Because life is a series of edits

Some Thoughts on the Holy Spirit

In Books, Church, Theologians on July 7, 2008 at 8:08 pm

When I was on staff with The Navigators, I used to joke that we in the organization thought of the Holy Spirit as being the member of the Trinity dressed in a three-piece suit sitting quietly in the corner of the boardroom. As a member of the PCA, I sometimes make the same joke (except now the Spirit’s sporting a bow-tie and tuxedo at Presbytery).

Lest my tongue-in-cheek critiques cause one to assume I know more of and about the Holy Spirit than others, rest assured I am as clueless as anyone – certainly with regard to the nuances of what we can know about the Spirit, but especially with regard to my experience of the Spirit.

I suppose I’m very much a product of my environment(s): I have always thought of the Spirit as the shy member of the Trinity Who seems too distant and overdressed for me to really get to know. This realization likely explains much of my poor and seemingly-powerless prayer life, as well as the lack of intimacy I often feel with God (and others) as a result.

Sinclair Ferguson alludes to this perceived (and probably widely-shared) reality in his excellent book, The Holy Spirit – part of the Contours of Christian Theology series:

“The expression ‘communion of the Holy Spirit’, if understood to include communion with him, further implies a bond of fellowship within a context of mutual knowledge. Here we come to a significant hiatus in discussions of the Spirit. It is commonplace to discuss the question of his divine personhood, his work in the application of redemption and in the fruit he produces, or the nature of his gifts and their role in the contemporary church; but communion with him in a developing knowledge of him is much less frequently explored.”

Ferguson’s focus on understanding the work of the Spirit from the perspective (and with the purpose) of being in union with Christ is both elementary and revolutionary to my thinking. Experiencing the Spirit not just as the bringer of gifts or as the sealer of salvation but as the co-crier of my soul is meaningful to me. With regard to Paul’s teaching on the idea in Romans 8:16-17 and Galatians 4:1-7, Ferguson writes:

“There is one cry, but that cry has two sources: the consciousness of the believer and the ministry of the Spirit…Just as no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3), in a similar way no one can say, ‘Abba, Father’ except by the same Spirit.”

Mine is not a cry to the Father while a formally-attired Spirit quietly sits nearby; rather, as B.B. Warfield wrote, “Distinct in source, it is yet delivered confluently with the testimony of our own consciousness.” I have tended toward a “me or He” thinking (i.e. either I’m crying out or the Spirit is – probably because of His environs!), but it is actually “we.”

In addition to Ferguson’s wise teaching on the difference between revelation and inspiration (“Denial of divine experience is not necessary; only the interpretation of it.”), I very much appreciate his counsel concerning the debate on the gifts of the Spirit. I have always been a cautious continuationist rather than a strict cessationist; that is, I believe all the gifts of the Spirit are in play even after the closing of the canon of Scripture.

While many (mis)read 1 Corinthians 13:12, placing it in an epistemological rather than its true eschatological context, Ferguson warns of the abuses of extreme continuationism but does not knee-jerk into cessationism, refusing to go beyond what the Scriptures say (or don’t) on the matter. His mature example encourages me to both consider and follow the Person of the Spirit not as a cosmic, remote taskmaster, but as a personal, loving friend still at full work in the world…and in me to be and become a better servant of Christ.

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  1. Have you read The Shack, by William someone and Cecil Murphy? I haven’t read it yet, but it deals with the workings of the Holy Spirit. It has been recommended recently and might be of interest to you.

  2. William Young is the author, but despite the endorsement of Eugene Peterson (which I still can’t figure out), what I’ve read about The Shack is not positive: besides the overly human personification of the members of the Trinity, apparently there is much confusion as to what true repentance means and a pretty low view of Scripture in general (and this is the short list).

    While it’s perhaps compelling enough as a story to be interesting, the danger of a book like this is its genre is theological fiction rather than allegory (which is where Peterson goes wrong, comparing it to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress). Unfortunately, a lot of well-meaning folks (some who probably recommended it to you) won’t be able to separate out the truth from the telling, recasting God in even more of an anthropomorphic role than American evangelicalism has already done.

    For a more accurate presentation of God, consider this from chapter two of the Westminster Confession of Faith:

    “There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.”

    I’d encourage you to walk on by The Shack.

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