The Disciples of Christ and the Spirit in the Biblical Narrative

This is part two of my conversation regarding the Holy Spirit for Disciples, part of a more expansive theological conversation that I would like to stir up. In this posting I invite us to look into the biblical narrative for guidance regarding the Spirit today. 


We Disciples are a biblical people. The Founders decided that creeds were not needed if we gave ourselves to Scripture, and Scripture alone. In fact, Alexander Campbell was an advocate of focusing on the New Testament witness. In the restorationist vision that we embraced, the goal was the restoration of the pristine New Testament church. We Disciples have largely given up on the restorationist vision, though I think there is value to be found in that old restorationist vision, in that it involved a commitment to a biblical faith [See chapter 3 in my book Freedom in Covenant, (Wipf & Stock, 2015)]. With that, I’d like to continue our conversation about Holy Spirit in Disciples Theology, by looking at the way the Spirit is portrayed in the biblical narrative.

The Spirit of God makes an appearance at the very beginning of the biblical story, brooding over the chaos as God begins to create (recreate) the universe (Genesis 1:2). In Genesis 2, God breathes the Spirit into creation, giving to humanity the breath of life. The Spirit is always present in the story, but we see the Spirit mentioned at specific moments, connected with specific tasks. Thus, it is by the same Spirit of God who is there in the beginning of creation that enables the prophets to bring the message of God. Look at Micah 3:8; where the prophet claims to be filled with the Spirit of God, as well as with justice and might. In Psalm 33:6 we find word (dabar) and Spirit (ruach) standing in relationship to each other. In Genesis 41 the Spirit comes upon Joseph, bringing him dreams and as well as their interpretation. There is also a strong connection between the kings and the presence of the Spirit. Saul receives the Spirit at the time of his anointing as king, as is true of David after the rejection of Saul (I Sam. 10:1, 6; I Sam. 16:13).

Since none of the kings of Israel or Judah lived up to their calling, we find descriptions of a hoped for messiah who will fully live out the sacred kingship and be filled with the Spirit (Is.11). The book of Judges is an interesting story of the charismatic leaders of Israel between the time of Joshua and the kingdom of Saul. George Montague notes that the foundation of this leadership is the presence and work of the Ru'ach Yahweh. Judges tells of a series of leaders, Judges, who are called out to lead and defend the loosely federated tribes of Israel. The right to act on behalf of Israel stems from the Spirit of God. Thus, we read of Othniel, Gideon, Deborah, and many others. 

While there are continued descriptions of the invading presence of God’s Spirit in particular times and places, there is also the promise of a broader, more general outpouring of the Spirit of God on all people.  For instance, in Isaiah 59:20-21 we hear that the Spirit is to fall upon all the people and that God's word would not depart their mouths. In Joel 2:28-29 we see the promise of the Outpouring of the Spirit at the end of the age, when by the Spirit the sons and daughters will prophesy, and the old men will dream dreams. It is this vision that is picked up in the Pentecost story (Acts 2). There is the promise of a new covenant in the Spirit (Jer. 31:31). Promise of a new spirit to be given to the people of God.  Ezekiel sees a vision of a valley of dry bones, that is the people of Israel, which is brought back to life by the Spirit, as a vision of the renewal and resurrection of the people of Israel after exile (Ezk. 37:1-14). On Ezekiel’s picture, George Montague writes:
This classic picture of the restoration in terms of a resuscitation of the dead bones is not, in the author's view, a prophecy of bodily resurrection as it was understood in the New Testament.  But it is a graphic symbol for the rebirth of the nation, and the relation of Spirit to this symbolic resurrection prepares for the New Testament association of the Holy Spirit with the resurrection of Jesus (Rom 1:4) and of the Christians (Rom 8:11) [George Montague, The Holy Spirit, (New York: Paulist, 1976), p. 48].

When we speak of the Holy Spirit, we speak of immanence/presence of the transcendent God. As we see in the Psalm, we cannot escape the presence of God. Clark Williamson notes that this idea of presence is developed in the Mishnah, later Jewish reflections, as the doctrine of the Shekinah, “the all present one.” From the Mishnah’s conception of presence of the Shekinah comes that familiar statement in Matthew, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20). In the Mishnah it goes: If two sit together, and the words of Torah [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” [Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life, (Chalice Press),, pp. 232-233].

