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What do Presbyterians believe about The Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit (3 Views)

Reprinted from the September 1985 issue of Presbyterians Today

Part 1
"God's Presence With and in Us"

By Arnold B. Come

There are five main emphases about the Holy Spirit in the Reformed tradition, as found in Calvin, the Westminster Confession, Karl Barth, and the Confession of 1967.

1. The Holy Spirit is God. That is to say, the Holy Spirit is understood strictly in Trinitarian terms. The Trinity is a doctrinal way of referring to the three ways God has of being God — all three simultaneously, and each always in active relation with the other two. This means that our experience of God as Holy Spirit always involves also our relation to God as Creator (Father) and to God as Mediator-Savior (Son).

God as Holy Spirit comes into our lives in and through and with God's creation of Israel and its history, in and through and with the coming of the Word of God in the "flesh" of Jesus of Nazareth. No matter how profound is our sense of the immediate spiritual presence of God in our lives, that awareness is always initiated, given substance and definition, corrected, and sustained in and through and with our being encountered by the eternal Word of the Creator — finally and decisively by that Word incarnate in the life-death-resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Holy Spirit moves within us, but there is no merging and loss of identity in the union of Holy Spirit and human spirit.

2. The Holy Spirit is God's most intimate, powerful and mysterious presence with and in us. God as Creator gives us our very existence and life, and sets the context and course in which we are to live it out. But this working of God is hidden, at a level not open to our discovery or direct awareness.

God as Word speaks to us through the wonders of nature and the discoveries of science, through the proclamations of prophets and the great events of history, and ultimately reveals the very being of God and God's will for our lives through Jesus the Christ. But all this remains somehow external, outside of us. We may know the way we should go, but lack the will to follow it. We need a deeper, inward helping. So the God who created us, and who when we lost our way took the step to come after us in Jesus Christ in order to open the way to eternal life, now takes a further step. He invades our inmost central being by the power of his love, enabling us to see that all that he has done and is doing in Christ is for us, out of love and compassion for us.

Even Barth finally said, "The being and activity of Jesus Christ has essentially and necessarily the form ... in which he turns precisely to the single human being, to you and to me, ... in which he makes common cause with a particular one precisely in that one's loneliness, in which his Holy Spirit speaks just to that one's spirit." And only by the power of this divine love are we enabled, freely, to respond in love, to accept the fact that we are accepted.

3. How does such an experience come to each of us? In a blinding, overwhelming, mystical sense of being caught up into oneness with God? Not in the Reformed tradition. God's love does not obliterate our own free struggle. God honors too much "the dignity, truth and actuality which belong to the individual Christian subject as such" (Barth).

Every major expression of the Reformed tradition agrees that the shape or form that this experience of God as Holy Spirit takes is faith, a relationship in which God takes the initiative to make it possible and the person accepts and responds with the heart. It is faith that saves us, not because of our response but because it unites us with Jesus Christ, from whom new life flows into us. As Calvin says, Christ remains an object of "cold speculation . . . at a great distance from us" unless and until we are united with him. And "it is only in the Spirit that he unites himself with us ... Only through faith does he lead us into the light of the gospel."

4. The Reformed tradition clearly asserts that this event of faith is a profoundly mysterious, even mystical, one. But it also asserts that it cannot be known or seen directly, consciously. It happens, but it is invisible, unanalyzable, indescribable. The truth of this event therefore comes to us in its effects.

The concrete shape of faith-union with Christ, of the coming of God as Holy Spirit, is twofold. It is the experience of forgiveness, the qualitative change in our relation with God (justification, reconciliation). It is also the experience of the newness of life, the gradual permeation of our entire life and being by the spirit of Christ (sanctification, but not perfection).

5. The coming of God as Holy Spirit into our lives is always and simultaneously both individual and corporate. There is no such thing as a lone Christian, living in his or her own relation with God in splendid isolation.

