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.


Anonymous said...

If it follows from the fact that none of the personae are gendered that the Holy Spirit is neither he, she, nor it, then shouldn't it also follow that the Father is not "he", nor is the son?

I don't think any of the people claiming a feminine character for the Holy Spirit suggest the Spirit is ontologically she in some way inappropriate to the reality of the Godhead. (I will point out that many of the "God is a man, dammit" crowd cross the line on that one, though!) Rather, it's a metaphor, and quite a rich one, just as the Father's Fatherhood is. It's not seeking an inappropriate balance, but represents theology growing into ever richers metaphors for understanding God.

Uncle Les said...

Excellent post.

You wrote "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"

I appreciated this missional focus. Too often pneumatalogical studies miss out on the sending aspect of the Spirit's work and becomes too insular, i.e. what can the Spirit do for me?

Anonymous said...

What, no mention of Zizioulas? "Christ exists only pneumatologically" (Being as Communion, 111), and "through the outpouring of the Spirit, the 'last days' enter into history, while the unity of humanity is affirmed as a diversity of charisms" (112). There's no more powerful pneumatology than this one.

Anonymous said...

I take your point, Chris, (Hans Küng, among others, makes it strongly), but there are folk out there who do say that "God is a woman too dammit!" It is they who are in my sights.

I don't mention JZ by name, Brian, but see the first sentence of #7 for his institution/constitution point. By the way, do you think that the reverse is also true: viz. that the Spirit exists only Christologically?

nakedpastor said...

Didn't Karl Barth say something to the effect that someone had to follow in his steps to develop a theology of the Holy Spirit. I think you are on to something. Thanks for this post!

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Actually, Naked, what Barth said was that he hoped someone would re-think the entire Church Dogmatics from a pneumatological perspective! (And how does one do that with a huge, but unfinished, work???)

Good stuff, Kim. I have to say that I share Chris T's perspective. I remember in seminary reading Athanasius on the Trinity at the same time I was reading some feminist theology. So I cam to my beloved teacher, Molly Marshall (now President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, KS--and a fairly moderate feminist theologian) and asking if it were possible to accept the main feminist critiques against exclusively masculine God language while still being completely Trinitarian. She smiled her wicked-gleam smile and said, "Yes, Mr. White," I wasn't yet married, "But you will be forever after doomed to very complex sentences about GOD!" And so it has proved. :-)

Brandon Jones said...

Kim, thanks for this. I am curious as to the context of this quote:

The Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov says, “We know where the church is; it is not for us to judge where the church is not.”

It's hard for me not to think that this statement regards none other than the Orthodox Church's agnosticism regarding Christians who are outside of Orthodoxy. Is Paul speaking on the exclusivism/inclusivism missiological issue here?


Anonymous said...

The chief work of the Holy Spirit, with respect to our salvation, is, according to Aquinas, Calvin and Barth, to bring us into union with Christ. (Curiously, there is almost nothing about this in the Rogers book, except when it makes a cameo appearance via Staniloae).

I myself have suggested that the Spirit be thought of as, in a wide diversity of ways, "the mediator of communion" (koinonia). That is the most comprehensive category I can find to organize all the rest of the things that the Spirit is said to do. (In this regard I find the Rogers suggestion about Spirit-on-object to be singularly unilluminating.)

The eschatological aspect of the Spirit's work is to actualize and reveal the universal Lordship of Christ (cf. Eph. 1:22, 4:24; Col. 1:20). This is the work of redemption, as Barth called it. It is under way now, provisionally, in the gathering, upbuilding and sending of the Church, which represents the earthly-historical form of that which is to come to all.

Redemption (as the universal outworking of the reconciliation accomplished in Christ) will be actualized and revealed unsurpassably at the end of all things with the return of Christ in glory.

There is no redemption by the Spirit apart from the centrality of Christ, and no reconciliation in Christ apart from its revelation and actualization by the Spirit.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Kim, for another excellent post.

And thanks, George, for this helpful comment. I think your concept of the Spirit as "mediator of koinonia" is a helpful way of organising a cluster of different themes. And the specific term "koinonia" is much better, too, than some of the more fashionable abstract terms like "relationality". As David Bentley Hart shrewdly observes in The Beauty of the Infinite: if God is simply the relational space between different persons, would this apply also to the relationship between Nazis and Jews? I reckon Hart's question highlights exactly what is wrong with the concept of "relationality", and why a concrete theological concept of "communion" is so important.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments, George and Ben.

