The Holy Spirit, Our Living Tradition
Rev. Theophan Whitfield
As Eastern Christians, we often express our comfort with theological tension by throwing up our hands and saying with a playful smile that “Orthodoxy is paradoxy.” Our Lord is glorified when he is raised up on the cross, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, those who would be first must be servant of all — these are a few of the biblical examples of the tensions which define our faith.
As the history of the Church unfolds, the examples multiply: we become by grace what God is by nature (St Athanasius, On the Incarnation), Mary gives birth to God (Council of Ephesus, 431), the lamb of God is divided but not disunited, ever eaten but never consumed (Liturgy of Chrysostom).
Orthodoxy can be experienced by some as fuzzy around the edges, as lacking the intellectual rigor that might be on high display in other Christian traditions. Some suspect that we revel in paradox because we don’t have the resources and resolve to say something with precision and clarity. This, we know, is not true. But such an initial reaction is understandable. When confronted by divine mystery, our reflex in the first place is to bow down, rather than to break it down. From the outside, our hesychia might appear to be hesitation. Our stillness, as paralysis.
As Orthodox, we do not think first and pray second. For us, the order is reversed. When we wish to answer the question “What do we believe?” we first ask ourselves the question “Well, how do we worship?” Liturgy guides theology. Worship blossoms into belief.
In other words, we hold fast to the fifth-century expression that lex orandi lex credendi — the rule of prayer is the rule of belief. Among Roman Catholics and Protestants, the arrow of priority is more easily reversed. In the Christian West, the question “How should we worship?” leads quickly to the question “Well, what do we believe?” For many Christians who are not Orthodox, theological speculation comes first, and in the second place decisions are made about how to make worship life conform to theological results. Ask an Evangelical Christian why there are no contemporary hymns to Mary, and she will probably answer that the teachings of her tradition rule out the correctness of honoring Mary in that way. The Christian West often says: dogma before doxology. In the East, it is doxology before dogma.
“But that’s backwards! Why?” No one has actually said this to me, but I confess to saying it to myself from time to time. In any case, as Orthodox Christians, we have a quick response. Our bedrock belief is that the living tradition of the church just is the power and presence of the Holy Spirit within the messianic community. Holy tradition just is the Spirit of Truth, breathed out now and always upon those who gather to hear the apostolic preaching of Christ and him crucified. For Orthodox, doxology is the elder twin of dogma for reasons first stated by the Apostle Paul, who writes that the refusal to give God honor and thanksgiving is the root cause of the “suppression of truth” (Romans 1:19-21). Through worship, truth is protected and clarified. And this is so because our worship is enlivened by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth.
Don’t take my word for it. To his disciples, Jesus describes this connection between glory and truth which the Spirit makes possible.
“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:12-15).
Jesus makes a promise: that worship will be the seedbed of theology. And as Orthodox we gladly hold him to it. In the Spirit, glory and truth commingle. The Spirit glorifies the Son, and guides us into all truth.
Jesus rejoices that the Holy Spirit is the one who completes an essential circle. Scripture bears witness to the Son (John 5:46), and the Son bears witness to the Father. The Holy Spirit, in turn, proceeds from the Father through a disclosure (phanerosis) to individual Christians, and this pouring forth is always “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:3-7). The Holy Spirit is breathed on the apostles so that their preaching from scripture might truly bear witness to Christ, who in turn bears witness to the Father, and this is in the first place for the “common good,” as the Apostle Paul stresses throughout 1 Corinthians.
From the Father, the Spirit proceeds. The Spirit, moving us to join him, glorifies the Son. The Son bears witness to the Father. As I say, it’s a circle. But it is a circle with which we are comfortable. This is the circle we pray.
But to stop here would be to stop painfully short. Any discussion of the Holy Spirit that has no consequences beyond the armchair or pew is theological entertainment, at best. As we pray, the Spirit of truth is the “giver of life,” not necessarily the giver of answers. And life in the Spirit is always measured by what we do, not by what we know. A deeper understanding of the Holy Spirit should always provoke a deeper desire to do the Holy Spirit’s business — to glorify the Son, to proclaim his lordship by keeping his commandments (Matthew 7:21).
I started by saying that Orthodoxy is paradoxy. If this is so, it’s not because Orthodox Christians seek to evade responsibility by hiding in the smoke and mirrors of a circus theology. In fact, the opposite is true. At the center of our call as Christians is the commandment to love our neighbor in the manner of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:27-37), and that when we encounter the “least of these my brethren” we encounter the one by whose name we are called (Matthew 25:31-46). This is perhaps the central paradox in the Christian life, and somewhat distressingly it comes to us as a commandment. There is no avoiding this one. Neither can we afford to pin Matthew 25 on the wrong side of the line between “Things to think about” and “Things to do.” We cannot bow in the direction of the parable of the sheep and goats, but otherwise walk away after some awkward exegesis and hand-waiving. We are called to live this paradox of paradoxes. And how we fare will be the single topic of discussion on the great and last day.
Glory to God, the Holy Spirit comes to our rescue, filling us with promised power from heaven (Luke 24:49)! Words about the Holy Spirit can be impossible to set down in a satisfactory manner — something which I am proving in spectacular fashion as you read this essay — but where words fall short, acts of love without fail will provide a full disclosure (phanoresis) of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. Where the Holy Spirit is, there we find human beings and communities transfigured by love. Where the Holy Spirit is, it becomes possible to meet Christ in each person. Where the Holy Spirit is, it becomes possible to surrender ourselves in love to the will of God and to the needs of others. The Holy Spirit makes the love of neighbor possible, and it is through this love that the Holy Spirit glorifies Christ.
In the end, if we want to understand the Church’s teaching concerning the Holy Spirit, then our time is best invested, not in reading a work such as St Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, but in reading St Basil’s On Social Justice. The practical challenges of loving others as we love ourselves can seem formidable. According to St Basil, for example, we should never possess more than others, and that the more we abound in wealth the more we lack in love (“To the Rich,” SVS Press, 43). But what sounds like a challenge is really the opportunity of a lifetime. On Social Justice and other reflections on the commandments of love are not unrealistic explorations of the hard words of Christ. Instead, they sketch a vision of the very life we claim to desire each time we sing or pray O Heavenly King. A work such as On Social Justice is a picture of answered prayer, a portrait of life in which the Holy Spirit is everywhere present and filling all things — ‘fullness-ing’ all things, really. Go and read On Social Justice, you will find there a vision of life in which the treasury of blessings truly abides in us.