The Silencing of God in the Church

Some churches talk about “God” and the “Father” and one is led to think “God” and the “Father” are the same. (They’re not.) Other churches talk about “God” and “Jesus,” sometimes far more about Jesus than God, and one is led to think either that God and Jesus are two entirely separate beings or that Jesus is all we need, and one wonders if the deity of Christ even matters. We can perhaps agree that the majority of churches talk about, now to use theological categories, Father and Son but silence God the Spirit.

Why do you think the Spirit is the “forgotten” God or the most neglected person of the Trinity? 

Good example: We celebrate our hearts out for Christmas (Father sends the Son) and Holy Week (Father sends the Son), but we ignore or skip or barely mention Pentecost (God the Spirit). Unless we are charismatics, and then the Spirit gets plenty of attention (sometimes too much attention). Or unless we know the history of church art (as in this art from John the Baptist Church at the Jordan River). Ronald Heine, in his exceptional introduction to classical Christian orthodoxy, Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith, has a chapter on the what orthodoxy came to believe about the Spirit.

Significant point: most churches affirm orthodoxy, or the Trinity, in all the right terms. Very few churches or pastors routinely develop the significance of each major element in Christian orthodoxy. It is as good, if I may be so bold, as not believing Christian orthodoxy. What then do such churches believe? That the Bible is God’s Word. For many bibliocentrism is the Christian faith. Now to Heine’s sketch:

1. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit did not come to a firm resolution until the end of the 4th Century, thus at Constantinople in 381 AD. In part because Father and Son were more debated and took all the church’s energy; in part because the Holy Spirit was quietly assumed but not articulated.

2. The NT shows a rich, varied but full emphasis on the Holy Spirit. If you grab a concordance (and I use Accordance) and find references to the Spirit in the NT you might be surprised how “Pneuma-centric” the NT is.

3. Irenaeus developed the “economic” side of the Spirit. [My vote for the word “economic” being one of the easiest-to-misunderstand terms in Christian theology; the word refers to “functions” in the plan of God over time in history.] That is, for him the Spirit and the Son were the “two hands of God” (Father) in that each was designated functions that complemented one another. Wisdom and Spirit are the same; Logos and Son are the same.

4. Tertullian and the Cappadocians got into the relation of the Father and the Son to the Spirit. Orthodoxy concluded that the Spirit proceeded (not begotten as the Son, not unbegotten as the Father) from the Father and the Son (though Orthodoxy did not affirm the filioque clause “and the Son” so the Spirit proceeded from the Father alone). Three as one yet three, as a fruit comes from the tree comes from the roots.

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  • ‘Why do you think the Spirit is the “forgotten” God or the most neglected person of the Trinity?’
    The holy spirit is definitely given much more attention in the NT than in the OT, but in comparison to the other two ‘persons’, the holy spirit still doesn’t get near as much attention from the NT writers.

    ‘Some churches talk about “God” and the “Father” and one is led to think “God” and the “Father” are the same. (They’re not.)’
    I had a question in response to this opening statement. The NT texts use the term ‘god’ almost exclusively of the Father. As in, in all but two or three cases, when we read them referring to simply ‘God’, the naturally understood referent is ‘the Father’. This certainly lends to the impression that ‘”God” and the “Father” are the same’, so if this is not what they intended for readers to come to, why did they use the two terms essentially interchangeably?

  • I grew up Dispensationalist. The Spirit didn’t get a lot of attention in my church because we were informed God turned off the miracles till the End Times. Hence the Spirit—the Executive of the Godhead, as theologians call him—hadn’t much of anything to do. He made an appearance in our lives to activate our salvation, to be sealed to each believer, to indwell them… and then he was never heard from again. And if we thought we heard of a Spirit-empowered miracle, we were informed we were gravely mistaken. (Unless missionaries told those stories. Missionaries got a free pass, for some reason.)

    I’m Pentecostal now. Like you said, among us charismatics he’s far from forgotten.

  • Scott Gay

    I’ve alluded to the failure of Montanism on Jesus Creed, but could easily count any reply that even seems to know about it. It did much to fix on Western Christianity that deist conception of God as a King departed to a far country, emptying common life, restored through the mediation of the Church, his representative. It is possible to look at the medieval system as the natural development of one mediator of an absent king knowing the working of the Spirit transmitted by ordinances from a distant past.

  • rising4air

    Not sure what privileges the medieval system as a natural development of mediation; contemporary Pentecostals might offer their experience as a similar analogue.

    I wondered, too, whether the historical judgment on the Montanists as a failure can be sustained. I wish I could find a paper I read from several years ago- it was a British historian- that asked a similar question: if the preponderance of extant documents all contain polemical material on the Montanists, how well do we understand what the colleagues of Tertullian published as their theological positions? The author went on to raise other questions related to the above, including whether some further consideration of the label “heretics” may have been too hastily applied.


