SERMON: The Creed in Slow Motion—I Believe In The Holy Ghost (1) by Ronald Knox

The Creed in Slow Motion—I Believe In The Holy Ghost (1), by Ronald Knox

(Given during the Second World War to a group of evacuees from a girls’ convent school.)

I’ve always been rather fond of the story, which I should think is almost certainly untrue, of a small boy in the East End of London who came to confession, and reduced his confession to the shortest possible limits by saying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; thrown mud at the buses and don’t believe in the Holy Ghost.”  I don’t know what your experience may have been, but personally I have never been assailed by any temptation to throw mud at buses, and therefore I can’t say what excuses the penitent may have had for this inconsiderate treatment of public property.  But I think obviously a fool not to believe in the Holy Ghost.  If you are going to believe in the Christian religion at all, and indeed in a sense if you are going to believe in any religion at all, I don’t see how you can help believing in the Holy Ghost.

Suppose you come across one of those people, who are getting rather common in England nowadays, who don’t quite like to describe themselves as Christians, but say they believe in God; yes, of course they believe in God.  Suppose you try to pin them down, and find out what they really mean by it; suppose you ask, for example, “Do you believe that God is a Person, in the same sense as you and me?” — you will find that they reply, “Oh, dear no; not a person; that would be anthromophorphism.”  And you say, “Well, let’s cut that part out; what do you really think God is like?  How would you describe him?”  And what’s their answer?  Why, that God is a Spirit, a sort of Force or Influence which manifests itself in various ways in and through this visible world of ours, but particularly manifests itself in the religious aspirations of human beings.  To which you may very sensibly reply, “Oh, I see, you believe in the Holy Ghost, but not in the Father or the Son.”

Well, we believe in the Holy Ghost as well as the Father and the Son; and this afternoon we want to get some rough idea, at any rate, of what we mean by that.  I think we are all rather apt, at the back of our minds, to forget that the Holy Spirit existed from all eternity, and to think of him as having come into existence on the Day of Pentecost.  Well, of course that can’t be true, because the Blessed Trinity has existed from all eternity, and it wouldn’t be a Trinity without the Holy Spirit.  So we’ve got to go right back, and think of God existing altogether outside time, independently of any worlds, or any angels for that matter.  From all eternity there has been a multiplicity of life within the unity of the Godhead.  God the Father, from all eternity, has spoken a Word; or if you prefer to put it in a rather more luminous way, from all eternity he has thought a thought of himself.  When you or I think, the thought has no existence outside our own minds; but when the eternal Mind thinks of itself, it produces a Thought as eternal as itself, and that Thought is, like the eternal Mind, a Person.  And so you get two persons within the Blessed Trinity, the eternal Mind and its eternal Thought.  And now, you can’t imagine two Divine Persons as existing side by side, can you, without their having some relation to each other, some attitude towards each other; and what that attitude will be it is not difficult to guess; they will love one another.  And this Love, which springs at once from the eternal Mind and its eternal Thought, binding them to one another, is the Holy Spirit.  That is why we say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  He is the conscious response of Love which springs up between them; he goes out from each of them to the other.  That is not intended to be an explanation of the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, because you cannot explain a mystery.  But I think that is as near as our minds will get to understanding what the doctrine of the Trinity is about.

“Well,” you say, “thank you very much; I expect one ought to know about all that, but it seems rather abstruse theology; now let’s get on to Pentecost.”  You’re quite wrong again; we haven’t nearly got on to Pentecost yet.  You didn’t really think, did you, that the Holy Spirit had nothing at all to do with the visible creation until A.D. 30?  If you did think that, you were very badly out in your dates.  Let’s go back to the second verse of the Bible, which tells us about a time millions and millions of years ago.  It says, “The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved over the waters.”  The Hebrew for that is even jollier; it says that the earth was all tohu and bohu, which is a very good way of describing emptiness and confusion.  Try to imagine the earth, or the universe if you prefer it, without any light at all, just undulations of matter, a great formless sea; no birds, no animals, no plants.  And even then, “the Spirit of God moved over the waters.”  As soon as there was any creation at all, even when it was all tohu and bohu, it gave out a kind of dumb response to its Creator; it was like a mist rising in a river valley at evening; and what was it?  It was the Spirit of God.

When God created the universe, it was a sort of extension, you may say, of that eternal Thought of his, which we call his Word.  That is why we always think of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as specially concerned in the work of creation.  And as, within the Godhead itself, the answer to that act of Thought was an eternal Act of Love, the Holy Spirit; so, when God created things outside himself, there was an immediate response of love from his creatures; and that response was inspired in them by the Holy Spirit.  And all through the Old Testament you get the idea of God’s Spirit as pervading nature; “the Spirit of the Lord fills the whole world, and that which containeth all things hath knowledge of the Voice.”

What I’m saying just now isn’t strict Catholic doctrine, all defined and printed in handbooks.  But I think it’s quite impossible to understand the Old Testament until you see that the Jews thought of the brute creation and even inanimate creation, mountains and valleys and sun and stars and beasts and birds and fishes — they always make a great point of the fishes — as conspiring to praise God all the time.  And the medieval attitude was to accept that point of view about the response of creation to God, and to say, “Of course, that’s the Holy Spirit; that’s the response to God in nature.  The Love which binds the Father and the Son overflows into created things, and makes them, too, aspire lovingly to God.”