The Holy Spirit always comes to us and works within us through and with the Scriptures, the sacraments, and the communal worship and work of the Christian koinonia (church). And individual Christians find the fulfillment of faith in that work as it carries them beyond the church in order to shed the love of God abroad into the lives of God's children who are lost and lonely, hungry and oppressed, naked and in prison

— The Rev. Arnold B. Come, formerly president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, now retired and living in Greenbrae, Calif.

Part 2
"The Spirit Could Turn Us Around"
By Cecilio Arrastia

For many followers of John Calvin, the Trinity has been reduced to two Persons. We have some definitions of the function and the character of God as Father, we have some clarity when it comes to the role of the Son, but we are very imprecise when we talk about the reality of the Holy Spirit and his function in the Christian equation.

The Book of Confessions provides some answers to the question, What do — or should — Presbyterians believe about the Holy Spirit? The work of the Spirit of God is characterized both in relation to the individual Christian and to the church as a community:

The Scots Confession says, "We confess that the Holy Ghost does sanctify and regenerate us, without respect to any merit proceeding from us, be it before or be it after our regeneration" (3 :12).

The Westminster Confession of Faith is more detailed and specific. First of all, it tells us what the Spirit deserves and expects from believers: The Spirit is "to be believed in, loved, obeyed and worshiped, throughout all ages." This means that the Spirit is on the same level of dignity and majesty as that of the Father and the Son.

The Westminster Confession goes on to enumerate those gifts that the Spirit grants to the believer: "He is the Lord and Giver of life, ... the source of all good thoughts, pure desires, and holy counsels." The connection between our ethics and the work of the Spirit is clear and non-negotiable.

The writing of the Holy Scriptures and the proclamation of God's message by the prophets are the results of the work of the Spirit. "The dispensation of the gospel is especially committed to him."

In the central matter of redemption, nothing happens without the direct participation of God's Spirit. The Spirit is "the only efficient agent in the application of redemption." His actions are very well delineated: He is to regenerate men [and women] by his grace, to convict them of sin, to move them to repentance, to persuade and enable them to embrace Jesus Christ by faith, and to unite the believers, dwell in them and give them the spirit of adoption and prayer.

The Church is the outcome of the work of the Spirit, who unites believers to Christ and to one another. The Spirit also deals with the whole area of vocation: "He calls and anoints ministers for their holy office ... By Him the Church will be preserved, increased, purified, and at last made perfectly holy in the presence of God."

This controversial doctrine has been abused and deformed, and has been the cause of many divisions and heretical positions. The fact that our church often functions like a secular corporation and not like the mystical Body of Christ may be explained by the negation of the real presence and work of the Spirit in the life of the Christian community.

According to the Biblical narrative there were three moments in which the Spirit was given to the apostolic community. The first took place in Jerusalem in the days of Pentecost (Acts 2). This experience enabled the apostles to present the gospel to the wide community of dispersed Hebrews. It brought about unity in diversity, community without any interference, and it was the total reverse of Babel. On Pentecost there were many languages but a clear process of communication.

The second incident, described in Acts 10, is also very revealing. We read that "while Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word." The traditional, orthodox Jewish believers were "amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles."

Here we have the breaking of frontiers, the widening of the horizon of the Christian mission. Baptism becomes a privilege also of those who are "Gentiles." The universality of the gospel is dramatized. The Second Israel is according to God's grace, not according to genes or history or culture or tradition. Again the Spirit unites those God intends to bring together. It is a breaking down of classes within the Christian family.

The third vignette comes from the very corrupt and paganized city of Ephesus. Paul is explaining the difference between the baptism of John, by water, and the baptism of Jesus, by the Spirit (Acts 19). "On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them."

The Spirit is given to evangelize another family of Gentiles, the Greeks. The entire city of Ephesus is impacted by the proclamation of the gospel. Its economic, religious, cultural and emotional life is touched in a dramatic way. There is turmoil--riot and revolution. And there is the destruction of some old myths and the acceptance of a new way of life--"the Way" of the Lord.

