Holy Fire

Posted: February 6, 2013 in Church of the Brethren, Theology, Things of Faith

The next NuDunker conversation is happening Friday, 2/8 at 11am Eastern. We’ll be discussing pneumatology, and you’re invited to join in the Google Hangout, which will also be streamed live to YouTube and available for later streaming. The event website is already up, here. Several of us are posting blogs with preliminary pneumatological thoughts. Check them out: http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/; http://www.well-yah.blogspot.com/ ; http://t.co/mxzVS9cy

For several months now I have been reflecting upon the topic of pneumatology or more simply the Holy Spirit. To be honest, this is one of

those theological categories which we modern westerners struggle with because our sensibilities tend to that which can be known through the human senses. The very nature of the Spirit eludes us as that which cannot be grasped. The Spirit has no flesh, no corporeal manifestation. To speak of the Spirit is to speak of the completely otherness of God. Yet it is at Pentecost that the Spirit of God becomes the immanent presence of God in and among God’s people. And yet this paradox doesn’t expand far enough to provide adequate description because surely the Holy Spirit is not confined to the people of God.

When I was in seminary (almost 15 years ago now), I was introduced to a remarkable Christian mother who wrote concerning the Holy Spirit. Hildegard of Bingen wrote the following poetry in the 12th century

Who is the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is a burning Spirit.
It kindles the hearts of humankind.  Like tympanum and lyre it plays them,

gathering volume in the temple of the soul. 

Holy Spirit is life-giving-life,

all movement, 

root of all being,  purifier of all impurity.  absolver of all faults,
balm of all wounds.
Radiant life, worthy of all praise,
The Holy Spirit resurrects and awakens everything that is.
Truly, the Holy Spirit is an unquenchable fire.

Yet in this radiance is a restorative stillness. 

It is the stillness that is similarly in the will to good.  

It spreads to all sides. 

Reflections such as these contribute greatly to my interpretation and understanding of the Holy Spirit but in no way do I claim the ability to define Holy Spirit. So for one such as me to speak in corporeal terms attempting to define the incorporeal person of the Divine Spirit is like trying to hold air in one’s hand. Rather the best one can do is to offer both reflective interpretations of scripture and of experiential life in the Spirit.

Some of my colleagues have referred to the Holy Spirit in terms of “wind” and have used the adjectival term “anarchist” to emphasize the Spirit’s sovereign otherness which refuses the boundaries and limitations that human beings attempt to place her within. I find these notions helpfully intriguing in that “wind” uniquely illustrates the freedom of the Spirit and “anarchist” emphasizes the Holy Spirit’s work of deconstructing  “our quixotic attempts to channel its will and work (cf. 1 Sam. 8:1-18) and reconstructs faithfulness for life in the body” as Brian Gumm put it. Yet in spite of these helpful descriptions I have chosen “fire” as the primary descriptor I will use.

Two weeks ago I was in Florida visiting some friends and provided a guest lecture at Southeastern University talking about the intersections of Anabaptism and Pietism (in addition to Brethrenism and Pentecostalism). In as much as Anabaptism and Pietism intersect, it can be argued that their primary difference is that Anabaptism functions with an emphasized understanding and sensibility toward ecclesiology and Pietism functions with the same emphases only toward pneumatology. In addition, I was reminded during a time of worship prior to class that God’s Spirit is primarily understood by other traditions as “fire,” connoting creative power, redemptive cleansing and righteous judgment. The Spirit is not some tame beast to be manipulated for performance but can be a dangerous presence enacting the sovereign work of the all-powerful Creator within and in the midst of creation. The Spirit often acts in unexpected ways that challenge our preconceived notions as to God’s identity. While the Spirit is known as the Comforter, in her presence the human being is not always comfortable. The Spirit is often experienced as a stirring tempest creating life of chaos. These descriptions, however, are to be fundamentally understood through God’s essence of love. Therefore the Holy Spirit is not simply characterized as “fire” but as “flame of love.” The Spirit is the expression of God’s burning desire inviting all creation to enter into the divine dance of love or as Clark Pinnock phrased it “the dance of the Trinity and the Sabbath play of the new creation.”[1]

In the midst of this wonderful invitation of life and living that is so abundant that it cannot be constrained by the human imagination, I find that the church continually seeks ways to organize, control, and restrain the Spirit because of an underlining fear. A fear of what, I’m not sure. Yet I wonder if our fear is of the unknown and what God’s yet un-experienced presence might have in store for the church as we know it. As the Brethren continue to intentionally become “intercultural” and engage in the new ecumenism I am curious as to how the Holy Spirit will surprise us and with equal significance and curiosity how we will respond to such a surprise.  

[1] Flame of Love (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 39.

  1. The images and metaphors we use are pretty instructive. I was thinking about how much we have emphasized the “untamedness” of the Spirit in these discussions- surprise, working outside expectations, consuming flame…. To some extent, making this the rule of understanding of the Spirit still boxes it in. In other words, the untamedness is a way of taming the Spirit.

    What about Wesley’s language of a “heart strangely warmed” or the comforter/companion language. Seems like those are the more mundane and predictable metaphors for the Holy Spirit that are just as accurate.

    I wonder if, for those of us in “institutional ministry” that the chaotic and unpredictable newness of the Spirit is a way for us to step beyond the life sapping institutional maintenance we find ourselves buried in day to day. Another thought is that given the radical and discontinuous change of our current times, that naming some of this radicalness is a way for us to organize what seems like chaos otherwise.

    But most of all this brought me back to the good ol’ Brethren hymn by Ken Morse “Move in our midst,” now the theme for Annual Conference.
    Move in our midst, thou spirit of God
    Go with us down from thy holy hill…

  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks Josh for the comment. I agree with you that while we are emphasizing the radical nature of the Spirit that perhaps we are to some extent ignoring the Spirit in the mundane context of everyday life. I too appreciate some of Wesley’s language regarding encounters with the Spirit. One of the reasons I went this way in my post was because I think many times we Western Christians of the northern hemisphere apply the limits of creation to the Holy Spirit through scientific explanation thereby exiling mystery to the more naive communities.

  3. Laura Stone says:

    Arguably the first thing the Spirit does is to hover over chaos and bring order out of it… Perhaps the Spirit’s denying our expectations comes in precisely the form we need at the given time, sometimes with order, sometimes with comfort, sometimes challenge, sometimes anarchy. Thanks, Andy!

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