Re-imagining the Holy Spirit: quo vadis?


"In a recent book, Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic, written by a diverse group of Christian leaders whose purpose was to comment on culture and direction of the Emerging Church, there was not a single account of pneumatological expression.  Not one!...The Holy Spirit's activity has become atrophied; in many of these circles people are desperate to understand more.  The emerging church is asking its congregations to be girl scouts without giving them the cookies.  This has to change.  We desperately need practitioners who can articulate and demonstrate the Kingdom.[w]e need cultural iconographies that are both personal and purposeful demonstrations of God's heart." - Eric Keck, from his thesis: Pneumanaut: Demonstrate, Embody, Announce

I think my friend Eric is onto something.  Where are the practitioners of the ways of the Spirit in the emerging and missional church?  Where can such leaders and practitioners be heard?  Where are the 'positive deviants' demonstrating?  Where are we teaching and demonstrating the power of the Spirit...or at least talking about it and wrestling with it?  Where is this being done...or is it all just re-framing and re-languageing of modernity at this point?  Although since Eric published this, there has been some conversation sparked by Emerging Grace, RobbyMac and Brother Maynard in Post-Charismatic and their conversations on 'Why Charismissional?', and also the new book by Francis Chan Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect for the Holy Spirit will hopefully help further expand the conversation.  Not that the lack of conversation about the Spirit isn't somehow understandable, because giving freedom for the Spirit to come and be present and move and empower is fact, it's messy, but no more so messy than community and communitas (topics of which are in abundance in conversations, books and video format among the emerging church.)   Yet in saying all of this, in fact I have named my fear, which is: the issue of spiritual expressions/gifts and the presence and power of the Spirit has been "bottled-up" into a nice-and-neat little side conversation in emerging church circles.

But let's here from Keck again: "The demonstration of the kingdom is in itself an apologetic: no hype, no manipulation, but rather spiritual expression.  It is power demonstrated in the immediate, power demonstrated in the actual, and power demonstrated that can only be defined as pneumatological...[t]he absence of this pneumatological expression will not only stifle the process, but will never holistically fulfill it...using The definition that the kingdom of God is the range of God's effective will, where what the spirit chooses to accomplish is done, we find in this premise the beautiful notion that this same Spirit is available to us now, in the immediate."   

Recently in my own faith community we were having what we call a "ministry time" at the end of a Sunday service.  In this time, we gather in little clusters and express needs and take time to pray for one another.  Because we make space and time for God to move in our midst, this is often where I witness His work through us ala charismata.  As ministry time was winding down and people were beginning to leave, a young 20-something guy who had been in my group was hanging with me and chatting.  He spoke-up and said, "This is why I come to this church."  Intrigued by the big opening, I said, "Tell me what you mean?"  He responded, "Well, we actually try to experience God together.and when we do it - even though sometimes it can be weird - most of the time at this church it is.chill, and people kind-of talked about the weird stuff, explaining it so I could understand.  That made it easy for me to give it a go, and well, I like it."   Whether changing the lingua franca in naturally supernatural ways or dialing-down instead of hyping-up as easy-entry points for embracing the Presence and Power of the Spirit, I think the presence, power and gifts of the Spirit need to be a central part of the emerging church, but as an historian, let me appeal to history yet even more so, the future.  Thus, at this point, before I skip to the end, I want to re-visit where I began - in deep church history.

Ramsey MacMullen is one who explained the apologetic of power vis-à-vis the charismata of the Spirit and the mission of the Church.  MacMullen, an historian of ancient Rome and professor emeritus at Yale University, claimed in his book Christianizing the Roman Empire that indeed it was to a greater extent the power of the Spirit - seen in grace-manifestations of exorcism and healings - that the early Christians won their world.  (I would also add the social dynamics Rodney Stark puts forth in his book The Rise of Christianity.) 

I want to share a few quotes from our deep church roots to encourage us on to freedom and exploration in following God and embracing the gifts He gives us in Christ Jesus through His Spirit:

  • "[Some] are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the name of this Christ.  For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God...for the prophetical gifts (prophetika charismata) remain with us, even to the present time."    - Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, from chapters 39 and 82
  • "...for which cause also his [Christ's] true disciples having received grace from him use it in his name for the benefit of the rest of men, even as each has received the gift from him.  For some drive out demons with certainty and truth, so that often those who have themselves been cleansed from the evil spirits believe and are in the church, and some have foreknowledge of things to be, and visions, and prophetic speech, and others cure the sick by laying on of hands and make them whole, and even as we have said, the dead have been raised and remained with us for many years.  And why should I say more?  It is not possible to tell the number of the gifts which the church throughout the whole world, having received from God in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, uses each day for the benefit of the heathen, deceiving none and making profit from none.  For as it received freely from God, it ministers also freely."   - Irenaeus, cited by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History, 5, 7:3-5