In each instance, the Spirit is given for the fulfillment of a missionary task, to preach to the Diaspora community, to the Romans and to the Greeks. The giving of the Spirit is positive, and he is personal but social too. The Spirit consolidates the Christian family, and then sends its members out to proclaim and share the gospel, the good things that God has done in them, for them, with them.

If the Presbyterian Church, with its decreasing membership and number of overseas fraternal workers, could grasp this perception of the Spirit and this experience of his transforming, sending power, the Spirit could turn around our denomination ad majorem Dei gloriam ("for the greater glory of God"). Church growth would be a reality as a sign of the coming of the Kingdom, evangelism would not be a suspect word, and every day the Lord would add to the church those who are being saved.

— The Rev. Cecilio Arrastia, at the time of the original printing of this artical, was associate for Hispanic church development in the Congregational Development Program Office of the Program Agency.

Part 3
"Giver of Light And Life"
By Melicent Huneycutt

"Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs / Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

With these lines Gerard Manley Hopkins captures the fresh Genesis images of the Holy Spirit as Creator, brooding over the waters and nurturing them into light and life, and as the Breath of God, breathing personhood into the potent human clay.

Most Biblical images vivifying the person and work of the Spirit are images of life. The Spirit is life-giver, life-nurturer, the life surging in the creation and growth of human personality. Paraclete, the Greek name by which Jesus introduced the Holy Spirit, who was to walk beside and dwell within believers, is translated to express warm and growth-enhancing qualities: Comforter, Counselor, Advocate, Helper, Partner.

As Comforter, the Spirit first comes into our lives to show us that we were created to be like God; we were chosen before the foundation of the world to "be holy and blameless before him" (Ephesians 1:4). The Spirit helps us understand that our self-dissatisfaction grows out of awareness that we fall short of the glory God designed us for, and then as Comforter the Spirit leads us to hope in Christ, who yearns to be the Healer of our brokenness. Making us one with Christ, the Spirit becomes one with us, filling us with newness of life.

As "the One beside us," the Paraclete nurtures us while we discover our new selves in Christ. The Counselor guides and encourages us toward healthy attitudes and choices, the Advocate intercedes for and stands up for us, the Helper pours into us strength to live true to our new personhood, and the Partner shares in our struggles and our victories.

The Holy Spirit is the life of Christ in us. Like an iris springing from a dull, dry tuber, we are transformed by the Spirit's life surging into us. Some of us blossom overnight, while others grow slowly like a century plant — we each grow according to the God-seed planted in us and our healthy response to the Spirit's nurture.

Slow growers may experience "being filled with the Spirit" as a process; they may give to God level after level of themselves, being filled always with increasing joy and power to serve. Others may experience a sudden spurt of growth, a sense of God rushing into their persons and their lives in such a dramatic way that they try to find a special word for this event. Whatever the name we give to this transforming power, whatever the description of the process, we know that somehow we have been enabled to put ourselves out of the way so that the Spirit has become free to urge us to our full potential.

The evidence that we have been "filled with the Spirit" is not often a supernatural gift such as speaking in tongues, which some mistakenly see as the only "proof." Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 13 that the Spirit expresses life in us by fruit rather than by gifts. Love, joy, peace, courtesy ripen in those who yield themselves to the inflowing life of God through the Spirit. As unconsciously as trees bear their fruit, stretching their branches to the sunlight and drawing life into their abiding roots, the people of God as they mature delightedly and unself-consciously bring forth graces in their relationships. By these fruits, the indwelling Spirit is made known--and the true joyous self of each believer fulfilled.

The Spirit gives gifts even to the immature: the love to reach out to others, helpful hands-on service, communication with power. The purpose of gifts, however, is not so much to enhance the growing individual but to be the life of God in the whole body of God's people. Just as the Spirit brings to full personhood each one who welcomes the life of God, so the Spirit brings us into oneness with each other in Christ and surges in our common life to fulfill God's dreams for us as the Body of Christ.

