Open to the Spirit: God in Us, God With Us, God Transforming Us
Who exactly is the Holy Spirit? What does he do in our lives? How can we know him more deeply? And should we pray to him? Dr Scot McKnight answers these questions and more in this comprehensive examination of what...
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Who exactly is the Holy Spirit? What does he do in our lives? How can we know him more deeply? And should we pray to him? Dr Scot McKnight answers these questions and more in this comprehensive examination of what the Bible says about the most misunderstood person of the Trinity.
:World-renowned New Testament scholar offers a straightforward examination of what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit.
Who exactly is the Holy Spirit? What does he do in our lives? How can we know him more deeply, and is it possible to tap into his power? Should we pray to the Holy Spirit? Is it possible to be aware of his promptings and speaking into our lives? Dr. Scot McKnight answers these questions and more in this comprehensive examination of what the Bible says about this divinely important, but often confusing member of the Trinity.
This is the third work in a three-part series examining some of the more mysterious components of the Christian faith. Scot's The Heaven Promise examines the afterlife. The Hum of Angels elucidates the Bible's teaching on God's supernatural messengers and protectors. Now, Open to the Spirit examines the most mysterious member of the Trinity.
Scot blogs at Patheos, a large multi-perspective blog format. It serves many influential voices from many faith and non-faith traditions. Scot's blog draws primarily a Christian readership; one that is looking for intellectual engagement and thoughtful analysis of Scripture, Theology, and Culture.
Scot McKnight (Ph.D., University of Nottingham) is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University. Prior to joining the NPU faculty in 1994, he was a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has written widely on the historical Jesus, Christian spirituality, and the Emerging Church. One of McKnight's more popular books, The Jesus Creed, won the Christianity Today's book award for 2004 in the area of Christian living. McKnight's blog, JesusCreed.org, has been a popular site for Emerging Church discussion.
His other publications include: The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus; Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today; Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory; Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us; Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels; The Story of the Christ, with Philip Law; and 1 Peter and Galatians in NIV Application Commentary.
His most recent publications include The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible and James (New International Commentary on the New Testament).
:Chapter 1: Open and Shut
If you want to strike up a conversation with a stranger, carry a book about the Holy Spirit. Make sure the title is visible to those around you.
I was on a flight from Colorado Springs to Chicago, and a book about the Spirit was fully visible in the net pouch in front of me. The woman seated next to me was reading a book about finding a new spouse, and during a lull when neither of us was reading, she said something and I said something back and then she tapped my Holy Spirit book. She mentioned that she had grown up in a church that never, ever talked about the Spirit.
But it turned out that the pastor at her new church in Dallas recently did a sermon series on the Spirit. My fellow passenger said, “I never knew how important the Holy Spirit is, and it has rocked my world.”
I’m not a person who welcomes commercial-airline conversation. I much prefer silence and even distance from a stranger sitting about as close as the airlines consider tolerable (which is not the same as comfortable). But God’s Spirit used the cover of that book and the few things I had told my flight-mate in response to her questions for the woman to tell me about some struggles in her life. Years ago there had been a divorce. My fellow passenger had three daughters, one of whom had been starting a business when her husband “came out” and abandoned her daughter and their son. With misty eyes, my fellow passenger told me an amazing story of redemption involving her grandson.
I listened (wishing my psychologist wife, Kris, were present to hear more of what the woman was saying). I felt gratitude to God for caring for this family. The woman finished with, “I’ve learned to hand this all to God and trust God to take care of us all.” I had wanted silence in the airspace between Colorado and Illinois, but the Spirit opened me to a story of redemption.
The Spirit is like that. That is, if we are open to the Spirit.
As it turned out, the woman seated next to me was more open than I, but the Spirit opened me up to what the Spirit was doing during the flight.
A sticking point when it comes to our understanding of the Holy Spirit is that humans are not open to the invasive, transcending, and transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. There are, of course, reasons why we are not open. Two that come immediately to mind are (1) we don’t want transcending power; and (2) we don’t want the transforming presence of God because we’d rather stay the way we are.
A Little Shut, and Pretty Much Not at All Open
I encountered the Holy Spirit before I knew the Holy Spirit even existed, and back then I was definitely not open. My mother, bless her young-mother heart, believed the Spirit would guide me in my decisions even when I was a preschooler. I was four years old and my family lived in a sleepy village in central Illinois, not far from the Mississippi River.
