Hauerwas and Willimon, The Holy Spirit, part 4


This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. Let’s see if our book helps to shake up the church in the power of the Holy Spirit!

Shaking Up the Church

The early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit slowly came to some consensus about what really matters. Christians decided what counts as Scripture, as well as what authority Scripture has and which rites are necessary for the churchʼs existence. The church came to a consensus about the role of its leaders. Of course each of these developments, significant as they certainly are, only produced further controversy. That Christians had disagreements is a sign that for the church truth matters and what counts as truth is often discovered through controversy. Few of us enjoy conflict but sometimes our controversy demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is continuing to energize and to reveal truth to the church.

It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to shake up the church, particularly when the church becomes self-satisfied and content with the status quo. For instance, there is still disagreement between churches of whether there are two sacraments – baptism and Eucharist – or seven. Perhaps that argument (between Catholics and Protestants) ought better be framed not by arguing about the number of sacraments but rather by agreement on the purpose of our sacramental worship. We like the way that Claude Welch speaks of the interplay between Spirit and word, sacrament, and ministry: “Word, sacrament and ministry together are structures of human existence taken up by the Spirit (which is to say, given to the church) and used as means whereby the grace of Christ is given, the power of new life made effectual, communicated through the historical life of the people of God. At the same time they are signs and instruments of the promise that Christ is even now newly presenting himself to his people and taking them into his new humanity.”[1]

The special relationship of the Spirit and the church doesnʼt mean that the work that the Holy Spirit is limited to the church. The Spirit that gave life at creation, that breathed life into Adam is the same Spirit that came on those gathered at Pentecost. The same Spirit who breathed new life into the dry bones of Israel (Ezekiel 37:1-14) is the same Spirit at work in the world gathering into the church those who once knew not the name of Jesus. The same Spirit who drove the fledgling church in Acts even toward the gentiles is the Spirit who today makes settled, introverted congregations uneasy with the way they have limited the work of the Spirit to the care, internal maintenance, and safe keeping of the church.

Rowan Williams notes the Spiritʼs work “outside” the church by saying that the church is, “meant to be the place where Jesus is active in the world. And once we have said that, we can turn it around and say that where Jesus is visibly active, something like the church must be going on.”[2]   This doesnʼt mean that the visible church, its teaching and sacraments donʼt matter; it is simply to recognize that at times we learn what is most important for the church by looking beyond its visible boundaries. Though the Holy Spirit birthed the church, the Holy Spirit intends to have more of the world than the church.

Williams says that if we look at the current state of the church from the viewpoint of the Spirit, we must ask some “awkward questions” about how we have let ourselves be distracted so that the Bible and sacraments as well as the Christ whose life is the heart of the church are not at the center of church life. It is important to trust the Holy Spirit to work even in those churches that are in decline as well as those churches that seem to flourish. The Spirit has always challenged the church from unexpected directions. It is, therefore, not without reason that we pray to the Spirit, “Do it again!” so that our church might recover a radical sense of what God wants us to be.[3]

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

[1] Welch, The Reality of the Church, p. 240.

[2] Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 128.

[3] Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 129.

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