Because the gift each of us brings to the Body is a channel for the flowing of God's love and healing power, believers have the responsibility for discovering, developing and using their gifts. Otherwise the life of the Spirit is stifled in one area or another. Fruitful folk are often those whose gifts are also most prodigally shared.

The greatest fruit, love, is also the greatest gift. Since our life in the Spirit is a life in God, and God is love, all the gifts we have are offered to the Body in the context of love and of delight in the healthy growth of the whole Church.

The Creator Spirit who works in each one of us, often futile and fragile people, to fill our lives with love and our beings with joy, creates an even greater miracle. Somehow that same Spirit infills thousands, millions of other equally frustrated folk and makes us together one living, fruitful, giving organism: the Church of the Living God, the Bride of Christ.

What beauty there is when we move in perfect harmony, responsive to the Life of the Spirit that makes us one!

Melicent Huneycutt, a former Christian educator and PCUS missionary to Korea and associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Evanston, 111.; at the time of the original printing of this article she was active in the Covenant Fellowship of Presbyterians and a member of the Joint Task Force to Write a New Directory for the Service of God.

Four Tasks Dealing With Our Belief
By James G. Kirk

Four specific endeavors that deal with what Presbyterians believe are under way in the PC(USA):

1. The Task Force on the Confessional Nature of the Church. Confessions are the church's witness to what it believes. They guide the church in its proclamation, offer content for education and directions for pastoral ministry and mission, and give opportunity in worship to offer God praises and thanksgiving. They thereby shape the life of the church.

It is not always clear what being a confessional church means in practice. The Task Force is seeking answers to such questions as: What were the issues that prompted the earlier confessions? What issues are crucial today? How did writers in times past confess their faith in response to the Holy Spirit's guidance, and what lessons can we learn from their witness? How did Scripture inform and reform the church's doctrine and teaching, and what faithful response are we to make in our day?

2. The work of the Special Assembly Committee to Write a Brief Statement of Reformed Faith will provide opportunities for Presbyterians to look afresh at their own faith and practice as well as that of the church catholic and ecumenical. The Committee will seek to learn from the Word of God what Presbyterians are to think, say and do in this particular time, situation and place in which God calls them to confession. It will explore concretely and specifically the theological, personal, economic and social issues the Word of God is calling the PCUSA to address as it shapes its mission efforts.

3. The Directory for the Service of God will provide opportunities to translate confessional heritage into the common work of praising and worshiping God. The Directory will be guided by that heritage that frees us to resist imposed forms but constrains us to obey God's Word in matters of worship, to be informed by our Reformed confessions, to be catholic rather than sectarian in scope and orientation, to be open to the richness of traditional and cultural ways of responding to God's grace, to assure an openness to the Holy Spirit's creativity, which is spontaneous and yet orderly, and to recognize that as we faithfully worship God, the Holy Spirit sends us to bear witness to Jesus Christ in the world.

4. In relation to the design for a Reformed and Presbyterian educational ministry familiar themes emerge: It will be reformed by the Word of God, Biblically grounded, historically informed, ecumenically involved, socially engaged, and communally nurtured.

To be reformed by the Word of God is to study both Scripture and the contemporary world for the sake of authentic worship and responsible mission. To be historically informed is to approach with appreciation the historic faith as evident in the confessions, linking us with the communion of saints through the ages. To be ecumenically involved is to be led by the Holy Spirit into becoming more aware of the oneness of the church, and to participating in mission with other denominations and in other countries. To be socially engaged is to follow obediently as God in Christ transforms the world, forms the church, inaugurates the New Age, and calls the church to participate in the liberating, reconciling work of the Spirit in the world. To be communally nurtured is to grow in the knowledge of God and obey Christ's call as we care for one another and serve those who are "outside the camp.

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