A few months ago I wrote a post charging myself with being Too Skeptical for the Holy Spirit. I lamented, really, the fact that my Pneumatological Hermeneutic of Suspicion is always in over-drive. A few weeks later I wrote a post delineating those Christian beliefs I considered Dogma, Doctrine, Opinion or Heresy. Theotica pointed out that my Dogmas (those things I considered essential to the Christian faith) were overwhelmingly Christological. I realized, in frustration with myself, I had very little to say about the Holy Spirit.
A Hermeneutic of Suspicion is not entirely responsible for this. My tradition (Evangelical/Southern Baptist) rarely touches on the 3rd person of the Trinity. It’s hard to develop a thoughtful theology when there’s no consistency within the community’s rhetoric.
Our communal avoidance of the Spirit is borne out of at least two factors: 1. we are afraid allowing the Spirit to have control will turn us into Pentecostals, and 2. our view of the Bible restricts our Pneumatological experiences.
Let me explain the second point.
I’ve always loved the authoritative emphasis Evangelicalism places on the Bible. While in certain respects I have no problem with this, I also feel it has led to an unfortunate dichotomy between the Scripture and experience; a dichotomy which is, itself, not scriptural.
John Stott argues in his discussion on the Holy Spirit, “God’s purpose for our lives is to be found in Scripture and not in experience.” Stott argues the Holy Bible, above our experiences of the Holy Spirit, should direct our Christian lives. He says this primarily because he distrusts experience, not because he distrusts the Holy Spirit. The Bible must be the medium of the Holy Spirit.
But here’s the fundamental flaw: All our experiences of the Spirit, including the illumination given by the Spirit to understand the Bible, are still experiences. As Ruether says, “Human experience is both the starting point and ending point of the circle of interpretation.” There’s nothing outside of experience (or the text!). This distrust of experience is an epistemological left over from the Enlightenment, not from a biblical worldview.
The problem with appealing only the Scriptures, and avoiding experience, is not only that everything is an experience, but the Bible only Speaks of experiencing the Spirit. Experience is how the biblical authors knew the Spirit. They didn’t have a Bible on which to rely.
The Luke-Acts narratives, for example, spill over with experiences of the Spirit’s outpouring. Furthermore, Paul appeals to his audience, not to only search the Scriptures (the Old Testament) for their awareness of the Spirit, but to look within their own communal experiences for evidence of the Spirit’s work:
What, don’t you know that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit?
If there is any consolation in Christ, any comfort from His love, any fellowship of the Spirit, then make my joy complete…
Indeed, some of Paul’s statements only make sense with the assumption that his churches experience the Spirit: Did you receive the Spirit by works of Torah or by believing what you heard? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now trying to gain perfection by the flesh? (Gal. 3:2-3). His question only works because of the experiential quality of their reception of the Spirit.
Paul assumes his audience will acknowledge, from experience, the Spirit’s work among them. Paul is no Enlightenment scholar suspicious of experiencing the Spirit. He see’s the Spirit at work in his churches, in his mission, and in his life. This is no subjective reality to Paul: don’t you know!
By placing the Bible above the Holy Spirit, we’ve in essence claimed the Bible is objective and public knowledge and the Spirit’s activities are subjective and private. In this, we’ve not only violated our Scriptural foundation, but we’ve denied the 3rd person of the Trinity out of a preconceived, prefabricated, position of suspicion. For all our arguments about the Historical Jesus, maybe we need to reexamine the ways we’ve abandoned the Historical Spirit.
Part of the churches New Covenant is that the Spirit of God will personally abide with the people of God. This is not an abstract doctrine waiting to be delineated; it is an experience – an experience of a person. When the church gathers, God is present in person. Until we regain this personal, relational, experiential aspect of the Spirit, our churches will continue subject themselves to Enlightenment philosophy instead of the biblical worldview we claim we posses.
The person of the Holy Spirit, not the Bible, is the down-payment of God’s eschatological promises (Eph. 1:14). The Spirit in our midst reminds us that God has already purchased his church and the victory is already won. Christians ought to be the most hopeful of all people for we have the Spirit in our midst reminding us that God has already defeated sin and death. By our failure to experience the Spirit in our midst, we are robbed of that personal assurance.
In the end, this is what I wanted to communicate:
- Everything is an experience. You cannot avoid experience in your theological, biblical or, especially, your pneumatological reflection.
- Our fear of experience not only betrays an Enlightenment epistemology as opposed to a Biblical one, but straight-jackets the Holy Spirit – indeed, probably even grieves the Spirit.
- Paul’s assumption is that the Spirit is experienced by his churches. In contrast to Paul’s churches, I doubt many evangelicals could say, “Yes, Paul, we know from experience that we have fellowship with the Spirit; we know from experience that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit.” This is a major flaw in not only our Pneumatology but also our Ecclesiology.
 The SBC even has a restriction on its missionaries – if a person has ever spoken in a “prayer language” they are disqualified from missions work
 Quoted by Walter Kaiser, “The Baptism in the Holy Spirit as the Promise of the Father: A Reformed Perspective. Perspectives on Spirit Baptism: 5 Views. Ed. Chad Owen (Nashville: Broadman and Holeman, 2004), 15.
 Rosemary Radford Ruether, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Ed. Letty M. Russel Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1985.
 Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 87.
 I suppose the pragmatic denial of the Spirit’s fundamental personhood is another reason my tradition doesn’t trust Spirit experiences.