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Wilshirite: Nicene Christianity 11

Here is Craig the Wilshirite’s review and interaction with chapter 10 of Christopher R. Seitz?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s Nicene Christianity [Update: For reasons unknown, yesterday I only managed to get the last part of this post posted. It is now posted in its entirety. Sorry for the confusion!]:

In Thomas Smail?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s Nicene Christianity essay, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìThe Holy Spirit in the Trinity,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù we hear the first grumblings over the inadequacy of a section of the Nicene Creed. The third article of the Creed is simple and unadorned in comparison to the majestic first article and theologically rich second article. This is largely for historical reasons, as the church was fighting christological heresies in the fourth and fifth centuries, not pneumatological ones. (I might propose a theological reason, as well: the third article is elegantly short, because it is not the Spirit?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s nature to draw attention to himself. In his work, he is constantly pointing to the Father and the Son.)

Today, however, I believe?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùas does Smail?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthat orthodoxy is endangered by pneumatological heresies coming at it from all sides. I have already pointed in a previous post to the dysfunctional eschatology of evangelical Protestants. This is, at its core, a heresy stemming from an inadequate understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. We can see other heresies of this type in all quarters of the Body of Christ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùfor example, the unanchoring of the Spirit from the Son by Pentecostals (evidenced in doctrines such as tongues and the separate baptism of the Spirit) and the subordination of the Spirit to the Son by Catholics and magisterial Protestants (papal and biblical authoritarianism, respectively). It becomes important to examine the biblical and patristic understanding of the Holy Spirit so that we may restore orthodox balance to our praxis.

Most of Smail’s essay deals with the filioque controversy and the relationship between the persons of the Trinity, but I will begin by reviewing the clauses of the original, ecumenical Nicene Creed on which Smail expands.

The Deity of the Spirit

The Creed joins the New Testament in declaring the deity of the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinitarian Godhead. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, so he is of the same ?¢‚Ǩ?ìstuff?¢‚Ǩ¬ù as the Father. In the same way that Jesus declared he was God by claiming the power to forgive sins, so the Creed and the church have declared the Spirit to be God by acting to ?¢‚Ǩ?ìworship and glorify?¢‚Ǩ¬ù him with the Father and Son.

Smail writes:

The consequences of this identification are crucial. What the Spirit does is not a human work, or the work of some spiritual energy that is immanent to our humanity or to the created order, but a work of God. If it is through the Spirit that we come to believe the gospel and to appropriate corporately and personally all that the Father has done for us through the Son, none of this is a possibility for or an achievement of our own inherent spirituality; rather, it is a gracious work of God within us?¢‚Ǩ¬¶.

To speak in Pentecostal terms for a moment, the initial evidence of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community is not the manifestation of spiritual gifts but the confession of the Father and the Son. As Paul puts it ?¢‚Ǩ?ìNo one can say ?¢‚ǨÀúJesus is Lord?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ except by the Holy Spirit?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (1 Cor 12:3 NRSV) and ?¢‚Ǩ?ìGod has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, ?¢‚ǨÀúAbba! Father?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (Gal 4:6 NRSV). By such criteria, anyone who confesses the lordship of Christ and who has been brought into an Abba relationship with the Father is a charismatic Christian, regardless of whether or to what degree that person has manifested spiritual gifts. Because the Spirit is who he is in relation to the Trinity, his chief work is to bring us also into relationship with the Father and the Son and to integrate us into their saving work in the world. (150-151)

The distinct and ongoing work of the Spirit suggests his unique Personhood within the Trinity:

?¢‚Ǩ¬¶[T]he way in which he is a trinitarian person is different from the way in which the Father and Son are trinitarian persons. They are personal subjects to whom we relate and whom we trust, confess, serve, and approach in prayer and worship. He is the personal subject who enables that relating?¢‚Ǩ¬¶. As James Packer has memorably put it, the Holy Spirit is like the floodlighting on a great cathedral on a dark night. If the lights are not switched on, you cannot see the cathedral. But if the lights are on, you defeat their purpose if you do not look at the cathedral to which they point, but look instead into the lights and become dazzled and disoriented in the process. (152)

How many in the church today are dazzled and disoriented?

The Spirit as Giver of Life

If the Son is the Word of God, it might be appropriate to think of the Spirit as the medium that carries the Word, or the wind on which the Word travels to men. The Spirit is not the source of life, but is the communicator; not the source of our salvation, but its entry way for people. The Spirit enables our relationship with God:

Life has its source in the Father, it becomes incarnate in the Son, and it is imparted to us in the Spirit?¢‚Ǩ¬¶. In the New Testament the Spirit is the Spirit of the future rather than the Spirit of the past, and although the God of the end is also the God of the beginning, in the Spirit we are people whose concentration is directed far less to where we came from than to where we are going. (153)

