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Q & R: Was the Spirit guiding?

Here's the Q:

I found your discussion on YHWH vs Theos thought provoking. My question is regarding Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit ("He will guide you into all the truth"). Was the Spirit guiding the church into the truth through the use of classical concepts with the church fathers, or is He guiding us now with this move to return to our Hebraic roots in how we think of God?

Here's the A:


This is a really important question, referring, I think, to my critique of the Greco-Roman (or six-line, or soul-sort) narrative in A New Kind of Christianity. A few folks have accused me of having "a low ecclesiology" because I question the trajectory of large sections of the church over significant periods of time. A few responses ...

1. I think that even when the larger institutions of the church were misguided and pursuing misadventures, other sectors were "getting it." The same pattern holds from the Hebrew Scriptures - if the priesthood in Isaiah's day had lost it's way so gravely that Isaiah could say, in God's name, "I hate your sacrifices, feasts, holidays, etc.," even though these had been "scripturally commanded" -- at least the prophets spoke up for mercy over sacrifice and justice over tradition. They were listening to what the Spirit was saying to the people of God at that moment, even though their priestly counterparts were only listening to what the Spirit had said centuries earlier.

So, just as the bishops were making ambiguous-at-best compromises with the Emperor, spiritual men and women were heading out into the desert in protest to model an alternative. Just as large sectors of the church were launching Crusades, St. Francis was modeling another path. Just as large sectors of the church were defending segregation and the Viet Nam war, other sectors were listening to what the Spirit was saying through Dr. King and others. So critiquing this or that move of the institutional centers of power isn't the same as critiquing the whole church. It's simply acknowledging, as in Jesus' day, that the Spirit may at a given moment be speaking on the margins in Nazareth rather than at the center of power in Jerusalem. As Jesus' said, the wind blows where it wills ...

2. Little to nothing human, in my experience, is black and white - all good or all bad. Our best moments of responding to the Spirit's guidance are fraught with our failure to hear and respond ... We know in part, we prophesy in part, as Paul said. So, I wouldn't be surprised at all if (as Vincent Donovan says powerfully in "The Church in the Midst of Creation") it was wise and good and Spirit-led to translate the gospel into the terms of Greek philosophy. There may even have been some wisdom in seeking to bring the gospel into Roman politics (even though it likely involves a kind of re-crucifixion). But that doesn't mean that people went too far. All of us -myself included, of course - are tempted to overcorrect or overreact.

3. What may have been their bigger mistake was to oppose all future attempts to translate the gospel into other thought-forms and cultural wineskins. After the gospel "went Greco-Roman," its custodians seemed to forbid every other culture from having the same privilege they themselves had. It's only now, for example, that Native Americans are having the chance to receive the gospel and celebrate it within the thought forms of their culture (thanks to people like Richard Twiss, Randy Woodley, Terry Leblanc, and Ray Aldred, among others). I'm quite certain they won't forbid others - say Bantus or Zulus or Polynesians or Taoists - from doing the same, but that's largely what the Greco-Roman tradition has very often done: translate the gospel into their cultural forms, and then forbid others to do so.

To believe the Spirit is active in the church doesn't mean ecclesial infallibility or perfection any more than believing the Spirit is active in our lives means personal infallibility or perfection. I hope this helps explain where I'm coming from ... Thanks for asking!