HOLY SPIRIT: The Spirit As Distinct Divine Person, Part Two by Tom Smail

The Holy Spirit in Person

The Spirit As Distinct Divine Person, Part Two by Tom Smail

From The Giving Gift

We turn now to our second question, which requires a longer answer.  Is the Spirit a distinct person from the Father and the Son?  When we call him the Spirit of God, do we mean that he is a source and center of personal action distinct from God the Father, or simply that he is the personal God in outgoing action towards his creation?  When we call him the Spirit of Christ, do we mean that he is another person who acts in the name of Christ after he himself has departed, or simply that he is none other than the ascended Christ acting now in a spiritual and invisible way?  In other words, is the Spirit an extension of the divine personalities of the Father and the Son, the means by which they extend their activity into the created universe and into the lives of believers?  In the Old Testament, God’s word, (Psalm 107:20), God’s wisdom, (Proverbs 8), and God’s spirit, (Psalm 143: 4, 10), are seen in that way.  Is the Spirit still seen like that in the New Testament, or is he beginning to be recognized as a distinct person in his own right, over against the Father and the Son and having personal relationships with them?  Is there a third divine person involved in the Father’s dealing with the world through his Son?  If so, how can his actions be identified and distinguished from those of the Father and the Son?  What indications of the Spirit as that distinct third person can we find in the witness of the New Testament?  How convincing is the account of that distinct divine person that has been given in the doctrinal tradition of the church?  These are the questions before which we now stand.  In the rest of this chapter we shall be particularly concerned with the New Testament material that is relevant to an answer to them.

When we turn to the New Testament and ask how it distinguishes the Spirit from the Father, and more especially from the Son, we shall find that there is no single or unambiguously clear answer.  The New Testament evidence, at first glance at least, leaves room for several different ways of understanding the Son-Spirit relationship.  In contemporary theology there are in fact three competing proposals about how that relationship should be interpreted, all of which claim support from the New Testament data.

Two of these proposals are in the most literal sense reductionist.  One of them holds that we do not need to speak about the person of the Son, because the Son is simply a man filled with the Spirit; the other holds that we do not need to speak about the person of the Spirit, because the Spirit is simply the presence and power in the world of the ascended Son.  So, in one case, talk about the Son is to be reduced to talk about the Spirit and in the other case talk about the Spirit is to be reduced to talk about the Son.  The third proposal, which is that of classical Trinitarian theology, is, once more in the literal sense of the word, conservative, since it refuses to make either of these reductions and appeals to the New Testament in support of its claim that Son and Spirit are two coordinated but distinct divine persons.  We must examine each of these proposals more closely.

Proposal 1: Son-language can be translated without loss into Spirit-language.

To understand Jesus we do not need to regard him as the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, made flesh, but only as a man indwelt by the Spirit of God to the ultimate degree.  This is the position explored and developed with great logic and consistency by the late G. W. H. Lampe in God as Spirit.  For Lampe, to ask about the relation of the person of the Son to the person of the Spirit is to raise a bogus question.  The real question here is about how the presence of the Spirit in the man Jesus is to be related to the presence of the same Spirit in all other men.  Since for Lampe, Spirit simply means the mode of God’s presence and action within the created world, the question about the relation of the Father to the Spirit is reduced to the question about how God can be both transcendent over the world as Father and immanent within it as Spirit, the Son being simply the one in whom that immanence is greatest.

Thus classical Trinitarianism is reduced to a dynamic form of Unitarianism.  God is not three distinct persons but one person endlessly and creatively active in the evolution of the world into the realization of his purpose for it.  In this way of looking at things, when the divine Son is removed from between them Father and Spirit collapse into each other and divine Trinity becomes divine Unity.

Lampe expresses this drastic revision of the Christian doctrine of God as follows: “We should recognize, not that we experience the presence of Christ through the Spirit, but rather that when we speak of the presence of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit, we are speaking of one and the same experience of God: God as Spirit who was revealed to men at a definite point in the history of man’s creation in Jesus Christ.  We may, if we wish, call this contemporary indwelling divine presence Christ.  Yet this Christ is none other than the Spirit.  The single reality for which these two terms stand is the one God in his relation to human persons.”

