HOLY SPIRIT: Beginning With Mary—Three Basic Affirmations by Tom Smail

The Holy Spirit in Person

Beginning With Mary—Three Basic Affirmations by Tom Smail

From The Giving Gift

1.  To describe the Holy Spirit as Gift emphasizes that we are here in the realm of grace. Free giving is not by any  means the only kind of exchange that can take place between two parties.  A check can pass from me to you as a contracted payment of wages in return for services rendered.  It is then not a gift but a payment, a quid pro quo in which one party fulfills agreed conditions and the other party is in duty bound to pay the agreed reward.

Some Christians have tended to understand God’s sending of the Holy Spirit in this contractual way.  God gives the Spirit when we fulfill the conditions that he has laid down.  This view has both a typically Roman Catholic and a typically Protestant form.

In much traditional Roman Catholic spirituality the full indwelling of the Holy Spirit is seen as the reward of a long laborious effort after sanctity, so that the gifts and fruit of the Spirit are the end product of an extended process of disciplined prayer, stern self-denial, and costly strivings for holiness, perhaps in a monastic setting.  They are thus the prerogatives of the saints and indeed the signs and proofs of their sainthood.

The Roman Catholic charismatic renewal has rebelled against that approach.  What was seen as a reward for the few who could attain to the heights of holiness, is now seen as a gift freely offered to all who belong to Christ and indeed implicit in their baptismal initiation into his grace.  What was once shut up in the cloister has been set free in a popular movement.  Once more the Spirit is seen not as a reward for the few but as a free gift to the many.  Far from being a reversal of Roman Catholic tradition, this is a return to its basic insight that God lavishes his Spirit and his gifts on his people not in proportion to their achievements but in the freedom of his mercy and grace.

The Protestant form of the same contractual approach is deeply entrenched in much denominational Pentecostalism and often shows itself in the mainline charismatic renewal.  It holds that the Spirit and his gifts are given when we have repented enough, prayed enough, claimed enough, “tarried” enough.

Such an approach almost inevitably leads to a preoccupation with ourselves and how we can receive the Spirit, rather than with God and his willingness to give the Spirit.  It can also threaten the very notion that the Spirit is Gift.  What sort of a gift is it that can be bestowed only when required conditions have been fulfilled?  It is a bit like the “free gifts” offered by the cornflakes’ manufacturers to induce us to buy their product.  It is in fact neither gift nor free, because the value of the gift is included in the cost of the product.  That may be good trade but it is bad theology.  God does not extract a hidden payment for his gifts.  His gifts have life-changing consequences, but no preconditions, except the willingness to receive them.  In the New Testament, as we shall see, even that willingness is regarded as itself a gift of God rather than a precondition for receiving a gift.

If that is true of all God’s gifts, it is supremely true of his supreme Gift, the Holy Spirit.  In his Pentecost sermon Peter offers that Gift to potential converts as part of the beginning of their Christian life, (Acts 2:38).  The faith and repentance with which the Gift is to be received are not things that his Jewish hearers have to produce out of themselves as their entitlement to the Spirit.  Their willingness to turn round to Christ and hold out empty hands for what Peter is promising has been produced in them by the word Peter has preached in the power of the Spirit, by which they “were cut to the heart,” (v. 37).  So it was the Spirit who made them open to the Spirit: their faith and repentance were themselves his work and gift.

Our sinful hearts are forever trying to turn the good news of God’s grace into a series of daunting demands for us to fulfill.  The result is always guilty self-absorption rather than rejoicing liberation.  To call the Holy Spirit Gift reminds us that here we are not in the calculating world of benefits conferred in proportion to conditions fulfilled, but in the kingdom of a gracious Father who generously imparts his Spirit in free unconditional grace to people who do not and could not earn such a Gift, and in the same generosity opens and prepares them to receive it.

2.  To describe the Holy Spirit as Gift emphasizes that we are in the realm of dynamic relationships, the movement from a giver to a receiver, the opening up of one person to another. We are concerned with the impartation of life, truth, love, and power from divine persons to human persons, with the self-giving of God to man that creates and evokes the responsive self-giving of man to God.  The very notion of gift reminds us that the Holy Spirit cannot be studied in isolation, in and for himself.  A gift is meaningless without a giver and a receiver.  So the word Spirit is a word that has meaning only in a relationship.  The Spirit is, in Bishop John V. Taylor’s suggestive phrase, “The Go-Between God.”  He is what he is and does what he does only within a network of divine and divine-human relationships.

