Some of the most intriguing questions of classic Christian teaching lie straight ahead. The topic now is the work of the Holy Spirit in the renewal of persons in community. I will be as brief as the subject allows. The intent is not to include anything the historic church does not consider consensually essential.Introducing the Study of the Spirit
The Father and Son are giving the church an incomparable gift: the outpouring of God's own Spirit. "God does not give a Gift inferior to Himself" (Augustine, Faith and the Creed 9.19). The Son promised that the Spirit would follow his ministry on earth. Incomparable blessings would ensue with the ministry of the Spirit. Having once been given the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, the believing community has never been left without this Comforter (John 14:18; Chrysostom, Hom. on John 75).
The Spirit leads the faithful into all truth by pointing constantly toward the truth embodied in Jesus (John 16:13; Ignatius, Eph. 9). In any glimpse the human mind may have of God's revelation, the way has always already been prepared by God's own Spirit (Matt. 3:3). "Pave within you the way" (Chromatius, Tractate on Matt. 8.1). "Remove the stones from the road" (Is. 40.4).
The study of the Spirit is called pneumatology (from the Greek word, pneuma, spirit). It is the systematic analysis and interpretation of the texts of scripture and consensual tradition that deal with the regenerating and consummating work of the Holy Spirit (hagion pneuma; Ephrem, Comm. on Heb. 6.6).
The Neglect of the Teaching of the Holy Spirit
The modern tendency is to depersonalize the Spirit, to treat God the Spirit as reducible to a general idea of spirituality. This stands in contrast to the biblical view of God's own intensely personal meeting with ordinary living persons dwelling in regular houses and cities in everyday history. This is always a meeting that requires decision. Thus this meeting exercises that capacity unique to humans as distinguished from animal creation: deliberate and reasoned willing, always occurring in a specific Now-a given context.
It is a scandal to modern critical scholarship that standard exegetical and theological discussions of the Holy Spirit have given little attention to the great early treatises on the Holy Spirit by Didymus, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, and Ambrose. It remains a mixed blessing that modern charismatic and Pentecostal voices have so stressed special aspects of the work of the Spirit that some other Protestant voices have tended to back away completely from all teaching concerning the Spirit. The texts of scripture, however, leave no doubt in our minds of the importance of teaching of and by the Spirit (Basil, On the Holy Spirit 9.22-23).
"The subject of the Holy Spirit presents a special difficulty," wrote Gregory of Nazianzus, because by the time we get to it in the long sequence of teaching topics, we are already "worn out by the multitude of questions." So we become like those who have "lost their appetite, who having taken a dislike to some particular kind of food, shrink from all food; so we in like manner have an aversion from all discussion" (Orat. 31, Of the Holy Spirit).
The work of the Spirit has been far less studied and consensually defined than the work of the Son. When Paul asked his hearers at Ephesus, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" they answered, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19:2). Even now many think it possible to teach the gospel of Jesus without any thought of the work of the Spirit (Ammonius, in Cramer, Catena on Acts 19.5).
From God "For Us" to God "In Us"
The final third of Classic Christianity focuses upon Life in the Spirit. It asks how the work of God in creation and redemption is being brought to consummation by the Holy Spirit. This renewal is occurring inwardly in persons and socially in communities (Origen, OFP 1.3.2). It promises ultimately to encompass the whole of nature and cosmic history.
We stand at a crucial pivot of Christian teaching, shifting the focus from the work of the Son to the work of the Spirit in the church in applying the benefits of the work of the Son.
In the previous pages we have spoken of God for us. Now we speak more deliberately of God working in us. We speak not of events addressing us as it were from the outside of our experience (extra nos, outside us) but more deliberately of active inward processes and events by which persons in community are convicted, transformed, regenerated, justified, and brought into union with Christ, one by one (Heb. 3:14; 1 Pet. 5:1). This is God's work within humanity (intra nos, in us) viewed individually and socially. "Just as God stepped out of his nature to become a partaker of our humanity, so we are called to step out of our nature to become partakers of his divinity" (Hilary of Arles, Intro. Comm. on 2 Pet. 1.4).
The forgiveness of God the Son, having been once for all offered on the cross, must be ever again received in each new moment in time. At each stage we are being freshly enabled to receive it. In Christ we learn what God has already done on our behalf. By the Spirit we are being enabled to reshape our doing in response to what God has done, to reform our loves in relation to God's incomparable love.
"I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice" (Rom. 12:1). "The difference between asking and appealing is that we ask about unimportant matters but appeal about important one. . . . Our bodies are sacrifices because the flesh is put to death. They are living sacrifices, because the Spirit has given them life" (Luculentius, Commentary 3 on Rom. 12.1).
