We are Church, We are Agents of Shalom

Over the past several weeks [in the spring semester of 2013], I participated in a creative group exercise along with two of my classmates: Clesha Staten and Edward Williams. We imagined ourselves as a church and dreamed about our life together in this community. Through much discussion, we identified our church as “agents of shalom” and described this identity in relation to the four marks of the church specified by the Nicene-Constantinople Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.[1] We also defined our church’s mission and described the context in which our mission would be pursued. We crystallized this discussion about our corporate identity as agents of shalom into the following statement:

As agents of shalom, we are one because the shalom we seek is the very presence and action of the one and same Spirit of God who empowers us to speak and act in order to bring God’s vision to its fullness as we endeavor to ensure a welcome place at the table for all. We are holy because the Spirit has set us apart to share the good news, peace and love of God in communities suffering from the fractures of personal and structural sin.  We are called to live by example the grace, righteousness, and justice of the Triune God. We are catholic because we recognize that the same Spirit who lives and moves in us is also present and active in other churches and throughout all creation.  The operation of the Spirit within and through every agent of shalom unifies us in purpose without diminishing the diversity of each agent as a unique creation. Finally, our church is apostolic because we continue Jesus’ prophetic ministry of liberation by proclaiming, celebrating, and actualizing the message of shalom to all those who are oppressed by sin, sickness, disease, and the political, economic and social systemic evils. We walk with the same Spirit of God who was sent forth as ruah before creation, who anointed the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and who is present today and for all days to come to orient and empower creation towards the consummation of shalom in the reign of God.

The mission of our church is to be agents of shalom: the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with its environment. It is a comprehensive reality of peace founded on the active presence of Triune love being worked out in justice. Agents are people who actively pursue the purposes of the one by whom they are sent. Because we are sent by the God who is communion, we are sent to pursue shalom as a community of love, forgiveness, and grace, which is extended to the oppressed and marginalized members of our community. This may require us to actively and non-violently resist systems of evil that oppress and marginalize. At the same time, our church is called by the life-giving Spirit to be agents of personal healing, deliverance, and restoration towards all people in our community.

Our church is called to contexts where the extreme suffering caused by a prolonged loss of shalom is being ignored or denied. These are the places “outside the gate” inhabited by people who have been silenced, forgotten, and deemed unworthy, unnecessary, and uninteresting by the powers and principalities of anti-shalom. We desire to join the Spirit’s work in and through the people with whom we live in these places so that a true, contextual shalom might be realized within our diverse community. As a local embodiment of shalom develops, we will remain open to being led by the Spirit to bring forth shalom in new contexts while remaining steadfast in our commitment to our current community.

This statement expresses an ecclesiology: a way of understanding the theological, historical, and eschatological nature of the origin, identity, and purpose of “a community that understands itself to be called into being by God through faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”[2] However, the ecclesiology expressed in this group statement differs remarkably from the implicit ecclesiology I have experienced through church participation in the past. In this essay, I hope to progress from a critique of the church I have experienced towards a more faithful, holistic understanding of church by contrasting the marks, mission, and context of my embedded ecclesiology with this new understanding of church as agents of shalom.

The unity of the church as agents of shalom is founded on the presence and action of the God whose unity-in-diversity is hospitably opened towards the other. In opposition to this Triune unity, my past experience in culturally, racially, and socio-economically homogenous churches reveals a unity defined by uniformity. This kind of unity ignores “the Spirit’s unifying power [which] enables the integrity of each one amidst the many” and therefore does not participate in the “unity of the Spirit that includes reconciliation and healing in the same Spirit.”[3] The church is to be one because the salvation of the Triune God which it proclaims is an ever-expanding communion amidst the diversity of creation.

A similar discrepancy arises in my past experience of holiness in church and the holiness which characterizes agents of shalom. While past church experience defined holiness as an individual goal of maintaining purity, those who pursue shalom identify holiness as “the authentic presence and activity of the Spirit of God directed toward the eschatological kingdom.”[4] This holiness is neither a possession of the church nor of an individual church member. Rather, the church is being made holy so that its “relationship of righteousness and justice with God… [will extend] far beyond the church itself” into the lives of those “on the margins of society.”[5] Holiness is put on display when the church’s presence and activity in the world matches the church’s inner reality of its participation in the life of Trinity.

As a member of primarily congregational or independent churches, my understanding of the church’s catholicity was very weak. Instead of being instructed to discern and partner with the Spirit’s work in other churches and throughout creation, my experience of church taught me to be suspicious of other churches and to devalue the life of non-human creation. However, agents of shalom recognize catholicity by affirming the Spirit’s power to inspire indigenous expressions of faith in Christ, which preserve the uniqueness of created life and culture.[6] However, contextualization was given little significance in my previous experience of church and therefore my church’s traditional theology – with a little room for disagreement – was the true understanding for all people in all times and places.

My past church experience held a very narrow understanding of apostolicity. The majority of churches I have participated in were representatives of the Free Church tradition where “the New Testament and early church [have] a normative significance.”[7] Therefore, apostolicity was implicitly defined as believing and teaching “sound doctrine” in line with a specific, literal interpretation of Scripture. In opposition to this narrow, disembodied expression of apostolicity, the church as agents of shalom seeks to embody authentically “the apostolic message and witness… in [its] ecclesial life and faith as directed toward the impending kingdom of God.”[8] Apostolicity is a sign of the whole person and ministry of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers which requires full, embodied participation by the Holy Spirit in the mission of Jesus.

In the past, the primary mission of the church I knew was understood as the fulfillment of Jesus’ last words to his followers as recorded by the gospel of Matthew: “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them.”[9] The interpretation of this command led to a mission defined primarily in terms of kerygma – “the proclamation of the Gospel” – which was sometimes supported by acts of leitourgia – “prayer and praise, the waters of baptism and the bread of the supper.”[10] I agree with Gabriel Fackre that this kind of church may be “valid” but it “is not yet a faithful Church” because it does not include a healthy practice of diakonia ­– “a serving of the neighbor in need” – and koinonia – “a sharing and caring life together.”[11] While some of the churches I have experienced in the past have incorporated a practice of diakonia and koinonia in very meaningful ways, the expression of church with which I am most familiar is dominated by its kerygma with leitourgia in a secondary, supporting role.

In contrast to the identity and mission of the church in my past, the church as agents of shalom provides a more holistic and faithful ecclesiology. At the heart of this ecclesiology is the belief that the church’s “existence is not ‘for itself,’ but rather ‘for others.’”[12] More specifically, this church exists for the pursuit of shalom and therefore “outside of the action of the Spirit which leads the universe and history towards its fullness in Christ, [this church] is nothing.”[13] According to Avery Dulles, this vision of church would be categorized as the “servant” model in which the church takes up the diakonia of Christ and “seeks to serve the world by fostering the brotherhood [sic] of all men [sic].”[14] However, this diaconal model is incomplete if it excludes kerygma, leitourgia, and koinonia.

Therefore, agents of shalom take up the message of Jesus and proclaim the hope of God’s now-but-not-yet reign to all people. At the same time, this kerygma includes a “prophetic denunciation of every dehumanizing situation, which is contrary to fellowship, justice, and liberty.”[15] Agents of shalom also gather to celebrate the good news they proclaim through the act of worship, specifically the sharing of the Eucharistic meal around the Lord’s table. However, this practice of leitourgia “presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of [Jesus’] life” and therefore leads the church towards concrete action “against exploitation and alienation and for a society of solidarity and justice.”[16] Finally, shalom is a reality bound up in koinonia because it is the presence of the God whose life as communion is the divine source and model of koinonia. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom seeks a koinonia “where everyone is welcome [as] a sign of the coming feast of God’s mended creation.”[17]

As it pursues its mission through a practice of koinonia, leitourgia, kerygma, and diaconia, the church as agents of shalom must be careful not to confuse its ecclesial life and work towards shalom with the reality of shalom itself. Shalom does not belong to any church because it is the very presence and action of the Triune God in the world which God created. The church as agents of shalom remembers its call to service which “consists in its dedication to the transformation of the world into the Kingdom” of shalom.[18]

The church as agents of shalom seeks to embody and enact its mission in contexts where the destruction of shalom due to the violence of personal and structural sin is being ignored and forgotten. My past experience of church has always assumed a privileged position in society. Even though I was raised in a community where the evils of poverty and racism interlocked in a system of death, I participated in a church whose identity and mission were so affected by social privilege that the fact of this reality, especially the role of this church in its creation and maintenance, was almost entirely ignored. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom must go beyond simply locating itself in a place of anti-shalom. It must make intentional, sustained efforts towards solidarity with all in its community and join in the struggle against alienation and violence because “to know God is to work for justice.”[19] Therefore, the church should simultaneously learn to listen to the needs of its community and to discern its unique strengths and its inherent goodness. The church should also be prepared to criticize its own participation in the evils which perpetuate the destruction of shalom. With this humble posture, a true, contextual foretaste of shalom can come to life.

[1] William C. Placher, ed., “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 223.

[2] Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Ecclesiology,” Lecture, Systematic Theology and Ethics: Reign of God THLE 521, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, April 2, 2013.

[3] Amos Yong, “The Marks of the Church: A Pentecostal Re-Reading,” Evangelical Review Of Theology 26, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 50, 54.

[4] Yong, 54.

[5] Letty M. Russell, “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 245.

[6] Yong, 61.

[7] Franklin H. Littell, “The Historical Free Church Defined,” Brethren Life and Thought 50, no. 3-4 (June 1, 2005): 59.

