How is it that in modern religious communities, appeals to the Holy Spirit for religious authority are more likely to start arguments than to settle them, more likely to separate believers than unite them, and more likely to confuse the issues at hand than clarify them?

indwelling spirit

It wasn’t that way in the early church …

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. Acts 19:1-7 (NIV)

In Acts 19:1ff, the underlying issue appears to be the question of John’s “seniority” vis-à-vis Jesus. In any case, Paul turned to the Spirit to settle the matter.

The point? In the ancient church, possession of the “indwelling Spirit” did not need to be proved— instead, it served as proof.

In the church of the New Testament, the Holy Spirit did not start arguments— it settled them.

Today though the Spirit seems less the solution to controversies than a source, extending even to disputes over the nature of the indwelling Spirit itself. To put it bluntly, the indwelling Spirit, which once served as proof, has now become something in need of proof!

Obviously something important has changed since the first century. And whatever that “something” may be, it’s apparent absence should serve as a caution against the hasty assimilation of scripture to the present.

Over the ages, believers have chosen to deal with the distance between the ancient church’s experience of the indwelling Spirit and their own experience in a variety of ways. Four views are common: charismatic, mystical-sacramental, figurative, and verbal-restrictive (a.k.a. “word only,” a.k.a. “representative”). The first three views envision the indwelling Spirit as a mix of rational and non-rational realities, both in the ancient past and in the present.

The last view– the verbal-restrictive view– stands alone in seeing the Spirit’s indwelling as wholly a matter of human reason and will in relation to propositional truths revealed and confirmed by the Holy Spirit and now contained within the bible. Thus the label “word only” has come to designate a conception of the “indwelling Spirit” that limits its nature to that of “indwelling word.” In other words, the Spirit is understood as indwelling within a person “today” to the extent he or she believes and acts in accordance with what the Spirit has made known and established in the bible.

Emphasis is on “today” in the preceding description because word-only advocates do recognize a wider operation of the Spirit within the ancient church than in the present. But even there it served the rational functions of revealing and confirming propositional truths through miracles and supernatural gifts. If there were any operation of the Spirit on the heart, mind, or soul back then, it is conceived of as indirect through those propositions and not from a direct operation of the Spirit. Thus from the verbal-restrictive viewpoint, the Spirit is seen as having a consistently rational mode of operation across the ages, with the only difference being that the functions of revelation and confirmation are now complete and therefore no longer operative.

The verbal-restrictive view is concentrated among churches rooted in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (SCRM). Its major strengths are in its counterpointing of Reformed and charismatic theologies. Its major weaknesses are in its dated hermeneutic, its shallow pneumatology, and its legalistic orientation.1 Although the verbal-restrictive view is not the only pneumatology within the SCRM, it has been prominent simply due to its distinctiveness.

But things are changing…

Desire for renewal has upset once settled opinions in many areas within SCRM churches, with one result being the reemergence of interest in mystical-sacramental and charismatic understandings of the Spirit. Unfortunately that whole range of beliefs is usually lumped together under the labels “literal indwelling” or “personal indwelling”– rubrics that invite quarrels over the exact meanings of “literal” and “personal,”2 and so broad their only utility is to signify opposition to the verbal-restrictive view. Thus they often serve as warring catchphrases to roil the spiritual waters among and within SCRM churches.3

What to do? The simplest understanding of the Spirit in the New Testament is a very straight-forward, charismatic-like interpretation.4 The only problem with that approach is that a charismatic application of the New Testament to the present-day church simply does not work. God does not appear to be cooperating.

So there are two possibilities. One is to emphasize what the Spirit in the New Testament was pointing to. The other is to mystify away the charismatic nature of the text to allow its immediate application to the present on some other ground.

Mystification works well on minimally observant church members by collapsing the distance between the New Testament church and the present into something so familiar it disturbs neither worldy nor pietistic sensibilities.

But mystification actually increases anxiety among more thoughtful believers in two subtle but significant ways. First, it insists on an unqualified claim to an indwelling Spirit but provides no convincing way to ever prove such a claim. Second, it undermines confidence in the early church’s experience of the Spirit by reading latter-day mystical ambiguities back into the NT text. The net effects on present-day believers is to foster uncertainty about one’s own possession of the Spirit and suspiciousness toward the early church’s experience as a well– a double dose of anxiety– hence a preoccupation with attributing “personal” and “literal” to the Spirit’s indwelling, a hyper-sensitivity to anyone who would appear doubtful, and little or no sense that such a situation might be abnormal.

