For a long time considered to be the stepchild—or, daringly, the Cinderella—of theology, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) has in recent times risen to the center of attention. Never before in the history of Christian doctrine has there been so wide and variegated interest in, at times almost an enthusiasm over, the Holy Spirit. This renewed interest in the Holy Spirit is visible in at least three contexts:
Individual Christians who hunger for a deeper connection with God that is inclusive of all of life as well as the needs of the world; the church that seeks to renew itself through life-giving disciplines and a return to sources; and the formal inquiry of academic philosophy and theology. In effect, one can hear the petition, “Come Creator Spirit” on many lips these days.1
Interest in the Spirit’s work is particularly vibrant among the younger churches and communities such as Pentecostals, Charismatics, and independents. But not only there. What is considered to be the oldest Christian tradition, the Eastern Orthodox Church, is also known for a deep spirituality and Trinitarian pneumatology. Or think of the world’s largest Christian family, the Roman Catholic Church. The groundbreaking Vatican Council II in the 1960s which brought about a dramatic theological and spiritual reorientation was named as the “Council of the Holy Spirit”! The pneumatological renaissance is also well-known among various Protestant traditions. And when it comes to churches in the global South (Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania), where currently about three-quarters of all Christians are to be found—whether Protestant or Catholic or Independent, spiritual renewal, devotion to the Spirit, and charismatic gifts are abundant.
If so, why did I refer to the marginal, if not almost forgotten, role of the Spirit in the past? Now, while not to be taken literally—as devotion to and interest in the Holy Spirit was never forgotten in the church—it is also true that it took a very long time for theology and spirituality to gain a proper understanding of who the Third Person of the Trinity is and whether the Spirit is equal to the Son and Father.
Why so? Reasons are many. During the first centuries of Christian history, questions related to the Trinity and Christology occupied the best minds of the church as ever-new heresies sprung up. Not only was it more difficult to try to say something doctrinal about the Spirit than about the Father and Son, since by definition the Spirit is subtler and less concrete a phenomenon, but there was also the biblical perception that the Holy Spirit deflects our attention to the Son, and through the Son to the Father. On that basis, Christian tradition at times speaks of the Spirit as the “Third Unknown.”
Other reasons for the slow doctrinal development of pneumatology may have to do with the fact that unlike with “son” or “father,” the term “spirit” hardly elicits personal connotations. Hence, the Spirit was often conceived of as energy or movement or power rather than a “person.” And here the Bible itself does not deign to eliminate the confusion, if I dare to say so: both in Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma), the meaning is “air” or “wind” (tempest) or “spirit” (in general, with a lower case). Finally, there was also the concern among early church leaders for maintaining order as some of the more extreme Spirit-movements claimed divine authority for what they said and did without the willingness to submit to church authority. No wonder, such excesses prompted resistance to or at least reservations about talking too much about the Spirit!
On top of everything, various kinds of heresies continued tampering the development of pneumatology in early Christian history and beyond. There were for example the so-called Spirit-fighters who, while allowing high status to the divine Spirit, categorically resisted the idea of the Spirit as God, as for them it implied polytheism (belief in more than one deity). An indication of the slow development of the right understanding is that even among the orthodox theologians at times a confusion happened for example with the identification of the Spirit with the Son—a direct deviation from what is the doctrine of the Trinity.
This is what all Christians commonly believe—and why they also differ in their pneumatologies
All that said, ultimately the Spirit’s role as an equal member of the Holy Trinity alongside the Father and the Son was established. Furthermore, the churches affirmed that the Holy Spirit is both a person and a divine energy or power. This is what virtually all Christians believe.
At the same time, among the churches various complementary affirmations and experiences of the Spirit emerged similarly to, say, Christology. While staying within the established orthodoxy as defined in ancient creeds, these diverse interpretations highlighted particular aspects of the Spirit’s nature and work.
A powerful inspiration for rich and variegated interpretations comes from no other source but the Holy Scripture. How so? Similarly to all topics, rather than neatly defined doctrines, the Bible provides a diverse set of testimonies, pictures, symbols, narratives, experiences, and interpretations of the Divine Spirit and the Spirit’s work. Just consider that the Spirit is imagined as the life-breath (Gen 2:7), wind (Gen 8:1), fire (Isa 4:4), water (Isa 32:15), overshadowing cloud (Luke 1:35), dove (in Jesus’ baptismal accounts), and Paraclete, an Advocate, representing Jesus after his exit (John 14, 16). This is but a short sampling. There is much more to the complementary diversity of biblical testimonies.