[8] Yong, 66.

[9] Mt. 28:19, 20, NRSV.

[10] Gabriel Facrke, The Christian Story: A Narrative Interpretation of Basic Christian Doctrine, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 156, 157.

[11] Fackre, 158, 159, 161.

[12] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 147.

[13] Gutiérrez, 147.

[14] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 92.

[15] Gutiérrez, 152.

[16] Gutiérrez., 150.

[17] Letty M. Russell, “Hot-House Ecclesiology: A Feminist Interpretation of the Church,” Ecumenical Review 53 (January 2001): 51.

[18] Dulles, 100.

[19] Gutiérrez, 156.


God Is Love

Yes, I’m posting a blog on Valentine’s Day entitled “God is Love.” What can I say? I’m a loser with a very bad sense of humor. If you can get past that though, this is a brief “statement of faith” that I wrote for a class recently. The assignment was just to “sit down and write about what you believe in your own voice” so… that’s what I did. It’s certainly not comprehensive and probably not thought out all that well. But, what I can say is that it has very little to do with Valentine’s Day.

God is the triune Community who is Love: who created all things for love, who is present with all things in love, and who calls and wills and moves all things towards love. This Love is not an attribute of God; it is God. God is Love because God is Trinity: the three Persons – Parent, Christ, and Spirit – who are inseparably united as one in a way that does not diminish the unique otherness of each Person. This triune Community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Christ and Spirit.

Because God is Love, God is relational and desires to be in relation with another. This desire gave birth to creation. God as Parent, Christ, and Spirit is the maker and sustainer of all things past, present, and future. In creation, God envisioned and then spoke into being a community whose life together would be inspired and shaped by Love in order to be a reflection of the Creator. Just as God is many and diverse, God’s creation is many and diverse. The unique character of created things is good because there could be no relationships, and therefore no love, without it. God gave one creature in particular – the man and woman – a special purpose in this creation: keeping the community, nurturing its multifaceted, interwoven connections, and preserving the diversity of each created thing in order to preserve the image of the Creator.

Because God is Love, God creates space for God’s community-keepers to reciprocate God’s love in freedom. However, the man and the woman rejected their purpose and turned away from Love towards self-reliance as if they could live apart from Love. This act of utter rebellion wounded creation at its core. Instead of Love, there was fear; instead of relation, alienation; instead of community, desecration.

Because God is Love, the Parent, Christ, and Spirit remain present and active in, with, and for creation in spite of the rebellion of God’s community-keepers. This active being of Love within and among creation is salvation. God is the saving God who comes to creation in a form it can see, and hear, and touch. Jesus the Christ is Love born to be the true community-keeper whose life, death, and resurrection made a way for all of creation’s wounds to be healed. In Jesus, Love reigns supreme.

Because God is Love, God creates anew by the power of the Spirit. Just as Jesus was compelled by Love to heal creation’s wounded, fearful heart, the Spirit was poured out over all creation to unite all things together again in Love. The Spirit is open-handed Love who reconciles relationships broken by fear, tears down the dividing walls of alienation, and restores all created things to their place in the embrace of Love. In the Spirit, Love brings new life.

Because God is Love, I am. God loves me and empowers me to love God, myself, others, and all creation. Through Jesus Christ and the Spirit, God has invited me and empowered me to play a small part in a fellowship of community-keepers who embody and enact and reveal the healing and new life Love desires for all creation. This fellowship liberates and embraces those who are suffering from the violence of fear, alienation, and desecration and gives it life for the transformation of this violence into peace and justice. They welcome others into their body of unity-in-diversity and are sent out as witnesses to the Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete.

Because God is Love, there is no reason to fear. Creation has hope because God is gathering all things into Love. The perfect communion of God and creation will be made complete.

A Review of Elaine Heath’s “The Mystic Way of Evangelism”

In The Mystic Way of Evangelism, Elaine Heath draws from the vast wealth of Christian mysticism to reimagine the present and future for the church and its evangelistic mission in the U.S. Her vision is not merely based on the mystical sources; it uses the threefold mystical path of purgation, illumination, and union as the lenses through which to view the church’s vocation. Before laying out this mystical vision of evangelism, Heath provides a helpful definition of key terms. She defines evangelism as a local faith community’s practice of initiating people into God’s reign that ends only when those people are fully incorporated in and active with that faith community. For Heath, holiness is at the heart of the mystical tradition and central to her mystical way of evangelism. Holiness is being set apart to be in partnership with God in God’s mission. Therefore, mysticism is not a way of escape from the world through private, spiritual experience but a way of being holy that is concerned with bringing wholeness and healing to persons who then increasingly pursue the love of God and neighbor.

According to Heath, the U.S. church has already entered the first step in the mystical journey – purgation. She bases this conclusion on a series of dismal statistics about falling church membership and participation along with a loss of authority in the lives of individuals and communities. The church’s days of power and influence as an institution are over; this includes both mainline and evangelical denominations. However, instead of fighting this decline, Heath calls the church to a posture of surrender which acknowledges God’s faithful, yet hidden presence in the church’s struggles and suffering. As the church surrenders, God is working to free it from its deeply held idolatrous views of God as a being it can control as well as its accommodation to the consumerist and individualist ways of the world. God longs to restore the church, but this time of exile is necessary for its holy transformation.

In order to emerge from this “dark night of the soul,” Heath unearths and integrates the work of ten Christian mystics both ancient and modern over the course of five chapters to “illuminate” five central, theological themes the church must consider as it pursues a renewed way of being holy. Julian of Norwich and Hans Urs von Balthasar reveal love as the essence of God’s meaning. Phoebe Palmer and Father Arseny embody a life of kenosis – self-emptying – lived for the sake of others. Thomas R. Kelly and Henri Nouwen mark the journey through the false self into the true self at home in God’s love. Julia Foote and Methchild of Magdeburg expose the church’s great need for healing from its threefold wound of racism, sexism, and classism. Finally, St. Bonaventure and John Woolman cast a vision of ecological redemption that grounds the practice of evangelism in the stewardship and care of creation.

In the five remaining chapters, Heath explores how the practice of evangelism will be transformed if and when the church takes the step past illumination into union. Since love is God’s meaning, evangelism becomes a way of serving and loving Christ in the persons we meet. The life of kenosis highlights how radical self-giving beyond the typical financial tithe leads to new, more light-weight yet more costly ways of doing church which are vital to the work of evangelism. For Christians to be truly hospitable towards those they evangelize, the practice of evangelism must be grounded in a life of contemplative prayer that facilitates personal healing and wholeness. Evangelism that takes the threefold wound of racism, sexism, and classism seriously calls for egalitarian church leadership structures, intentional church plants in poor neighborhoods, and ministries devoted to violence prevention and recovery. Finally, the mystical way of evangelism must include multi-dimensional efforts to steward the evangelistic witness of creation by confronting consumerism and teaching simplicity and sustainability as core values.

In this work, Heath has masterfully developed a thorough, compelling, and holistic vision of evangelism in a mystical key for the church today. Her command of the ten mystical sources she uses in the “illumination” section is impressive and her ability to synthesize the works of two sources – sometimes across vast distances in history and culture – shows great skill and creativity. While every chapter in this section is a gem, I want to make special note of Heath’s chapter on Hans Urs von Balthasar and Julian of Norwich which lays the foundation for the rest of the section. This chapter illuminates God’s being as pure love in a unique, provocative way. When God’s being as love is discussed in typical fashion, one usually finds a discussion on God’s being as Trinity, as a perfect communion of equal, mutually self-giving and other-receiving love. Heath avoids this typical Trinitarian discussion and focuses instead on how God’s being as love shapes our view of eschatology via Hans Urs von Baltahasar and sin via Julian of Norwich. This move is important not because it “skips over” Trinitarian theology but because it extends Trinitarian theology in a way that entirely subverts the project of evangelism that has dominated the Protestant church in America for decades which has been characteristically a-Trinitarian. With von Balthasar’s hopeful, inclusive eschatology, evangelism is freed from its tendency to devolve into manipulative fear tactics. With Julian’s definition of sin as “original wound,” evangelists can address the actual pain and violence of sin endured by those who live apart from the loving God instead of abstracting sin to an otherworldly realm of divine transactions. Upon finishing this chapter, I felt excited about evangelism for the first time – and I was raised in a Southern Baptist church! Evangelism is no longer about convincing someone to feel bad about their sin to save themselves from a god of wrath; it is an introduction to the God who exists as love and is moving all creation towards a hopeful future where all its wounds are healed.

In the third and final section, Heath looks for ways the church’s practice of evangelism will need to change as it seeks a “union” of holiness with God. Unfortunately, this section seemed very repetitive and Heath’s goals for it were unclear to me. At first I thought she was “applying” the “theory” she had developed in section two. In most of the “union” chapters, she does focus on practical applications and changes to be made, but she had already discussed many of these changes in the “illumination” chapters. The chapters in this section also included short vignettes which follow the life of a man named Sam who encounters a church which practices a mystic way of evangelism. These vignettes attempt to communicate the truth of each chapter in a narrative format. However, I found these stories added little to what had already been said in each chapter. The stories were too brief and underdeveloped to say anything new. This added to the sense of repetitiveness I found throughout this section.

One redeeming feature of the “union” section was Heath’s discussion of a “new kind of Pentecostalism” in chapter ten. As a member of a charismatic church, I appreciated how Heath reformulated the Pentecostal doctrine of “initial evidence” from a performance which somehow proves an individual’s holiness to a life committed to the creation of communities which have been divided by race, class, and gender. The “evidence” of the Spirit’s work is renewed life in community, i.e. the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” which the apostle Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 13:14. Evangelism that is Spirit-filled will invite others into a renewed and renewing community which embodies the new creation reconciliation Christ has made possible.

