The Holy Spirit—Christianity’s Two-edged Resource

George A. Wells

Even in the religion’s infancy, Paul said that a man is not a Christian if he does not possess the spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9) and that “in the spirit” a man can “utter mysteries” (1 Cor. 14:2). How did the idea of “the spirit” develop? The Finnish New Testament scholar Heikki Räisänen explains in chapter 9 of his overall very valuable The Rise of Christian Beliefs (Fortress, 2010). According to Räisänen, the spirit was originally envisaged as an impersonal force. It could be “poured out” on humans, or they could be “filled” with it. But it rapidly came to be understood not as a force that comes and goes but as a Christian’s permanent possession. Christians live “in the spirit,” meaning that they live holy lives. Paul had to admit, however, that often their lives are not like that at all. He feared that when he revisited the Corinthian Christians, he would find “quarreling and jealousy” among them, “anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit and disorder,” and many who “have not repented of their impurity, immorality and licentiousness” (2 Cor. 12:20f.).

In time, the spirit was made into one of the personified attributes of God, such as Wisdom or Logos. It could speak, giving instructions or advice, and could even distribute gifts (1 Cor. 12:11). In the Johannine literature, the Paraclete, the spirit of truth (John 16:13), is virtually identified with the risen Christ (1 John 2:1: “We have an advocate [parakletos] with the father, Jesus Christ the righteous”). Thus the role of the spirit could easily become blurred with that of Christ. Eventually, in the fourth century, the spirit became a person of the Godhead, although how it is related to the other two persons of the Trinity remains unclear. The father is described as related to the son as parent: the son is “begotten” of the father (though both are supposedly of the same age!). But of the spirit no more is said than that it “proceedeth” from the father and the son. The Eastern Church demurred, insisting that the spirit proceeds from the father only, and this disagreement remains the chief basis of the Orthodox Church’s attack on the church of Rome.

To allege that those who did not share the views being propounded had not been granted the gift of the spirit became an easy way of disposing of criticism. Thus, the author of the epistle of Jude dismisses “scoffers” of his doctrines as “having not the spirit” (verse 19). At the same time, it was recognized that a great deal of nonsense could be spoken by those claiming to speak through the spirit. Hence 1 John 4:1–3 warns the community not to “believe every spirit” (but only those whose utterances were compatible with the teaching of the Johannine group). Likewise, Paul ruled “do not quench the spirit,” but nevertheless “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:19–21). Räisänen points out that letting the spirit reign and yet weighing its manifestations in a rational manner is easier said than done and even dangerous, because blaspheming the spirit—suggesting that its manifestations are diabolical rather than divine—is an unforgivable sin (Mark 3:29; Matt. 12:32). Hence Paul, he says, “was walking a tightrope.”

As seen by the author of the Acts of the Apostles, the whole history of the church was guided by the spirit. It warns Paul that imprisonment awaits him (20:23); it orders Peter about (10:19f); and it tells the congregation at Antioch to set Paul and Barnabas aside for missionary work (13:2). It even provides transport for missionaries (8:39f). This emphasis on the guidance of the early church by the spirit leads the author to give a very idealized portrait of its history, which, as we can see from Paul’s Epistles, contrasts markedly with the faction-ridden strife that actually characterized those communities.

Nevertheless, it is the account in Acts that has been very widely taken at face value and has led so many subsequent commentators to believe that the church has continued throughout its history to be spirit-guided. Charles Gore (later bishop of Oxford), who was aware that historical criticism had impaired the credibility of some of the stories in the New Testament, admitted in a 1890 article titled “The Holy Spirit and Inspiration” that it is “becoming more and more difficult to believe in the Bible without believing in the church.”

Historical criticism had certainly made the going rough, and so it was convenient to introduce the spirit to authenticate what was wanted. It was a long-standing practice. Irenaeus declared in his Against Heresy: “Where the church is, there also is the spirit of God,” and (he quotes 1 John 5:7), “the spirit is truth.”

The spirit continues today to be a tool for authentication. Peter Carnley, archbishop of Perth (Australia), having written one of the best critical accounts of New Testament evidence for the resurrection that I have read, nevertheless assures us that “our present experience of the spirit of Christ” convinces us that he was raised from the dead (The Structure of Resurrection Belief, Clarendon, 1987). Similarly, Morgan and Barton, in their 1988 book Biblical Interpretation (Oxford University Press) see clearly enough that “tradition is only tradition” and hence must be subject to critical scrutiny; their book gives a good account of how this has been done by generations of New Testament scholars. But then they add: “Tradition is not to be confused with the event of revelation or the guidance of the spirit in the present.”

Today, invoking the spirit is most evident in the least intellectual form of modern Christianity, namely Pentecostalism. The main concern of its proponents is personal encounter with the Holy Spirit, evidenced in their speaking with tongues and other ecstatic behavior. A recent symposium, The Globalization of Pentecostalism (Oxford: Regnum, 1999), tells us that it “allows the poor, uneducated and illiterate among the people of God to have an equal voice with the educated.” Over the past ninety years Pentecostalism has grown from a small band into a worldwide movement with an estimated 450 million adherents. It is particularly strong in the southern hemisphere; hence, what centuries of European missionary enterprise could not achieve is being accomplished within a century by the Pentecostal movement.

Pentecostalism owes its appeal partly to the sheer boredom that the endless repetition of traditional liturgies in mainstream worship can generate. The continual reciting of familiar material can give rise to tedium, and with such familiarity and repetition the rituals lose much of their significance. As witness to the truth of this, I can adduce the experience of George Carey, as recorded in his 1989 book The Church in the Market Place. He later became archbishop of Canterbury, but when he was vicar of a Durham church, he and his wife found the services there—taken largely from the Prayer Book and “greatly loved by the older members of the congregation”—“nevertheless so very, very dull.” This experience of finding it all “so boring” convinced him that “until the fire of the Holy Spirit was at the centre of our church life, very little could be done.” And so he succumbed to the influence of “the charismatic movement.”

It is this doctrine of spirit possession and other equally irrational doctrines such as the “real presence,” the atonement and, of course, the Trinity that alienate many who will gladly accept what in the Gospels is represented as unmiraculous history—that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, suffered under Pontius Pilate, and so on. The supernatural elements seem in themselves questionable and in some cases even repugnant to reason, whereas the inaccuracies and misconceptions of what are represented as historical accounts do not lie on the surface but are revealed only by careful and diligent inquiry.

George A. Wells

George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the origins of Christianity and on German intellectual history.


Even in the religion’s infancy, Paul said that a man is not a Christian if he does not possess the spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9) and that “in the spirit” a man can “utter mysteries” (1 Cor. 14:2). How did the idea of “the spirit” develop? The Finnish New Testament scholar Heikki Räisänen explains in …

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