Re-imagining the Holy Spirit: The ‘face’ of the Spirit in Trinity and Community


Inherent in the titles of Steven Hamilton’s excellent series of blogs, last week and this week, is our ‘imagining’ of the Holy Spirit; for we cannot re-imagine except in relation to how we currently imagine.

A good deal of the conversation in and following his blogs has therefore addressed the question: “How do we presently imagine the Spirit?”, and an exploration of the influences reflected therein.  Steven has also led us back in history, to consider what we might learn for our contemporary re-imagining from the ways in which the Spirit was previously imagined by our pre-Modern forebears.

In this, we have been rightly reminded that all our ‘imagining’ should be grounded in Scripture, as the ever-fertile soil in which our radical ‘roots’ should be planted.   At the same time, we have been sensitive that the context of our ‘imagining’ is contemporary culture, and that contemporary people will need to find the fruit of what grows out of it to be satisfying and nourishing.

Today, I want to focus on what I see as key foundational aspects to the Spirit’s person and work, which I think should inform our understanding of his identity, mission and purposes in and amongst us, and consequently has much to say about our experience of him and to our discernment of him in the Church and the world. Since the Spirit is, fundamentally, ‘God, experienced’ in continuity with the Son’s ‘God with us’, we are right to have a deep desire for authentic engagement with the Spirit, understood in terms of the promise of Acts 1:8.

However, we are also cautioned by the biblical injunction to correctly discern his moving (1 John 4:1).   To fulfil both the desire and the constraint requires that we are informed by the overarching biblical narrative of the Spirit.  In other words, we will be ill-equipped to judge the authenticity of any experience unless we have an understanding of what he is about.   Without a clear view of his mission and purpose, we won’t know what answered prayer for the Spirit’s moving will look like, or what it means to cooperate with the Spirit (rather than hinder, or even quench).

Quenching the Spirit has usually been seen in terms of questioning or de-emphasising “exotic manifestations” – but what if it’s a great deal more than that?   Might it be that any failure to correspond our mission and praxis to the Spirit’s mission and praxis represents a quenching?  To be ‘informed by the overarching biblical narrative of the Spirit’ is more than doing a word-search. It is also more than a systematic theology of the Spirit (i.e. a re-sorting of the biblical data in the ‘correct’ order, so that we know what to believe about the Spirit).

Rather, we must allow ‘Scripture to be Scripture’ and not subvert its voice by turning it into ‘Scripture re-packaged’, in a Modern, neat and tidy, catalogued version.  Removing the messiness in this way distorts the divine authorial intent (that evangelicals should do this always strikes me as odd).

By contrast, a narrative reading of the Spirit takes seriously the entire biblical story, in which the Spirit is at the centre as an integral member of the Trinity, before he is ever an individual in his own right (if indeed, such language can properly be used of him at all).   His nature and character and his purposes in the earth – in us, with us and through us – are inexorably tied to those of God the Father and Jesus the Son.

The Spirit works from within this triune relationship, he is not separated or isolated, and he has no independent agenda.   But I am getting ahead of myself.

What, then, would I suggest to be these key foundational aspects?

Firstly, as I have already alluded to, the Spirit must be ‘read’ from within his Trinitarian context.  Our hermeneutic – or ‘interpretive lens’ – should be:

o the nature and character of God (embodied by Jesus, with whom the Spirit today acts in continuity)

o the missio dei (God’s eternal purposes, his ends and goals for humanity and creation) and

o the imago dei (what God is like, and what ‘God imaged in us’ would look like).

This is because we can expect the Spirit, as an intrinsic member of the one Godhead, to act entirely in accord with right understandings of all these aspects.   The Spirit is not ‘independent spirituality’, let alone an ‘independent spiritual experience’ that an over-focus on ‘spiritual gifts’ texts in isolation is in danger of inferring.

In other words, both our theology and expectation in practice of ‘what the Spirit does and how he does it’ should start from a broad Trinitarian perspective.   Thus, the Spirit’s authentic activity may be assessed initially by reference to its reflection of (and compatibility with) God’s nature, God’s character, and God’s purposes, as we understand all those within ‘the big story’ of God and creation.   Fruit consistent with these will likely be fruit of the Spirit.  Fruit irrelevant to these, or contradictory to them, will likely not.

As An Aside: The Holy Spirit’s ‘spirituality’ (that he wants to work in us) is the same as Jesus’ ‘spirituality’.   If we have a misguided perspective on what Jesus’ ‘spirituality’ looked like in the flesh, that will carry across into our expectations of the Spirit’s ‘spirituality’ outworked in us.  So, Christology comes into the mix for our understanding of the Spirit. Since Jesus is our role model as the perfect manifestation of the imago dei, how we see Jesus’ own ‘spirituality’ will be the basis for how we expect the Spirit to move in, upon and through us.   For more on this, see ‘What’s Your Idea of Spirituality?’

