The Christian Teaching on the Holy Spirit

by frankbeswick

Orthodox Christianity believes in a triune God, a God who is three in one. The Holy Spirit is the third of the three persons and is integral to the Christian way of life.

The Old Testament believed that prophets were endowed with a prophetic spirit from God, and this spirit made them speak for God. It was part of a general belief that God manifested himself through mediators, such as his shekinah, his glory, and his word and wisdom. Prophecy seemed to die out in Israel in the fourth millennium BC, but the Jews believed that in the messianic time the Spirit would return. Christians believe that this happened with Christ.

Receiving the Spirit

One of the commonest kinds of religious experience in our time is  sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit, the power of God indwelling in Christian souls. When I say sensing I really should say claiming to sense, for claims to have had  religious experience have to be subject to careful testing to enable us to distinguish between genuine religious experiences and deceptive events. That the New Testament tells of how apostles were led by the Spirit is clear. Paul tells of how the Spirit kept hiim away from journeying to Asia, then the name of an area of modern Turkey. The Acts of the Apostles tells of several occasions when people received the Spirit, and in  doing so underwent a profound spiritual/religious experience.

A  vitally important Christian teaching is that the blessings that came from Christ to the early church are still available today and will be for the rest of time, so people today can be empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit.  All genuine Christian churches emphasise the Holy Spirit, but they do so in different ways. Charismatic churches, who are generally evangelical, place a great emphasis on powerful, often ecstatic experiences, such as the strange gift of peaking in tongues or the ecstatic Toronto blessing, but while the charismatic movement is present in the Roman Catholic Church, there is importance placed on sacraments, in which evangelicals place little emphasis.

Now, most Christian churches believe that the Spirit is received at conversion, baptism and confirmation, there has been a growth in the last fifty years or so of Pentecostal Christians, a  version of the evangelical movement promoting baptism of the Holy Spirit, which they see a distinct from baptism, but necessary. The Catholic Church believes that while there may be a genuine religious experience here, it is not necessary for salvation, but is an individual pathway for some. My own experience of this is tarnished a little by my having had a seventeen year old student in my religious education class who told me that I had to accept a religious assertion on her authority, as she had had this ecstatic experience while I had not. I was not well pleased with this student. The student was making the mistake of thinking that a religious experience confers authority on its recipient. She also erred in placing a charismatic experience higher than sacramental baptism and confirmation. Catholics believe that the Spirit given at the first Pentecost is given at confirmation through the church's ministry.

But it is important to realize that ecstatic or emotional experiences are not necessary signs of having received the Spirit. There can be quiet experiences. My own confirmation is an example. Aged nine, I expected a full Pentecost experience, but was quite disappointed when it did not happen. I pondered my experience and concluded that you did not need to  feel the Spirit. Over the years I reflected on my confirmation, then the realization dawned on me in my fifties. I had been given the gift or calling of thinking about my faith. It was a moment of enlightenment. But in discussions with evangelicals/charismatics I have always insisted that emotional highs are not necessary signs of reception of the Spirit and that there are sometimes quiet charismata.


The New Testament

The synoptic gospels state that at Jesus' baptism the Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and God declared Jesus his beloved Son. Christian teaching is that Jesus possessed the Spirit  as part of his membership of the Trinity, but  it was this issue that precipitated the split of 1054 between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Orthodox view was that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, but the Catholics, under the influence of French theologians argued that the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son. This arcane dispute should have gone nowhere, but for clerical arrogance, when Cardinal Humbert exceeded his authority  by excommunicating the Orthodox patriarch.  The churches have agreed that the Spirit proceeds primarily from the Father, but the split remains.

John's Gospel chapter 15,verses 25-26 depict Jesus saying that he will send the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father. This Spirit is known as the Paraclete, which means counsellor or advocate. The term counsellor seems most apt for the Spirit of truth. Note that the gospel has the Spirit coming from the Father, but Jesus  sending it. The passage is focused on the church after Jesus' death and resurrection. The church is to be a sacred community with Jesus at its heart, the Father a its focus and filled with the Spirit.

The Acts of the Apostles contains several instances of the receiving of the Holy Spirit, of which Pentecost is the one at the centre of the narrative. This is narrated in Acts 2, and was a collective religious experience shared by about 120 people, including apostles and Jesus' family [brothers and mother.] The experience was ecstatic, resulting in the strange gift of speaking in tongues, though   stranger   still was that those who listened to the apostles preaching heard them in their own language. The effect on the apostles was great, they gained the courage to spread the gospel against opposition and persecution, with Peter preaching to the crowd that had assembled. The experience was so profound that 5000 converts were made.

Speaking in tongues is a strange phenomenon, involving recipients speaking an unknown language, which linguists  say is not speeded up speech. Some people have the gift of interpretation, but the phenomenon is baffling and I can say little about it, except that studies confirm that those  who speak in tongues are not mentally ill. That neurologists have correlated the phenomenon with brain states is irrelevant, as all thinking involves brain states.

The apostles passed on the Holy Spirit to newly converted people through the laying on of hands, but only apostles [and by implication their successors]  could do this. The deacon Philip, who evangelized Samaria, had to send for Peter and John to lay hands on the Samaritans. But when Peter converted the centurion Cornelius the Spirit came upon the assembled converts prior to their baptism.

