Is the Holy Spirit a Skeptic?

Paul, in a sense, explicitly denies that the Spirit can or would endorse anything non-rational or at the very least, superstitious. In this way, Paul allows his reason to guide him in-spite of others’ affirmations that their perspectives are endorsed by divine credence.

INTRODUCTION

During his lifetime, Martin Luther was involved in several theological discussions with an almost equally famous individual named Erasmus. When discussing issues that often seemed contrite or too speculative, Erasmus argued that he reserved the right to remain skeptical of anything not clear in either Scripture or Church Tradition, a position which Luther strongly rejected.

In the midst of his arguments with Erasmus, Luther made a bold argument:

The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic, and it is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.¹

It’s a striking idea and it invites an honest question: who was right?

STRIKE #1: LUTHER

Luther’s argument, ironically enough, does not agree with the understanding of the New Testament.

In Acts 15, the first council of the Church, led under the guidance of Jesus’ own brother James, pronounced an edict regarding the discontinuation of the requirement of circumcision and certain Christian standards for Gentiles, such as abstaining from eating meat offered to pagan idols during local festivals.

The ban on this food was based on a fear that by eating it, one was committing idolatry and worshiping another god or that a demon may have now cursed the food one was eating.

Economically, this new edict was hard hitting, since meat was at its lowest price during such festivals.

What truly stands out about their decision though is how they chose to begin it:

… It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials (Acts 15:28).

The text is striking in its non-commitment to affirm whether the Holy Spirit knows or merely presumes.

In fact, according to Paul, it may be the latter or neither. In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, Paul instructs his congregations to ignore the church’s (Spirits’?) directive and eat freely of any food they wish to.

Paul’s argument is inherently rational: there are no demons entering the food and to worry about such things is superstition, something for the “weaker brother.”

While it could be construed that Paul is arguing against the Spirit’s directive, given that Paul believed in the Spirit and utilized a rational argument, it is more likely that Paul believed that the Spirit had nothing to do with this edict from the first church council in the first place.

Paul, in a sense, explicitly denies that the Spirit can or would endorse anything non-rational or at the very least, superstitious. In this way, Paul allows his reason to guide him in-spite of others’ affirmations that their perspectives are endorsed by divine credence.

This biblical portrait however flies in the face of Luther’s appeal to Erasmus that the Holy Spirit “is no skeptic.” First, because Acts 15 only affirms that it seemed good to the Spirit (allowing for the possibility of uncertainty), and second, because according to Paul it was wrong (and we as a Church have followed Paul’s argument ever since and broken the decree for well over a thousand years).

Paul is thus illustrative to us of the danger of assuming things about the Spirit. In this case then, it is we who need to be skeptical for the simple fact that it is too easy a deception to align one’s own thoughts and ideas with a sense of divine baptism.

In that sense, Erasmus is right to be skeptical and Luther vastly wrong.

STRIKE #2: ERASMUS

Yet, taking a cue from Paul, it does not seem right to utilize skepticism as a place to hide oneself. Paul, while denying the Spirit’s direct role in the issue, did not remain idle but utilized his rationality to come up with a position he was convinced by argument must be true.

In this sense then, one could argue that Luther was right even as he was wrong, for as long as he avoided substituting subjective feeling for logical deductions, the role of the Spirit as a passion for rationality could certainly be accurately described as “assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.”

HOMERUN: HOLY SPIRIT

Yet, ignoring both of these thinkers and their squabble (along with the previous discussion), there is a fascinatingly different question altogether to consider: Should the Holy Spirit be a skeptic? Is he already?

At first, the idea likely sounds absurd.

We are inclined to agree with Luther, almost immediately, instinctively, that the answer is no.

For most, the divine is akin to certainty (especially theological and empirical certainty). Skepticism, in that sense, would seem completely off-base.

In one sense, it would be nonsensical.

But also, the question, it could be argued, was wrong from the start.

For example, when one asks whether God can make a circle square, the answer is that such a question is flawed to begin with since God operates on rationality and such a proposition is irrational.

In this way then, the divine can be seen to be more accurately the embodiment of rationality (though at a divine level).

If God embodies rationality and the Holy Spirit’s goal is to point us to a greater communion with that rational God, then I would argue that Paul’s very rationalistic argument about the meat is, itself, the Spirit!

It is presented, in its rationality, as authoritative based on evidence and argument and not, as the Council pensively phrased it, “seemingly” tentative authoritarian statements by leaders.

The Holy Spirit’s identity with rationality means that however counterintuitive it seems, the Spirit is indeed a skeptic and so good of one that it need not doubt at all, already recognizing the fallacies we possess.

Thus, I believe that Luther is right that the Holy Spirit would not write doubts on the hearts of men (doubting itself), but he is wrong to assume that it is not a skeptic of us and the certainties that all too often we hold as if idols.

If Paul’s skeptical and dismissive attitude toward the Jerusalem Council, rooted in rational logic and fact, is the embodiment of the Spirit, then it is safe to say that yes, the Holy Spirit is indeed a skeptic and a darn good one.

We would do well as Christians to imitate it with our own current theological struggles.


¹ Colin Brown, Christianity & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas & Movements, vol. 1, From the Ancient World to the Age of Enlightenment (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 167.


IMG_1306Matthew J. Korpman is a minister-in-training, Young Adult novelist and published researcher in Biblical Studies and Church History. Graduating from the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School later this year, he is completing four degrees in fields such as Religious Studies, Philosophy and Archaeology before continuing his studies at Yale Divinity School. He is an active member of the Seventh-day Adventist church whose research interests include everything from the Apocrypha to the Apocalypse.

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  • Ivan T. Errible

    “contrite”?
    This word-I don’t think it means what you think it means.