  • Phil Miller

    It seems to me that a lot comes down the downplaying of the Trinity in general in the West. I have to agree with my Orthodox friends here. It just seems like the Trinity is seen as something that’s a nice idea but not necessarily all that important in many churches. Sure, we acknowledge it, but we don’t really talk about why it’s important. In Orthodoxy, however, the Trinity is key to understanding salvation and God’s work overall.

    Even growing up Pentecostal and still identifying as one now, I think many Pentecostals see the Holy Spirit as less of a member of the Trinity and something more abstract. It’s quite common to hear the Holy Spirit described in terms like “power” or “anointing”.

  • Rick

    Or as Jane Williams (scholar and wife of former Archb. of Cant. Rowan Williams) says, the Trinity is depicted as “two men and a bird”.

  • Actually, I notice the sole purpose of the trinity for a lot of churches is to use it as a litmus test. If you believe in ‘the trinity’ (regardless of minor, but significant distinctions of definition), then you’re a Real True Christian. If you dare to even ask questions about it, your walking right into heresy zone. Beyond that, yeah, not much attention as I’ve seen.

  • Phil Miller

    There might be some churches like that, but honestly, that hasn’t been my experience. In most churches I’ve been in, one could probably pretty easily hold a non-Trinitarian position simply because the issue doesn’t come up very often.

  • “It (affirming the Spirit in creeds, but with little depth of teaching or practice) is as good, if I may be so bold, as not believing Christian orthodoxy. What then do such churches believe? That the Bible is God’s Word. For many bibliocentrism is the Christian faith.”

    I think there are many reasons for this, especially in the West (enlightenment thinking, modernity, preference of hierarchy, etc.), but one angle that remains interesting to me is perceived risk. I think many people view the Spirit, rightly so in some respects, as a total game changer. I think there are all kinds of “what if’s” that scare us about the Spirit, some of which involve wacky or even not wacky practices of charismatics. Some of the “what if’s” I’ve seen are things like: “What if God does heal that person, but didn’t/won’t heal ________; what does that mean?” “What if God wants me to be more expressive, or even ____________ like that charismatic I’ve seen? (I’m not doing that!)” “What if somebody says something really off and says it’s the Spirit?” “Will God embarrass me?” “What if the problem is me in some way, like a lack of faith or something; what does that mean?” “What will our service look like (and will it reflect the God I know at all) if we start allowing ____________? Will charismania just take over? Will nobody care about the Bible?”

    I just think there are so many questions we have in conservative churches about how many miles and in what direction the Spirit (or wacky people) will take if given an inch. Maybe the Spirit represents the ultimate fear of the Unknown, but specific to what we don’t know about God and our fellows.

  • The Holy Spirit is the third rail of theology & Christian life. The analogy being the third rail of a metro or subway system.

    Its where all the power is, which can be a good thing when handled properly but dangerous if not cared for appropriately.

  • david carlson

    We have the bible – who needs the Holy Spirit? (sarcasm alert)

  • Marshall

    I noticed that despite what you said in the first place, when you quote Irenaeus you footnote his use of ‘God’ as intending ‘Father’. Maybe my education is lacking, but orthodox Trinitarianism seems like a vast collection of Gotchas that has more to do with the history of internecine squabbles than any matter of faith. And nobody I’m in touch with is willing to actually discuss it. So if a correct understanding is important to Faith … don’t you think so? … I don’t know where to turn.

    (Where I hang, out here in the bushes, we do lean “Jesus is all you need”, in fact we had a worship song this week with that exact refrain. Sure that conflates the Trinity … isn’t it just a harmless anti-modalism? My problem with it is it seems to me to be a low view of Repentance.)

  • Adam

    I think also in the line of “risk” is the risk of God not showing up. At the basest level, what if there isn’t a God? What if the reason we don’t listen to the spirit is because there is no spirit to listen to?

    In more common occurrences, what if the Spirit is saying I’m wrong or disagrees with me? What if the Spirit is being silent to draw me out and actively search? What if God doesn’t catch me when I fall?

    I don’t think it’s the fear of charismatics that is the risk but the fear of God as a free agent. If we contain God to the bible; the bible can’t do a whole lot to impact my life. But a God who can act and move on His own and potentially at odds with my wishes? That gets disconcerting.

  • Matthew Davis

    The biggest second-century questions dealt with apostolic faith; so it makes sense that the church had to focus some attention on the Montanist movement. The three authorities: the scriptures, the rule of faith, church leadership/apostolic succession (Ferguson, Church History, 105). Montanism drew condemnation because their views on prophecy undermined those three authorities.

    You know, you really should credit Gwatkin for the thoughts and phrases you’re representing as your own (Gwatkin, Early Church History, 93-96). They are not your words. Whether Gwatkin is right is another discussion; but his words should be rightly attributed to him.

  • Scott Gay

    No, not his words, but Brunner, “The Misunderstanding of the Church”.

