Friday, June 06, 2008

Seminary Papers: Constructive Holy Spirit Theology

Of all the stuff I wrote this past semester (well past school year actually), this paper is what I am most proud of. At thirteen double spaced pages it was the longest paper I had written in a while. The paper essentially summarizes and explains what I believe about the Holy Spirit. I must have done ok on it because this paper was the majority of my grade for the course and I got an A.

The biggest problem I have with theology is that it is not written on a level that the any believer can understand and relate to. One of my personal goals in writing this paper was to write something theological that maintained full accessibility. Of course, the only way to know if I succeeded is to let others read it. So let me know if you understand what you are reading!

One of the wonders of the Internet is that it allows everyone who has an opinion or a belief to share it. Popular web destinations such as Yahoo! Answers allow people to do just that. Several months ago, someone curiously asked “Please make me clear what the Holy Spirit is.” Unfortunately the answers this individual got were less than clear. The most popular answer, as voted by users, states: “It’s definitely an experience.
Very powerful very invisible but moves through a room touching all hearts.” Another poster answered that “the Holy Spirit is the essence of God.” Still another user answered that the Spirit is “the feeling that you have that proves Christ is in you.” Finally, another user responded that the “Holy Spirit is a guardian angel.” From a certain point of view all of those answers may not be wrong, but when taken together they do not make clear what the Holy Spirit is. The Holy Spirit has long been a vital part of Christian doctrine, yet the Holy Spirit is not very well understood. In part this is because, as author Paul Thigpen points out, “often the Spirit seems to stand in the shadow of the Father and Son.” The emphasis on Father and Son in Christian theology does make some sense. The Bible has a great deal to say about the Father and the Son when compared to what the scripture contains about the Spirit. The emphasis on Father and Son over Spirit also makes some sense, because the systematic approach often taken by theologians does not know what to make of the Spirit. Most of what the scriptures contain about the Spirit is promises of what the Spirit will do in the life of the believer, or stories of amazing miracles. Systematic theology values logic and order. Promises of a personal experience and miracles that defy explanation do not fit well with logic and order. While there is an immense value to logic order, and a systematic approach, those tools fall short when trying to make clear the Holy Spirit. The difficulty that systematic theologians can have with adequately making clear the Holy Spirit has to do with method. Some influential systematic theologians, like Paul Tillich, do not believe that experience should be a source for theology. It is the point of this relatively brief essay to argue that experience is crucial to understanding the Holy Spirit. By using a systemic approach a constructive theology on the Holy Spirit will be given that states the Holy Spirit is highly relational, and only by being in relationship with the Holy Spirit can people truly know God and be used to bring about God’s purposes in the world.
Before one makes theological claims it is important to first define one’s method for arriving at those claims in the first place. In considering a method, one of the primary concerns is sources of authority. It is from the sources that one derives their theological affirmations. The primary source used here will be instantly familiar to all from a Wesleyan tradition: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. As the United Methodist church affirms, “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” As it was for Wesley, scripture will be considered the primary and most authoritative of those four sources. However, for a personal understanding of the authority contained within scripture the sources of tradition, experience and reason have to be used. In Wesleyan tradition, experience, and reason are often put on equal footing and given the same amount of considerations. However, experience will be given more weight for this constructive theology. One of the sources of experience that will be examined closely is experiences recorded from the evangelical perspective. The evangelical force is a powerful voice in Christianity today, and it is a voice that puts a high value on experience. The relational nature of the Holy Spirit requires experience to understand. One can not explain what one relates to without relying on their experience of the relationship. That being said, tradition is birthed out of experience. For example, the documents of Christian tradition from which this essay mostly relies are the writings of John Wesley, which were works of his personal experience. Furthermore, reason is required to validate, give context, and interpret any experience. Thus, even though scripture and experience will be relied on much more heavily, tradition and reason are still important sources.
Another important aspect of the method one uses in constructing theology is the approach that is taken. As previously eluded to, one of the more common approaches is a systematic one. A systematic approach is excellent for when one wants to consider a comprehensive theological framework that stresses the way that various elements are ordered. A systemic approach is considerably different. Rebecca Button Prichard, a pioneer in this approach, explains the difference between a systematic and a systemic approach as such: “Systematic theology values order and logic; systemic theology values relationship and imagination.” Systemic theology does not put the emphasis so much on how there is a connection, but instead seeks to explore why there is a connection and what that connection is. In other words, systemic theology is an approach where a theologian puts a special emphasis on exploring relationship. Such an approach will be very beneficial in the exploration of relationship between individual and Spirit. Relationships by nature, even divine ones, often fall outside of the bound of hard logic that systematic theology relies on, a systemic approach is one better suited for this essay.
