One Concern with Renewed Interest in the Holy Spirit: Depersonalization
In Rediscovering the Holy Spirit, Michael Horton encourages us to refocus on the person and work of the Spirit, in order to recognize him as someone other than Jesus or ourselves—or as something in creation.
Although the Holy Spirit has made something of a comeback in recent years, Horton bears a word of caution:
As with the revival of interest in the Trinity, renewed interest in the Spirit does not always mean clarity or consistency with respect to historic Christian teaching. It is not to be assumed that the Spirit whom people have in mind is the Spirit identified in Scripture. (20)
Horton has one particular concern in mind: the Spirit’s depersonalization.
His concern arises from both the culture and the church. Horton explores why, in order to help us rediscover the third person of the Trinity.
Depersonalization in the Culture
Horton makes an interesting observation about the culture when it comes to the Holy Spirit:
[He] is the person of the Godhead most likely to be assimilated to the world, either to one’s own spirit or to the spirit of the community…For those scandalized by the gospel’s specificity, (the) Spirit becomes the preferred deity for those identifying as “spiritual but not religious.” (22)
Of course, this is true of specific-isms like pantheism, panentheism, and Hegelianism. Yet the Spirit seems ripe for the picking for our pluralistic age more broadly. After all, being “spiritual” doesn’t necessitate particular belief in either “God the Father Almighty” or “Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.” Instead, “the Spirit—or just ‘Spirit’—is everywhere, empowering everyone for what they could do themselves but with greater difficulty…So the Spirit becomes the obvious choice for a culture that eschews the particularity of the Father and the Son and the historical associations attending this particularity” (22).
Horton seems correct: “exuberant talk about the Spirit may become just one more way of talking about ourselves” (22–23).
Depersonalization in the Church
Aside from the culture, “Even in broader Christian piety, there is a tendency to treat the Holy Spirit as a force or source of power more than a person who is powerful” (23). Horton suggests such a treatment has filtered into the church because many congregations have stripped Trinitarian references from their weekly gatherings, particularly in two areas: prayer and praise.
First, in our prayers the persons of the Trinity are often confused and made interchangeable: “Sometimes the Father is thanked for coming into the world to save us, for dying for our sins, for indwelling us, or as the one who will return again.” Then there are praise choruses that reinforce this confusion, “directed to the Father for specific acts of the Son or to the Son for specific acts that Scripture attributes to the Spirit, and so forth” (24).
Horton urges Christian leaders to instill a proper understanding of “the Trinitarian faith in the hearts of today’s generation not only through explicit teaching but through our communication with the triune God in prayer and praise” (25).
4 Reasons We Depersonalize the Spirit
Horton suggests “the Holy Spirit is the easiest person of the Godhead to depersonalize”—both in culture and the church—for at least four reasons:
- God is an incomprehensible mystery. God has revealed himself, yet we don’t fully comprehend his inner essence. And while “Scripture provides us with sufficient revelation of the Spirit’s identity and mission…it is often difficult for us to remain within these bounds” (25).
- It isn’t easy connecting the Spirit to our experience. Humanly speaking, we can understand the Father-Son relationship; the Spirit is a different story. Though some have taken to referring to him as Mother, “this move lacks exegetical foundation” (25). Instead, “we have a great deal of revelation concerning the Spirit’s mission in the economy of creation and redemption” (26) to explore in Scripture.
- We often identify him with our inner self. Given that he is so subjectively active in our lives, Horton suggests we not only take his presence for granted—“the Holy Spirit becomes one’s inmost voice.” Instead, we need to remember “the Spirit is a divine person within us, not a divine part of us” (26).
- Focusing on Christ can lead to the Spirit’s demotion. Horton explains, “from a proper focus on Christ we may improperly infer that the Holy Spirit has a minor part in the biblical drama” (26). Yet the Spirit plays a major role in Scripture, creation, redemption, and everyday life. In fact, “our first experience of God is with the Holy Spirit” (26).
“For all these reasons and more, we need to take a step back every now and again to focus on the Spirit himself…in order to recognize him as someone other than Jesus or ourselves, much less something, such as a divine power or resource” (28).