What about the Holy Spirit?

Katy Shevel
Reformed and Reforming Imagination
8 min readOct 10, 2019

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A Presbyterian perspective

On Pentecost Sunday, congregations around the world will flip their Bibles open to the second chapter of the Book of Acts: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” Many biblical traditions add that oft-quoted phrase, “in one accord.” The disciples had gathered in celebration of “Pente”-cost — referencing the “fifty” days after Jewish Passover. They assembled together, waiting to receive the Holy Spirit as Jesus had promised.

Then suddenly, a rush of wind filled the room, tongues of fire rested upon them, and the disciples began to prophesy in many languages that they did not themselves speak. Those gathered with them from many nations could understand what the disciples were saying in their native tongues. Many heard the Good News of Jesus Christ that day and were baptized.

On Pentecost, we celebrate the openness and trust of the disciples in receiving the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues? Why not?! After all, Peter points out that the miracle they just witnessed is exactlywhat the Old Testament prophet Joel predicted would happen: “In those days, I will pour out my Spirit, and men and women shall prophesy.”

On the other hand, we Presbyterians are not known for having great trust in things spontaneous and spiritual. Quite the contrary, we followers of John Calvin have earned the reluctant nickname “the Frozen Chosen.” Presbyterians are caricatured as being stiff in worship and spiritual practice. (Doesn’t the Holy Spirit cause people to dance in the pews and have sudden outbursts of hand-clapping? We can’t have that…) The “Christ alone!” watchword of the Protestant Reformation grounded us in a firmly Christ-centered view of the Christian life. Our view of the Trinity is often far less balanced when it comes to emphasizing the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. After all, we aren’t Pentecostal or Charismatic. We may not know how to talk about the Spirit — or may not even believe that we can.

Although it may be one of our best kept secrets, Reformed and Presbyterian churches actually have a very robust theology of the Holy Spirit! As an open confessional tradition, we continue to confess our faith at particular periods in history and to adopt different creeds and confessions from around the world. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has an entire Book of Confessions from watershed moments in our history. Within the pages of these confessions and creeds are several prevailing themes that define the Reformed and Presbyterian understanding of the Holy Spirit. For Presbyterians today, these themes in our confessions continue to shape our worship and practice — and hopefully, understanding them better, will help us to be more open to the Holy Spirit’s stirring activity in our community and move us into unity with God’s children around the world, together in one accord.

The Holy Spirit is God.

We believe that the Holy Spirit is God. Full-stop. “We confess and acknowledge one God alone […] distinct in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost” (Scots, 3.01). “We believe and teach that the same immense, one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” (Helvetic, 5.016). Heidelberg asks:“Q: Since there is only one divine being, why do you speak of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? A: Because that is how God has revealed Godself in God’s Word: these three distinct persons are one, true, eternal God” (Heidelberg, 4.025).

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.

In John 14, Jesus promises that God the Father will send an “Advocate,” the “Spirit of truth” to be with us forever. Likewise, in Acts 1, just before Jesus ascends to heaven, he promises the disciples the coming power of the Holy Spirit, a promise fulfilled in the miracle of Pentecost. In Romans 8, Paul refers to the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of Christ,” saying that all who have the Spirit of Christ belong to God. In accordance with this biblical language, we confess the Holy Spirit is indeed the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of Christ dwells in us and claims us eternally. “Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life” (Heidelberg, 4.001). “To begin with, God wants to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ take away our sins…” (Heidelberg, 4.073). “The grace of faith […] is the work of the Spirit of Christ…” (Westminster, 6.078).

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son).

Like the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit was not created. Yet the Holy Spirit has a unique relationship to the other persons of the Trinity, one that is often unclear. The original creed from the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea states the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” In the Middle Ages, the statement “and the Son” was added, known in Latin as the filioque. The Western Church officially added this phrase into the Nicene Creed, which unfortunately contributed to the schism between the Western and Eastern Church in 1054. A split that still continues to this day. Jack Rogers states that one reason for the Western church adding “and the Son” to the Creed “may, to them, have been a way of reinforcing the deity of Christ.” Furthermore, Rogers believes “it also pointed to the New Testament teaching that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.” In our version of the Nicene Creed, it states: “We believe in the Holy Spirit […] who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This statement is upheld throughout the Book of Confessions. (For example: Helvetic, 5.016 and Westminster,6.183.) However, in ecumenical dialogues with our Eastern brothers and sisters, Presbyterians have also affirmed the original version, stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. I personally believe that biblical support may be found for both versions.