Due to the constructive nature of this essay it is not comprehensive. The only subject of concern is The Holy Spirit and its relation to the individual. Due to this limited scope, there are certain working assumptions that have to be made. While one can disagree with these assumptions, all three of them have a strong backing in Christian tradition. The first working assumption is that God is triune in nature, and that the Holy Spirit is fully part of God. The Trinity is a long standing basic component of Christian doctrine. This understanding of God needs to be stated as a working assumption because this essay will focus solely on the relational nature of the Holy Spirit with the individual and not of the relationship of the Holy Spirit with the other members of the God’s Self. It is also an assumption, because due to the constructive nature of this essay, speaking of relationship with the Holy Spirit is a bit out of context. Due to God’s triune nature it is impossible for an individual to be in relationship with the Holy Spirit, without being in relationship with all of God. The second working assumption is that scripture is divinely inspired and can be treated as Authoritative. The best understanding of this assumption is given by the United Methodist Church: “The Bible bears authentic testimony to God’s self-disclosure in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as in God’s work of creation, in the pilgrimage of Israel, and in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing activity in human history.” The final working assumption is that the world is broken, fallen, and over-run by sin. Because of this all people become corrupted by sin, incapable of doing any good on their own, and cut off from God. Wesleyan tradition also supports this claim. In his articles of religion Wesley wrote: “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam . .. but it is the corruption of every man . .. whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” A final minor assumption needs to be mentioned, and that is the use of pronouns. Since this essay argues that the Holy Spirit is relational, using an impersonal pronoun such as it or using no pronouns, does not seem adequate. However, in English using masculine or feminine pronouns is problematic because these pronouns carry very strong gender connotations. To use only the masculine or feminine can be limiting as to how one relates to the Holy Spirit. It is possible for an individual to relate to the Holy Spirit as “she” just as it is possible to relate to the Holy Spirit as “he”. As a result both pronouns will be used in this essay interchangeably. These working assumptions, when combined with approach and sources create the method that was used for a constructive theology on the Holy Spirit.
When the Holy Spirit is described in the New Testament, it is always in relational terms. For example, at the last supper Jesus told his disciples, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-the Spirit of Truth. . .you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” Then later at the same meal, Jesus further communicates “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes he will guide you into all truth” The book of Acts records the coming of the Spirit in Pentecost, and repeatedly the Acts of the Apostles mentions believers being filled with the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul mentioned the Holy Spirit a great deal in relational terms. Paul wrote that the Spirit gives joy (1 Thessalonians 1:6), lives within believers (2 Timothy 1:14), renews (Titus 3:5), and shares fellowship with believers (2 Corinthians 13:14). Given the biblical witness, the Holy Spirit is best viewed as highly relational. An impersonal force could not be adequately described as a counselor. Furthermore, an impersonal force can not live within a person, fill a person, give joy, or share fellowship. These characteristics can only belong to a full person, and more to the point these qualities describe a being who is not only relational, but who actively seeks relationship with people. In summarizing Wesley’s beliefs on the Holy Spirit, Ron Staples writes, “for Wesley the main point of such scriptural teachings is . . . that the Spirit is a person in relation to us! When the Spirit deals with us, it is not some impersonal ‘influence’. . . it is none other than the personal God himself in His outgoing relational activity.” In relating her own faith experience author Lorraine Pintus writes, “One morning during my devotions, the Holy Spirit whispered to my heart, Lorraine, you love the Father. Jesus is your Friend, Now wouldn’t you like to know Me?” Her story illustrates that the Holy Spirit specifically seeks to be known by individuals.
Genesis 1:2 states that the “Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. As part of the Triune God, the Holy Spirit was present at creation, and because the Holy Spirit is relation He wishes to be in personal relationship with all of creation. This includes individuals, who do not acknowledge God. Wesleyan theology calls God’s love for a person before that person acknowledges God’s love in kind preventing or prevenient grace. The Holy Spirit is an active agent in prevenient grace. By grace, the Holy Spirit desperately seeks relationship with the individual. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit lives within a person, Paul affirmed this, and Luke wrote that the Spirit filled believers. The scripture is clear that the Holy Spirit seeks to relate through internal and deeply intimate means. However, in order to do that the individual must be saved and justified from sin, by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Thus, through prevenient grace, the Holy Spirit “woos” the individual through external means. Clark Pinnock explains this in his own words, “God’s grace is a persuasive not a coercive power. God does not force people to love him, as if that were possible, but purses personal relations.” Many Christians have personal testimonies of how God pursued them, and of how situations and circumstances were so aligned as to make God’s love real in a more personal way than they thought possible. The Holy Spirit is always an active part of that pursuit, of the wooing. To use an analogy, there is a popular painting of Jesus standing at a door. The common interpretation of this painting is the door is a human heart, which Jesus is waiting to be let in. In this painting, the Holy Spirit would be another Person on the outside, who is actively trying to make the individual on the other side aware of why the individual needs to open the door. Like a concerned friend, the Holy Spirit would try to get the individual’s attention through any means possible.