In these Propositions, and in all my Propositions, my main intention is not to produce a primer, but to suggest connections that we might not make, or that have been made but not foregrounded. So, for example, koinonia - being in, union with, Christ - is indeed the key Pauline pneumatological - and ecclesiological concept - but I thought I'd take a line that links the Spirit's holiness with the key credal statement about the church, viz. the forgiveness of sins. That's my angle here on the soteriological work of the Spirit.

Again, given the usual dualism of spirit and body/matter - indeed the practical gnosticism of much popular Christianity - I thought I'd push a linkage of Spirit with body/matter, to point to the Spirit's role in the formation of the body of Christ, the transfiguration of the human body, the glorification of the universe, and the tranformation of material (in the Marxist sense of the word) life.

And I wanted to open up the missiological perspective of the Spirit's economy, which, as Bosch points out, was (for obvious contextual reasons, viz. Christendom) neglected by the Reformers, and even by Barth when inter-faith issues were still only nascent - but are so no longer.

Brian (above) mentions Zizioulas' dictum "Christ exists only pneumatologically." I suggested that the reverse is also true, viz. that the Spirit exists only Christologically. I think I'd be right in saying that this would certainly be your emphasis, George: definitely the filioque, yes?

David W. Congdon said...

Not surprisingly, I don't find Hart's comment about relationality in any way illuminating. It seems to me that separating "relationality" and "communion," such that the former is a general term applicable anywhere and the latter is a specifically theological term, misses the point. Christian theology does not simply baptize the word "relation" and then state that God is to be found in every such relation. That would be a truly Hegelian, fully immanent God -- in which the asymmetry between God and creation is lost entirely. To use the word "relationality" is not to collapse God and relations, simply because the word has a broad linguistic range.

I grant that "communion" is indeed the superior term, and with Prof. Hunsinger, we need to think in terms of koinonia as much as possible. But I think Hart is guilty (again) of taking aim at something he sees to be particularly modern, and then attacking it precisely because it is modern. This is entirely unhelpful. The notion of relationality is not vacuous, nor is it sufficient on its own. But it remains useful and I do not think we should discard it. In fact, I fail to see how "communion" and "relationality" are mutually exclusive in the least. Rather, it seems to me that the former implies the latter (though not the other way around).

David W. Congdon said...


Surely it goes without saying that I appreciate your sets of propositions. They are always well worth engaging, and I only wish I had more time to respond in depth -- either here or on my own blog.

In any case, I found your insightful connection between the Spirit and the forgiveness of sins to be especially intriguing. It seems that this is precisely where we need to think of the Spirit christologically, as you yourself just suggested.

Where I agree with Prof. Hunsinger is in the insistence that Christ alone (solus Christus) is the source of salvation. That is, we cannot properly speak of "the soteriological work of the Spirit," because the only work of the Spirit is to bring us into com-union with Christ, who is our salvation. It seemed from your original post that you were trying to stake out a separate soteriological role for the Spirit alongside Christ.

My suspicion of a second soteriological role alongside Christ seems enforced by your connection of Spirit, forgiveness, and participation. I got the impression that you are trying to locate a work of the Spirit in terms of forgiveness and participation in distinction from Christ's own work of accomplishing forgiveness and serving as the mediator of participation for humanity. Perhaps I am reading too much into your comments, but I am concerned about how close this comes to much of the current theology in vogue today. These more radical and less careful theologians create a direct link between believer, Spirit, and God, which I strongly believe to be out of bounds. They do so on the grounds that the Spirit has a salvific role in distinction from Christ, thus establishing a direct link between the communio sanctorum and the Holy Trinity.

Since you rightly stayed away from making any clear statements in this direction, I wanted to press you to see where you would fall on this issue. It seems that there is a general evasion of christology in much contemporary theology. A kind of prioritizing of Spirit over Word, rather than emphasizing along with the Gospel of John that the Spirit directs us and joins us to the Word, Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Thanks for you typically penetrating comments. No, I certainly do not want to turn Christ into a soteriological bystander: the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and the solus Christus stands. You get one free - and you get one free. But put a gun to my head and say, "Filioque or no filioque - one or the other" - and I'm a dead man.

I suppose I worry about a kind of subordinationism-lite in the language of "The Spirt's only work is . . .[and then something to do with Christ]." It makes the Spirit sound like a fetcher-and-carrier to the real Builder. Of course I know you do not intend such a thing at all.

I'm also concerned about how such a reverse-Zizoulias emphasis plays missiologically, without, again, in the least suggesting that the Christus solus, any more than the Trinity, is something that can be bracketed in inter-faith dialogue. But we often hear of the (quite proper) "anonymity" of the Spirit. Now I think Rahner is all wrong about "anonymous Christianity", but is it inconceivable to speak of the "anonymous Christ"? Not least given Matthew 25?

