The Holy Spirit and the Life of the Church

Anthony C. Thiselton

The Spirit and the Trinity

At a popular level, the role of the Holy Spirit in the church is often thought of in the idiom of today as “empowering,” “renewing,” apportioning particular gifts, or representing the realm of “the supernatural.” These are valid expressions of the Spirit’s work, but the biblical roots of the subject suggest a more profound reality that underlies these things.

Several features claim still more primary an importance than those aspects listed above. For example, we must never think of the Holy Spirit as impersonal, subpersonal, or merely an instrumental “force.” Many writers today echo the biblical assertion that the Holy Spirit is personal, and a coequal person of the Holy Trinity alongside God the Father and God the Son; yet God is nevertheless one God (1 Cor 8:6). It is troubling how many believing Christians refer to the Spirit as “it,” as if the Spirit were an impersonal supplement to life in the church. The Holy Spirit, far from being a supplement, is the very foundation of our life as believers within the church. The Holy Spirit is certainly more than “personal” (in the sense in which we call humans “persons”), but certainly not less than personal. For this reason, many rightly call the Spirit “suprapersonal.”

The Holy Spirit came as a corporate gift to give reality and life to the church. Pentecost shows that without the Spirit we would be nothing. Acts recounts that on the Day of Pentecost, all believers were “all together in one place…. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:1—4). Paul clearly asserts that the gift of the Holy Spirit makes a person a Christian in the first place. He writes, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom 8:9). The notion that some Christians could be second-class Christians without the Spirit owes more to Gnosticism than to Scripture.

Paul therefore speaks of all Christians as “sharing in the Spirit” (koinōnia pneumatos, Phil 2:1). The well-known words of the grace, “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor 13:13) does not signify his companionship, but our common participation in the Spirit. In the business world, the Greek term koinōnos means a “shareholder” or “partner.” The Gospel of John is no less emphatic about this. The chapters about the Paraclete (John 14—16) regularly use the plural for “you” (Greek, hymas or hymin).

Even the Synoptic Gospels speak of the Holy Spirit within a Trinitarian frame. The baptism of Jesus Christ provides one striking example. God the Father expresses his delight in the Son and the Son’s obedience; God the Son submits to baptism in solidarity with God’s people; the Holy Spirit visibly descends on Jesus Christ (Matt 3:16—17; Mark 1:9—11; Luke 3:21—22; cf. John 1:32—34). The whole event is therefore Trinitarian, in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit work together. Jürgen Moltmann writes, “The New Testament talks about God by proclaiming in narrative the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (The Trinity and the Kingdom of God [SCM, 1981], 64). Wolfhart Pannenberg endorses this “narrative” approach to the Trinity (Systematic Theology, vol. 1 [Eerdmans, 1991], 267).

Eugene Rogers applies this narrative approach also to the birth of Jesus, in which we see God the Father sends the Son, the Son being born to the Virgin Mary, and the actualization of the event through the Holy Spirit. He also sees the Transfiguration and Resurrection as Trinitarian events, in which all three persons of the Holy Trinity cooperate (After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology [Eerdmans, 2006], 136—63). Paul specifically writes concerning our resurrection and that of Christ: “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8:10—11).

Before we leave this theme, we may note how the biblical material was developed by the Church Fathers, especially by Origen (c. 185—c. 254), Athanasius (c. 296—323), and Basil of Caesarea (c. 330—79). Origen cites John 1:3 to show that all things were brought into being through the Logos. Athanasius argues that the Holy Spirit is no mere “thing” or “creature”(Greek, ktisma). He stressed this in his Letters to Serapion (1.1; 10; ET: C. R. B. Shapland, The Letters of Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit [Epworth, 1951], 59—60). Basil is equally emphatic. For example, he insists on the threefold Gloria: “Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” (On the Holy Spirit, 1.3; 18.45 [NPNF2, 8:4; 28]).

