The Spirit and the Church, Part 1

Pauline Perspectives on the Holy Spirit, the Contemporary Church, and a Postmodern World

“That was then. This is now.”

by Dr. Sam Horn

“If we are going to count for much in the post-modern world in which we now live, the Spirit must remain key to the Church’s existence.” —Gordon Fee


spirit.gifPerhaps no other contemporary evangelical theologian has written more on topics related to the Holy Spirit in recent years than Gordon D. Fee. In his massive work on the Holy Spirit titled God’s Empowering Presence, Fee gives careful and responsible treatment to virtually every Pauline reference related to the Holy Spirit. In addition to this exhaustive treatment, Fee has also authored several smaller works related to the Holy Spirit’s role in hermeneutics (Listening to the Spirit in the Text) and His relationship to the Church (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God). Furthermore, Fee authored the recent commentary on 1 Corinthians in the NICNT series in which he included several excursi on topics related to the Holy Spirit. Of particular interest is his treatment of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts in chapters 12–14 of his commentary. The reader should be aware that Fee does not take a cessationist position when it comes to the sign gifts, tongues in particular. Perhaps this position is due in part to his old-line Pentecostal roots. However, it must be observed that Fee is among those rare individuals who present the case for the continuing presence of the sign gifts by attempting to handle the textual evidence responsibly. While I disagree with his conclusions, I do respect his attempt to handle the exegetical material in a responsible and fair manner.

Interestingly, Fee has also devoted considerable attention to the recent philosophical phenomenon known as Postmodernism. As a theologian, Fee has a strong interest in Pauline Pneumatology. As a contemporary philosopher, Fee has become a ranking expert on the Postmodern worldview. These two seemingly divergent interests intersect for Fee in his understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in the two specific areas: hermeneutics and ecclesiology (specifically the Spirit’s connection and role to the people of God). This presentation will deal primarily with the second area of interest to Fee: the relationship between Pneumatology, Postmodernism, and the contemporary church. Much of the material in this presentation will reflect Fee’s thinking as expressed in one of the concluding chapters of his book, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, published in 1996 by Hendrickson Publishers.

I. Pauline Perspectives on the Spirit—How It Was Then

Fee contends that as a whole, the experience and life of the Holy Spirit were much more central in the early church than what seems to be the case in the contemporary evangelical church. Believers in the first century seemed to experience the Spirit in a more dynamic and genuine way than do believers in the modern and postmodern age.

Of the several factors that have contributed to this shift, three are perhaps most significant: First, Pneumatology was not a primary theological focus during the Reformation or the period that followed. The Reformation placed theological emphasis on justification and specifically on the work of Christ in procuring the atonement. While the role of the Holy Spirit was never denied, He was not given as much theological attention as were the other two members of the Trinity. This is evidenced in the paucity of written material on Pneumatology from that period. When the topic of Pneumatology was addressed, it often was in connection to inspiration and inerrancy. Only recently have evangelical theologians turned attention and energy toward developing a full-orbed theology of the Holy Spirit. Second, many conservative evangelical theologians have been somewhat reluctant in regard to the Holy Spirit due to the excesses that are witnessed on almost a daily basis. Almost all the modern treatments on this topic are written on the popular level by non-theologians who, for the most part, add to the confusion and excess. Thankfully in recent years, there has been a concerted effort to deal with this area of theology by evangelical theologians such as Millard Erickson (on the Trinity), Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology), and Gordon Fee (Pauline Pneumatology). Finally, Modernism’s rationalistic aversion to all things supernatural may have subtly permeated the thinking of Evangelicalism to a greater extent than initially realized. While most conservative theologians defend the supernatural elements of Scripture (inspiration, miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection), often the Holy Spirit is the Divine Agent associated with these supernatural events. Surprisingly, He is given very little attention compared to the other members of the Trinity.

As a result, though the contemporary evangelical church has the same doctrinal position on Pneumatology as did the early church, they do not have the same appreciation and dynamic experience of the Holy Spirit as did this early community of believers. The Holy Spirit was a very real personal presence in the early church. They experienced a dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit that the contemporary church seems almost uncomfortable even talking about. For Fee, the answer can be found in surveying Paul’s theological understanding of the Holy Spirit. By identifying the core elements of Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit and His relationship to the church, the modern evangelical church will discover a theological road map leading the way forward to what the early church experienced back then in their relationship to the Spirit.

A. Paul Saw the Spirit as the Key to the Christian Experience.

While Fee acknowledges that Paul’s theology is Christocentric, he hastens to add that the Spirit is ever present throughout. In fact, the Spirit is given a leading role in almost every aspect of Pauline theology. The Spirit has a key role in making Christ known and in empowering all genuine Christian life and experience. Rather than downplaying the place of the Holy Spirit, Paul reveals that the early church viewed Him as having a much greater and prominent role in their lives (corporate and individual) than does the contemporary church.

B. Paul Viewed the Spirit as God’s Breaking into Our Lives.

Both Paul’s direct and passing references to the work of the Holy Spirit presuppose the Spirit as an empowering, experienced reality in the life of the church and the believer.

This was much more than a theological proposition to which believers gave assent; rather, it was a dynamic relational reality. It was in part the abuse of this experienced relationship that Paul was correcting in his first letter to the Corinthian assembly. Paul used the relationship between the Thessalonians and the Holy Spirit to remind them of the reality of their conversion (1 Thess. 1:4-6). For Paul, this relationship was prime evidence that life in Christ was based on faith apart from the Law (Gal. 3:1-5). This relationship with the Holy Spirit lay behind Paul’s commands in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, and it served as confirmation of Paul’s ministry as an apostle (Rom. 15:18-19; 1 Cor. 2:4-5; 2 Cor. 12:12). The reality of this relationship was why Paul could argue for the sufficiency of life in the Spirit (Gal. 5:13-6:10).

