Reflections on the Holy Spirit Pt. 1

By: Garrett Best

Was Francis Chan right? Is the Holy Spirit the Forgotten God?

I’m currently teaching a class on the Holy Spirit at the congregation in which I minister. On the first night of the class, I began by asking why those who were in attendance chose this particular study (because there were other great options). I knew it certainly wasn’t because of the teacher! Two responses have stuck with me. One person spoke up and said, “Because I’ve never been in a class on this topic in all my years of being a Christian. We did not talk about the Holy Spirit growing up.” Another said, “Because this is a controversial subject.” I believe that both of these statements reflect my own experience in Churches of Christ. We have not talked enough about the Holy Spirit and we have limited this subject to the realm of controversy which doesn’t make for good dinner conversation.

In the early years of my own experience as a Christian, the Holy Spirit played no active role in my theology or Christian life. The only time the subject came up was when I was debating some poor soul I deemed to be abusing the doctrine of the Spirit. I knew more about why I didn’t speak in tongues or raise people from the dead than I did about the fruit of the Spirit. This series of posts reflects my own journey to maintain a healthy, Biblical view of the Holy Spirit.

In the next three posts, I will try to unpack why I think those of us in Churches of Christ have tended to be gun-shy about talking about the Holy Spirit.

The first reason I’d like to suggest: It’s in our Campbellian DNA. We are all influenced by the past whether we realize it or not. We always have the choice to become unconscious victims or willing participants in what has been handed down to us from previous generations.

In the 1800s, Calvinism was the controlling religious impulse on the frontier. During that time, many Christian groups taught that man is helpless to do anything toward salvation. Salvation is a gift from God sent by the Holy Spirit. God would prove that someone was elect by an outpouring of the Spirit. This is where the practice of the mourner’s bench comes in. If you hadn’t received your calling from God, you sat on the mourner’s bench, waiting. Anxiously. B.F. Hall described the horrendous experience of sitting on the mourner’s bench and not experiencing the divine election.

Cue the Restoration Movement and Alexander Campbell. Campbell viewed Calvinism and its reliance upon feeling and emotion for salvation to be one of the greatest delusions of the religious world of his age. His religious reformation focused much more on the “Bible facts” and the written text than waiting on some ecstatic experience of the Holy Spirit.

Campbell gained a national reputation as a sophisticated debater. In 1843, Campbell debated Presbyterian minister N.L. Rice, a Calvinist. Although they debated several issues, I want to focus on their debate on the Holy Spirit. Campbell affirmed the proposition, “In conversion and sanctification, the Spirit of God operates on persons only through the Word.”

The religious vision of Campbell provided a rational alternative to the emotionalism of Calvinism. While Campbell sought to restore the “ancient order” of the church, Walter Scott is credited with having restored the “ancient gospel”. He developed the five finger exercise. He preached the gospel from his five fingers. The five points of the gospel were faith, repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first three focused on man’s part and the last two focused on God’s promised blessings. No longer did men have to wait anxiously for an experience of the Holy Spirit to be saved. Now, the gospel was offered to any man who would respond in faith and follow the ancient gospel. As a side note, I do find it interesting that Churches of Christ are still influenced by Scott’s five finger exercise. Many churches continue to teach a “five step plan of salvation.” The modern five step plan involves: hearing, believing, repenting, confessing, and being baptized. Some add a sixth, living faithfully. It’s interesting that unlike Scott’s five finger exercise, the modern five step plan of salvation focuses entirely on what man must do. This is not to say that candidates for baptism are not instructed on the the spiritual blessings associated with baptism. I find it interesting nonetheless.

A rational faith is not a bad thing. However, there is a consequence to having a primarily rational faith. Rationalism has little room for philosophical speculation or emotionalism. There are obviously many mysteries about the Holy Spirit. Campbell’s rationalism generally led him to shy away from talking about the mysterious.

A quick note on Barton W. Stone. Stone was certainly more open to religious experience, emotion, and the active work of the Holy Spirit in conversion and the Christian’s ongoing life. However, in time, Stone’s views were eclipsed by Campbell’s more rational vision. This is why I say “Campbellian DNA”. The genes we received from Campbell were dominant while Stone’s views left little impact on our developing identity.

To summarize then, the first reason I’d like to suggest we have tended to shy away from teaching on the Holy Spirit is because of our Campbellian DNA. Our religious DNA prefers the rational to the emotional. It prefers being able to hold the written Scriptures in our hands to a Holy Spirit that we cannot quantify, control, or fully explain.

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4 comments

  1. The last comment also applies to God and Christ. We can only know what has been revealed, beyond that is speculation and that becomes dangerous.

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