Sunday, April 12, 2015

SP1. The Spirit is a distinct person, but one in substance with the Father and Son.

I have now finished the raw material for two books I hope to self-publish soon. The first is material that covers God and Creation from one Wesleyan-Arminian standpoint. I hope to self-publish it by the end of the week. The other covers Christ and Salvation. Both are part of a series I started over a year ago called my Theology in Bullet Points. It is an attempt to provide some resources for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition.

Myself and a few others have started a new Wesleyan academic series with Pickwick Publishing, a series called the Wesleyan Via Media series. I am hoping to have a conference at IWU next year aiming to chart a future for Wesleyan thinking in the years to come. I'm hoping that one result of this series will be some classic resources for those of us in my corner of the Wesleyan tradition.

Don Thorsen, for example, has agreed to write something on the Reformation for the 500th anniversary of Wittenberg. I am writing a book on how to read the Bible. And I am hoping we will have a proper Wesleyan systematic theology come out of the series as well. More on these things to come.

Today, however, I start the third and final part of my overview of Wesleyan theology. This one might prove to be the most interesting of all, by the time it's done: The Spirit and the Church.

SP1. The Spirit is a distinct person, but one in substance with the Father and the Son.
1. The branch of Christian theology that studies the Holy Spirit is called pneumatology, from the Greek word for spirit, pneuma. As we saw in our discussion of the Trinity, the Spirit is fully God like God the Father and God the Son. The Spirit is "of one substance with the Father," for there is only one God.

But the Spirit is a distinct person, like God the Father is a distinct person and God the Son is a distinct person. This is a mystery. Christians believe there is only one God. But Christians believe God is three persons.

It would be easy to think of the Spirit as an "it" rather than a "he." The Spirit of God in the Old Testament is pictured like the breath or wind of God that comes over a person in power (e.g., Judg. 13:6). [1] It would be easy enough to think of the Spirit in this way in parts of the New Testament, such as on the Day of Pentecost, when a violent wind blows through from heaven (Acts 2:2).

Nevertheless, the New Testament moves beyond impersonal language and uses personal language of the Holy Spirit. "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us," Acts 15:28 says. Here the Holy Spirit is seen giving directions to the early church. We should thus see the various things that the Holy Spirit does in the Old and New Testament as the actions of a distinct person within the eternal Trinity.

Nowhere is the personhood of the Spirit clearer, however, than in the Gospel of John, where the beloved disciple glides from the neuter pronoun for the Greek word spirit to the masculine pronoun implying, "he." [2] John 14:28 starts by using the neuter pronoun for spirit, following the nature of the Greek word. But before the verse is even finished, John slips into the masculine pronoun: "that one," masculine, "will teach you." John thus considered the Spirit to be a person.

2. All the divine attributes of the Father and Son are thus also the attributes of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is eternal. The Spirit is all-powerful. The Spirit is all-knowing. The Spirit is everywhere present.

This latter attribute of omnipresence is intuitive to us, for what is spirit as we think of it but an entity without a body that would locate or limit its location? As spirit, the Holy Spirit is both everywhere present and heavenly in origin. These are the two original ways that the biblical authors understood God's Spirit--God in his presence everywhere and God as other than the material creation around us.

3. One of the more regrettable conflicts in Christian history was a debate over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds only from God the Father or whether he proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque, in Latin). This seemingly minor point of debate was the flash point issue over which the Eastern and Western churches split in AD1054.

The real issue, as it often is, was really over power. Was the Pope the "first among equals," as the East thought, or was he truly the supreme authority in the Church? Did the Western church have the authority to insert this word, filioque, into the Nicene Creed on its own, without it being approved by an "ecumenical" (universal) council? The result of the conflict was the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox churches of the East. [3]

Even today, some in the Orthodox Church would say that the problem with filioque ("and the Son") is not the doctrine, but the fact that it has never been approved by the whole Church. We therefore should not consider this a point of core dogma, but a doctrine over which different parts of Christendom disagree.

4. Both sides of this debate probably are fighting for a truth. In the Old Testament, the Father sends the Spirit when there is no mention of the Son. The New Testament, however, speaks of both the Father and the Son sending the Spirit. John 14 speaks of the Father sending the Spirit in Jesus' name (e.g., 14:16). However, in John 15:26, Jesus says that he will send the Spirit, and Romans 8:9 calls the Spirit the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of God.

Of course the debate today especially focuses on the relationship between the persons of the Trinity before creation. I have said before that it is unwise for us to think we know much about that. We are prone simply to project anthromorphisms on them and then call them God's will for us today. The truth is rather that God has revealed analogies to his eternal being that have everything to do with the way he has created this universe. It is unwise to think of them as part of God's literal "eternal nature" but as pictures to help us understand him in this creation.

Next Sunday: SP2. The Holy Spirit enacts the wills of the Father and Son in the world.

[1] The English word, pneumonia, captures this sense of the Greek word for spirit as related to breath.

[2] In Greek, words have what is called, "gender": masculine, feminine, or neuter. These genders are not the same as the "sex" of an entity. So a noun that is feminine in Greek is not necessarily female. Similarly, the Greek word for "spirit" is neuter without saying anything about the "sex" of the Spirit.

Of course, as we saw at the beginning of this series, God is not literally male. He has no penis. How much less should we think that the Holy Spirit has a sexual organ! To call the Spirit a "he" is to use a human image to try to understand "him."

[3] We cannot really speak of the Roman Catholic Church until 1054. Before that point, everything was simply the church catholic, the church everywhere. Even to this day, there are groups within Christianity that consider themselves Catholic without being Roman Catholic. Indeed, some in the Anglican Church consider themselves Catholic in this sense.

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