I would recommend this book to all Christian leaders who are concerned about the future of the church in the U.S. Heath has provided a refreshing and hopeful way forward that does not ignore the church’s issues but nevertheless trusts in God’s active presence to renew and restore God’s people. This book would be especially helpful for church planters who are forming their vision for the community God has called them to cultivate. They may find Heath’s stories about “Sam’s” experience with the mystic way of evangelism more helpful than I since they paint an explicit image of how her process could work. This book may also be helpful for the typical church member to help them deepen their understanding of evangelism. However, the second section may be too theologically in-depth for some general audience readers. On the whole, I give this book a very hearty recommendation because it has given me new hope and excitement about how evangelism can be practiced in truly life-giving ways for both our churches and our communities.

Trinity: A Credo

I believe that God is Trinity; the Parent, Child, and Spirit who exist as communion because they exist as persons. A person is an absolutely unique identity who cannot exist apart from relation to an-other person. Therefore, persons live as community because they are oriented towards distinct others who they freely celebrate, embrace, and love. This Triune community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Child and Spirit. Because God is Triune, God is relational and God is reaching out to be in relation with that which is not-God. Parent, Child, and Spirit are reaching out through creation, redemption, and consummation in order to gather all creatures together to share in the mystery of their perfect communion. Trinity means that God is Love eternal and unending; that God is none other than the God who has created us in love, who has come to redeem us in the grace of Jesus Christ, and who continues to reach out for us and draw us closer to Godself and each other by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that this story of Triune persons who live as saving communion is the story that comes before, mingles within, and goes beyond  all human stories and the story in which all other stories find their origin and meaning; that salvation is the comprehensive, holistic process of creatures being incorporated into and participating with the Parent, Child, and Spirit which brings healing, restoration, and transformation; that persons who participate with Trinity are liberating and embracing those who are suffering from evil and sin which divides, desecrates, and destroys that which belongs to the life of the Parent, Child, and Spirit. Trinity creates communities of “disciples” who welcome into their body of unity-in-diversity; who provide a place of refuge, peace, and healing that becomes a place of teaching, wisdom, and power as they gather to worship the Triune God; who are sent out as witnesses to this Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete; who are a community of hope in a world of despair because of their participation with the Parent, Child, and Spirit who together constitute life itself.

Participating in the Triune Persons: An Oikonomic Critique of Paul Fiddes and Subsistent Relations

What might it mean to participate with the Triune persons of Parent, Child and Spirit? Is there a way to define personhood that encourages this participation? A popular children’s church song came to mind as I explored these questions in the work of Oxford University professor and theologian Paul Fiddes: “Deep and wide, deep and wide. There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.”[1] This song echoes the words of the Psalmist who sang about a God who was the “fountain of life” with “justice like the great deep” and steadfast love like wide wings of refuge.[2] As a child I was not aware of how these dynamic images of God suggest what Fiddes calls the personal “currents of love” which exist as Trinity. Fiddes develops a Trinitarian theology of personhood in response “to the demands of experience in pastoral care for others” and considers how “participation in this triune God affects both our images of God and our acts.”[3] He reimagines the being of Trinitarian persons in a way that avoids the “language of a spectator” in favor of a language which “only makes sense in terms of our involvement in the network of relationships in which God happens.”[4] However, Fiddes’ notion of divine persons is at serious risk of becoming disconnected from what Roman Catholic theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna has rightly argued is the critical basis of Trinitarian theology: the oikonomia – the “economy of salvation” in which God self-communicates “in the person of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit.”[5] LaCugna offers an alternative conception of Trinitarian personhood in which human persons can participate that is based firmly in oikonomia.

I write as a Euro-American male whose way of imagining God has developed within the highly Westernized, Enlightenment-shaped theological tradition of the Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and, currently, the charismatic Vineyard churches. This paper symbolically represents a return to my theological roots as my understanding of Trinity and personhood continues to be reshaped on my journey of theological education. Therefore, I begin with a brief discussion of “person” within the Western theological tradition before presenting Fiddes’ pastoral doctrine of the Trinity with specific attention given to his conception of Trinitarian persons. I then look to LaCugna to provide an oikonomic warning to Fiddes in addition to a participatory theology of Trinitarian personhood drawn for the persons of Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit. I conclude with a praxeological application concerning the worship praxis at my local congregation and end with a brief credo stating my personal doctrine of Trinity.

Tracing Person in the West: Tertullian and Augustine

The term person was first used in a Trinitarian context in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries by the African theologian Tertullian. In his polemical writing Against Praxeas, Tertullian defends the unity of God against the Monarchian heresy which claimed that “the Father [sic], the Son [sic], and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person.”[6] Tertullian’s response defends the “mystery of the dispensation,” which he also calls the oikonomia, in which “this one only God has also a Son [sic]… who sent also from heaven from the Father [sic]… the Holy Ghost.”[7]  In order to be faithful to this oikonomia, “which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons,” Tertullian explains how the Parent, Child, and Spirit are three yet “not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power.”[8] Without these distinctions of person, Tertullian argues that there would be no real unity in God but only “uniformity, sameness, and redundancy in the Godhead.”[9] He develops a series of analogies “drawn from dynamic operations” like a fountain flowing into a river and then to a stream “to link the persons through relationships of origin that do not separate them.”[10] For Tertullian, person was a term indicating the necessary relational distinction and substantial inseparability of God’s being in accordance with the personal revelation of Parent, Child, and Spirit as God in human history.

In the writing of St. Augustine two centuries after Tertullian, person acquired a more complex philosophical meaning as it was placed within the divine substance, or “the essential nature” of God’s reality.[11] Like Tertullian, Augustine was intent on defending “the Catholic faith that Father [sic], Son [sic], and Holy Spirit are of one substance.”[12] For Augustine, God the Parent, God the Child, and God the Spirit were called persons “not that any diversity of essence [or substance] is to be understood, but so that we may be able to answer by some one word when anyone asks three what or what three things.”[13] However, this “one word” was problematic for Augustine because, for him, person meant a subjective, individual “I” and did not entail relationship.[14] Since “person” could not “express what distinguishes Father [sic], Son [sic], and Spirit… [or] their mutual interrelatedness” in a way that preserved their equality and, hence, their unity, Augustine resituated the term within the Aristotelian category of relatio.[15] This shift allowed him to distinguish “between things that are said of God’s substance and things that are said of God’s relations.”[16] Any language about God existing as three persons referred to God’s distinct relations – the unbegottenness of the Parent, the begottenness of the Child, and the procession of the Spirit – and categorically excluded any argument that the three divine persons implied three separate, divine substances..

For Augustine, personal terms like Parent did not refer to the divine substance, but to the Parent’s relation to the Child within the one substance shared equally among the three persons. He therefore upholds the unity and inseparability of the three persons in the one divine substance by placing personal language in the category of relatio. However, this move made the Trinitarian persons dependent on substance so that “each of the three persons from the vantage point of substance is identical with the others or with the divine substance itself.”[17] While he may have begun with the oikonomic, “salvation-historical view of the Bible,”[18] Augustine developed a Trinitarian theology of persons which no longer safeguarded what Tertullian called the “mystery of the dispensation,” but was rather “a linguistic crutch” for expressing the diversity of interior relations within the divine substance shared by the Parent, Child, and Spirit.[19]

Paul Fiddes’ Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinitarian Participation

 As Paul Fiddes begins constructing his pastoral doctrine of the Trinity, he notes the accomplishment of early church theologians like Tertullian and the Cappadocian Fathers who emphasize how “the ‘distinct identity’ of a person is inseparable from relationship.”[20] He notes how person lost its relational foundation and was transformed into “an otherness which was an aloneness” as person became synonymous with individual subject.[21] According to Fiddes, the result of this shift was not the expected tritheistic understanding of Trinity, i.e. the Parent, Child, and Spirit are separate “gods,” but a return to a Monarchian understanding of Trinity in which “for all practical purposes God is treated as ‘a person’ or one individual being.”[22] This loss of Trinitarian relationality and the subsequent loss of diverse personal identities existing as community is a major concern for Fiddes who is trying to address “the perplexing problem of the relation of the individual to the community.”[23] As unique persons cultivate relations in community, Fiddes’ primary pastoral concern lies in helping others “create a balance between the person and [social roles], between self-integrity and openness to others, between independence and dependence, and between diversity and unity.”[24] These pastoral questions form the impetus for Fiddes’ doctrine of Trinitarian participation in “a personal God who lives in relationships.”[25]

In order to address these pastoral concerns, Fiddes’ insists on a Trinitarian theology that offers more than a strategy for imitating the personal relations of Trinity. He states his point clearly: “It is not enough to plead, ‘God is united and yet lives in relations, so we should be like this too.’”[26] Fiddes is looking for a way to talk about Trinitarian persons which goes beyond imitation because imitation makes the divine persons into objects which can be observed and mastered. He identifies the root of observational language in the “view of the human subject stemming from the Enlightenment, in which observation in the basic paradigm of knowing [and] takes the form of subjecting objects to the control of our consciousness.”[27] Since Trinity is not a human subject, an imitation of God assumes an impossible task: that God can be described “from the standpoint of an external watcher or perceiver”.[28] For Fiddes, a true person cannot be objectified and controlled since the person “inhabits the space of the ‘between’ of communication”; persons are “other.”[29] Therefore, a Trinitarian theology of personhood which calls for imitation is inadequate because it does not consider the full implications of otherness which constitute personal identity.

