“Whate’er his Spirit speaks in me, must with the written Word agree.”
~ Charles Wesley
Many of the more contentious arguments in the church today are over social issues. That has certainly been the case for the United Methodist Church — the church I call home. Nowhere have the UMC’s internal debates over such issues been on clearer display than during its recent General Conference in Portland, Oregon.
The General Conference is the representative body of the 13+ million-member UMC. It meets once every four years. General Conference equips the general church for ministry by ordering its life and funding its ministries. It is also the body within the church that has the authority to write or alter canon law, which for Methodists is held in our Book of Discipline. So at least theoretically, the General Conference can vote to change everything from the church’s doctrinal understanding of the Trinity to how a local congregation handles estate bequests (though in the case of core Christian doctrine the bar on any substantive change is much higher and more complicated than a simple majority vote).
Recent sessions of the General Conference have tended to be galvanized by debates around how to understand various expressions of human sexuality and sexual practice. Because of some specific language used in the Book of Discipline, the presenting issues are almost always related to either the definition of marriage or the qualification for candidates seeking ordination as a deacon or elder. The language preferred by left-leaning reformists in these debates centers around advocacy for “full inclusion.” It is a somewhat vague term that certainly implies changes to the church’s teaching on marriage and ordination but could also relate to any number of other issues.
The General Conference of 2016
Following the proceedings of the General Conference of May 2016 via live video stream, online news portals, and a variety of social media outlets, I was struck at a particular element of the public conversation that kept cropping up: partisan claims about the role of the Holy Spirit in the conference proceedings.
Pentecost Sunday did fall in the middle of the 10-day General Conference session, so a certain sensitivity to the work of the Spirit might have been expected. Yet there was an undercurrent of Spirit-language that went much beyond the understandable (and much-needed) prayer of invocation, Come, Holy Spirit, come.
The kind of language used about the Spirit by many people both serving as delegates to the General Conference and simply observing the proceedings was at once much more familiar and much more assertive. It ran along the lines of, “Get ready because the Spirit is about to do a new thing” or “the Holy Spirit would be able to work here if everyone would just get out of the way.”
Such statements were widespread, but they were nowhere as ubiquitous as on Twitter. Take this example:
A laudable piece of advice! Yet it also raises an important question: how would we know the voice of the Holy Spirit if we heard it?
I think a reasonable person evaluating particularly bold claims about the Spirit’s impending movement could be forgiven if he began to suspect that the assumptions and assertions about the Holy Spirit in such comments are actually just stand-ins for the commenter’s own agenda. Take this tweet, for example, where the defeat of a proposed procedural rule is equated with fear or hatred of the Holy Spirit:
Pneumatophobia — “fear of the Holy Spirit.” And that charge was leveled because the delegates chose not to adopt a particular procedural rule, of all things.
The one thing that these and similar comments share in common is that the people making them assume that the Spirit is in 100% agreement with them. No one says “the Holy Spirit is about to do a new thing” believing that what the Holy Spirit is getting ready to do will be at odds with that person’s own fondest wishes.
It might be a good exercise in prudence (and perhaps even an aide to ecclesiastical conversations) to reflect on how it is that we can discern the Spirit’s movement apart from, say, an individual’s heartfelt desire, or shifting cultural mores, or the movement of one’s own digestive system.
The Harmony of the Word and the Spirit
A central theological conviction throughout Christian history about the work of the Spirit is that God the Holy Spirit’s work is always tied to the work of God the Son as revealed in Scripture. That is, the Word and the Spirit always agree. It’s an affirmation which is grounded in Scripture itself, where Jesus Christ promises us that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).
Thus, the Spirit is always in harmony with the Word. This harmony exists in a double sense. There is, first, an eternal harmony within the inner life of God between the second and third persons of the Trinity. And secondly, there is a harmony between how the Word is revealed to us in Holy Scripture and what the ongoing work of the Spirit looks like in the world.
The Christian theological tradition after the end of the apostolic age has affirmed the harmony of Word and Spirit over the course of two millennia, dating back to the writing of Clement of Rome around the end of the 1st century A.D. Writing to the church in Corinth, Clement states, “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit” (1 Clement 45:2). In Clement’s view, the authority of biblical revelation is absolutely tied to the Spirit’s inspiration of the text and ongoing illumination of the reader.
This view of the harmony between Word and Spirit extends through the church fathers and up to the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. The Reformation period’s greatest theologian, John Calvin, speaks of the way in which the Holy Spirit “inheres” in the truth of the Word of God as expressed in Scripture (Institutes, 1.9.3). Because of this, Calvin writes, “we ought zealously to apply ourselves both to read and to hearken to Scripture if indeed we want to receive any gain and benefit from the Spirit of God” (Institutes, 1.9.2).
We can also look to John Wesley, the evangelical theologian of the 18th century and founder of the Methodist movement. Wesley writes, “For though the Spirit is our principal leader, yet He is not our rule at all; the Scriptures are the rule whereby He leads us into all truth. Therefore…call the Spirit our ‘guide,’ which signifies an intelligent being, and the Scriptures our ‘rule,’ which signifies something used by an intelligent being, and all is plain and clear” (Letters, Telford edition, 2:117). While this affirmation may not equate exactly with Calvin’s sense of the Spirit inhering in the Word, it certainly posits the Spirit’s work as directing Christian believers toward God’s truth specifically as expressed in Scripture. In other words, the very purpose of the Spirit’s guiding work is to lead believers into Scriptural truth.
Given the uniformity of this witness about the relationship of Word and Spirit throughout the Christian tradition, the present tendency of Methodists to make extravagant claims about the Holy Spirit seems more than a little suspect. In John Wesley’s own terms, such claims would fall under the heading of “enthusiasm” — which in the 18th century was not a compliment. Enthusiasts are those who believe they have gifts or knowledge that they do not actually have, to the point that they become “a law unto themselves.”
Wesley was well aware of the true spiritual power that could accompany the Christian life. Yet he also believed that the Spirit who conveyed that power through God’s grace always acted in ways that could be understood, exactly because the Spirit’s work would conform to the witness of the Word. Wesley warns those who tend toward enthusiastic pretensions that they should keep in mind the way in which Word and Spirit define the Christian life together: “Trust not in visions or dreams, in sudden impressions or strong impulses of any kind. Remember, it is not by these you are to know what is ‘the will of God’ on any particular occasion, but by applying the plain Scriptural rule, with the help of experience and reason, and the ordinary assistance of the Spirit of God” (“The Nature of Enthusiasm,” ¶38).
The Spirit does not work apart from the Word, nor does it work in contradiction to the Word. Rather, the Word and the Spirit are always in harmony. By them we may know the will of God for us. So if we want to make claims about what the Spirit is doing or is about to do, we need only to look to the Word that is given to us in Holy Scripture — for there we will find the true character of the Spirit’s work revealed.