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The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit in 20th Century Ecumenism

Category Articles
Date November 17, 2003


Looking back on the first 75 years of the last century, several writers have noted that the Holy Spirit had been overlooked in theological writing in the English language. Juergen Moltmann and Alister McGrath, for example – and the former before the latter – used the analogy of Cinderella not getting to go to the ball as a figure for this neglect. Abusing this analogy, we may say that what now characterizes so much thinking about the Spirit is a gate-crashing Cinderella having a ball.

That this is so can be shown in interesting ways. For example in Walter Pannenberg’s three-volumed ‘Systematic Theology’ there is no section devoted specifically to Pneumatology. This is because, for him, no doctrine can be properly considered apart from the Spirit. Similarly, Moltmann, whose book ‘The Church in the Power of the Spirit’ had appeared in 1977, wrote another which appeared in 1991 and bore the title ‘The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation.’ By that title, he was intending to pick up on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan credal statement about the Spirit as ‘Lord and giver of life’ (a World Council Commission had been studying that creed and had published commentary on it in 1990), and to make clear that it was not only the church which was to be included in the life which the Spirit gives, but also the environment, its ecology and its economy. He describes his position as "eine ganzheitliche Pneumatologie", which means something like an "all-encompassing pneumatology." For those two influential Protestant theologians, in the World Council of Churches, there is now only one lens for viewing theology.

This shift in perspective points to the increased influence of two diverse religious trends. On the one hand, there is the Eastern Orthodox tradition . . . . which has long wanted the deity of the Spirit to be more fully recognized. On the other hand, there is the Pentecostal phenomenon seen in men like Donald Gee and David du Plessis and is now presented by their charismatic step-children, whatever their ecclesiastical stripe . . . .

Clark Pinnock recently has gone down the same road. In his 1996 book ‘A Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit’, he passes every doctrinal locus through a pneumatic filter and has the temerity to call his method and its results, "an improved theology." By contrast, Jim Packer’s popular work of 1984, ‘Keep in Step with the Spirit’, brings the Calvinist-Puritan Tradition to bear on all the vagaries of contemporary evangelicalism and also, in passing, on the liberal and ecumenical scene as well. To my mind, any book that does that, quoting Calvin and Owen approvingly in the process, has something vital to say and it would be a pity if it were to be overlooked by us because it is semi-favorable to the charismatic phenomenon. The rest is vintage Packer, learned and lucid.

There is one other book that ought to be referred to. It has a somewhat prosaic (though not dour) title – ‘The Holy Spirit’. This is Sinclair Ferguson’s much-respected study that confessedly builds on the work of Calvin, Owen and Kuyper and also relates in places to the contemporary scene. Ferguson cites the well-worn adage about the Spirit being "the forgotten person of the Godhead" but advocates a slight but significant change to it. He wants to replace the adjective "forgotten" with the word "unknown," giving us "the unknown person of the Godhead." He then offers the following explanation for the change: "While (the Spirit’s) work has been recognized, the Spirit Himself remains to many Christians an anonymous, faceless aspect of the divine being."

This means that amid all the attention that was given in the last century to the activity of the Spirit, both alleged and real, Ferguson is saying that the Spirit himself has been neglected as a person. This is something for us to ponder. Imagine talking about salvation but never using the name of Jesus. To recognize, as we should and do, that the Spirit does not draw attention to himself does not entail the notion that his presence and activity are non-recognizable, much less that he may be discounted. The Apostle Paul advised churches that the Spirit could be grieved and not only quenched, the former by his sanctifying intention being countered and his activity being presumed on.

The Holy Spirit is as much the Spirit of Christ as he is the Spirit of God, the Father. Whatever needs to be said about how the three persons of the Trinity are related to each other within the life of the Godhead, the New Testament declares that the Spirit’s mission in the world is bound up with the glorifying of the Son. Jesus sends the Spirit "from the Father" and the Father sends the Spirit "in Christ’s name." The Spirit is active in sustaining and endowing all life throughout creation but he is intent on making the Son known and that not only in the church but also in the world. To speak of a spirit who is active outside the church and who leads people to God and not to Christ is an offence to each member of the Holy Trinity. To assert this does not make the Spirit the prisoner of the church or the word. He can work without means and he does, a mysterious, sovereign wind, "blowing where he wills." He does not only accompany the missionary church but often goes on ahead but always with a view to glorifying Jesus Christ of whom Scripture does speak and the church should too.

Confessing an eternal trinity of an ontological and inter-relational kind is a duty. But it is no less a sacred duty to assert a tri-unity of an economic kind, that is a redemptive one.

Westminster Seminary California

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