At times, the Spirit’s work is presented as the life-energy of creation as in Genesis 1, or preservation of the life and sustenance of creation as in Psalm 104:29–30. Other times, such as in in the book of Judges, the Divine Spirit is depicted in terms of mighty powerful force taking over leaders such as Sampson or as in the synoptic Gospels as the agent of Jesus’ charismatic healings and exorcisms. How different this is from the Johannine accounts in which the Spirit is introduced in terms of metaphors of rebirth (John 3:5–8), spring of life (John 4:13–14), or that of anointing (1 John 2:20, 27). Or compare the enthusiastic, wild charismatic experience of church members in 1 Corinthians with the virtual silence of references to the Spirit in the Book of Hebrews, written to Christian communities in Rome awaiting persecution.
There is even more to the diversity and richness of Spirit-experiences in the canon. The transforming power of the Spirit was evident in the life of the early church whose birth was signaled by an outpouring of the Spirit as narrated in Acts 2. The communities of the Book of Acts received the Spirit with visible signs (Acts 4:31; 8:15–19; 10:44–47; 19:6) and oftentimes those signs were taken as the evidence of the work of God (Acts 8:12–25; 10:44–48; 19:1–7).
From the rich Pauline experience and teaching about the Holy Spirit, we learn a number of valuable lessons. To be “in Christ” and “in the Spirit” are virtually synonymous; therefore, the Spirit cannot be experienced apart from Christ (1 Cor 12:3). Along with the salvific functions, important for Paul is the charismatic endowment and gifting (1 Cor 1:4–7; Gal 3:5). The Spirit can be compared to a down payment of the coming glory (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13–14), or to the first installment of the believer’s inheritance in the kingdom of God (Rom 8:15–17; 14:17; 1 Cor 6:9–11; 15:42–50; Gal 4:6–7). Moral transformation by the Spirit is badly needed (1 Cor 6:9–11) as there is a constant struggle between “spirit” and “flesh” (Rom 8:1–17; Gal 5:16–26). Therefore, the believer has a responsibility to walk in and be led by the Spirit (Rom 8:4–6, 14; Gal 5:16, 18, 25). Then on, the fruit of the Spirit will become evident (Gal 5:22–23).
My main point is while there is no denying some common themes, such as the Spirit’s role in creation, inspiration, salvation, empowerment, and in relation to Christ, there is no attempt among the biblical writers to reduce the sphere or the ministry of the Spirit. No wonder the Christian church throughout centuries began to experience and interpret the presence and power of the Spirit in diverse ways. According to James D. G. Dunn,2 two ecclesiological “streams” emerged, one charismatic and enthusiastic, the other more conventional and traditional. The former might have been the “mainstream” during the first postbiblical century while the latter, the more established one, soon took the upper hand—until the rise of the Pentecostal and soon Charismatic movements. Currently, both of these streams are flowing and flourishing.
In this essay, rather than surveying all traditions, I will concentrate on Protestant, Methodist, and Pentecostal streams; though much could be learned also from the investigation into the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican sources.
The Spirit in the writings of Protestant Reformation
None of the Magisterial Reformers, namely, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli, considered the doctrine of the Holy Spirit to be a major issue of contention; nor was pneumatology a main interest. They stayed tightly with the ancient creeds and did not introduce any novel ideas about the Spirit. That said, they left an important legacy that persists.
Word, sacraments, and Spirit: Martin Luther
Luther was fighting on two fronts, namely against what he saw as the strictures and limitations of the Spirit’s work in his former Catholic Church, and the wild enthusiasm over the Spirit’s direct speaking and authority among the Radical Reformers of his time (not unlike the Montanists of the end of the second century). Finding a radical middle path was a constant struggle and also resulted oftentimes in reactionary rather than constructive statements about the Spirit.
In keeping with Augustinian Christian tradition, for Luther the work of sanctification was the main work of the Spirit—as is evident in his little summa of doctrine in the Small Catechism. Another central teaching is that the Spirit works in the preached Word and the sacraments. Every Lutheran has learned in the catechism:
I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.3
The normal and most reliable way for the Spirit to work in tandem with the Word is tied to the sacraments. Indeed, at times Luther saw it necessary to emphasize the relation of the Spirit and Word to sacraments so much that he denied any possibility of the reception of Spirit apart from them:
Accordingly, we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and sacrament is of the devil.