Our village wore the name of Roodhouse. My father was a high-school teacher who coached the track-and-field team, and my mother’s major responsibility was managing and nurturing three children. I was by far her greatest challenge, not least because our safe village made my wandering away commonplace.
I was behaviorally conditioned in midafternoon to walk to the high school to join the track team at practice, which is a way of saying my mother was behaviorally conditioned to find some respite from keeping an eye on me. One day she told me there was no track practice that day, and so I was not to walk to the high school. (I failed to mention earlier that walking there entailed crossing a [mostly] sleepy highway.) Sleepy or not, it was a highway, and at age four I was trusted to cross it alone.
I walked over to the high school three or four times a week during track season, but I was told not to on that particular day. My mother knew I would want to go, so she countered my anticipated wandering by saying, “Just listen to the little voice inside you.” The little voice was important to my mom. It was her way of referring to a combination of memory, conscience, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. She believed this little voice would remind me to stay home. Which, of course, it did.
I went to the high school anyway. Once I got there, I realized I was alone, but I preferred being alone at that moment. I ran on the dusty grit of the cinder track, imagining some grand victory. Then I jumped into the long-jump pit with the gusto of a four-year-old, and I did some shadow high jumping, since the contraption wouldn’t go as low as I could jump.
I was having a jolly good time at my own Olympics when I noticed my mother pull up in the family’s Nash. She got out abruptly, and this four-year-old knew he was in deep doo-doo. I don’t remember the details, but I do recall—nearly sixty years later, mind you—what my mom said.
My mother said, “I told you to listen to the little voice inside. Did you?”
I came back with “Yes, I did.”
“And what did that little voice say?”
A four-year-old’s disarming moral argument popped into my head: “It told me I could go!”
My mother would have none of it, my father would have none of it, and it created a family story that also included my mother’s lack of faith in the little-voice theory of moral guidance. On the plus side, though, the little-voice theory was my first encounter with belief in the Holy Spirit. When I told this story to my granddaughter, who is nearly the same age I was at the time of the event, she said, “Papa, you didn’t have your Listening Ears on!” She’s right. My ears were shut.
Even at the tender age of four I wasn’t open.
Weirdness Led Me to Being Shut Rather Than Open
Move forward about five years. It was a hot Sunday summer evening, and the Apostolic Holiness church in Herrin, Illinois, was holding services. (Herrin was another sleepy town deeper into southern Illinois, near where my grandparents lived in Johnston City.) The service began in a predictably similar fashion to our Baptist church, with greetings, a prayer, and a hymn or two. I had been warned that there would be noticeable contrasts with our anti-charismatic Baptist church. But all I observed was that the Apostolic Holiness folks did what we did but with a little more verve and verbal interaction with the leader.
Bored as only a preteen could be, I had stopped paying close attention when an odd noise broke out. To swipe words from the inimitable narrative of Andy Griffith, what it was, was Pentecostal worship. The pastor had announced it was prayer time, so everyone prayed—out loud. The place erupted—suddenly everyone was a chatterbox of prayer.
I was now fully alert. Some of the people were raising their hands; some walked forward (far too early in the service, at least according to Baptist custom) and knelt at the platform. Others stood at the front with hands raised. One person flattened himself on the floor. The hubbub continued for about five minutes. It sure broke up the boredom.
While I don’t remember a word of the sermon, the invitation was entertaining. Lots of folks came forward to announce they were accepting the Lord’s salvation, including a woman whose beehive hairdo drew my attention. My grandmother muttered that it was the woman’s third trip to the altar in three weeks. Grandma added that the woman “didn’t have enough salvation to last her a week.”
Now that I think about it, my father was a mild Calvinist (he was a fan of the English Calvinist Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon as well as Horatius Bonar, another Calvinist). My dad explained that Grandma was an Arminian who thought people could lose their salvation. In contrast, we believed in “eternal security,” which meant “once saved, always saved.” Our theory was way more comfortable. Anyway, that was my earliest encounter with Christians who seemed to take for granted that the Holy Spirit was right there during evening worship: they felt the Spirit’s presence and acted accordingly.
My grandmother told me later that she wasn’t a “charismatic,” a word she pronounced with serious displeasure. Rather, she was “Pentecostal,” which to her was the most serious sort of Holy Spirit Christian. For my grandmother, charismatics were the soft, modern version of old-time, all-in Pentecostals.
That single experience at my grandparents’ church just about ruined me on the Holy Spirit. Perhaps because of how I had been nurtured into the faith, that experience struck me as beyond weird. If that was what Holy Spirit religion meant, I wanted no part of it.
