Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Person of the Spirit

When I was a younger man, I moved in church circles where it was not uncommon to hear that the Holy Spirit really doesn't want any of our attention.  The Spirit, we were told, is a like a spotlight, shining on Jesus - that is where all our attention is meant to be.  The Spirit is self-effacing.  The Spirit wants nothing more than for us to stop thinking about the Spirit altogether and focus on the Lord Jesus.

There is some truth in these sayings, and the emphasis on Christ was helpful.  But hasn't something gone wrong?

For starters, it seems clear that these sentiments are pretty near the boundaries, if not actually outside the boundaries, of creedal orthodoxy.  "We believe in the Holy Spirit... who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified..."  I think perhaps the argument would be that the best way we worship and glorify the Spirit is by honouring the Son to whom he bears witness; again, that can't be completely wrong.  But the Creed expects us to worship and glorify the Spirit alongside the Father and the Son.  Is that really happening when the Spirit is minimised in this way?

There is a danger that the language used of the Holy Spirit - especially that spotlight image, which you'll find in a number of books - denies either or both of the deity and the personality of the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is God, as the Father and the Son are God; therefore, the Spirit is worthy of worship and glory.  The Holy Spirit is personal, as the Father and the Son are personal; therefore, he cannot rightly be viewed merely instrumentally, as a means to an end.  We are, as John Owen points out, to have communion with the Spirit, just as we are with the Father and the Son.

My observation is that this view of the Spirit tends to go along with a general de-emphasising of everything that is considered subjective, in favour of the objective truth.  Again, there is some good in this.  Keeping the truth as it is in Jesus central is, well, central to the Christian life.  But when we make the objective everything, when we emphasise to the neglect of everything else what God has done in Christ there and then, there is a real danger that the truth of the gospel never makes it to the here and now.  It is noteworthy that the culture of those 'Spirit as a spotlight' churches tends to be quite emotionally repressed, tends to downplay the significance of the sacraments, and tends to be pretty wordy and ideas focussed.  This seems to me to flow logically from removing the subjective from the realm of God's activity.  If we think that the Spirit, no less than the Father and the Son, is to be worshipped and glorified, won't that lead to more careful cultivation of the heart, the inward life - the realm of the Spirit's work?  Won't we think more highly of the sacraments and the experiential aspects of worship and church life if we believe that the Spirit is at work there - and that he deserves to be worshipped and glorified by our participation in that work?

I guess what I'm saying is: if we don't worship and glorify the Holy Spirit, we will probably abandon the realm of the 'subjective' to the purely human, and will therefore suspect it.  We will be suspicious of emotion, suspicious of experience, suspicious of everything which is not the objective truth.  But in the Spirit God has claimed all that, claimed it for subjection to the Lordship of Christ and activated it in his service.  So yes, emotion bound firmly to the truth; yes, the sacraments only with the Word; yes, experience interpreted by the Scriptures.  But still, in all these things, the work of the Spirit seen and honoured.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfully re-balanced Daniel; ever thought of publishing alongside Andrew Wilson?