Experiencing God’s Presence in the World: Thoughts on the Holy Spirit for Disciples of Christ

We pick up again the conversation on Disciples Theology with a series of posts on the Holy Spirit. These psts are part of a project that I have been working on over the years to write a short theology for Disciples of Christ adherents. I invite you to join in the conversation.


The Holy Spirit receives very little attention in the early creeds. Early theological conversations tended to be more binatarian than Trinitarian. At times the Holy Spirit appears to be an add-on to the emerging Christian definition of God. In the Disciples of Christ theological confessions, such as they are, the Spirit again stands in the background. The Preamble to the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)simply declares: “In the communion of the Holy Spirit we are joined together in discipleship and in obedience to Christ” This may fit well with the Disciples Enlightenment origins, but as Harvey Cox suggests, we stand at the edge of an Age of the Spirit, a Pentecostal age, which has born the greatest fruit in the Global South He writes that "the tidal shift of the world’s Christian population from the “north to the global South is one of the reasons for the present decline in creed-bound Christianity, the revival of faith, and the birth of an Age of the Spirit"[Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, (San Francisco:  Harper One, 2009), p. 199]. The fact that there is growing interest in the Holy Spirit, it would be a mistake to ignore the person and role of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology, including Disciples theology. To gain a deeper understanding of the Spirit would be helpful to set out what Christians have said about the Spirit over time, including the Biblical witness.

Christian discussions about the Holy Spirit reflect, in general, a Trinitarian perspective. Otherwise, the word is simply descriptive. God is spirit, just like God is love. In most cases Christian usage has something more specific in mind than simply offering a description of God’s non-corporeal existence. The one of whom we speak is the one who is “one with God in essence, gifted by the Savior in eternal love; she is the key opening the scriptures, enemy of apathy and heav’nly dove” [John Bell, “She Is the Spirit,” Chalice Hymnal, (Chalice Press, 1995), 255].

As Christians, it’s likely that when we think of the Holy Spirit, we think of Pentecost. That is, the Sunday in the life of the Church when we remember that empowering presence of God fell upon the church, transforming a fearful community into a dynamic force.  As they prayed together, the Spirit fell upon a group of believers, gathering in an upper room, like “a mighty wind.” The message of Pentecost is that when the Spirit falls on a community, the walls of that community cannot contain the Spirit.  And on that day, as the city was full of pilgrims, the gospel message was heard. That is, as the Spirit compelled the church, the believers gave witness to the risen Lord, Jesus the Christ. Thus, a new movement was born.  In this group of Christians, and all who follow in their footsteps, Christ is present to the world.

As the Spirit breathed new life to that gathered group of Jesus’ followers, a church was born.  Ordinary people took on extraordinary callings and in time this new movement left its mark on the world.  The Spirit drew these first disciples together, empowering and gifting them, so that they could go to their community with a word of healing: “Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk’” (Acts 3:6). This is the message of the church.  God will not leave your life unchanged. That earliest community of faith, like their descendants, gathered for worship and prayer. They comforted each other when they were hurting, they gave generously so no one was in need. At our best, the church has continued that tradition. We serve meals to the homeless and build homes for them as well.  Such a church, in the words of Fred Craddock, is “going out and serving other people who are not even grateful, hurting when anybody else hurts, emptying their pockets for other people’s children, building a Habitat house when their own house is in bad need of repair and the paint is peeling, going to the woman’s house and mowing her lawn when their own grass is twelve inches high” [Fred B. Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001), 69]. When the Spirit comes, be in store for changes. Our hearts begin to focus on our neighbor, what does she need? When we receive, with open hearts, the presence of the Spirit, we hear the call to change the world so that peace, justice, mercy will reign.

The point of Pentecost is not the spectacle of tongues of fire; it is the transformation that occurs because the Spirit is in the midst of the church. As the church opens its doors to this refreshing wind of the Spirit one should expect to find a community that is learning to live out the two great commandments: love God and love neighbor.

