Introductory thoughts on Pneumatology

It’s a fancy word and it means the study of the spirit, that is, the Spirit of God. The following thoughts are a synthesis from three sources: Ephraim Radner’s book “The End of the Church”, Jürgen Moltmann’s book “A Theology of Hope” and a course on pneumatology by André Birmelé at the University of Strasbourg.

I love my wife. There’s me, there’s her, and then there’s this thing called our relationship. It’s really more than just me plus her; it is life itself. In fact, you could define life as the total of our relationships. Who am I? As soon as I state my name I am referring to the parents I come from, if mention that I am a father, husband, brother, worker, friend, or any other descriptor, I am referring to relationships. At its most basic, you can’t be in existence without an organic relationship to atleast two people. You are your relationships.

So let’s skip all the history of theological debates about the Trinity and go with this analogy: God exists, he speaks, and he has a relationship with his Word. This is the Trinity: the Father, his Word that is spoken into human existence, and the love between them, their relationship, which is the Holy Spirit. What moves God, what qualifies him, the love that is him, that is the Holy Spirit. As the care, the provision, and the intimacy that I show my wife is the action of our relationship, so the love of God and his works of love toward himself and us in his Son is the work of the Spirit.

We will look at the Holy Spirit from two perspectives: 1, what he does throughout history, and 2, what he does individually. We can sum up both with the following statement: The Holy Spirit moves Christ and his people through time by God’s promises and his acts of loving faithfulness.

It would be difficult to speak of the Holy Spirit without speaking of Old Testament prophecy. It’s curious, actually, that when Israel settled down from nomadic life into the sedentary, temple-centric life of Palestine, they didn’t adopt the sedentary Gods of their neighbors (well, ok, I guess a large number of them did). A nomad god is very different from a sedentary god in ancient Near Eastern religion. The nomad god is a warrior, himself on the move. A sedentary god is generally “epiphanic”, that is, he “appears” at certain times and certain places, giving meaning to geographic worship places, and marking the rhythm of agricultural seasons. Whereas Israel’s God never really settled down. He did sort of; they built him a temple anyway, but he wasn’t stuck there. As Solomon prayed in the dedication of the temple: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (I Kings 8:27). He goes on in his prayer to show that the temple was not for God’s benefit, but for the people’s, so that they could have a place to come and be forgiven of their sins. God himself was always moving forward, forward through time. He did this through his prophetic promises.

The classic way to introduce a prophet’s message in the Old Testament is to say that the Spirit of God came upon him. Prophecy is indisputable the work of the Holy Spirit. But let’s get it out of our heads that prophecy is somehow future-telling. That’s magic, and that is not what prophecy is. Prophecy declares God’s promise, and interprets the times in function of God’s promises. It is by the promise and fulfillment of promise that the Spirit of God moved his people through time, took them from being physical nomads, and turned them into spiritual ones. But they weren’t wandering; they were walking straight toward a sure promise. They did this by obeying the law, a law summed up by the command “You shall love the Lord your God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is where the macro work of the Spirit is one and the same as the micro work of the Spirit: God’s Hesed, or his covenant, loving faithfulness. The job of prophecy was to connect the two, thus moving God’s people forward in love for him and for one another.

The interesting thing about God’s promises is that they developed. To Abraham, God would multiply him and make him a “blessing to all nations”. To Israel (the “multiplied Abraham”) he would deliver them and give them a promised land. Once in that land he would give them a king. When Israel got her king God promised to make his throne last forever in righteousness. When the descendents of David failed, the prophets played a pivotal role in developing “messianism”, or the understanding that the Davidic promise was to be taken up by a future “anointed one”, possibly even two of them (one high priest and one king). With the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the promise of God is to be with his people in the present and also to create a kingdom of righteousness and peace forever in a new creation for the future. God’s Spirit interprets himself as his new promises interpret the previous ones and reshape them and enlarge them for the future, always along the lines of God’s loving, covenant faithfulness to his people. So God’s people live his past promises in the present because they are their hope for the future (this is why pneumatology is inseparable from eschatology.) And that hope is always being expanded: both more real for the present and greater for the future. Because this was the work of prophecy/revelation, it is the work of the Spirit.

