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….