With this pivot, our own decisions and actions now become a crucial part of the salvation story-the history of the body of Christ. God not only forgives sin through the Son but through the Spirit works to actually overturn the power of sin in our actual daily interpersonal behavior and life in community.
The Lord and Giver of Life
The Spirit is "Lord and Giver of Life" (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, 1 Cor. 15:45). "The Spirit gives life" (John 6:63; 2 Cor. 3:6; Ambrose, Of the Holy Spirit 1.15). "God our life is the life of all" (Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia:143).
The new life involves entry into a family (Rom. 8:12-17; Gal. 4:6) in relation to an incomparably caring parent (Abba, "Papa"). The Spirit bears witness within our spirits that we are children of this Abba in this family (Origen, Comm. on Rom. 8.16).
Flesh (sarx) refers not merely to the physical body but to the whole person under the power of sin who becomes acclimated under the power of sin to pursue works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). All who faithfully receive the Spirit are born anew, given a new spiritual beginning and called to grow toward good health in grace (John 3:1-8; Justin Martyr, First Apol. 61). The new person in Christ is born of the Spirit to faith active in love (Rom. 8:1-7). It is lived out in freedom for the neighbor, freeing persons to fulfill their original human purpose whatever the historical conditions, to enjoy all things in God, to receive life day by day from the eternal Giver (Gal. 5; Calvin, Inst. 3.10; 3.23.12).
The Third Article of the Creed: I Believe in the Holy Spirit
All ancient baptismal confessions and classic creeds confess in this or similar language: I believe in the Holy Spirit (pneuma hagion; Lat: Spiritum Sanctum; Der-Balyzeh Papyrus; Roman Symbol, Psalter of Rufinus). "We believe in one Holy Spirit the Paraclete" (Eastern Form of the Apostles' Creed, Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses, 9). This article of baptismal faith became expanded through a history of exposition and controversy into the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
In learning by heart the Creed of Epiphanius (first reported as a long-received written tradition in AD c. 374), the one to be baptized rehearsed twelve clauses that summarily set forth the work of the Spirit:
We believe in the Holy Spirit who
spoke in the law,
and taught by the prophets,
and descended to the Jordan,
spoke by the Apostles,
and lives in the saints;
thus we believe in him: that he is the Holy Spirit,
the Spirit of God,
the perfect Spirit,
the Spirit Paraclete,
proceeding from the Father [ek tou Patros ekporeuomenon]
and receiving of the Son [ek tou huiou lambanomenon], in whom we believe.
The primitive rule of faith as recorded by Irenaeus about 190 AD shows the prominent role of the Holy Spirit recognized by the early Christian community. Salvation history is placed within the context of the work of the triune God. It is the Spirit who bears testimony in the present age to the Father and the Son. The confessing community believes "in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven" (Irenaeus, Ag. Her. 1.9.1)
The earliest Christian teachers understood that this rule of faith had been passed along by apostolic testimony in an unbroken line from Jesus to the present. According to Tertullian, God "sent from the Father the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. That this Rule has come down from the beginning of the Gospel, even before all former heretics, not to speak of Praxeas of yesterday, will be proved as well by the comparative lateness of all heretics as by the very novelty of Praxeas of yesterday" (Ag. Praxeas 2, italics added).
The Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople I) would settle the question of the deity of the Spirit as firmly as Nicaea had defined the deity of Christ and triunity of God in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381). It set forth an ecumenically received summary definition of the person and work of God the Spirit in these terms: "We believe in the one God . . . And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets" (Creed of the 150 Fathers, SCD 86).
The Personal Pronoun: If Not "It," Is the Spirit "He" or "She"?
We acknowledge the prevailing form of address to the Holy Spirit as "He" in the English-speaking Christian tradition. Yet it is still useful to ask whether it is appropriate within the bounds of classic Christian assumptions to address the Spirit in the feminine gender.
The issue is only partly decided on grammatical grounds: Ruach in Hebrew is feminine. Pneuma in Greek is a neuter, yet even when the neuter is used, masculine pronouns may accompany it. Even in the New Revised Standard Version, whose mandate specified that "masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture," crucial passages could not be rendered in the neuter: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come" (John 16:13). God is named as Abba (Father); the messianic Son (ben, huios) stands in the male line of David; the Spirit is ruach or pneuma (feminine or neuter).
