Audio length: 13:57 minutes
Transcript published: June 14, 2011
How does the Orthodox Church understand the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit?
Many non-Orthodox people tend to think that Christianity is “all about Jesus” in the sense of being an ethical and religious teacher. They would put him on a par with the Buddha, Moses, Guru Nanak and so on. All the rest in the New Testament (in so far as they have read anything of it without distorting it) they either dismiss as being too churchy or too upsetting (the death and resurrection bit). There are some Christians whilst not taking this line are essential binitarians rather than Trinitarians. They accept that Jesus is the Son of God and that his death and resurrection has forgiven us and set us free but for them this is all in the past… a set of beliefs that we hold but without any immediate and powerful sense of the presence of God indicated by the third person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
In England, arguably the first person after the Reformation to rediscover that there was more to God than this was John Wesley, the unwitting founder of Methodism. His own conversion had been accompanied as his journal tells us by an experience of his heart being “strangely warmed.” Unsympathetic Anglican bishops accused him of most horrid “enthusiasm” but in relative terms it was his appreciation of the Holy Spirit and His present day impact on human life that helped him to make a real impact on the evangelisation of urban areas and to reach the hearts and lives of poor working class people.
We know that he had conversations with Orthodox bishops in Europe doubtless because he recognised in Orthodoxy a Christian spirit similar to his own. Indeed an Orthodox bishop in the Netherlands even ended up ordaining some of Wesley’s ministers… strange behaviour for an Orthodox bishop but clearly he recognised something important in Wesley’s religious experience. Wesley died, however, a Protestant as the Orthodox Church in his day more generally just didn’t know how to handle sympathetic enquirers from other churches, (arguably, many still don’t!).
Wesley’s so called Holiness tradition gave birth eventually to Pentecostalism, a most full blown rediscovery of the Holy Spirit in the West and all his gifts. Eventually these insights touched all non-Orthodox denominations, including Rome, from the 1970’s onwards in the Charismatic Movement, but not the Orthodox Church… and for good reason. We don’t have to rediscover the Holy Spirit. Because we have resisted the filioque innovations to the Nicene Creed embraced by the West, the Holy Spirit has never been neglected by us; indeed it is noteworthy just how many Pentecostals and Charismatics have come to Orthodoxy in recent times precisely for this reason. St. Seraphim of Sarov spoke for all of us when he said that the whole point of the Christian life was “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”
How then does the Orthodox Church understand the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit? We know, or should know, that the Spirit is personal, the third hypostasis of the Trinity, consubstantial, that is, of one being with the Father and the Son. He anointed Christ at his baptism in a fresh outpouring but Jesus was himself conceived of the Holy Spirit and the Theotokos so the Son always had the Spirit from the Father… hence his ability perfectly to do the Father’s work. The disciples of course did not possess the Spirit during Christ’s earthly ministry, hence their incomprehension of so much of what Christ said and did, yet they were nonetheless drawn to him as a moth to a flame. With Pentecost, however, this sad and sorry band became utterly transformed as the Holy Spirit came down upon them in the Upper Room. Formerly being scared and speechless they now became strong and full of God’s Word. The rest is history ... the thousands that were converted in the first days, the explosion into the Gentile world, the inexorable global expansion of this faith and life. It’s why you and I are here today.
That is salvation history; now I want to talk about salvation present, about your walk and mine in the Spirit today. The Orthodox Church has a very practical doctrine concerning how Christians grow in the life of the Spirit. First we come to God empty handed. We implore the Spirit to fill us. Does not every service in church begin with this prayer of Invocation, suspended from Pascha but now restored at this feast…
“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life; come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity and save our souls O Good One.”
This prayer teaches the Scriptural truth that the more surely our hearts are cleansed and purified through repentance then the more surely will they be filled with the Holy Spirit, but we must always pray for this, never assume it even when we have repented. The Acts of the Apostles show that there are occasions after Pentecost when the disciples prayed for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit when their circumstances changed. So should we.
Finally how might others (not ourselves) judge whether or not we are daily motivated, inspired and filled by the Spirit in order that we might stay on the right path and persevere until the End? Jesus said, “by their fruits you shall know them.” There you have the answer. A Spirit filled Christian shows those evident marks of the Holy Spirit that are His fruit and as St. Paul enumerated them ...
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Those who are growing in the life of the Spirit are the true missionaries; those who show forth in their lives the life of Christ; those who can prophetically speak God’s Word, not their own; those who can reconcile, heal, bring hope. Such are the friends, the saints of God, potentially you and me and all Christians if they are true to their calling. So “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and in them kindle the fire of your Love.”