But whether you value that idea about God in nature or not, it’s quite certain that once man has come into being, the Holy Spirit has an office to perform here on earth.  No, not on the Day of Pentecost; do stop being in such a hurry to get on to the Day of Pentecost.  If you think the Holy Spirit never interfered in human affairs between the time of Adam and the time of St. Peter, you are a heretic.  Because although this Creed we are having sermons about doesn’t mention it, the longer creed which is said, at Mass, the Nicene Creed, goes out of its way at this point to say, “who spoke by the prophets.”  What does that mean?  Well, in the first place what it says; it means that the Holy Spirit gave certain messages of warning to the Jews, by means of Isaias, Jeremy, Ezechiel, Daniel, Osee, Joel, Amos, Abdias, Jonas, Micheas, Naham, Habacuc, Sophonias, Aggaeus, Zachary and Malachy.  They were moved to say various things, many of which it is difficult to understand, and some of which they probably didn’t understand themselves.  They were carried away by the impetus of the Holy Spirit, and the great point is that many of the things which they said, or rather which he said through them, were prophecies about the coming of Jesus Christ.  I don’t suppose that Isaias quite knew what he was talking about when he said, “Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son.”  He just felt impelled, somehow, to say that, because that was what the Holy Spirit wanted him to say.

But, remember, this clause in the Nicene Creed means something more; it means that the whole of the Old Testament is inspired.  And a lot of the books in the Old Testament are not prophecy exactly; they are pieces of history, and sometimes, like other pieces of history, it must be admitted, I think, that they are not very exciting to read, especially when you came across long lists of names.  Well, all that is inspired.  What do we mean when we say that it is inspired?  Do we mean that the men who originally wrote those books, the books of Kings for example, simply sat down with a pen and took it all down as the Holy Spirit dictated it to them, just as you might take down a piece of dictation from one of the mistresses here?  Must we picture them as saying, “Amasias, was five and twenty years old when he began to reign (yes, I’ve got that), and he reigned nine and twenty years in Jerusalem (yes, I’ve got that), and his mother’s name was Joadan (how do you spell Joadan, please?)” — and so on and so on?  There have been people before now who have thought of the inspiration of Holy Scripture as if it were a mere process of dictation, of that kind.

But of course that is not the way in which the Old Testament was written, and you can prove it.  Because if you look at the second book of Machabees (a thing which very few people do) you will find that the author describes to us how he wrote his book.  He says that he has abridged in one book all the history that was written in five books by somebody called Jason of Cyrene.  Now, there is no reason whatever to think that Jason of Cyrene was inspired.  But the man — we don’t know his name, or anything about him — who got to work and boiled down those five books into one book, the second book of Machabees, was inspired.  And inspiration didn’t make it an easy job, like dictation is; you know how when one is doing dictation one can be thinking about all sorts of jolly things at the same time and do it more or less automatically.  But no, this man says, “As to ourselves indeed in undertaking this work of abridging, we have taken in hand no easy task; yea, rather a business full of watching and sweat.”  It was like writing an essay, when you have to get the stuff out of books but put it down in your own words.  And when he had finished, although it was an inspired book, this man wasn’t in the least certain that it would be a best seller.  He says at the end, “I will here make an end of my narration, which if I have done well, and as becometh the history, it is what I desired; but if not so perfectly, it must be pardoned me.”  Just what you feel inclined to say when you’ve finished writing an essay.  He sat down and wrote quite an ordinary book, in quite an ordinary say; and yet it was inspired.

What do we mean when we say that it was inspired, or that any book of the Old Testament was inspired?  Not that it was dictated by the Holy Spirit, but that the Holy Spirit helped the writers, watched over the process and saw they did it right; put ideas, perhaps, into their heads, which made them say, “That’s rather a good idea; I never thought of that before” — but it all seemed to come out of their heads, and indeed it did come out of their heads; because the Holy Spirit works in our heads.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that every word in the Old Testament, taken quite literally, is infallibly accurate.  You find it stated in the Psalms, for instance, that God has made the round world so sure that it cannot be moved.  And when Galileo, or rather, first Copernicus and then Galileo, produced the idea which we all believe nowadays, that the earth travels round and round on its own axis; that the sun doesn’t really “set,” all that happens is that we have lost sight of it because we’ve turned round the corner — when that idea was produced, a lot of people, chiefly Protestants, said, “That’s heresy!  The Bible tells us that the earth can’t be moved, and here are these people wanting us to believe that it’s speeding round and round like mad!”  But of course that was idiotic of them.  The Psalms weren’t written to teach us lessons in geography; they were poetry, and the person who wrote that verse was just talking in the ordinary language of his time.  So you can’t be certain that the theology of the Old Testament is literally true.  But you can be certain that the theology of the Old Testament, once you have understood in properly and made allowances for the Hebrew way of saying things, must be true; because when it was written the Holy Spirit was at work to see that the thing got done right.

And remember, the Holy Spirit wasn’t at work only amongst the Jews.  All through those centuries before our Lord came, whenever a human heart aspired to God, it was the same old story; it was the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity carrying out in this visible, created world the same work which he carries out in the uncreated, invisible, world of eternity.  He was making, in us, that response of love towards the eternal Father which it is his nature to make.  In spite of the Fall, there’s a kind of instinct which makes man look up to God, try to get back to God, and that instinct is the silent working of the Holy Spirit, in the very heart even of unredeemed mankind.

There, now, we haven’t got on to the Day of Pentecost after all; that’s what comes of interrupting.  But all this that I’ve been saying to you isn’t really waste of time, because it’s very difficult to get a right idea about the work of the Holy Spirit does in the order of nature.  His essential office is to be the response of love in our hearts to the goodness of God.


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