Reflection: Equating Jesus and the Holy Spirit
This reflection was initially written for my course Introduction to Christian Theology in Winter 2011.
The reading from Faith Seeking Understanding finally provided an explanation for me of something that we had also discussed in Early and Medieval History. It was the question of the filioque: whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son. I’m not sure exactly which stance of the two I would take if I were forced to choose – I suspect both formulae are too simplified to capture the relational dynamic of the Trinity – but pages 232-233 helped me understand and reflect on the meaning of the difference.
First, I’ll look at the Western view that is more familiar to me. Initially this was appealing to me as I, like most of the Western church historically, tend to be very Christocentric. I can very easily sympathize with the claim that if you separate the Spirit from Christ, it would be very easy to justify anything because of the leadings of the Spirit. Of course if they’re actually leadings of the Spirit, they would be in agreement with the work of Christ and the Creator anyway. The problem comes when the leadings supposedly of the Spirit are not in agreement with Christ. If they are separated too far, there is no grounding for a testing of what the Spirit is actually saying. One of the listed gifts of the Spirit in Scripture is that of discernment of spirits. Depending exactly on what you think that means (and I haven’t done much looking into it) it seems like a very necessary gift from the Spirit in order to discern whether you are really hearing from the Spirit of God or some other spirit or even simply your own thoughts. This is usually the critique I hear of more charismatic movements: when it’s only about the Spirit, it is at least theoretically easy to end up with a Christianity that has very little to do with Christ.
More interesting, as is usually the case, are the arguments against the understanding which I previously held. In discussing the dangers of the filioque, Migliore stated that it can make the Holy Spirit subordinate to Christ. I’ve often heard it said by one of my own favourite preachers that the Holy Spirit is in a way the humblest member of the Trinity because the Holy Spirit points us to the work and person of Christ. Arguably then, the Holy Spirit is pleased when we do listen to those leadings and focus on Jesus. I would probably accept the claim that the Spirit points to Christ – although with little explicit Scriptural study on the question – but it does lead to another question: where is that fine line between following the leadings of the Spirit toward Christ and simply ignoring the Spirit?
Alternatively, the filioque can join Christ and the Spirit to be essentially one person of the Trinity. I think I tend to do this, maybe just because I tend to focus a lot more on the unity of the Trinity than on the difference of the three persons – I do the same to a slightly lesser extent between the Christ and Creator relationship and the Spirit and Creator relationship. A lot of things that would be historically (and probably biblically) considered the work of the Spirit, I tend to say is Jesus. One of my mentors over the last few years liked to say “just listen to Jesus” and he meant what Jesus/the Spirit was saying now, not explicitly the text of the historical Jesus in the Bible. I’ve generally adopted this language but I am now pondering whether it is entirely accurate. The Trinity is a tough doctrine so I’m not sure there is a clear answer.
So all in all, I remain Christocentric. I think that the historical reality of God in flesh forms the basis of everything for our Christian lives. I’d argue that the Bible is ultimately about the story of Jesus and I’d argue that the Spirit points us to Jesus. We cannot lose sight of the realities of the Incarnation, teachings, death, and resurrection of God made flesh. We need to be grounded in that history. I also acknowledge the concern that this could very easily turn into a focus purely on the past. If we live entirely in the past, even the beautiful past of God at work in the flesh, it is easy to lose track of what God is doing now. This is undoubtedly partly why we have so many “spiritually dead or dying” churches in the West. By ignoring the Holy Spirit, we can lose the vibrancy and meaning of faith by settling only for the cold hard facts of 2000 years ago.