Gregory of Nazianzus was amused by any who would insistently hold "God to be a male" which he regarded as a misplaced analogy. You cannot conclude that God, because Father, is therefore male. Nor can you conclude that "Deity is feminine from the gender of the word, and the Spirit neuter," since the designation "has nothing to do with generation. But if you would be silly enough to say, with the old myths and fables, that God begat the Son by a marriage with His own Will, we should be introduced to the Hermaphrodite god of Marcion and Valentinus who imagined these newfangled Aeons" (Orat. 31.7, On the Holy Spirit).
God has become revealed in scripture largely but not exclusively in masculine terms such as king, lord, husband, judge, master, and father. Not exclusively, however, because the work of the Spirit is at times compared to mothering and nurturing actions: "As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you" (Isa. 66:13). Here God the Spirit is not named Mother but compared to a mother (R. Frye, Language for God and Feminist Language:17-22).
Elizabeth Achtemeier has persuasively shown that the prophets did not suffer from a failure of imagination to grasp God as female, for they were surrounded by cultures dominated by feminine deities, but they chose not to use feminine language "because they knew and had ample evidence from the religions surrounding them that the female language for the deity results in a basic distortion of the nature of God and of his relation to his creation" (in D. Miller, ed., The Hermeneutical Quest:109)-namely, the deification of nature, pantheism, and immanental religion. "When you have a Goddess as the creator, it's her own body that is the universe. She is identical with the universe" (J. Campbell, The Power of Myth:167).
Grammatical heroics that attempt a complete withdrawal from masculine language are often rhetorically awkward, especially where nouns are repeated to avoid whatever gender pronoun might be regarded as offensive. Similar absurdities arise where verbs are preferred that require no object, where the odd repetition of the word "God" is used as a substitute for "he," and direct address is shifted to "you." The enthusiast is sorely tempted to rewrite scripture to gain a hearing with a particular audience.
But no one prays to an "it," even if steeped in modernity. Liturgical "reforms" that systematically expunge the name Father from all acts of Christian worship are unacceptable to most worshiping communities. The reason is deeper than egalitarian motivations, for Jesus repeatedly called God Father (Abba). This became a defining feature of his teaching (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Augustine, Epis. to Gal. 188.8.131.52).
It is God the Spirit who teaches us to cry out "Abba" (Rom. 8:16; Ambrosiaster, Epis. to Gal. 2.4.7). If Christian worshipers are reluctant to address God by the name Jesus specifically taught them to speak, they hardly can be said to have learned how to pray. "We are bound to be baptized in the terms we have received and to profess belief in the terms in which we have been baptized" (Basil, in Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith:193; Incomplete Work on Matthew, Hom. 35).
Both Genders Honored by God
Neither male nor female language adequately grasps the fullness of the divine reality (Gregory Nazianzus, Orat. 27; John of Damascus, OF 1.4-8). Classic consensual Christianity maintains faithfulness to the historic language of the church but, in doing so, seeks fairness in contemporary cultural conflict.
If both sexes are to be honored in the incarnation, and if the one giving birth must be female, then the one born would in fairness be male (Augustine, EDQ 11). This is the decisive line of reasoning as we have seen in the Incarnation: If the mother of the Savior must of necessity be female, since only females are mothers, the Savior would as a consequence have to be male if both sexes are to be significantly involved in the salvation event.
The only alternative would be to have a female mother of the Savior and a female Savior. For an androgynous or hermaphroditic Savior would fail to share in the specific nature of our sexual human condition. The female birth-enabler is an intrinsic part of the divine economy in the coming of the Messiah as prophesied in the male line of David. Augustine summed up that God "was not ashamed of the male nature, for He took it upon Himself; or of the female, for He was born of a woman." Hence we are "liberated by the agency of both sexes" (The Christian Combat 22).
But where does this leave the language of God the Spirit? To denude language of all gender reference is quixotic and disrespectful of human sexuality. This alternative reveals a narrow ideological bias reflecting an antihistorical frame of mind. It is also a denial of our very created nature as engendered beings.
No woman or man I know wishes to be called an "it." If so, how can one be satisfied with "it" language addressed to God? The scandal of particularity remains. God meets us in specific times and places amid people with specific names and genders and of particular parents of a particular race and culture.
To back away wholly from gender reference is to stand offended at the gospel of a man born of woman (Marius Victorinus, Epis. to Gal., 2.4.3-4), and of the Spirit who transcends the gender differences between ruach and pneuma.
The Spirit's own guidance is needed in the study of the Spirit, "not that we may speak what is worthy of God, for this is impossible" but that we may not fail to speak altogether; hence it belongs to "grace itself to grant both to us to speak without deficiency and to you [the disciple] to hear with discretion" (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Lect. 16.1).
