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 Reflecting on Spirituality
 The Presbyterian Connection received a number of responses to the Rev. John Congram’s two articles about John Vanier (see Issue 14, Summer 2020, p. 7 and Issue 11, Fall 2019, p. 4). Below is part of a response offered to the Rev. Congram by the Rev. George Tatrie, retired chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.
The place of the Holy Spirit in our worship and in the life of our denomi- nation, in my experience, has not had much acknowledgement. Apart from Pentecost Sunday and a few references throughout the year, the Spirit has not been a focus or major concern for us as a faith community. This is different from the life of the early church, where discussion about the nature and place of the Holy Spirit was, for centuries, ongoing. Uncer- tainty about the nature and place of the Spirit in the divine economy, concerns about the unity of one God and tritheism—lack of understanding about how three aspects of one God could be anything other than three persons, and so on—were never completely resolved.
Subsequently, it was at least tacitly understood or accepted that because of the mystery of who God is and how God is present in the world at large and in each individual person- ally, there could be acknowledge- ment of God in the person of the Holy Spirit, with different understandings of what that means and with a plural- ity of emphasis. Suffice it to say that the church could affirm belief in the ongoing work and presence of the Holy Spirit while allowing for the va- riety of expressions this belief takes. Thus, the Apostle’s Creed, which we ourselves regularly confess as a statement of faith.
As Hendrikus Berkhof points out in The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the Creed testifies to the church’s un- derstanding that the Spirit gives and controls what follows from the Spirit; namely the church, community and forgiveness. These are understood as the fruits of the Spirit. The state- ment reflects the seriousness with which the church took the reality of God’s Spirit and the significance of the Spirit’s presence and work. And so it is today, wherever the third clause of the Creed is affirmed in faith.
So, your question is pertinent.
Why, in the life of our denomination, does the person, work and signifi- cance of the Holy Spirit seem to be downplayed, if not ignored, chapter 4, Living Faith, notwithstanding? I of- fer two thoughts.
I once attended a worship service in the Knox College chapel in Toronto at which the Rev. Dr. Charles Hay was preaching. His theme was so- cial justice. He commented that he always appreciated and admired his United Church friends because, he said, when they encounter a justice issue, “they pick up the ball and run with it,” while we Presbyterians usu- ally hang back to see what develops before committing ourselves to a formal position or course of action. And thus, after much study, debate, overtures and referrals, etc., said Charles, the United Church approach was very commendable and worthy of emulation. But he asked, “What if you pick up the ball and run the wrong way?”
The fear of “running the wrong way” with whatever the ball repre- sents at a given time has been a char- acteristic of our denomination. We saw that reflected in 1925. And since the presence of the Spirit is intangi- ble, though real, and since the work of the Spirit is always ambiguous and subject to misinterpretation, misuse or even abuse, we have been reluc- tant to open ourselves to the possi- bility of error and misunderstanding and subsequent courses of action that could prove destructive and to be a “mishandling” of the things of God and the mystery of God. Hence, we adopt the traditional stance of the church catholic, accepting the pres- ence and work of the Spirit both in our corporate and individual life but focusing on the reality and concrete- ness of Jesus the Christ who is truth and life and through whom comes our salvation and that of the world.
A second observation. What we do not understand or fear we tend to attempt to control. Decency and order was, in my view, a legitimate response to what Paul viewed as in- decent and disorderly in the church and thus destructive of its life and of- fensive to its God and Lord (1 Cor. 14:40). One curtails disorder through the imposition of a discipline. While necessary and healthy in some re- spects, this discipline, established by the powers that be, tends to become codified and in turn to become a rigid
dead weight, guarded by these same powers and their successors.
