Missional pneumatology: is the Spirit active outside the church?

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The piece I wrote last week on the difficulties that post-charismatics can have finding an honest place for the gifts of the Spirit in a justice-oriented “missional” framework provoked a rather aggrieved response from Michael Frost on Facebook. That appears to have been largely a matter of misunderstanding, for which I must take some responsibility. It was cleared up, more or less, in the comments. But as part of his response, in order to show that the missional movement has a strong pneumatology, Michael put up a series of excerpts from his chapter in a book called Following Fire, edited by Cheryl Catford. There is much in this material that seems uncontroversial—or perhaps better, controversial in a good way. This paragraph, for example, sums up rather well at least part of what I was trying to say in my misunderstood post:

But if the Holy Spirit is present in a local congregation then surely he would be saying more to us than that we are loved by the Father. Certainly the Spirit’s work is that of building up the assurance of the individual disciple, but we must adopt a stance that reckons the Spirit’s voice also calls us to champion justice, to demonstrate mercy and to announce the Lordship of Jesus and that these callings have practical, local outworkings.

But one section stands out—to my mind—as being seriously problematic if we are going to maintain continuity with a biblical understanding of the Spirit and mission. Under the heading “The Spirit Beyond the Church” Michael makes the following assertions (the full text can be found below).

1. Modern missiologists have abandoned “in-out, sacred-profane dichotomies”, therefore they are having to “explore in what ways the Holy Spirit is involved both in and beyond the church”. Mission is no longer “institutionally restricted to church activity”.

2. Another way of saying this is: “Mission belongs to God, not the church.” Michael argues that this was the original intention of those who developed the missio Dei idea.

3. We must, therefore, take account of the activity of the Spirit “in history and cultures outside of the church”. The Spirit “can be speaking to us through the anti-globalisation movement, the environmentalist movement and various movements for indigenous autonomy”.

4. The task of the missionary is less to bring God to those who do not have God than to “discern with others the action of the Spirit within a particular context and culture”.

I don’t have the whole chapter, and no doubt there is more to the argument than is presented in these excerpts. Nevertheless, the claim he makes seems clear enough and I don’t see any problem with evaluating it as it stands. Given the previous misunderstanding, I should probably stress that this is not intended as a critique of, or complaint about, the missional movement per se. Generally speaking, my disagreements have more to do with hermeneutics than with objectives and practices.

Dichotomies and the covenant community

Whether or not it is the case that missiologists have abandoned “in-out, sacred-profane dichotomies”, the Bible maintains a consistent and fundamental distinction between those who are in the covenant community and those who are outside it. This is not immediately the point at issue, but it is an important presupposition, and it must be methodologically questionable to base such a significant “doctrine” on the postmodern “deconstruction of dualism”. A reaffirmation of the unity of the sacred and the profane, of spirit and body, is fully compatible with the insistence that God calls a particular people apart for his own purposes.

What was the original missio Dei idea?

According to Christopher Wright, the original point of the missio Dei concept was that mission is “grounded in an intratrinitarian movement of God himself”. The Father sends the Son, together they send the Spirit, therefore mission is “a participation in and extension of this divine sending”. However, as the phrase became popularized in ecumenical circles, there developed a tendency to use it in a “seriously weakened” form to refer “simply to God’s involvement with the whole historical process, not to any specific work of the church”. So for Wright missio Dei has continuing theological value only insofar as it reinforces the point that God is “totally, covenantally and eternally committed to the mission of blessing the nations through the agency of the people of Abraham” (emphasis added).C.J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, 62-63.

David Bosch puts forward the same analysis in Transforming Mission, highlighting in particular a pneumatological modification of the original missio Dei concept: “Thus, in its missionary activity, the church encounters a humanity and a world in which God’s salvation has already been operative secretly, through the Spirit.” This was a development “contrary to the intentions of Barth and also of Hartenstein, who first used the term”. He quotes Rosin’s view that missio Dei was a “Trojan horse through which the... ‘American’ vision was fetched into the well-guarded walls of the ecumenical theology of mission”.D.J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (1991), 392.

