Nature, Grace, and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

 

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In a previous post, I argued that if we want to see the renewal of the church, it must be a renewal that takes the triune nature of God seriously. I quote at length Gordon Fee to that end. Fee argued that the Charismatic gifts are for the building up fo the church, and should not take pride of place or seen as the absolute end of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit makes us into the image of Jesus Christ to the Glory of the Father (as I said in this post).

One concern about the Spiritual gifts that I continually struggle with is the relation of humanity’s natural capacities, our ability to think, feel, reason, etc. and the gifts of the Spirit, especially the gifts of tounges and words of knowledge. When I’ve heard the gifts of prophecy taught, it is said that we need to discern the difference between our thoughts, the devil’s intrusions, and God’s words. The thing that bothers me about this is that it can end up neglecting or denigrating the goodness of human nature; as if the Holy Spirit fills us not to make us human, but to transcend our humanity.

To approach this question properly, we need to ask what humanity is, what we were created for and how we attain that end? In short, humanity is created by God out of his goodness as the image of God composed of both soul and body, we were created for life with God, and we attain that end through God’s grace and the economy of salvation (see Aquinas, Summa, 1.93, 103).

Two things are important to note here: 1) God’s goodness is the grounds of his grace; to say that God creates out of his goodness is to say that he creates freely and graciously (see Aquinas, Summa, 1.6). Therefore, 2) from the beginning, human nature is created by the free grace and goodness of God. This means that we are both natural creatures with specific aptitudes etc. and beings created for God. We were created with the need for God; a necessary openness to God’s work of creating and sustaining us towards being made into fullness of the image of God (Sin complicates things, because both the capacity for God and the natural gifts of human nature are both marred, but they are redeemed and renewed in Jesus Christ). Thus, while Aquinas affirms that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it (Summa, 1.1.a8), this perfecting of nature is established in the reality that creation is already God’s goodness poured out as grace.  God created humanity for himself, which means we need him to achieve our end goal – life with God. The path to that end goal is Christ, and according to Scripture, it is the Holy Spirit and his manifold gifts that build us up to that end goal (see. 1 Cor. 12, Eph 4). To sum up, Humanity is created as a creature made for the creator and on their way to the creator (see Summa, 1.93; 1e11ae.1-5; and this post).

If this is true, then charismatic gifts could fall within the realm of grace perfecting nature. But what of our original concern: the overriding of natural capacities? While grace does not destroy nature, nature being what it is, a graced contingent reality opened to God, is dependent on the creator. Could it be that the gifts of tounges and prophecy are not a negation of nature, but God using our nature and infusing it with his grace to build the body of Christ up out of God’s goodness, and freedom? Is it possible that our minds and language are sanctified for use beyond our understanding or capacity, to God’s glory and praise? I propose that we can answer both of these questions on the affirmative.

If these thoughts are tenable for the Christian life, there is room for God to both use one’s ‘natural’ talents in a ‘supernatural’ way and to infuse us with his grace in a way that is beyond our apprehension. For example, God could direct one’s reason, submitted to God to draw a conclusion about another person’s life that is, in fact, a word of knowledge; or God could simply infuse into one’s mind a thought or word that is  ‘from the outside.’ Both of these are acts of God sanctifying human nature, the first within our capacity for a particular end and the other beyond our capacity and understanding.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit, come from the outside and can seem to overwhelm our human nature; but the truth of the matter is that they are simply making us capable of what we were created for: communion with God. The gift of tounges draws our mouths, hearts, and mind into a space where we trust that God is at work in a way that we cannot understand (by the way, it is still your lips and mouth and tongue that move!). In the gift of prophesy we are encouraging and building the body of Christ up towards our mutual end goal: Life in God. Both of these gifts, along with the rest of them orient us towards becoming the unified body of Christ,  as we journey towards our end goal: fellowship and friendship with the triune God in Glory.

