#4 The Holy Spirit is God’s Universal Presence in the World and is Not Limited to Those Who Know Jesus

PERHAPS THE GREATEST THEOLOGICAL deficiency of most people, Christians and non-Christians alike,  is in their understanding of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, it is hard to get a handle on the Spirit. As is widely recognized because of the third chapter of John, there is a close relationship between wind and Spirit (see v. 8). Just as it is hard to hold the wind, it is difficult to grasp the meaning of the Spirit.

Bible translators struggle in some places to know whether to translate the Hebrew word ruach or the Greek word pneuma as wind, breath, or spirit—or Spirit. For example, does Genesis 1:2 refer just to “a wind from God” (NRSV) or to “the Spirit of God” (NIV)? The latter translation is probably better, but it is impossible to know what was originally meant.

There has been a tendency among some Christians to think of the Holy Spirit as being active in the world only after the resurrection of Jesus. And it is true that the Gospel of John indicates that Jesus promised that he would send the Spirit to his disciples after his departure from them. For example, we read these words attributed to Jesus: “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (15:26). And the second chapter of Acts is about the coming of the Spirit upon the early Church on the Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection.¹

There are many references to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, however. For example, in 1 Samuel we read how the prophet Samuel anointed David to be the king, and how “from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power” (16:13).² Moving to the New Testament, the miraculous birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary is generally, and rightfully, attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, according to the witness of the New Testament, Jesus experienced the presence, guidance, and power of the Holy Spirit in his life from the time of his baptism. So, while it is obvious according to the book of Acts that the Holy Spirit came upon the early church in a new and powerful way on the Day of Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, it also seems obvious that the Holy Spirit existed and was active in the world long before that day described in the second chapter of Acts.

Why Be Interested in Filioque?

One of the old theological controversies is about the relation of the Holy Spirit to the other two “persons” of the Trinity. The Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed of A.D. 381 speaks of “the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” In the sixth century, though, the Church in the West added one word to this phrase. That word was filioque, a Latin word meaning “and the Son.” Thus, the Holy Spirit is said to proceed from the Father and the Son. That addition was rejected by the Church in the East (the Church that came to be known as the Eastern Orthodox Church), and that one word became one of the main theological differences that led to the split between the Western Church and the Eastern Church in 1054.

How can there be so much controversy over one word? Well, there is a world of difference between understanding the Holy Spirit to be of equal “rank” with Jesus Christ rather than being subordinate to Christ. On that matter, the Eastern Church probably got it right, for they thought that adding filioque to the creed had the effect of subordinating the Spirit to Christ. If the latter should be the case, it obscures the activity of the Spirit in all creation and history and confines the Spirit to only those places where the Son of God is explicitly proclaimed and confessed.³

One of the premier twentieth-century theologians wrote a very instructive book titled The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation.Throughout that book the author rejects the addition of filioque to the Christian creed, and that rejection makes it possible for him to emphasize the universal nature of the Spirit. With the coming of the Spirit, the experience of God is “no longer particular” but is related to “the whole breadth of creation” (p. 57). That, I believe is a correct perspective, and that is the reason I declare that the Holy Spirit is God’s universal presence in the world and is not limited to those who know Jesus.

The Spirit, thus, is linked to the eternal Word (Logos), and not just to Jesus. The Word and the Spirit both proceed from God, and both are active from the beginning of creation and present in all life. Just as “All things came into being through him [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4), so we might also say that all things came into being through the Spirit. So, if “and the Son” refers to the Son as the eternal Logos as explained in the previous chapter, there is not so much a problem. From the beginning of creation and throughout all of the world, the Word and the Spirit are the active agents of God. The Word (Logos) and Spirit are the means by which God is related to all people of all times in all the earth. There is no one or no thing that is unrelated to God, who is greater than we think or even can think.

The Go-Between God

John V. Taylor was a distinguished English missionary, theologian, and Anglican Church leader.Taylor was the author the author of several books, including The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission, a seminal book whose central idea merits our careful attention.6

Taylor emphasizes my point in the previous section: “deep within the fabric of the universe,” he says, “the Spirit is present as the Go-Between” uniting all parts of the universe (p. 31). All of creation is a result of the movement of the Spirit and everything is related to God because of the Spirit. No one anywhere is or can be separated from the Spirit of God. In Psalm 139:7 we find these rhetorical questions: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? The Psalmist was acknowledging the omnipresence of God through the Spirit.

Is such a Presence only a reality for those who know God and acknowledge God, though? Certainly, all those who do not recognize the presence of God or realize the reality of God would not be consciously aware of God’s Spirit with or in them. But does that mean the Go-Between God is not with and in every person on the face of the earth? Probably not. Taylor expresses it this way: “the Holy Spirit is universally present through the whole fabric of the world, and yet uniquely present in Christ and, by extension, in the fellowship of his disciples.”7

Here again we are confronted with the problem of the relationship of the universal and the particular. Christians have often emphasized the particular, alienating themselves from those of other traditions, cultures, and religious faiths. Wanting to escape from the scandal of particularity, mentioned in the previous chapter, some Christians have emphasized universality almost to the point of complete denial of the uniqueness of the Spirit’s work in Christ and Christ’s work as the Savior of the world. But, as I will be emphasizing more later in this book, truth is often paradoxical. So the truth about the Spirit entails both the universal and the particular, and we should try to acknowledge and affirm both sides of the paradox. Taylor seeks to honor the paradox by declaring that the “eternal Spirit has been at work in all ages and all cultures” making people aware of “the Logos, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.”8

Although it may be taken a bit out of context, many who have written about the universal work of God’s Spirit have made reference to the assertion that God “has not left himself without a witness” (Acts 14:17). Through the centuries Christians have used these words to assert that while vast segments of the world’s population may not have known or may not know about the historical Jesus, still God has not left them without some intimation of God’s presence and power. The Holy Spirit leaves footprints of God all over the world, and people from all ages and in all parts of the world see those tracks.

