This article summarizes Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit by Charles H. Pinnock (InterVarsity Press, 1996) and offers brief comments on the book.
Pinnock addresses various facets of the Holy Spirit, including the Holy Spirit’s relationship with God, Jesus, and the Father, role in Jesus’s ministry and creation, and role in our salvation and our lives today.
What Does “Spirit” Mean When Referring to God?
Pinnock begins his ontology (essentially, the nature of being) relative to God’s Spirit by explaining what he means by “Spirit.” He points out “spirit” has semantic range in the Bible, sometimes referring to God or God’s presence in a general way and sometimes referring to a person who is part of the Trinity to whom we sometimes refer as the Holy Spirit.
He says that the Spirit in the latter sense is a divine person and emphasizes two of that person’s attributes: the person is in a “social Trinity,” described as three persons in a social matrix, and the person has the “sheer liveliness” of God.
As to the first attribute, Pinnock posits that God is pure and loving relationality and that the Spirit is working today to bring humans toward personal communion with and participation in the divine nature of God. He also emphasizes that scripture reveals that the Spirit is the love that bonds and unites the Father and Son and, as such, the Spirit mediates the relationship between Father and Son, including that the Son has access to the Father by the Spirit, and the Spirit evokes that relationship’s “ecstasy.” Similarly, the Spirit brings humans together in fellowship (citing 2 Cor 13:13)).
Besides uniting and bonding the relationship between Son and Father, the Spirit participates in that relationship, per Pinnock. He uses “ecstasy” because it means “standing outside oneself” and reflects the social and participatory nature of the Spirit in God. The term also reflects God’s beauty, as well as our love of and desire for God.
The Power of the Spirit on Earth
Chapter Two discusses the power of the Spirit in participating in, continuing, and giving life to God’s creation. Pinnock pushes back on what he views as a tendency to minimize the Spirit to areas of church and piety. He says the Spirit served as the president of creation, as the Spirit hovered over the waters, turning chaos into creation and ugliness into beauty, and today gives life to creation, as it is the breath that blows on everything to give life (citing Genesis 1).
The Bible connects the Spirit to creation in multiple passages, as well as to Wisdom, Pinnock explains, and he sees the Spirit as the power by which God brings God’s plans into effect.
He points to several effects of the Spirit’s involvement in creation. One, recognizing the Spirit’s role in and continuing creation helps us understand that God is involved in every detail of creation. Two, the Spirit maintains as open and alive the link between creation and redemption. Three, recognizing the whole planet is the field of the Spirit’s activities and creation helps us with a theology of origins and the environment, including science.
Both scientists and theologians “exegete God’s world,” Pinnock states.
In its creative mode, the Spirit creates and brings forth a human spirit, with which the Spirit communicates. God has taken risks in this sort of creation.
The Spirit’s Work in Christ’s Mission
Pinnock next postulates a theory of Christology (the person, nature, and role of Christ) in the form of a joint mission between Spirit and Son to bring atonement (reconciliation of God and humankind) to humans.
Pinnock asserts that the role of the Spirit in atonement is much greater and much more central than is traditionally discussed in our churches. He argues God sent the Spirit to Earth on a mission, a mission of incarnation, and God did this so that our injuries and brokenness could be healed from within our own nature by the power of God.
Pinnock highlights that the Bible describes the Spirit as actively working in Jesus’s entire life and mission on Earth, at every turn, and that, indeed, the term “Christ” (Christos) means anointed and the Spirit is the anointer. (citing Luke 4:18))
Jesus is “a gift of the Spirit,” per Pinnock, and when Jesus emptied himself to live on Earth, Jesus was “as dependent on the Spirit” as anyone, and Jesus’s sinlessness was due to Jesus’s relationship with the Spirit and not to Jesus’s own deity. One of Pinnock’s main points is that the Spirit facilitated Jesus and Jesus’s work for the purpose of saving humanity via atonement in the form of “recapitulation.”
Essentially, per Pinnock, the Spirit took Jesus on a “representative journey,” one representative of humankind and its history (tested as we are, in our weakness), which is a form of “recapitulation,” for the sake of our atonement and wholeness. This is the turning point of the history of the world and of humankind.
The Spirit is key to this representative journey and thus our atonement. Pinnock does not see atonement as primarily legal or penal (while not completely rejecting penal). God did not reject the Son—Israel rejected the Son—, the Romans punished the Son, and God justified the Son and resurrected him.
Jesus, on a representative journey, was the last Adam and represented all humans. He lived, died, and rose vicariously on behalf of all humans. In doing so, when the Son died in our place, he delivered up sin itself to destruction and God was victorious over both death and sin.
The Spirit invites us to reconcile with God—everyone was included in this reconciliation, without our explicit permission—and, in faith, we can add our “yes” to God’s prior “yes.” In other words, this is a participatory model of atonement, one in which Jesus represented us (vicarious) in a participatory journey that ended with victory over death and sin, one in which we can all participate.
The Spirit Continues to Work Today
The fourth chapter claims that the healing that came through the Spirit-facilitated work of Jesus continued afterwards and continues today through the power of the Spirit indwelling the church, i.e., the body of Christ or the people who make up the church, and that such power manifests in sacramental, charismatic, and diaconal forms so that justice and salvation can be delivered to everyone, everywhere. Pinnock reminds us that shortly after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit….” (citing John 20:21-22)).
