The Holy Spirit in the Church (part 2)

Pentecost is a curious event indeed. When the flood waters settled after the dam had been broken, the life giving water now flowed to all those who follow Christ. The Spirit had come, and come in power. What might be more curious, however, is that we don’t really pay much attention to this fact. Sure, there are the Pentecostals who talk about the Spirit and sometimes obsess over the shiny things of God, but do even they have a substantive understanding of the whole work of the Spirit?

We know Christ, we study Christ, we make Christ the subject of countless books, sermons, conversations, and arguments. But who is the Spirit? Who is this person who came upon the Church at Pentecost. If this is the Spirit who is to empower, and teach, and lead us all into the depths of Christ, the one who alone will convince the world of its sin so as to find fullness in the Divine community, then it seems a worthwhile use of our time to try and understand the nature of this Spirit, and the methods and qualities of the Spirit’s work.

Theologian and Psychologist James Loder notes this when he says, “In the formulation of the early creeds of Christianity, the doctrine of the Spirit was the most frequently neglected theme of any which was at the same time absolutely central and formative for the life and faith of the church. Today, this doctrine, which is decisive for the doctrine of God, of Christ, of the church, of the Word of God, and of the encounters of Christianity with the world, remains the most elusive (if not simply unaddressed) topic of modern theological thought.”

Since Loder wrote this more than a decade ago things have changed somewhat. There have been a small number of very insightful books by significant theologians seeking to focus on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. However, these studies are still rare. A recent computer search came up with 242 articles dealing with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. There were 5,830 articles dealing with the doctrine of Christ, suggesting we are a lot more interested in the one who left than the one who is with us.

Even these occasional studies of the Spirit have not, I would argue, encountered the ministry of the street with anything resembling influence. Those in the Church still do not understand or comprehend the nature of the Holy Spirit, and our churches reflect this lack of understanding. Instead, the Spirit is an addendum to our already established structures of thought and activity, an addendum which adds texture but is seemingly intended to make sure the apple cart is never upset.

“In the West,” writes Killian McDonnell, “we think essentially in Christological categories, with the Holy Spirit as an extra, an addendum, a ‘false’ window to give symmetry and balance to theological design. We build up our large theological constructs in constitutive Christological categories, and then, in a second, non-constitutive moment, we decorate the already constructed system with Pneumatological baubles, a little Spirit tinsel.”

The fact is that theology isn’t just something to keep the intellectually inclined folks among us busy with inconsequential concerns. Theology means something. Indeed, one could argue theology means everything. How we understand the work of God and his reality in this world vitally affects all other things we might do. Everyone has a theology, with the only question being whether it is a good theology. The theology we have, then, moves us to act, and believe, and respond in specific ways as we seek to move through our time in this world according to the reality which we have appropriated.

Our lack of reflection on not just the tinsel of the Spirit but upon the work and nature of the Spirit throughout time and space has meant we have developed lives and communities which are built on incomplete awareness of God’s work in this world. Yes, we have Christ, but Christ himself said that it is the Spirit who will convince the world and who will constitute the Church in this world. In leaving out a well considered doctrine of the Holy Spirit we are, essentially, leaving behind our power, and wisdom, and worth to this world. We ignore the words of Jesus when he emphasized the work of the Spirit, and in our supposed devotion to staring at the sky we miss out embracing the one who was sent.

Instead, as Jesus noted in John 16, we are very sad. Our churches are very sad. Our communities are very sad, our ability to reach out into this sinful and hate filled world are very sad. We have massive edifices and complex organizations all designed to help spread the message of Christ into this world by any means possible. Instead of doing this with a measure of bounty and joy, however, we are sad, and the world considers us sad.

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