By the Rev. Philip Cunningham
I had a Greek professor in seminary who had the amazing ability to make things less clear by speaking about them more. I thought of him as I began to write this article about the Holy Spirit, because I think there is a similar danger – the more we talk about the Holy Spirit, the more elusive it may become. Or as the great theologian Princess Leia put it, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”
Much of our understanding of the Holy Spirit is experiential, and trying to tighten the screws too much may lead to a distancing rather than intimacy. But that being said there are a few general things we can say without losing the power of and our connection with the Holy Spirit.
At the most basic, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity after the Father and the Son. The Spirit is, as the Nicene Creed points out, worshiped and glorified just as Father and Son. When Christian thinkers try to describe the Holy Spirit they often go to the Bible (not a bad idea) and find the Spirit at work in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, in Genesis, some have said that when God created the heavens and earth, the Trinitarian formulation was already in place. God the Father was the initiator of the action of creation, but the actual words were God the Son (a theme picked up on quite famously in the opening of John’s Gospel), and the breath that caused the words was the Holy Spirit.
In trying to determine the exact role of the Holy Spirit, the early Church fathers concluded that the Holy Spirit was truly God, but that it functioned differently than the Father and the Son. Taking the biblical evidence and other writing, three primary roles have generally been accorded to the Holy Spirit across the ages and these are: revelation, salvation, and the Christian life.
In the action of revelation, the Holy Spirit shows us God and God’s truth. The Holy Spirit, in magician terms, reveals to us what is behind door number two. It is important when thinking about this to realize that this revealing, just like the magician’s trick, is something that we do not and cannot do ourselves. What we know of God comes from God: in the words of the Sunday morning offertory, we affirm that “All things come of thee O Lord.” Included in those “all things” is knowledge of God. And just as with all the other things that come from God, we must choose to receive and interact with them.
When we talk of the Holy Spirit’s work in terms of salvation, we mean that the Holy Spirit changes us so that we can become more like God. The Holy Spirit dwells in us so that we can move and grow toward the likeness of God and are therefore able to ultimately dwell with God for eternity. Our lives are a journey into holiness, and the Holy Spirit makes this holiness possible. If you like, you can think about salvation as a reclamation project wherein broken humanity is “fixed,” and that being “fixed” is the work of the Holy Spirit. We cannot grow into God’s likeness of our own power and will, but only through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Christian Life
Finally, the Holy Spirit helps in living the Christian life. Just as the Apostles did not know what to do until the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit takes us from being lost individuals to ones who live their lives in a Christian manner. The Holy Spirit is what guides the steps (hopefully) of the Christian Community to walk in God’s will and delight in his ways. Often the Holy Spirit is associated with a sort of meditative quiet wherein we are inactive. However the biblical witness shows more often than not that when the Spirit comes upon people they are energized. They live a life that interacts with and engages the things of creation. The Holy Spirit does not call us away from life but calls us into it, so that we can be God’s hands and feet on this earth living the Christian life.
The Rev. Philip Cunningham is rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2013 edition of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
Philip says, “We cannot grow into God’s likeness of our own power and will, but only through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
What are the areas in your life where you would like to grow more into God’s likeness? Are you willing to ask the Spirit to help you?