In order to find a Trinitarian language of personhood that overcomes observation and imitation, Fiddes looks to the notion of persons as subsistent relations developed within the Western theological tradition, specifically in the work of Thomas Aquinas. According to Fiddes, the notion of divine persons as subsistent relations “proposes that relations in God are as real and ‘beingful’ as anything which is created or uncreated, and that their ground of existence is in themselves.”[30] In other words, “there are no persons ‘at each end of a relation’ [because] the persons are simply the relations.”[31]

Fiddes looks to Aquinas’ Trinitarian theology for help because Aquinas “begins his discussion… with the two processions of ‘begetting’ and ‘breathing forth’” and goes on to define persons in a way that is similar to that of the Cappadocian Fathers but not entirely the same: “the critical point is that Aquinas has begun with movements or actions within God rather than subjects who act in various ways.”[32] He finds further support for his participatory language of Trinitarian persons in the work of Augustine. While admitting how Augustine left “the impression that he conceived of God as an absolute individual,” Fiddes explains how  Augustine also wrote about “the actions of our mind’s remembering God, understanding God and loving God” which demonstrates how he “associated the triune persons with our involvement in God.”[33] In Aquinas, Fiddes finds dynamic relations; in Augustine, he highlights the idea of human involvement.

Fiddes takes these two insights along with a “clue” from German Protestant theologian Karl Barth to state his reformulation of Trinitarian persons as subsistent relations on “a different basis from that of one divine essence”: “we may speak of God as… ‘three movements of relationship subsisting in one event.’”[34] According to Fiddes, this revised doctrine of subsistent relations moves beyond “the language of a spectator” into “the language of a participant” because “we cannot observe, even in our mind’s eye, being which is relationship.”[35] Speaking of Trinity as three dynamic relations subsisting in one event, therefore, requires an “epistemology of participation.”[36]

In Fiddes’ understanding of Trinitarian personhood, the personal names of Parent, Child, and Spirit “lead us into movements of divine love, which cannot be reduced to a relationship between a subject and an object.”[37] He identifies how human persons are participating in “three distinct movements of speech, emotion and action which are like relationships ‘from father to son’, ‘from son to father’ and a movement of ‘deepening relations’” as they pray to the Parent, through the Child, and in the Spirit.[38] He emphasizes how these relational metaphors “give us an entrance into engagement in God” and also highlights how “these movements of giving and receiving cannot in themselves be restricted to a particular gender.”[39] What is central to Fiddes’ Trinitarian theology is that the Parent, Child, and Spirit are not objects for human observation, possession, or control, but “currents of love” with “a self-existent reality which embraces us from beyond us.”[40]

Speaking as a pastor, Fiddes hopes that this participatory Trinitarian language will “open up new dimensions of empathy and ‘indwelling’ in our knowledge of our world.”[41] However, if human persons are to participate in Trinity, they must not consider themselves analogous to the Trinitarian persons. This kind of thinking is a return to observational, spectator language. Instead, Fiddes’ revised notion of persons as dynamic subsistent relations suggests that

the closest analogy between the triune God and human existence created in the image of this God is not in persons but in the personal relationships themselves… It is the relations between a mother and the baby in her womb, between children and parents, between wife and husband, and between members of the church community that are analogous to relations in God.[42]

As the Pauline author reminded the church at Corinth that “we walk by faith, not by sight,” human persons cannot “see” this God who exists as event and relations, but, with eyes of faith, they can reach out their hands and learn to “walk” together as persons in community as they are swept up in the relational movements of Parent, Child, and Spirit.[43]

An Oikonomic Critique via Catherine Mowry LaCugna

As Fiddes constructs his revised notion of persons as subsistent relations, he follows Thomas Aquinas’ “strategy of beginning with processions (actions) in God [emphasis added].”[44] This starting point within the being of God is somewhat unexpected given the introductory chapter to Fiddes’ work on Trinity which describes how “the early Christians moved back in thought from the ‘economic’ Trinity to the ‘immanent’ Trinity, from the activity of God in ordering the household (oikonomia) of the world to the being of God within God’s own self.”[45] Why, then, does Fiddes begin his Trinitarian theology with the “immanent” Trinity and not with the “economic” Trinity? Fiddes attempts to answer this question by highlighting the correspondence between the immanent processions and the economic missions of the Trinitarian persons in Aquinas’ theology.[46] However, according to LaCugna’s reading of Aquinas, Fiddes is overestimating the correspondence between theologia, “the eternal being of God,” and oikonomia in Aquinas’ theology.[47] She argues that “the correlation between oikonomia and theologia in Thomas’ theology is weak” and, consequently, it contributed to “the marginalization of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[48] By following Aquinas, who takes up the work of Augustine,[49] Fiddes risks making the classic Western mistake of forgetting the oikonomia, treating “the ‘immanent Trinity’ as a purely intradivine reality,” and arriving at a conception of personhood based on “a fantasy about a God who does not exist.”[50]

This risk becomes most pronounced as Fiddes discusses how “it is not possible to visualise… three movements of being characterised by their relations.”[51] He considers this visual impossibility as a positive development for Trinitarian theology because God “cannot be objectified like other objects in the world.”[52] If human persons cannot envisage Parent, Child and Spirit as active subjects, this should help them overcome the alienating effects of the Enlightenment divide between subject-object relations. Even if Fiddes is correct about this “advantage”, he is dangerously close to throwing the baby, i.e. the Christ child in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,”[53] out with the Enlightenment bath water. Fiddes’ anxiety over the influence of the Enlightenment causes him to make “the image of the invisible God” invisible once again![54] Is there no room for the incarnate person of Jesus Christ as a human subject – the one who “we have heard, [who] we have seen with our eyes, [who] we have looked at and touched with our hands” – in Fiddes’ conception of the Trinitarian persons as three relational movements subsisting in one event?[55] If there is not, Fiddes has committed the grave error of treating oikonomia as merely “a mirror dimly reflecting a hidden realm of intradivine relations” and has failed to realize how “there is neither an economic nor immanent Trinity; there is only the oikonomia that is the concrete realization of the mystery of theologia in time, space, history, and personality.”[56] If Fiddes wants a Trinitarian personhood that invites participation in God, he should look to the work of Tertullian instead of Aquinas and Augustine to rediscover the persons of the Trinity in the oikonomia.

Unlike Fiddes, LaCugna looks to oikonomia and examines the life of Christ to identify three oikonomic characteristics of personhood. The person of Jesus Christ is theonomous, catholic, and perichoretic. Jesus is a theonomous person; his personal identity is not totally self-defined or other-defined but is instead defined in “reference to its origin and destiny in God.”[57] This empowers him to invite others into true, healing, reconciling communion with Trinity because he is “free in himself and from himself to be open to other persons,” especially to those the world had forgotten, ignored, or oppressed.[58] Jesus is a catholic person in two ways. First, his catholicity was expressed as inclusivity as he practiced compassion and solidarity among the outcasts of his day and opposed “human customs, beliefs, institutions, and religious practices when they stood in the way of persons.”[59] Second, Jesus is catholic because, “while he was unique as a human being, he also perfectly exemplified what it means to be human; he expresses the totality of the [human] nature.”[60] This means that all the circumstances of Jesus’ embodiment – his sexuality, suffering, and cultural-historical conditioning – “apply to Jesus as a person” with no separation between divine and human natures.[61] Finally, Jesus is a perichoretic person because he “is the communion of divine and human”; being divine he is fully human and being human he is fully divine.[62] Perichoresis is a term used to describe the mutual interpenetration and co-inherence of the Parent, Child, and Spirit as they exist as one perfect communion. The perichoretic personhood of Jesus reveals the hope of every human person to be divinized, to be “in communion, in right relationship, with every creature and with God.”[63] Unlike Fiddes’ idea of persons as “invisible” relational movements, LaCugna paints a portrait of personhood drawn for oikonomia in which human persons can truly participate through the person and work of the Spirit who “divinizes human beings, making persons theonomous and catholic” which “brings about the true communion of God and creature.”[64]


As I consider how this discussion of Trinitarian personhood can make a difference in my ministry context, I find instructive LaCugna’s suggestion that “theology in the mode of doxology” is the best way to speak truthfully about the God who is revealed as God-for-us.[65] A language of doxology is a language of praise and worship. What difference does LaCugna’s oikonomic portrait of personhood make for the worship praxis of my local congregation? For the past two years, I have been a member of Six:Eight Community Church (6:8) in Ardmore, PA. 6:8 is a member of the Vineyard USA church network and could be characterized as a charismatic, evangelical, free church congregation. As Robert Webber has identified, our worship services tend to be characterized by an emphasis on the inward spiritual experiences of individuals.[66] This characteristic is evidenced at 6:8 by the lyrics of many of the songs we sing. If our worship is to honor the theonomous dimension of personhood, our singing should lead us out of private, individual experiences and invite us into truly personal experiences with the person of the Spirit and each other which create a greater depth of incorporation into the life of Trinity, one another, and our local community. A very large majority of 6:8’s members are young Euro-Americans who are well-educated and occupy a middle-class socioeconomic status. If we are to worship as catholic persons, our worship must be more inclusive of the cultural, racial, and socio-economic diversity represented in our local community. Catholicity also calls us to honor the full embodied nature of human persons which will mean less time devoted strictly to the mind in the form of hearing a sermon. Finally, persons are perichoretic, seeking to join the “to and fro” of communion with Trinity and others through Christ by the power of the Spirit. In order for worship at 6:8 to honor the perichoretic dimension of personhood, more time and space should be given to the prayer ministry where worshippers actively seek Trinity together towards a more complete participation in the healing, comforting, transforming, and empowering relations of the Parent, Child, and Spirit.