The revelation of God’s Word incarnate, Jesus the Messiah, continues this process of fulfillment/repromising, but also radically reoriented the promises of God towards eternal life, the kingdom of God being not a physical one, but one that dwells in the hearts of his people. He is Immanuel, God-With-Us. He physically and personally fulfilled God’s promises to Israel, but he did it in such a way that he formulated a greater promise: that God’s Spirit should be in the hearts of his people and keep them until the new creation. The Holy Spirit is God’s life, and the gift of life to his people. As Paul states to the Galatians: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). He thus ties both the historical salvation of God’s people and the life of love to which the people are call to the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ.

This may seem problematic for students of church history who know that the life of God’s people has been marked by anything but the observable fruit of that same Spirit. When we come up against this and similar quandries in Christian theology it is always instructive to look to the life of Him after whom the theology is named. It was by the Spirit that Jesus accomplished his ministry (Matthew 12:28). It was by that same Spirit that he was brought to give his life on the cross and certainly by that Spirit that he was raised (Romans 1:4). As Jesus cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” this too was the work of the Holy Spirit. So this is the grace of God: that even our failures to act as the body of Christ, in love for one another, are taken, by the Spirit, and nailed to the cross with all of our other sins. In other words, the division of the God’s people in history are also part of the sufferings of Jesus on the cross—a work of the Spirit for our salvation. It is not insignificant that Jesus said “this is my body” over bread that was broken so that his people, who take that bread and become his body, are not condemned therein for their brokenness. While the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of unity (Ephesians 4:3), neither is its antithesis outside the bounds of his work. For in Christ’s work on the cross the Spirit showed that even brokenness—division—is providentially directed for a “cruciform” work in the church. It is a breaking, yes, because of sin, but providentially, also for life.

The implications for this are far too broad for the present essay. I would only point in a few directions. As Christ was “deadened” to the sense of his father’s presence, so too the church in her divisions, whether in gifts of prophecy, repentance, tongues, miracles, love, hospitality, anointed preaching, or any other demonstration of the Spirit; the senses have been deadened in the church’s divisions. But let us remember, this is not outside of Christ’s very experience. Nor is it, then, without redemptive purpose. As the Spirit spoke through isolated prophets when Israel was torn in two, scattered and deported, enslaved and oppressed, so he speaks and makes himself evident as he wills. God’s people are called to be faithful and wait, for we know that his promises are fulfilled. For his Spirit does not abandon his work, drawing his people ever onward toward the new creation.

Nor does the church’s experience of “deadening” of its senses to the work of the Spirit hinder the Spirit from working as he always does on the individual level, both for quickening and for deadening. For the Spirit makes every person alive when they are united to Christ through faith (Romans 8:9). As Israel lived the future promises in the present through obedience to the law, Christians also live God’s promises in the present, but not through the law. Because what we are promised is Christ, and the life of his Spirit, so we are given Christ for the present. Thus baptism into Christ is baptism into his Spirit (Mark 1:8). Jesus gives us himself because his Spirit is life. While scripture (and particularly the book of Acts) speaks of baptism of the Holy Spirit, often accompanied with tongues, it would be misinformed to separate this from Jesus’ baptism that he instituted. For Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 links the two: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” We receive God’s Spirit through baptism into Christ because it is the Spirit who keeps God’s people until they shall be with Christ forever, as Jesus said in his “high priestly prayer”: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13). The Spirit brings the goods (truth, eternal life, the fruit of the Spirit, a relationship with God) that are ours in Christ, goods which sharpen our desire to live in the hope of the life to come.

Thus the Spirit draws the individual into the cosmic plan of God’s promise and fulfillment by giving Jesus to that individual, the very promised plan himself. Therefore that person joins a communion that is primarily the love that God shares in himself, and secondarily, the love that he creates for his people to share. This doesn’t make life a cake-walk; the love of God, while present, is still something promised and looked forward to. In the apparent contradiction between the love of God that is given to us and the non-love that is experienced in the world, we come back to the point made when dealing with division in the church: the cross of Jesus assumes in itself the contradiction, thus making us and our sin even the tools of the Holy Spirit for the experience of that cross and the means of redemption and life through repentance. Indeed, his is the Spirit who “groans” (Romans 8:26). In this way each of us is carried ever onward by that Comforter who tirelessly extends to us his sure promise of life.

I conclude with the articles on the Holy Spirit from the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicea-Constantinople Creed, with punctuation added to clarify the relationship between the Holy Spirit and his work:

Apostles’ Creed:
“I believe in the Holy Spirit:
the holy Christian church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.”

And from the Nicean Creed:
“And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost:
the Lord and Giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father,
who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified,
who spoke by the prophets.

Nathanael Szobody

Husband, father, and working for Christ's kingdom in Chad.