Speech about the incarnate Lord is speech about one who is revealed in the flesh as a man born of woman. But speech about the Holy Spirit is speech about one who desires to work quietly, who remains unpretentiously concealed, hidden in the silent depths of the heart and the quiet hedgings of history.
The incarnate Lord was seen; the Word of Life "handled," "touched," personally addressed (1 John 1:1, 2). When the Spirit moves, however, the mover is silent and invisible (Basil, On the Spirit 9). What is most important in this inquiry is often least quantifiable and least empirically observable, though the consequences and effects of the Spirit may be visible (Augustine, Sermons 7.4).
The Appeal to Mystery
The Spirit is intrinsically a mystery, like the currents of air and clouds whose movements are too complex and hidden to predict (John 3:8; Ambrose, On Chr. Faith 2.6.47). It is easy to know that the wind is moving, but difficult to predict precisely from where to where, even on a vast scale with the best measuring devices. The fact that we cannot see the wind does not mean that it does not exist (Chrysostom, Hom. on John 26.1-2). However evident may be the work of the Spirit to the heart, it is not visible to the eye or audible to the ear or tangible to the touch (Augustine, Tractates on John 12.5).
The work of the Spirit everywhere leaves traces of the divine presence. These are best expressed not in flat empirical descriptions but in powerful touches, signs, and symbols as indirect and hidden as the work itself. Key metaphors in scripture are: breath, dove, fire, oil.
Some teachings are universally known to faith but consensually regarded as finally remaining mysterious and unexplained. Among these are the eternal generation of the Son, the procession of the Spirit, the dynamics of grace and human freedom, and the triune God. "We say, three persons, not in order to express it, but in order not to be silent" (Augustine, Trin. 5.9). Though it may seem "undignified to give any answer at all to the statements that are foolish," the mute alternative is more dangerous "lest through our silence error may prevail" (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit NPNF 2 5:315).
No rational thought exceeds the deeper rationality of the triune God, since "God who creates is Himself the highest of the objects of thought, both for those who think, and that which is thought of" (Gregory Nazianzus, Orat. 21.1).
The Limits of Scientific Inquiry into God the Spirit
To the skeptical gaze of naturalistic reductionism, there seems to be little evidence of these silent footprints of the Spirit-hardly a trace, hardly an aroma. Tenderly God touches, breathes upon human history. What is revealed of the Spirit is more whispered than spoken (Job 26:13-14; John 3:8; Chrysostom, Hom. on John 26). The Spirit withholds disclosure from the objectivizing gaze of the scientist who wishes chiefly to measure, graph, control, and submit reports.
This does not mean that insight into the Spirit's revelation in history is impossible, but rather that it must listen attentively to its subject's voice (1 Kings 19:12). "The Spirit is breath. The wind sings in the trees. I would like, then, to be an Aeolian harp and let the breath of God make the strings vibrate and sing. Let me stretch and tune the strings-that will be the austere task of research. And let the Spirit make them sing a clear and tuneful song of prayer and life!" (Congar, IBHS 1.10).
The teacher of orthodoxy must be "not, like our modern wise men, yielding to the spirit of the age, nor defending our faith by indefinite and sophistical language, as if they had no fixity of faith" (Gregory Nazianzus, Orat. 18.16).
Why the Spirit Remains Inaccessible to Objective Investigation
The ancient church teachers thought that there must be some hidden purpose in the fact that God has constrained empirical inquiry into the Spirit, and thus withheld from the faithful vast ranges of pertinent information concerning the work of the Spirit (Gregory Nazianzus, Orat. 31.5; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Lect. 16.23).
Yet they remained convinced, along with Paul, that all will ultimately be revealed (1 Cor. 13:12, 13). The providential purpose of the hiddenness of the Spirit is to awaken and engender that trust which walks by faith, not sight (2 Cor. 5:7; Fulgentius, To Monimus 1.11.5).
No subject of Christian teaching is more prone to fanaticism and novelty and subjectivism than the Holy Spirit. This is why Scripture guides subjective experience at every step along this long road. Each individual's personal experience is prone to self-deception and interest-laden distortions (Jer. 14:13-14; R. Niebuhr, NDM 1; H. R. Niebuhr, RMWC).
In no other precinct of Christian teaching are we more prone to make confident appeals to personal experience, yet these appeals do not guarantee that our feelings will be grounded in the apostolic testimony. The work of the Spirit deserves especially careful attention precisely because it is so prone to manipulation and ideological abuse (Acts 8:19; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Lect 16.10).
On Not Being Wise Above Scripture
In listening to the Spirit the consensual tradition has sought not to be wise above Scripture. The faithful are not called to try to exceed the ways in which God's own Spirit has become self-attested through holy writ (1 Cor. 1:18-31). "It is not our duty to indulge in conjecture" (Irenaeus, Ag. Her. 2.28.6).