This would suggest that Michael is correct to say that the missio Dei idea was originally a critique of the “dominant church-centric missionary paradigm” but wrong to use it to affirm the “presence of the Spirit active in history and cultures outside of the church”. Mission has to be understood as God’s mission—so that, as Wright says, “the only appropriate response is obedience”—but that doesn’t alter the fact that God has chosen to carry out his mission in the world through the family of Abraham. In other words, not restricting the Spirit to “church-centred activity”, which is what Michael wants to do, is a distortion of the original idea. It is exactly the pneumatological modification that Bosch describes and seemingly regards as illegitimate.

Where do we find the Spirit in scripture?

If Michael is arguing that the Spirit is as active outside the church as inside it and not merely that the Spirit speaks to the church through what is happening in the world, then I think we have a quite fundamental departure from the biblical witness.

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament the Spirit is given to the covenant community as the transforming, empowering, renewing presence of God. I’m not at all sure how you would argue otherwise. It’s possible that the Spirit is seen as the power of God in creation and in the giving of life, though I think it makes more sense to say that the “wind of God” hovered over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2) or that the “breath of God” gives life to living creatures (Ps. 104:30). Cyrus is “anointed”, but there is no mention of the Spirit, and besides, he is anointed for the purpose of liberating the covenant people (Is. 45:1). Cornelius has an experience of God before his conversion, but the Spirit falls upon the household when they believe Peter’s story about what has been happening in Jerusalem (Acts 10:44).

This is not to say that God does nothing in the world without the agency of his people. He sends the Babylonians to punish injustice and faithlessness in Israel. He sends Cyrus to release the captives. An angel of God visits Cornelius and tells him to go and fetch Peter. But it is stretching the biblical evidence too far to say that there is a mission of God going on in the world through the Spirit and apart from the church that we need to catch up with. These exceptions only really underline the fact that the biblical God acts for or against or through his people. The Lord judges the nations, granted, but not by his Spirit, and he does not invite his people to participate in the work. If I'm missing something important here, let me know....

Contextual sensitivity in mission

It seems to me that we can gain contextual sensitivity in mission without such a radical revision of biblical pneumatology. For a start, I would have thought that a sensible biblical anthropology would encourage us to recognize that non-Christian cultures and communities may have legitimate insights into what is good and right and godly. As Paul argues, God created people and put them in societies so that “they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way towards him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). He was very much aware that there were righteous Gentiles out there, who would put the people of God to shame on the day of God's wrath (Rom. 2:14-16).Cf. A.C. Perriman, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, 58-60. But I don't think Paul would ever have attributed this to the activity of the Holy Spirit. Having the Spirit is not about being good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust, oppressed or oppressor. It is about being part of the covenant community.

Michael admits that this argument about the activity of the Spirit outside the church creates difficulties: “there is no clear solution as to how to live with the mystery of the particularity of the Spirit present within the church, and his presence in non-Christian traditions and cultures”. Calling it a “mystery”, I would argue, merely sanctifies what is really just a theological problem of his own making.

So what’s the point?

So this seems to me a misstep—and a surprising misstep on the part of someone who makes so much of the five-fold gifting of the church. I don’t see that the Bible envisages any mission of God apart from the agency of the family of Abraham, and the “Holy Spirit” is the name we give to the transforming, empowering, renewing presence of God to that end. It is people who are in covenant relationship with the Creator who exhibit the spirit (deliberately not capitalized) of their God. God is the Holy Spirit so that he can be experienced in power by his people. That's pretty much the extent of it.

