This morning I watched, in a half-embarrassed sort of way, while Nicola Menzie, of The Christian Post, interviewed me. At first, the angle of my head was odd: I looked like a balloon–fat around the jowl–with glasses and a little tuft of hair on my narrowed head. Once I got over that, I settled in to listen.
The interview started with the provocative point that the holy spirit—the spirit of God—is in everyone, including, as the people of The Christian Post noted, an aggressive atheist such as Richard Dawkins. Nicola posed the question perfectly, but I know that many watchers probably stopped listening right there and then, even as I tried to explain that there is a tension in the Bible between the spirit of creation and the spirit of salvation.
Is God’s breath entirely different from God’s Spirit—when both are called, in Hebrew, ruach?
Is the work of God in creation entirely different from the work of God in salvation?
Read the comments to the written story in The Christian Post—it’s quite an experience—and you’ll see that the Christians who comment there don’t think there’s an ounce of continuity between the spirit of creation and the spirit of salvation. Not a shekel’s worth. There’s the Holy Spirit, then there’s a profane spirit, and the two won’t ever meet. These commenters, of course, quote exclusively from the New Testament.
As I said during the interview, the picture looks different, the story reads different, the song sounds different when you start at the beginning–a very good place to start–rather than the final section of the Bible. As I reflected afterwards on this question of creation and salvation, I recalled Inspired: the Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith, which I wrote in 2012. In the conclusion, I work hard to clarify what “A Pneumatology of Creation” might mean. I am going to quote a section in full because it takes us beyond damaging dichotomies that I think, frankly, are just plain unbiblical. This is what I wrote:
As a young Christian, I learned that the holy spirit filled me when I was baptized by immersion with water once I had professed my faith. I learned this again and again and in no uncertain terms. And I learned this with substantial biblical backing. Peter instructs the throngs who have seen the inspired events of Pentecost, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). I memorized as well a snippet of the letter to Titus: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). Like so many Christians, I learned what my church taught me. And what they taught me was good—just not the whole story.
I did not learn that the holy spirit was active in the ongoing experience of sanctification. This insight I garnered later, when I embraced the Wesleyan spirit—or more honestly put, when I embraced a Wesleyan woman, whom I married. Nor did I learn that the holy spirit was present in creation—in what I would like here to call a pneumatology of creation. That insight I encountered only as I wrote Filled with the Spirit, in which I tried to demonstrate exegetically that God’s spirit-breath exists in all people, not just in Christians who have repented or been reborn and renewed by the holy spirit in baptism. If we begin our exegesis with the New Testament, I discovered, we may miss this strand of scripture altogether, according to which the spirit people receive from birth is no less divine or holy than the spirit which they receive through sacraments or charismatic endowments.The first move God makes in the entire sweep of scripture, in fact, entails the stirring of the ruach: “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a ruach of God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). Translations are not much help in figuring out what exactly this ruach is. One reads, “a wind from God swept over the face of the water” (NRSV), another, “God’s wind swept over the waters” (CEB) and still others, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (NIV) or “God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss” (The Message). The Hebrew word, ruach, does mean wind—“a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The water’s untamed waves are stirred by wind, God’s wind, so something good, something beautiful, must be yet to come. But the Hebrew word also means breath that produces words, as in the opening poem of the Bible, where God’s powerful words divide darkness from light, sea from land, day from night (Genesis 1:1-2:4). The refrain, “And God said,” gives structure and stability to creation, as life-ordering words are formed by Spirit-breath rolling over God’s tongue. Yet even wind and breath do not exhaust the mystery of God’s Spirit. The verb, hover or sweep, which offers the first glimpse of the Spirit’s power in the Bible, occurs only once elsewhere in the Old Testament, when God is an eagle that “stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions” (Deut 32:11-12). This is tender care, powerful pinions grasping Israel’s neck to “set it atop the heights of the land” (32:13). The spirit of God, at the birth of creation, hovers over an expectant earth, broods like a bird over the watery abyss—an eagle-like spirit poised with powerful wings over a fledgling creation. Order is on the horizon. Chaos is about to slip into nothingness.
To ground pneumatology in the work of salvation without casting a protracted glance at creation is to truncate the breadth of the spirit. Creation, after all, is where the grand drama begins. The act of creation identifies humankind as imago dei (Gen 1:26-28), a reflection, perhaps even a surrogate for God in the created world, through which God stakes a claim to order amidst chaos: “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” The act of creation reveals the playful participation of Sophia, God’s partner, who offers human beings the chance to learn, to nurture virtue, to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Prov 9:6). And the act of creation is the moment, too, when God nuzzles up to molded earth and breathes life into it (Gen 2:7).
All of this, of course, comes to fruition in salvation, but we miss the full weight and worth of that salvation if we understand it without the foreground of creation’s expansive scope. Imago dei. Inbreathing. Sophia. At the dawn of creation, human beings reflect, receive, and are equipped with what they are intended, in the fullness of salvation, the fullness of time, to be.
Excerpt from Inspired: the Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith (Eerdmans) 186-88