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

The Holy Spirit in Person

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

From The Giving Gift

Proposal 2: The Spirit should be understood totally in terms of Christ.

Here we are invited to regard the Spirit not as a third Trinitarian person with the Father and the Son but as the mode of action of the risen and ascended Christ in the church and in the world.  The one who acts when the Spirit acts is none other than the risen Jesus.  The word, Spirit, functions as an adverb rather than a noun; it is a description of how Jesus acts after his physical body is withdrawn.  To say that Jesus now acts through the Spirit is just to say that he now acts in a spiritual way.  One of the chief modern protagonists of this view is the Dutch theologian, Hendrikus Berkhof, in his important book, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

Berkhof is very appreciative of Pentecostalism for its rediscovery of, and emphasis upon, God’s empowering activity among his people.  In Christ he does not only justify and sanctify, as classical Protestantism has taught, but he also endows the church with gifts for mission.  Berkof insists that this empowering is not to be understood as an autonomous work of the Spirit over against the work of Christ in justifying and sanctifying: all three works are to be seen as having their source in the risen Lord.  Berkof quotes Käsemann with approval as saying, “The Spirit is the Earthly presence of the exalted Lord,” to which Berkof adds on his own account: “The Spirit is the new way of existence and action by Jesus Christ.  Through his resurrection he becomes a person in action, continuing and making effective on a worldwide scale what he began in his Earthly life.”

Berkhof, like Lampe, will have nothing to do with the traditional differentiation of Christ and Spirit into two distinct persons.  “This position is untenable if we face the fact that the Spirit in scripture is not an autonomous substance, but a predicate to the substance God and the substance Christ.  It describes the act and way of functioning of both.”  We cannot quite say that “the Spirit is merely another name for the exalted Christ” since Christ is more than the sum of his activities towards us: “The risen Lord transcends his own functioning as life-giving Spirit.  He is eternally in the glory of the Father as the firstfruits of mankind, as the guarantee of our future, as the advocate of his church.  His life is more than his function towards us.  At the same time, however, we must say that the word “function” is too weak in this context.  Christ’s movement towards us is not a mere action, for his entrance into us is a special modus essendi [mode of being], the mode of immanence in which however he does not cease to remain transcendent as the exalted Lord.”  To simplify, the ascended Christ does more than work in us; to speak of the Spirit is to speak of the way in which Christ unites himself to us.  Spirit is not the name of a divine person but a description of the way in which the risen Son indwells his church.  When Christ works by the Spirit, there are not two persons at work, Christ and Spirit, but only one, Christ.

C. F. D. Moule, whom we found so helpful against Lampe, is similarly inclined to a modalistic rather than a personal understanding of the Spirit, an understanding, that is, that sees the Spirit as mode or way of action by Christ rather than a person in his own right. “When Spirit is the mode of God’s presence in the hearts and minds of his people, then there is a good case for personal language. But this still does not force upon us a third eternal divine person (in the technical sense) within the unity.”  And again, “Threefoldness is perhaps less vital to a Christian conception of God than the eternal twofoldness of Father and Son.”

That last sentence distinguishes Moule and Berkhof on the one hand from Lampe on the other.  They are not, like him, unitarian but rather binitarian in their understanding of God.  At the heart of the gospel is the “eternal twofoldness” of Father and Son; they hesitate to take the further step that would make them fully Trinitarian by recognizing the Spirit as a person with his own identity over against Christ and the Father, rather than being reduced to a mode of their activity in the church.

Nor is this position as idiosyncratic and blatantly at odds with classical Christianity as that of Lampe.  Eastern Orthodox theologians such as Vladimir Lossky in our own day have often alleged against western Christianity in both its Roman Catholic and Protestant forms that it is, except in the most formal sense, binitarian rather than Trinitarian in emphasis.  Although the Christian West has, of course, always professed a fully Trinitarian doctrine of God, it has always found it hard to give a proper account of the person of the Holy Spirit.  It has shown an inbuilt tendency to regard the Spirit as the relationship of mutual love between the Father and the Son, or as the relationship between the ascended Christ and the church.  In fact, in much Roman Catholic thinking grace rather than the Holy Spirit has been seen as the gift of God to his people, so that, except in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, and, with some very honorable exceptions, the Holy Spirit has not often been a central concern a western theologians.

This allegation is supported by the fact that Berkhof can quote so Trinitarian a theologian as Karl Barth to support his own binitarian position.  He quotes Barth as saying that the Spirit “is no other than the presence and action of Jesus Christ himself: his stretched out arm; he himself in the power of his resurrection.”  There are other more genuinely Trinitarian strands in Barth’s doctrine of the Spirit, yet in his later theology there is a growing tendency to regard the Spirit as simply the way in which the risen Christ goes on acting in the church.  This brings him very near in practice to Berkhof’s binitarian position, even if he would have rejected it formally in the name of a fully Trinitarian understanding of the being of God.

In his ambiguous unclarity about the person of the Spirit, Barth shows himself to be a typically western theologian in the line of Augustine.  While Augustine was of course formally Trinitarian, he often presented the Holy Spirit as the “bond of love (nexus amoris)” between the Father and the Son, a relationship between two persons, rather than himself a person.  If the Spirit in God is seen as a relationship between the Father and the Son, it is not surprising that in his work in the church he should also be seen as a relationship between Christ and us.  For all the complicated and highly technical attempts of medieval theologians to overcome that difficulty, the fact remains that a relationship between person is not as such another person.  The result is that in traditional western theology, there is no decisively unambiguous answer as to whether and how the Spirit is to be regarded as a third center and source of personal action either within the life of God or in relation to the church and the world.

Against this ambiguity Eastern Orthodox theologians have always most vigorously protested, insisting that the Spirit is not to be swallowed up in the action of the Son in this way, for he shares an equal divinity and has a distinct personhood of his own, by which he is distinguished both from the person of the Father and the person of the Son.  The same eastern theologians insist that, far from being an abstruse point of theology without practical consequences, the western failure to affirm the person of the Spirit in theology is connected with a western failure to honor the Spirit in theology is connected with a western failure to honor the Spirit and his work in the worship, life, and mission of the church.  These are the issues that are involved in the famous Filioque controversy between East and West which requires a chapter of its own to explain and expound.

At this point I have to enter a word of personal confession!  In my earlier book, Reflected Glory, in reaction to the tendency in Pentecostalist teaching to cut loose the work of the Spirit from the work of Christ, I also, in the best western manner, insisted strongly on the subordination of the work of the Spirit to the work of the Son, and showed that there is a strong basis for such a position within the New Testament.  It could be argued that Berkhof and Moule are simply bringing our teaching about the person of the Spirit into line with that Christ-centered approach to the work of the Spirit.  Why should we not go the whole way in subordinating the Spirit to the Son and finally dissolve the person of the Spirit into the activity of the Son?

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