What about the Spirit? What should we make of his place in the Trinity, and in our lives? Our response to that question, whatever it is, will say much about how we live out our faith. With that in mind let me mention, very briefly, some common points of view, then offer my own. And then I’d love to hear from any readers about your own insights, experience, and convictions about him.
At the outset let me note that the early ecumenical church councils—Nicaea and Chalcedon in particular—didn’t say much about the Spirit other than to affirm his place in the Godhead. So without any major era of past debate to use as a reference point for claiming a commonly affirmed (i.e. “orthodox”) stance on the Spirit and his ministry we’ve sometimes found him to be at the center of some sharp contentions. Or, more accurately, claims about him! The reality of his ministry—his fruit in and among us—feature love, joy, peace, and so on; so any unseemly fights about “pneumatology” are certainly not of his doing.
One stance towards the Spirit is to treat him as the silent partner in the Godhead. It developed as a reaction to a second stance—that of the Spirit radicals. The 16th and 17th century English Puritans were early proponents of the former position. They knew of the radical Spiritists of early German Protestantism—including the exotic claims and behaviors of the Munster rebellion—and took that episode as a warning against any overt displays or claims of the Spirit’s work. There was, they believed, an unstable self-elevation inherent in having leaders claiming to be Spirit-led and Spirit-authorized while they behaved in ways that Scriptures would never endorse. So the Puritans came up with the doctrine of “means”: that the Spirit only works through the means of grace that God has given the church. These included preaching, praying, Bible reading and so on. Any claims of the Spirit working outside these boundaries were confronted as heretical.
Yet the more overt versions of Spirituality didn’t disappear in the face of such Puritan resistance. Groups known as the Familists continued to exist as underground churches in the 16th century and beyond, and later the Quakers—or, more properly, the Society of Friends—gave the Spirit primacy in their worship. And in later periods of revivalism some claims and displays of the Spirit’s exotic presence and activity were not uncommon—with people overcome with fits of shaking, head-snapping, rolling on the ground, and more.
That’s just a snapshot, of course, but enough to alert us to the fact that none of the views I’ve summarized have disappeared. Fights over the Spirit continue today.
So let me say that I’m a Spirit-moderate. I haven’t ever experienced speaking in tongues, or any of the more spectacular gifts of healing and the like. But I’m also not aligned with those who, even today, seek to suppress the place of the Spirit in the church by applying a contemporary Doctrine of Means. The Spirit has always shown himself to be trustworthy and active among us.
So let me offer a sketch of my own views and experience, and then invite others to comment.
First, I’ve noticed with Jonathan Edwards, that the Spirit is always facilitating God’s love by sharing it within the Godhead and with believers. But he himself is never said to love either the Father or the Son, nor is he ever said to be loved by the Father or the Son. Instead he is the love of the Father and the Son, sent out as an emissary to share the heart of the divine dyad. This doesn’t demean him or reduce his personhood—he is, after all able to be grieved and quenched; and he led Jesus to go into the wilderness; and much more in the book of Acts—but it does indicate his “economic role” as the self-effacing presence in the Trinity. He magnifies the Son by bearing witness to him in our hearts (see John 15:26 & 16:14 on this).
Mainly I delight in his permanent and active presence in me. He nudges me towards the Truth—the Truth named Jesus. He regularly reminds me that I’m loved by the Father, especially as I respond to the Son and to his teachings; and he affirms the truths of Scripture in my heart when I read. I’ve learned that I can ask a question “in the air” and be certain that he’s heard me. I then wait for something to come to mind—taking something that I’ve read in my Bible reading in the recent past. He loves to answer my questions that way. My questions tend to be broad: as in, “How can I please you today, Lord?” Or, “Would you mind showing me more of the Son’s attractiveness?” He’s not my servant! But he is my helper and companion.
So, in sum, I don’t overstate nor understate his presence and his activity in me. I just enjoy the certainty that he—in offering the heart of Christ and the Father to me—is attending to me in very direct and personal ways. And I’m enjoying him!
If anyone who reads this doesn’t have that enjoyment—the “joy” of “love, joy, peace, patience” in Galatians 5—just tell him you’d like to have him fill you with his presence. But remember to come to him by way of the cross: by setting aside any of your shallow ambitions in favor of the deep ambition of knowing and pleasing the Son.