Once an individual opens that door, and lets Jesus in, they are justified, and they also let the Holy Spirit in. Using Romans 8:9-11 as a basis, author Neal McBride writes, “The Bible makes it clear that every person who has accepted Jesus Christ as Savior is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.” This indwelling occurs at the moment of justification. Wesley preached, “And at the same time that we are justified, yea, in that very moment sanctification begins. In that instant we are born again, born above, born of the spirit: there is a real as well as relative change.” It is through the process of sanctification that one can best understand the individual’s relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Before fully exploring the actual relationship between Spirit and individual through the process of sanctification, the way the Holy Spirit communicates needs to be mentioned. This is necessary because communication is a vital part of all personal relationships, and the Holy Spirit is no different. In the process of sanctification, the Holy Spirit actively communicates with believers. The Holy Spirit communicates with individuals through a variety of means. Through the personal experience of others, Thigpen gives examples through at least three ways the Spirit communicates. Thigpen tells the story of a Baptist preacher who heard the Spirit speak to him in an audible voice. He also tells a story of a friend who was internally “prompted” by the Spirit. Finally, he tells a personal story of a time that the Spirit used scripture to speak powerfully into his life. The Holy Spirit communicates to people for a variety of reasons, some of the reasons given in scripture for the Spirit to communicate with individuals is to guide (John 16:13), teach (John 14:26), convict (John 16:8), and enable (1 Corinthians 12:11). The list is by no means comprehensive, but the Holy Spirit does communicate with individuals through a variety means for a variety of reasons, and this communication is all part of the process of sanctification.
The United Methodist Church understands sanctification as such, “sanctifying grace draws us toward the gift of Christian perfection . . .described as. . .’having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.” Sanctification is more than a process towards Christian perfection. Sanctification is intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. The individual believer only becomes more Christ like by the guiding, empowering, convicting, and teaching of the Holy Spirit. The personal experience of Lorraine Pintus supports this claim. Pintus writes, “The Spirit deepened my love for Jesus. Never had I felt such empathy for the lost or had such a compelling desire to train disciples in Christ. Joy punctuated my writing. Passion permeated my teaching.” Pintus experienced a deeper love of Christ that was only possible because of the Spirit, this is because “God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Sanctification is an act of God’s love made possible by relationship with the Holy Spirit. This process leads believers to be more like Jesus, as they fall deeper in love with their Savior. To reiterate this process is relationship with the Holy Spirit. In a letter, Wesley wrote, “I believe the infinite and eternal Spirit of God . . .to be not only perfectly holy in himself but the immediate cause of all holiness in us.”
This holiness that is brought about by relationship with the Holy Spirit does have outward signs. These outward signs are referred to as fruit of the spirit and are listed by the apostle Paul: “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Many would consider these attributes virtues, but they go further than that. The fruit of the Spirit reveal the very character of God. The life of Jesus was marked by and overflowed with these fruit. The fruit of the Spirit are very desirable by many but are unobtainable in full by people. Because the world is fallen and all people are infested with sin, the fruit of the Spirit is not within grasp. It is not possible for a person to be truly loving or truly peaceful because even their best, most sincere efforts will be tainted by sin. The fruit of the Spirit are manifest in an individual, as a direct result of relationship with the Holy Spirit. Good friends and spouses have a way of picking up mannerisms and characteristics of the other half. In the same way, God’s perfect character influences and redeems the fallen character of the individual through relationship with the Holy Spirit. The result of this divine influence is the fruit of the Spirit. As Wesley wrote the fruit of the Spirit is the “holiness in us.” Thus, the fruit of the Spirit confirm the strength of the individual’s relationship with the Spirit. After listing the fruit of the Spirit Paul wrote, “since we live by the Spirit, let us keep step with the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit will not cease to indwell a believer who does not keep step with her. Because The Holy Spirit seeks intimate relationship, the kind of relationship where she can enact change on her friend, the Holy Spirit will not force herself upon an individual. The Holy Spirit will relate to a person as the person allows. Once could say that in that way the Holy Spirit is a gentleman. However, deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit will have positive consequences for a believer in the form of a greater harvest of the fruit of the Spirit in the individual’s life.
Many Christians weekly pray the prayer that they learned from Jesus, and one of those petitions plea, “Your kingdom come, your will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.” God has a will for creation and for individuals in specific circumstances. Furthermore, it is possible for people to know God’s will:
“Therefore I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God- This is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be by transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is-his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”

