Pinning down Spirit

phyllis tickle

The Age of the Spirit: Phyllis Tickle (with Jon M. Sweeney), Baker

Take a survey at your local church: who knows what we mean when we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father? These days parishioners may just think this is old fashioned language for the belief that the Holy Spirit is an important part of the Trinity, but for centuries this part of the creed was the most contentious issue in Christendom, and it led to the so-called Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches, a scar that is still nowhere-near healed today.

Originally the Nicene Creed contained the words “who proceeds from the Father”, which means basically that the Spirit, which in Western Trinitarian theology is a separate “person”, is “sent out” by the Father, as described in the New Testament. “And the Son”, a phrase known as the filioque (from the Latin phrase ex filio – “from the Son”) and meaning that the person of Jesus, as equal part of the Trinity, also sends out the Spirit, was added to the Creed by Church Fathers in the West who were responding to heretical movements that claimed Jesus was not equal to the Father. Eastern Orthodox Christians believed the phrase had no biblical basis.

Both sides tiptoed around the controversial phrase, first added in 589, until things came to a head in the eleventh century when the filioque was used in the coronation of Emperor Henry II. And while the Holy Spirit’s place in the Trinity was at issue, the Eastern and Western churches were also at odds over such trivial issues as whether clergy should wear beards, and such serious things as authority – who ultimately “led” the Church on Earth. The filioque was kerosene on the flames. By the twelve century the animosity had descended into open warfare. When non-believers criticise religion’s propensity to incite violence, they can rightly point to these fiery years of church history.

The concept of the Trinity is not spelt out explicitly in the Bible, and while it is a mystery, this didn’t stop theologians, particularly in the West, trying to pin it down. As should be obvious, it is hard to pin down something called the Spirit (or closer to the original language of the scriptures, “breath”). Theologians have resorted to all sorts of metaphors and symbols to explain it (much as some current theologians like to use the theories of quantum physics to help explain theological concepts). Orthodox theologians have preferred to keep some of the mystery.

Historian Phyllis Tickle, the chronicler of the current manifestations of Christianity known as Emergence Christianity (whose main proponents are the likes of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren) tells this story and relates it to the claim by some historians that we are moving from an “age of doctrine” to an “age of the spirit”. Tickle herself courts some controversy by advocating the theory (after Harvey Cox) that the history of Christianity falls into easily-recognisable 500-year convulsions – Jesus’ life and the early church’s missionary movement, the movement from underground to overground with Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as a state religion, the Great Schism, the “Great Reformation”, and the global shift of twenty-first century Christianity’s centre of gravity away from a hierarchical, Western-based church. All very neat, but one of the problems with history is that it is not that easy to put it into easily-labelled boxes, and often heads in directions nobody predicted.

Tickle suggests that the filioque controversy is “wrenchingly pertinent” in our so-called Age of the Spirit. It is often said that modern (or postmodern) Westerners are spiritual but not religious. Not only this – Tickle thinks the Spirit is moving as the Church undergoes its current seismic shifts. Brian McLaren suggests that this is a new time when the Church is leaving Egypt, so-to-speak. For Tickle, we are also moving away from the Protestant emphasis on scripture as authority. The Reformation was partly driven by an emerging mysticism, but mysticism was a little too much for Luther and he encouraged people to see the Bible as the main authority. Now, however, we are seeing, particularly in charismatic and Pentecostal denominations, an emphasis on the inner light (and fire) provided by the Spirit. (Against Tickle’s ready dualisms, we can assume that, regarding scripture and the Spirit, it is not an either/or thing.) According to Tickle this situation demands that we speak in clearer ways about the Spirit, and that the filioque controversy and its implications need clarification.

But is it really so critical? It is certainly an important history, and Tickle makes it particularly interesting, but she is perhaps too eager to link this earlier time of turmoil with current times in her 500-year cycles theory. It may well be that upheavals are the work of the Holy Spirit, and we shouldn’t get too comfortable. But the Spirit also moves against the current of the world around us – a world that is in constant and ever-speedier turmoil – and the Church may instead be a place to find stability. Emergence churches, for all their novelty, also value the traditions of the Church for maintaining depth, continuity and focus. They also value, as Tickle rightly points out, the Eastern tradition, but Tickle perhaps forgets that this may include being comfortable with the un-pin-down-able nature of much of what we in the Church speak of. This is not to say that we should ignore the Spirit, only that we must be wary of making assumptions about such an unpredictable entity.


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