God is present in the church, which is the body of Christ.  It has been the Christian confession that if you know the church, then you know Christ, and if you know Christ, you know God.  Finally, if you experience God’s presence, then you are experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Who is or what is the Spirit of God?  What is this life-giving force that we confess is present in our churches and in our lives? The English word “spirit” has many meanings and connotations; they range from “vital principle” to “soul” to “incorporeal being.” God is, we confess, spirit. That is, God is without material form, and yet God is something more than an ephemeral wisp of smoke. While mindful of the limits presented by human images and metaphors, we have traditionally confessed God to be more than an impersonal force, one that can be manipulated for human benefit. However, we understand personhood, the biblical portrayal of the Holy Spirit is that of the intimate presence of God in human life. This Spirit is a divine presence that is both personal and free from human manipulation; as the immanent presence of God, the Spirit remains a transcendent “determining subject” who is free to act. [Bryan Stone, Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 134-35]. Regarding the Spirit, we cannot merely say the right words or perform the proper rituals and expect the Spirit to act. When we experience the Spirit’s presence and activity, we do so with openness to the unexpected. But, when the Holy Spirit acts in our lives, we are awakened to new possibilities for life and we are energized to carry them out. [Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, Margaret Kohl, trans., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 10-11].

In trying to understand the person, character, work of this Holy Spirit of God, we must turn to the person of Jesus.  In the gospel of John, we hear that the advocate will bear witness to Jesus.  Therefore, to know the Spirit is to know Jesus.  We know what the purpose of the Spirit is by looking to Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings.   A good shepherd will not run from danger (Jn. 10:11ff).  A loving father welcomes home the prodigal with open arms (Lk. 15:11-32), the one who loves forgives without counting the number of transgressions.  Enemies are embraced, persecutors resisted gently, but earnestly.

The Spirit may be elusive, but at the same time it’s possible to know the true Spirit of God.  You can test those who claim to speak for God.  The Spirit, Fred Craddock reminds us, “does not speak apart from or contrary to the historical Jesus (John 16:12-15).  Rather, the Spirit keeps the voice of Jesus a living voice in the church” [Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B, (Valley Forge, PA:  Trinity Press International, 1993), 284-85]. 

The question remains—who is the Spirit? From the early creeds we get a sense that the Holy Spirit is a doctrine that is largely undefined. We skip quickly through definition of the Spirit, noting that the Spirit—in Trinitarian language—proceeds from the Father and is the “Lord and Giver of Life.” It’s not until the end of the fourth century that Christian theologians, such as Basil of Caesarea, gave any real thought to the nature of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, for a variety of reasons, in part due to fear of what was once called “enthusiasm,” there has always been an attempt to contain the work of the Spirit—even if the witness of Scripture suggests that this is impossible.

The Disciples, perhaps because we don’t have a strong Trinitarian theology, seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of the Spirit. Writing in the Christian Baptist, Alexander Campbell declares: “God now speaks to us only by his word. By his Son, in the New Testament, he has fully revealed himself and his will. This is the only revelation of his Spirit which we are to regard.” [Alexander Campbell, The Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, Royal Humbert, ed., (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1961), p. 113.] Where do you find the Spirit?  For Campbell, the answer was simple:  in the Bible, of course. In a later work, The Christian System, he offers a broader view, but still one that is closely guarded.
And since the Spirit himself ceased to operate in all those splendid displays of supernatural grandeur, by still keeping the disciples of Christ always in remembrance of the things spoken by the holy Apostles, and by all the arguments derived from the antecedent blessings bestowed, working in them both to will and do according to the benevolence of God, he is still causing the body of Christ to grow and increase in stature, as well as in the knowledge and favor of God [Campbell, Christian System, in Compend, p. 123].
The Spirit is not expected to act in distinctive, powerful ways, as was experienced by early Christians.

Although the Spirit is conceived of in Trinitarian terms, there is a tendency to speak of the Spirit in abstract/impersonal terms, rather than personal terms. Struggling with this concept, however, will prove helpful. Perhaps one way of doing so is to conceive of the Spirit as part of a part of a community of persons, and beyond this, the Spirit is the creator of community. Disciple theologian Clark Williamson writes:

The Spirit today calls us to accept and actualize new relationships of mutuality and respect between and among the various religious and ethnic communities of humanity.  Spirit gives and calls us to a praxis of love. [Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999), p. 230].
Still, the question of personhood remains present.

As Disciples, our theological conversations begin in conversation with the Scriptures, and more specifically the New Testament. As we’ve already discovered there is great freedom for differing views within the movement, because we do not all read the Bible the same. That said, it is important to address the Spirit in Scripture. 

Part Two will pick up the biblical testimony.


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