It is therefore only from within that set of divine-human relationships that we call the church that the Spirit can be identified and recognized, even although he works unidentified and recognized in all men and in all creation.  There can be no theoretical academic knowledge of the Spirit.  He can be met only where God’s love is being poured out into people’s hearts, (Romans 5:5).  The Pentecost of Acts 2 is not solitary ecstasy; it is corporate receptivity.  In the New Testament the Spirit typically comes to groups of people together, not to individuals alone.  Discussions of the so-called baptism in the Holy Spirit have often gone awry.  They have not taken account of that corporate dimension that is so evident in the New Testament from Pentecost, on; they have failed to see that the coming of the Spirit takes place when people are together, and that it results in new relationships with God and with fellow Christians, not as a remote consequence but as the heart and center of what the Spirit is doing.

These relationships are not set and static but dynamic and active.  The three characteristically Biblical symbols for the Spirit – wind, (John 3:8), water, (John 7:37-39), and fire, (Matthew 3:11; Acts 2:3-4) – all point to a mysterious dynamic energy that destroys one kind of life and gives birth to another.  It is only by involvement in these powerful dynamic relationships that we can know the Holy Spirit.

3.  When we describe the Holy Spirit as Gift we are emphasizing that we are in the personal realm. A gift is a gift in the proper sense only if it embodies the intention of a donor to give it and it is received as a gift only when the recipient acknowledges that intention.  A cow does not give milk; she has it taken from her.  When I give the cat her food, the fact that I act in goodwill and even affection towards her is a matter of small import as far as she is concerned.  But when I give my wife some perfume, the fact that is redolent of me as well as of Chanel No. 5 is what makes it precious to her.  It is a gift made and received within a personal relationship and it has its value within that context.  In the same way the Holy Spirit conveys and expresses God’s love to God’s people: that is why he is a Gift.

But in the case of the Holy Spirit, it is not only that a divine person gives and human persons receive, but the Gift is himself a person in a way that we shall have to discuss in detail later.  When God in Christ gives us the Spirit, he gives us nothing less than himself.  A gift is often an object that is passed from one hand to another.  But here the Gift is a subject, living, acting, loving, sovereign, and free.

That has not always been clear in the theology of the Christian West, particularly in the Augustinian strand that preferred to speak of the Holy Spirit as Gift.  One of Augustine’s ways of distinguishing the persons of the Trinity was to say that the Father was the Lover, the Son his Beloved, and the Holy Spirit the Love between them.  The problem with this analogy is that love is a relationship between persons and not itself another person, so that Augustine failed to do justice to the distinct personhood of the Holy Spirit.  In the centuries that followed, the failure continued and there was an increasing tendency to understand the gift of God in terms of impersonal grace rather than in terms of a fully personal Spirit.

As a result, the Spirit came to be robbed of that sovereign freedom that is so characteristic of him in the New Testament, (cf. John 3:8).  That is why we have described him in our title not simply as Gift but as Giving Gift.  He is not just a passive Gift but himself an active Giver.  What God gives us in him is less like a fortune to possess and spend and more like a friend to cultivate and love.  His gifts do become our possessions, but as Heribert Mühlen points out, Paul is careful to distinguish between the gifts which we are responsible for using and controlling, (1 Corinthians 14:32), and the Spirit who, as the sovereign distributor of these gifts, is not controlled or used by anyone but gives whatever he will to whomsoever he chooses, (1 Corinthians 12:11).  In all this the Spirit retains his own personal identity.  He is in us, but he never becomes part of us.  He gives with the greatest generosity, but he himself is never possessed.  Our relationship with him is, as we shall soon see, quite different from our relationship with the Son and the Father, but in all his dealings with us he acts as a person whose freedom is always maintained and who eludes all our attempts at manipulation and possession.  The value of this Gift is that the one who is given wills to be given, and he comes to us as one who has the divine willingness to give.  He is the Giving Gift.

So even at this early stage we have identified, even if in a rather formal and abstract way, some of the defining characteristics of the Holy Spirit.  His field of operation is dynamic personal relationships and we are to acknowledge him in the unconditional freedom of his divine grace.

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