A couple of years ago I was having coffee with a local Roman Catholic priest. There was no real agenda, just an opportunity to meet and get to know one another. One thing he said has stuck with me. We were discussing various developments and changes within the life of the wider church, and the appeal to the Holy Spirit in those changes, to which the priest remarked, “Oh how we manipulate that little dove.”
His comment is most insightful.
In an age of the Church that is wrestling mightily with disparate and seemingly irreconcilable views on a host of theological subjects, the “Holy Spirit” is played as a kind of incontrovertible trump card to settle once and for all any given argument. The problem is that it is the same Holy Spirit who is used to justify any number of opposing positions; thus this priests observation, “Oh how we manipulate that little dove.”
Historically speaking, every five hundred years seems to be marked by a formative development in the life of the church. Five hundred years in were marked by the great Christological controversies which resulted in the ecumenical councils of the church and the historic creeds. One thousand years in the churched suffered her first and most tragic split with the great schism between the East and the West. Fifteen hundred years in, at least in the West, were marked by the Protestant Reformation. We are, of course, at another 500 year make in the life of the Church. Naturally, thoughtful Christians everywhere are pondering what mark will be left.
Many early arguments are being made that the Church is entering the Age of the Spirit. Books and articles are being written on the subject. In an age in the Church when her teaching and practice are, in many respects, moving further and further away from both Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, the easiest and most convenient justification of divine authority and blessing is made by appealing to the work of the Holy Spirit “doing a new thing” in the life of the Church.
But how can we know if a teaching or a practice has in truth come from the Spirit of Truth, or from another spirit altogether? How can we discern what is actually the work of God the Holy Spirit in the 21st Century Church? Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the teachings of the undivided Church have much to say on this subject, and we do well to heed their counsel in what is shaping up to be a very theologically muddy period. Our Lord himself in today’s Gospel promises his disciples that, “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
First, let’s take note the manifestation of the Holy Trinity. God the Father will send God the Holy Spirit in the name of God the Son. There is no Holy Spirit apart from the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is sent “by the Father in the name of the Son.” If the spirit that is being appealed to is not the Spirit of the All-Holy One-in-Three God, then we can be certain to have moved beyond the bounds of that which can be described as the Christian Faith.
Second, notice that the Holy Spirit is sent in the name of the Son of God. And we know that name. That name is Jesus. It is telling to note that for as much as references to the “spirit” have been increasing in recent years, so too, it seems, are references to the name of Jesus decreasing. In some corners of the Church it almost feels as if the Godhead Himself is being wholly replaced by appeals simply to “the spirit.”
But Our Lord tells us plainly that the Holy Spirit, the actual Spirit of God, is sent by the Father, in the name of the Son, and that name is Jesus. St. Paul reminds us that, “no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians (12.3). And Our Lord also warns that “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Matthew 8.38).
We do well to take heed and beware any teaching that appeals to the Spirit, but is allergic to the holy name of Jesus, and the confession that He is King of kings and Lord of lords.
Thirdly, Our Lord instructs that the Holy Spirit will teach us all things, adding that He will bring to mind “all that I have instructed you.” In other words, the wisdom and counsel and Truth of the Holy Spirit are not separate from the teachings of Jesus, to the contrary they amplify, and illumine and magnify and glorify and fully reveal and make manifest the teachings of Jesus, which are the very Word of God the Father.
St. Didymus the Blind writes, “The Holy Spirit who then comes in the name of the Son from the Father shall teach those who are established in the faith of Christ all things . . . But he will teach, not like those who have acquired an art or knowledge by study and industry but as being the very art, doctrine, knowledge itself.” (ACC John 14, p. 150). In other words, the Holy Spirit is not merely the messenger, but as part of the Godhead He is in a mystical sense the very message itself!
St. Gregory the Great writes, “It is only right that Jesus promised, ‘He will teach you all things,’ because unless the Spirit is present in the heart of a listener, the teacher’s utterance is useless. No one should attribute to this teacher what he understands from him, because unless there is an inner teacher, the one outside is exerting himself in vain. You all hear equally the single voice of the person speaking, and yet you each have a different perception of this meaning. The voice is not different — why do your hearts understand it differently? Is it not that through what the speaker’s voice counsels generally there is an inner master who teaches each one individually about its meaning? John says this about the anointing of the Spirit: ‘His anointing teaches you about everything’” (ACC John 14 p. 151).
In other words, if Jesus delivers the message, it is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us who inhabits and overrides our fallen inner master to illumine for us the true meaning of the message!
A 20th entry Russian Orthodox priest Fr. Kyril, speaking about the literally hundreds of Christian denominations asks the question. If we all believe the Bible to contain the fullness of the truth of God, and if we all believe we are speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit, then why do we “not all teach the same thing,” and why do we “consider one another as being lost?”
He goes on to share this illustration. “Let us assume that a jug of crystal clear water was brought here. Each one of us is holding an absolutely clean glass. Let each of us scoop up clear water with his glass from the common vessel. In all the glasses there will be seen absolutely identical clean water.” Let us consider that the Holy Scriptures are the source of the purest water. Why is it then, that when different denominations scoop up water from it, they get unidentical water, unidentical teaching?”
He concludes that the reason for the difference is that it is the glasses that are not clean. The glasses represent our reason, our weak human minds. What St. Gregory would call our “inner master.” They are not clean, he says, because they are filled with much sophistry and destructive fantasy. When this is applied to the pure Word of God, the teachings become muddled and contradictory to one another, and unhealthy, just as dirty water is unhealthy.”
This is a very strong word, and one worth pondering. In truth, our divisions in the Church are a mark of the absence of the Holy Spirit, or at least a sign that He is not fully present, that the fullness of His Truth is muddied by our pride. As St. Paul writes, “There is only one body and one Spirit” (Ephesians 4.14). Our divisions within the church cannot be a sign of the unity of the Spirit, but only of our brokenness and inability to receive the pure and unadulterated Truth of the Holy Spirit.
God the Father has sent God the Holy Spirit in the name of God the Son. We cannot understand the Son apart from the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, and we certainly cannot be guided by the Holy Spirit apart from the Word of the Father; Our Lord Jesus Christ. As we continue our pilgrimage through this new age, if it is to be the age of the Spirit in the Church, let us make certain that it is the Holy Spirit of the Triune God that we are being filled with.
Our calling is not to manipulate this little dove to suit our own desires, but to open our heart to the fullness of the Holy Trinity, and receive this Spirit of Truth, that He might lead us into all Truth.
Adapted from the sermon. Audio available here.