The Holy Spirit 1: Conceived by the Holy Spirit

Thu, 16/02/2012 - 18:50

Under the modern evangelical paradigm there are three main components to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. First, the Spirit is understood to be the third person of the Trinity. Secondly, the Spirit is the agent of personal renewal, the source of new life, the transformative power of the new covenant. Thirdly, as the “body of Christ” the church is endowed with varieties of “gifts of the Spirit” or “charismata”, such as prophecy, healing, and flower-arranging.

This provides the basic structure of our “pneumatology”—our theory of the Holy Spirit. Evangelical study and teaching will generally proceed by sifting what is said in the New Testament about the person and work of the Holy Spirit (that is already a very evangelical formula) into one of these three containers: theology, soteriology and sanctification, and ecclesiology. But what if we begin not with the theory but with the texts? How do the person and work of the Holy Spirit appear in the light of a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament? I plan to take a few posts to consider how things might look from this new perspective, beginning with the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in Matthew and Luke:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 1:20)

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. (Lk. 1:35)

The main point to be made regarding these texts is that they have have nothing to do with the metaphysics of incarnation. It is often assumed that the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit was the means by which he became both God and man, with Mary providing the human component and the Spirit providing the divine component. That is not how Matthew and Luke understand it. Both the conception by the Holy Spirit and the reinterpretation of Mary’s “virginity” in the light of Isaiah 7:14 point to the fact that Jesus was the one who, in the words of the angel to Joseph, would “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The event is to be interpreted according to the terms of Israel’s story not according to later theological developments.

This is also true for Luke 1:35. Isaiah tells the complacent women of Jerusalem to mourn, for the city will be a desolation “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest” (Is. 32:15). In the Septuagint the Spirit “comes upon” the unrighteous women as for Luke it “will come upon” the righteous woman Mary. The parallel statement that the “power of the Most High will overshadow you” recalls Exodus 40:35:

And Moses was unable to enter into the tent of witness, because the cloud was overshadowing it, and the tent was filled with the glory of the Lord.

The image is not of God entering the sphere of humanity but of God dwelling in the midst of his people. Whereas Ezekiel had seen the glory of the Lord depart from the temple at the time of the exile (Ezekiel 10), Luke suggests that the glory of the Lord will return as a result of the birth of this child.

The references to the conception of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit are spare, but it does not take a lot of digging around to find that they were intended to evoke the beginning of a narrative about the salvation of Israel. This does not take away from the miraculous nature of the event—that is a different matter. But it does call into question certain later christological assumptions.

The critical point to grasp here is that, as far as scripture goes, “Son of God” does not mean “God the Son” or “God incarnate”. The “Son of God”, in this context, is Israel’s king (it can also denote other individuals and the community of Israel itself which stand in close relationship with YHWH). The popular idea that as “Son of Man” Jesus is human and as “Son of God” divine is simply wrong. Both refer to human figures, who may be exalted, for different reasons, but who are not confused with God himself.

In this respect, the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit is the precursor to his baptism, where he is publicly acknowledged as God’s son, and several other statements in the New Testament, including Romans 1:1-4:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord….

Comments

Doesn’t Matthew 1:18 “before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” suggest that the birth account does have to with the metaphysics of incarnation?

Doesn’t Matthew 1:20 also suggest that the pregnancy was not from Joseph, nor from any other person, but the Holy Spirit? - “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

It’s highly likely that similar uses of words and phrases in different contexts provide pointers to the meaning of words in the Matthew and Luke accounts, but context is king. In Matthew and Luke I can’t see much room for doubt: they are describing a virgin birth in which the agent of conception was the Holy Spirit.

Any narrative reading of the passages will have to take account of this won’t it?

I agree that Matthew and Luke describe a supernatural conception. My point is that they do not interpret that supernatural conception as the means by which God becomes flesh—at least, not in the sense that we normally understand that idea. They interpret Jesus’ supernatural birth as a sign that this is the child through whom God would restore Israel—or even, in Matthew’s case, as a sign that God would judge Israel. We could perhaps argue that “through whom” points to an instrumental basis for understanding the incarnation, but “instrumental” is not “metaphysical”.

Maybe I’m a bit daft, but I feel like I’m missing something. I follow what you’re saying about how “… the glory of the Lord will return as a result of the birth of this child.”

Where I’m a bit foggy is why the incarnation through the Holy Spirit, as the majority of Christendom understands it, is incorrect.

Are they mutually exclusive? Can they be both?

Thanks for pushing for clarity. I’ll have another go at it….

