HOLY SPIRIT: God’s Gift To Us In Christ / God’s Gift To Christ In Us (Part 1) by Tom Smail

The Holy Spirit in Person

God’s Gift To Us In Christ / God’s Gift To Christ In Us (Part 1) by Tom Smail

From The Giving Gift

We have seen that in the New Testament there is first of all an undifferentiated speaking of Christ and the Spirit, almost as if the two were interchangeable, because experience of the one was found to involve experience of the other.  But, as the first Christians came to reflect on what is involved in confessing and glorifying Christ and the Father, they began more and more to distinguish the Christ who is confessed from the Spirit who promotes and enabled the confession.

Pannenberg argues that an important factor in this was the waning of expectation of the imminent, second coming of Jesus – the Parousia.  As awareness of the absence of Christ grew, so awareness of the Spirit, who was more unambiguously present, became stronger and more significant.  It was the Spirit who in the prolonged period of Christ’s withdrawal, joined him and his people together and bridged the gap between Heaven where Christ had ascended and Earth where his people still lived and suffered.  If, unlike Pannenberg, we think that Acts reflects with some fidelity the way the Christian community was thinking about these things in the period immediately after Pentecost, we can argue that it did not take the delay of the Parousia to make the first Christian distinguish the Christ who had ascended forty days after Easter from the Spirit who had arrived in a new way ten days later.  However, increasing awareness that the period before Christ’s coming was liable to be long rather than short was likely to concentrate attention on the distinctive work of the Spirit during that period.

If Son and Spirit were increasingly seen as two distinct sources of personal initiative and action, we must go on to ask how these two are related to each other.  If the New Testament provides a basis for thinking of the Spirit as a person other than the Son, although one in mind, will, and being with him, we have to ask if it tells us enough to enable us to describe the person of the Spirit in a clear, consistent, and systematic way.

In his book, The Incarnate Lord, L. S. Thornton discussed this matter with some care, because he, too, was looking for a New Testament basis for a Trinitarian understanding of God in which the Spirit is recognized as third person.  In his view, the New Testament evidence does clearly draw the required personal distinction between the Son and the Spirit.  Even in Paul, where the identification seems closest, careful examination shows that he uses Christ language in one context and Spirit language in another.  For Paul, says Thornton, both Christ and the Spirit indwell the church, but they do so in different ways.  Christ indwells his people as the “content” of their new life, whereas the Spirit indwells them as the “quickening agent” of the new life.  We are to be conformed to the image of Christ rather than to the image of the Spirit, (Romans 8:29). We are to “put on” Christ, (Romans 13:14), not the Spirit.  “The Spirit is never regarded as the content of the quickened life.  He is the agent of revelation, who brings the content of truth to the spirit of man.  Through his instrumentality a variety of charismata are bestowed upon the members of the new community.  He is the energizing agent who produces these gifts.”

Thornton goes on to comment on Ephesians 3:14-17: “In Ephesians the distinction between the indwelling of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit is clearly marked in one sentence.  The writer prays for his readers to the Father, “that he will grant you according to the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell through faith in your hearts.”  This text exactly agrees with the distinction which has already been drawn out.  The bestowal of the Spirit by the Father is to have the effect of strengthening the inner life.  The Spirit is the quickening cause and the indwelling of Christ is the effect of this quickening.”

In criticism of Thornton, A. W. Wainwright claims that his distinction between Christ as “content” and Spirit as “quickener” is far too rigid for Paul and imposes an alien systematization upon the many variations of the expression he uses.  In Thornton’s defense it could be said that he is only making explicit distinctions that are, in fact, implicit in what Paul writes, and, especially if Paul wrote Ephesians, Thornton’s appeal to the way Paul uses his language is much better founded than Wainwright allows.

My own criticism would be rather different.  There is indeed a distinction between Son and Spirit in the New Testament including Paul, but the way Thornton expresses it does not do justice to it.  To designate Christ as the “content of the renewed life” is to make his function far too passive and impersonal.  Christ is not some impersonal life-content who in passivity is transferred to us by the Spirit’s activity.  Rather it is he himself who actively and dynamically establishes and maintains his completely personal relationship with us.  Thornton’s language must be translated into much more dynamic and personal terms to make it clear that we are talking about a relationship of persons and not a transfer of contents.

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