 

Desiring the Renewal of the Church? Look to the Trinity

 

222c640e641f279fafa30226a67e6f26.jpgIn my reading this week I skimmed Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence to see how he frames and articulates the person and work of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writing. In his conclusion, Fee argues that the path for the church’s renewal is the living experience of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, including, but not focused on the gifts of the Spirit. Here is an extended quote:

A genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will not isolate the Spirit in such a way that “Spiritual gifts” and “spirit phenomena’ take pride of place in the church, resulting in churches which are either ‘charismatic’ or otherwise. Rather, a genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will cause the church to be more vitally Trinitarian, not only in its theology, but in its life and Spirituality as well. This will mean not the exaltation of the Spirit as such, but the exaltation of God; and it will mean not focus on the Spirit as such, but on the Son, crucified and risen, savior and Lord of all. Ethical life will be neither narrowly, individualistically conceived nor legalistically expressed, but will be joyously communal and decidedly over against the world’s present trinity of relativism, secularism and materialism, with their thoroughly dehumanizing affects. And the proper Trinitarian aim of such ethics will be the Pauline one – to the glory of God, through being conformed to the image of the Son by the empowering of the Holy Spirit. 

In recapturing the dynamic life of the Spirit there will also be the renewal of the charismata, not for the sake of being charismatic, but for the building up of the people of God for their life together and in the world. What must not happen in such a renewal is what has so often happened in the past: holding the extraordinary charismata in such awe that they are allowed to exist untested and undiscerned (Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 902). 

Having spent a lot of time wrestling with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the renewal of the church, etc., I found this turn to the Christian life as a life in relation to the Trinity as very refreshing to the extreme. Further, because Fee contextualizes the gifts of the Spirit in the Trinity, and opposes isolation or emphasis of the gifts for their own sake, the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church is ordered to the end goal of transformation into the image of Christ to the Glory of God the Father. Thus, charismatic gifts are for the good of the church and should be desired because they have a particular purpose: to make us like Christ to the glory of God the Father.  This means that we must be free to question and test the extraordinary charismata, to see if they are fulfilling their Trinitarian end goal.

Do you want to renew the church? Seeking the happy land of the Trinity in prayer, worship, and study are where it begins. Because in seeking it, you’ll find, if you are a Christian, it is the happy land you’ve always been in ever since you said: “Jesus is Lord.”

 

 

The Cruciform Mission of the Holy Spirit

It is tempting, in a world silently influenced by the philosophical idealism of Hegel, to disconnect the person and work of the Holy Spirit from the economy of salvation and from Jesus Christ himself. The idea of the Holy Spirit as the World Spirit, or the Spirit in every person, is distinctly unchristian. Often it is less noticeable than this kind of language, and used to justify progressive theological moves, “God is doing a new thing.” Though ironically, I’ve heard the same passage used in charismatic contexts in reaction to progressive movements. A natural reaction could be to order our understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit to conversion and illumination of the Scriptures, two things the Spirit definitely does; avoiding all talk of prophetic gifts or otherwise. However, this would be an overreaction. The real issues at hand is an unbalanced theological apprehension of the connection between the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. I propose that the work of the Holy Spirit must be understood as making Christ’s person, life, and redemption present in us, which includes the whole spectrum of gifts expressed in the Scriptures. In other words, the Spirit blows as wind, but the wind is Christ-formed. To see this, I want to briefly examine several scripture passages that specifically use the image of wind for the Spirit, to show how the Holy Spirit’s work is intrinsically connected to Christ. In what follows I will make a few exegetical observations that suggest the warrant of my thesis, consider what the gift of the Holy Spirit means in light of its Christo-formic structure, and then consider the objection that this leads to a diminishment of the Holy Spirit’s person and work.

 

Let’s first turn to Genesis 1:1-3 where we see the Spirit, of God, or the wind/breath of God hovering over the chaotic waters. The triune God creates the world and orders it in goodness. John 1:1-3, which draws its logic from Genesis 1:1-3 says that the Word of God was with God and was God and all things were made through him. These passages read together help us see that The Spirit of God orders creation Christologically. If all things are made through him and for him and all things together in him, then the Creator Spirit does not just give new life willy-nilly, he gives it in the form and shape of the Son of God, the Word of God.

Passing over the creation of humanity, another place where we see divine wind at work is in Ezekiel 37:9-14: the valley of dry bones. In this vision, Ezekiel prophesizes to the four winds, and the breath enters an army of dry bounds resituating them. The Spirit (vs. 14) brings these bones to life, reviving the dead. This vision of the resuscitation of dead Israel turns our theological imaginations to the second Adam, Jesus Christ. He is Israel, and all of humanity, recapitulated, who the Spirit of God raised from the dead (Rom. 8:11). The resuscitation of Ezekiel 37 is fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ who is raised by the Spirit of Life, who is the Holy Spirit.