This is the safeguard against Thomas Müntzer, a leader in the Radical Reformation, and those like him.4 The church’s main task, then, is to preach Christ in order for the “Holy Spirit to create, call, and gather the Christian church.”5
Spirit, creation, and inspiration: John Calvin
While the Reformed side of the Protestant Reformation basically agrees with the Lutheran side on the Spirit, distinctive emphases also arose. Calvin paid more attention to the Spirit’s role in creation and cosmos. In fact, he uses the biblical teaching on the universal presence of the Spirit in the world as one of the ways to affirm the deity of the Spirit. It is
by no means an obscure testimony which Moses bears in the history of the creation, when he says that the Spirit of God was expanded over the abyss or shapeless matter.6
Alongside the creational focus, Calvin is well-known for a robust link between the Spirit and Scripture. The title of chapter 7 in the first book of the Institutes illustrates this: “The Testimony of the Spirit Necessary to Give Full Authority to Scripture.” Here Calvin sets his Protestant view in opposition to what he sees the Catholic doctrine of Scripture as he affirms that the
same Spirit, therefore, who spoke by the mouth of the prophets, must penetrate our hearts, in order to convince us that they faithfully delivered the message with which they were divinely entrusted.7
The way Calvin expresses the integrated work of the Word and Spirit is to speak of a twofold work of God, “inwardly, by his Spirit; outwardly, by his Word.”8
Similarly to Luther, the Spirit’s work in salvation is also central to the Genevan Reformer. Emphasizing the union with Christ as the key—an emphasis well-known with Luther as well—Calvin reminds us that Christians are elected “through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ,” (1 Pet. 1:2) and that our souls must be washed in it by the secret cleansing of the Holy Spirit.”9
Furthermore, Calvin’s emphasis on the Spirit in the sacraments is well known:
The sacraments duly perform their office only when accompanied by the Spirit, the internal Master, whose energy alone penetrates the heart, stirs up the affections, and procures access for the sacraments into our souls.10
Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the real Administrator of the sacramental act, and therefore, its effects or lack thereof are solely determined by the same Spirit.
The Radical Reformers on the Spirit
While not disagreeing over the doctrine of the Spirit in general, the Anabaptists, Mennonites, and other Radical Reformers considered the reforms of mainline Protestantism wanting; they desired to go further with reform and renewal. In their concern for an authentic Christian experience of faith, the Radicals rightly called other Christians for a sincere repentance, a personal experience of new birth, and a submission of one’s life to wholehearted devotion of discipleship and suffering.11
Radical Reformers’ emphasis on the importance of fresh spiritual experience and the importance of acknowledging the Spirit’s continuing speaking in the Word, while in itself in keeping with ancient Christian spirituality, also gave rise to misunderstandings and opposition from the Magisterial Reformers’ side. Unfortunately, too many historical accounts have had a hard time in making a distinction between the “orthodox” and heretical type of Radical Reformation; too often it is claimed simply that the “left wing” of the Reformation devalued Scripture and instead relied on the Holy Spirit.12
It is more correct to say that rather than devaluing the written Word, the Anabaptists had a distinctive view of the relationship between the Spirit and the Word. Even though they emphasized the Holy Spirit, Radical Reformers were also rigorously obedient to the Bible, the supreme authority.13 They saw an integral relationship between the Spirit and the Word. God’s Spirit, which the Anabaptists believed they possessed, was the ultimate authority that first gave authority to the written Word of the Bible. Not totally unlike Calvin, they made a distinction between the “outer” Word (mere hearing and reading of the Word) and the “inner” Word (personal appropriation of the Word) to emphasize the importance of this appropriation.14
That said, there were among the Radicals those who grossly misinterpreted the Spirit–Word relationship and, with the likes of Thomas Müntzer, started advocating a sectarian, pneumatic understanding of theology and church. Thereby these leaders assumed great spiritual authority to themselves as the spokespersons for the Holy Spirit and relied primarily on the “inner word,” rightly critiqued by other Christians.
The Spirit’s work in sanctification and holiness: Wesleyan heritage
Whereas scholastic Protestant theology in the aftermath of the Reformation aimed at carefully delineated doctrinal formulae, several other post-Reformation movements focused on the life lived in the Spirit, in other words, in the spirituality and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Among these many and diverse “religion of the heart” renewal movements including Pietists, Puritans, and Quakers, few others have had a more lasting influence than the legacy of Wesleyan brothers and Methodism along with later Holiness Movements.
