Success in living a spiritual life depends, not surprisingly, on the Spirit. Yet the Christian tradition has been very soft in addressing the Spirit’s place in the Godhead and in our lives as believers. That despite many strong advocates for him both now and in the past.
His role in both Old and New Testaments is pervasive and pivotal: he is first mentioned in Genesis 1:2 and finally noted in Revelation 22:17. Yet the early church never invested a robust effort to think through Scriptures about the Spirit in the way she wrestled with the Trinity and the nature of Christ at Nicaea, Constantinople, and the other ecumenical councils of the 4th & 5th centuries. That left open a door for confusion.
The ancient Montanists, for instance, held that the Spirit must have an overt and directive role in believer’s lives similar to what first century Christians experienced in Acts. Later Joachim of Fiore portrayed history as a Trinitarian progression—with sequential ages of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—so that we are now in the age of the Spirit whose unique ministry displaces the prior ages of the Son and the Father.
And there’s a problem with both. Straightforward Bible reading doesn’t lead us to either option. That is, the apostles who either wrote or guided the writing of the New Testament did not promote Montanist or Joachimist-like themes. Instead they promoted a Christ-centered faith that elevates the Father’s love and relies on the Spirit to form and facilitate a faith in us that works through that love. The Spirit, in particular, does heart-to-heart sharing. In 1 Corinthinians 2, for instance, he reveals the Father’s heart with us; and in Romans 8 we find that he shares our hearts with the Father.
The church, in fact, was startled by the Montanist and Joachimist impulses. During the Protestant Reformation, for instance, leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin had promoted the importance of the Spirit yet with the coming of spirit-radicals—the Zwickau Prophets visiting Wittenberg, for instance; or the leaders of the Munster rebellion in Germany; or the Familist movement in the Netherlands and England—soon ended that openness. Given the excesses of the spiritualists the church had good reason for their hesitation.
But here’s the rub: with this hesitation many theologians reduced the Spirit to an inactive personal status. In the Puritan “doctrine of means”, for instance, he was left—to use an anachronism—with a battery-like role of providing energy for human initiatives. So Puritans spoke of the Spirit “empowering” spiritual growth through the means of preaching, praying, Bible reading and the like. Thus any benefits from these activities were seen to be “of the Spirit” but any claims of his immediate presence were rejected.
And that, of course, will strike regular Bible-readers as more than odd. How, for instance, does the Spirit urge us to call the Father “Abba” if he is wholly undercover. And how does our experience of Christ’s work in us look anything like the Spirit’s work in the Son’s life on earth if he was active in the one case and passive in the other. We think of the Spirit coming upon Jesus, and his sending Jesus into the wilderness. We, too, are expected to walk by the Spirit and to bear the fruit of the Spirit.
I know, of course, that a post like this will have some modern day Montanists and Joachimists waving their hands to call us “over here, over here!” But that won’t do. Their focus is regularly on the “my” of “my experience” rather than on the proper (that is biblical) experience of hearing the Spirit share God’s heart in Christ with us.
Let us look, then, to the Spirit to urge us towards Christ. Let us invite him to make us more like Christ, growing from “glory to glory” in his likeness. Let us measure the quality of our experience of the Spirit not by any buzz we might get at a worship service but by the selfless qualities expressed as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. And let us love others with Christ’s love as the Spirit pours that love out in our hearts.
And never be shy about asking him to show you more of Christ: you’ll love his responses!
Thanks Ron. I found myself thinking some very similar thoughts lately in my preparation for a sermon on Acts 2 yesterday.
I have been challenged by how little we think, speak of or are aware of the Spirit’s work, in our churches often. What jumped out of Acts 2 for me especially was what you mention in terms of “urg[ing] us towards Christ.”
It’s good to hear it’s a shared impulse, Huw: thanks.
Amen, Ron. Do you think that the reason the early church didn’t wrestle with a doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the 4th and 5th centuries is because they were accustomed to His presence and were able to recognize the Spirit’s presence in and among the brethren?
Good question, Mark. It’s probably more complex than that but there’s much to be said for seeing the Spirit’s church role as reported in Acts as a pathway the early church recognized and treated as a defining basis for its spirituality.
And, in turn, the church needed to respond to the challenges she faced early on from the so-called Christians who refused to worship Jesus as God. The Spirit’s role has never stirred a crisis of that sort; yet in whatever measure the church misses the Spirit’s importance in a “spiritual” life, her ministry is damaged. So perhaps it’s a profound and enduring crisis that the church has been, mainly, too slow to recognize.
I loved this post. This has been a subject on my heart lately. I realize how often I minimize the Spirit’s role in my life. I loved your last paragraph, which is my prayer. This morning I invite the Spirit to urge me toward Christ, and conform me into his image. Holy Spirit, please show me more of Christ, In Jesus name.