[1] Alfred B. Smith, Sidney E. Cox, and William Cowper, Deep and Wide, The Christian Children’s Choir, Big Eye Records, MP3, 2008.

[2] Ps. 36:6,7,9, NRSV.

[3] Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 7.

[4] Fiddes, 37.

[5] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 2.

[6] Tertullian, Against Praxeas in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Peter Holmes (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885) in Kevin Knight ed., “Church Fathers: Against Praxeas (Tertullian),” New Advent, accessed 30 September 2013, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0317.htm.

[7] Tertullian

[8] Tertullian

[9] Tarmo Toom, Classical Trinitarian Theology: A Textbook (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 71.

[10] Gerald O’Collins, S.J., The Tripersonal God: Understanding and Interpreting the Trinity (New York, Paulist Press, 1999), 106.

[11] Toom, 39.

[12] Sarah Heaner Lancaster, “Divine Relations of the Trinity: Augustine’s Answer to Arianism,” Calvin Theological Journal 34, no. 2 (November 1, 1999): 333.

[13] Augustine, On the Trinity: Books 8-15, ed. Gareth B. Matthews, trans. Stephen McKenna (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4.

[14] Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church, ed. Andrew Louth, trans. Matthias Westerhoff (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1993), 183.

[15] Studer, 173, 174, 183.

[16] Lancaster, 334.

[17] William G. Rusch, ed., The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 26.

[18] Studer, 185.

[19] Toom, 150.

[20] Fiddes, 16.

[21] Fiddes, 16.

[22] Fiddes, 17.

[23] Fiddes, 19.

[24] Fiddes, 28.

[25] Fiddes, 28.

[26] Fiddes, 28.

[27] Fiddes, 39.

[28] Fiddes, 29.

[29] Fiddes, 32.

[30] Fiddes, 34.

[31] Fiddes, 34.

[32] Fiddes, 35.

[33] Fiddes, 36.

[34] Fiddes, 36.

[35] Fiddes, 36, 38.

[36] Fiddes, 38.

[37] Fiddes, 44.

[38] Fiddes, 37.

[39] Fiddes, 38, 40.

[40] Fiddes, 40.

[41] Fiddes, 39.

[42] Fiddes, 49, 50.

[43] 2 Cor. 5:7.

[44] Fiddes, 36.

[45] Fiddes, 6.

[46] Fiddes, 35.

[47] LaCugna, God for Us, 223.

[48] LaCugna, 158, 167.

[49] LaCugna, “The Relational  God: Aquinas and Beyond,” Theological Studies 46, no. 4 (December 1, 1985): 650.

[50] LaCugna, God for Us, 228, 230.

[51] Fiddes, 36.

[52] Fiddes, 36, 37.

[53] Col. 2:9.

[54] Col. 1:15.

[55] 1 Jn 1:1.

[56] LaCugna, God for Us, 223.

[57] LaCugna, God for Us, 290.

[58] LaCugna, God for Us, 293.

[59] LaCugna, God for Us, 294.

[60] LaCugna, God for Us, 295.

[61] LaCugna, God for Us, 295.

[62] LaCugna, God for Us, 296.

[63] LaCugna, God for Us, 296.

[64] LaCugna, God for Us, 296.

[65] LaCugna, God for Us, 320.

[66] Robert E. Webber, Worship Old & New, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 115, 117.

Engaging Amos Yong’s Foundational Pneumatology and Theology of Discernment from Latino Pentecostal Perspectives


As the twenty-first century unfolds, Amos Yong, a highly-regarded theologian writing from a Pentecostal, Asian-American context, sees an array of challenges facing the task of theology: modern science, religious plurality, and the crumbling of modernity along with its various epistemological structures.[1] However, he remains hopeful about these challenges because he is convinced that the Holy Spirit of God is still present and active throughout all creation. In his work on a foundational pneumatology, Yong establishes a theological, metaphysical basis for this hope by articulating “who the Holy Spirit is relative to the world as a whole and what the Spirit is doing in the world.”[2] This kind of pneumatology, according to Yong, “requires a theology of discernment in its widest and most robust sense” in order to distinguish the Holy Spirit from the diversity of spirits who are also present and active in the world.[3] In this paper, I explore Yong’s foundational pneumatology along with his theology of discernment from the perspective of a Euro-American male who is a member of a charismatic evangelical church in Ardmore, PA.[4] I have chosen to engage Yong on this topic because I am discouraged by how evangelical churches in the United States tend to domesticate and limit the person and work of the Holy Spirit within the confines of the church and private, individualized spirituality. For this reason, I was excited to read how Yong’s foundational pneumatology suggests that “divinity is present and active not only in the world that Christians inhabit, but also on the cosmic or universal level.”[5]

After presenting Yong’s foundational pneumatology along with his theology of discernment, I will explore two important aspects of his work through the voices of two other Pentecostal theologians – Samuel Soliván and Eldin Villafañe. I endeavor first to show how Yong’s foundational pneumatology is at risk of depersonalizing the Spirit, while suggesting a way he can maintain the Spirit’s personhood within his pneumatological framework. Second, I explore the relationship between christology and pneumatology in Yong’s theology of discernment and conclude that he successfully holds the Spirit and Christ together in mutual relation.

Amos Yong is the Dean and J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology at Regent University’s School of Divinity as well as a licensed Assemblies of God minister.[6] He was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents who served there as Assemblies of God ministers after converting to Christianity from Theravadan Buddhism.[7] At the age of ten, Yong immigrated to California with his parents who began pastoring a Chinese church.[8] As a scholar, Yong holds research interests in various fields including “global Pentecostalism, Pentecostalism and science, political theology, theology & disability, theology of religions and the interfaith encounter/dialogue, and Buddhist-Christian dialogue.”[9] The portion of his work I explore in this paper arises from  his work on a theology of religions, which he describes as “part of my own quest to learn about the Christian culture [my parents] handed down to me, even as I come to appreciate the truths, beauty, goodness, and values of other cultural-religious traditions.”[10]

Amos Yong’s Foundational Pneumatology

How does one construct a foundational pneumatology that accounts for the universal presence and activity of the Triune God in a way that the whole world can hear and understand? For Yong, the divine act of creation provides the best starting point because of the “perennial connection made between the Spirit and universality in the history of Christian thought,” which in recent times has led to a fresh affirmation of the Spirit’s cosmic role in creation.[11] Yong examines the act of creation from a Trinitarian perspective using a metaphor developed by the 3rd century theologian Irenaus who described the Trinitarian missions of the divine Word and Spirit as the “Two hands of the Father [sic]”.[12] Using this metaphor, Yong argues that “every determination of being exhibits the presence and activity of the divine being: Father [sic] creating something through the [Word] by the Spirit.”[13] Yong’s description coincides with Heinz-Josef Fabry’s analysis of the Genesis 1 creation account in which the ruah elohim – “the vitalizing spirit of Yahweh” – “drives back the waters of chaos” and creates space for the creative word to be actualized.[14] In this way, the Spirit is the “field of force” in which every “determination of being is what it is by virtue of the presence and activity of the Logos within the force fields set in motion by the Spirit, the supreme field of force.” [15] Therefore, all created things exist in outer “concrete forms” that can be experienced and manipulated by virtue of the divine Word, while each thing is simultaneously constituted by an inner “energetic force that shapes its processive actuality and directs its temporal trajectory” – by virtue of the divine Spirit.[16] This creation account allows Yong to describe the presence and activity of the Triune God in creation using pneumatological categories which are distinct from – yet inextricably related to – the Word.

With this Trinitarian groundwork in place, Yong proceeds to lay out his foundational pneumatology using three intentionally vague categories of general religious experience: divine presence, divine activity, and divine absence. He builds on Donald Gelpi’s statement that “present experience of the reality of the Christian God begins… in a conscious encounter with the Holy Breath”[17] by claiming that “all experience… [is] essentially of the Spirit.”[18] Yong then develops the category of divine presence as “our experience of relationality, and through this, of God, [as] mediated by the presence of the divine Spirit.”[19] He agrees with Ralph Del Colle who describes how “the more we discover our relation to other humans, to the non-human creation, and recognize the interconnectedness of all things, we experience the One who transcends all things and yet is in all things as the source of their dynamic interrelation.”[20] By virtue of being created by God through Word and Spirit, all things contain particular qualities and norms which must be recognized and honored for their created goodness if true relationality is to be experienced. With this category, Yong discloses how the divine Spirit of the Triune God whose being is communion can be universally present in all peoples, cultures, and places to the degree in which the community of creation is authentically experienced as unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity.

However, this relational experience of divine presence is never static because the Spirit is a dynamic field of force. Yong’s category of divine activity describes the “force fields of faith, hope, and love” created by the Spirit which “enable human beings to move from estranged, wounded, broken, and destructive relationships into reconciling, edifying, healing, and saving ones.”[21] Therefore, the universal activity of the Spirit is “to integrate a thing into its environment in a way such that it can be authentic to itself and of service in its relationships with others.”[22] The norms for judging this divine activity are derived from the created purpose of each thing so that “the question is whether a greater degree of aesthetic harmony is possible for a thing measured against its ideal norms.”[23] When the “harmonies of things are heightened and intensified in their interrelatedness,” Yong sees the divine activity of the Spirit.[24] This category discloses the character of the Spirit’s universal action in all peoples, cultures, and places.

