud self-love. Like a doctor who looks beyond presenting issues to an actual disease. And that disease is the fallen human’s instinct to be self-focused—to mistakenly see personal spiritual efforts to become good as crucial for salvation. The Augustinian corrective transformed Sibbes’ ministry in the seventeenth century and also shaped Jonathan Edwards’ theology of sin and salvation in the eighteenth century.

These brief snippets aren’t enough, I’m sure, to convince anyone to shift his or her own reading of salvation after living long with a more disaffected, juridical, and behavioral faith. Or, for Roman Catholics, with a sacramental, versus a Spirit-in-us, view of grace. But these books at least offer the chance to invite readers to see a problem. Whatever “faith” we grew up with is not shared as a church-wide consensus: ongoing debates are still in play. And in sorting the options what we find in Augustine’s affective and experience-based faith is profoundly biblical and personally compelling. Heartfelt!

If Augustine is right, then we all need the Spirit to break the power of Adam’s unwelcome gift: the self-fixating “gravity of sin.” It only comes by God’s love poured out in our hearts. The Spirit is not reluctant to do this if we ask. What’s more, if we do ask him it’s only because he’s already drawing us to experience God’s love in Christ. 

Or, as I love to say with Augustine, “O, taste and see, the Lord is good!”

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4 Comments

  1. Michele

    Thank you, Dr. Frost, for such a timely article. It seems that even the most “solemn” congregation can call for a heart of joy during Christmas time. 😀 There is so much we can learn from Christian/Church history… to see the ebbs and flows of theological trends and realize that nothing is really new under the sun. Lots of great food for thought. And appreciate the book recommendations also. God is good, indeed! 🙂

  2. Lee

    Ron, this has been so life-changing and life-giving for me! Thank you so much for pointing me to Bible read throughs and to Richard Sibbes. Everyone should read “The Bruised Reed.” It shattered my conceptions about the Puritans. I’ve begun reading Augustine too. I find the same things happening in my heart as in theirs! The ministry of the Spirit through daily abiding in the word of God is a spring for my thirsty soul. It looks like I’m going to have to add some new stuff to the reading list.

  3. R N Frost

    Thanks for these responses! And spread the good news, please. As Michele reminds us, it’s the basis for a truly joyful Christmas!

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