  • Kande Koogle

    This very discussion is one of the reasons I so appreciate my “tribe” – the Vineyard Movement. I think we, for the most part (although not in every context), demonstrate a healthy balance between a right understanding of the importance of scripture, Jesus, the Father, AND the Holy Spirit. Rich Nathan and Ken Wilson’s book Empowered Evangelicals best sums up the need for restoring this balance within the church. I recommend it highly.

  • Matthew Davis

    Gwatkin’s words precede Brunner’s by fifty years.

  • attytjj466

    Very true that it is a doctrine given lip service but little emphasis in large swaths of Christianity. Then someone like Keller writes about an aspect of its significance and elegance (the core of divine being is relationship) and it is almost like a long lost/forgotten teaching suddenly discovered, for many.

  • danaames

    Marshall, that history was indeed messy, and often far less than charitable. And… those discussions indicated the struggle to answer some important questions that came along as Christians encountered some very curious and sophisticated thinkers… What does it mean that Jesus is God? What does it mean that Jesus is human? What is his relationship to the Father? How is the Holy Spirit God? What is the Spirit’s relationship to the Father and the Son? How can we talk about these things, insofar as we can actually talk about them? What does all this have to do with Jesus’ death and resurrection? …and more. Those questions had to be answered.

    I have only read excerpts, but when time permits I intend to delve into J. Pelikan’s work on the history of doctrine. That’s what I would recommend for you in terms of reading; try “Credo”. If you want to discuss, if you live near an Eastern Orthodox church, the priest might be up for such a conversation, or if not, could steer you to someone who is. Or, since you’re “in the bushes” you could try email, if there’s no one nearby.

    Understanding is good… and in EO, the “place” where faith is energized is in the inmost being of a person (we use the Greek term “nous”), not ultimately the intellect (though of course, there is a connection, and the whole person is affected when one is “in Christ”). That’s why anyone who has been received into the Orthodox Church by baptism or chrismation may take communion, including infants or others incapable of sophisticated intellectual understanding.


  • Jon G

    “In Orthodoxy, however, the Trinity is key to understanding salvation and God’s work overall.”
    How so? I’m not a Trinitarian and I think I have a good understanding of salvation and God’s work overall. I hear this quite a bit and it is rarely challenged. I don’t mean to sound rude but…What is it exactly about the Trinitarian notion of God that is so important to understanding salvation and God’s work overall? What do I lose by believing that God is One?

  • danaames

    What is lost is the redemption of everything. As St Gregory of Nazianzus said, “That which He has not assumed He has not
    healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.”

    In EO, the definition of “salvation” is very much skewed to the nuance in the Greek “soteria” of “healing” – the ultimate point of Christ’s incarnation, cross and resurrection was to unite everything with the Godhead (the ultimate healing of *everything*). If the Godhead were not somehow “resident” within him, this union of Created and Uncreated could not happen. Thus, Nicea and Chalcedon were the outcome of long discussion, thought and prayer since the early 2nd century, trying to find vocabulary that could describe this – insofar as it is able to be described in human language. It really comes down to focusing on the first Christians’ experience of Jesus in the cross and resurrection, and looking at the meaning and ramifications of everything through that lens.

    The other thing missed is the ground of Self-Giving Love. One cannot love without there being Another to reciprocate love, and love in its fullness opens to a Third. This is not an explanation of where the One, the Another and the Third came from, or what they “are”, only that this very deep relational thing is to me otherwise unexplainable.

    The Trinity is a paradox. EO is quite comfortable with the reality that just because every aspect of the Trinitarian Godhead (and many other things besides) cannot be explained doesn’t mean it’s not true. Western Christians have trouble with this, in part, because they have been ignorant of much of the Trinitarian discussions, and the vocabulary that developed therefrom, that went on the in the East in the 3rd-5th centuries (and beyond, with St Gregory Palamas in the early 1300s ). Different definitions and understandings for some of this vocabulary developed in the West under the influence of Scholasticism, and the juridical understanding of “salvation” as “payment for sin” that came out of Augustinian thought. These understandings of “God’s work overall” did not find a home in the East.


  • Might end up opening up a can of worms here, but this nicely coincides with recent web-buzz about John MacArthur’s coming Strange Fire conference, though I am not totally familiar with what they are focusing on, or the angle, theology behind the talks, speakers. Scot rightly points out the lopsided focus on different persons of the Trinity e.g. Father and Son, neglecting the Spirit. Few theologians or books focus on the triune worship of God – Father, Son, Spirit, and many churches and denominations overfocus or overemphasize one or two to the demise of the third. The challenge remains though, as pastors (including myself in the past) struggle to find the right balance without coming across as overpreachy or over-Truine. I like point 2, which focuses on what is there in God’s word, especially the NT (Luke-Acts, which emphasizes the Spirit, makes up the bulk of the NT), the full emphasis, pneuma-centricity of the Word.