Most people have never heard of Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202). Yet his voice was notable in a Christian tradition that still has echoes today. He was a mystic and monk who claimed that God intended to work in human history in three stages.
The first stage was the age of the Father, that is, the Old Testament era with its divinely ordained rules that required full obedience. Then came the age of the Son, the era between Christ’s life and the year 1260. The year 1260 was chosen by taking the number of days cited in Revelation 11:3 & 12:6 (i.e. 1260 days) to be years instead of days. Thus, that year promised the arrival of a third age of the Spirit when people would finally gain direct communion with God by the Spirit’s coming to rule in the lives of individual Christians.
Joachim died well before 1260 but his followers looked ahead for the new era to come. What did they expect it would be like? The Gospel of Christ, Joachim told them, would still be valid in the third age but it would be surpassed as the letter of the law was replaced by the spirit of the law. The Spirit’s activities would also dissolve any further need for the organized and hierarchical church. Instead the Spiritualists—called the Order of the Just—would rule the Church. That was a pretty bold claim, given that the Western church operated within a well defined hierarchy from the Pope downward. The new Order would displace all of that.
Joachim drew some attention, both positive and negative. His main themes were dismissed by the Lateran Council in 1215 but he was still treated by the Catholic church as a saintly figure, though not as a saint. Dante, author of the Divine Comedy, drew on his teachings. The year 1260 came and went without any dramatic features.
We can now ask, “So what?” Did he offer something we need for today? Not really. And I’m certainly not trying to promote him or his ideas here. In fact, I’m convinced he was way off base.
But Joachim and his followers did illustrate a problem that has lingered in Christianity as a whole. That is, the sort of discussions about the nature of the Godhead and about the deity of Christ didn’t extend to an additional discussion of the roles and nature of the Spirit. We had the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the Council of Chalcedon in 381 that offered us, respectively, touchstone debates for the first two concerns; but there was never an early and equivalent council devoted to the Spirit.
Over 250 years after Joachim we meet Martin Luther. In Luther’s day the promise of a third age of the Spirit was still alive for some, but Luther himself was at best only vaguely aware of such themes. He did, however, recognize the importance of the Spirit in the Bible and also held that the Spirit engages believers both in conversion and in ongoing faith. His first publication was, in fact, a German translation of the medieval mystical work, the Theologia Germanica which invited readers to a more immediate form of spirituality. So when Luther began to resist the hierarchy of the Roman-led Catholic church while promoting a more lively spirituality, some of the radical Spiritualists of the day saw him as a possible representative of a new order of the Spirit.
Two of these figures were the “prophets” Nicholas Storch and Markus Stubner from Zwickau who came to Wittenberg to meet Luther. Luther quickly rejected them and what they taught. Later a separate spiritual movement led by Thomas Müntzer—who was also dismissed by Luther—produced the ill-fated Peasants Revolt. Then yet another effort to promote the new and immediate leadership of the Spirit emerged in the town of Münster, an effort that was also crushed. The net result of these Spiritualist efforts was a widespread disavowal of the Spirit’s active role in Reformation theology and practice. He was not a welcome presence if his work was to overthrow the church as an ordered body; and his purpose was to give some leaders divine—and sometimes dubious—prerogatives! What the radicals did accomplish was to scare away any additional Spirit-advocates for nearly a century.
I offer this historical content as background for this question: what is the biblical role of the Spirit? Does he only work through established church authorities and activities today—as something of an undercover presence? Or have we entered into the new age of the Spirit, characterized by his unique works of leading and speaking through Spirit-anointed activists? Or is there some happy medium somewhere between the extremes?
All I can do is raise the question here. Any efforts to answer need to be book-length efforts. And in recent decades there have been some projects offered along that line. Here the most we can do is to suggest some key elements that must be part of any conversation.
First, we need to embrace God’s call for us now to live by the Spirit rather than by the “flesh”. Luther properly recognized that Christ’s coming signaled a new work of God in history. Luther looked, especially, to Galatians as central to this claim: there he found that any effort to make the Mosaic Law into a basis for spirituality is broken. Why? Because the Law looks to human performance rather than to Christ. So while it offers certain moral boundaries it must never be treated as the focus of faith. Instead Christ alone is to be the focus of faith. And the Spirit’s work is to elevate Christ in our hearts—to open the eyes of our hearts to see God as fully revealed in Christ. Luther was absolutely on target here.
Second, any efforts to elevate the status of the Spirit to a new position of functional primacy in the Trinity violates the eternal reality of the Father-Son-and-Spirit communion. In the Bible we find the Father and the Son to be uniquely devoted to each other in an eternal exchange of love and glory—a reality celebrated by Jesus in John 17:24. The Spirit never seeks to displace that unique dyadic reality, but he does eternally facilitate that bond of love by communicating the love of the Father to the Son, and vice versa. In an insight offered by Jonathan Edwards we notice that the Bible never speaks of the Spirit’s love for the Father, or of the Spirit’s love for the Son. Instead he faithfully carries the mutual love of both the Father and the Son—as the one who searches the “depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10)—back and forth between the Father and the Son throughout eternity.
We, once we are united to Christ, are then drawn into this exchange by the Spirit’s communicating ministry. Thus, we are reborn into God’s life by the coming of the Spirit as he “pours out God’s love in our hearts” (Romans 5:5). Such a role does not reduce the Spirit’s full deity and personal participation in the life of the Godhead, but it does explain how God’s relational being is sustained as the Spirit serves the Father, the Son, and the Bride by eternally and actively witnessing to this affective mutual devotion.
To say more about his personhood, the Spirit can be grieved and quenched when we, mere mortals, despise his ministry. And Jesus warned his audiences that to dismiss the Spirit’s communicating, witnessing, and coaching ministry is an unforgiveable sin. Even as the incarnate Son, Jesus responded to the Spirit’s leading throughout his life and ministry on earth. And in that reliance he set up a model for us to follow. So Luther was correct in his dismissal of the radical Spiritualists of his day who tried to modify God’s eternal status of relations. The Son reveals the Father to us, and the Spirit elevates the Son in our hearts—but, although deserving and receiving worship as one present in the Godhead, the Spirit never seeks to be uniquely elevated in our worship.
Finally, we need to learn how to respond to the Spirit’s leading. How does he do this? Not, as Joachim or the Spiritual radicals of Luther’s day proposed, by bringing about new directions in human conduct through the teachings of self-appointed Spirit-spokesmen.
Instead the Spirit illuminates the Word that he has stirred in the hearts of Bible writers. That is, the Spirit first worked in the hearts of the Bible writers, moving them to hear and report God’s heart to us, the readers. And now he moves in our hearts to hear what God wants us to know by completing the Heart-to-heart-to-heart progression of revelation. So we will never understand what the Bible is telling us unless we have the Spirit whispering in our hearts, “Listen to this, because God loves you!”
Then and only then do we become true Bible students and true Christians: by responding to that love with our own love for Christ. So Luther was right, once again, in his call, “sola scriptura.”
As for Joachim’s notions: never mind!