A Trinitarian & Christologically Determined Ecclesiology: the Essential Role of the Holy Spirit

churchDespite delays, we continue in our series on the Trinitarian and Chistologically determined doctrine of the church (short hand: ecclesiology). Because the Holy Spirit is a vital part of this theological endeavor, we will spend this post fleshing out the Holy Spirit’s person and work in some detail.

To begin with, Jesus, in the gospel of John, speaks of “another helper” (14:16 ESV), who, it becomes clear, is “the Spirit of truth” (v. 17; 15:26), that is, the Holy Spirit (14:25). Before we go into depth as to the meaning of “helper,” a few other things must be noted.

The Spirit comes from the Father and he will be with God’s people “forever” (14:16). Moreover, there is fellowship between the Spirit and the people of God and antagonism between the Spirit and “the world,” which can be understood in this context as that which is opposed to the things of God. We read in John 14:17:

… the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

The Spirit is not only sent by the Father, but also comes in the name of Christ, the Son of God (14:26). The Spirit, Jesus tells us, has irrevocable importance in the economy, the plan of salvation for “he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Moreover, the Spirit, whom Jesus himself “will send from the Father” (15:26), will “bear witness about [Jesus].” Jesus further elaborates on the role of the Holy Spirit:

… he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

There is much that could be said about this, but, for brevity’s sake, we’ll note a few things. First, the Spirit will speak to unbelief toward Jesus. Second, the Spirit will speak of Christ’s true identity as the risen, ascended and exalted one. Third, the Spirit will speak of the eschatological judgement of God against the “ruler of this world” and therefore implicitly of those who still belong to this world.

Further, we hear in typical Johannine fashion that the Spirit does not speak of his own authority, but only what he hears (this same language is used of Jesus’ relationship to the Father throughout the gospel of John). The Spirit glorifies the Son just as the Son glorifies the Father. Put differently, to behold the Spirit is to behold the Triune God; indeed, to behold any of the persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) is to be drawn toward the others for without the others, we do not understand the one—without the Holy Spirit we do not know the Son, without the Son we do not know the Father, and without the Father we do not know the Son or the Spirit.

Throughout Jesus’ statements on the Holy Spirit, it is clear that they are couched in the broader context of Jesus’ coming ascension (cf. e.g., 14:1-3, 18, 28; 16:7). Most strikingly, he tells his disciples that it is to their (and our) “advantage” that Jesus ascends, leaving his disciples behind. Why? Because by going, he will in turn send the Holy Spirit. Christ does not leave room for a Christology without a Pneumatology or a Christomonism where the Spirit is treated as some obscure, less-than-important person. Rather, the sending of the Spirit for the sake of God’s people and for the world is of utmost importance; indeed, were Jesus to remain on the earth, not ascending, it would be to our complete detriment!

To summarize, the Spirit teachings, guides, instructs God’s people; he convicts regarding unbelief, vindicates Christ, the ascended one, and impresses on our heats the coming judgment, already begun. The Spirit, moreover, witnesses to Christ, is sent by and is in union with the Father and the Son in his ad extra work, and, he glorifies the Son. This brings us then to the Spirit’s identity as the “helper.”

This is a difficult word for translators, which in the Greek is παράκλητος. Louw-Nida (L&N) summarizes the problem well:

The principal difficulty encountered in rendering παράκλητος is the fact that this term covers potentially such a wide area of meaning. The traditional rendering of ‘Comforter’ is especially misleading because it suggests only one very limited aspect of what the Holy Spirit does. A term such as ‘Helper’ is highly generic and can be particularly useful in some languages. In certain instances, for example, the concept of ‘Helper’ is expressed idiomatically, for example, ‘the one who mothers us’ or, as in one language in Central Africa, ‘the one who falls down beside us,’ that is to say, an individual who upon finding a person collapsed along the road, kneels down beside the victim, cares for his needs, and carries him to safety. A rendering based upon the concept of legal advocate seems in most instances to be too restrictive … (1:141).

Johannes Behm (TDNT 5:813-814) and G. Braumann (NIDNTT 1:89-91) agree to the difficulty of conveying the sense of παράκλητος in John 14-16, yet they do see “helper” as the most adequate of the translation choices available. This is mainly due to the fact that helper is general enough to capture the other nuances that could be being conveyed by the word. With that said, the gloss provides by L&N should be kept in mind when one reads Jesus’ teaching on the Spirit in John 14-16: ‘Helper, Encourager, Mediator’ (1:141).

The Spirit brings to bear on the hearts and minds of people the reality of God; in particular the reality of God the Father seen in the face of Jesus Christ.[1] The Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son. The Spirit comforts, assists, guides, and convicts the believer; but, this must be stressed again, the Spirit does not do so in abstraction but rather the Spirit does so by declaring the things of Christ, which are, in turn, the things of the Father. Here, the vital and necessary connection between the ascended Christ and the given Holy Spirit cannot be missed or minimized. The Spirit is the Spirit of the ascended Christ and Christ is in and with us by his Holy Spirit; truly, both the Father and the Son are in us by the Holy Spirit. We are able to know and enjoy rich fellowship with the Triune God because of the Holy Spirit. Put differently, it is because of the essential ministry of the Holy Spirit that we are able to apprehend the face of the ascended Christ by faith and, through Christ, the Father (John 14:6, 10-11).

We will briefly look at Eph 4 to close this portion of our discussion. Paul tells us that the unity between believers is one established by the Spirit (v. 3). Moreover, Paul writes, “one body and one Spirit.” The connection between the body of Christ and the Holy Spirit is not an accidental one. Rather, it is purposeful and in fact another way of stating his connection between the unity of the body and the Spirit in the preceding verse.

Put negatively, there would not be the body of Christ without the Spirit, who holds together the body; for if, following Paul’s metaphor, the Spirit holds together the body in unity and the body is said to be “joined and held together,” then it follows that the Spirit is the one who is responsible for this, otherwise a disjointed and dysfunctional body would be the result (or perhaps some sort of vegetative state). Now, to be clear, the Spirit is not working independently of Christ, the head of the body, but neither is the Spirit somehow subpar or unimportant. Rather, the Spirit is that very grace given by Christ to equip the saints (vv. 7, 12; cf. Matt 7:11 // Lk 11:13) and bring forth the unity and maturity that Paul envisions.

As we mentioned in the introduction to our series, the Holy Spirit is undivided in purpose with the Father and the Son in the redemption of human beings, whether this redemption is construed in forensic or transformational terms (or, preferably, both). With the picture that the John 14-16, Eph 4 and numerous other texts give us (e.g., Rom 8), it should be without a doubt that the Holy Spirit is not a “third wheel” with regard to how we are to understand the doctrine of the church. In sharp contrast to such thinking, the Spirit, as God himself in and with us, glorifies and witnesses to the Son, with the latter bringing us to a vision of the Father. Already, we have seen to some degree and will see further as we progress that to neglect the Spirit is to distort grace, the spiritual gifts given for the church, the relationship between God  and the world, and even our very salvation. By placing this emphasis on the Spirit, we are placing our emphasis on the Trinitarian determination of our ecclesiology for to move toward the Spirit is to, if understood correctly, be propelled toward the Son and the Father.

[1] We are unable to give reference to the biblical data supporting some of what will follow due to time constraints.

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