You pressed me, but do I fall - or merely lean? :)

Aric Clark said...

I'll go a bit farther than you Kim in support of my Orthodox friends. The Filioque is a damaging unilateral insertion into the most ecumenical of creeds. Though it has some persuasive apologists with whom I am sympathetic I think on the basis of the damage it has done to the communion of the body of Christ alone it is proven to be an error of the western church, which needs amends.

Furthermore, I think that the kind of meticulous distinguishing of the persons of the trinity and their work that David uses is fascinating, but ultimately against the spirit of perichoresis. It is perfectly acceptable to talk about Christ's work as also the work of the spirit or the work of God, because they are all in fact ONE. It is useful for human speech to be specific, but it is saying too much to impose hard and fast rules or strictures about how we talk about the Godhead, which ultimately is "revealed as hidden". (Barth)

In other words, I'm all in favor of talking about how the Spirit saves, forgives and participates.. and I'd definitely be opposed to saying anything like "the ONLY work of the spirit is x" when we're talking about the most free member of the trinity.

Anonymous said...

I do not think the filioque should be a church-dividing issue. Many, though not all, of the technical issues have been resolved by the recent Orthodox-Catholic Agreed Statement (2003). Prior to that was the proposal worked out by the Orthodox and Reformed Churches in 1992.

With an ounce of good will each party to the dispute should be able to affirm the valid theological intentions on the opposite side.

I am not very patient with the Orthodox objections to the procedural irregularities. Yes, they are there. But are they worth holding a continuing grudge over? We need charitable attitudes all around.

My proposal would be that, for a ten-year period, the Western churches should say the Creed without the filioque while the Eastern churches would do the reverse. It would be an act of penitence and mutual affirmation all around. After that every communion could do as it wished.

Personally I affirm the filioque in a way that I believe accepts the standard Eastern objections as valid.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, George. I especially like your suggestion about swapping creeds for a decade. It's in the spirit of #9 of my recent "10 Ps on Ecumenism". I hope you're in a position to have some influence. But I'd like to see the West take the lead in any case were a grudge, sadly, to prevail.

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks, Kim. I think I continue to lean toward defining the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, whose work is to point us to and bring us into union with Christ. I want to stay as far away as possible from positing a soteriological work of the Spirit distinct from Christ's work. Too many people today speak of the Spirit as if it too is a mediator between the Father and humanity. That said, there is definitely a kind of subordination within the Trinity (the Spirit serves the Son, the Son serves the Father), but subordination need not become subordinationism. In fact, it must not become this! But there is clearly a kind of subordination at work, and it is for this very reason that I do not think we are free to support a full-blown social trinitarianism (of the kind that wishes to posit an analogy between the sociality of the Trinity and human sociality).

Your comment about an "anonymous Christ" is fascinating. I'll have to think more about it, though I wonder what mileage you think we might gain from speaking in that way. Of course, as with the anonymity of the Spirit, we could never point to something in the world and say, There is Christ.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, David.
You know I don't find myself really disagreeing with anything you say. Indeed I want, again, to affirm strongly that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ - no one else! - and does not freelance, and I share your concerns about "social trinitarianism". I also hear what you are saying about a kind of subordination in the Trinity that has no -ism on the end. Your point could be well put, I think, in that while we say the the Son is obedient to the Father, we do not say that the Father is obedient to the Son.

Now it may be that I am hopelessly confused, or (as Wittgenstein would say) bewitched by language. And I'm with Shane that an appeal to "mystery" is often the last refuge of the theological scoundrel. But maybe, in this case, the appeal may be sustained. Or at least (again with Wittgenstein) that we are both trying to show something that can't be said. In any case, in theological conversations I feel it is very important to understand what our interlocutors are trying, intending to say - so I trust that neither of us will be building pyres and striking matches on this one!

byron smith said...

After Moltmann, both Pannenberg and Robert Jenson find a direct connection between pneumatology and eschatology.

This is true, but (as you later imply) isn't it Hegel who should get the credit for starting this?

Anonymous said...


Would you clarify how the filioque is "a guard against lapsing into natural theology, pantheism, and fuzzy mysticism", and a single procession is "assurance of the cosmic and global sweep of the Sprit’s activity, a break on Christomonism, a bulwark against dualism, modalism, and subordinationism." I feel very stupid, but I haven't the faintest idea how any of these things are the case.

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