As you might know there has been a resurgence of interest in Trinitarian theology in evangelical scholarship in the last few years. This is not so much been to revisit or revise the historic formulations and creeds but rather to work out the implications of Trinitarian theology as it applies to ministry, church life, and our mission into the world. I have found this to be very fruitful and illuminating and I will take up some of the implications in future editions of Footnotes.
Perhaps a good place to begin the application of Trinitarian theology is by tapping into some of the discussions that have taken place recently surrounding what is technically called the filioque (which simply means “and the Son”, referring to the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son).
Although the theological gap between the church in the east and the west had been growing for several centuries, and while there were cultural and political issues also at work, this issue was in the forefront of the first great rift in the universal church a thousand years ago.
Steven Williams comments “the filioque is an apparently intractable abstract issue, the one that has historically divided Eastern Orthodoxy from Western Christianity. Its theological form is this, within the… Trinitarian life of God does the Spirit proceed from the Father or from the Father and the Son.”
For most of us, the formulation does indeed seem technical and abstract, having no significant implications for the shape and mission of the contemporary Church. However, such a conclusion is shortsighted, and behind the theological construct—once properly understood—are important implications that will indeed impact both church and mission.
The filioque was not part of the original Nicean creed. Its inclusion became a point of contention, the Eastern Church arguing that if we see the Spirit as proceeding from the Father and the Son we are tempted to limit the Spirit’s work exclusively to redemption. Of course, everything can be subsumed under “redemption” if done so properly, but the reality is that in the West we have done so very narrowly, and lost the vision of the whole creation and cosmos as the scope of the Spirit’s activity.
Clark Pinnock commenting on the filioque in, Flame of Love, goes on to say, “it might suggest to the worshiper that the Spirit is not the gift of the Father to all of creation but a gift confined to the sphere of the Son and even the sphere of the church. It could give the impression that the Spirit is not present in the whole world but limited to Christian territories. “In my view,” Pinnock says, “the phrase diminishes the role of the Spirit and gives the impression that He has no mission of his own. It does not encourage us to contemplate the broad range of His operations in the universe. It tends to restrict the Spirit to the churchly domain and it undercuts the idea that the Spirit can be active where the Son is not named.” While we might not all agree with Pinnock, he has put his finger on some weaknesses that need to be addressed.
Except in Eastern Orthodoxy, the filioque is accepted as the correct formulation of the Trinity, and need not, when interpreted correctly, contain the weaknesses the Eastern Church was afraid of that Clark Pinnock mentions above. However, in the West, when we teach and preach on the work of the Spirit we often make the very mistake that they urged us not to make: we do indeed limit the scope of what the Holy Spirit is sent forth to accomplish in the world. As Pinnock points out, while setting forth his activity in convicting the world of sin, regeneration, sanctification, spiritual gifts, anointing, empowerment, and the prophetic, we tend to overlook the issues of justice, ecology and the environment, economics, peacemaking, the arts, and the structures of civil society that need transformation and renewal. In the West these are not seen as central to the activity of the Spirit simply because of our commitment—consciously or unconsciously—to a distorted view of the filioque.
As Evangelicals we have done a good job in presenting the gospel to individuals, assuming that when enough become believers that the other issues mentioned above, peacemaking, justice and the transformation of society will take place simply because Christians are multiplying. The truth is that it is not that simple. The numbers of believers in a society does indeed leaven it to a degree, but the basic architecture that underpins and perpetuates systemic issues of oppression often remain unchanged—and indeed we often even perpetuate it by our ignorance of how economic and social institutions function. As an example, the number of believers in many of the West African nations has increased explosively in the last few decades, and yet the social fabric of these nations is disintegrating at an alarming rate (and this began prior to the AIDS pandemic). This is not to blame them, but it is perhaps a reflection of the inadequate theological legacy that they have received from us. We have not taught them how to harness the gracious gift of the Spirit to the task of nation building.
In Romans eight, one of Paul’s great expositions of the work of the Spirit, he expands out the sphere of the Spirit’s activity to include the whole of creation, both visible and invisible. Ferguson in his book, Light of Truth and Fire of Love, states that, “The Spirit is the executive in the ordering of creation and the executive of the powerful presence of God in the governing of the created order.”
He goes on to say that “talk of personal regeneration when there is a whole new creation to be consummated is like maintaining one’s view of the Spirit’s operations from the lower slopes of a high mountain. What is the relationship between the created order of things and the redeemed order? If He is the creator Spirit can we also speak of Him as the cosmic Spirit… so that God’s purposes for the world as such—not merely for individuals or indeed for the church—will be brought to consummation through His ministry.”
The great Catholic theologian Balthasar, affirms the correctness of the filioque, but also agrees that in the West we have often fallen prey to the very issues that the Eastern Church was concerned about. A broader understanding of the mission of the Spirit will equip us to speak and act on behalf of the Kingdom in such a way that engages the issues of the day and lifts up Christ as the only One in whom they can be resolved.
While I personally find the discussion helpful, illuminating, and important, I also want to inject a note of caution as I finish. In our desire to broaden the scope of the Spirit’s activity in the world
we must not loose sight of the unique dimension of empowerment that is central to the gift of the Spirit in the New Testament—and the fruit of our Lord’s hard dying on the cross. As charismatics we have championed the endument of the Spirit that is unique to Pentecost, and in our desire to recognize the activity of the Spirit beyond the borders of the Church, we would not want to loose sight of what we have discovered and experienced over the last decades that has led to the empowerment of the church and its expansion to the ends of the earth.
Balthasar remained anxious not to render down the New Testament Spirit in his essential Christ-relatedness, to the level of the Old Testament ruach. He did not wish the unique relationship between the work of Christ and the person and outpouring of the Spirit to be sucked back into a less differentiated Old Testament account of the ‘Spirit of God’. He comments; by all means let the Creator Spirit be accorded his universal range, but that Spirit ever bears witness of the cross and resurrection. So much so that he is called the Spirit of Christ in the New Testament. It would seem that the path of wisdom in the midst of the ongoing debate is to indeed broaden our understanding of the Spirit’s work in the whole cosmos but without losing our commitment to his ministry of regeneration, sanctification, and empowerment in the life of the believer to which we all owe so very much.