God did not leave us to attempt to live the Christian life on our own. Through the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, God breaks into our lives in a dynamic way—the Spirit in us is, in fact, God with us.

C. Paul Considered the Spirit as the Evidence and Guarantee of Future Glory.

Fee argues that the coming of the Spirit was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises. Obviously, this view is not how we would understand the Spirit’s coming as dispensationalists. However, there is no question that the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost had eschatological significance. Furthermore, the arrival of the Spirit, combined with the establishment of the New Covenant, ushered in an age where there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit plays a central role.

In this age, the Holy Spirit is the assurance both that God has fulfilled certain of the Old Testament promises related to redemption and that He will fulfill the remaining promises left for Israel. The Holy Spirit functions as the guarantor of that final coming glory.

D. Paul Held That the Spirit Is God’s Dwelling in and Among Us.

For Paul, the Spirit is the fulfillment of God’s promise to come and dwell among His people. The Spirit marks off God’s people individually and corporately as God’s temple, the place of His dwelling on earth in this age.

Paul uses the following Old Testament images or themes to serve as evidence that the promised presence of God has been fulfilled with the coming of the Holy Spirit:

1. The theme of the presence of God expressed in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple imagery.

2. The Old Testament references, predictions, and promises related to the role, power, and promised presence of the “Spirit of the Lord.”

3. The promise of a new covenant of the Spirit in both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, where God promises to put a new heart in His people, grant a new power, and be personally present with them to cause them to live in and follow His ways.

For Paul, the coming of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of these themes and promises. Paul generally avoids impersonal imagery when talking about the Holy Spirit. His use of personal imagery and verbs of personal action used elsewhere of God the Father and Christ confirm that for Paul, the Spirit was a real person—the third member of the Trinity.

E. For Paul, the Spirit Is “God Very God.”

The Trinity was a foundational pillar in Paul’s theology. While there is no “open” discussion related to the Trinity, the following four presuppositions abound in Paul’s letters:

1. God is one and personal.

2. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and is therefore also personal.

3. The Spirit and Christ are both fully divine.

4. The Spirit is as distinct from Christ and the Father as they are from each other.

F. Paul Saw the Spirit as Salvation Made Effective.

Paul saw salvation as God’s activity from start to end. In saying this, Paul had in mind all the members of the Godhead. Salvation in Pauline thinking was thoroughly Trinitarian.

God the Father initiated salvation in His eternal purpose and to the praise of His eternal glory (1 Cor. 2:6-9; Eph. 1). As such, it has both its origins and its ultimate end in God (1 Cor. 8:6), and it was set in motion by God in that He sent forth both the Son and the Spirit (Gal. 4:4-7).

Christ the Son accomplished salvation through His death and resurrection, and it was effectively applied in the lives of believers through the work of the Spirit. At salvation, God poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior (Tit. 3:6). When Paul talks about the conversion experience of believers in his letters, he usually does so in terms of the Spirit’s activity or presence.

G. Paul Believed That the Spirit Constituted a Called People.

Paul also teaches that God has formed a new community of people for His name—namely the church. They were constituted as a people through the death and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. They enter into this community individually by faith in Christ. The Spirit plays an integral part in this spiritual process.

Formed by the Spirit, New Testament believers are God’s family as evidenced by the Spirit’s crying “Abba” from their hearts. They are God’s temple, the place where He dwells on earth through the abiding presence of His Spirit. They form Christ’s body and are baptized into this body by their common lavish experience of the one Spirit of God. They have received spiritual gifts from God, administrated through and by the Spirit for the mutual edification of the common body and for the effective work of the ministry.

H. Paul Understood the Spirit as Righteousness Made Possible.

For Paul, the Christian life has an accompanying corollary—a holy life. There is no true Christian living who is not also holy living. This holy life, expressed in holy conduct, is made possible by the Holy Spirit from start to finish. By the Spirit, the believer is empowered to abound in hope, to live in joy, to pray without ceasing, to exercise self-control, to experience a pure conscience, and to endure all conceivable hardships and sufferings. To be a genuine believer means to live in and by the Spirit.

The Spirit empowers ethical living in every dimension—individually and corporately. Believers in Christ are “Spirit people” and thus are described in Pauline literature as people who live by the Spirit, are led by the Spirit, bear the fruit of the Spirit, and sow ethically to the Spirit. In short, practical ethics (Rom. 14:17) is life in and by the Spirit!

I. Paul Viewed the Spirit as the Key to Christian Worship.

Finally, the Spirit is at the center of all true spiritual worship and activity. It is by means of the gifts of the Spirit that believers are able to mutually edify one another. It is through the Spirit’s intercession that believers are aided in proper prayer. The Spirit illuminates the believer’s mind to rightly understand the Word of God and then provides the power to live in the light of that message. Both in private and public worship, the Spirit plays a vital role in making our worship acceptable.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 2 will address contemporary and future perspectives on the Spirit.

Dr. Sam HornDr. Sam Horn is pastor/teacher at Brookside Baptist Church (Brookfield, WI). He received a B.A. in Bible, M.A. in Bible, and Ph.D. in New Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). In 1996, Dr. Horn joined the administration of Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) and serves as vice president for ministerial training. While at BJU, he served as faculty member and director of extended education. He is an experienced pastor, conference speaker, and board member of several Christian organizations. He and his wife, Beth, have two children. This article is reprinted by permission of Brookside Baptist Church.
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