Having said this, Yong is quick to recognize the injustice, oppression, and alienation which mar the image of the Triune God in creation. Because the divine “presence and activity are still eschatological – not yet fully experienced but punctuated here and now by the Spirit,” creation encounters what Yong calls divine absence.[25] He accounts for the possibility of divine absence through the subjective spontaneity given by God to all human creation which provides freedom “to pervert the determinate forms of being and establish force fields of destruction” that reject their divinely created purposes.[26] When this occurs, the divine absence becomes demonic and opposes the Holy Spirit’s work and leads to “a distortion of a thing’s identity and a disruption of its network of relations.”[27] The category of divine absence identifies the presence and activity of demonic realities which create “force fields or habits of chaos, irrationality, isolation or alienation, and stagnation… [that resist] the transformative and eschatological work of the Holy Spirit” in all peoples, cultures, and places.[28]

With his pneumatological categories of divine presence, divine activity, and divine absence, Yong constructs “a framework by which to understand divinity’s relation to the diverse realms of human undertaking.”[29] This foundational pneumatology sheds considerable light on how the Triune God is present by the Spirit to both form and preserve the infinitely diverse and unique qualities of all created things while working to unite “the manyness of the world in harmony.”[30] However, it also accounts for the experience of demonic forces seeking to undermine the true identity and purpose of all forms of being and destroy the communal image of the Triune God in creation.

Amos Yong’s Theology of Discernment

In a world where the Spirit is universally present and active and engaged in varying degrees of conflict with other, demonic spirits, a robust theology of discernment is absolutely essential. In true Pentecostal form, Yong builds this theology on the Pentecost event recorded in Acts 2, which reveals that the “mission of the Spirit is never abstract but concretely and historically realized and manifest” in the diverse outward forms and inner spirits of all created things.[31] This means that discernment has to take into account the full context of a thing with all its intricacies and particularities. According to Yong, this requires nothing short of a miracle; the miracle of the Spirit at Pentecost whereby “the impossible task of understanding the other in all his or her otherness, strangeness, and difference” is made possible.[32] This Spirit-inspired understanding facilitates relationships between people separated by culture, language, and religion in a way that preserves the unique diversity of each person even while bringing them together in deep fellowship and unity.[33] This Pentecostal reality of life in the Spirit allows Yong to define discernment as a “hermeneutics of life that is both a divine gift and a human activity aimed at reading correctly the inner processes of all things,” which greatly expands upon the understanding of discernment as a “spiritual gift” given to individuals “for the specific purposes of providing insight and guidance, and for edifying the people of God.”[34]

Yong constructs this expansive theology of discernment by considering the relationship between his three pneumatological categories. The category of divine presence “marks the reality of God,” while divine absence “registers the destructive, false, evil, ugly, and profane existence of the fallen and demonic world,” which means that “the symbol of divine activity is thus dynamic and mediational, calling attention to the fact that things move continuously either to or away from their divinely instituted reason for being.”[35] Since these categories must be held together to facilitate a comprehensive praxis of discernment, Yong proposes a three-fold process that uses phenomenological-experiential, moral-ethical, and theological-soteriological criteria that correlate with each pneumatological category.[36] Because he is speaking to a Christian audience in order to construct a pneumatological theology of religions, Yong focuses his theology of discernment on the religious dimension of human experience. However, his categories are vague enough to be applied to other dimensions of experience as well.

Discernment on the phenomenological-experiential level focuses on the “qualitative presentation” of religious rituals, acts, and symbols and uses “aesthetic norms” in order to “gauge the intensity and authenticity of personal religious experiences,” with specific attention to how individuals are transformed by their experiences.[37] The importance of a religious experience as understood by its practitioners becomes the initial standard by which the Spirit’s presence is discerned.[38] This requires a “careful and intensive engagement with the phenomenon in question as it is revealed in its concreteness” so that a discerning eye can peer “through its outer forms into its inner habits, dispositions, tendencies, and powers.”[39] This leads to the moral-ethical level of discernment where the primary questions posed to religious experiences and symbols are very practical in nature: “How do they work?” and “What is accomplished by practicing with the religious symbols over time?”[40] If “lives are made whole and communal relationships are continually mended, formed, and strengthened” through the religious experience in question, Yong advises Christians to say a “tentative yet hearty ‘Amen.’”[41] He recognizes that conclusions reached via discernment are provisional because discernment is an ongoing process that must continue to trace the concrete manifestations and tangible effects of the dynamic, inner spirits operating within religious experiences.[42]

Since “spiritual transformation for the better can always be succeeded by spiritual degradation,”[43] the two previous levels of discernment must be combined with a theological-soteriological inquiry that examines the possibility of divine absence, or perhaps the demonic, by asking questions concerning the transcendental reality to which religious symbols refer.[44] Usually, though, this sort of inquiry ends in confessional statements or theological claims whose ultimate truth is indiscernible.[45] In light of this, Yong states that “the final test for discerning the Spirit of Jesus on this side of the eschaton has to reside in religious praxis.”[46] Instead of getting mired in intractable theological arguments with religious others, Yong calls Christians to lead the way in “joint expressions of liberative action… for the betterment of the human condition and for the common good.”[47]

This call to action is heightened by Yong’s awareness of demonic spirits at work in all peoples and religions, including Christianity, which “[confront] us at every turn and [threaten] us in every dimension of our lives” in very real, tangible ways.[48] When these concrete manifestations of the demonic are experienced, the dialogue of discernment must give way to a “holistic understanding of spiritual warfare… [that] involves, besides the obvious spiritual practices and disciplines, concrete actions against the powers of injustice, destruction, and dehumanization.”[49] Therefore, the most reliable way to discern the truth of theological-soteriological claims made by religious others falls back to the moral-ethical question.

When Jesus warns his disciples about “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves,” he also provides them with a standard for discernment: “you will know them by their fruits.”[50] Echoing the words of Jesus, Yong’s theology of discernment offers a way for Christians to “know” the presence and activity of the Spirit outside the “official” boundaries of Christian faith. Instead of staking a priori claims that refuse to see the Spirit outside the church, Yong cautions the church to look closely for the “the fruit of the Spirit”[51] in all peoples, cultures, places, and religions in order to participate in the universal “mission of the Spirit to heal and reconcile the social, economic, political, etc., divisions and fragmentation in our world.”[52]

Dialogue with Samuel Soliván and Eldin Villafañe

Having presented Yong’s foundational pneumatology and his corresponding theology of discernment, the voices of two theologians – Samuel Soliván and Eldin Villafañe – who talk about God from a Latino Pentecostal context will be raised to explore Yong’s hypotheses. This dialogue will begin by discussing the place of the Spirit’s personhood in Yong’s foundational pneumatology and will conclude by exploring the place of Christ in Yong’s theology of discernment.

The Personhood of the Spirit in Yong’s Foundational Pneumatology

For Soliván, the Spirit is first and foremost a person who relates to human persons in all their diversity and complexity.[53] He decries how the Spirit’s full personhood has not been honored throughout the theological tradition as it has at times “been subsumed or overshadowed by Christology, ecclesiology, and soteriology.”[54] Soliván expresses his primary concern using a quote from Thomas Oden describing how “the depersonalization of God the Spirit has occurred… [through] unconstrained application of a mistaken impersonal analogy to the person of the Spirit”[55] Tellingly, Oden includes the analogy of the Spirit as “creative energy” in his list of depersonalizing analogies.[56] Given Soliván’s approval of Oden’s thoughts, one may assume that he would also raise an objection to the potential depersonalizing effects of Yong’s description of the Spirit as a “force field” throughout his foundational pneumatology. Soliván sounds a dire warning concerning the danger of these impersonal analogies: “the depersonalization of the Holy Spirit serves the interest of those who would employ a divine image to further their own desires for control” while also being “counter to the imago Dei given to all human creation through the agency of the Spirit.”[57] The urgency of Soliván’s objection arises from his context in the Latin@ culture where he is well aware of the various ways Latin@s are dehumanized and objectified.[58] From this context, Soliván seeks to protect the personhood of the Spirit “because the relationship of the Spirit to persons… can provide a transformative model of personhood and self-esteem” for all people.[59] In addition, Soliván notes how only a fully personal image of the Spirit can relate to and redeem the unique particularities of all human persons in order to create the unity amid diversity that “is the strongest evidence that we have been and are being filled with the Holy Spirit.”[60]

Soliván’s critique raises a serious protest to Yong’s foundational pneumatology. However, Yong’s description of the Spirit in terms of a “force field” is certainly not original. Yves Congar seems to imply this notion when he summarizes the Spirit’s role in Hebrew scripture as “the action of God.”[61] However, Congar does note how this general “action” was at times “intimate” and related to specific persons.[62] Wolfhart Pannenberg describes the Spirit as “the force field of God’s mighty presence.”[63] Jurgen Moltmann, says “God’s Spirit is felt as a vitalizing energy… [or] the divine field of force.”[64] Finally, Michael Welker states that “the pouring out of the spirit means that [an individual human being] stands in a force field… in which he or she is more and more filled with ‘the fullness of God’ (Eph. 3:19).”[65] While Yong’s use of the “force field” analogy may be somewhat justified in light of its use by these other theologians, he still needs to face Soliván’s concerns.

