I argued with respect to Pentecost that the outpouring of the Spirit was interpreted by Peter as an eschatological rather than ecclesiological phenomenon. It was a sign—not least because the Spirit was experienced as a power to speak prophetically—that a time of crisis was approaching, from which only those Jews who called on the name of the Lord would be saved. This is a straightforward extension of Jesus’ own prophetic proclamation to Israel. The Spirit is received as the power to bear witness to the resurrection (Acts 1:8), to proclaim the mighty eschatological works of God to Jews of the diaspora (Acts 2:11), to foresee the judgment that was coming on Israel (Acts 2:17-18), and to declare to the rulers of Israel that the people could be saved from destruction only through Jesus (Acts 4:8-12).
This post is really just for the good folks—Marv in particular—at the Theologica forum, who have been earnestly discussing my views on the virgin birth and my perceived cageyness regarding the divinity of Jesus. Marv has responded to the complaint that the defenders of orthodoxy are unwilling to discuss the actual analysis of the text with a lengthy and, I think, constructive comment that can be found here. It deserves a proper response.
Let me say, first, that I am all in favour of “orthodoxy”, but I am inclined to think that biblical orthodoxy should take precedence over theological orthodoxy. Or to put it another way, I see no reason why the philosophically informed reading of the New Testament that prevailed in the fourth century should be regarded as a more reliable guide to interpretation than a historically informed reading in the twenty-first century. I think that the historical reading of the New Testament—quest for the historical Jesus, New Perspective, etc.—has brought us to the point at which we at least have to ask the question whether formulae generated under the peculiar intellectual conditions of early Christendom still offer the best way of making sense of the narrative of Christian origins. That is another debate. For now I want to focus on Marv’s argument with respect to the Synoptic Gospels.
I remarked in my post about Jesus baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire that there is “no reason to generalize or spiritualize” John’s prophecy of a coming judgment on Jerusalem: he is saying no more and no less than that the city faces military destruction as a consequence of the sins of its residents. KarenL picked up on this point and suggested that by the time we get to Acts 1:6-8, we do indeed have to generalize the narrative because the whole world has come into view: the disciples are sent as witnesses to the end of the earth, and soon the Gentiles will be granted “repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
She rightly points out that the disciples here “express very clear Israel-centered eschatological expectations”, but in what way or to what extent does Jesus correct these expectations? Do we see here the beginnings of a generalization of the “Israel-centered” perspective, a move beyond the Jewish narrative? I don’t think so, for the following reasons.
For readers looking simply for a finished ecclesiology the events of the day of Pentecost simply kick off the institution of the church in dramatic fashion. They are proof that the church is something special—a Spirit-filled community, a new covenant people, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a body in which gifted people cooperate, and so on. All of that is good and true and no doubt worthy to be preached, but it misses the whole point of the story. The outpouring of the Spirit on a small number of Jews meeting in an upper room in Jerusalem a few weeks after the death of Jesus has very little to do with ecclesiology and everything to do with eschatology.
There is remarkably little in the Gospels that directly links Jesus’ ministry to the activity of the Holy Spirit. He is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit (Matt. 4:1); he returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (Lk. 4:14); he rejoices in the Spirit when the seventy-two return from their mission trip (Lk. 10:21); the Son speaks the words of God because he has been given the Spirit (Jn. 3:34); and after his death he will send the Spirit to stand by his disciples (eg. Jn. 15:26). Apart from these brief references, the most important statements that we have about the role of the Spirit in the ministry of Jesus are quotations from Isaiah which speak of YHWH’s “servant” as one who has been given the Spirit in order to fulfil his vocation.
I’m out and about at the moment and not being very productive. But I have just noticed that Daniel Kirk is doing some posts on narrative theology and its relation to biblical theology and systematic theology. He has some good things to say, too, about how we persistently refuse to let scripture speak for itself because we think theology knows better. Have a look at What is Narrative Theology? Pt. 1: Narrative Theology and Biblical Theology and Narrative Theology and Transformed Meaning.
There’s been a lengthy discussion of my post on the virgin conception by the Holy Spirit on the Theologica forum. I wrote some fairly random comments in response, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through in order to reply, and I’m still waiting to be approved. In the meantime, I’ll post the response here. Maybe someone will notice and put up a link. It may or may not make sense without reading the original discussion on Theologica.
Moving on from John’s assertion that the coming Christ will baptize Israel “with the Holy Spirit and fire”, we come directly to the account of Jesus’ own baptism. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens are opened to him, he sees “the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon him”, and a voice is heard from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:16-17; cf. Lk. 3:21-22; Mk. 1:10-11; Jn. 1:32). There are some small differences between the accounts that do not greatly affect our reading of the passage.
It’s very difficult to know what manner of seeing and hearing is involved here—or, for that matter, who was doing the seeing and hearing. But the meaning of the event is not difficult to establish. The voice from heaven appears to have in mind Isaiah 42:1…
Why might we be interested in what the New Testament has to say about the Holy Spirit? Probably because we want to know how the church is supposed to function, or how to correct some charismatic excess or other, or how to prove to the cessationists that they have got it wrong. Given those sorts of concerns, the likelihood is that we will start with Paul, and we will be looking for generally applicable, universally correct, ecclesiologically standardized teaching about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, come rain or shine, come hell or high water, year in year out, until the second coming. In other words, the sort of stuff you would expect to find in a systematic theology.
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.