All of this is of course is a natural outcome of mystifying passages that are not really mystical at all– a natural outcome that explains so well how a claim to the Spirit that once served as proof in hostile environments is now in need of proof even among friends.

For a different perspective on the indwelling Spirit, see the “Holy Spirit” category on this website.


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1The verbal-restrictive view also suffers from the modernistic view of words as merely “conventions”– arbitrary sounds that have no necessary connection to their referents except that speakers of particular languages have agreed on what they are. Contrast that idea with the ancient Hebrew notion that words are connected in some fundamental way with the things they refer to such that they participate in the substance, weight, and therefore power of their referents– as the Greek word for power (“exousia”– “from substance”) would suggest. So from the Hebrew viewpoint, the words of God partake of the substance of God and His power. This helps explain how Jesus, the Spirit, and the church all can manifest the presence of God in the world. They are not strictly the same personality, but each by embodying God’s word also embodies something of God’s “substance.” All of this helps explain why the verbal-restrictive viewpoint seems so much weaker than it would otherwise appear. In a culture where words are understood as merely human conventions, the idea that the indwelling Spirit can be explained in those terms is not very compelling.

2Use of “literal” is particularly unhelpful in describing the indwelling Spirit because the meaning of the word is so slippery. Word meanings change over time. For example at one time, the Greek word for “dwell” literally meant “to pitch one’s tent.” Gradually it simply came to mean dwell. Thus it is correct to say that Jesus “literally dwelt” among men, but there is no indication he “literally pitched His tent.” Another example would be baptism. Baptism is a figurative participation in the burial and resurrection of Jesus but its burial (in water) and its resurrection (from water) also has a literal character. Any claim to be “literally” buried and raised with Jesus in baptism though would not further an understanding of baptism but would instead tend to obstruct it– so also with a claim to a “literal indwelling” of the Spirit– it is by no means clear what such a phrase is intended to mean or what its implications are.

In the meantime, both sides of the SCRM controversy are very much alike in treating their respective positions as matters of necessity with salvific consequences for themselves and others. Word-only protagonists see their literal-indwelling antagonists as opening the door to charismatic excesses and as threats to a hard-won pattern of gospel presentation and response. Literal-indwelling devotees see the Word-only faction as cut off from the very life of God in their reduction of the Spirit to mere propositions.

Word-only champions offer standard “cessationist” arguments for a narrowing of the Spirit’s present-day activities (e.g., 1 Cor 13:9-10, “when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears” and Eph 4: 11-13, “gave [gifts] … to prepare God’s people … until we all reach unity”). Devotees of the literal indwelling view in contrast take scripture at face value in much the same way as modern-day charismatics, with the key exception being varying degrees of textual mystification based on personal appetites for charismatic behavior and ideas.

3Both sides of the debate are a bit naive. The verbal-restrictive side is unrealistic to think its reduction of “indwelling Spirit” to a literary trope within a syllogistic, pseudo-deductive hermeneutic can compete against more convincing hermeneutics that offer richer understandings of the Spirit. The literal-indwelling side is also unrealistic to think it can avoid the hard work of figuring out whether it wants to be Calvinistic, Catholic, or charismatic. Use of these labels is not intended to polarize. Rather the intent is just to point out that simple statements often beg questions that lead to elaborate theological systems. Advocates of a literal indwelling should study Catholic, Calvinist, and charismatic pneumatologies as options before crafting less-adequate, idiosyncratic systems of their own.

4Advantage ultimately goes to the literal-indwelling camp when it comes to cultural trends. Legitimation of personal subjectivity, depreciation of law, suspicion toward institutions, neo-Gnosticism, attraction of mysticism, the notion of experience as the ultimate ground of truth, and the power of suggestion all fairly or unfairly favor the concept of a “literal” or “personal” indwelling. Everyone needs permission to change and the “placebo effect” inherent to the literal-indwelling viewpoint is well-suited to that end. The downside though is in suggesting something similarly mundane was going on in the early church.

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