Re-imagining the Spirit: Our Interpretive Points of Reference


This will be the last of my posts exploring an emerging theology of the Spirit in a ‘post-charismatic’ world.

Let me first be clear that by ‘post-charismatic’ world, I do not mean a world devoid of the Spirit’s personal presence and tangible activity.  I am committed to the belief that the Spirit is present in this world as God experienced, an incarnational role, in which the Spirit’s actions are in full continuity with the incarnate Son who came to be God with us.

The early charismatics were right, then, to have a deep desire for authentic engagement with the Spirit, and so too, are those of us who continue to hold this desire.  Unfortunately, many of us, while still clinging to these beliefs and desire, have ceased to be convinced by popular charismatology.

My proposal in the recent series of posts has been that more than anything we need to reimagine our core theology of the Spirit and allow this renewed understanding to inform our interpretive lens concerning our experience of the Spirit.

It seems to me that we are generally lacking a sufficiently well developed framework of the Spirit – of who he really is, what he’s really like, and what he sees his mission is all about.  Because we lack this ‘big story’ of the Spirit, we are without clear and informative points of reference against which to ‘test’ either expectations or experiences, and the debate too easily slips into the narrow exegesis (or eisegesis) of a handful of NT proof-texts.

We post-charismatics are therefore frozen to the spot, theologically-speaking, in being unsure what to expect of the Spirit.

We are also somewhat reluctant to appear, by questioning popular charismatic assumptions and practices, to be ‘speaking against the Spirit’, which I suggest is due to (1) awareness of the scriptural injunction, and (2) our deep desire to find authentic, contemporary experience of God, beyond the confines of intellect and reason, which impels us to ‘want to believe’ experiences of the Spirit are authentic if at all possible.

What, then, might a reimagined core theology look like and how practically might it inform us, as people open to becoming ‘new charismatics’?

Here are my own thoughts – I am sure there are more.  I see these not as a hierarchy, or a closed list.  Rather, they are like different viewing angles on a fascinating historical building – from north, south, east and west, and perhaps also from above - where all the views show part of its beauty, and no single view is more important, or tells more about the building.  The views are not in competition, they are complementary.  Only in absorbing all the viewpoints does one get to know the building intimately.  And any number of additional views, most of which we can expect to be able to locate in relation to the principal or ‘bigger picture’ views, can potentially add to the richness of the overall picture.

1. Spirit cannot and should not be separated from Trinity.  Before he is anything else he is an intrinsic part of the Godhead.  The Spirit has no independent agenda for action.  His purposes are God’s purposes.  It is unhelpful and misleading to detach certain verses that speak of the Spirit or his work and place them in a separate, independent category.  Whatever is the authentic work of the Spirit will always be advancing, enhancing and empowering God’s revealed purposes for humanity and creation.

No work or action properly credited to the Spirit, then, will ever fail to be entirely in harmony with what we know to be God’s present purposes.  He will never appear to be pursuing different priorities.  He will never detract, or distract, from those purposes.  Nothing he does will be irrelevant.

2. At the heart of the Trinity is relationship.  From the very beginning, creation was all about relationship.  So too, the incarnation, and so too the gospel.

Simplified to its most basic statement, the gospel is an invitation to share in the divine relationality.  Jesus showed us what true relationship is all about – relating to ourselves right, to God right, to one another right and to the whole of creation right.  Righteousness is, simply, all our relationships being right.

Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus opened the way for us to participate, to be included in, the divine relationality within the Godhead.

The Spirit’s work, then, first and foremost, will always be about inviting, advancing, extending and enriching human-divine relationality.  The same relationality enjoyed within the Godhead is extended to us, by the Spirit, inviting us in.  We can therefore expect all of the work of the Spirit to be advancing and deepening the divine-human relationship.

If the characteristics, effects and legacy of putative Spirit manifestations are not fundamentally relational, are not primarily concerned to advance and deepen genuine divine-human relationship, then we have cause to question their authenticity.

3. The character of the Spirit is the character of God.  We know the character of God from the life and teachings of Jesus, who was the express image of the invisible God.  To see him was to see the father.  The invisible Spirit, also, is the exact image of the God seen incarnate in Jesus.  The Spirit has the same DNA.  Whatever the Spirit does and teaches is a direct continuation of what Jesus did and taught.

Does that seem to ‘limit’ the Spirit?  I don’t think so.  While an elusiveness, or refusal to be tied down, is undoubtedly characteristic of the Spirit’s ways (and evidenced by the metaphors of wind, water and fire), we should remember that a touch of elusiveness is hardly uncharacteristic of Father and Son either.  Recall, for example, the conversation between God and Moses: “Which God are you?” asks Moses.  “I am who I am” (or, “I will be who I will be”) replies God.  Consider, too, Jesus own radical demonstration of who God is and what he is like, and what life lived God’s way looks like (how different was this to people’s expectations?).  We even find it in the strange, upside-down logic of the Kingdom, in which God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

We cannot, then, equate the Spirit’s elusiveness and refusal to be tied down with “potentially anything goes folks”, as if there were no existing available markers, for reference.  If we advance the idea that “potentially anything goes” then we’re effectively offering free license for unilateral claims to the Spirit’s moving, an exemption from testing against any already-known criteria, and so render impossible the biblical injunction.