As far as I can see, there is nothing to be gained by claiming that the Spirit is at work outside the church. The various correctives and realignments that Michael wants to introduce into the missional conversation can be articulated in other terms, without compromising the “exclusiveness” that is central to the biblical understanding of the work of the Spirit. So, for example, we do not need to argue that the Spirit is immanent in creation in order to remedy a “debased view of the earth”, as Michael does in the fifth section on the Spirit and creation. Everything he wants to say is already entailed in the foundational biblical teaching that God created the heavens and the earth. Yes, as a matter of polemics I can see why it might seem a good idea to relativize the importance of the church in this way, but the price paid in terms of biblical and missiological coherence is too high.


The text of Michael's section on the Spirit outside the church

Contemporary missiology has emphasised the deconstruction of the dualism that has dogged Christian mission in the past. By abandoning the in-out, sacred-profane dichotomies, the new missiologists need to explore in what ways the Holy Spirit is involved both in and beyond the church. This awareness of the universal presence of the prevenient God invites us to redraw the parameters of mission so that it is no longer institutionally restricted to church activity. This will naturally lead to us giving an equal weighting to the Spirit’s presence in the world and the Spirit’s presence in the church. But it will not necessarily make it any easier for us to identify in what ways the Spirit works in and through culture and nature and in and through the church. Despite the old formulations of natural and special revelation we have to be cautious of a truncated and reductionist understanding of the mystery of the Spirit. Furthermore, there is no clear solution as to how to live with the mystery of the particularity of the Spirit present within the church, and his presence in non-Christian traditions and cultures. If the presence of the Spirit is not spatially or temporally restricted, then individuals and groups can experience the mysterious presence of the Spirit in ways not always recognised or acknowledged by the church.

Also, understanding the missional Holy Spirit encourages a critique of the dominant church-centric missionary paradigm. This was the original intent of those who first utilised the missio Dei idea. Mission belongs to God, not the church. It challenges that perspective which emphasises the presence of the Spirit in the church as the guarantor of the exclusivity of all it does. Such a paradigm can pay little attention to the presence of the Spirit active in history and cultures outside of the church. The Spirit can be speaking to us through the anti-globalisation movement, the environmentalist movement and various movements for indigenous autonomy. By restricting the Spirit to church-centred activity, we miss what is being revealed to us about justice, mercy, stewardship and freedom by the Spirit in movements beyond the church.

Finally, when we appreciate the Spirit’s universal and active presence we are more able to conclude that the task of the missionary is not so much to bring God to those who do not have God. Rather it is to discern with others the action of the Spirit within a particular context and culture. This permits the emergence of contextual missiologies. The Spirit is speaking to us through the poor and the marginalised and yet we have limited the Spirit’s activity to so-called theologically correct church activities. Is it not possible to acknowledge the Spirit’s voice through non-Christian cultures? Surely, this is what has given rise to liberation, feminist and creation theologies. Even those who might have concerns about the various permutations of these theologies can’t fail to acknowledge that God was speaking and by cocking a listening ear in the direction of non-Christian culture we are better able to discern His prompting. This is the work of His gracious Spirit.


“I don’t think Paul would ever have attributed this to the activity of the Holy Spirit.”

The Psalm this week is Psalm 104. Is the spirit of verse 30 the Holy Spirit in your reading?

you hide your face
they are vexed
you gather their spirit
they expire
and to their dust they return

you send out your spirit
they are created
and you make new the face of the ground

If this spirit is the Holy Spirit, then how can it be that the Spirit is lacking in any part of creation?

I cannot attribute Spirit solely to the covenant community. There is in the covenant community perhaps (or there should be) a more complete awareness of presence and its rationale. But I can’t see any mission that is independent of the advance presence of the Spirit in the conversation partner.

I am not an expert on theory by any means, just a reader of your blog. Also I do not know and have not read arguments by other persons whom you reference. I just come across your exclusion of the Spirit from those outside of covenant and I cannot accept that as a premise.

Mind you — I could imagine a little more vexing falling on some who are if not outside the covenant, at least beyond the pale as far as I am concerned — like the president of Syria. 

