Magazine article The Christian Century

Who or What Is the Holy Spirit?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Who or What Is the Holy Spirit?

Article excerpt

Pentecost is about the only time most mainline Christians think about the work of the Holy Spirit. The stunning narrative in Acts 2 has a double appeal. It portrays the unexpectedness. and universality of the Spirit's work--the Spirit arrives with "a sound like the rush of a violent wind" and with "tongues of fire," breaking down the language barriers between the faithful of "every nation under heaven." Acts 2 also provides an exuberant account of the church's beginning as a joyful, generous community of praise and goodwill. Our amazement at the Pentecost story quickly fades into uneasiness, however, as We try to appropriate this "gift of the Spirit"--a gift that stubbornly refuses to come into theological focus.

In part, this is because of a peculiar double-edged quality in Western reflection on the Holy Spirit, hinted at already in the account of Pentecost. On the one hand, the Spirit has always had a strong institutional affiliation. The Spirit is the one who indwells the church and is given through the church's means of grace. Since Schleiermacher it has been common to think of the Holy Spirit simply as the communal spirit of the Christian church. On the other hand, the Spirit has always been a mysterious and free presence that blows where it wills, transcending church structures and even the boundaries of human society to renew the whole creation. Christians around the world saw in the free elections in South Africa a vibrant example of that presence. Reconciling these diverse images of the Spirit's work is difficult. To keep the Holy Spirit from disappearing from our liturgies and worship after Pentecost, we need a way to affirm both its churchly and its universal dimensions.

Sarah Coakley's notion articulated in The Making and Remaking of Christian Doctrine: Essays in Honour Of Maurice Wiles) of an "incorporative" view of the Holy Spirit has great promise in this regard. According to this view, the Holy Spirit is a personal manifestation of divine presence, whose distinctive role is to incorporate the creation into the life of God. Reflection about the Spirit's presence should not center on either private religious experience or expectacular outward gifts. (Surely, narrowly individualist conceptions of the Spirit's work have contributed to the hesitancy many Christians feel about "the gift of the Spirit.") The incorporative view manages to affirm both the communal and cosmic dimensions of the Spirit's work.

The textual base for this view is Romans 8:9-30. Here the difficult journey from fear, bondage and suffering to freedom, glory and hope is through adoption as children of God. Both in the church and in the creation at large, the Holy Spirit leads the way by binding up what is alienated and fragmented and reuniting it with its Creator. This conception of the Holy Spirit embraces both the distinctively Christian struggle against the powers of evil and the eager longings of the whole creation for freedom.

In the church, the Holy Spirit works within believers by "bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God . . . and joint heirs with Christ" (Rom. 8:16-7). In its prayer, worship, study and mission, the Christian community is guided by the Holy Spirit to share the life of Christ with each other and the world. Through the diversity of the Spirit's gifts, the church seeks to embody forms of a Christ-shaped life as varied as the human race itself. The Spirit indwells and empowers the church to be a vanguard, a visible sign of God's coming reign of reconciliation and communion.

This edge, of the Spirit's work is blunted by attempts to construct a "universal" theory of religious experience, in which the Holy Spirit masquerades as a generic term for human religiosity or world process. Christian references to the Spirit need to retain their roots in the community's texts and traditions, in a confession that continues the Old Testament witness to the Spirit of God and that has developed within the framework of trinitarian theology. …

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