Notes from Deep Church conversation series: No. 1 - "The Spirit is Real but he is a person not a force: lessons from Pentecostal, Charismatic and Orthodox traditions."

The Deep Church lecture/conversation series began on Thursday and I went along. The conversation was led by Professor Andrew Walker. This was an excellent evening split half between a lecture on the Holy Spirit and half with questions/interaction with Andrew. I took the following notes so you could have a flavour of the evenings conversation...

Purpose of the series

In the accompanying handout, Andrew says "It can be daunting to begin a theological course if you have never done so before...for this first series I thought I would give an account of how I began to think theologically based on my experiences, postive and negative, of the christian life... it is intended to be an extended conversation in which I hope you will be encouraged as much as I have been by the excitement, enthusiasm - and yes - fun that Christian doctrine has bought to my life."

Conversations in this series: 1. The Spirit is Real but he is a person not a force: lessons from Pentecostal, Charismatic and Orthodox traditions. 2. Discovering the missing half of Christendom and stumbling across the Fathers of the early church. (Link to my notes). 3.Living with Ambiguity: facing up to difficulties in scripture and Christian doctrine. 4. On being a theological teacher: notes from the frontline. 5. The ecumenical vision of C S Lewis: moving towards a generous orthodoxy. 6. From certainty to hope: why I know less now than I did when I was 18.

Holy Spirt - experiential tales

Andrew related tales from his pentecostal youth, including his baptism in the Holy Spirit from the "wrong" Christians. For Andrew this reinforces the experiential nature of the Holy Spirit but for him, with his Penetecostal reading of the bible through the lens of Acts the Holy Spirit was more of a thing, it was power, a force, a wind but not really personal. Andrew noted that the trouble in an exercise of reducing the Spirit to his attributes meant that he seemed less of a person and more of a force field.

Andrew also had a shock to find the Spirit operating in other denominations - as he observed the Spirit cannot be contained in any one denominational box, instead the Spirit is Lord and he blows where he wants.

Holy Spirit in the Gospels

The Spirit plays a full role in the Gospels but seems to be in the shadows shining the spotlight on Jesus. However, Spirit is not passive, he is active in his own right e.g. Jesus is born of the Virgin Mary but conceived by the Spirit or at the baptism of Jesus the Spirit comes down on him like a dove. Andrew notes that again it is one of the problems of how to depict the Holy Spirit when he is like a dove i.e. a bird not a person.

Holy Spirit personal not just power

Andrew used the picture shown with this post [click on it for a larger image] to depict how the Orthodox tradition have tried to depict the trinity as persons rather than things. This Icon is from 16th century Russia and nominally depicts the '3 angels who visitied Abraham' in Genesis 18. This was done to get round the Orthodox requirement that neither God the Father or God the Holy Spirit be painted as it is only Jesus who actually became God in the flesh.

The figure on the left represents God the Father - he is is dressed in gold and whilst the other 2 are being too deferential, they are still deferring to the Father in the way they are looking. The figure in the middle represents Jesus, he is in red and has his hand over the bowl representing sacrifice. The figure on the right is the Holy Spirit - dressed in green to represent new life.

This icon therefore shows two things: i. Holy Trinity personal (represented by 3 humans/angels); and ii. Picture attempts to describe the nature of the trinity, three into one as the figures are distinct but not seperate.

Does it matter if the Holy Spirt is personal?

Andrew contended that yes it does matter, the Trinity is not one God hiding behind 3 masks and by treating the Spirit as a force of God rather than God it means that we unermine the nature of the Spirit. Or to put it another way, we can only pray to the Spirit if he is God.

Andrew suggested one clue to the personal nature of the Spirit was in John 14 where Jesus says that he will ask the Father to send another advocate - with the noun for advocate being a personalised one.

Andrew did note that in the New Testament there is not an explicit doctrine about the nature of the trinity. Andrew contended that the NT story is one of a revival going on and that is the chief focus. It took another 400-500 years to sort out all (most of) the theological problems that this revival caused including the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity being confirmed in creeds such as the Nicene creed and (the likely later) Athanasian creed.

The lecture ended there and after a short break there was Qs from the floor...

Q: I have a problem with the doctrine of the Trinity being created by a bunch of old men in togas - did they make it up?

Andrew's warning was to beware of Dan Brown but it did highlight why church history is important, particularly as the bible not cannonised untin the 4th century. The model of these council's was was based on Acts 15 where James relayed the Council's decision by saying that "it seems pleasing to the Holy Spirit and us that..." Andrew observed that if the Spirit is not active throughout history the church is in deep trouble.

In a related question on the cannon of scripure Andrew noted that it was the church who decided the cannon and wondererd therefore whether authority should lie with the church or with the scriptures?

Q: Where is the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament?

Andrew noted that ruarch (wind of God) in the OT was not very personal and suggests therefore that the Spirit is there but only if one reads the OT through the eyes of the New Testament - for instance in Genesis 1, the Spirit that broods over the water is taken by the NT church to be the Holy Spirit. Andrew noted that this was also similar to the understanding of God as 'Father' it is not really in the OT but is revealed by Jesus e.g. we only call God, Father, as Jesus calls him Father. In other words Jesus leads us to the Trinity and without Jesus there would be no doctrine of the Trinity.

Q: Why is it harder to not see the Holy Spirit as an emotional being?

Andrew said he thinks in part this is because we are familiar with 'fathers' and 'sons' whilst not so familiar with ghosts. It was therefore likely that we would be drawn to one member of the trinity more but that the trinity takes you to each other member of the trinity and not away from the other members. For Andrew the Spirit is an emotional being as he 'groans in prayer' for him, the Spirit is both God the giver and the gift. Jesus is the first advocate, the Spirit is the second advocate, one like Jesus and therefore personal and present.

Q: How do you seperate the Spirit from Jesus in his full divinity and humanity?

Andrew noted that in the modern world we have the problem of believing that Jesus was anything more than just a man. However, in the early church they had the opposite problem which was to see Jesus as a man and not just a God.

Holy Spirit plays an important role in the life of Jesus because he is fully human but Jesus was God when he was born. Because Jesus is 100% human he needs to rely 100% on the Spirit to avoid sinning. He still remains 100% divine at the same time.

Q: Is the female noun for ruarch in the OT