The early church also had prophets who spoke as the Spirit gave utterance. They were second in rank to the apostles, and one of them, Agabus, gave a message to Paul that he would be persecuted for his faith if he went to Jerusalem. The apostle Philip had four prophetic daughters. Prophecy did not survive, as it cannot be absorbed into the institutional ministry of the Church, but this does not mean that the prophetic ministry is dead. The Spirit can still work through inspired people.


Reflections on the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit has not been subject to as much theological controversy as Christ has.  Two heresies stand out. The Modalists, mainly operating in the early third century, believed that Father, Son and Spirit were merely different modes  of activity of the one God. The church rejected this because it underplayed the belief that God is  three persons in unity, one God, but in three distinct persons.

A second view rejected by the church was that the Spirit was not divine. This was taught by Macedonius  and is hence known as Macedonianism.  His followers were known as Pneumatomachoi, which means Spirit-fighters. This view faded out because it did not fit the  Christian insight that the Holy Spirit is the presence-power  of God indwelling human souls/minds.

Very important is the way in which the Spirit is represented in Christian art. It is never depicted in human form, but in keeping with the convention that God can be represented in forms in which he has been manifested the Spirit  is always shown as a dove [Jesus' baptism] or as tongues of fire [Pentecost.]  

But what is the function of the Spirit in the Christian life? The answer is sanctification, guidance and empowerment. Sanctification involves the development of a Christlike character in us. Becoming Christlike is the aim of the Christian life. We cannot do this by our own unaided power, we can move towards this goal only by the indwelling power of the Spirit, which constitutes our link with God. The Holy Spirit instils its recipients with the Christian spirit, the Christian attitude to life, and this shapes  its recipients' behaviour. 

Christians believe that the guiding power of God in their lives accessible through prayer is the Holy Spirit. It is not a case of hearing voices, but of receiving and clarifying ideas about what God wants you to do. Many people have a vocation, a  religious calling to serve in some way in the church and/or in society. Christians believe that vocations come from the Holy Spirit, who will guide you to the vocation that God wants for you. This guidance involves prayer and reflection on what God wants you to do with your life.

The Holy Spirit  is central to the Christian life. Christians should not neglect its guidance. Christianity is a faith that makes great moral and spiritual demands. The Spirit makes living up to these demands possible.

Updated: 07/11/2021, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 07/12/2021

Derdriu, I too like Be Thou My Vision. I also answered questions on Isaiah in my college examinations.

frankbeswick on 07/12/2021

The impediment to reunification is worsened by the fact that there is a schism due to the fact that the patriarch of Moscow is trying to usurp leadership of the church from the ecumenical patriarch in Istanbul. The Vatican is rightly siding with the ecumenical patriarch.

The word used to denote Jesus' brothers is adelphoi, which means brothers in the modern sense, whereas for Mary's cousin Eliizabeth Luke uses syngeneis, kinsperson. Note that John the Baptist, Elizabeth's son and therefore Jesus' cousin, is never called Jesus' brother. John of Damascus, writing in the seventh century, cites traditions of the Palestinian church that St Joseph was a widower with children when he wed Mary. Jesus/brothers came from Joseph's first marriage.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/12/2021

frankbeswick, Thank you for all the practical information, the pretty picture left of your title and the product lines.
In particular, I appreciate the Holy Spirit roundel.
You have written an empowering article with a powerful ending.
In particular, I also like your mentioning quiet moments with the Holy Spirit. Such quiet times always remind me of my favorite hymn Be Thou My Vision, my favorite Marian miracle at Knock and my favorite Old Testament prophet Isaiah.

blackspanielgallery on 07/12/2021

I noticed your reference to the Orthodox schism. I also was aware that the doctrine dispute is no longer an issue. Now, the impediment to reunification seems to be the Orthodox do not accetp a singular authority, rather a singular Patriarch merely calls bishops together and precides over meetings, but lacks authority to determine doctrine. This, especially coupled with the concept of infallibility of the Pope, the singular ultimate authority in the Catholic Church with others acting as advisors, seems to be blocking reunification. Other differences, such as who is considered a saint since they use pre-cannnization methodology, exist, but cannonization gets back to infallibility as an issue.

One issue in Biblical termnology that often starts arguments with thos who take the words of the Bible literally is a reference to Jesus. brothers and sisters. We were taught Mary remained a Virgin. The question came up, and the answer is in those days people often called cousins brothers and sisters. Actually, my father called one of his cousins his brother, so it has not died out completely.

There are so many points here, each of which could be an article in itself.

Your way of explaining without being confrontational is an asset, Happy to see you are again writing. I hope you are doing well, since I read recently in your comments your health issues were bothersome. I do hope they were only temperary.

frankbeswick on 07/12/2021

All language used of God is used analogously, in a qualified sense. This is so with all theological terms. Thus when the church wanted to say that the Son and the Spirit derive from the Father from all eternity they did not want to use language which implied that they were created beings, for creation necessitates time and beginning. So the church chose the term proceeds and gave it the sense that the Spirit and Son are co-eternal with the Father as his uncreated eternal self-expressions.

blackspanielgallery on 07/12/2021

I am unclear as to whay "proceeds" implies, since I always thought God always was, and the Trinity is and has always been there as a constant, but this term proceeds is often used. I realize time may not be relevant to God, but I struggle with proceeds seeming to imply a starting point. Can you explain the termnology? You have gone deep into theoloty here, and if that is as deep as you wish in this platform I understand. I also am well aware that we cannot fully understand God, He reserves much of His nature for Himself.

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