Is there any space for the person of the Spirit in Yong’s foundational pneumatology? At first glance, it seems that his fully public, metaphysical proposal requires an impersonal understanding of the Spirit because he seeks to furnish “a general [public] understanding of divine presence and activity… [understood] against the backdrop of the fundamental hiddenness of the Spirit in mediating… the divine reality [emphasis added].”[66] While the public nature of his project may require a “general” way of talking about the “hidden” Spirit, Yong also frames his foundational pneumatology in “a robust trinitarianism that recognizes the Son [sic] and the Spirit as the two hands of the Father [sic].”[67] This patristic image of the Trinity does seem to capture a dimension of the Spirit and Child’s relation to each other and to the Parent in the mission of creation, yet the Spirit is still described in impersonal terms.

At this point, the work of Eldin Villafañe may help Yong respond to Soliván’s concerns. With Yong, Villafañe affirms the Spirit’s universal presence and activity in creation and highlights how the Spirit functions as a protector and provider in the Genesis 1 creation account.[68] He then connects these functions with two names for the Holy Spirit drawn from 2 Thessalonians and the Gospel of John: “’the Restrainer’ (To Katechon – 2 Thess. 2:6,7)” and “’the Helper’ (Parakletos – John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).”[69] Villafañe describes “the Helper” Spirit as the one who is present “wherever good, love, peace, [and] justice… are manifested in the world.”[70] The person of the Spirit identified as “the Helper” fits Yong’s foundational category of divine activity because it describes the work of the Spirit to bring about networks of relationships that are harmonious and authentic. Villafañe describes “the Restrainer” Spirit as the person who “maintains ‘order’… [and] restrains the ‘powers’ from bringing about total oppression and chaos.”[71] This personal image of the Spirit as “the Restrainer” fits Yong’s foundational category of divine absence as it highlights the presence and activity of demonic spirits who oppose the Spirit’s eschatological work. In this way, Villafañe provides Yong with the resources for maintaining the personhood of the Spirit within his foundational pneumatology.

The Place of Christ in Yong’s Theology of Discernment

According to Soliván, “Christ is the norm against which we are to understand and define the Holy Spirit.”[72] He notes what he describes as a contemporary “fascination” with the “spirit” and says that this situation “requires us to differentiate between that Spirit of God… [and] Spirit of the Lord, and other, false spirits that are in fact anti-Christ.”[73] Specifically, Soliván is concerned about “a monistic theology of the Holy Spirit which does not differentiate between the life force of the Spirit in creation and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.”[74] While he allows for an immanence of the Spirit in creation, he retains a tight grip on the transcendent God who is guiding creation towards redemption in Christ through the lives of individual human persons who become “instruments of the creation’s redemption as [they] are regenerated, refashioned in the image of God’s son [sic]” by the Spirit’s power.[75]

At the root of Soliván’s unease is the relationship between pneumatology and christology. Leading Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizoulas frames the issue succinctly with two questions: “should Christology be dependent on Pneumatology or should the order be the other way around?” and “when we speak of Christology and Pneumatology, what particular aspects of Christian doctrine – and Christian existence – do we have in mind?”[76] For Soliván, the answers to Zizioulas’s questions seem to be settled: christology takes priority over pneumatology so that the primary arena of the Spirit’s work is limited to the completion of Christ’s redemptive work in the lives of individuals. The Spirit is not “some impersonal force” of creation, which is then deified.”[77]

Yong addresses Zizioulas’ questions regarding the relationship between christology and pneumatology at many points throughout his work. In fact, one of the primary reasons he cites for developing a foundational pneumatology is to “free up some valuable space to reconsider the christological dilemmas” that have created an “impasse” in contemporary discussions concerning a theology of religions.[78] At the same time, he is clear that he does not mean to give priority to either christology or pneumatology.[79] Yong states that his foundational pneumatology is not an “escape from Christology” because any question about the norms, integrity, or authenticity of any created thing – questions that are essential for Yong’s theology of discernment – are, at root, questions about the presence of the Christ.[80] He further states that discernment should be “guided by the biblical and ecclesial traditions” and “normed by Jesus Christ.”[81] For Yong, “the Spirit’s work is to constitute each thing authentically in accordance with its own norms and purposes even while bringing all things together ultimately under the normative measure of all norms: Jesus the Christ.”[82] While it is clear that Yong does not seek to divorce his foundational pneumatology from christology, he seems to be in disagreement with Soliván’s restriction of the Spirit’s domain to “saved” individuals. This contrast with Soliván is on full display when Yong states that “non-Christian faiths can be regarded as salvific in the Christian sense when the Spirit’s presence and activity in and through them” is correctly discerned.[83]

At this point, Villafañe’s work is helpful once again as a mediating voice between Soliván and Yong. Villafañe notes how “Jesus’ life and mission were both inaugurated and empowered by the Holy Spirit” to the extent that Jesus could rightfully be called the “Charismatic Christ.”[84] In Villafañe’s view, Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit leaves little room for any subordination between christology and pneumatology and calls for equal, mutual relations between Christ and the Spirit. Villafañe further contributes to the dialogue by explaining how the Spirit is at work in creation above and beyond the realm of the redemptive work of Christ in individuals. He begins by examining “the texture of social existence” where he finds the presence of potentially evil social structures “that seem to have an objective reality independent of the individual [emphasis added].”[85] He then notes how “the Gospel of the Reign” witnessed in the Spirit-anointed incarnation of Jesus Christ brings total liberation from the demonic forces operating in social structures.[86] Therefore, all people baptized in the Spirit are empowered to continue Jesus’ mission through their “struggles with the forces of sin and death, with the demonic powers that-be, whether individually or institutionally manifested.”[87]

Villafañe’s insight illuminates how Soliván may come to an agreement with Yong concerning the place of Christ in the discernment of the Spirit’s work in the world. Yong states that the end goal of his theology of discernment is “our full immersion into the liberating and reconciling work of the Spirit of God in all spheres of life” because “it is empowered by the Spirit and directed to the kingdom of the Father through Jesus Christ.”[88] Seen in the light of Villafañe’s thoughts, Yong’s theology of discernment is shown to be christological to the core because it enables individuals and communities to join the Spirit in the continuing mission of Jesus. It seems that Soliván’s christological “limit” is really no limit at all because the work of Jesus is no less than the universal work of the Spirit.


The praxeological implications arising from Yong’s foundational pneumatology and its corresponding theology of discernment are as universal as the Spirit’s presence and activity in creation. As I consider how to apply his work to my own life and ministry, I believe his recent book, Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor, provides a very helpful guide for moving from his abstract, metaphysical theology into the realm of everyday life. In this book, Yong weaves his pneumatological framework together with a theology and practice of hospitality.[89] While he focuses on practicing hospitality with religious others, Yong’s work invites application in a wide-array of contexts where “otherness” may not be defined in strictly religious terms… [to be continued ;)]

[1] Amos Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 17.

[2] Amos Yong, “On Divine Presence and Divine Agency: Toward a Foundational Pneumatology,” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 3, no. 2 (July 2000): 167.

[3] Ibid., 180.

[4] My church is affiliated with the Vineyard church network. See http://www.vineyardusa.org for details.

[5] Yong, “On Divine Presence and Divine Agency: Toward a Foundational Pneumatology”: 175.

[6] “Amos Yong – School of Divinity – Regent University,” Regent University, accessed May 5, 2013, http://www.regent.edu/acad/schdiv/faculty_staff/yong.shtml.

[7] Amos Yong, Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 9.

[8] Roger E. Olson, “A Wind that Swirls Everywhere: Pentecostal Scholar Amos Yong Thinks He Sees the Holy Spirit Working in Other Religions, Too,” Christianity Today 50, no. 3 (March 1, 2006): 53.

[9] “Amos Yong – School of Divinity – Regent University.”

[10] Yong, Beyond the Impasse, 10.

[11] Amos Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 105. For examples of these affirmations, see Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 8-10 and Clark H. Pinnock, “The Role of the Spirit in Creation,” Asbury Theological Journal 52, no. 1 (March 1, 1997): 47-54.

[12] Amos Yong, “Spiritual Discernment: A Biblical-Theological Reconsideration,” in The Spirit and Spirituality, eds. Wonsuk Ma and Robert P. Menzies (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 87, 91.

[13] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 116, 120.

[14] Heinz-Josef Fabry, “רוּחַ,” in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, trans. David E. Green, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 386.

[15] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 118.

[16] Yong, “Spiritual Discernment,” 87.

[17] Donald L. Gelpi, S.J. The Divine Mother: A Trinitarian Theology of the Holy Spirit (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), viii.

[18] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 122.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ralph Del Colle, “The Experience of the Divine,” Chicago Studies 31, (November 1992): 293-294.

[21] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 123.

[22] Ibid., 125.

[23] Ibid., 124.

[24] Ibid., 125.

[25] Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh, 252.

[26] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 127, 129.

[27] Ibid., 130.

[28] Ibid., 131.

[29] Ibid., 133.

[30] Ibid., 132.

[31] Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on all Flesh, 254.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Amos Yong, “As the Spirit Gives Utterance: Pentecost, Intra-Christian Ecumenism and the Wider Oikoumene,” International Review Of Mission 92, no. 366 (July 1, 2003): 301, 305.

[34] Yong, “Spiritual Discernment,” 84, 98.

[35] Yong, Beyond the Impasse, 165.

[36] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 250.

[37] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 251.

[38] Ibid., 144.

[39] Yong, “Spiritual Discernment,” 100.

[40] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 252.

[41] Ibid., 253.

[42] Yong, “Spiritual Discernment,” 101.

[43] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 253.

[44] Ibid., 254.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Amos Yong, “The Holy Spirit and the World Religions: On the Christian Discernment of Spirit(s) ‘After’ Buddhism,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 24, (January 1, 2004): 197.

