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Pneumatology: Like Flames and Doves

Pneumatology: Like Flames and Doves

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

I stacked them high on the little secretary desk: books. On the desk, the floor, in baskets. I wanted to know all I could. I had to move the stacks off the desk to have room for writing or my elbow hung off and the cursive drooped. Slips of paper, old letters, ribbons, pens — jammed in every small pocket of the desk — spilled onto the books as I took the notes. At sixteen, I was new to Jesus and eager to learn everything.

I’d hung beads in my bedroom doorway. I liked how they looked. They reminded me of hippies, though I wasn’t supposed to be one. I was at my desk staring at the beads, chewing an eraser, when Dad came in. He leaned a callused hand against the doorway and parted the beads with a tolerant smile. “Like the seventies, eh?” He chuckled. I smiled, turned my journal over. He glanced down.

“What’s this?” He turned over the top book. The Perfect Christian.

“I found it on the shelf, probably from Grandma’s stuff,” I said hastily. Dad was kind, but I felt foolish. I wanted to know it all, to do it right.

“You know,” Dad said, setting the book back down, “you don’t have to try that hard.”

I rolled my eyes. “We can’t all be perfect like you, Dad.”

“I’m not perfect, you know that. I’m saying: these books aren’t what helps you be a Christian. They aren’t what makes you a follower of God.”

I crossed my arms. “Then what does?”

A simple version of the answer to that question is just three words: the Holy Spirit. When we go deeper into the expanded version of that answer, it’s called pneumatology, or the theology of the Holy Spirit. (Pneumatology comes from the Greek pneuma, which means “spirit” or “wind.”) This “ology” sums up everything the Bible says about the Spirit’s helping, advocating, empowering, purifying nature.

I Will Send You a Helper

After Jesus rose from the dead, the Gospels and the book of Acts tell us He spent forty days with His disciples before ascending to the Father. In those days He proved His bodily resurrection, but He also continued teaching the disciples and told them what to do when He was gone:

After His suffering, He presented Himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that He was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the Kingdom of God. On one occasion, while He was eating with them, He gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift My Father promised, which you have heard Me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 1:3–5

This was not the first time Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit. He prophesied the Spirit’s coming earlier in the Gospels:

If you love Me, keep My commands. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you know Him, for He lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.John 14:15–18

Other translations say “helper” instead of “advocate.” This Helper, the very Spirit of Christ remaining with the disciples, would equip them for the task ahead: building the church. The disciples were understandably concerned about Jesus’ departure. Acts 1 describes them looking up to the sky in bewilderment when Jesus ascended. I can imagine them wondering, What now? And then they remembered Jesus’ command:

  • Wait for the gift.

The Holy Spirit was not new to the disciples. They were familiar with Him from the Old Testament accounts. But in Torah, He takes a slightly different role. Under the old covenant God gave to Israel through the law, the Holy Spirit “came upon” prophets, priests, judges, and kings to equip them for specific tasks. The Holy Spirit equipped for leadership (Numbers 27:18), wisdom (1 Samuel 16:12–13), and artistry (Exodus 31:2–5). In addition, the presence of the Spirit could be lost by repeated sin (such as in the case of Saul in 1 Samuel 16:14).

The Spirit Jesus promised was no different from the Spirit of the old covenant. He provided the same equipping and presence.

The difference after Jesus is His permanence. The Holy Spirit is our Helper, not just for one task or temporary calling, but for all of life in Christ. Jesus knew we could not live the new life on personal power. He wanted His disciples to make full use of His presence — and He wants us to do the same.

The Holy Spirit in Scripture

Dad picked up the book on my desk and flipped idly through the pages, ignoring my crossed arms. “Your desire to do the right things is good, Phy,” he said. “But being a Christian is not about white-knuckling good deeds, or being ‘the perfect Christian,’ as this book promises.”

  • “Well what else am I supposed to do? How else am I supposed to do what’s godly? It certainly doesn’t feel easy, if you say it isn’t so ‘hard.’” I didn’t even try to hide my irritation. Honestly, the Christian life didn’t feel easy or light to me — it felt like one long haul of trying to obey.

“It is hard,” Dad replied. “I’m not denying that. But the difficulty isn’t in doing good things. That’s not where your energy is to be directed. You’re to focus on letting the Spirit guide you. Follow His voice. Rely on His leading, which will never contradict the Bible. It’s not about memorizing lists of what to do or not do. He will tell you what to do.” He turned and parted my hippie-bead doorway, the pink cascade of beads a wild irony against his builder’s plaid shirt.

“You have a Helper,” he said. “Let Him help.”

You might relate to my teenage struggle. Perhaps faith does feel heavy to you. Perhaps you are memorizing the fruit of the Spirit and trying to do them on your own strength. Maybe you’re like sixteen-year-old Phylicia, sitting in the parking lot of my summer job at the greenhouse, pink Bible in one hand and sandwich in the other.

I had memorized the passages about Christian behavior: love, joy, peace, purity, honor, respect. I would rehearse them, hop out of my cheap red convertible, and muscle my way through the workday on willpower-morality.

I suppose this is what Dad foresaw that day by my desk: the force of white-knuckle Christianity — driving hard, giving it all, right before the crash and burn.

Let Him help. Don’t do it alone.

That’s always been the Spirit’s role: to help. To advocate. To empower. From creation, when He hovered over the waters in union with Father and Son, three Persons in one holy God, the Spirit’s presence poured out goodness. He empowered beauty, order, and peace, and He still does in the world and in us. He helps us become like Christ. Without Him sanctification isn’t possible. But when forming a theology of the Spirit, we must look to Scripture as our guide.

It gives us some clear patterns by which we can understand the Spirit. Here are a few:

If it seems like the whole Christian life is dependent upon the Spirit’s work... that’s because it is! In the Old Testament, God dwelt among His people in temples made by hands. Today, He dwells in human bodies. The “idols of God” on earth are little sanctuaries of His grace. And as the Holy Spirit lives in us, He is at work — empowering us in live in the light, guiding us into good works, and bringing fruit into the world through us.

Watch the Video

Excerpted with permission from Every Woman a Theologian by Phylicia Masonheimer, copyright W Publishing.

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Your Turn

Are you white-knuckling it spiritually? Are you trying with all your might and finding Christianity hard? Have you let the Holy Spirit help you? That’s His job! Come share your thoughts with us about living in the Spirit. We want to hear from you. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full