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ON THE HOLY SPIRIT - by Ephraim Radner


by Ephraim Radner

One of the most theologically knotted areas of our present disputes within the Church is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I daresay that it is this doctrine, more than many others, where some of the greatest confusions and errors have come home to roost among us. In general, these confusions center on a view that sees the Holy Spirit as a kind of independent divine operator, responsible for the function of creating new things. This stands in contrast to the traditional understanding of the Spirit as, in a fundamental way, the expressive motion of God's given character as the Father in fact made known in the Son. The confusion has cut in many directions, always seeking somehow to justify the reordering of the Church's historical form of life. But at the moment, the most common and destructive direction taken by this pneumatological confusion is that which considers the "creative freedom" of the Spirit as primarily innovative in the life of the Church and the world.

ECUSA's Presiding Bishop has, for some time, been propounding a theology of "unfolding truth", whose movement in history he ties to the particular work of the Spirit. "It is through the agency of the Holy Spirit that God's creative activity continues in the world and Christ continues to unfold his truth" (Frank Griswold, recent Pentecost sermon). The proper term for this work, therefore, is one of "evolution". Griswold is primarily interested in relying on this view of the Spirit as a foundation for relativizing particular "truths" within the church in favor of some future apprehension of the "deeper" truth that lies beyond the present (and the past). In doing this Griswold has invested the historical process itself with a kind of pneumatic cachet. The Church's life is one of always getting beyond the partial.

We can see how this vision must constrain any notion of "being of one mind" (cf. Philippians 2:2, which is tied to the particular and already given "history" of the Son), or of the intrinsic authority of Christian life in mutually-subjected council. (This represents the focus of current ecclesial disputes in the Anglican Communion.) For if the Church's life is a kind of process of leaving behind perceptions distorted by their incompleteness, then the experience of differing views and of conflict even is granted a kind of divine status as "the way", the way, of course, from the perverted past towards the "greater truth". And when history's seeming disorder is thus made necessarily "Spirit-filled", all attempts to maintain particular forms of life and teaching, or to subject oneself to them, are rendered intrinsically problematic, perhaps even "unspiritual". This represents a position that must obviously seem at basic odds with other, more traditional views of the Church's life as a kind of "guarding" and embodiment of the faith once delivered.

Where did this view of the Holy Spirit come from? Within Anglicanism, it grew up in Britain in the latter part of the 19th-century, as a kind of convergence of varying movements of thought, including residual Romanticism and the theory of historical "genius", the penetration of Hegelian historicism, scientific evolution, and finally a mystical tradition dating back to the 17th century. The apogee of this movement came shortly before the First World War. But although it still had its Anglican British proponents later in the 20th-century - e.g. Charles Raven - the experience of World War I and II, among other things, dampened any trust in a pneumatic historical evolution among most British theologians.

In America, it was a different story, one that is admittedly hard to sort out. The strange combination of primordialist renewal, democratic progressivism, and gnosticism that was early rooted in the American experience for a host of reasons, provided a soil for pneumatic historicism within Christian theology that remains fertile to this day. It has consistently engaged the imagination of Catholics and Protestants together not simply in spite of, but actually deriving power from the embedded character of violence and struggle within the nation's collective life. The liberative anti-authoritarianism of the '60's, that swept up psychiatry, politics, and ethics only ratcheted up this orientation within the broader cultural arena, the playing out of which has left ever-broadening ripples throughout the general religious outlook of the country. There is nothing "new" about "New Age" spirituality in America. And the fact that Griswold can quote people like Augustine in a way that sounds so theologically peculiar to the ears of those who read the Bishop of Hippo from outside the United States is an aspect of this culturally essential American religiosity more than anything else.

But whether distinctively American or not, this kind of appropriation of the Holy Spirit to an odd vision of history and truth has generally been viewed as erroneous, if not actually heretical, in the Church catholic. This negative judgment touches upon the character of Montanism to that of the Spiritual Franciscans of the 13th century with their "new Gospel", to the so-called "Americanists" (whether a figment or not, it was a theoretically defined theological approach) among later 19th-century Roman Catholics. The judgment itself is founded on the simple conviction that the Holy Spirit cannot be understood in any way that might relativize the authority of Scripture (or the Tradition, in some churches) as historically received. And this conviction, of course, has been founded on a faith in the unsurpassability of the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, the shape of whose life and teaching defines in advance, as it were, the parameters of pneumatic action and apprehension.