Whatever Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit might mean apart from the texts, my argument is that Matthew and Luke do not take it to mean that his supernatural conception was the basis for his being both God and man. It’s all about how they tell the story—and, in particular, how they use the Old Testament in order to bring out the significance of the event.

Matthew interprets it in the light of or as a fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14, which has nothing to do with God becoming man; it tells the story of how God will be present as Immanuel in the midst of his people when they face destruction.

Luke takes a different approach, but the effect is the same. Jesus’ miraculous conception is understood as a sign that God is about to restore his people through this “Son of God” who is to be born.

The critical point to grasp here is that, as far as scripture goes, “Son of God” does not mean “God the Son” or “God incarnate”. The “Son of God”, in this context, is Israel’s king (it can also denote other individuals and the community of Israel itself which stand in close relationship with YHWH). The popular idea that as “Son of Man” Jesus is human and as “Son of God” divine is simply wrong. Both refer to human figures, who may be exalted, for different reasons, but who are not confused with God himself.

In this respect, the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit is the precursor to his baptism, where he is publicly acknowledged as God’s son, and several other statements in the New Testament, including Romans 1:1-4:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord….

I have added these last paragraphs to the post above—I was in too much of a hurry when I wrote it.

We were typing at the same time. Thanks again for the clarification.

I suppose it all comes down to the question of which narrative Jesus was fulfilling, how he was fulfilling it, and the rather larger question provoked by the birth accounts (and much else in Matthew and Luke) of what kind of person Jesus actually was. The more I consider that question, the more laughable it seems that Jesus could simply be described as acting in the role and model of Old Testament prophet alone.

The first part of the narrative of Isaiah, in 7-8, fulfilled in the invasion of Assyria, bears similarities with the invasion of Israel by Rome in AD 67-70, but with the very different outcome that in the former Jerusalem was spared but in the latter it spectacularly wasn’t. “Immanuel” as used by Matthew already means something very different from what it meant in Isaiah 7.

The narrative of Isaiah 7 continues to Isaiah 9, in which “the son” (verse 6) reflects the fulfilment (verse 7) of the promises made by God to David (2 Samuel 7:12-16). In Matthew and Luke, the sense in which these promises are being fulfilled becomes a matter of extraordinary interest not only as to how those extraordinary promises would be fulfilled but as to who this person was, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb without the aid of male insemination.

The interest is heightened by the development of Jesus’s unique relationship with God. No other Old Testament figure was affirmed as a “son” as Jesus was at his baptism. The link with Nathan’s unique prophecy to David - “I will be his father and he shall be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14) stimulates enquiry as to what kind of son he was. The extraordinary relationship which Jesus enjoyed with God as ‘Father’ is unique. Nowhere else had this relationship been seen before as it was seen in Jesus.

So we have “Immanuel” being given augmented meaning in Matthew. We also have a very different kind of person in Jesus from anyone seen before, relating uniquely to God as “Father” in a highly augmented kind of “son” relationship to God, which can be described as new because it had not been seen before.

“Son of God” when used to describe Jesus means something very different from its previous application to kings, angels or Israel, and did not turn out to be anything like the expectations that had been formed about “Son of God” as messiah. All these developments are brought to bear on the phrase as it is used to describe Jesus. The birth narratives confirm that Jesus was a very different person from anyone with whom he could be compared in Israel’s history, and far more than a messiah figure who came to deal with Israel’s historic enemies in the way that Israel had expected and had seen in her previous history.

As I read the birth narratives of Jesus, they are not proof-texts for a divine incarnation, but signposts to the nature and status of Jesus within the narrative, for which I can find no other adequate category than divine Son of God, as well as fulfilled finite man within his unique prophet, messiah, servant, king, priest figure in Israel’s narrative. But then the question of which narrative we are reading, and how that is written into gospels and letters, is another topic of overriding interest.

Sorry, Andrew, the comments were not loading on my computer yesterday for some reason. You answered my question in your reply to Peter.


Shalom

I have been making some changes to the site, and not everything is working quite right yet. That may well explain the problem you had.

I appreciate the goal of allowing each Gospel to speak for itself, trying to understand it the way its original audience would have, rather than filtered through centuries of theology and tradition.

I do think there are at least a couple of things you need to address:

— The observable likelihood that NT writers did not always use OT citations strictly according to their original context.

— The fact that Luke is likely “Volume 1” of the two-volume “Luke-Acts” set. While Matt may safely be considered on its own, I don’t know that Luke should be taken in isolation from Acts.

For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit is always something that I have a difficult time discussing with my older ministry students. Therefore, you can imagine how excited I am that you’ve decided to write a series of posts focusing on the topic. Thank you so much for giving me some great ideas about how to approach the Holy Spirit!

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