A New Inquisition
1 Corinthians 12.1 Concerning what you
wrote about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I want you to know the truth
about them, my brothers.
A great scandal has arisen in
the Church. It has crept up quietly, noticed only by the most alert.
Other apparently more pressing matters have tended to obscure it. While
Christians agonise about homosexual bishops, child abuse, issues of
social justice, and war, a much more important and fundamental matter is
being largely ignored.
The scandal is the way teaching about the Holy Spirit is being used
to demonise and exclude some from the Christian fellowship.
Paul says almost nothing about the nature of the
Spirit. In fact, nowhere in his letters does he analyse who or what the
Spirit is. He merely explains the results or "fruits" of the Spirit.
These are the outpouring of love, peace, joy and guidance. We are
enabled to dedicate ourselves, our consciences are ruled and we are
energised and renewed. The Spirit is closely linked with fellowship (2
A detailed theology of the Spirit was not developed
until long after Paul's time. This theology contains certain assumptions
which are foreign to a large majority of ordinary people today. The most
important is that its proponents often claim that the Spirit has led
them to absolute truth - either via inspired scripture or by some other
It follows that their hotline to God bestows a right
and duty to correct those perceived to be in the wrong. Some Christians
feel justified in condemning those who disagree with their teachings.
And those whose behaviour doesn't match the standards supposedly
revealed by the Spirit are likewise demonised.
The signs of a new-style inquisition are inescapable.
Homosexuals are vilified. Sexual deviants are hunted down and punished.
Schism is threatened unless the will of the inspired prevails. In the
Church of England a tribunal to flush out heretics has been proposed.
Divorcees are excluded. Missionaries urge those of other faiths to enter
the Christian fold or perish in the fires of hell.
In short, the fruits of the "Spirit" are proving in
practice to be dissension, division, hatred, persecution and
self-righteousness. These are not those to which Paul referred.
Paul writes, "There are inspired messages, but they are temporary ...
there is knowledge, but it will pass" (1 Corinthians 13.8). Nothing is
cast in concrete except love. Inquisitors fool themselves if they think
they have somehow grasped absolute truth. As Paul put it, "What I know
now is only partial" (13.12).
How can we think of the Spirit in the 21st-century?
Would-be inquisitors might revise their sense of absolute superiority
if they were to recognise that the Spirit is hidden from them. It's a
still, small voice in the wilderness (1 Kings 19.12). We see the dry
bones being clothed with flesh - the results or "fruits". But we don't
see what or who gives them life (Ezekiel 37).
Many today can't easily grasp the idea of "spirit" as some sort of
non-physical being or aspect of the Godhead. Such concepts came more
easily to a past age. But to us they frequently mean little or nothing -
that is, they become irrelevant to our daily lives.
Perhaps a better phrase to describe the Spirit would be
"life-force". In other words, people all through the ages in every
country and society have always seen and known the fruits of what
Christians call "the Spirit". They have seen its results in every
renewal, every urge to grow and develop, in the world's vast diversity.
Every revival from personal disaster, each turn from a destructive to a
productive way of life, every tiny or great movement of nature witnesses
to the Spirit.
The world's life-force is not and cannot be confined within any
formula, in any church, or by any government. It isn't a Christian
possession or monopoly. It can't be owned or even grasped. It can't be
described or defined. The work can be seen but not the worker.
The life-force which breathes into every fibre of our being, which
invigorates and revives the depths of the natural order cannot, thank
God, be imprisoned or killed by the new inquisitors.
We have good reason to fear them, for they will often go to great
lengths to force their will on others. But there is no reason to suppose
they will triumph.