Who, then, shall we say is the Holy Spirit? The question is answered with great difficulty, in large measure, because the Holy Spirit is not yet revealed in time in the same way that the Father and the Son have been and are revealed by God. This is a critical theological datum that cannot be ignored. In the Father, we have a history of creation, of speech, of action; in the Son, we have a body, and this physical being's words and life. But in the Holy Spirit we have only a name, and a host of realities which the name covers, but does not identify itself with. As many theologians have noted, of all the "persons" of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit seems the most "shy": it never talks about itself, in Scripture or in the world, and its works are always pointing to something other than itself.

It is important to stress from the start this fundamental "hiddenness" associated with the Holy Spirit. For it alerts us to something essential in our reflective speech about God in general: we are concerned with "naming" God correctly, not in order to explain who God is, but in order to praise and worship God. Hence, the Prayer Book's collect for Trinity Sunday states that "the confession of the true faith" (naming and articulate speech about God) is a gift of "grace" given to us so that we might "acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of [God's] divine Majesty worship the Unity" (BCP p. 228). Historically, there was virtually no theological reflection on the Holy Spirit for the first 300 years of the Church's life. When such reflection began to be pursued, it grew out of a vigorous concern to maintain the right worship of God, according to the proper names of Father, Son, and Spirit. As St. Basil argued in the 4th century, we are called to praise God as Father, Son, and Spirit because Jesus named God as such (in Matthew 28:19); and baptized in this name, we are granted the grace to grasp its precision and rejoice in it.

To assert that we call God the "Holy Spirit" (along with "Father" and "Son") only because this is God's "proper name" and so referring allows us to glorify God, is to warn us immediately against a modern tendency to try to explain the Trinity in terms of its "practical" logic. The Trinity, we often hear today, is a "practical" doctrine, because it tells us about the fundamental nature of "community" and "mutuality"; likewise, we hear today, "Holy Spirit" is an important way to designate God, because, as "Spirit", God does many important things of which we should be aware. Do not the Creeds tell us that the Holy Spirit is "giver of life", "prophetic" revealer, maker of "saints", "forgiver of sins", soul of the "catholic church", "resurrecter" of the body? The problem with this approach, however, is that it often ends by replacing the Holy Spirit, as personal God whose name is to be glorified in person, with a set of visible functions. Further, the attempt to systematize these functions, as many "theologies of the Holy Spirit" end up doing, tends to transform God the Spirit into some kind of practical "principle" to be applied. It is just this reduction of the Spirit to a "principle" that has so bedeviled the church in our own day.

Examples of this form of modern reductionism are rampant. A current form of "experiential pneumatism", for instance, defines the Holy Spirit in terms of a set of "gifts", which Christians are called to evidence, and the lack of which points to the absence of the Spirit from their lives. Narrow Pentecostalism results. "Sacramental pneumatism" tends to define the Holy Spirit in terms of the principle behind the Church's ordered existence, focused in acts like Baptism, Eucharist, ordination. This kind of approach often results in forms of ecclesiastical fetishism (which isn't to say that these sacramental practices, even in themselves, are not essential). Finally, today's popular "cosmic pneumatism" - the broad category into which much ECUSA theology falls -- sees the Holy Spirit as the driving force behind (or embodying) principles of nature, human nature, certain social tendencies, and evolutionary developments. Fastening onto Scriptural texts that link the Spirit to "creation" and "guidance", this way of defining the Holy Spirit is usually adapted to the promotion of particular principles of human action: e.g. freedom, openness, creativity, prophetic resistance, communitarianism, and scientific progress (Griswold's "increasing knowledge of the universe").

But what if, instead of starting with the functions of the Spirit in order to understand who the Spirit is, we sought to meditate on the historical context in which the Spirit is actually "named"? If we do this, beginning with the witness of Scripture itself, we notice that the Spirit is "indicated" -- that is, "appears" and so is known for who the Spirit is -- in a quite specific set of circumstances: the revelation of Jesus, the Christ in the midst of time. Paradoxically, the Spirit is seen most clearly when, not itself, but Jesus' self as the Christ is manifested in the particulars of His coming. The object of the Spirit's appearance, says St. Paul, is Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2-5), and the "power" of the Spirit's appearing -- its visible functions, as it were -- is evident only as this crucified Christ is disclosed. Indeed, when St. Peter talks of the life of Spirit-filled Christians, what he describes is a life assaulted, as it struggles to manifest the assaulted Christ in history (cf. 1 Peter 4:12-14). The actual person of the Holy Spirit remains invisible in all this, except as a guarantee of promised glory.

It was the 4th century theologian St. Gregory of Nazianzus who first noted the implications of this historical context for our understanding of the Spirit. It appears, he writes, that we still await the full unveiling of the Spirit; instead, we live in a time when, though we can and must affirm the Holy Spirit's person and life, we can only grasp them as they disclose to us the life of the Son. Our actual existence in the face of the Trinity's reality remains constrained by the limits of our historical location, which lies this side of the final consummation of all things. The Spirit shows itself now only by showing Christ, and in this self-effacement, the Spirit also orients us towards a future in which only then shall we see "face to face" the character of the One whom we now worship in faith.