In his sermon “On the Holy Spirit,” John Wesley sees the Spirit’s main work in terms of
some portion of, as well as preparation for a life in God, which we are to enjoy hereafter. The gift of the Holy Spirit looks full to the resurrection; for then is the life of God completed in us.15
The final aim of the Christian life is the full bestowal of the Holy Spirit,
when the flesh shall no longer resist it, but be itself changed into an angelical condition, being clothed upon with the incorruption of the Holy Spirit; when the body which, by being born with the soul, and living through it, could only be called an animal one, shall now become spiritual, whilst by the Spirit it rises into eternity.16
Wesley’s short tract A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1777) describes perfection in various terms, including as perfect love:
In the beginning … the cry of my heart was, O grant that nothing in my soul May dwell, but thy pure love alone!”17
With all his insistence on the possibility of reaching perfection, Wesley also granted the continuing struggle with sin in the life of the believer. This is the daily struggle between Spirit and flesh:
“The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: These are contrary the one to the other.” (Gal. 5:17) Nothing can be more express. The Apostle here directly affirms that the flesh, evil nature, opposes the Spirit, even in believers; that even in the regenerate there are two principles, “contrary the one to the other.” … Indeed this grand point, that there are two contrary principles in believers,—nature and grace, the flesh and the Spirit, runs through all the epistles of St. Paul, yea, through all the Holy Scriptures.18
Through the Great Awakenings, the mushrooming of Holiness Movements owing to Methodism and other spiritual sources, diverse healing movements of the nineteenth century, and other renewal phenomena, we come to the most distinctive modern expression of the Spirit-experience; namely, the Pentecostal–Charismatic Movements.
Enthusiastic Spirit-experience at the heart of the Pentecostal–Charismatic phenomenon
Pentecostalism19 represents a grassroots spiritual movement rather than a novel theological construction—although, as will be shown below, its doctrine of Spirit Baptism with speaking in tongues as an “initial evidence” is a new theological invention. With its embrace of enthusiastic spiritual experiences and appeal to the availability of spiritual gifts to all Christians, not only to the leaders or the religious (monks and nuns), it has provoked controversy at almost every stage of its development. Negative attitudes have not arisen merely because of Pentecostalism’s tradition-breaking forms of worship and practice. They have arisen, significantly, because it has challenged the so-called cessationist principle, which holds that miracles or extraordinary charismata were terminated at the end of the apostolic age.20 Against this view,
the salient characteristic of Pentecostalism is its belief in the present-day manifestation of spiritual gifts, such as miraculous healing, prophecy and, most distinctively, glossolalia. Pentecostals affirm that these spiritual gifts (charismata) are granted by the Holy Spirit and are normative in contemporary church life and ministry.21
A novel and disputed doctrinal understanding of Spirit Baptism emerged in the early years of the movement. While never uniformly formulated nor followed by the worldwide movement, it is only fair to say that for the large majority of Pentecostals, this view came to be known as the “initial physical evidence.” This simply means that Pentecostals expect an external sign or marker of the reception of Spirit Baptism; namely, speaking in tongues (glossolalia). Pentecostals claim that this doctrine comes from the book of Acts, their favorite book, and from contemporary experience. This results in the distinction between two kinds of speaking in tongues experiences:
- The first is the evidence-function meant for all Pentecostal believers, only once in life at the moment of Spirit baptism.
- The other is the continuing gift of glossolalia given to some but not to all Pentecostals for their spiritual edification.
Other gifts of the Spirit such as prophesying, prayer for healing, and works of miracles are enthusiastically embraced and sought for by Pentecostals. A related belief is the capacity to fight “spiritual warfare” and exorcise demonic spirits, if necessary. This is a significant part of Pentecostal spirituality, especially in the Global South.
Is Pentecostalism thereby to be considered primarily a “spirit-movement”—perhaps even downplaying, if not ignoring, the work of Christ and the Father? No, it is not. The reason is this: against common intuitions, the Holy Spirit is not the center of Pentecostal spirituality. Jesus Christ is. Deeply rooted in Pentecostalism is a Christ-centered, charismatic spirituality in which Jesus was understood to be Savior, Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, Divine Healer, and Coming King—the template that in the beginning years gave rise to the still-used nomenclature of the “Foursquare” Gospel. To these were added still one more aspect; namely, Jesus as the Sanctifier, rooted in the Holiness Movements from which Pentecostalism came, and consequently, Pentecostals were known as “full gospel” Christians.22
Amos Yong summarizes well the Pentecostal doctrine of the Holy Spirit:
In Pentecostalism, as in most conservative, traditionalist, and evangelical Christian traditions, the orthodox doctrine of the Holy Spirit as divine person continues to prevail. Yet Pentecostals go beyond many of their orthodox Christian kindred [as] … there is the ongoing expectation of the Holy Spirit’s answer to intercessory prayer, of the Spirit’s continual and personal intervention in the affairs of the world and in the lives of believers even when not specifically prayed for, and of the Spirit’s manifestation in the charismatic or spiritual gifts (as enumerated by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:4–7) Of course, amidst all that occurs in Pentecostal circles are some rather fantastic accounts … and discerning between the valid and the spurious is not always easy.23
Conclusions: whither pneumatology?
