‘Theologians have described him as […] the ‘dark side of the moon in Christian theology’, and ‘the stealth weapon of the Church’.’
God Inside Out: An In-depth Study of the Holy Spirit
By Simon Ponsonby
Published by Muddy Pearl
The third person of the Trinity is the third article in the creeds, and sadly often ranked third in theology. Yet, as we shall see, ‘from the stand-point of experience, the Spirit is first’. Indeed, notably in the early Orthodox tradition, late fourth-century prayers like the Trisagion (meaning ‘thrice holy’), which undoubtedly reflect earlier devotions, are unapologetic in praying to, invoking and worshipping the tri-personal God. The Spirit was clearly regarded as central to worship very early on. It was only when the deity of the Spirit and the Son, who were worshipped, was placed under threat by errant theology, that the creeds were formulated to reassert the Church’s belief. The doctrine of the Church did not arise at the councils and with the creeds, but was represented and firmly established by ecumenical councils. Theology articulated spirituality and worship, not vice versa.
Nevertheless, in the fourth century Gregory of Nazianzus called the Spirit Theos Agraptos, the God who nobody writes about. Theologians have described him as ‘the Cinderella of theology’, ‘the orphan doctrine of theology’, the ‘dark side of the moon in Christian theology’, and ‘the stealth weapon of the Church’.
The name ‘Spirit’ is a translation of the Old Testament Hebrew word ruach and the New Testament Greek pneuma. Both terms cover a range of meanings, including wind, breath, air, blowing – all of which find resonances in the biblical text. It was not exclusively used for God, but was a term applied to the individual’s immaterial identity (Psalm 32:2); of a demonic entity (1 Samuel 16:14); of the natural wind (Exodus 14:21); and of the innermost soul of a being (1 Corinthians 2:11). The term ‘Ghost’ (from Old German Geist) found in older translations, is now somewhat misleading due to its change in meaning.
As a divine designate, Spirit conveys the idea of a powerful force which smites Israel’s enemies (Judges 14:19); of the breath from God which sustains life (Job 27:3); and also of the mysterious presence of God ‘who blows where it wills’ (John 3:8), whose origin and destination remain elusive. In John 20:22 Jesus prophetically breathes on the disciples and says: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’, the unction enables their commission – the ministry of forgiving sins where forgiveness is sought in Christ.
The agony of the cross is also the glory, because through it we are restored to God and may receive the Spirit. As Jesus dies, John writes: paredoken to pneuma, ‘he gave up the Spirit’ (John 19:30), not his spirit. Symbolically John is showing that it is the Holy Spirit, not the personal spirit of Christ, which is being released here. Then, after the resurrection, Jesus meets his disciples, blesses them with peace, and breathes on them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven’ (John 20:22f). The cross is the fount from where the forgiveness of sins is purchased, and from where the Spirit is poured forth.
Owen suggests that a ‘peculiar work of Spirit’ was resting over the Beloved’s body in the tomb, not allowing it to see decay (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:31). He says: ‘The pure and holy substance was preserved in its integrity by the power of the Holy Spirit, without any of those accidents of change which attend the dead bodies of others.’17 Whether or not this was so, we know that the power of the Spirit was in the tomb, resurrecting, revivifying, raising Jesus bodily from death to life, from the shadows to light, from the grave to glory.
Speaking of this, the ancient apostolic Creed states that Jesus was ‘vindicated in the Spirit’ (1 Timothy 3:16) – his great power worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule, authority and every power.
God Inside Out: An In-depth Study of the Holy Spirit by Simon Posonby is out now published by Muddy Pearl priced £12.99.