The Spirit and Christology

Jesus Christ is Lord of the church. Hence it is the work of the Holy Spirit to point to Christ and to glorify him. This is clear in the teaching of Jesus according to John. The Paraclete is the Holy Spirit “whom the Father will send in my name” (John 14:26). The Spirit “will not speak on his own (Greek, aph’ heautou, i.e., on his own initiative, or independent authority)…. He shall glorify me” (John 16:13, 14). J. E. Fison repeatedly speaks of the Spirit’s “self-effacement” (The Blessing of the Holy Spirit [Longmans Green, 1950], 11, 22, 27, 138—51, et al.). The promise that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all truth” (16:13) shows that the Spirit will go beyond what is disclosed in the Gospels, but it will always match what Christ has taught. Anything that is incompatible with Christ’s teaching cannot be valid as that which gives life and truth to the church.

This reminds us that the life of the church depends on revelation through the Holy Spirit. The church cannot live by human discovery alone. Paul insists, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, … these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God…. No one comprehends the things of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:9—11). In two other epistles Paul orientates this revelation through Christ. In Rom 8:15—16 Paul explains that believers are urged to trust and obey the very God whose being Christ had disclosed in his attitude of intimacy “whereby we cry, ‘Abba! Dear Father!’” Paul anticipates this in Gal 4:6—7. In 1 Cor 12:3 he declares, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

The Church Fathers confirm this perspective. Ambrose (c. 339—97) declares, “Where the Spirit is, there also is Christ” (On the Holy Spirit 3.22 [NPNF2, 10:158). This also shows the chasm between scriptural and popular notions of “spirituality.” In Paul, such a term would reflect the specific realm of the Holy Spirit in the Spirit’s witness to Christ.

Holiness and Sanctification

It is no accident that the Spirit of God is also called the Holy Spirit. The word “holy” characterizes God. We have only to recall the vision of the enthroned God in Isa 6 to be reminded of his “majesty-holiness,” as well as numerous biblical passages that stress his moral-holiness or righteousness. The Hebrew for holy (qādesh) and the Greek (hagios, hagiazō) suggest the notion of being separate or set apart from what is common (koinos). Hence the core of biblical concern is this directive: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; 19:2). Peter repeats this (1 Pet 1:16). This refers primarily to godly and righteous living, and is not derived from Hellenistic lists of virtues and vices.

The Holy Spirit’s work in sanctification was emphasized not only in Scripture, but especially at the Reformation and in Post-Reformation theology. For example, John Owen (1616—83) wrote The Holy Spirit (1674), in which he considered the Person and titles of the Holy Spirit, but devoted Book 4 to the sanctification of believers by the Holy Spirit. He admits that believers attain holiness by degrees, and that there may be “delays” in holiness. It is a progressive work, involving “perplexing temptations.” Yet he warns us against exaggerated introspection. Like Luther, he emphasizes the place of struggle. In the same era Jeremy Taylor (1613—67) speaks of inner conflict, and the “sighings of prayer.” Jonathan Edwards (1703—58) took account of the possibility of self-deception in this process. He also associated sanctification closely with communion with God.

By contrast, many Pentecostals regard sanctification as an event rather than a process. This is often equated with “baptism in the Spirit, and many appeal to John Fletcher, and more controversially to John Wesley (1703—91). George Fox (1624—91) held a similar view. This has remained a debating point with many Pentecostals today.

Spiritual Gifts

Specific gifts of the Holy Spirit are enumerated (though not exhaustively) in 1 Cor 12:8—11, with partial parallels in Rom 12:6—8 and Eph 4:11—12. Paul makes it clear that these gifts are for the whole community of the church or “for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7, Greek, pros to sympheron). These are explicitly “varieties of gifts” (Greek, diareseis charismatōn, 12:4). Moltmann rightly observes, “Call and endowment, klēsis and charisma belong together” (The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation [SCM, 1992], 180).

This raises two kinds of controversy. One is the relation between gifts of the Spirit, ministry, and spontaneity. The second is the precise meaning of each particular gift.