Our theme continues in John 3:8. This verse, I would suggest, does not imply a flighty, or unknown movement, but instead, the movement of the Spirit with a most definite telos: communion with God, which can only come about by being born again in the death and resurrection of Christ through the Baptism and the Holy Spirit. Still, the focus of life in the Spirit is its Christo-formed means and goal.

The mighty rushing wind of the Spirit at Pentecost surprised the early church, not because it was a new thing, but because of their slowness of heart and insensitivity to what the Spirit spoke of through the prophets. It took Peter proclaiming the word of Scripture to open the eyes of the Jewish people present in Jerusalem to see what the filling of the Holy Spirit meant. It was not some new thing unexpected, it was simply not seen; for it was expected by the prophet Joel and promised by Jesus. And significantly, the focus of Peter’s sermon is not the speaking in tongues or the experience of the Holy Spirit, but the fact that Jesus Christ w sent the Holy Spirit after his ascension so that his church could proclaim the gospel in word and in deed. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The receiving of the Holy Spirit is the sign and seal of salvation in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:13-14), and the way of new life in the new creation, the life in Christ (Romans 8:1-2).

Thus, the blowing of the wind metaphor must be read in light of the work of Jesus and the fulfillment of the vision of the new creation. It should not be used to justify the subjective feelings of or directions of a body of people, conservative, or liberal.

What of the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Are they not a new thing, something that brings new revelation and power? Perhaps it is better to speak of the Gift of the Holy Spirit; the gift of himself, which is also the gift of Christ in us. This is not to exclude the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, but to properly order it to the primacy of Jesus Christ. In John, the gift of the Holy Spirit is not spoken of in terms of charismatic experience, but rather of indwelling, abiding, and sanctifying (see John 14-16). Further, the fruit of the Spirit are fruit of Christ’s life (Galatians 5:22-24) given to us in through the Spirit. Living in the Spirit means belonging to Christ in the form of his crucifixion and resurrection. In other words, the gift of the Holy Spirit is Christ whole life, and what follows is the sanctifying work of making us like Christ. The Holy Spirit is, after all, the Giver of Life, and who is life but Jesus Christ?

 

But, some may object that I am simply conflating the Holy Spirit with Jesus. Doesn’t the Holy Spirit need his own person and personality? Simply put, no, he doesn’t. This is a gross anthropomorphism and projection of human personality into the triune God. In saying this, I do not deny the unique personhood, properly understood as subsisting relation, of the third person of the Trinity. Instead, I am arguing that the Spirit’s mission is intrinsically related to the Son’s. The Spirit is sent to form the body of Christ and sanctify believers.

Will we not simply forget the Holy Spirit again if we don’t articulate particular roles for him? No, again. I would propose that church ignores the Spirit, not because he doesn’t have enough to do, but because we don’t like the nitty-gritty work he does: repentance, obedience, and profound transformation into the image of Christ. Again, conforming us to the image of Christ.

Finally, someone might ask, what about the prophetic gifts of the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t the Spirit speak to us for the upbuilding of the church, and doesn’t this entail “a new thing”? Here I say yes and no. First, The freedom of the Spirit is the freedom of cruciformity. It is true that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17), but the Lord in this sentence is Jesus Christ! (Note that the Spirit is also called Lord in this verse, affirming his distinct divinity as well). Freedom in the Spirit looks like Jesus in the Garden saying, “Not my will but yours be done” (Mar 14:36). The freedom of the Spirit is freedom from Sin, not freedom from inhibitions. Second, if you express your gift in a way that rebels against the Scriptures and the authorities over you, check yourself. All prophetic gifts must be practiced with a holy hesitancy only proper to the gift given. Further, the gift of prophecy must be submitted to a life of continual conversion and discipline. The Spirit is the Lord and giver of Life, and the life he gives is Jesus’s life, so we should practice this gift with discipline and rigor, perhaps with the same rigor of the Old Testament prophets (look at Ezekiel 1-6). Prophetic ministry is not a gift for hippy Christianity.

There are many other aspects of the Holy Spirit that I have not touched on, especially healing, and the illumination of Scripture for believers. But I will leave it there for now. In summary: The Holy Spirit gives us Jesus’s life to conform us to his image to the glory of the Father.