So, the challenge to every gen- eration of the church, especially of the Reformed stripe: how to live out the imperative of our motto, “The church reformed but always to be reformed.” To attempt to live out this motto is to move from statements of intellectual assent, which can be re- quired and thus controlled, to acts of commitment, which require trust and thus faith. And acts arising from such commitment cannot be easily con- trolled. This, I think, is an implication of your question. In our attempt to keep and preserve what we have (the form in which we have received the gospel and in which we have been nurtured by it)—the tangible good stew cooked by Isaac—do we sac- rifice the gospel itself, which is our birthright or inheritance? Do we ex- change faith which involves commit- ment, trust, openness to and involve- ment in the mysterious, unknown and unpredictable for belief in doctrinal statements which can be more easily controlled and “managed”? This is a question which the church in every generation is called to confront. And in doing so, we would be wise to be mindful of Robert McAfee Brown’s assertion in his The Spirit of Protes- tantism. “Believing the doctrine (the stew) almost inevitably becomes a substitute for committing one’s life to the God (our inheritance) whom the doctrine is trying to describe. Doc- trinal statements are not themselves the truth. They are merely attempts to point to the one who said I am...the Truth... God does not give us doc- trines. He gives us Himself in Jesus Christ, and the doctrines are no more than our way of attempting to think through what that gift means.”
I perceive a second major concern of yours to be how we might help people or support people in their
attempts “to communicate with the source of life” whose presence is revealed by the spiritual yearnings or stirring to which I have alluded. I have no definitive answer but would tenta- tively suggest two approaches to it.
First, we take seriously Paul’s in- junction, “do not quench the Spirit” or “do not put out the Spirit’s fire.” That is, do not dampen, hinder or thwart (all possible translations of the Greek word) the Spirit’s work, move- ment or power. This, it seems to me, is an ongoing danger arising out of our, at times, legitimate need to exer- cise control. For we perhaps uncon- sciously fear that by inviting the Spirit to come among us and be among us we are inviting what we would regard as disorderly chaos. For we know the truth of Jesus’ words: the Spirit, like the wind, blows where it pleases and you can’t control either from where it’s coming or to where it’s going (John 3:18). It is threatening to invite the Spirit to work unfettered and un- controlled because that might put at risk everything we have constructed. And then what? We don’t know. And we have seen enough in the history of the church to be cautious about unbridled religious enthusiasm and its destructive consequences.
Control, or the illusion of control, can give a sense of security and does provide a hedge against the anarchy of unbridled religious enthusiasm. Yet, if we are really serious about helping people “communicate with the source of life,” do we have an al- ternative to taking legitimate risks by being open to the leading of the Spirit in ways we have not been? For it is the Spirit who gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). And attempting to control the way or in what form the Spirit comes to peo- ple can be, however unintended, a hindering or thwarting of the Spirit’s presence or working. And not only in people outside the formal commu-
nity of faith. For we ourselves, in an overly strict adherence to “the letter of the law,” cut ourselves off from this same source of life and in our deprivation become deadened.
Again, in his book, Hendrikus Berkhof questions the Pentecostal presentation of the work of the Spirit. Yet, he says, the non-Pentecostal churches have to hear in the Pen- tecostal movement God summon- ing us, not to quench the Spirit and earnestly to desire the spiritual gifts, gifts the practice of which is con- trolled by love, as distinct from doc- trine or the law (1 Cor. 12–13). He goes on to state,
“The Pentecostal movement is God’s judgment upon a church which lost its inner growth and its outward extension, its character as a ver tical as well as a horizontal movement. We have to rediscover the meaning of the variety of the spiritual gifts” (p. 93).
To begin to understand what this might mean for each of us and for the church, our denomination, its minis- try, its polity, its self-understanding and its stance in the world would require much reflection, discussion and prayer. Is this something to which we are being called?
A second thought is to seriously explore the significance of your com- ment about being good. What does it mean to be good? Did the Good Sa- maritan stop because he was good or was he good because he stopped? What is the meaning of Jesus’ asser- tion that no one is good but God, not even himself? (An assertion found in each of the Synoptics.) What consti- tutes goodness?
One way to come at that question is to reflect on Alan Kreider’s commen- tary on Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, (pp. 248–258) in his The Patient Fer- ment of the Early Church. Cyprian, he states, insisted that the church must
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