The Procession of the Spirit

The controversial portion of the Nicene Creed did not come until the filioque (Latin, meaning ?¢‚Ǩ?ìand from the Son?¢‚Ǩ¬ù) was adopted by Rome. In an effort to further reinforce the deity of Jesus, the West changed the ?¢‚Ǩ?ìprocession clause?¢‚Ǩ¬ù of the third article from ?¢‚Ǩ?ìwho (that is, the Holy Spirit) proceeds from the Father?¢‚Ǩ¬ù to ?¢‚Ǩ?ìwho proceeds from the Father and from the Son.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

In the 1100s, the Eastern Orthodox churches rejected the papal insertions of the filioque. This became a chief cause of the separation of Eastern and Western Christianity. Even after we get past the political problems swirling about the filioque, a real problem remains: the ecumenical church has never adequately answered the question of the relationship of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. This unanswered question has implications for the longer-term questions of how to bring about the reunification of Christian denominations (conciliarism is, in my opinion, the best answer), as well as consequences for the shorter-term perspectives of the church.

The only way to heal the open wounds of the church is to go back to the Bible?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùback to the bedrock of our faith. Smail analyzes various texts of the New Testament (for example, Jn 14:26; 15:26; Mk 1:8 and parallels; Acts 2:33) and concludes, ?¢‚Ǩ?ì[T]he New Testament witness, expressed particularly by John but confirmed by the other evangelists, is that the Spirit is sent by and from the Father but also through and by the incarnate Son. The manner in which the Father and Son are involved in that sending is described in a way that enables both sides in the controversy to make a credible appeal to texts that validate their positions.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (155)

Smail then uses the remainder of his essay to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the Eastern and Western understandings, and consider how the two might be reconciled.

The Eastern Position: the Father Alone Breathes Out the Spirit

The East has used Irenaeus?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ terminology to describe the Son and the Spirit as the two hands of God, ensuring the personal prerogative of the Father to send both. Of course, this acknowledgment of the Father?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s primacy is the strength of the Eastern position, and it is in line with scriptural understanding.

But the weakness here, as Smail sees it, is that

it does not make sufficiently clear how the coming of the Spirit is related to, cradled in, and dependent upon the coming of the Son?¢‚Ǩ¬¶.

This christological orientation of the Spirit goes unmentioned in the creed of 381. Such a silence can have dangerous practical consequences. If we loosen the connection between Christ and the Spirit, we are in danger of severing one of the nerve centers of the New Testament gospel. If Son and Spirit are seen as semi-independent expressions of the divine life of the Father, it might be possible to be in the Spirit without being in the Son, to have a valid relationship to God that is not mediated by Jesus, or to try to reach the Father by some other spiritual path than the one true and living way he has given in Jesus. There is at least the possibility that something like this has happened in Orthodoxy. Karl Barth claimed to have discerned in Russian Orthodoxy a tendency to lapse into a Christless mysticism simply because it did not emphasize clearly enough that the sure sign of being in the Spirit is to confess that Jesus is Lord. (157)

This divorce of the Spirit from the work of Christ can also lead to the types of theological wanderings seen in the contemporary Western church. Second-blessing Pentecostalism is a direct result of the view that the Spirit and the Son control different areas of salvation, and ?¢‚Ǩ?ìit can very easily run off into a kind of charismania in which speaking in tongues, falling down on the floor, or having tooth fillings turned into gold become the authenticating marks of life in the Spirit, distracting our attention from the priorities of the gospel of Christ.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (158)

Smail theorizes that a similar bifurcation might be the source of the separation of spirituality from sound doctrine. American religion today is more about seeking ?¢‚Ǩ?ìspirituality?¢‚Ǩ¬ù than entering into a relationship with Christ:

If we construct an understanding of the work of the Spirit that is separated from an understanding of God?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s self-revelation in history, the spirit we will find is more likely to be our own spirit than the Spirit of Christ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùa spirit that is immanent to our own humanity rather than the Spirit who is given to us by the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord. To find that spirit we will be tempted to embark on all sorts of introspective inner journeys into ourselves rather than the outward journey beyond ourselves into Christ. (158)

Smail concludes his analysis of the Eastern pneumatology by reminding the reader that Eastern theologians have not neglected this area, despite their refusal to recognize the filioque: ?¢‚Ǩ?ìGregory of Nyssa says that although the Spirit proceeds from the Father, he is also ?¢‚ǨÀúof the Son,?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ and indeed we may say that he proceeds ?¢‚ǨÀúfrom the Father through the Son.?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (159)

The Western Position?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄùBoth Father and Son Spirate the Spirit

Driven by the need to combat Arianism, the West has inserted the filioqueto assert the equal deity of the Son and, as a result, has been less concerned about the primacy of the Father. Smail states, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìAugustine argues that because the Son is as much God as the Father, and because it belongs to the divine nature to originate other divine persons or hypostases, the Son and the Father, who share equally in the divine nature, must also share equally in the origination of the Spirit.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (160)

Smail theorizes that a similar bifurcation might be the source of the separation of spirituality from sound doctrine. American religion today is more about seeking ?¢‚Ǩ?ìspirituality?¢‚Ǩ¬ù than entering into a relationship with Christ:

