Wednesday 27 September 2006

Theology for beginners (16): Spirit

Summary: The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, the third person of God’s triunity, is also the Spirit of the Christian community, gathering us together around the risen Lord and propelling us towards the future of God’s kingdom.

We have seen that Jesus is our salvation. The death of Jesus is God’s descent to us, and the resurrection of Jesus is our human ascent to God. Our salvation thus comes from God alone. But God also communicates this salvation to us, right here and now in our contemporary lives. When we speak of this “communication” of salvation, we are speaking of God the Holy Spirit. As the Son of God ascends in his resurrection, so the Spirit of God descends to us from the Father and the Son.

The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead also opens our eyes – opens our very selves! – to the reality of Jesus’ risen life. Through the Spirit, we are thus awakened to faith in Jesus. Through the Spirit, we recognise the crucified Jesus as the risen and ascended Lord. Through the Spirit, we say “Yes” to Jesus from the depths of our hearts. Through the Spirit, we perceive the nearness of Jesus himself as the meaning and goal of our lives. To be more precise, the Spirit is the nearness – or rather the “hereness” – of Jesus. The crucified Jesus has been taken up into the life of the Spirit, and this same Spirit now moves and acts among us in the power of Jesus’ resurrected life.

The Spirit, then, is the power and reality of the risen Jesus right here and now in our midst. And as such, the Spirit is the power of God’s future, the power of resurrection, the life-giving power of the coming kingdom. Always and everywhere, the Spirit directs us towards the risen Jesus. Always and everywhere, the Spirit awakens us to the nearness of Jesus as the reality of our lives and our future. In this way, the Spirit demonstrates that he is in truth the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, and therefore the Spirit of God.

The work of the Spirit, then, is focused on the reality of the risen and ascended Jesus. The Spirit gathers us around the risen Lord. The Spirit draws us into community with Jesus, and so also into community with one another. Through the Spirit, we are united with Jesus, and we participate both collectively and individually in the life-giving power of his death and resurrection. In this way, the Spirit ushers us into the very life of the triune God, the life of God’s self-giving love. As the community of the risen Jesus, we are now animated by this life, ignited by this love, and we are set in motion towards the final completion that awaits us in the future.

The Spirit is thus the life which animates the community of the risen Jesus. The Spirit is the breath by which the community lives. The Spirit is the bond of loving fellowship between the community and the risen Lord himself. In all things the community therefore depends on the power of the Spirit.

But the Spirit’s power is not primarily a matter of ecstatic experiences or miraculous occurrences – rather, it is a transforming power, a power of new life and new creation. In a word, it is the power of resurrection: the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is now at work in us, transforming us and leading us towards the fullness of new life, the life of God’s coming kingdom. Indeed, through the Spirit the community is already placed under the kingly reign of God, so that the kingdom of God’s future makes its nearness felt even now in the world. And this is precisely the mission of the community: to allow God’s coming kingdom to make itself known in the world through the power of the Spirit.

Thus the work of the Spirit has a specific goal and direction. The Spirit does not merely edify or enrich the community. The Spirit directs the community, propelling it forwards into the life of God. By leading the community in this way, the Spirit also gives an anticipatory glimpse of the future towards which all created reality is heading. For the community is propelled forwards by that same Spirit who has always been at work in the created world. The same Spirit who gives life and breath to all things also animates the community with the life of the future – so that, in the community itself, there is an anticipation of the life that awaits the whole created world as its final destiny.

This also means that the work of the Spirit in the community and in the world will be completed only at the end of history, when all reality is gathered up at last into the life of the risen Jesus, the life of God’s kingdom. And this life which awaits the community and the world is none other than the Spirit himself. The Spirit is the life of the future. The Spirit is the power of resurrection and the animating breath of God’s coming kingdom. The Spirit is the life into which the crucified Jesus has been raised as the “first fruits” of all creation.

Thus the Spirit approaches us from his own future, gathering us together and empowering us to move together towards the fullness of his own life-giving power – towards the life of God, the life of love, which has appeared in the risen Jesus.

Further reading

  • Bloesch, Donald G. The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), pp. 268-341.
  • Congar, Yves. I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Vol. 2 (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1983), pp. 5-35.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 146-61.
  • Küng, Hans. The Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1967), pp. 162-79.
  • Moule, C. F. D. The Holy Spirit (London: Mowbrays, 1978).
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 1-20, 129-35.
  • Rogers, Eugene F. After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
  • Taylor, John V. The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission (London: SCM, 1972).


David W. Congdon said...


Great post! I noticed you studiously avoided the filioque. Care to weigh in on that debate here? I ask because one of the insights which I appropriated from Jüngel (following Luther, following Augustine) is that, in the infinite distance between the Father and the Son, between life and death, the Spirit is the bond which unites these opposing forces so that God's life is not divided (as in Moltmann) but is capable of uniting death and life by the power of the Holy Spirit. I have never like the "filioque" but I do like how Jüngel uses it in God as the Mystery of the World.

Also, could you comment a bit more on your understanding of the triune relations? You seem, correct me if I am wrong, to be working with a more Eastern model of the Trinity, in which the Father-Son-Holy Spirit order is hierarchically structured (in contrast to the classical Western model of Father/Son-Holy Spirit). Of course, I know you wish to avoid all subordinationism. Are you working with a more Eastern model in mind, or is this coincidental?

Anonymous said...

Hi David.

Yes - the filioque - can't live with it, can't live without it! It's plumb worn me out over the last twenty years. If I were a theological umpire I'd say it's too close to call (not least because each has sound scriptural warrant).