Arguments for Being Shut Off When It Comes to the Holy Spirit
The anti-charismatic context of my home church contrasted sharply with the Apostolic Holiness service. They both played a part in my slamming shut any openness to the Spirit. Little did I know how eccentric these Pentecostals were, nor could I have anticipated that the broader movement of those who are open to the Spirit would end up nearly 600 million strong. So big is this movement that one of America’s chief historians of the church, Martin Marty, told New York Times writer Laurie Goodstein, “If I were to buy stock in global Christianity, I would buy it in Pentecostalism.”
But the world in which I was nurtured opposed Pentecostalism and all its kindred spirits. Not only that, we had theology and arguments and slogans to back up our shutting down of the Spirit. (My church upbringing sheds light on the theme of Francis Chan’s book that the Spirit was, for us, the “forgotten God.”) About the only mention of the Spirit I heard in those days was on the radio listening to Don McLean’s famous song “American Pie.” When he spoke of “the three men I admire most,” he mentioned each Person in the Trinity, including the Holy Ghost! In his inimitable rhyme, McLean sings: “They caught the last train for the coast.”
The Spirit of God might as well have left for the coast, as far as my Baptist fellow believers were concerned. We had a cupboard stocked with arguments against charismatics and their Spirit-based theology. Among them:
~ “The (glitzy) gifts (such as tongues, prophecy, and miracles) were for the apostolic period only.”
~ “In the New Testament, not every conversion led to speaking in tongues, so tongues cannot be seen as the sign of conversion.”
~ “There are not two baptisms—one by water, one by the Spirit—but just one baptism.”
~ “The Holy Spirit does not want all this attention. The Spirit gives testimony to the Son, so this charismatic stuff must be wrong.”
~ “Christians who are obsessed by the Holy Spirit are the most prone to theological error and to chaos. Eventually their enthusiasm and mysticism will cool, and Pentecostals will be like the rest of us. Either that, or they will turn to some kind of heresy.”
~ “Those who are most enthralled with the Spirit are the most shaped by their inner experiences—emotion and personal feelings. They also are the least theologically trained.”
~ “Charismatics believe in a two-stage theory of salvation: first you become a Christian; next you get the second blessing or you get filled with the Spirit or you enter into the Higher Life or you get fully sanctified and perfected and become sinless.”
~ “We need to focus on salvation and justification and the cross. All this talk about the Spirit distracts from that focus.”
The sum of the matter in my church context, though not explicitly acknowledged, was this: Our theology was one of the Father and the Son, and the Spirit was ignored, neglected, or minimized. At best the Spirit got “third place” in the God-contest for supremacy. To put all our nervous-about-the-Spirit rationalizations into one tight bundle, we reduced the Spirit by resorting to reason, to intellect, to the mind, to the Bible. In doing so, we relegated the Spirit of God, the Third Person of the Trinity, to an idea that our superior logic and careful theology had made irrelevant. Behind our avoidance of the Holy Spirit was the fear that if we were to let the Spirit loose, chaos was sure to result. A free-ranging Spirit was unpredictable and uncontrollable. How could we allow such a Being to intrude on our most cherished habits, routines, and ideas?
Put into another bundle, we believed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Scriptures. Surely God’s revelation in the scriptures provided all the teaching, all the guidance, and all the insights we needed pertaining to God and God’s ways.
The arguments were deeply flawed, and reading them now makes me and those who believed as I did seem embarrassingly naive. But back then, it all seemed quite convincing. It justified my natural inclination to remain closed to the Holy Spirit. I learned in my church world to silence the Spirit.
Unlocking the Closed-In Way of Life
This book attempts to make clear what the Bible reveals about God’s Spirit. Readers can also see it as the story of my conversion from the anti-charismatic movement to an affirmation of the centrality of the Holy Spirit and the importance of the Spirit for the Christian life. I have come to believe, along with theologian Clark Pinnock, that the Spirit works in “a hundred thousand ways” and that it is not my responsibility to do anything but to be open to the radical and sometimes surprising flow of the Spirit in our world. I believe that is what the Bible teaches, and I hope the time we spend pursuing the truth about the Holy Spirit will lead you to a similar belief.
During World War II, a miracle took place repeatedly in the village of Le Chambon in southern France. Residents of the town, André and Magda Trocmé, were deeply committed Christians who lived out their village’s commitment to rescuing Jews who had been displaced from their homes.