Spirit_Rest_of_Us_FINAL.indd[This short series of three posts are excerpts from my book A Spirit for the Rest of Us. I am convinced that churches of Christ must rethink our understanding of and interaction with the Holy Spirit. Without a vibrant relationship with a living, indwelling Spirit, we are left with little more than our Bibles and self-discipline for becoming the people God wants us to be. That is not a very hopeful scenario in my thinking. So perhaps the time has come for us to think through the subject of the Spirit once again. These articles are an attempt to trace out how and why our theology of the Spirit developed as it did and represent chapters 17-19 (the closing chapters) of the book. Your comments would be appreciated.]

The subject of the Holy Spirit is a difficult one—particularly for those of us who stand in the stream of the American Restoration Movement at this particular time. Admit it: our relationship with the Spirit has long been a troubled one.

It’s not just that, in this multi-channeled stream that makes up the universal church’s varied experience of the Spirit, our stream happens to be of the “minimalist” sort. If that explained our Spirit-impairment—that our particular channel runs a little shallower than most—there might be no need for a serious discussion of the Spirit or for the writing of this book.

But it’s more than that … much more.

Those of us who trace our roots to the American Restoration Movement have moved beyond a “minimal” involvement of the Spirit in our church and in our personal lives. We’ve gone far past merely accepting that our Spirit-experience is of the “trickle” variety. Our movement has attempted to dam up even the dribble, re-channel it into Scripture, insist that the Spirit is no longer a Person to be experienced in our hearts and lives but an influence that touches us only through the pages of inspired writings. We have denied any need for an indwelling and living Spirit. We have relied solely on the Bible and the pattern, and insisted to all who will listen that that should be sufficient. We’ve even gone so far as to claim that a continuing role for the Holy Spirit today would be counterproductive; it muddies the clarity of a faith built on command, example, and necessary inference and opens the door to all sorts of subjective troubles.

We have moved dangerously close to the point of resisting the Spirit, grieving the Spirit, insulting the Spirit, and quenching the Holy Spirit’s fire: a position that Scripture repeatedly—and sternly—warns us against.[1]

Reasoning Ourselves Out of Spirit

What follows is an attempt to summarize our teachings (those ideas characteristic of the Restoration Movement and, particularly, of the Churches of Christ) on the subject of the Holy Spirit. Such a summary poses numerous difficulties, among them the problem of drawing together a coherent picture from such an autonomous and idiosyncratic collection of people. I don’t mean to imply that everyone everywhere in our heritage learned the same things (regarding the positions I’m about to describe) in exactly the same way.  I plead guilty to a certain amount of generalization and oversimplification. You may well have quibbles or even take strong exception to parts of what is described below.

What I am reaching for, however, is a truth to be found in the big picture. I thought about peppering this analysis with footnotes and references and quotations—only to realize that if my description of the whole does not resonate with your own experience of what we’ve taught on this subject, footnotes won’t help. A careful combing of the details needs to be done (by someone smarter and more inclined than I) but this is neither the time nor place. Instead, I’m going to put on the table what I believe to be characteristic of our teaching on the Holy Spirit. And I’m going to ask you to search your own heart, to remember the sermons you’ve heard and the classes you’ve attended, to see whether—in the main—my summary captures the positions we have taken. If so, keep reading. If not …

Our understanding of the Holy Spirit begins where you would expect people as Biblicist as ourselves to start: with a strong affirmation that the witness of the New Testament to the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the first Christians is accurate. We accept everything the Bible says about the Spirit and believers as a reliable depiction of what our original brothers experienced. The Spirit was alive and present in those first disciples. The Spirit empowered them to heal and prophesy and speak in tongues (though we still argue over whether those “tongues” involved foreign languages or a heavenly jargon). The Spirit was actively and directly engaged in a transformative work in their lives that conferred love and wisdom and knowledge and unity. We believe that—by the power of the Spirit—Peter healed a lame man (Ac 3:1-10), Paul cast out demons (Ac 16:16-18), the Corinthians received revelations (1Co 2:10), and the Thessalonians were sanctified (2Th 2:13).

What we do not believe is that this Spirit—this living, active, indwelling, gift-giving, life-transforming Spirit—is available to believers today. That sort of Spirit may have been necessary for the birthing of Christianity, when doctrine was being formed and the church established and disciples moved miraculously from spiritual infants to giants of the faith. But conditions have changed. We no longer have the benefit of miraculous gifts (so we’ve been taught) because need what those gifts conveyed. The church is at a different stage of her development. The gifts are gone and with them (and here’s the rub) the Gift-Giver—the active, present, indwelling Spirit working directly on the hearts and minds of individual believers.