Do you know The Forgotten Trinity (1989), The Report of the BCC Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today? If you don't you must try to get a copy. Among the members of the Commission that produced the report are Sarah Coakley, Paul Fiddes, Colin Gunton, Alasdair Heron, Ephrem Lash (that's Nicholas Lash's Orthodox brother [I once chaired a discussion on Augustine between him and Rowan William - talk about a treat!]), James Torrance, Jane Williams (that's Rowan's wife), and John Zizioulas. Not a bad line-up, don't you think?

Anyway, the body of the Report is only 44 pages long - and its worth 44 pages squared. By the way, I'm pretty sure that Colin was the actual author of the report, but of course it had the entire Commission's approval. On the filioque, I count at least six arguments pro, five arguments con. But you know Colin's critique of Augustine (skewered though it may be) and his debt to Orthodox thought and admiration for Zizioulos . . .

My own view, for what it's worth -but held by many, and almost all with a stake in ecumenical Faith and Order issues - is that the filioque should be dropped from the creed, not to foreclose discussion but precisely to open it up, and not as a Western concession to the East (in any case, it wouldn't be a "concession", if there is any bad conscience here it lies with the West) but as act of hospitality, freeing divided Christendom from the weight of its acrimonious history. If the filioque is too close to call, it should certainly not be a church-dividing issue.

I also think that the filioque does enshrine some important trinitarian insights that must not be lost, and it also acts as a breakwater against a few channels that can lead the church into some deep water (e.g. a-historicim and mysticism [in the Barthian sense]). Jüngel's profound and suggestive thoughts are another example of why the filioque must be kept in the mix. But I am sure that the East is right to locate the source/basis and the unity of God in the Father; while I also think that this need not imply a "hierarchical" structure of trinitarian relations. To quote the BCC document: "At the heart of the matter is the concept of taxis or order . . . It does not follow [however] that a 'subordination', an 'ordering below' entails inferiority of personhood, dignity or being."

By the way, I'm sure you're right that the non-mention of the filioque was indeed a studied move on Ben's part. It would have doused the sheer hilaritas of a beautiful post. In any case, if Ben were going to raise the issue, Trinity would probably have been the place to do it.

byron smith said...

Before I read the comments, I was about to say that I thought Ben had addressed the filioque - by coming out in favour of it! (Not in so many words, but still). I was therefore going to ask you, Ben, about the absence of any discussion of the role of the Spirit in the life and ministry (and death - Heb 9.14) of Jesus; and of the Spirit's role in creation. I enjoyed all you had to say about the Spirit of resurrection, but what of the Spirit of life? (A reference to the absence of Moltmann from the reading list too).

Petter Ö said...

Kim, I can't agree with you, if that's what you say, that the "Father" per se is the "source", "basis" and "unity" of God. That leads at least my thought to a "first principle". Rather, the source and basis of God is the unity of God through the Holy Spirit, i.e. the spirit of the Father and the Son. There is no other source of God than the choice of God to be this God. I agree though that when the filioque is somehow used to mark the distance between traditions, we should rather ask ourselves if the spirit "proceeds" at all.

I think this post expresses the spirit of the filioque, that the holy spirit really is the spirit of the father and the son, without overestimating the term as such.

Two examples:

"As the Son of God ascends in his resurrection, so the Spirit of God descends to us from the Father and the Son."

"Always and everywhere, the Spirit awakens us to the nearness of Jesus as the reality of our lives and our future. In this way, the Spirit demonstrates that he is in truth the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, and therefore the Spirit of God."

Thank you for the post, Ben, and all you who share your thoughts and comments on this subject.

Anonymous said...

Hi Petter.

Thanks for your comment. I would rather say, with the Eastern Fathers - and The Forgotten Trinity - that the Father is the fons et origo rather than a "first principle", which, I agree, is a concept that must be avoided, not least because of its impersonality.

The essential point, I think, is that "the being of God must be conceived not to be something underlying the threeness of the persons" - this is the modalistic danger, and the danger of "substance" language, of Western trinitarianism - "but that which the three persons are in relatedness to each other" (the BCC document). The unity of God is "being as communion" (Zizioulos).

Petter Ö said...

Thanks Kim, I see your point clearer, and even though I don't have your knowledge of the theological traditions, I feel that we basically agree on this.

Reading John 4:1-42, with the prologue in the back of my head, I find it fitting to say that the Son (and the Father) is the lifegiving fons et origo of the world in the true communion of God.

Anonymous said...

Any good suggestions on a way to find a copy of The Forgotten Trinity? A quick scan reveals no good leads. It's here at my library, but it sounds like a piece of work I'll want to have on hand.

Thanks, Ben, for all your work on these enlightening little chapters.

Anonymous said...

Jaroslav Pelikan on the filioque: "If there is a special circle of the inferno described by Dante reserved for historians of theology, the principal homework assigned to that subdivision of hell for at least the first several eons of eternity may well be the thorough study of all the treatises ... devoted to the inquiry: Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father only, as Eastern Christendom contends, or from both the Father and the Son (ex Patre Filioque), as the Latin Church teaches?"

Ben Myers said...

I’ve really enjoyed all these comments about the problem of the filioque -- sorry I haven’t had time to add much to the discussion. I think it’s an important question which raises many central aspects of trinitarian theology, but I think Kim is certainly right to say that the filioque should be removed from (i.e. should never have been added to) the creed.

In any case, I’m very resistant to any formulations of the Trinity which emphasise notions of hierarchy, subordination or "origin". I think Pannenberg highlights one of the main problems of the whole discussion, when he speaks of "a defect which plagues the trinitarian theological language of both East and West, namely, that of seeing the relations among Father, Son, and Spirit exclusively as relations of origin. With this view one cannot do justice to the reciprocity in the relations" (Systematic Theology, 1:319).

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