I submit that the nature of the ‘freedom’ the Spirit brings is freedom understood not as abandonment of any constraints or points of reference, but as freely open access to direct relationship with the loving God radically revealed in Jesus Christ.  Yes, the Spirit reserves the right to “be who I will be”, but what he does will never be discordant with who he is.  In particular, given the total continuity of divine will and purposes between Jesus and the Spirit (“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you for ever”), we should expect to see a mirror image of “what Jesus would do” in “what the Spirit would do.”

If, in something claimed as the Spirit’s work, we do not see continuity with what Jesus himself would do, were he the Counselor present with us, we may well ask whether it is truly the Spirit.

4. The ‘spirituality’ that the Spirit forms in us will be the same kind of spirituality as that which was seen in Jesus.  Jesus was our perfect role model of human spirituality: born of the Spirit, anointed and empowered by the Spirit and (as we will one day be) raised to life again by the Spirit.  What we envisage Jesus’ spirituality was like, how it came across to people day-to-day, is therefore of considerable importance, for that is what we will want to be like and what we will be asking the Spirit to do in us.

This is not to say all aspects of Jesus’ experiences are paradigmatic for us (that is going too far and fails to recognize his uniqueness as the Son) but he is our supreme example of what live lived under God as a human being looks like.

Although Jesus was not ‘of the world’ (in the sense of being worldly), I do not think his persona was that of someone ‘living on another planet’.  He loved God passionately and loved God-given life passionately.  Although his ‘food’ was to do the will of the Father who sent him, he also loved eating and drinking with people from inside and outside the boundary line.  He enjoyed close communion with his Father, but he didn’t ‘hear voices’ or ‘receive messages’ in some spooky sense.  He was, in sum, naturally spiritual and spiritually natural.  Indeed, some of the criticism directed his way was that he was, well, ordinary: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?”

Since Jesus’ spirituality was not ‘unnatural’, then, we should not expect the kind of spirituality that the Spirit’s abiding presence works in us to look like that either.  We should expect our spirituality to be criticized for ordinariness rather than for weirdness.  Displaying genuine spirituality while being completely natural is a far higher calling.

As Steven Hamilton has pointed out, too often when we speak of the Spirit moving in our midst we gnosticize.  But in God’s integrated and holistic human design, our spirituality, our pneumatology, and our charismatology are embodied.  Naturally spiritual and spiritually natural.

5. Steven Hamilton has also rightly drawn attention to the individualization of the charismata.  This is part of the disease of Modernity that has also deeply affected how we conceive and ‘do’ church, how we present the gospel message and how we see our relationship with God.

So far as the charismata are concerned, though, the context in which they are exercised is corporate.  The listing of gifts in 1 Cor 12 is surrounded by the context of ‘the common good’ and the ‘one body.’  Our learning, testing and correction take place within the Body of Christ. Connectedness and mutual accountability are essential elements of the charismata.

The Body of Christ must not allow itself to be intimidated by individualization of the concept of revelation (“God has shown me”) with the implication that no-one has the right to question it.  Contemporary thinking tends towards accountability to self alone, of course.  And yet, it also abhors hegemony.  It’s therefore important to see that without accountability to the community in matters of the Spirit we end up with hegemony (albeit, of a different brand to that of institutions and formal hierarchies).

6. The reason for the giving of gifts by our gracious and compassionate God is not for the benefit of the charismatic but the recipient.  The spiritual gifts are doings of the Spirit, in which the charismatic is merely the channel of his work, not an intermediate owner in a chain.  The gifts of the Spirit, then, are gifts of God to the end recipients, not gifts to the vessel.

As Steven Hamilton, once again, has rightly noted, quoting James Fowler, they are not “specialized tools, equipment or power toys which belong to specific individuals as possessions” (still less, “prizes or trophies of spirituality and success”).  This kind of thoughts is, as he says, a manifestation not of the Spirit but of “a consumerist-culture run amok”, when “a ‘gift’ is more about ‘me’ than the ‘Giver’.  Not to mention that it seems to separate the gift from the Giver.”

When 1 Cor 12 speaks of the ‘each one’ to whom the manifestation of the Spirit is given, might we not reasonably read that ‘one’ as the person who ultimately receives, not the person who ‘ministers’ the gift?

To read it in this way certainly downgrades our personal role in the whole process.  It is a more humble hermeneutic, and one that I feel more comfortable with.  On this basis, the charismatic who is the channel is not the recipient of the gift at all, any more than a postman (mailman) owns the packages he delivers for a sender.

I am sure there are more we could add, and I welcome everyone’s thoughts on that, but I personally see these ‘points of reference’ as [amongst the] critical ‘spiders web anchor points’ for an emerging theology of the Spirit that both releases us to seek the manifestation of the Spirit among us and constrains us to ensure that what we explore and how we evaluate it is faithful to the biblical materials and to the nature and character of God.