[47] Ibid., 199.

[48] Yong, “Spiritual Discernment,” 102, 103.

[49] Ibid., 103.

[50] Mt. 7:16.

[51] See Gal. 5:22-23.

[52] Yong, “As the Spirit Gives Utterance”: 307.

[53] Samuel Soliván, “The Holy Spirit – Personalization and the Affirmation of Diversity: A Pentecostal Hispanic Perspective,” in Teologia en Conjunto: A Collaborative Hispanic Protestant Theology, eds. José David Rodríguez and Loida I. Martell-Otero (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 50.

[54] Ibid., 51.

[55] Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit: Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992), 20 as cited in Samuel Solivan, “The Holy Spirit,” 53.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Soliván, “The Holy Spirit,” 53.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid., 59.

[61] Yves M. J. Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, vol. 1, trans. David Smith (New York: The Seabury Press,  1983), 12.

[62] Ibid., 11.

[63] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 383.

[64] Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 195.

[65] Michael Welker, “The Holy Spirit,” Theology Today 46, no. 1 (April 1, 1989): 17.

[66] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 98.

[67] Ibid., 311.

[68] Eldin Villafañe, The Liberating Spirit: Toward an Hispanic American Pentecostal Social Ethic (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 182.

[69] Ibid., 183.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Soliván, “The Holy Spirit,” 54.

[73] Ibid, 52.

[74] Samuel Soliván, “Which Spirit: What Creation?,” Christianity And Crisis 51, no. 10-11 (July 15, 1991): 225.

[75] Ibid.

[76] John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s University Press, 1985), 126-28, 130-32, 136, as cited in Veli-Matti Karkkainen,ed., Holy Spirit and Salvation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 283.

[77] Soliván, “Which Spirit: What Creation?”: 225.

[78] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 33.

[79] Ibid., 98.

[80] Ibid., 136.

[81] Yong, “The Holy Spirit and the World Religions”: 203.

[82] Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s), 131.

[83] Ibid., 312.

[84] Villafañe, The Liberating Spirit, 185.

[85] Villafañe, The Liberating Spirit, 176.

[86] Ibid., 186.

[87] Ibid., 187-87.

[88] Yong, “As the Spirit Gives Utterance”: 307.

[89] Amos Yong, Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), xiii-xiv.

The Fruit of the Spirit in the World

Who is the Holy Spirit? I tried to answer this question in my credo by stating that “the Holy Spirit is God: the absolutely unique Trinitarian person who exists as God in eternal, mutual relations with God the Parent and God the Child.” The Spirit is not a possession of God, nor a “part” of God – the Spirit is the one true God. The Spirit’s ousia, or ontological substance, is the same divine ousia shared by God the Parent and God the Child so that the Spirit is equally God. At the same time, the Spirit is a divine hypostasis, or absolutely unique person, whose shared life of communion together with the Parent and the Child is the Triune God. As a Trinitarian person, the Spirit is eternally distinguished from yet related to the Parent and the Child. While my credo highlights the essential Trinitarian foundation of the Spirit’s identity, more needs to be said in order to define the Spirit’s relation to the Parent and the Child.

In 381 CE, the First Council of Constantinople identified the Spirit’s unique Trinitarian relation in an expanded statement of the Nicene Creed by naming the Spirit as the “Lifegiver, who proceeds from the Father [sic].”[1] While much debate has occurred over the origin of the Spirit’s procession, I believe the Creed’s naming of the Spirit as the Lifegiver succinctly identifies the Spirit’s Trinitarian relations. The Spirit is the Lifegiver because the Spirit is the One who invites and receives the Parent and the Child and therefore acts as the keeper of the divine “event of communion” which is the life of Trinity.[2] The Spirit is not simply the “bond of love” between the Parent and the Child, but a fully equal participant in the divine communion. The Spirit is one who “personalizes” the Parent and the Child by affirming their unique, particular identities.[3] The Parent and Child freely respond to the Spirit who calls them by name. As the Spirit freely receives them, the Spirit’s own identity is “personalized.” This reciprocal affirmation of unique identity hosted by the Spirit is the essential ground of otherness which is “constitutive” of the Trinity’s life of communion among the equal, mutual, relational persons of the Parent, Child and Spirit.[4] The Spirit, therefore, is correctly identified as the one who is uniquely related to the Parent and Child as the Lifegiver.

However, the Spirit’s identity is not confined to the inner life of Trinitarian relations. As I stated in my credo, “the Spirit is the power of God at work in the world bringing about the new creation.” This statement broadly encapsulates one dimension of the Spirit’s outward mission in human history, but it needs further clarification. How is creation made new? What is the connection between the Spirit’s new creation work and the work of Christ?

Just as the Spirit calls forth the life of Trinity, so the Spirit invites and empowers “all creation to join in the dance that characterizes God’s life.”[5] Molly Marshall describes this dance as perichoresis: “a relationship of mutuality in which persons draw their identity from being related to others… [which] calls forth reciprocal sharing of life.”[6] All creation is made new by the Spirit as its true purpose and identity is found through its participation in and imitation of the perichoretic life of the Triune God.

The work of the Spirit invites all creation to complete renewal by its participation in the Triune life of God. This invitation is made possible through the incarnation of the Divine Child, Jesus Christ, who is the true, inaugural embodiment of the Spirit’s new creation work. The incarnation of Christ was itself a work of the Spirit and Jesus begins his ministry by affirming the presence and power of the Spirit on his life.[7] Since the Spirit is an active, essential participant in the incarnation of Jesus, the Spirit’s new creation work is neither subordinated to nor subsumed by the work of Christ. Yet, Jesus is the one through whom the Spirit’s power gives birth to a new community “in which faith, love, and hope are alive… [as] justice, the protection of the weak, and the knowledge of God and of truth are forever sought anew.”[8] All creation is restored as its participation in the life of God through the presence and power of the Spirit incarnates the life of Jesus to particular people and places.

In my credo, I explicitly identified this Jesus-centered, Spirit-empowered community as the church; the body of Christ to which the Spirit gives gifts of grace for its good. While the Spirit does have a unique work within the church, I also stated that “the Spirit is comforter, guide, and advocate for those who seek the salvation of God.” The established church is not the sole repository or mediator of the divine Lifegiver. Rather, the Spirit’s presence is empowering all people “who seek the salvation of God” – regardless of whether this divine purpose is explicitly confessed. With Craig Nessan, I agree that “the Spirit of God is alive in history today to accomplish freedom.”[9] The Spirit works in all things which lead “to genuine human self-realization of all persons and peoples,” but is opposed to that which “insults, degrades, dehumanizes, and discriminates against any portion of humanity.”[10] The church empowered by the Spirit should be a willing, gracious partner in this liberative, life-giving work of new creation, but the Spirit’s mission continues even in spite of the church’s ignorance, apathy, and, in some cases, its opposition.

However, in focusing on the role of the Spirit in bringing about the “new” creation, my credo ignored the Spirit’s role in the basis for this work: creation itself. The entirety of God’s creation at all times and in all places owes its past, present, and future being to the divine Lifegiver. In Hebrew scripture, the Spirit is the ruach: the divine “wind” hovering over the formless waters before creation came to be and the divine “breath” that breathed life into the dust.[11] As the Psalmist sings, creation breathes the Spirit, the ruach of God, or it does not breathe at all.[12] The work of the Spirit is the caring work of nurture that sustains the membership of infinite diversity in the creation community which is the image of the Triune God. Creation is alive with the Spirit who is opposed to all relational patterns that destroy the image of God by bringing death to creation.

As Jesus explained to Nicodemus, the Spirit is like the wind: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”[13] Like Nicodemus, I often question the work of the Spirit because I am used to being in control; at best, I am curiously apathetic, and, at worst, I am arrogantly dismissive. The first step for me in joining the Spirit’s work will be one of humility as I learn to surrender my false sense of control over where the Spirit blows its breath of life. This step of humility calls me to follow the Spirit’s direction towards the places of suffering and death where God’s image is being destroyed. As the Apostle Peter proclaimed on the day of Pentecost, it is the Spirit who gives sight for God’s vision of the future which leads creation to its salvation in the life of the Triune God.[14] In submitting my power and control to the life-giving work of the Spirit in the dying, forgotten places, I open myself to rebirth, to being “born from above” by the Spirit so that I might “see the Kingdom of God.”[15] I pray to no longer be apathetic or dismissive of the Spirit’s work. I pray that as the Spirit gives me “visions of the end for which [creation] has been made” that I would be “restless of anything short of that destination.”[16]

[1] William G. Rusch, ed., The Trinitarian Controversy  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980),  49.

[2] John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quaterly 38, no. 4 (1994): 354.

[3] Ibid., 354.

[4] Zizioulas, 353.

[5] Molly T. Marshall, “Participating in the Life of the God: A Trinitarian Pneumatology,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 30, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 150.

[6] Marshall, 145.

[7] Lk. 1:35, 4:18, NRSV.

[8] Michael Welker, “Holy Spirit and the Holy Communion,” Word and World 23, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 155.

[9] Craig L. Nessan, “Allergic to the Spirit No More: Rethinking Pneumatology,” Currents in Theology and Mission 21 (June 1994) 3: 192.

[10] Ibid., 203-204.

[11] Nessan, 184.

[12] Ps. 104:29-30.

[13] Jn 3:8.

[14] Acts 2:17.

[15] Jn 3:3.

[16] Gabriel Fackre, The Christian Story: A Narrative Interpretation of Basic Christian Doctrine, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 154.