Secondly, how clear are we on the Spirit’s role within the Trinity?  The imagery of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ is distinctive, but the Spirit has no comparable ‘face.’  Indeed, his very modesty is problematic.  As Clark Pinnock puts it, “the Son became visible and renders the Father visible, while the Spirit remains invisible and not as easily known.   It is easier to assign a face to the Son than to Spirit because of the historical concreteness of incarnation” (Flame of Love, p.36).   Is this perhaps why the Spirit so easily gets ‘detached’ from Father and Son in our thinking?

I suggest that the primary role of the Spirit within the Trinity is to bring relationality, and that this is, accordingly, his primary work in and through us.   To bring us into divine relationality with God and with one another, and through the gospel to extend that relationality to the world.  The Spirit is the bond of love within the Trinity that gives meaning to the term ‘God is love.’

The Spirit’s role is lovingly to draw us into that loving community of Father, Son and Spirit.   This relationality is at the heart of who God is – to quote Pinnock again, “the nature of God is a communion of loving Persons” (p.22).   Entering into the Most Holy Place (Heb 10) is not fundamentally to do with a spiritual experience, nor an eventual place in Heaven, but an invitation to share now in the intimate relationality of the Trinity.  And, energized by the vitality of this experience, to extend that invitation throughout the whole earth per the ‘great commission.’  Eternal life itself, and hence what we call ‘salvation’, is entirely to do with restored and renewed relationship.   It is not somewhere we go when we die, but “[to] know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

o  Relationship was the original plan for creation;

o  Relationship was what got ‘broken’ by our exercise of the option to sin;

o  Relationship was what Jesus came to incarnate (to show us what it is, how to do it) and the central element of his teaching;

o Relationship is what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection restored; and,

o Relationship is what the Spirit wants to lead us into, deepen in us, and extend to the world through us.

Relationship remains the goal of creation.   The nature of that relational goal is the inclusion of the entire creation (particularly, but not exclusively, humanity) within that “communion of loving Persons” that is the triune God, ever prompting us to closer and deeper intimacy with God and increasing transformation toward the divine nature.

This, then, is the Spirit’s primary goal, in which we are his partners (Rev 22:17) – the Spirit and the bride say, "Come!"   Join in, participate with us.

Relationship, then, is not solely ‘me and Jesus’, as so often presented, in which we add our ‘personal saviour’ to our personal organiser, personal trainer and personal savings plan.  It is inclusion within the divine communion.   Its very essence is communal, because God in himself is the essence and perfection of community.   The nature of the love that God has for us is an overflow of the love that is eternally expressed within the Trinity (John 15:9).

To sum up, we can now begin to see how what Scripture tells us specifically about the Spirit fits this bigger picture:

o  Paul prays for the Corinthian church to experience ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Cor 13:13).

o  The fellowship that he brings to us is inclusion within the relationship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3).

o  The first-named of the fruit of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:22).

o Just as the Spirit confirmed Jesus’ ontological sonship (Lk 3:22) so, too, he affirms ours by adoption (Rom 8:16) and leads us into deep, filial relationship (Gal 4:6) as “the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father.”

o  The Spirit’s desire for unity among us, through a bond of peace, mirrors the unity of the relationship within the Godhead (Eph 4:3).

All these characteristics of the Spirit are fundamentally concerned with relationship, and emanate from deep within the very heart of the Trinity.

How sad that in Modernity we have largely lost all thought of contextualising the Spirit’s work within the community of which he is a part and into which he invites us collectively to come.  We have lost sight of what is means to be God’s Kingdom – which is, in contemporary parlance, God’s Community, or God’s Society – despite continually praying it will come.  'Me and God', just the two of us, can never be that.   Individualization has ripped the heart from the gospel and disempowered the Spirit’s primary role.

I close with another thought from Pinnock.  In context of the self-effacing modesty of the Spirit and his somewhat elusive identity, in particular that he has no public ‘face’ comparable to the Father and Son, Pinnock wonders whether perhaps the church is the face of the Spirit.

Paul asks “Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor 3:16).

Pinnock suggests paraphrasing Paul’s question: “Don’t you know that the Spirit wishes to find his face made visible among those who believe?”

How this would look should perhaps be the next step in our enquiry.   Building upon the base of understanding of the Spirit that I have suggested may equip us to answer some of the more complex questions of spiritual experiences, of claims to ‘the leading of the Spirit’ and of what Rodney Neill has called the ‘dark shadow side in the charismatic movement.’