Just as, obviously, many have difficulty identifying physical, visible footprints, so it is likewise obvious that many people have not been able to identify the footprints of God adequately. Some clearer revelation of God is needed by most and helpful for all. That revelation, Christians claim, is found in the particular revelation of God through Jesus Christ. But that does not mean there is not revelation elsewhere or that the footprints left by the Holy Spirit have not led, and do not lead, some—and maybe even many—to God.

The Spirit of Truth

Three times in the Gospel of John we find the words “the Spirit of truth.”9 Those words express an important aspect regarding who the Holy Spirit is, and by that designation we see again something of the universal nature of the Spirit. As mentioned in the first chapter, those who emphasize that “all truth is God’s truth” have probably understood the situation well. All truth is God’s truth because all truth comes from and is related to the Spirit of truth.

From the beginning of time and among all the peoples of the world, people have had some true understanding of reality. Since that understanding has never been absolute, there is always the need for all persons everywhere to continue the search for greater awareness of truth. But lack of complete understanding certainly does not mean no understanding of truth. And from the standpoint of the Christian faith, that understanding, however partial it might be, is due to the activity of the Spirit of truth. Thus, the wisdom of the sages of China, the holy men of India, the Islamic scholars, the sachem of the Native Americans, to give just a few examples, were all recipients of insight from the Spirit of truth. And, of course, there is a close and direct connection between the Spirit and Wisdom in the Jewish tradition.

Further, according to the book of Galatians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”10 It is obvious that there are people of various cultures, traditions, and religions who exhibit such fruit. Wherever there are manifestations of such virtues, we see the working of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who have lived in societies where Christians are few and religions other than Christianity are predominant know that there are many people who do not know or acknowledge Jesus Christ at all but who, nonetheless, live exemplary lives and seem to manifest multiple fruits of the Spirit. Does this not speak to the universal activity of the Holy Spirit?

The Spirit of Freedom

Not only is the Spirit a universal witness to God as the Spirit of truth, the Spirit is also a universal witness to God as the Spirit of freedom. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, . . .”11 And, as is widely known, Jesus quoted those words of Isaiah and then declared, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”12

These passages are, of course, used frequently by the so-called liberation theologians. As we have seen, the Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and the Gospel of John declares that “the truth shall set you free” (8:32). Thus, the Spirit “will lead us along the path of liberation” because the New Testament also declares that “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (1 Cor. 3:17).13

Black theologians such as James Cone use the narrative of God freeing the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt as the central paradigm for understanding the nature of God: God is the “God of the oppressed.” Cone, thus, declares that “God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is identical with the presence of his Spirit in the slave community in struggle for the liberation of humanity.”14

Just as it can be argued that “all truth is God’s truth” and it is the Holy Spirit who leads to that truth, so we can say that “all freedom is God’s freedom”; that is, all true freedom comes from God and it is the Holy Spirit who leads to such freedom. Much more than most Christians have recognized, God is the God of freedom, of liberation. Salvation always includes liberation. Traditionally, salvation has been explained as liberation from the penalty or punishment of sin. And, certainly, that is a part of it. But, as the liberation theologians emphasize, doesn’t liberation also mean being freed from slavery, in multiple forms, in this present world?

Just as the Spirit was the “pillar of cloud” and the “pillar of fire” which led the Israelites away from slavery and finally into freedom in the “promised land,”15 the Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of truth and the Spirit of freedom present throughout history among all people, and thus not limited to those who know Jesus of Nazareth.

1  Pentecost was the Jewish festival commemorating God giving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai fifty days after the Exodus. It was celebrated fifty days after the Passover festival, so it was at that first Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection that the Holy Spirit came with power upon the early church.

2  It must be noted, though, that here the New Revised Standard Version, which does not use Spirit in Genesis 1 refers to “the spirit of the Lord” rather than “the Spirit of the Lord.”

3 A good, concise explanation of the significance of filioque is found in Daniel L. Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Eerdmans; second edition, 2004), pp. 231-3.

4  Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926) is the author of The Spirit of Life (Fortress Press, 1992), a book first published in German in 1991.

5 Taylor (1914-2001) was a missionary to Uganda (1943-54) and worked for the International Missionary Council (IMC) after returning to England. Then after a decade as the General Secretary of the IMC (1963-73), he served as Bishop of Winchester (1974-84).

6  The Go-Between God was first published by SCM Press in 1963 and then a new edition, an SCM classic, was issued in 2002. On pages 58 to 62 of his book, Taylor writes about the “frequent juxtaposition, throughout the Bible, of the parallel concepts of Spirit and Word.”

The Go-Between God, pp. 180-1 (italics in the original).

The Go-Between God, pp. 191.

9  John 14:17, 15:26, and 16:13.

10  Galatians 5:22-23.

11  61:1 (NIV). Here again, it is interesting that the NRSV has the “spirit of the Lord God,” with a small “s” for spirit.

12  Luke 4:21 (NIV). The subsequent Bible passages in this chapter are also from the NIV.

13 The words cited in the first part of this sentence are from Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (revised ed.; Orbis Books, 1988), p. 117.

14  James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (revised edition; Orbis Books, 1997), p. 181.

15  According to Exodus 13:21-22, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.