If I were to name one of my biggest blind spots in faith besides my uncanny ability to keep sinning and a persistent fear of death, I think my understanding and faith in God the Holy Spirit rank near the top. All my life I've struggled with this mysterious entity and what he means for my life in the here and now. There have been times where I've apprehended, or should I say was apprehended upon, by a greater understanding of the Holy Spirit and other times where I have restricted my belief in the Spirit's activity because of fear or an encounter with a crazy charismatic (Crazy charismatic is not an insult to anyone who considers him/herself a charismatic, but rather someone who is by all diagnostic principles is crazy. I consider myself comfortably charismatic). So like the tides in the ocean, there are times when I'm overflowing with a faith and knowledge in the Holy Ghost and there are other times where he seems so foreign to me that I don't know how to even acknowledge him in my life.
Thankfully I am not alone in this. Throughout church history there has been an effort to constrain the Holy Spirit's mysterious power and also times when he lets himself loose on the world. There have been places where the church has committed ungodly atrocities in the Spirit's name and there have been moments when the Spirit makes himself so real to a group of people that revival spreads like wildfire.
Lately my Jedi Master Tom Schaeffer and I have been reading and discussing a powerful book by Emil Brunner called "The Misunderstanding of The Church." In this work he examines the nature of the church, which he calls the Ecclesia, and shows that, "The New Testament Ecclesia, the fellowship of Jesus Christ, is a pure communion of persons and has nothing of the character of an institution about it" (17)… How he goes on to prove this is rather provocative and will lead you to rethink the whole nature of the church. One particularly astounding chapter in Brunner's book is "the Christian Fellowship and The Holy Spirit." It is in this chapter that all of my blind spots and protective measures against the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit are exposed and I'm left wondering how he might work in my life and my ministry if he were given free reign. Because of the way this chapter moved in my life and ministry, I wish to share it with you that it might do the same.
For Brunner, "the fellowship of Jesus lives under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; that is the secret of its life, of its communion, and of its power" (47). He writes:
"We ought to face the New Testament witness with sufficient candor to admit that in this "pneuma" (Spirit), which the Ecclesia was conscious of possessing, there lie forces of an extra-rational kind which are mostly lacking among us Christians of to-day." (48)Brunner believes that words themselves are not sufficient to grasp the reality of the Holy Spirit, rather he is a reality which reveals itself apart from words. For this reason Brunner believes that the language of the psychology of the unconscious serves us well. He writes:
"In regard to the dynamism of human life, it is precisely this layer of the soul—only too often withdrawn from clear awareness—which is the decisive factor. Now the Holy Ghost is certainly not to be identified with the unconscious. The Holy Ghost is God: but the Ecclesia, in its experience of the Holy Spirit, experienced God as the One whose impact on human life penetrates these depths of the soul, touches these hidden energies, mobilizes and harnesses them in the service of His holy will. The Holy Ghost seizes the heart, not merely the nous: it pierces the heart until it reaches the depths of the unconscious and even the very physical constituents of personality." (48)
"The Spirit operates with overwhelming, revolutionary, transforming results. It manifests itself in such a way as to leave one wondering why and how, and in such a way as to demolish the walls of partition separating individuals from each other. Its mode of operation is such that we find ourselves forced to adopt the terminology of mysticism on the one hand, of magic on the other, since that of logic and of theology is seen to be inadequate and inappropriate." (49)Following this Brunner explicates three phenomena of the Spirit's work. First, is the fact that the Holy Spirit is the mysterious power that makes Christian fellowship possible. From disassociated individuals it creates a unity which forms a single body. The body, for Brunner, is not a metaphor; but rather, "an effective reality of a supra-logical kind, quasi-physical, and in any even essentially organic" (49).
The second mysterious work of the Holy Spirit is the way he assigns different tasks to the individuals who constitute the body. In the same way organs have their specific functions, the Holy Spirit equips individuals to perform special services within the body. He writes:
"One thing is supremely important: that all minister… There exist in the Ecclesia a universal duty and right of service, a universal readiness to serve and at the same time the greatest possible differentiation of functions. The metaphor of the organism illuminates on aspect of the reality; the dependence of all kinds of ministration on the one Lord reveals the other." (51)For Brunner, this organic understanding of the Ecclesia is something entirely different from that of an organization or institution. In fact, it's the exact opposite. In some of his most challenging words he explains:
"It is the mystery of the Ecclesia as the fellowship of the Spirit that it has an articulate living order without being legally organized. When we who are so accustomed to the juridical organization of the Church ask how such a 'pneumatic' order is possible, the answer must be: it is no longer a simple possibility, but it was once possible thanks to the reality of whose dynamic power we can now entertain scarcely a vague surmise—the reality of the Holy Ghost." (51)
"The organization of the church and in particular its legal administration is a compensatory measure which it becomes necessary to adopt in times and places where the plenitude of the Spirit is lacking. Canon law is a substitute for the Spirit." (51)Simply put, for Brunner the organization and institutionalization of the church and the organic work of the Holy Spirit are incompatible. Institution only exists where an awareness of the Spirit is lacking.
The third mysterious work of the Holy Spirit for Brunner is that he is the primary factor of the fellowship of Christ's missionary work. He writes, "Outsiders were attracted—the story of Pentecost already shows us this quite plainly—not primarily by what was said, but by the element of mystery—what happened simply" (51). Brunner believes that people drew near to the Christian community because they were irresistibly attracted by its supernatural power. In short, they wanted to share in its power (52). He writes:
"There is a sort of fascination which is exercised mostly without any reference to the Word, comparable rather to the attractive force of a magnet or the spread of an infectious disease. Without knowing how it happened, one is already a carrier of the infection." (52)
"Here the mighty energies of the Spirit are more important than any word, although these energies, in so far as they are those of the Holy Spirit, owe their origin to the Word of God." (52)
"The Word of God is truly and effectively in the Church as the word of the Holy Ghost, implying therefore a unity of 'logos' and dynamic energy which lies beyond all comprehension." (53)From this summary of the Spirit's work Brunner next goes to show that the order of fellowship springing from the Holy Spirit was one of service which flowed from true faith and revealed itself in a new relationship to ones neighbor (54). For Brunner, this order is highly opposed to the hierarchical institutionalization of the church. In fact, it is the institution that destroys the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Brunner writes:
The delicate structure of the fellowship founded by Jesus, and anchored in the Holy Spirit, could not be replaced by an institutional organization without the whole character of the Ecclesia being fundamentally changed: the fellowship of Jesus Christ became the church. The apparent similarity between the official organization and the New Testament order of the Spirit shows upon closer inspection that at every point there has taken place a change in essential character." (54)
"Now there was dogma—without the dynamism of the Spirit-filled Word of God. Now there was faith, in the sense of correct, orthodox belief, but separated from love. Now there was community in the sense of a Church with offices, but no longer the solidarity of reciprocal service." (54)Concluding Questions
So this is Brunner's powerful understanding of the Holy Spirit and the church. There's a lot here to agree and disagree with. I just want to leave you with some questions in the hopes of generating some discussion on this topic.
What did you agree or disagree with Brunner's understanding of the Spirit?
What would your life, relationships, and ministry look like if you were to follow Brunner's theology to its logical outcomes?
In your own ministry, whether that's pastoral or volunteer, how might things change given Brunner's description of the Spirit's work?
Lastly, how would your church have to change, given Brunner's belief that institution squelches the Spirit's work?