In receiving the Spirit we have "not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words" (1 Cor. 2:12, 13; Chrysostom, Hom. on 1 Cor. 7.7).
Faith "sees something of that which it does not see entire, nor is it permitted to ignore what it is not allowed to comprehend" (Hugh of St. Victor, SCF:53, italics added). Christian teaching does well to speak modestly of the Spirit as the Spirit has become self-revealed in the history attested by scripture (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Lect. 16.2; 17.2).
Grasping the Cohesive Movement of Christian Teaching: Spirit, Church, Consummation
The classic tradition has reasoned by means of an orderly progression of interconnected topics from the study of the Spirit (pneumatology) to salvation (soteriology) and moving from there directly into the church (ecclesiology), leading toward the end of history (eschatology). These are the key stops on the theological map of the way ahead.
Here is the essential movement. The reality of the church emerges out of the saving action of God in Christ through the Spirit; the church is the providential means and sphere through which persons are enabled to participate in eternal life. The birth of the church of Jesus Christ is engendered by the regenerating power of the Spirit. The nurture of the church occurs by grace through Word and Sacraments. The present church shares in the communion of saints in time and eternity. In this way, the flowing sequence of classic Christian teaching draws all post-Ascension topics of theology into coherent order (John of Damascus, OF 3.1, 6, 19).
These topics are inseparably integrated. "Where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace" (Irenaeus, Ag. Her. 3.24). To elect to live without the grace offered in the church is like a neonate refusing nourishment from a mother's breast.
In systematic study we proceed not chronologically but economically, methodically, and according to the logic of Christian memory. We are listening for consensual, ecumenical voices; not in order of their historical sequence, but by means of their reasonable unfolding and tested organization of Christian teaching.
At key turning points along the way of consistent Christian teaching we regularly check and reset our bearings, seeking a sense of right location and due organization of topics. At this point we are seeking to understand the classic Christian teaching of the Holy Spirit and church within the whole scope of Christian historical reasoning (Chrysostom, Hom. on John 73).
The two-thousand-year-old order of early baptismal confession firmly sets the sequence of topics. It moves obviously from Spiritum Sanctum through ecclesiam toward the vitam venturi seculi ("life of the world to come," COC 2:59). As early as Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Hilary, the topics of salvation, grace, and the church were being located within the "third article" of the creed, the sequence of teachings on the work of the Spirit (Irenaeus, Ag. Her.; Cyril, Catech. Lect.; Hilary, Trin.). We follow the steps of patristic and centrist Catholic and Protestant teaching, as we see it unfolding in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Lombard, and Calvin. There we find the discussion of church and the human future located in a clearly conceived sequence following the doctrines of the Spirit, repentance, faith, and justification. (Augustine, Enchiridion; Calv. Inst. 3-4; Zwingli, True and False Religion, WZ 3:176; Calv. Inst. 4.14). Persons come to faith only from within a community created by the Spirit, not in a vacuum. The Spirit is the life of the community-uniting God with humanity and the faithful with each other. The newborn believer cannot lisp God as Abba (pater) without ekklēsia as mother (mater, Cyprian, Letters 39).
The Spirit's Presence as Datum of History
It is a matter of historical record that the church has come into being. It is impossible to study human history of the last two millennia and ignore entirely the community of called-out people (ekklēsia) created by the Spirit. That would just be bad history. The Spirit is active in history wherever sent by the Father as the Gift that the Son is making to call forth the faithful. The Son explicitly promised that the Spirit will abide until the Son returns (John 14:15-24; 16:5-15).
The central motif of the work of the Spirit is attesting and bringing into lively historical embodiment the work of the Son (Luke 24:44-49; John 15:26; Acts 1:4-8). This does not imply a unilateral divine accomplishment by absolute fiat, for the Spirit works patiently through human wills, engaged lives, concrete actions, and the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor. 1:18-31). While the finished sacrifice of the cross is a once-for-all event, the Spirit-enabled reception of the Word occurs again and again. This awakening takes place in extremely diverse times and places until the Lord's return (John 20:22; Acts 19:2; Chrysostom, Hom. on John 86).
Macaulay was awed by the durable continuity of the apostolic tradition: "No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when came leopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheater." The most grandiose royal dynasties are but of yesterday compared with the apostolic tradition. The great monarchies of France and Germany are of recent origin-monarchies now gone, while the ancient ecumenical councils still speak with full vitality. The church saw "the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot in Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca" (Macaulay, "Essay on L. von Ranke's History").