But perhaps Syria is a thorn in the side of those who think they are in the covenant community when really they are only feathering there own nexts and protecting their own interests.

So would Paul have attributed the righteous Gentiles as paying attention to the Spirit? I don’t know why not. 

“The Lord judges the nations, granted, but not by his Spirit, and he does not invite his people to participate in the work.”

I am not sure where you are coming from here. We are to judge angels and powers and principalities — and we are his people. We do participate. We are invited. When you say, ‘not by his spirit’ — this being the spirit of the one who is now ascended and who reigns in heaven, how else are we to judge expect according to this spirit which has been so demonstrated to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus? 

You can take these reactions just as a layman’s response. 

@Bob MacDonald:

Bob, thanks, as always, for your stimulating feedback.

Psalm 104 is a celebration of God as creator. The thought in verses 27-30 is that all creatures—not humans alone—look to the creator for food and are dismayed when God hides his face; when he takes away their ruch, they die; when he sends his ruch, they are created. The “spirit” here is surely the “breath” of life that differentiates animate from inanimate creation. Even if we call this the “Spirit of God”, I don’t see how it counts as “mission”. It is God doing what only the creator can do.

What puzzles me is your statement that you cannot accept the premise that the Spirit is restricted to the covenant community. Why, in principle, should something not be restricted to a people which God has chosen for his own possession and purposes?

I’m not arguing that those outside the covenant community are inferior—I noticed one comment on Facebook to the effect that my argument is elitist. I’m not arguing that there is no knowledge of God or appreciation of good outside the covenant community. In many ways, “righteous Gentiles” put the church to shame, but that’s not the point. I’m arguing simply that in scripture, with the possible exception of one or two passages that speak of God’s Spirit in relation to creation, “Holy Spirit” names the particular and unique experience of a people bound in covenant relationship to YHWH.

So would Paul have attributed the righteous Gentiles as paying attention to the Spirit? I don’t know why not.

But the fact is that he doesn’t. Nowhere in the New Testament is the Spirit given to people outside the covenant community, no matter how righteous. But as soon as Cornelius and his household believe, the Spirit comes upon them.

I am not sure where you are coming from here. We are to judge angels and powers and principalities - and we are his people. We do participate. We are invited. When you say, ‘not by his spirit’ - this being the spirit of the one who is now ascended and who reigns in heaven, how else are we to judge expect according to this spirit which has been so demonstrated to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus?

In the Old Testament prophets YHWH judges the nations typically by sending another more powerful nation against them. In the New Testament there is the idea that the saints will sit in judgment alongside Christ, at the right hand of God. I would associate that with historical judgment first on Jerusalem, secondly on Rome. It does not involve the Spirit precisely because it is based in heaven—I think it is the martyred church that will judge and rule alongside the martyred Christ. The Spirit is the experience of the power of God on earth. Such judgment, in any case, can hardly be equated with mission. I accept, of course, that most people will not see it this way.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks for your reply, Andrew. If I look at words only for a moment, it would seem to me then that it is in the awareness and use of the Holy that the covenant community is distinguished. I will continue to ponder.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 06/03/2014 - 11:51 | Permalink

Am I right in summarising the central thrust of your post as being that the Spirit is the gift to the covenant community, not the world in general? The Spirit is not doing an independent or separate work outside the covenant community, which the covenant community, or members of it, need to identify and cooperate with? The Spirit does not challenge the church’s sense of being the sole custodian of the Spirit’s presence and activity? Is this broadly what you are saying?

It’s clearly one of ths issues of our times, not simply in mission amongst contemporary alternative spiritualities, but also in inter-faith engagement in multi-cultural Britain, or Europe, for instance. However, looking for what is good, and even of God, in spiritualities/faiths outside the covenant community, ie the church, is not the same as seeing the Spirit doing a separate or parallel work in those outside the covenant community.