Lampe goes on to argue that, if we insist that a continuing personal relationship with the risen Christ is a central and defining feature of Christian experience, we shall be forced to consign the Holy Spirit to a secondary and ill-defined role, and to impose on our experience a complicated structure that it does not require.  Christian experience “is not an experience of Christ being presented to us by and through another divine agency, but a single experience that can be described interchangeably in ‘Christ’ terms or ‘Spirit’ terms.  The attempted distinction is artificial.  It leaves us with an insoluble problem of trying to translate it into a real distinction, whether functional or ontological, between ‘Christ’ and ‘Spirit’ the ‘Christ’ who is made present to us, and the ‘Spirit’ through whom his presence is supposed to be mediated.”

Some of us would want to reply that in our relationship to Christ the distinction between the Christ to whom we are related and the Spirit who brings about that relationship, far from being imposed or artificial, is at the very heart of the matter.  A simplicity that removes from the relation either the real presence of the risen Lord or the gracious activity of the indwelling Spirit, is a heretical simplicity that distorts the data and that is therefore achieved at far too great a cost.

Furthermore, Lampe recognizes that the New Testament writers, notably Paul and John, will not support him in his proposed conflation of Christ experience and Spirit experience.  This is because they have lumbered themselves with the unnecessary affirmation of a continuing relationship with Jesus after his ascension, which, according to Lampe, nothing in their Christian experience required.

For Lampe, Jesus has disappeared like all other good men into the mystery of eternity, where he dwells incommunicado as far as we are concerned.  The exalted Lord of Ephesians who rules and acts in his church as a head over a body, (Ephesians 1:22), and gives gifts to his people, (Ephesians 4:7-13), who in Romans intercedes for us at the right hand of God, (Romans 8:34), who in Revelation walks amidst the churches and addresses them by his prophets, (Revelations 2-3), is gone without trace.  All that the Pauline talk of being in Christ can be allowed to mean is that the divine Spirit who was once in him is now in us.  We may become like him, but we cannot hold genuine living communication with him.  “It is no longer I that live but the Spirit of God who was once in Jesus who lives in me, (cf Galatians 2:20).

The evangelical personal relationship with Christ and the Catholic sense of his real presence in the Eucharist are alike swept away in favor of a bare memorialism, where the remembrance of Jesus is used by the Spirit to stimulate us into trusting and hoping in God the way he did, but all without him.  Lampe writes as if the amputation of relationship with the risen Christ from Christianity is only a minor intellectual adjustment that has no important consequences for the life of prayer and worship.  He agrees that much prayer is in fact offered to Jesus but comments: “Prayer to Christ seems to be so identical with prayer to God who was revealed in Christ that nothing is lost if the Christ to whom it was addressed is translated into ‘God who was in Christ.’  Once more it seems that Christian devotion does not require the concept of a continuing personal presence of a risen and ascended Jesus.”

Against this proposal let us see the almost explicitly Trinitarian understanding of prayer that is developing within the New Testament itself.  “Through him [Christ] we have access in one Spirit to the Father,” (Ephesians 2:18).  Christian prayer is indeed properly addressed to the Father, as I argued in The Forgotten Father; it is offered in the Spirit and through the Son, where “through the Son” does not mean “in memory of the Son” but in the power of his actively interceding and mediating presence by which the Father is brought to us and we to him.  To eliminate the living Christ from our praying is to rob it of everything that makes it distinctively Christian: it is not simplification of worship but its termination.

From a slightly different point-of-view Professor C. F. D. Moule also resists Lampe’s attempted elimination of relationship with the risen Christ from the New Testament witness.  “I want to say not only that as a result of him [Jesus] they experienced a new world: but that they experienced Jesus himself as in a dimension transcending the human and the temporal.  It is not just that owing (somehow) to Jesus they found new life: it is that they discovered in Jesus, alive and present, a divine dimension such that he must always and eternally have existed in it.”  That is, in fact, as we shall see, the basic presupposition of almost every New Testament writer and the diversity of the ways in which they express it only highlights the more their oneness of mind about what is being expressed.  Within this agreed framework the Spirit is the means of our being related to Christ who is alive and present but beyond the Earthly sphere, rather than the substitute or replacement for him.

Lampe’s proposal is totally unacceptable, because it cuts the heart out of the gospel by removing the living Jesus from the experience of the church.  Jesus is not just the historically first Spirit-filled man: he is the Lord to whom it is the chief business of the Spirit to relate all the rest of us.  It is not merely that through him we are brought into a new relationship to the Spirit, as Lampe maintains, but that through the Spirit we are brought into a new relationship to him.  The Spirit does not lead us on from him but in to him.

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