Thus we drew a line in time and created two distinct experiences of the Spirit in the church: a full, rich, miraculous, tangible, transforming experience of the Spirit for the first generation of Christians; and something radically different for generations that followed.

To chisel that line in stone, we advanced three arguments.

The first made a careful distinction between the “ordinary” gift of the Spirit (granted in water baptism—Ac 2:38) and the “extra-ordinary” gifts of the Spirit (granted in Spirit baptism—Ac 2:1-4). The Spirit received in water baptism was (we taught) the indwelling Spirit enjoyed by the first believers. His power and presence were limited in scope, however. He could bestow peace and wisdom and words on disciples, but this measure of the Spirit did not include the miraculous, supernatural powers of the Spirit’s full gifts. The full gifts required a second touch, granted directly by God or through the agency of the Apostles. This second touch (frequently referred to in Scripture as “baptism of the Spirit” or by code phrases such as the Spirit being “poured out” or “coming on” the disciples or the disciples being “filled with” the Spirit[2]) included all the miraculous gifts and powers evidenced in the first century church.

So Argument #1 makes a distinction between the “ordinary” Spirit enjoyed by believers through water baptism and the “extra-ordinary” Spirit enjoyed by the few who were granted the second touch.

The second line of argument linked an encounter with the “full measure” of the Spirit to the Apostles. The reason the earliest church experienced the Spirit in such a remarkable way was because the Apostles were present. The Twelve had the Spirit in full measure because Jesus had breathed on them and given them the Spirit (Jn 20:21-23). They were not the only ones to receive this direct gifting of the full measure of the Spirit (e.g., Cornelius and his household—Ac 11:15-17). But the Apostles’ gifting was unique in one important respect: not only did they experience the Spirit in full, they could—through the laying on of hands—grant this experience of the Spirit to others (Ac 8:14-17; 19:1-7).

We took Acts 8:14-17as one of our proof texts:

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

From this passage, we drew several key ideas. There must be a distinction between the Spirit received in baptism and the Spirit “coming upon” believers because these disciples (who had been baptized) still needed to “receive the Holy Spirit.” Had they not received the gift of the Holy Spirit when they were baptized? Of course they had. That was part of the promise made of water baptism—forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit (Ac 2:38). But now, Peter and John wanted something more for them, an experience of the Spirit transcending anything conveyed by baptism.[3] Which led us to a second insight: For these believers to experience more, they needed apostolic hands laid on them. Apostles—by prayer and touch—could pass on the full gift of the Spirit to others.

There is much to be said for this reasoning. There does seem to be biblical warrant for this “second touch” and for the Apostles having the ability to provide it. But at this juncture, we took another and critical step. We taught that only the hands of the Apostles could convey the full measure of the Spirit and his gifts. No one else (in our reading)—even those who themselves experienced the Spirit’s miraculous working—could pass on this gifting to others. Just the Apostles. Once the Twelve died off, God no longer had any agency for imparting the miraculous gifts of the Spirit to his church. The gifts eventually ceased.[4]

Never mind that the New Testament bears witness to the ability of others besides the Apostles to lay on hands and convey this fuller measure of the Spirit. Ananias did it with Saul.[5] Elders of the church did it with Timothy.[6] Timothy himself appears to have this ability to pass on gifts to his churches.[7] If we could just ignore these inconvenient passages, however, we could justify a cessationist view of the miraculous spiritual gifts: they stopped when the Apostles were no longer around to pass them on to God’s people.

Argument #1 made a distinction between the “ordinary” Spirit enjoyed by believers through water baptism and the “extra-ordinary” Spirit enjoyed by the few (especially the Apostles). Argument #2 linked the “extra-ordinary” measure of the Spirit to the hands of the Apostles and those hands alone. No Apostles, no laying on of apostolic hands, and no passing on the miraculous gifts.

The third line of argument concerned the role of Scripture in the history of the church and the lives of individual believers. When the Apostles died, the last link to a sustainable and miraculous experience of the Spirit also died—apostolic “hands” were gone. But, thankfully, Christians no longer needed those gifts because, by the time the Apostles exited, the Spirit had given believers the New Testament.