And now the last word, or at least my last word:  While we often ask the Spirit "quo vadis?" ("whither Thou goest?"), possibly we should be asking: "where have you come from?" Even as I just brought the past to bear and inspire us onward, I want to end by dominating both our past and present with the future; for the people of God, the people of the Spirit, the people of Christ jesus are people of the future.  I have left something Steve Burnhope alluded to in a comment early in our conversation lay dormant, but now I want to take it up:  the eschatological aspect.  We are called to live by the Spirit in this age, and if we live by the Spirit then we walk by the Spirit.  Thus I want to appeal to the fact that the Spirit empowers us to be people of the future in Christ, to taste the power of the age to come, and leave us with a few voices where I have heard the echo of the Spirit ringing in our ears and our hearts:


  • On Being Charismatic: "It is a great reproach to us as Christians that we excite in the hearts of the unbelieving masses to little more than plain boredom.  They meet us with smiling toleration or ignore us altogether, and their silence is a portent and a sign.  Well might it cause us nights of tears and hours of prayerful self-examination.  It is the Spirit of Christ in us that will draw Satan's fire.  The people of the world will not much care what we believe and they will stare vacantly at our religious forms, but there is one thing they will never forgive us - the presence of God's Spirit in our hearts.  They may not know the cause of that strange feeling of antagonism which rises within them, but it will be nonetheless real and dangerous.  Satan will never cease to war on the Man-child, and the soul in which dwells the Spirit of Christ will continue to be the target for his attacks."  A.W. Tozer, The Warfare of the Spirit, p.4.
  • The Spirit and the flesh: "A well-known passage in the book of the prophet Joel can be cited as the point of departure for our discussion in this book.  It reads: Thereafter the day shall come when I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions; I will pour out my spirit in those days even upon slaves and the slave-girls (Joel 2:28-29)  The Spirit of God and all human flesh – these are the two principal actors in this prophetic utterance.  When these two actors step onto the stage before the silent but intensely expectant audience of the whole universe, the dark silence that has dominated the primordial world is broken.  All human flesh becomes infused with the divine Spirit.  This Spirit of God is contagious as well as creative.  Men and women, regardless of age, sex, or social status, begin to dream dreams, see visions, and utter prophecy.  The history of the Spirit-endowed human beings is thus begun.  History as we know it is made up of the dreams, visions, and prophecies that human beings are enabled to make through the Spirit of God.  History, in its most far-reaching sense, is the movement of the human spirit under the irresistible impact of the divine Spirit.  It is the glorious and at the same time painful story of human spirituality caught in the bondage of the divine Spirit trying to realize its dreams, visions, and prophecies.”  From the Introduction, Choan-Seng Song, Third-Eye Theology: Theology in Formation in Asian Settings.
  • Paul's Ideal: Charismatic Community: "To appreciate the force of Paul's concept of church, we must note the following points.  The basis of community is the shared experience of the Spirit.  "The koinonia of the Spirit" (2 Cor. 13:13-14;  Phil. 2:1) means primarily "participation in the Sprit," the common experience of the Spirit which was the other side of the coin from their common faith in Christ (e.g., Rom 8:9; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; Gal. 3:2-5); note the strong appeal to experience in Phil. 2:1-2.  It was this shared experience which drew them together and out of which oneness grew;: 1 Cor. 12:13 - one Spirit, therefore one body; Eph. 4:3-4 - the unity of the Spirit is something given, the oneness of their starting point as believers, not something they create, but something they can maintain.  In short, for Paul the unity of the Christian community is not primarily something structural, but rather the unifying power of a shared experience of grace inspiring a common gratitude and purpose.[i]t follows that to be a member of the body of Christ is by definition to be charismatic." James D. G. Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit, Vol. 2, p. 249.
  • On Being Charismissional: "Every Christian who has received the Holy Spirit is now a prophet of the return of Christ, and by this very fact he has a revolutionary mission...: for the prophet is not one who confines himself to foretelling with more or less precision an event more or less distant; he is one who already lives it, and already makes it actual and present in his own environment.  Consequently it means bringing the future into the present as an explosive means understanding the present in light of the future, dominating it by the future, in the same way as the historian dominates the past." Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, p. 40.

And so I conclude with this classic prayer from the Church of the province of the West Indies:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, the privilege is ours to share in the loving, healing, reconciling mission of your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, in this age and wherever we are. Since without you we can do no good thing, May your Spirit make us wise; May your Spirit guide us; May your Spirit renew us; May your Spirit strengthen us; So that we will be: Strong in faith, Discerning in proclamation, Courageous in witness, Persistent in good deeds. This we ask through the name of the Father.

Church of the Province of the West Indies