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“If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.”
(Institutes II.2.xv)

Summary notes on Christian Doctrine1 Chapter 15, “What’s New? The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit”:

Moving on to the next paragraph in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The identity of the Holy Spirit is one issue. The Holy Spirit is personal – so, not something, but someone. There are also good reasons, including feminist ones, to resist the impulse to pack all the “feminine side” of God into the Holy Spirit. Guthrie is going to stick with gender-inclusive but personal references.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the God of Israel. The Spirit shows up in the Hebrew Bible – in particular, as someone at work in the creation and the preservation of life (e.g., Genesis 1:1, Psalm 104:30); as the source of “all human culture, art, creativity, and wisdom” (293); and as the motive force behind justice for the poor and helpless – whether as enacted, for instance by leaders, or as demanded, for instance by prophets. And the Spirit is mentioned a lot in the New Testament, blowing where it will, noticeably in the lives of individuals and the Church.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ – in the double sense that Jesus “received and bore the Spirit, and … promised and sent the Spirit” (294). So, the Spirit is present and active throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, and is also promised and given by Jesus to his followers: in Jesus’ name; to lead us into all truth; in the context of the community of Christ’s followers, “The promise of the Spirit, in other words, is first of all a promise made not to isolated individuals but to the church – not just for its own sake but for the sake of its service of the kingdom of God in the world” (295).

The Holy Spirit is specifically the agent of newness and renewal. From a Trinitarian perspective, the creation and re-creation of new life is the Holy Spirit’s unique work. Because of this, the Holy Spirit shakes things up, which can bother people sometimes, and some people most all the time.

Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s “of the Holy Spirit.” Discernment, “testing the spirits,” is imperative because we are chronically tempted to mistake our personal preferences and prejudices, or the “spirit of the age” or other spirits at work in the world, for the Holy Spirit. Negatively, we need to be sufficiently aware of ourselves to be able not to confuse our own ideas and feelings with the movement of the Spirit [although we hope we are increasingly aligned with and moved by that Spirit!], and positively we look for the Spirit to be recognizably the Spirit attested in Scripture – which is not to say the Spirit won’t do new and unexpected things, but that they will be recognizable as the activity of the God we know from Scripture.

With this background on the Holy Spirit, what are the characteristics of a distinctively “Christian spirituality”? According to Guthrie, they include:

  • Being focused outside, rather than inside, the individual. Christian spirituality is not achieved by “getting more in touch with ourselves,” but by getting past, beyond, ourselves.
  • Being this-worldly rather than other-worldly. Christian spirituality is not all about escaping the world or present reality, even by creating a little isolated spiritual community of pure, like-minded people, but it’s about participating in this world in a new way, bringing new life to this flesh-and-blood real world.
  • Recognizing the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in and through ordinary events as much as extraordinary ones. So, for instance, we wouldn’t just give thanks to God for a miraculous case of faith healing but also for a successful appendectomy, in the hospital, even if the doctor and all the nurses were atheists and agnostics.
  • Recognizing the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in bad times as well as good ones. Of course we give thanks for healing and rescue and justice done. But we also trust and hopefully experience that God is present and active when things are not going well, too – remembering that God was at work on Good Friday and all through Holy Saturday, not just on Easter.

From here Guthrie turns to a consideration of the “gifts of the Spirit,” and what Christians can do to receive those gifts that are “promised to all: new life, new truth, and new community” (303), as well as what we might expect from those gifts. No one can force the Spirit to give these gifts; so while they are promised, none of them are “guaranteed,” certainly not by any behavioral or cognitive formula. But there are things Guthrie suggests Christians can do to prepare to receive them.

The gift of new life means, preeminently, a life of love – new, relative to the lives of not-love we are inclined to live when not in the power of the Spirit. [There’s a tautology lurking in here somewhere; hopefully a benign one.] “Perhaps the best way to ‘test the spirits’ and to discern a true spirituality in our own lives and the lives of others is to ask whether our personal and corporate worship, our religious feelings and experiences, and our faith and hope in God are accompanied by openness and sensitivity to all the people we encounter every day” (304). As far as receiving this, Guthrie gives these points: 1) it’s not in our own power to give it to ourselves; 2) we can’t compel the Holy Spirit to give us this gift, or any other gift; 3) on the other hand, we can put ourselves in a position to realize the possibility – for instance, by participating in relationships with people who are different from us, getting humanly involved with people, … opening up the possibility for relationships characterized by loving and caring.

When it comes to “new truth,” we’ll realize that the Spirit-filled life is not just about feeling, but also about thinking. So the possibilities for the realization of this gift arise in study, perhaps especially the study of Scripture, and discourse, the effort to understand the faith we profess and where it leads. How do we position ourselves to encounter the Spirit’s new truth? Sure, read the Bible; but 1) with a willingness to allow Scripture to change and correct what we think we already know; 2) with a willingness to recognize God’s truth wherever we find it, which means sometimes outside Scripture, and sometimes outside the boundaries of the faith community – like in geology or sociology or hip hop [although I admit I don’t research hip hop very seriously]; and 3) with a willingness to seek the truth in the company of other Christians, including those with different perspectives from our own – since we need those differences to check our blind spots. The point is that we’re presumably eager to encounter God’s truth, not merely our own truth dressed up in Sunday clothes.

When it comes to “new community,” he points out that lots of people reject “organized religion” and seek their Christianity, even, privately or with a few trusted conversation partners. But while the Church is open to plenty of justified critique, “True Christian spirituality … is spirituality that is born of the church, is nourished and grows in the church, and exists for the sake of the church’s ministry to the world” (309). The church, the promised site of this new community, is recognizable in that it’s a community of people who are different from one another, really different, although motivated by a common love; and then there are gifts that are promised specifically to this community, like preaching and teaching and administration [seriously; when I was the director of the Women’s Center at my seminary, and spent a lot of time with students, I used to tell them that we were doing the ministry of administration, and it was not to be undervalued; churches need it].

So, how to be in position to receive this gift? 1) listen and take seriously the criticisms of the church, trying to respond and build up the church – from the inside, clearly; 2) keep questioning our received views of Christian faith and life, asking whether the gifts we want and seek are for the common good, or our own comfort and convenience; 3) seek the gifts of the Spirit for the church’s ministry in and for the world (seems to me, a kind of analog to the outward-turning of Christian spirituality); 4) be ready to recognize and receive the Spirit’s gifts in the ordinary: the routine of preaching and teaching and fellowship and so on, not just in the exotic [like that mission trip to far-off wherever] or the private [those really satisfying conversations we have with one or two other people from time to time – not that those aren’t nice …]; 5) remember that we need each other, on the principle that “there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit,” so none of us have or can expect to have all the gifts and can or can expect to dispense with the others. [any of the others. Parker Palmer has that great line in Company of Strangers that community is the place where, when the person I have the most trouble getting along with finally moves away, someone else even more annoying to me moves in. Or something like that. The point being – how am I ever going to get past myself if I just hang out with people I already like, get along with, and can appreciate? Maybe this is one of the reasons church membership is declining: including curmudgeons is a Christian spiritual practice, and lots of people just don’t want to participate. Kind of kidding. But kind of not.]

Ancient prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit.”

1 Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 291-313.