This all-too short survey of diverse Spirit-experiences and interpretations in history and among current churches reminds us of the impossibility of restraining the work of the infinite Divine Spirit. The Spirit “blows where it wills” (John 3:8 RSV). Rather, let us celebrate the richness of the work of the Spirit of God.
In contemporary theology, the work of the Holy Spirit is conceived differently not only among various churches, but also among people and communities of diverse backgrounds and contexts. Among women theologians of various sorts, Feminist (White women), Womanist (Black women), mujerista (Latina women), and others interesting interpretations of the Spirit have emerged. The same applies to Liberation theologians of various sorts, such as in Latin America or South Africa.
Theologians and pastors from the Global South, similarly, are looking for guidance for a contextualized understanding of pneumatology in Africa or Asia or Latin America. Recall that originally Christianity is not a European or American religion. Rather, it was birthed in Asia and first moved to Africa before much later arriving at what became Europe and the Americas.
Believers from various independent and emerging churches are also experiencing the wind of the Spirit in fresh ways. While affirming the ancient biblical and creedal affirmations about the doctrine, they also bring to the experience and spirituality their own particular contexts.
Veni Sancte Spiritus! Come Holy Spirit!
- What Does the Holy Spirit Do? Exploring His Mighty Works
- Can We Pray to the Holy Spirit?
- 5 Best Books on the Holy Spirit (A Doctor of Theology’s Picks)
- 3 Powerful Ways the Holy Spirit is Active in our Bible Study
- Is the Holy Spirit an “It”? 7 Proofs for the Spirit’s Personhood
- Elizabeth A. Dreyer, “An Advent of the Spirit: Medieval Mystics and Saints,” in Advents of the Spirit: An Introduction to the Current Study of Pneumatology, eds. Bradford E. Hinze and D. Lyle Dabney (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2001), 123.
- James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (London: SCM Press/Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), ch. 9.
- Martin Luther, Small Catechism, Creed, art. 3; The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert with Jaroslav Pelikan, Robert H. Fischer, and Arthur C. Peipkorn (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 345.
- Luther, “Schmalcald Articles,” pt. 3, art. 8, par. 3–12 (10–11); Book of Concord, 312–13.
- Luther, “Large Catechism,” Creed, pt. 2, art. 3, 45; Book of Concord, 416.
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 1.13.14; 122–23.
- Calvin, Institutes, 1.7.4; 71–72.
- Calvin, Institutes, 2.5.5; 276–77.
- Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.1; 463. It is highly noteworthy that materially similar kind of teaching is also affirmed in Zwingli’s thirteenth article of the Reformed Faith: “[T]hat a person is drawn to God by God’s Spirit and deified, becomes quite clear from scripture … ‘And when the Spirit of truth comes, he shall teach all truth,’ Jn. 16.13.” Huldrych Zwingli, The Defense of the Reformed Faith, trans. E. J. Furcha (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1984), 1:57.
- Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.9; 2497.
- See, e.g., Menno Simons, The New Birth, in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 89–102.
- See, e.g., Gary D. Badcock, Light of Truth and Fire of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 88–91.
- See Donald K. McKim, The Bible in Theology and Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 38–39.
- See Thomas Müntzer, The Second Chapter of Daniel, in The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer, ed. and trans. Peter Matheson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 240.
- John Wesley, “Sermon 141: On the Holy Spirit,” in Sermons on Several Occasions (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book-room, 1771.
- Wesley, “Sermon 141.”
- John Wesley, “Sermon 13: On Sin in Believers,” in Sermons on Several Occasions (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 1999), III.3.
- Wesley, “Sermon 13.”
- According to established scholarly terminology, there are three subcategories: (1) “Pentecostalism” refers to movements stemming from the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in the beginning of the twentieth century; (2) “Charismatic Movements” are pentecostal-type renewal movements which stayed within the established churches; the biggest among them is the Roman Catholic Charismatic Renewal; (3) “Neo-Pentecostalism” means all other pentecostal-type movements, mostly independent. The total number for all of these is 600–700 million.
- See Jon Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles, rev. and expanded ed. (Word & Spirit Press, 2011).
- Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata, 2.
- A seminal discussion is Steven J. Land, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).
- Amos Yong, “‘The Spirit Hovers over the World’: Toward a Typology of ‘Spirit’ in the Religion and Science Dialogue,” Digest: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Foundational Questions 4:12 (2004). http://www.metanexus.net/digest/2004_10_27.htm (accessed 21 August 2006).