Someone the other day emailed me a question asking why we never talk about the Holy Spirit in a way that doesn’t make the Spirit seem like- and I quote- “unnecessary leftovers.”
And it’s true. For the most part, in Western Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Pentecostalism) the Holy Spirit is the vaguest, least defined and, due to the two former, the most abused Person of the Trinity.
Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’
Speaking of the Spirit in this way has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father. Moreover, speaking of the Spirit has the ‘fellowship between the Father and the Son’ makes the Spirit not a full person of the Trinity but a function of the Father and the Son.
This creates an intratrinitarian problem because, as Eugene Rogers puts it- and think on this because it’s an insightful statement, “the Spirit has no gift to give the creature (us), which is not Christ, because the Spirit has no gift to give Christ.’
So for Catholics and Protestants the Spirit is often vague and nonsensical. We speak of the Spirit in such a way its not really distinguishable from what non-Christians might call the individual conscience.
Pentecostals meanwhile rediscovered the role and vitality of the Holy Spirit, but (probably because their Protestant forebears were so vague on the Spirit) often make the Spirit the projection of their own wants and needs.
The result is that, on the one hand, Catholics and Protestants make the Spirit so irrelevant it allows us to be our own gods while, on the other hand, Pentecostals often use the Spirit to create God in their own image.
Now, back to that word at the top: filioque. It’s Latin for ‘and from the Son’ and it’s served as a bone of contention between Eastern and Western Christianity for over 1,000 years.
Western Christianity, wanting to avoid confusion that Christians worshipped three deities, changed the creedal statement to what we know today: ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
That was a change from ancient Christianity.
Prior to that, the Christian confession was always that the Holy Spirit was a full, distinct person of the Trinity, as much God as the Son, with its own role and relationship within the Trinity. Originally, the church confessed what the Orthodox Church does today:
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, uncreated and perfect, who spoke in the Law, and in the prophets, and in the Gospels, who came down upon the Jordan, proclaimed the One sent, and dwelt in the saints.”
I think the Orthodox get it right and did from the get-go.
After all, the Spirit has to be more than the Spirit of Christ or the bond between Father and Spirit. Scripture speaks of the Spirit in such ways all over the place.
At the annunciation, the Spirit overshadows Mary.
At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends on Jesus.
At the Transfiguration, the Spirit overshadows Jesus.
Paul credits the Spirit with raising Jesus from the dead (Rom 8).
The Spirit descends upon the disciples and creates Church and all through Acts is moving in the world out in front of the Church (For example: Philip and the Eunuch, Peter and Cornelius).
And this bit from Acts is what I think is so important. The Holy Spirit is God. Plain and simple. As much God as the Father or the Son. The Holy Spirit is God alive and at work in the world. Today.
Where we tend to speak of the Holy Spirit being ‘within us’ or ‘anointing us’ as individuals, the Orthodox view recognizes that God the Holy Spirit isn’t satisfied to work only in us or on us. God the Spirit is at work in the world with or without us.
This has two important implications:
- If God the Spirit is at work in the world, then the work of the Kingdom isn’t past-tense in the pages of scripture. It’s ongoing. Our now is as important as Paul’s present was.
- If God the Spirit is at work in the world, then it’s not so much about listening to God as the conscience within us. It’s about looking for where and what God is doing and joining. If the Holy Spirit is God fully and without subordination, there’s no way for us to avoid being missional.