The New Testament became for us (and—in this view—for all believers living after the Apostolic Age) what the miraculous gifts had been in the first century. Did signs and wonders prompt faith then? The gospel, as proclaimed by the Apostles, does so no. Did the Spirit remind disciples of “everything I have said to you?” The New Testament does that for us. Did the Spirit teach and mature and reveal God to the church? The Bible functions to accomplish that today. 

We appealed to 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 (or at least a tortured reading of that passage which has little support anywhere beyond our own circles) to demonstrate the inadequacy of the Spirit’s gifts and the sufficiency of the New Testament canon.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

We used this passage to teach that the miraculous work of the Spirit (all that messy prophecy and tongues and special knowledge) belonged to another time, a “childish time,” a time of immaturity and special measures. Now, however, the “perfect” has come and the imperfect can disappear, go away, cease.

And what is the “perfect”? The “perfect” must be (what else could it be?) the full and complete revelation of God and his will contained in the canonical books of the New Testament. With the closing “Amen” of Revelation, with the gathering of the Apostles’ writings into a single collection, with the distribution of that collection to the church of the second century, the Spirit managed to exchange the fading miraculous gifts with that “living, active word that perfectly fit our maturing needs. Thankfully and at last, we were able to “put childish ways behind” us, to think like adults, and to “know fully even as [we were] fully known.”

Out with the spiritual gifts, in with James and Titus and Acts.

[It didn’t matter that the only thing holding up this conclusion was an exegetical house of cards that could not survive serious (or even casual!) examination. It didn’t matter that Paul wasn’t talking about inspired Scripture anywhere in the context of these verses or that the word “perfect” is almost always used to describe an attribute of persons: maturity, completion, wisdom.[8] It didn’t matter that the most likely meaning of this passage is that, when we grow up enough to love each other like Paul describes in the first half of 1 Corinthians 13, we will no longer need miracles to demonstrate that God is alive in us, which is the actual point of the second half of 1 Corinthians 13. Our selfless and miraculous love (that which is mature and “the more perfect way”) will provide all the proof required that God is present in us and his Spirit is active. Who needs tongues when you’ve got perfect love?]

We brushed right past these cautionary quibbles to put miraculous spiritual gifts out of our misery. The Apostles were gone. The New Testament had come. The time for healings and prophecies was over.

Frankly, if we had stopped there, I wouldn’t have much heartburn. I feel no pressing need to resurrect miraculous gifts in the church today. My interest in the Spirit has little to do with signs and wonders. So what if the basis for arriving at our conclusions on this matter are suspect? This isn’t the only exegetical conclusion we’ve reached that rests on shaky foundations.

But that’s not where we left it. Once again, we went a step further. It wasn’t enough for us to use Scripture to put an end to the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. We used Scripture to put an end to the Spirit himself. Having Scripture, we actually believed (and taught) that we had no need of the Spirit.

In the Spirit’s gift of Scripture, we saw something comparable to Jesus’ gift of the Spirit—a final, parting blessing before leaving the world and returning to the Father. Just as Jesus replaced himself with the Spirit, so the Spirit replaced himself with the New Testament. By inspiring Scripture, the Spirit essentially worked himself out of a job.

Did the Spirit indwell the first Christians? Now the words of the New Testament dwell in us. Did the Spirit teach “all things” to Christians back then? The Bible teaches us all things now. Did the Spirit convict and transform first century believers? The writings of Paul and Peter and John do the convicting and transforming for us today.

Thus, we convinced ourselves that we didn’t really need the Spirit; all we needed was the Word. So “high” was our view of Scripture, we saw it as an adequate and even preferable substitute for a living and active Spirit. Once we had God’s revealed Word in hand, there remained no more need for God’s Spirit in the heart. Read the Bible. In the pages of Scripture, Christians find all the guidance and help they need. To use Alexander Campbell’s famous dictum: the more Bible in us, the more Spirit; the less Bible, the less Spirit. “Spirit” became for those of our heritage little more than a synonym for reading, interpreting, and internalizing the written Word. If the death of the apostles resulted in a cessation of miraculous works, the birth of the New Testament made an indwelling Spirit moot. Baptism—which originally conveyed both forgiveness and indwelling—was reduced to an obedience which brought pardon but not presence. Membership in the one true church, belief in our central tenets, became the “seal and guarantee” of our status before God, not some nebulous indwelling Spirit.