Missionally though, and from a scriptural perspective, is not the Spirit the active executive agency of God on earth — from creation to the present day? If this is so, is it not his task not only to be the prime means of distinguishing the covenant community from all others (as per Israel, for example), but to be the means of expansion of that community on the earth (assuming that to be the purpose for the community)? And then how can the community expand today, unless the Spirit is working outside the community in such a way as to facilitate connection with the message and life of the covenant community to the world? It would be surprising, if this is a given, that the Spirit was not then in some way doing a prior groundwork of responsiveness to the covenant community’s message (assuming it has one).

In practice, this works out in a variety of ways. Many, if not all, people are able to trace what they see as a prior work of God in their lives prior to active faith and covenant community membership. There is also the phenomenon of ‘divine appointments’, in which engagements between covenant and non covenant members frequently bring to light a prior work of God which had prepared non-believers for the message and messenger of the community. How has this been brough about, if not by the Spirit? Biblically, although the Spirit tends not to be explicitly credited with this prior work, it’s difficult not to see such activity, eg in the Ethiopian eunuch, to whom Philip was miraculously guided, and subsequently led away again. (The Spirit does appear in this incident, as well as an angel of the Lord, but is not explicitly described as having been at work in the Ethiopian prior to the encounter). Similar prior works of God might be indicated in the lives of the Samaritan woman at the well, Cornelius, and even Paul, to whom God was speaking before his miraculous conversion. Today, miraculous stories of dreams and visions of Jesus without any encounter with the ‘custodians’ of the Christian faith, are not unusual. To whom would such phenomena be attributable if not to the work of the Spirit as executive agent within creation?

In a positive light, I’m suggesting in response to the post that the Spirit is at work in creation outside the church, but only with a view to the fulfilment of creation’s destiny through the church. I’d suggest there isn’t a separate or parallel faith pathway which is outside  the particular story of the descendants of Abraham. I suggest the covenant community may have much to learn from cultures, faiths and worlds outside itself, and needs to listen as well as talk, but that’s not the same as looking for a work of God outside and disconnected from the framework of its own story and proclamation.

(This suggestion does lead towards a trinitarian understanding of God, which may preclude consideration of the argument from the outset!)

@peter wilkinson:

Missionally though, and from a scriptural perspective, is not the Spirit the active executive agency of God on earth - from creation to the present day? … And then how can the community expand today, unless the Spirit is working outside the community in such a way as to facilitate connection with the message and life of the covenant community to the world?

Then why doesn’t the Bible speak in those terms? Nowhere is it said or even implied that the Spirit is the “active executive agency of God on earth”. God acts on earth in all sorts of ways—he sends a flood, he inflicts plagues on the Egyptians, he causes the walls of Jericho to fall, he sends angels, he raises up warring armies, he employs Cyrus as a liberator, he causes famines and earthquakes. It is never said that these actions require the Spirit as the executive agent.

I don’t think it’s at all clear that the Holy Spirit is thought of as the agent of creation, but even if that’s the case, creation is not mission, it’s not liberation, it’s not judgment. God does not send his people into the world to create—to put the breath of life in living creatures (cf. Ps. 104:30).

There is no hint in the New Testament that Gentiles encounter God or come to faith because the Spirit has been at work in them. Paul, of course, was part of the covenant community, but even he never claims that God was at work in his life through the Spirit prior to his encounter with Christ. There is a very clear demarcation. They receive the Spirit after they have come to faith because he is given as a concrete sign of the new covenant, a guarantee of inheritance, and so on.

This is so consistent that there has to be a reason for it, and I think we have to assume that the Spirit is reserved exclusively for the covenant community. The Holy Spirit is the “spirit” of God manifested in the life and behaviour of his people. If we start calling the various phenomena that you list works of the Spirit, then we risk diminishing the extraordinary and exceptional character of the new covenant relation with God in the Spirit.

