HOLY SPIRIT: The Person Without A Face by Tom Smail

The Holy Spirit in Person

The Person Without A Face by Tom Smail

From The Giving Gift

Our title phrase is from the French theologian, Yves Congar.  It points to the elusiveness and anonymity of the Holy Spirit which are, as we shall see, among his defining characteristics, both in the New Testament and in subsequent Christian tradition.  “He will not draw attention to himself,” is a clear implication if not an actual translation of John 16:13.

We know the Spirit, not because we have a face-to-face encounter with him, as we do with the Son and through him with the Father.  Rather we begin to know the Spirit when we begin to realize that our ability to recognize and respond to Christ and his Father does not have its source in us but is given to us from outside ourselves.  The Holy Spirit stands with us on our side of the encounter with the Father and the Son and makes it possible for us to know and confess them.

When the encounter is actually taking place it is the Son and his Father who fill our awareness; it is from them that we receive and to them that we respond.  It is only when we disengage from the immediacy of the encounter and, as it were, stand back and reflect on it, that we become aware of the hidden and mysterious action of the Spirit in making it all possible for us.  The presence and work of the Spirit is an essential factor in the situation, because it could not happen without him.  But he is there to concentrate all our attention on the Father and the Son and not to attract it to himself.  We could not confess Abba, Father, or Kurios, Lord, apart from the Spirit, but it is Abba and Kurios rather than the spirit that we confess.

It is therefore possible to be over interested in the Holy Spirit, in a way that grieves rather than honors him.  If the Spirit is in effect saying, “Look at them, not at me,” then to persist nevertheless in concentrating on him is to frustrate rather than promote what he wants to do in us.  As Dr. James Packer memorably puts it: “When floodlighting is well done, the floodlights are so placed that you do not see them; you are not in fact supposed to see where the light is coming from; what you are meant to see is just the building on which the floodlights are trained.  This perfectly illustrates the Spirit’s new covenant role.  He is, so to speak, the hidden floodlight shining on the Savior.

So the comparative neglect of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit both in the New Testament and in the teaching of the early church, to say nothing of later, is not to be thought of wholly as a failure, but as something that is rooted, at least to some extent, in the very nature of the case.  The mission of the Spirit is to glorify the Son and we are most honoring the Spirit when our attention is most focused on Christ.  It is only later when we ask how we came to the knowledge of Christ and of the Father that we need to speak of the work of the Spirit and of the Spirit himself.

This is in line with a famous passage from Gregory of Nazianzus, the church father and theologian of the fourth century: “The Old Testament preached the Father openly and the Son more obscurely, while the New revealed the Son and hinted at the deity of the Spirit.  Now the Spirit himself dwells among us and supplies us with a clear demonstration of himself.  It was not right, while the deity of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son: nor when that of the Son was not yet received, to burden us further with the Holy Spirit.  In other words there is an inherent appropriateness in the fact that the doctrine of the Spirit has always lagged behind the doctrine of the Son right down to our own day.

It is so in the New Testament itself.  In the passage just quoted Gregory Nazianzus says that the New Testament “hinted at the deity of the Spirit.”  His friend and contemporary, Basil of Caesarea, noted that nowhere in the New Testament is the deity of the Holy Spirit explicitly affirmed by calling him Theos, God.  Nevertheless, Gregory’s hints are certainly there.  The Spirit is frequently referred to as the Spirit of God and in 2 Corinthians 3:17 Paul applies the divine name, Kurios (Lord) to the Spirit, implying that he has the same title to it as the Son to whom it is regularly applied.

Further, as Wolfhart Pennenberg points out, the identity of the Spirit with God is required by Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 2:10-12: “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.  For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him?  In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.  We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.”  Just as only a man’s spirit who is identical with that man knows the ultimate truth about him, so only God’s Spirit who is identical with God knows and so can impart the ultimate truth about God.  If God’s Spirit is not as identified with God as a man’s spirit is with the man, then the analogy that sustains the argument collapses.  The divinity of the Spirit is implied also in such a passage as Romans 8:11, which speaks of “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead.”  Throughout the New Testament resurrection is seen as wholly a work of God, so that here the Spirit is seen to be involved in a divine work and thus to be identified with God.  So, even if a clear explicit statement is lacking, the New Testament makes it quite clear that when we are speaking of the Spirit we are speaking of God.

2 Comments on HOLY SPIRIT: The Person Without A Face by Tom Smail

  1. Fantastic analysis and presentation of the Holy Spirit.
    The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the Holy Spirit as the divine bridge between heaven and earth, holy and human. “It is impossible to see God’s Son without the Spirit, and no one can approach the Father without the Son, for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and the knowledge of God’s Son is obtained through the Holy Spirit” (CCC 683). Only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit can we begin to understand the example of Jesus Christ, and only through our knowledge of Jesus can we have knowledge of God the Father and His will for us.


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