Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Ten propositions on the Holy Spirit

by Kim Fabricius

1. Two’s company, three’s a crowd: pneumatology has always been the odd “ology” out in trinitarian thought. In the Nicene Creed (325), the third article is so minimalist it’s almost a footnote. Only in the aftermath of Nicaea, mainly as a result of Basil of Caesarea duking it out with the Pneumatomachi, did the Holy Spirit get some extended creed cred at Constantinople in 381. Then there was the domestic bust-up between East and West over the filioque clause from the 9th century, leading to the messy divorce of 1054. In the 20th century the Pentecostal and charismatic movements foregrounded the Spirit in the Western church, but, again, not without controversy. No doubt about it: while often rather anonymous, the Spirit is a holy troublemaker.

2. The Holy Spirit is God. By “appropriation,” after a nod to creation, we tend to associate the Spirit with ecclesiology, and also with anthropology – the Spirit within us (as in Calvin’s “testimonium internum”) and among us (as in John V. Taylor’s “Go-Between”). And that’s okay, indeed crucial – as long as there is no collapse into immanentism. But immanence is always ominously imminent: witness the pervasive influence of Kantian and Hegelian idealism, the historicism and subjectivism of liberal theology, and the ecclesiomonistic preoccupations of much postliberal theology. The Holy Spirit must never be confused with, collapsed into, or commandeered by the human spirit or the church. The Holy Spirit is God.

3. What about the filioque? Too much ink, let alone blood, has already been spilt on this contested issue for me to add to it. There are good biblical as well as patristic grounds for positions both pro and contra. The pneumatological advantages of a double procession include: a stress on the Spirit as personal being rather than impersonal force, a specific (Christological) content and criterion for discerning the spirits, a guard against lapsing into natural theology, pantheism, and fuzzy mysticism. The pneumatological advantages of a single procession include: an assurance of the cosmic and global sweep of the Sprit’s activity, a break on Christomonism, a bulwark against dualism, modalism, and subordinationism. Of course the Western church, with its unilateral action, must take most of the blame for the Great Divorce. In my view, it should now retake the initiative, this time in reconciliation, with the widely accepted ecumenical formula that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father through the Son.”

4. Is the Holy Spirit feminine? Don’t be silly! None of the Trinitarian personae is gendered. And I’m afraid the Fathers would smile at any sisters (and brothers) who think they thought otherwise. Thus the idea that taking the Spirit to be feminine would provide a maternal balance to masculine and patriarchal Father-Son imagery rests on a mistake at source, quite misunderstanding the nature of trinitarian imagery and theological language. The intention of revisionists is to achieve a balanced differentiation, and thus transcendence, of the sexes in God, but I wonder if it doesn’t rather just sex him/her up, misleading the church into a kind of Canaanite captivity. The Holy Spirit is neither he, she, nor it. The Holy Spirit is God.

5. And God is who God is in God’s acts. What, then, does the Holy Spirit do? In the Old Testament, the Spirit is the divine dynamo that quickens life, empowers people, and inspires prophets. In the (synoptic) gospels, the Spirit quickens, empowers, and inspires Jesus. It is Luke, in particular, who highlights the intimate connection between the Holy Spirit and Jesus – in his birth, his baptism, his temptations, his Nazareth manifesto, his healings, his prayer-life, his passion – to which Paul adds his resurrection. Colin Gunton emphasises the role of the Spirit as “the mediator of the Son’s relation to the Father in both time and eternity,” as the source of the “otherness and particularity” of Jesus, and as the agent of his freedom and obedience. “The Spirit,” says Kathryn Tanner, “radiates the humanity of Jesus.” Gunton also stresses that it is the Spirit “who forms a body for the Son.”

6. Eugene F. Rogers picks up this theme in After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West (2005), and extends the discussion to the resurrection and ascension – and to Pentecost and beyond. “In the world,” Rogers writes, “the Spirit is not Person or thing, because the Spirit is Person on thing. And the Spirit is Person on thing because the Spirit is Person on Person. The Spirit rests on material bodies in the economy, because she rests on the Son in the Trinity.” Again: “To think about the Spirit it will not do to think ‘spiritually’: to think about the Spirit you have to think materially.” Following Rogers’ trajectory, I would suggest that there are rich pickings here for a political pneumatology: the Spirit of Jubilee who inspires a praxis of liberation and an economy of grace.

7. The church is itself a body-politic, instituted by the ascended Christ, constituted as the koinonia of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, however, koinos (unclean) is the exact opposite of hagios (holy). And as Jesus crossed cultic boundaries, Paul Avis ventures that “if the Old Testament concept of holiness means separation, the New Testament concept means, even more than ethics, participation.” Which is to say that it is not moral rectitude but the forgiveness of sins – the credal characteristic of the communio sanctorum – that distinguishes the citizenship and embodies the holiness of the church. “There is no greater sinner than the Christian church,” said Luther. Which is why in the ecclesial body-politic, the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer and the practice of mutual confession are the centre of the civics of sanctification.

8. The Holy Spirit gathers the church – in order to send the church. “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning” (Emil Brunner). In his seminal Transforming Mission, David Bosch observes that whereas Paul relates pneumatology primarily to the church, “the intimate linking of pneumatology and mission is Luke’s distinctive contribution to the early church’s missionary paradigm…. For Luke, the concept of the Spirit sealed the kinship between God’s universal will to save, the liberating ministry of Jesus, and the worldwide mission of the church.” Bosch also observes that while the early Fathers focussed on the Spirit “as the agent of sanctification or as the guarantor of apostolicity,” and the Reformers “put the major emphasis on the work of the Spirit as bearing witness to and interpreting the Word of God,” it was only in the twentieth century that there was “a gradual rediscovery of the intrinsic missionary character of the Holy Spirit.”

9. Mission, however, transcends monological evangelism. Missionaries once commonly spoke of “the great unreached.” “Unreached by whom?” I ask. Religious pluralism? On the contrary, (a) I find the exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism paradigm confused and unworkable; and (b) I resist a purely conversionist missiology precisely on the basis of a high Christology, a cosmic pneumatology, and a robust ecclesiology. The Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov says, “We know where the church is; it is not for us to judge where the church is not.” Thus the Holy Spirit inspires the church to engage in mission without closure, mission that does not predetermine the divine action, mission practiced as dialogue, a listening as well as a speaking witness. Indeed Rowan Williams (in a fascinating essay “The Finality of Christ”) speaks of a “readiness for dispossession,” warns of the “seductions of ‘totalized’ meaning,” and, trying to break the logjam of the exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism paradigm, points to a Christ that, as the revelation of God, “is God’s question, no more, no less. Being a Christian is being held to that question in such a way that the world of religious discourse may hear it.”

10. The Holy Spirit is the divine glorifier. After Moltmann, both Pannenberg and Robert Jenson find a direct connection between pneumatology and eschatology. Both accord an ontological priority to the future and link it to the Spirit: Pannenberg speaks of the future as God’s mode of being, and Jenson says that “the Spirit is God’s own future that he is looking forward to.” They both seem to bind God’s deity to the perfecting work of the Spirit, which is the apotheosis of creation. Although there are philosophical (Hegelian) problems with this vision, and theological dangers too, there is an awesome boldness, beauty, and grandeur to it. In the eschaton, the Holy Spirit is stage centre, cover of anonymity blown, face-to-face in the faces of all the redeemed in their infinite diversity (Vladimir Lossky). The end is doxology.

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