@Andrew Perriman:

Nowhere is it said or even implied that the Spirit is the “active executive agency of God on earth”.

That’s a challenging statement. In the OT the distinction between ruach as the Spirit of God and God as El, Elohim or YHWH may not be as clear as to develop a theology about the agency of the Spirit in the world, but in the light of the NT it is a distinct possibility. If Jesus was the one “through whom” God created the world (John 1:10, Colossian 1:16, Hebrews 1:2), it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he commanded it into being through his spoken word as “the Word”, whilst the Spirit of God (ruach) was the executive agent of the command — and “moved” (trembled, fluttered, brooded — which brings to mind the dove) over the waters — Genesis 1:2.

This isn’t the place for a comprehensive bible study, but it’s interesting that in Genesis, we have “my Spirit (ruach) will not always contend/strive with man”, which if interpreted that way, suggests that the Spirit of God was at work in people of all kinds at a time when things were taking their downward course. In Genesis 41:38, Pharaoh asks if there is anyone like Jospeh “in whom is the Spirit (ruach) of God”, which suggests that he recognises, or is presented as recognising, a Spirit for which/whom he must have some prior experience, which would not have been obtained from the covenant people.

These are all tantalising possibilities. However, when Jesus says “streams of living water will flow from within him” — John 7:38, with the commentary “By this he meant the Spirit, which those who believed in him were later to receive”, the Spirit is presented as more than a covenant identification tag, but as a life-giving power. Where then does the scripture say this, as Jesus asserts in v.38? The obvious candidate is Ezekiel, where the “streams of living water” are the eschatological river of Ezekiel 47, flowing from within the temple, for which Jesus is now the substitute and fulfilment. The river is the source of life for the arid places of the Arabah, and bringing to life the dead waters of “the sea”. Life-giving water is associated with the Spirit; the Spirit brings life not only to the covenant people, but by implication of Ezekiel’s language, to the world beyond the covenant people, and ultimately wider creation itself.

Isaiah says much the same when he speaks of “the waters” at the beginning of Isaiah 55 leading to the renewal of creation at the end of the chapter. In Isaiah 35, water gushing in the wilderness and streams in the desert (v.6-7) similarly speak of the Spirit, for which compare Isaiah 32:15 (“till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field etc”).

Isaiah associates new exodus language with the life of the Spirit to creation itself, which was looking for fulfilment until the time that Jesus came. That Jesus picks up these new exodus/Spirit associations in himself and his own ministry is clear from the echoes of Isaiah 35:5 with Matthew 11:4, for instance. The Spirit is the agent of healings and other miraculous phenomena, which speak of creation being renewed.

When the Spirit comes in Acts 2, it is in fulfilment of Isaiah 32:15 as echoed in Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:8. The broader significance of this occurrence is more than a phenomenon limited to the covenant people, as becomes apparent from the course of Acts itself.

It’s in this carefully defined sense that it is not only possible but demonstrable that the Spirit is the executive agent of God’s activity in creation. However, I was careful to say that this is always associated with what God wishes to fufil through the covenant people, and is not a phenomenon which operates independently or on some kind of parallel but separate path outside the people of God.

@peter wilkinson:

Peter, I appreciate the effort, honestly, but it is not at all convincing.

The involvement of the Spirit in the act of creation, if that is a correct understanding, which I doubt, does not warrant a doctrine of the activity of the Spirit in history in a way that could be called missio Dei. Creation is not missio Dei. I made this point before, but you do not appear to have taken it into account.

Genesis 6:3 speaks only of the “spirit” or “breath” of life that is given to man and limited to 120 years (cf. Gen. 2:7); including animals (Ps. 104:30). God’s “spirit” will not “remain” in man forever—the Hebrew is obscure (some translations have “contend with”), but the LXX is unambiguous (katameinēi).