In the early part of the 20th century, Dr. Walter Wilson found a very interesting connection this verse has in relation to the Spirit. Romans 12:1 does not specify to whom bodies should be a sacrificed. However, Dr. Wilson reasoned that Jesus does not need a body, and God the Father is seated on his throne in heaven. However, the Spirit is in the world without a body of his own. Dr. Wilson reasoned that he was to daily sacrifice his body to the Holy Spirit, and he found himself being used to fulfill God’s will in ways he never imagined. As previously mentioned, the Holy Spirit is a gentleman. He will not force his will upon anyone. However, the Spirit does invite people to join him in bringing about God’s kingdom on earth. Pinnock writes a similar notion, “Each believer should focus on the power of God at work in his or her life and expect God to make him or her an instrument of the kingdom.” God can use anyone to fulfill God’s will. A strong Biblical example of this is the Egyptian Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened by God. Offering oneself as a living sacrifice though is considerably different than just being used to fulfill God’s will. Through a relationship with the Holy Spirit, the individual becomes more than just a tool to fulfill God’s will, but a full partner. Paul wrote, “if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God. . .The Spirit himself testifies with our Spirit that we are God’s children.” Just as children are fully part of a family and take part in the family’s enterprises, believers ,through relationship with the Spirit, are partners in God’s purposes.
This partnership with God through the Spirit is marked by spiritual gifts. The scripture makes mention of numerous spiritual gifts. Romans 12:6-8 mentions prophecy, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, and mercy. In 1 Corinthians Paul lists other gifts including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, discernment, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. Spiritual Gifts are not some sort of characteristic that a person naturally has, but they are only possible by an empowering of the Spirit. Thus, just because someone is a natural leader does not mean they have the gift of leadership. Spiritual gifts are not like skills that sit dormant waiting for a person to call upon them, but instead a spiritual gift is only manifest and actualized by the power of the Holy Spirit to fulfill God’s will. Because spiritual gifts are a result of a partnership with God, and because the Holy Spirit is a gentleman, gifts will not be forced upon anyone. Certain gifts will only manifest as a believer is willing to accept them. All gifts mentioned in scripture are still available today to help fulfill God’s purposes. However, not all gifts may be present in all faith communities because the congregation is not willing to accept the gift.
The Holy Spirit is highly relational. This theme has been explored by stating the way scripture describes the Spirit. Through a Wesleyan understanding of grace, it was explained exactly how the Holy Spirit relates to individuals. The Holy Spirit connects people to God. Thigpen writes, “As we rely on Him, the Spirit will demonstrate in a thousand ways-sometimes subtle, sometimes startling-His desire to draw us deeper into the heart of God.” The Spirit does this by sanctifying the individual. The Spirit changes the individual with the fruit of the Spirit in the gift of Christian perfection. Finally, the Spirit draws individuals deeper into the heart of God by partnering with the individual to fulfill God’s purposes in the world. This essay has attempted to show how the Holy Spirit desperately seeks relationship with individuals. In constructing a theology of the Holy Spirit, it ultimately has to be done from a systemic approach that focuses on relationship, because a logical approach does not make much sense. The Holy Spirit, as part of God, has no need to relate to individuals, yet the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit is a gentleman, but she is also a lover head over heals in love with a creation that is honestly not good enough for her. Despite that the Holy Spirit woos all people to know herself, and by extension invites people into the divine, unfathomable love that flows forth from the presence of the triune God.


Blogger Matthew Jolley said...

Hi Sean,

I enjoyed the paper you wrote above and was moved to think deeply by your thoughts. I'm glad to hear that you received an A and I am sure it was well deserved. Thank-you for sharing it, and should you ever wish to, I know that I for one would enjoy reading more of your papers online.
It is thrilling to begin to consider the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
Of course however, there are quite a few places where I strongly disagree with some of your conclusions, say, the gender of the Spirit, the sovereignty of God in salvation, and the role of spiritual gifts etc. Let us know if you ever would like to discuss things from a reformation perspective. I'm sure you are too busy, but if you ever have chance in your life, I recommend reading John Owen and John Calvin on the Holy Spirit. They are amazing.

5:01 AM  

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