The Breath of the Word

[The is the second in a series of posts about the Holy Spirit.  To see the second post, click here.]

For the Scripture project, I will eventually have to write about the Holy Spirit: Scripture = in-spired = in-spirited = from-the-Holy-Spirit. So I have to, but I’ll admit that it’s an intimidating assignment.

Compared to the Holy Spirit, revelation concerning the Son of God is pretty clear. “Son” is a word we use all the time, and its everyday use clearly illuminates its meaning in theology. The Son became a man like us, walking around and talking in plain language just so we would know him. The New Testament features lengthy and carefully written passages directly about the mystery of the Incarnation, such as the prologue to the Gospel of John or the hymn in Philippians 2. In the end, the procession of the Son is a mystery, for sure, but as mysteries go it is nicely laid out.

The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is mysterious from beginning to end. Even the word “spirit” is less than clear: what are we supposed to make of the “breath of God”? Everybody knows that a son is a person; what do we say about a hypostatic wind? What’s more, the biblical witness concerning the Spirit is scattered over innumerable books of the Old and New Testament, with no one passage simply opening the mystery in an overt way. One is left to gather the pieces together as best as one can.

All that said, I hope to offer an approach that seems to me both faithful to the biblical witness and complementary to the interpretations offered by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. The result will inevitably be a little less than satisfying, because the basis for any interpretation of the Holy Spirit is so vague and scattered to begin with, but there is no way around making the attempt.

My idea starts with the notion that the Son is the wisdom of God, the Father’s interior Word, the pattern to which God looks in creating the world. That much is clear from Scripture. From there, I think we can gather up what Scripture says about the Spirit under two headings, the first of which I’ll present in this post.

The first insight into the Spirit comes from looking at how God brings things into being. Genesis tells us that when God’s creation of heaven and earth began with the Spirit of God—his breath, his wind—was moving over the face of the primordial waters (Gen 1:2). Then God speaks his word, and creation happens. I imagine that creative, divine wind as an invisible force that moves and reshapes, splitting the waters of creation as the east wind would later split the Red Sea for the children of Israel to cross (Exod 14). In Genesis 1, the division of the waters brings reason and order to chaos, shaping the world according to God’s wise command. This, I think, is the most important theme we see in biblical testimony concerning the Spirit: he is an impulse toward God’s word and wisdom.

When the Spirit descends on the prophets, they receive God’s word and proclaim it; when the Spirit descends on the judges, they spring into action and bring history into conformity with God’s plan. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descends on Mary, and a human nature is brought into personal unity with the Word of God (Luke 2, John 1); the Holy Spirit descends on Christ’s disciples, and they are brought into a mystical unity with the Incarnate Word and made adopted sons of God (Rom 8). In every case, the Spirit is an impulse toward God’s word and wisdom, bringing the Word as a speaker’s breath brings articulate sound or as the wind brings shape to the water of chaos.

Already you can see why the Spirit would be called “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom 8:9). But this is only the first of the two roles of the Spirit I see in Scripture. In my next post, I’ll outline a second role and why I think it is crucial to see both.

P.S. These blog posts about the Scripture project include material that I hope one day to publish in a book, so if you see a problem with what I’m saying then please let me know!

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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