“Remain,” דון, is a hapax legomenon that has been variously understood. However, the early translators (G, Vg) seem to have been confirmed by modern etymological research. Cassuto pointed to cognates in Akkadian, Aramaic, Arabic, and late Hebrew which all support the meaning “abide, remain.” (Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 142)

The whole point of the Joseph story is that only Joseph had the Spirit of God, only Joseph had learned the meaning of the dream:

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are.”

There is no suggestion that God had shown similar things, by his Holy Spirit, to the Egyptians on other occasions. It is a Holy Spirit given to a Holy people.

Ezekiel’s river flows only as far as the Dead Sea. It renews Israel. There is no suggestion that it flows beyond the covenant people out into the whole world. It is only in the new heaven and new earth that the river of life (not associated with the Spirit) waters trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:1-2).

Isaiah invites Israel to come to the waters, and renewed Israel is described as a new creation. It is Zion, currently a wilderness, that will be made “like Eden” (Is. 51:3). New creation in Isaiah is a metaphor for the restoration of Israel following judgment.

Water flows in the desert (as in the exodus) because Israel is making the journey back through the wilderness to Zion (Is. 35). It is Israel, not the nations, which makes the exodus journey. This has nothing to do with God doing mission in the world by his Spirit apart from his people.

Isaiah 32:15 speaks of the Spirit being poured out upon the covenant people when Israel is restored and the wilderness of Zion and Judah again becomes fruitful.

There is nothing in any of these texts that speaks of the activity of God’s Spirit outside or apart from what he is doing in and for his people.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks Andrew. Just to return to the original response to your post — I was actually agreeing with you, but suggesting that the Spirit’s activities go further than you had outlined. Agreement is a unique occurrence — don’t knock it!

As regards the passages I cited to support an executive function for the Spirit in creation — I wouldn’t expect you to agree, because they point to a trinitarian understanding of God.

The interpretation of Genesis 1:2 is well known. It does lay the basis for an operation of the Holy Spirit in history, but as you say, that is not identical to the idea of Missio Dei as commonly understood.

You propose an alternative interpretation of Genesis 6:3 which is not commonly accepted, though I agree that the Hebrew is obscure.

You don’t seem to have understood my point about Genesis 41:38, but I wasn’t presenting it as a climching argument.

I think the reference to Ezekiel 47 is much more serious, and begins to make the suggestion that the Spirit’s role is more than a limited renewal of a local Middle East tribe. The same is true of the Isaiah ‘creation’ passages. The Spirit is a Spirit which brings life, not simply identification. For whom was the life intended? The narrative clearly shows it was life for the world, not simply Israel. Jesus himself lays the foundation for this belief. For instance, it was the Samaritan woman to whom he said: “Whoever drinks this water etc” — John 4:14, speaking of the Spirit. The context forbids a limitation to the covenant people only. Acts seems to me completely unassailable in demonstrating that a worldwide purpose was determined by the Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost — ie not a limited significance for the national covenant people.

Once again we are up against the buffers of a limited versus universal significance and intention for Israel and Jesus’s role in history. You will continue to argue for the former.

As regards Missio Dei, or as it has been, in my understanding, misinterpreted, I think I’m in agreement with you. The Spirit never departs from a fundamental inseparability from the covenant community, through whom God’s purposes are being expressed. Whether the Spirit works in people outside the community in order that they may become part pf the community is another issue. Whether the Spirit is the executive function of the godhead — I wouldn’t expect you to agree. In my opinion, the belief that he is is incontestable, scripturally as well as in practice.

@peter wilkinson:

You seem to have misunderstood me. I did not say that the Spirit does not bring life, only identification. Of course the Spirit brings life. I said in the original post that the “Spirit is given to the covenant community as the transforming, empowering, renewing presence of God”. The passages in Isaiah are about the renewal of Israel’s life, not merely about identity. In the context of the new covenant, identity and the renewal of life are inseparable.