When we turn to the New Testament narrative, we find a direct connection between Jesus and the Spirit. The Spirit is present and active in the conception of Jesus (Mt. 1:18-20; Lk 1:35). The Spirit falls upon Jesus at his baptism by John in the Jordan, at which point God calls him to a ministry of sonship (Mt 3:11-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:15-22; Jn 1:29-34). The Spirit then leads Jesus into the wilderness where he faces the temptations by Satan (Mt. 4:1ff.; Mk 1:12-13).  Jesus finds the foundation of his ministry in the Spirit's presence in his life. The Spirit has anointed Jesus so that he could preach the good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed. (Lk 4:14-21; Isa. 61:1-2). We find Jesus in a series of spiritual confrontations, especially the exorcisms of demons. Jesus, therefore, is portrayed as the one endued with the Spirit and thus is the conqueror of the Spiritual realm. If Jesus is endowed by the Spirit, he is also the dispenser of the Spirit to others. He is, in the words of John the Baptist, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and power.

The witness to the Spirit’s presence continues, and even expands as we move on through the New Testament. Consider how the Spirit’s presence at Pentecost not only empowers, but unifies, reversing Babel’s confusion of languages (Gen. 11:1-9), as the Spirit empowers the people of God to speak the word in the tongues of every nation. Speech in other tongues, that is in languages or sounds that are unknown or foreign to the speaker, occurs four times in Acts, and in each case, it comes as the church reaches across humanly constructed boundaries to fellowship. The first occasion could be less the crossing of a barrier and more the opening of a door to a new experience of the Spirit, but the others are more focused on crossing boundaries.  In the first instant, the voices speak of Jesus to the Jewish Diaspora. The second instance is more implicit than the others. Tongues are not mentioned but something happens to confirm the outpouring of the Spirit on Samaritan believers, bearing witness to the extension of God’s reign to include the outsider. Though Luke does not offer a description of the event, traditionally it has been assumed that a gift of languages occurred (8:16ff).   Tongues mark the crossing of another boundary, that which separates Jew and Gentile. Cornelius and his household receive a gift of tongues as confirmation of God’s invitation to Gentiles to join in the kingdom of God (Acts 10:46ff). The final passage is somewhat different, in that the recipients are Jewish disciples of John the Baptist who know of Jesus but not of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1). Again, tongues seem to represent a sign of inclusion. This pattern is intriguing, but it does not provide an explicit or normative precedent for the church

Each of these images used to describe and understand the Spirit, from breath/wind to power, from comforter/advocate to divine presence, speak to God’s immanent presence both in creation and in human experience. They also underline God’s freedom to act. Traditional Christian theism emphasizes God’s transcendence, sometimes to the point of losing all contact between creator and creation. Although we need to remember that God is not a human being, that God does transcend human experience, both the doctrine of the incarnation and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit remind us that God also resides in and with creation.  Perhaps we can even see God encompassing creation within God’s being.&

Jesus declared himself to be a bearer of the Spirit. He claimed the mantle of the one on whom the Spirit of God had fallen.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk. 2:18-19).
Jesus’ own sense of calling to Spirit-endowed ministry points us toward our own calling. This calling is to make known God’s work of reconciliation. It is a call to join with God, who dwells within us by the Spirit, in a ministry that will inaugurate a new creation, a world that is not only better, but one that will reflect the love that is God.  Endowed with the Spirit, we will shine God’s light into the world’s darkness. 

Alexander Campbell tended to lock up the Spirit within the Bible. Once the New Testament was complete, God’s revelation was complete. At times the religion of Campbell was focused on the head more than the heart. His friend and colleague Robert Richardson, while embracing much of Campbell’s teachings, including the cessation of the gifts of the Spirit, understood that “the religion of Christ is designed both for head and for the heart. It is intended to embrace whole man in body soul and spirit and to secure every faculty and every department of human nature its appropriate office and its most harmonious It is hence absurd to attempt to establish any contrariety between the religion of the heart and the religion of the head or to seek to exalt the one to the depreciation of the other” [Richardson, A Scriptural View ofthe Office of the Holy Spirit, Cincinnati, 1875), p. 197]. Richardson improved upon Campbell here, but still there was little room for God to continue speaking anew. Campbell was, something of a strict constructionist, and there were reasons why he pursued this path. Living on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening, he found overly emotional religious life to be problematic. Influenced as he was by Enlightenment thinking, he embraced a reasonable faith. It was effective on the frontier because it spoke to people who were frustrated by calls for religious experience as a sign of salvation. Simply following biblical patterns made for a calmer, more secure faith. But, as Richardson noted, that wasn’t enough. The question now is how 21st century Disciples will allow the Spirit, so beautifully described in Scripture, to work in our midst?   [For a fuller discussion of the Spirit, see my book Unfettered Spirit:Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, Energion, 2013].   

Note: the image is the logo of  Memorial Blvd Christian Church, St. Louis, MO


Anonymous said…
Thanks you, Bob, for this review of the Holy Spirit as it appears throughout both Testaments, and how Alexander Campbell regarded it in his theology......It cleared up some questions I've always had about Campbell's theology....Thanks again for your easily readable review of an important subject.

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