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Nearer now than when we first believed

11 March 2016

The Spirit is not a poor third in the Holy Trinity, writes Robert Davies Hughes

Wellcome Trust/WIKI

Fruitful: tree of Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, from a medieval m/ss

Fruitful: tree of Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, from a medieval m/ss

FOR several decades, theology of the Holy Spirit, or pneumatology, has been shaped in dialogue with three realities in the life of the Church in which the Spirit appears as both agent and subject-matter: the movement towards unity among the Churches, especially the improving dialogue between Western and Eastern Churches; the rise of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; and theology of the spiritual life, of individuals, and of the Church as a whole.

Eastern Orthodox claims about the lack of pneumatology in the Churches of the West are sometimes exaggerated, ignoring the strong teaching on the Spirit in Calvin and the Wesleys, for example; but they have helped Western theologians recognise and correct a tendency in our past to appropriate the personal mission and work of the Spirit to that of Christ, or to a generalised doctrine of grace. Perhaps more significantly, increased familiarity with non-Western sources has greatly enriched recent interpretations of the person and work of the Spirit. Eugene F. Rogers’s After the Spirit (2005) provides a very constructive presentation of this trend.

The rise of the Pentecostal Churches, and the accompanying Charismatic renewal in the historic Churches during the late 19th- and throughout the 20th-centuries, introduced many to a deeper sense of the presence of the Spirit, and the Spirit’s gifts in the life of the believer and the Church. Theologians with Pentecostal affiliation or backgrounds have entered the mainstream theological discussion, and made significant contributions. Three of these (I mention one representative work each from among many), are Professors Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit (1991); Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Pneumatology (2002); and Amos Yong, Beyond the Impasse (2003).

Perhaps the most creative area for development in pneumatology is consideration of an active role of the Holy Spirit, as divine love, in the eternal begetting of the Word in the Trinity. Two figures who acknowledge Charismatic connections are Thomas Weinandy, The Father’s Spirit of Sonship (1995) and Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self (2013). (I also addressed the issue in the tenth Duquesne Holy Spirit Lecture, 2010: “Dust and DNA”, www.duq.edu/holy-spirit).

Both of these first two factors have also had significant impact on the third, the recovery of classical Christian spirituality, and the restoration of spiritual theology, or theology of the spiritual life.

Perhaps nothing better represents the recovery of classical Christian spirituality than the monumental publishing project of the Classics of Western Spirituality by Paulist Press. Alongside this new accessibility of classic Christian texts, available for both teaching and devotional reading, from the early 20th century onwards, there has been an explosion of more popular literature making the classic tradition widely available to a broader public, from the early work of Evelyn Underhill through, for example, to the many writings of the late Kenneth Leech.


THE revival of a spiritual theology initially lagged behind, for reasons I have traced in my work Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian life (2008). Spiritual theology as a theological discipline had been subordinated to moral theology; had largely degenerated into a kind of spiritual psychology; and had been trapped in an extreme scholastic language that kept it cut off from exciting developments in theological anthropology and Trinitarian theology. What should have been one of the most exciting and relevant branches of theology became one of the dullest and most arcane.

Towards the end of the 20th century, efforts to address this plight began to appear, two of the most important being those of Philip Sheldrake in Spirituality and Theology (1998), and Mark McIntosh in Mystical Theology (1998).

In Beloved Dust, I attempted a completely new spiritual theology, beginning by moving the discipline from subordination to moral theology back into the heart of dogmatic theology, as a part of a renewed theological locus (traditional topic) of the Holy Spirit. There it can become a renewed theology of the work or mission of the Spirit as koinonia, or communion — the gift of the Holy Spirit to the whole created order, but more specifically to the fellowship of believers with one another and the risen Christ.

It is an invitation to participate in the intra-Trinitarian relations of that love which is the very person of the Spirit whose proper names are Gift and Love.

This Trinitarian structure of the Spirit’s mission and gift lets us see the traditional three-fold rhythm of the spiritual life — purgation, illumination, and union (found in the tradition as early as the writings of the fifth-century Syrian monk we know as Pseudo-Dionysius) — not as a law-like ladder of human spiritual growth, but as a resonance in us of the Trinity.

Human being is the beloved dust — animated matter as brought to life and indwelt by the Spirit as Lord and Life-giver, for ever beloved because of the Beloved who became that dust in human flesh, conceived by the Virgin Mary of the Holy Spirit. We can then envision the three great tides of the Spirit’s Trinitarian mission as breaking on the always concrete realities of particular human existence in three concurrent currents of conversion, transfiguration, and glory.

The emphasis here is on “concurrent”, which allows us to see, for example, that while repentance, healing, and liberation are major themes of the first current of conversion, we never outgrow them, or leave them behind, as the currents of transfiguration or glory come to predominate in our lives.

It is helpful to remember in Lent, for instance, that no Christian ever outgrows the need for the ashes of Ash Wednesday, or devotion to the cross for which they prepare us; that we all need the constant reminder that we are dust and to dust shall return, even as we look through the cross towards the glory of the resurrection — and the certainty that the dust we are is eternally beloved in the Beloved, and the Spirit whose name and gift is Love.

One of the most moving expressions of the deep impact of renewed theology of the Holy Spirit and the spiritual life is in these words of the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatios IV, as translated by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware in his 2007 lecture at the Duquesne Holy Spirit Colloquium: “Without the Spirit, God is far away, Christ belongs to the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is a mere organisation; authority takes the form of domination, mission is turned into propaganda, worship is reduced to bare recollection, Christian action becomes the morality of a slave.

“But in the Spirit God is near, the risen Christ is present with us here and now, the gospel is the power of life, the Church signifies Trinitarian communion, authority means liberating service, mission is an expression of Pentecost, the liturgy is a making-present of both past and future, human action is divinised.”


The Revd Dr Robert D. Hughes III is Norma and Olan Mills Professor of Divinity Emeritus in the School of Theology, at the University of the South, Sewanee.

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