But in Ezekiel 47 the water flowing from the temple brings life only to Israel. The river enters the Dead Sea and transforms it, bringing abundant life—but only to this one sea. It is not said that the river flows beyond the Dead Sea. Nor is it said that the nations benefit from this transformation. There is no mention of the nations. Like the valley of dry bones it is an image of the renewal of Israel. The passage then goes on to speak of the division of the geographically delimited land (47:15-20) amongst the renewed twelve tribes.

There is not a single word in the passage that makes the “suggestion that the Spirit’s role is more than a limited renewal of a local Middle East tribe”. If you are going to make these claims, you have to provide some evidence from the text, not just throw out sweeping unsupported assertions.

In John 7:37-39 Jesus promises the Jews—it is the last day of the Jewish feast—that streams of living water will flow from the heart of the person who believes in him. Quite possibly he has in mind Ezekiel’s image of the river that flows from a restored temple bringing new life to Israel. That makes perfectly good sense. He says nothing here about the Gentiles sharing in that new life. He says nothing about the Spirit being active outside the covenant community.

If the half-Jew Samaritans acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ for whom they are waiting, then they too will receive the living water of the Spirit. They will become part of the renewed people of God. This is where I think you have completely missed my point:

Acts seems to me completely unassailable in demonstrating that a worldwide purpose was determined by the Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost - ie not a limited significance for the national covenant people.

You have introduced the word “national”. I did not use that word; I did not say that the Spirit is limited to national Israel in the New Testament. The composition of the covenant people changes in Acts, obviously. Samaritans and Gentiles are included and receive the Spirit, which gives life and by which their new identity is confirmed. But the Spirit always is given to the covenant people. There is nothing anywhere to lead us to think that the Spirit is at work outside the covenant community, involved in some missio Dei which the church has to wise up to, which seems to me to be the argument of some in the missional movement.

Finally, the reason I hold this view has nothing to do with what I think about the trinity—there is nothing anti-trinitarian about the argument that God gives the Holy Spirit exclusively to his people. Nor is it because I hold to a “limited” idea of the “significance and intention for Israel and Jesus’s role in history”. I hold it because, as far as I can see, there is not a shred of biblical evidence to support the claim that God is active in the world by his Spirit apart from the covenant community.

That will have to be enough from me on this one.

@Andrew Perriman:

“But the Spirit always is given to the covenant people.”

Incorrect; the Spirit forms the covenant people by being given to those outside the covenant people, as Jesus implies in what he says about the Spirit with the Samaritan woman — “a time is coming … when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem … true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth” etc. Neither she nor her village were covenant people, yet they believed. In Acts, the gift of the Spirit came to Samaritans (not covenant people), to Cornelius (not a covenant person), and to all kinds of gentile people very definitely outside the covenant who received the Spirit.

In the outworking of Acts, assuming it reflects the Spirit’s role as we have been pursuing it, the Spirit’s impact goes beyond Israel/the covenant people. Whether that was a fulfilment of the original intention or not (I believe it was), it encompasses what is said about the Spirit in John 7:37-39, reprising Ezekiel 47, and certainly what is said in Isaiah. The imagery does apply beyond Israel/the covenant people. Echoes of the language from one context to another reinforce the connections.

Now if you will read what I was trying to say about this again, you will see that I was agreeing with you in the first part, but proposing a modification of what you were saying in the second part. The Spirit’s work is always to do with the covenant people, but was not restricted to a work within the covenant people. The Spirit was always the means of identifying those who may have been outside the covenant being brought into the covenant, on hearing and exercising faith in the proclamation of Jesus. 

More broadly, the Spirit was the inaugurator of the new creation, first in Jesus (Romans 8:11a), then in those who believed in him (Romans 8:11b), and one day in the entire new creation (Romans 8:21etc). As of the old, so of the new creation.The Spirit is the executive agent of God, through Jesus, then through his people, then in the entire creation.