The idea that the Spirit might not be limited to Scripture in doing His work, that there was more to the Spirit’s role than could be mediated through a book, has never found much traction in our movement. The notion of a living, active Spirit today—a person and presence who indwells believers—was never seen by us as a theological principle of great importance. In fact, this kind of Spirit—distinct from the Word, independent and sovereign, acting upon the church and not under the control of the church—was felt to be a dangerous thing. For reasons we will review below, our church fathers thought it best to confine the Spirit to the biblical text, to contain the Spirit within the Book. The Spirit lives in the Word, not in us. The Spirit works on us through the Word, but not directly on our hearts and minds. The Spirit guides us by the Word, but only by the Word.

Once upon a time, in the days of the Apostles, we allowed that the Spirit had a far more vital role to play in the church and in the lives of believers. But not in our day. Not in us.

This “word only” position characterized our movement for decades.[9] It hardened from “position” to “unquestionable orthodoxy” during the first half of the 20th Century. It was the standard line preached from our pulpits (if not always accepted in our pews). There have been dissenting voices and practices in our fractious fellowship over the years, but that dissent has been muted by the high cost of speaking out. Preaching careers have been ruined by the mere suggestion that the Holy Spirit might indwell and empower the life of a believer. Churches have split over the question. Elders have been asked to resign. People have been told to leave.

Learning to Live without the Spirit

To review this summary: We believe everything the Bible says about the Church and the Spirit back then. What we don’t believe is that the Spirit we meet in the pages of the New Testament is a Spirit we experience today. We’ve drawn a firm line between the first century church and every iteration of it since, creating two distinct experiences of the Spirit in the church—a full, miraculous, tangible, transforming experience of the Spirit for the first generation of Christians; and something radically different (and radically reduced) for generations that followed.

To justify (and further) this position, we marshaled three basic arguments. Argument #1 made a distinction between the “ordinary” Spirit enjoyed by all believers through water baptism and the “extra-ordinary” Spirit enjoyed (mostly) by the Apostles—a way to distance the miraculous from the more mundane. Argument #2 linked the “extra-ordinary” measure of the Spirit to the laying on of the hands of the Apostles—a way to distance the miraculous from those Christians who come after the apostolic era. Argument #3 found in the creation of the New Testament not only a means to bolster a belief in the cessation of gifts (the “perfect” has come) but a means to dispense with any need for an indwelling Spirit—a way to distance Christians from a personal and present Comforter. In this way, both the “extraordinary” and the “ordinary” works of the Spirit were limited to the first century.

In fact, in a massive act of doctrinal sour grapes, we’ve actually argued that we are better off without a living Spirit, that a continuing role for an active Spirit is counterproductive and undesirable. To take seriously a Spirit who guides and teaches and comforts and convicts, who operates on us directly and in some manner “beyond the sacred page,” opens the church to a messy, experiential, and individualized subjectivism. What does one say to the claim that “the Spirit is leading me to do this”? How does the church respond to people who believe themselves compelled and empowered and gifted by the Spirit? What’s to be done with those who are more interested in learning how to “live according to the Spirit” and setting their “minds on what the Spirit desires” and being “controlled by the Spirit who lives in” them and putting to death “the misdeeds of the body by the Spirit” (Ro 8:4-13) then they are with church organization or modes of baptism or the critical issue of instruments in worship! If we let that genie out of the bottle, surely charismatic chaos is just around the corner!

Instead, we’ve argued for a more reasonable approach. The Spirit is subjective; better an objective measure of beliefs and practices like the Bible. The Spirit is experiential (utilizing urges and inner convictions and discernment and spiritual hungers); better a rational, tangible, empirical foundation for our lives like the commands, examples, and necessary inferences of our Bibles. The Spirit is private, individualized; better a public standard, one less prone to distortion and misunderstanding—like the Bible. The Spirit is messy, confusing, unpredictable, uncontrollable; better a cleaner, clearer, orderly pattern for our lives like that contained in the Bible.

This, in my view, is how we have sidestepped the subject of the Holy Spirit. We’ve constructed a church in which the Spirit has no place. In essence, our movement has said, “We can get along without you, Holy Spirit. Thanks for what you have done in the past. We appreciate the gift of Scripture. But we and our New Testaments and our restored churches will take it from here.”

I can no longer say that. And, if you’ve read this far, I’m betting you can’t either.