The Holy Spirit is the giver of life.

The Nicene Creed states: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…” Again and again, we confess that the Holy Spirit is the source of the Christian life. The Heidelberg Catechism assures us that the Spirit is given to each of us, to make us “share in Christ and all his benefits.” The Spirit “comforts me” and “remains with me forever” (Heidelberg, 4.053). Our confessions state that the human body is the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” This means that the Spirit lives in us and unites us always with Christ both in life and in death. “The bodies of the faithful are temples of the Holy Spirit which we truly believe will rise again at the Last Day…” (Helvetic, 5.235). “The Holy Spirit unites all believers to Christ, dwells in them as their Comforter and Sanctifier [….] unto the day of redemption” (Westminster, 6.053). “We trust in God the Holy Spirit everywhere the giver and renewer of life” (Brief Statement, 11.4).

The Holy Spirit produces and renews our faith…

We believe the Holy Spirit produces faith. The Reformed understanding of this is summarized well by the following: “True faith is […] a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel” (Heidelberg, 4.021). Our Christian faith originates from the Spirit’s nurturing and teaching by means of the Word of God. Throughout our lives, our faith is renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit, through repentance and sanctification. “The Holy Spirit regenerates human beings by his grace, convicts them of sin, moves them to repentance, and persuades and enables them to embrace Jesus Christ by faith” (Westminster, 6.053). “In gratitude to God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives” (Brief Statement, 11.4).

…through preaching:

We believe the Holy Spirit produces faith through the act of preaching. “God’s word is spoken to God’s church today where the Scriptures are faithfully preached and attentively read in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit” (1967, 9.30). In the preached Word, the Spirit uniquely illumines the revelation of the Word of God to us in the holy scriptures. By the Spirit’s illumination, we are convicted and moved by an active faith. “That same preaching of the Gospel is also called by the apostle ‘the spirit’ and ‘ministry of the spirit’ because by faith it becomes effectual and living in the ears, nay more, in the hearts of the believers through the illumination of the Holy Spirit” (Helvetic, 5.090).

…through the sacraments:

The Heidelberg Catechism states: “The Holy Spirit produces faith in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments” (Heidelberg, 4.065). “The same Spirit […] claims us in the waters of baptism, feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation…” (Brief Statement, 11.4). We believe that baptism is a sign and seal of God’s divine claim upon our lives. In baptism, we are promised “deliverance from sin through Christ’s blood” and “the Holy Spirit who produces faith” (Heidelberg, 4.074). In the Lord’s Supper, we believe that we are spiritually nourished by the body and blood of Christ to grow ever more in faith and unity with Christ. This is so that “Christ lives in us and we live in him, and he causes us to receive him by true faith to this end that he may become for us such spiritual food and drink, that is, our life” (Helvetic, 5.198).

The Holy Spirit reconciles and unifies.

Many of our modern creeds and confessions did not strive to be comprehensive, but rather, to confess themes that earlier confessions may not have emphasized as clearly. One of these modern themes is the Spirit’s integral role in reconciliation and unity. The Confession of 1967 states: “God the Holy Spirit fulfills the work of reconciliation in human beings. The Holy Spirit creates and renews the church as the community in which humans are reconciled to God and to one another” (1967, 9.20). Similarly, in the Confession of Belhar, “unity, through the working of God’s Spirit is […] a binding force” (Belhar, 10.3). “The Spirit […] binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church” (Brief Statement, 11.4). We confess that the unifying work of God’s Spirit is one of repairing divisions. “God’s life-giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred…” (Belhar, 10.5). Finally, we believe the Holy Spirit moves God’s people in pursuit of justice for all. “The Spirit gives us courage […] to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace” (Brief Statement, 11.4).

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May this brief glance at our Book of Confessions shed a little light on the Presbyterian understanding of the Holy Spirit. And may it encourage further learning! Truly, in that upper room, the disciples of Christ were open to receiving the power of the Spirit. Throughout our history, Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have confessed a rich spiritual theology. May we, as Presbyterians, be open to having our lives and our worship shaped by this theology that we confess. So then, on this Pentecost Sunday, and every day, we pray together in one accord:

Veni, Sancte Spiritus! Come, Holy Spirit!

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