Imagine approaching all of theology through a Holy Spirit lens. What would that look like? How might theology done through the
third article of the creed enrich our grasp of Christian faith and life? And where should we look first to put to the test the productivity of such a pneumatic reading or perspective? Since Christian faith and life is, at its very core, a way of confessing Christ and living as his disciple in the world, it makes sense for a pneumatic angle on theology to start with an exploration of Jesus’ identity and mission. This type of study brings us right into the heart of Spirit Christology, which is an account of the Spirit’s role in the life and work of Jesus. In his introduction to Third Article Theology
(TAT), Myk Habets argues that “Spirit Christology is the area of most study and the first theological loci
[sic] to find an articulation of a TAT … given that even in a TAT Christology occupies the center.”1
He adds that TAT “is both a consequence of and a stimulus for Spirit Christology, given that TAT is birthed out of such a Christology.”2
It is now common for scholars from all church traditions to agree that, when it comes to theology, one cannot see reality through the Spirit apart from Jesus Christ, who is the definitive receiver, bearer, and giver of God’s Spirit.
Yves Congar once put it in succinct yet profound terms: “No Christology without pneumatology and no pneumatology without Christology.”3
In this chapter, we offer a bird’s-eye view of Spirit Christology that includes a historic
burden every theologian reflecting on the Spirit in Jesus’ life needs to deal with, an understanding of the different varieties of Spirit Christology, and a taste of contemporary voices in the field and the broader movements in Christianity generally giving rise to or informing their works. First, we highlight a classic instructive example of uneasiness about the proposition that Jesus, who is God, in some way needs the Holy Spirit. This uneasiness among theologians in the early church goes back to
Justin Martyr (ad
100–165), but still lies in the background of various proposals in the field today. Second, we introduce readers to three major types of Spirit Christology, which assume distinct views of the reality of “Spirit” in an account of Christ. We label them Nicene, pre-Nicene, and post-Nicene (at times, referred to as Chalcedonian, pre-Chalcedonian, and post-Chalcedonian). Finally, we locate today’s interest in Spirit Christology in three major twentieth-century events or movements, namely, the revival of Trinitarian theology, the Second Vatican Council, and the global rise of Pentecostalism and Charismatic churches. Although briefly, we highlight some important contributions of theologians whose works in most cases are best appreciated within the framework of these major events.
Justin’s Old Burden: Does Jesus Really Need the Spirit?
When asked who Jesus Christ is, most Christians almost instinctively recognize that he is both like us and unlike us. They confess Jesus to be truly human and truly divine. In language inspired by the ecumenical creeds, Jesus is consubstantial with us according to his humanity and consubstantial with God according to his divinity. Because of the early church’s struggles in the fourth century with the Arians, a group that taught Jesus was a special creature of God in whom the Spirit dwelt, theologians spent a considerable amount of time defending Jesus’ special divine status as the divine Word (Logos) made flesh. Italian patristic scholar
Raniero Cantalamessa has
argued that the church’s response to the Arian view of
Jesus especially led theologians from that point forward to favor in their language a “strong tendency towards ontologization,” which means they focused on Jesus’ divine being (ontology)—his “metaphysical constitution” or “essence”—more than on his “becoming and history.”4
Arians interpreted events like Jesus’ baptism (anointing) and
resurrection (exaltation) to deny his divinity by arguing that, unlike God who is by nature unchangeable, Jesus became something in time he was not before. Arianism paints Jesus as a creature who shares in the grace of the Spirit as a prize or reward from God for his virtues or works on earth. In such a climate, speaking of Jesus’ becoming in history by the action of the Spirit in him becomes a hot potato that needs careful handling. As Cantalamessa rightly notes, “the question naturally arises: how can the Word incarnate become at baptism something new, which he was not already at the moment of the incarnation?”5
If Jesus is already God in the flesh, does he really need
the Holy Spirit?
In Chapter 3
, we will lay out and assess how the church handled the Arian view of Jesus. In the meantime, we should note that the question about the Spirit’s role in the life and mission of Jesus precedes the Arian controversy. It is an old burden laid upon Christian apologists as far back as the second century. Consider Justin Martyr, who in his Dialogue with Trypho
gets the following question from him: If Christ is “pre-existent God” and “incarnate,” how can he be said to be “filled with the powers of the Holy Ghost, which the Scripture by Isaiah enumerates [cf. Isa. 11:1–3], as if He were in lack of them?”6
Justin rightly acknowledges the seeming difficulty of upholding Christ’s identity as the incarnate God and, at the same time, as one filled with the Spirit and its gifts.7
He explains that Jesus did not really need this Spirit’s power since, as the Magi demonstrated by worshipping him at
birth, he already possessed his own power from the time of his incarnation.8
The Spirit does not rest on Jesus at his baptism to accomplish something new in him, but rather to reveal to others that he brings to fulfillment the prophets and their promises of a future outpouring of the Spirit upon all
flesh. The Spirit now rests upon Jesus to reveal to the world that he will give the promised Spirit and its gifts to those who believe in him. Like a fire from above, the Spirit comes on Jesus at his baptism not “because He stood in need of baptism, or of the descent of the Spirit” but “because of the human race” and to give others “proof, that they might know who is Christ.”9
Accordingly, the voice of the Father at the Jordan, “Thou art My Son: this day have I begotten Thee” (cf. Ps. 2:7), does not mean that Christ undergoes a new birth of some sort, but rather that “His generation would take place for men, at the time when they would become acquainted with Him.”10
Given Justin’s commitment to the revelatory character of the Jordan event due to his being “hesitant to fully exploit the pouring out of the Spirit on Jesus at the Jordan lest it place the divinity of the pre-existent Logos in peril,” Kilian McDonnell describes the apologist as “committed but uneasy.”11
The Spirit does not bring about something in Jesus, like an empowerment for his mission, but reveals something to us about him already established beforehand (namely, his divinity). McDonnell explains the sense in which the Son, according to Justin’s use of Ps. 2:7 in the baptism narrative, is said to be “begotten” at the Jordan: “When he is recognized by us as the Son of God, at that moment he, in some mysterious fashion, is born Son of God for us, for the Church. To be known is to be born.”12
Like other events of Christ’s life and mission, his baptism does not tell us something about him as much as something about us.
Ever since the days of Justin Martyr, theologians have taken on the burden of finding an answer to Trypho’s question: How can the preexistent God made flesh be said to be filled with the Spirit as if he needed its power? Since a Spirit Christology deals with the role of the Holy Spirit in, with, and through Christ, it is quite legitimate to ask how his life in the Spirit relates to his identity as the incarnate Word (Logos). Justin’s response to Trypho already illustrates the importance of interpreting biblical statements about the Spirit in the life of Christ in such a way that they account for the proper distinction and relation between the Logos and the Spirit. The apologist’s response also shows us a way to link the power Christ possesses from his incarnation to the gifts of the Spirit he pours out on the church. Interestingly, Justin does
not place the anointing of Jesus with the Spirit at the moment of his baptism. Instead, on the basis of Ps. 45:7, which reads “Therefore God, your God, has anointed
you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions (italics mine)...