Thinking about the Holy Spirit

Here are some notes from my theology class today:

One of the key questions in thinking about the Holy Spirit is what to do with the varieties of understandings of the Spirit in the Bible itself. There are references to the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is the one who comes upon the prophets, but also came upon Christ. Christ sends the Spirit but is also proclaimed the Son by the Spirit. John talks about a Paraclete or Advocate. There is lots of material for creative thinking about the Spirit of God and the human spirit in the New Testament. It is important in formulating our doctrines of the Spirit to keep in mind the essential fluidity of the Spirit in the Scripture, tradition, and experience, but common to the church’s witness is that the Spirit of God is the same Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. Part of the role of the Spirit is make Christ real to believers. The Spirit is the one who makes faith alive and real. Or to put it another way, the Spirit is the one who helps us encounter Christ as Thou rather than simply as the metaphysical Logos or an historical figure. The Spirit is also the one who allows us to call God “Abba” from the core of our being rather than defining God as a paternal figure.

When we think about the doctrines of justification and sanctification, theologians get all twisted out of shape in arguing about the nature of grace or God’s forensics, while forgetting the weightier matter that we are made right with God through grace as communicated through the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of justification is not fundamentally about judgment and guilt; it is about the existential experience of being made right with God by God’s own work in reconciliation. The experience of justification is an experience of the Holy Spirit, and thus it is marked by wholeness, health, life, and movement. It is not always pleasant because sometimes we are so disordered in our lives that the fire of the Spirit feels like a scorching flame, but the result of the encounter with God is a sense of re-integration, a sense of being truly loved with a love that is beyond what poets describe, an awakening to a deeper reality that gives us a new insight into the world. It is an experience of the holy that can be radically transformative.

Some Christian communities have tried to define in precise terms what the experience of justification through grace should be. For some, it only comes through the sacraments; for others only through right belief; for others only through a conversion experience. But the witness of the church through the centuries has been that the Spirit and God’s grace work in many ways, just as God works in many ways through creation. What the church has consistently affirmed, despite many different theological formulations, is that the Holy Spirit is part of the process of justification and redemption. Just as creation was not a single act in the distant past; redemption was not just a single moment on Calvary; the Spirit is involved in the continuation of creation and new creation. There is an on-going dynamic process of the world, including human individuals, being reborn or remade. The Spirit draws us into the future and opens us to the possibility of a better future than our past would indicate.

When we think about the New Creation that Paul speaks of, sometimes in terms of the New Adam (we should think about the New Eve as well), keep in mind that we are talking about being more fully human, not less human. The work of the Spirit is, in part, the work of bring us ever more fully into God’s intention for humanity; to realize our giftedness as bearers of the image of God. There is very little talk about becoming perfect in the New Testament, although John Wesley made the most of the few passages. What we mainly see is the hope for the reclamation of humankind from the law of sin and death. Perfection would be an entering fully into life; into the life of God who creates; who loves the world enough to enter into the suffering and sorrow of the world; who brings hope and life and freedom.

Justification is the beginning of the process of the re-creation of persons; sanctification is the on-going process of living out of the knowledge that we belong to God; that we are the children of God and can live as dearly beloved children of God; that we are the living representatives of God in the world. Sanctification has too often been restricted to issues of self-discipline or even self-mortification without making the connection between the individual person and the wider society. Sanctification or becoming holy means entering into the life of God in our existential situation, and that means that we become living agents of God’s justice in a world disordered by the disease of sin and selfishness. This is why evangelism and the social gospel go hand in hand; why liberation theology and liturgical theology go together; why justification by faith and justice in the world are related; why redemption and reconciliation are political as well as spiritual goals.

One of the most important theological terms related to the work of the Holy Spirit is Vocation, and it is another one of those terms that we have allowed to degenerate over the centuries. When I say you need vocational counseling or vocational training, what do you think of? The word is just the Latin word for “calling,” and in the church it was specifically the calling of God through the Holy Spirit. The calling of the prophets, like Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures, was a paradigmatic view of calling, but in the NT calling is more than the calling of prophets. It begins with the calling of Jesus to disciples who leave one form of living for another. It was more than just the twelve who were called, and not all became apostles. There was the calling to the Samaritan woman, to Nicodemus, the calling to Lazarus to come out of the tomb, the calling to Mary Magdalene to health and then to recognize the risen Christ, the calling to Paul to give up violence and embrace love.

In early Christianity vocation meant the calling to be religious, meaning to join a religious order and take life-long vows of service and self-denial, but the Waldensians, Hussites, and then Luther turned vocation back to the originally idea of the calling of Christ through the Spirit to all who believe. Every Christian is called into life and abundant life. Every Christian is called to turn away from self-gratification into love for neighbor. Every Christian is called into community and into service. But every Christian is called in individual ways.

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  • Brad Jones  On March 18, 2010 at 1:42 am

    After reading this, I would kiss you if you were in the room.

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