Next Article in this Series

[1]  Matthew 12:31; Acts 7:51; 1 Thessalonians 5:19; Ephesians 4:30; Hebrews 10:29

[2]  Acts 2:4, 17, 18, 33; 4:8; 9:17; 10:44-45; 19:6; Ephesians 5:18

[3]  It is interesting to notice that this interpretation of Acts 8:14-17 must be driven by our view of water baptism and its effects. There is nothing in this passage that links “receiving the Holy Spirit” with a full and miraculous experience of the Spirit. These believers do not speak in tongues or prophesy when Peter and John lay hands on them. They simply “receive” the Spirit. But our understanding of baptism requires us to see the miraculous here. They already had the Spirit because they had already been baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Thus, this “reception of the Spirit” must refer to a second and miraculous experience of the Spirit. To help matters out, we went to Acts 19:1-7—where apostolic hands do result in the Spirit “coming on” disciples with accompanying tongues and prophecies—and simply conflated the two passages—Acts 8 is just another instance of what happened in Acts 19.

[4]  An example of our teaching on this point can be found in a tract by V. E. Howard, The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, pgs. 6-8:

“Miracles and healings have ceased because the means of securing miraculous power to perform miracles have ceased. The New Testament reveals two means of bestowing miraculous power upon men chosen by God. One: The baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4, 43). Two: The laying on hands of the apostles (Acts 8:14-18; 19:1-7).

According to Acts 1:2, 26; 2:4, 14, 43, the apostles received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10:44, 45, it is revealed that a special miraculous “gift of the Holy Spirit” was “poured out” upon Cornelius and his household. Paul, as a special chosen apostle, was endowed with the Holy Spirit and was divinely guided by the Spirit (Galatians 1:11, 12). This last occurrence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which we have record of, was about the year of a.d. 33. Some twenty-three years later the apostle Peter wrote about water baptism which saves (1 Pet. 3:20, 21). The Holy Spirit, through Paul, declared there is “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). Obviously, that is water baptism…. We must, therefore, scripturally conclude that there is no baptism of the Holy Spirit now as a source for miraculous works….

The apostles have been dead more than nineteen hundred years now. The last persons upon whom the apostles laid their hands and conferred miraculous power have been dead now about nineteen hundred years. When the last apostle died and the last person upon whom the apostles laid their hands died, miracles by power of the Holy Spirit ceased.”

[5]  Acts 9:17—note Ananias’ statement that he had been sent to Saul so that he might “be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

[6]  1 Timothy 4:14—elders of the church laid hands on Timothy and conveyed a “gift.”

[7]  1 Timothy 5:22—Paul warns his protégée not to be hasty in laying on hands. Perhaps this refers to ordination of church leaders. But the language is certainly consistent with the impartation of spiritual gifts.

[8]  See Matthew 5:48; 19:21; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:6; 13:10; 14:20; Ephesians 4:13; Philippians 3:15; Colossians 1:28; 4:12; Hebrews 5:14; 9:11; James 1:4, 17, 25; 3:2; 1 John 4:18.

[9]  Just a few quotes to give the gist:

“As all the influence which my spirit has exerted on other spirits, at home or abroad, has been by … my written or spoken word; so believe I that all the influence of God’s good Spirit now felt in the way of conviction or consolation in the four quarters of the globe is by the Word, written, read and heard, which is called the living oracles.” (Alexander Campbell, Millennial Harbinger, vol 6, pg. 356)

“Every single step in the divine plan, from the time the sinner decides to become a child of God until he sweeps through the gates into the heavenly realm—every step is effected by God’s word! There is no such thing as the Spirit of God operating away or distinct from the written word.” (N. B. Hardeman, Hardeman-Bogard Debate, pg. 80).

“The only spiritual instruction, guidance, or influence possible to man is to be gained through coming to the word of God and taking it into the heart as the seed of the kingdom, treasuring it there, and guiding our feelings, thoughts, purposes, and lives by its sacred teaching. In this way the Spirit that dwells in the word, introduced into our hearts, infects pervades and molds our feelings, thoughts, purposes, and lives.” (David Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin,  pg. 93)

“The word of God is the ‘sword of the Spirit’ (Heb. 4:12.) It is the instrument which the Spirit uses to accomplish his mission. To illustrate: A man uses an axe to chop wood. The energy is inherent in the man; but, it is transmitted through the axe to the timber, and the axe is the means by which the energy resident in the man is applied to the wood. Similarly, the Holy Spirit, in both conversion and sanctification, operates on human hearts; but, he does so through the medium of the word which is his instrument. And, as there is not direct impact between the man and the wood, neither is there direct impact between the Spirit and the human heart; the influence is wrought by means of the word, ‘the sword of the Spirit’.” (Guy N. Woods, How the Holy Spirit Dwells in the Christian, pg. 12)