Imagine a typical American evangelical congregation of 200. How many of the 200 do you guess would say the Holy Spirit is accurately characterized as a “force?”
“Force” as a noun in this case would mean an influence or movement of raw power without personal attributes like will or intelligence or wisdom — as in Star Wars with its greeting, “May the force be with you.”
Living Research, a careful Southern Baptist organization put the question about the Holy Spirit as a force to 3000 believers. Sixty-four percent responded they would “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that the word “force” adequately substituted for the Holy Spirit.
Apply that percentage to the above imaginary evangelical congregation of 200 and 64 percent or 128 members would be in some measure accepting of “force” as an adequate synonym for the Holy Spirit.
Would their response be in keeping with the best reading of the Christian Scriptures? And how would it fit with the convictions of the Christian church across the centuries?
In his letters, the Apostle Paul makes reference to the Holy Spirit by name at least 163 times. One might find among those numerous references a verse here or there where the meaning of “Holy Spirit” might be attributed to a mere impersonal “force.”
For example, Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “My message and my preaching were … with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4). One could argue in this case it is not necessary to consider the Holy Spirit as manifesting the attributes of personhood.
But when one weighs that reference, and a scant number like it, against all the references in Paul’s letters, the Holy Spirit has the attributes of a person. “Force” as an alternate title falls far short of New Testament truth.
The great majority of other references to the Holy Spirit show him as the personal agent of God most closely involved in human life on behalf of the godhead. A particularly rich source of understanding of the Holy Spirit is found in the account of the early church, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. In that book, the Holy Spirit is described unmistakably as a person. Recall that Simon Peter charged Ananias with lying to the Holy Spirit and thus to God (Acts 5:4). One cannot lie to a force, or an inanimate object, or even an animal, but one can lie to a person.
Later in this book, while the church at Antioch was worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke to the believers, instructing them to launch the first missionary journey (Acts 13:2). In doing so they believed they were responding to the prompting of an unseen presence — the Holy Spirit of God.
At the close of the first church council in Jerusalem, after long discussion and weighing of issues, the leaders of the church wrote their conclusions to be shared among the churches in the following words, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us … (Acts 15:28).
They gave the Holy Spirit priority! And they believed they had discerned and shared his wisdom as a personal, leading presence.
Among Free Methodism’s three articles of religion on the Holy Spirit we find affirmations like this: “The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Proceeding from the Father and the Son, he is one with them, the eternal Godhead, equal in deity, majesty and power.”
Historic Christianity has long held that the Holy Spirit is the third “person” of the Trinity, and the executive of the godhead in carrying out the will of God in the church, while at the same time bringing conviction of sin in the world.
When we look at the almost immeasurable dissimilarity between his scripturally-described nature as the “Holy Spirit,” and the term, “force”, we feel a great perplexity that 64 percent of a representative group of evangelicals could settle in some measure with the latter.
The fathers of the church throughout history would call it heresy.
How much more appealing for awakened and instructed believers to live with the confidence that we are indwelt by the ever-present God in the person of his Holy Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit is God’s way of living among his people to teach, direct, comfort, and keep them accountable.
Photo credit: hickory hardscrabble (via flickr.com)