If we construct an understanding of the work of the Spirit that is separated from an understanding of God?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s self-revelation in history, the spirit we will find is more likely to be our own spirit than the Spirit of Christ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùa spirit that is immanent to our own humanity rather than the Spirit who is given to us by the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord. To find that spirit we will be tempted to embark on all sorts of introspective inner journeys into ourselves rather than the outward journey beyond ourselves into Christ. (158)

Smail concludes his analysis of the Eastern pneumatology by reminding the reader that Eastern theologians have not neglected this area, despite their refusal to recognize the filioque: ?¢‚Ǩ?ìGregory of Nyssa says that although the Spirit proceeds from the Father, he is also ?¢‚ǨÀúof the Son,?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ and indeed we may say that he proceeds ?¢‚ǨÀúfrom the Father through the Son.?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (159)

The Western Position?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄùBoth Father and Son Spirate the Spirit

Driven by the need to combat Arianism, the West has inserted the filioqueto assert the equal deity of the Son and, as a result, has been less concerned about the primacy of the Father. Smail states, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìAugustine argues that because the Son is as much God as the Father, and because it belongs to the divine nature to originate other divine persons or hypostases, the Son and the Father, who share equally in the divine nature, must also share equally in the origination of the Spirit.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (160)

The strength of the West?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s position is that it anchors the Spirit to the activity of the Son in a way that the East, creedally, does not. However, the weakness of the filioquelies here, as well. The Spirit is effectively subordinated to the Son. Following the Augustinian logic, how can the Spirit be a fully divine person if He has no part in bringing forth any divine persons?

Smail explains:

Attention is so concentrated on Christ that the Spirit and his work can be neglected and sometimes almost forgotten. It is possible to be Christ-centered in a way that stops believers from being open to the Spirit and causes them to see the Spirit not as a distinct divine person who, with the Father and Son, is to be worshipped and glorified, but simply as the postascension mode of action of the exalted Christ. Hendrikus Berkhof has proposed to reduce the three divine persons to two, thus carrying to its formal conclusion the Western tendency to depreciate the Spirit in favor of the Son. From this point of view, we can understand the Pentecostal movement as a protest against the exclusive christocentricity of Western Christianity in both its Catholic and Protestant manifestations. The Pentecostals, on the positive side, have reminded us that as well as the fixed point of what Christ has revealed to us and done for us once and for all, there is the spontaneous and creative action of the Spirit with all the expectation, enthusiasm, and openness that it brings. The ordered ?¢‚Ǩ?ìgivenness?¢‚Ǩ¬ù of the Word has to be set in the context of the ?¢‚Ǩ?ìlivingness?¢‚Ǩ¬ù of the unpredictable Spirit. The saving deed done on Good Friday and Easter long ago has its contemporary effect in the present inbreaking of the Spirit in Pentecostal power. (161-162)

It is easy to see how a lack of understanding of the Spirit?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s proper role has allowed authoritarianism?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùof both the Roman papal and Protestant biblical varieties?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùto creep into the Western church. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìIn worship, this can lead to the rigidity of a fixed liturgy and the even greater rigidity of a minister-dominated free church service where the freedom of the Spirit to act spontaneously among and through the congregation is inhibited rather than encouraged, feared rather than expected.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (162)

In all of this, in both the East and West, we see a fundamental neglect of the scriptural text that speaks of an interdependence between the Son and the Spirit.

It is true that the Spirit is dependent on the Son for the normative content of what he conveys to us, but it is equally true that the Son is dependent on the Spirit for his powerful words and action in human history.

The Son owes his incarnate life to his conception by the Spirit in the womb of Mary. The Spirit is the gift of the Father to the Son in his Jordan baptism, and he acknowledges his dependence on the anointing of the Spirit by quoting Isaiah in his sermon at Nazareth: ?¢‚Ǩ?ìThe Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (Luke 4:18 NRSV). The Son is who he is because he has received the Spirit from the Father and does what he does in the power of the Spirit. It is the Spirit who has been at work perfecting Jesus?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ humanity that Jesus then breathes on us to perfect ours. (Nicene Christianity, pp. 162-163)

A Possible Solution

Smail weaves all of this together in the final section of his essay. The answer to reconciling the Eastern and Western pneumatologies would seem to lie in pulling together the strengths of each one?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe Spirit comes from the Father through the Son, retaining the primacy of the Father and anchoring the Spirit?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s procession to the Son; and, on the flip side, the Son comes from the Father through the Spirit, emphasizing the mutual interdependence of the Son and Holy Spirit. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìBoth have their ultimate source in the Father, but each does what he does and is what he is in dependence upon the other. Their relationship is better described in terms of coordination than of subordination.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (164)

In that vein, Smail proposes that the West drop the filioque to remove the offense committed against the East and that there be two ecumenical alterations to the Nicene Creed, as follows:

  1. Change the procession clause in the third article to ?¢‚Ǩ?ìthe Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù
  2. Modify the second article to declare that the Son ?¢‚Ǩ?ìis eternally begotten of the Father through the Spirit.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

technorati tags: christianity, christopher r. seitz, ecumenism, nicene christianity, nicene creed, orthodoxy

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