From this perspective, the specific functions that pneumatic Christians of all stripes rightly associate with the Spirit need to be reexamined. We will now perceive these pneumatic functions as actions by which our present lives -- and the world's -- are being only obscurely conformed, in both their shape and meaning, to a still unrealized temporal future. We shall see that "living in the Spirit" is a life that must inevitably manifest itself in a kind of tension between conformance to the historical Christ and a straining towards a promise of transfigured existence that remains unfulfilled. The tension involved in such a pneumatic existence is not one given in some kind of historical "direction"; certainly not in terms of a temporal "unfolding" of a still partially-apprehended truth. Both of these latter perspectives mitigate the way in which the shape of our history is already given, and in this sense known, in Jesus Christ. Rather the experiential tension of this pneumatic existence is defined most accurately in terms of glorying in the suffering Church that is Christ's Body.

This, at least, seems to be St. Paul's own perspective in his fullest exposition of the Spirit, in Romans 8. The very way he uses different names interchangeably -- is it the Holy Spirit? the Spirit of God? the Spirit of Christ? -- underscores how he displaces the center of the Holy Spirit's identity away from a definable entity in itself onto the historical process described in the passage's context. And although the Spirit functions in this process, it does so without any precise self-rendering. Christians, Paul writes, receive the Holy Spirit in order to drawn into the life of Christ, dead to sin in the flesh, but then glorified "in the Spirit". All this takes place over time, however, a time in which we are being conformed to Christ's death and glorification, a time, in fact, of explicit suffering, oriented (but no more) to an ungrasped future whose character, however, is already known from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (cf 8:17). Thus, Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit concretely mainly in terms of present "hope" and "yearning", and this "groaning" hope is always looking along the lines of the historical reality of Christ's redeeming work (cf. also Romans 5:1 ff.). In the modern theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar's analogy, the Spirit constitutes the "eyes" by which we see Christ; but because eyes are not objects of sight, they themselves remain inscrutable.

St Paul, of course, would not deny a particular knowledge of the Holy Spirit, nor should we. But such a knowledge, in contrast to the popular "pneumatisms" of today, takes place in a peculiar figure. Manifest "gifts" of the Spirit, for instance, are only momentary markers of a future glory, instilling hope even as they are obscured by the ravages of time. Such pneumatic gifts have, in any case, traditionally been tied to holiness of life, assaulted by Satan, and thus bound at the root to the experience of martyrdom. They constitute the "scars" of Christian witness, not its means. Again, the life of the ordered Church is rightly called "pneumatic", but only insofar as it participates with the dying and (promised) rising of Christ. Such participation, to be sure, is established sacramentally in experience, but such experience is significant just to the degree that the Church is historically called into question and set at risk (cf. Colossians 1:24), in the manner of a literal "body of Christ", as early Christian writers described it. Finally, we can indeed discern the Holy Spirit in the world's experience and movement, but only in the specific aspect of that experience that is tied to the yearning of creation for something outside its grasp, coming to it from beyond its self and time. There is no Spirit to be gleaned -- whether or not such a Spirit is indeed present -- through our participation in the world's already evident trends.

Can we "know" the Holy Spirit? Yes. But such knowledge is not so much of a conceptual kind, as it is given form through the process of our contemplating Christ crucified and risen. To "know the Holy Spirit" is itself the transforming act of worshiping Christ as God Incarnate that makes us, over time, "like Him". Such worship, as properly Trinitarian, of course entails acknowledgement of the Father and the Holy Spirit. But the experiential grounding of this praise of God lies only in the revelation of Jesus, the Son, the center of our time.

There is no "definition" of the Holy Spirit apart from this participation in the worship of Christ, lived out in the present episode of the Church's gradual conformance to Christ's life. It is an error of the most deceptive kind to teach or imply that faithful Christian existence and that the life of the Church is to move into an as yet unknown truth. It is pernicious because it promises a life that can somehow escape the call to such an embodied conformance, whose shape is known and therefore fearful, for all of its promise. "[The Spirit] will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:14). Take what? "Take up your cross and follow me!" (Mark 8:34). Declare what? "Truly, this man was the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39).

In some ways, the Church would be spared the temptation to run from Christ Jesus if, instead of developing theories of the Holy Spirit to justify a world outside of Him, we simply allowed the Spirit to press us in Jesus' singular direction through the forms of life that He has given us in His own challenging way

--The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is an orthodox theologian and an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Colorado

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