The Spirit empowers the church for the church’s mission as the Spirit empowered Jesus for his mission. The Spirit is at work and is a power in people who make up the church. Church life itself is a sacrament (a religious ceremony or ritual regarded as imparting divine grace) in which the Spirit is present, not just in Eucharist, baptism, and the like, but also in teaching, greeting, fellowship, acts of service, and other aspects of the church. Pinnock, as a Baptist, views baptism as a sacrament in which God, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, bestows grace, freeing us from our sins. The Eucharist (communion) includes the coming of the Spirit in response to prayer.
The Spirit’s giving of charisms (i.e., gifts) to people is part of the way the Creator Spirit energizes people and history. The Spirit is present in those gifts. It is a false dichotomy to consider gifts that relate to liturgy (i.e., public worship) differently than other gifts. For example, leadership and generosity are charisms just like ones that are considered extraordinary, like prophecy and healing. Speaking in tongues is not necessary, but it is a noble gift.
All gifts belong to and come from the Spirit and every member of the body of Christ has been blessed by the Spirit with gifts. Assertions that certain gifts have ceased were made in attacking the Catholic Church and to address the Enlightenment’s focus on reason, and cessationist’s view becomes self-fulfilling. Gifts, including prophecy, should not be suppressed by churches, because “[t]he community that silences its prophets is in danger of becoming a Spiritless place.” Indeed, spiritual warfare and struggles with the powers of evil should be taken seriously.
Importantly for missional theology, Pinnock asserts that the Spirit coming through sacrament and charisms enables the church to participate with God in “God’s mission of mending creation and making all things new.” Contrary to the view of many, responding to the Great Commission or other commandment is not mission.
The Spirit—not written commands in the Bible—is the driving power of the church’s mission, and the appropriate response is placing ourselves at the Spirit’s disposal and responding to the Spirit, who will help us become a servant in the sacrificial path of Jesus. The church’s mission is holistic and must be empowered, which is what the Spirit does. Its mission is deeds directed and empowered by the Spirit, who also motivates and equips the church for mission.
The Spirit and Salvation
Chapter five tells of the Spirit empowering humanity towards salvation, leading us on a path to our purpose in life, which is union with God, a union that constitutes a transforming, personal, intimate-friendship relationship with God and includes humanity’s personal communion and participation in God’s divine nature.
Early theologians called this thesis, recognizing the goal of salvation is union in the form of our participation in the divine nature in a way that does not constitute absorption into the person God, as Creator God and humans are distinct, but there is union. This union can be thought of with sexual imagery, as the love of husband and wife point to the mystery of God’s love for us. (cf. Pinnock’s view that we should reject prostitution because we are one with the Lord, citing 1 Cor 6:15-19))
The goal of this union is not forgiveness, it is not justification, as we have already been forgiven and justified as a step along the road of salvation, but forgiveness and justification point us ahead towards our transformation and union with God. Conversion is a Spirit-led event, and we participate with the Spirit on our path towards union.
Part of this path is us becoming “in the likeness of God”—our being the image of God is inherent in our existence, but we seek to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, sharing in the new creation. This journey is a dynamic, Spirit-led process seeking this union.
God’s Desire to Save and the Spirit’s Role in That Desire
Chapter six explains God wants to save the whole human race and the Spirit—God’s breath—is everywhere, drawing everyone, everywhere—all sinners—to the Father’s love.
Pinnock does not think all will be saved or that few will be, the former because scripture does not indicate all will accept God’s love or that God will overpower them to force their acceptance. The Spirit, he asserts, works without ceasing to persuade humans to trust and open themselves to God’s love and accept.
Truth can be found in non-Christian religious traditions, as the Spirit is everywhere and can work in those, too.
The Spirit in Guiding Church Practice
The last chapter discuss how the Spirit reveals God, striving to bring us into truth and unity, including through the Spirit’s guiding of church doctrine and practice.
This can occur through listening to God’s Word, God’s dynamic self-revealing, which the Spirit works to aid. The Spirit guides the community, e.g., the congregation. This can and does develop, as led by the Spirit. Fundamental principles from scripture still guide, but attention to the development and revelation of the gospel over time, led by the Spirit, is critical.
Conclusion: Brief Commentary
Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit expanded my theology of the Holy Spirit and the experience of God in several ways. First, it encouraged me to think of the Holy Spirit as operating everywhere, all the time. I was used to thinking of the Holy Spirit mostly as something that dwells in me and others most of the time and does a little something outwardly every once in a while and also shows up in extraordinary situations.
Second, I had not previously thought of the Holy Spirit as such an important person in Jesus’s work — I had the mindset of the Holy Spirit showing up in a meaningful way at some point after Jesus ascended. Third, I had not previously thought of our life as a journey guided and aided by the Holy Spirit. Now, though, I can dimly see the beginning of a Spirit-illuminated path to unity as Pinnock describes.
I struggle with the kind of thinking Pinnock describes because I was educated as an engineer and have practiced law in a science-oriented field for a long time. So, I push myself to think logically and in a step-by-step manner. This is not to say that such thinking is incompatible with pursuing a deeper relationship with the Spirit and unity with God, but I think of it as an impediment sometimes. Maybe that is just an excuse I make for myself.
I recommend Flame of Love as a book that will likely expand your knowledge regarding the Holy Spirit and prompt new and helpful thoughts for you regarding the Holy Spirit and the Trinity.
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Sources and Notes
Charles H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
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