In Eph 4:11, the gifts explicitly include endowments of the Holy Spirit to be effective apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. In other words, standard forms of ministry are included, if we leave aside the controversial relation between prophecy and preaching. We should not be surprised that the Holy Spirit endows ministers or elders to maintain order in the church. After all, in Genesis the Spirit produced order in the world, unless we follow the NRSV in translating the Hebrew ruach simply as the “wind.” Presbyters, clergy, or pastors can maintain order in the church, not least to ensure healthy teaching and administration.

The Pastoral Epistles spell this out in 1 Tim 3:1—13 and Titus 1:5—9; 2:1—2. William D. Mounce has provided a helpful and detailed discussion of these offices and their possible overlap in his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (Pastoral Epistles, WBC [Word, 2000], 149—212, 385—93. He includes a table on the respective qualifications and responsibilities of overseers, deacons, and elders. He also considers bishops and presbyters in the post-apostolic church.

The exact relation between prophets and preachers also calls for careful enquiry. David Hill, Ulrich Müller, Thomas Gillespie, and the present writer have argued that “prophecy” essentially denotes applied pastoral preaching (e.g., Thomas W. Gillespie, The First Theologians: A Study in Christian Prophecy [Eerdmans, 1994]; Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC [Eerdmans, 2000], 959—61, 1128—68). One part of the issue is whether the inspiration of the Holy Spirit must be expressed in spontaneous form. Does not the Spirit speak through the normal channels of rational reflection? Personally, I fail to see how the Holy Spirit is not at work in prepared sermons outlined one week ahead of delivery. Pannenberg strongly emphasizes the Spirit’s use of human reason and argument. Paul, he says, could have spared himself much trouble, if the Spirit did not inspire argument. Human reason and the Holy Spirit are not in competition with each other, but are related as source and means (Basic Questions in Theology, vol. 2 [SCM, 1971], 34—35). In trusting the Spirit, he says, Paul in no way spared himself thinking and arguing.

The second controversy concerns the exact character of each gift. I have carefully considered each of the “gifts” in 1 Cor 12: 8—10, seeking to avoid the “two-decker” universe of natural and supernatural (First Epistle to the Corinthians, 938—94). Walter Hollenweger and many others have warned us against a “two-story” notion of the universe that appears to limit the sovereignty and power of God to the supernatural rather than to everyday, ordinary, life. Thus “miracles” may include miracles, but primarily denotes effective deeds of power. “Healing” includes medical means, or what the Pietist Bengel called “natural remedies.” Paul in any case speaks of different “kinds of healing.” “Utterance of wisdom” must heed the context of chs. 1—4 on the wisdom of God and the gospel. “Faith” is clearly not justifying faith, which is the possession of every Christian, but a special gift of trust and confidence in God.

I have listed six plausible explanation of “tongues” or glossolalia. Again, we note that Paul writes of “kinds of tongues.” Of all these explanations, I find most probable the welling up of the unconscious into some kind of audible expression. Nevertheless, each theory invites problems. For example, most specialist in linguistics doubt whether this expression has features that characterize a living language. The “interpretation of tongues” is also difficult. I have proposed that the phrase refers to the capacity of the tongues-speaker to express the tongues in intelligible speech (“The ‘Interpretation of Tongues: A New Suggestion in the Light of Greek Usage in Philo and Josephus,” JTS 30 [1979]: 15—36).

In a brief essay like this, we cannot address every issue about the Holy Spirit and the life of the church. One glaring absence is the Spirit’s role in prompting worship. Yves Congar considers this in his book I Believe in the Holy Spirit. He approves of the renewal associated with Pentecostals and the Charismatic Movement, but recognizes that this informal style of worship will not commend itself to all Christians (vol. 2 [Seabury Press, 1983], 149—60). We are on less controversial ground if we consider Paul on the Holy Spirit and prayer in Rom 8:26—27. Paul recognizes that, as human beings, “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints.” In other words, the Holy Spirit initiates prayer in us; prayer is through the mediation of Christ; ideally prayer is addressed to God the Father, as in the Lord’s Prayer. Thus, in prayer, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit work together: it is a Trinitarian event.

Posted Nov 15, 2017