By H. Boone Porter
Last week we thought of the coming of the Holy Spirit at the baptism of our Lord as a sign of continuity with certain important events in the Old Testament. Like many other things in holy scripture, however, it is a strange sign, a sign of many meanings. For the Fourth Gospel, that of St. John, the descent of the Spirit on Jesus, as seen by John the Baptist (John 1:24-34), is rather a sign of discontinuity, a sign that the old has passed away and that the new has come. Prophecy and anticipation are now no longer needed: the Son of God himself is manifested.
This raises one of the most puzzling of all questions in Christian theology. On the one hand, Christians have always interpreted the Spirit of God in creation (Gen. 1:2) as the Holy Ghost, the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity. We believe that God the Spirit was and is involved in the bestowal of existence to all things, and especially in the bestowal of life, or “breath.” Yet on the other hand, we believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit is the special, unique, princely gift of God the Father to God the Son as adumbrated in the Old Testament (for instance, Isa. 11:2) and as indicated here in St. John 1:32-34. It is then Jesus who in turn shares the Spirit with his followers. The coming of the Holy Ghost to converts to Jesus Christ, and the work of the Spirit within the church, is of course referred to again and again in the New Testament.
Thus we have a paradox. Those who perceive the Holy Spirit operating in all of life find themselves in opposition to those who believe the Spirit can only be identified and properly recognized within the Christian Church. Is the Holy Ghost the divine agent of creation, or only of re-creation?
Among those who limit the Spirit’s scope of known activity in the world (what theologians call the Spirit’s “economy”) to the church, there is a further and more contentious division. Christian theology generally speaks of the Holy Ghost being present in all baptized people. Others, especially some who may identify themselves as charismatics, would acknowledge the gift of the Spirit only in an invisible spiritual baptism received as part of a conscious conversion experienced as an older child or an adult. This seems close to saying that “ordinary Christians” who recall no such conversion, have never really had the completion of a true Christian baptism. This is a difficult case to maintain when one thinks of the great saints and martyrs who never claimed any such special “baptism in the Spirit.”
What does it matter, and why do Christians argue over such questions? We argue on the one hand because to deny that the Holy Ghost is present in persons and places where one sees the Spirit at work seems blasphemous. We argue on the other hand because to affirm the presence of the Spirit in what is really alien to the Spirit likewise seems blasphemous.
The division of opinion affects our understanding of many passages in the Bible. It affects our interpretation of the rites of holy baptism, confirmation, and ordination. It affects our view of the Christian status of ourselves and others. Will these questions somehow be resolved? Not likely, at least in the near future. As Socrates told the indignant citizens of Athens so many centuries ago, the search for truth involves endless questioning. Or as our Lord told the chief priests and elders in the temple when they asked him a question, “I also will ask you a question…” (Matt. 21:24). What we know about God is very little as compared with what we do not know. The acknowledgement of our ignorance continues to be wisdom.
Who has seen him and describe him? Or who can extol him as he is? Many things greater than these lie hidden, for we have seen but a few of his works. For the Lord has made all things, and to the godly he has granted wisdom. (Ecclus. 43:31-33)
Let us conclude this consideration of the work of the Spirit with a prayer to the Holy Spirit by Thomas Traherne, a great Anglican writer of the seventeenth century with whom we will be spending some time during the weeks ahead. For Traherne, the Holy Spirit is his own best interpreter.
Thou art he who shewest me all the treasures in heaven and earth, who enablest me to turn afflictions into pleasures, and to enjoy mine enemies: thou enablest me to love as I am beloved, and to be blessed in God: thou sealest me up unto the day of redemption, givest me a foretaste of heaven upon earth. Thou art my God and my exceeding joy, my comforter and my strength for evermore. Thou representest all things unto me, which the Father and the Son hath done for me. Thou fillest me with courage against all assaults and enablest me to overcome all temptations; thou makes me immovable by the very treasures and the joys which thou shewest to me. O never leave me nor forsake me, but remain with me, and be my comfort forever. (Centuries, I. 98)
The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our January 13, 1978 issue.