An Untruth Which Has Affected our Worship Landscape: The Holy Spirit was Forgotten but Rediscovered 100 Years Ago

Zac HicksUncategorized2 Comments

Justin Taylor brought to my attention a book I had read over a decade ago in my quest to know God better—Sinclair Ferguson’s The Holy Spirit.  Ferguson made this observation (links provided by Taylor):

The assumption which became virtually an article of orthodoxy among evangelicals as well as others, that the Holy Spirit had been discovered almost de novo in the twentieth century, is in danger of the heresy of modernity, and is at least guilty of historical short-sightedness.

It forgets that it was with good reason that the Reformation pastor-theologian John Calvin was described as “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.”

Moreover, each century since his time has witnessed events which were ascribed to the unusual working of the Holy Spirit.

Even in the late twentieth century, the two opera magna on the Holy Spirit remain the extensive studies by the seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and by the great Dutch theologian-politician, Abraham Kuyper, founder of the Free University of Amsterdam.

Looking back even further, the assumption that the twentieth century had recovered truth lost since the first two centuries displays a cavalier attitude to the material unearthed by H. B. Swete in his valuable series of studies on the Spirit begun more than a century ago. These richly demonstrate the attention which much earlier centuries gave to honoring him along with the Father and the Son.

In every chance I’ve had to teach on the history of worship in evangelicalism, I’ve said that modern evangelical worship today, across denominational lines, is most immediately shaped by three things: (1) Finney-brand revivalism; (2) modern technology; and (3) Azusa Street Pentecostalism.

It is (3) to which Ferguson is referring, and he’s right.  So how has this “heresy of modernity” affected evangelical worship?  For one, it has pigeonholed our understanding of how the Holy Spirit moves and acts in the context of a worship service.  Such ideas are betrayed by the way we can equate a lack of planning with “room for the Spirit,” as though the Spirit cannot be present in a highly structured, pre-planned liturgy.  We think of the Spirit as acting only in spontaneity, rather than in order.  The irony here is that those who hold such a view may be in danger of “constraining” the Spirit (I use quotes because we can’t really constrain God, but the language is often used against those who are from traditions that have highly structured liturgies).   Problems arise also when we equate the Spirit’s movement only with feeling, or only with our feeling.  But these are Azusa Street values, and may not necessarily be the values associated with a full-orbed understanding of the Holy Spirit. 

The Spirit certainly is probably the most nebulous and “free-wheeling” member of the Godhead.  John 3:8 affirms, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  In fact, ruach (Hebrew) and pneuma (Greek) can equally mean “wind” and “breath.”  But the Holy Spirit is also called the “Spirit of Truth”:

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  (John 16:13)

The Spirit is a teacher:

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.  (John 14:13)

In scholarly lingo, if you’ve been noticing that all three references to the Spirit have come from the same book, we need a full-orbed Johannine Pneumatology, here.  Then, maybe, our charismatic brothers and sisters (who have, undoubtedly, taught us much about the Spirit’s relation to and involvement with Christian worship) might be more open to how the Spirit moves in yet other ways in other worship contexts. 

Last June, our church hosted our denomination’s national gathering, called our General Assembly.   Naturally, I was in charge of planning the worship services that we would all partake in while we were together.  The spectrum of worship represented by our one, little denomination is surprisingly large.  We’ve got full-blown Pentecostal Presbyterians and high, stately Anglican-style Presbyterians.  And then we’ve got everything in between.  Needless to say, the very issues I speak of above were present in my mind as I planned these five or so services.  I attempted to plan and execute a variety of worship styles and expressions.  I ultimately don’t know how it hit everyone, but I did get many words and emails of appreciation for the diversity.  I think everyone was stretched (including myself, a bit) in our pneumatological encounters.  For those who were open enough, we all experienced winds of the Spirit in both the formality and informality of our times.  But, I have to say, I did wrestle with applying the very things of which I speak above. 

All in all, the lesson here is to fight the urge toward chronological snobbery in the way we understand worship and the Holy Spirit.  Knowing just a bit of church history can cure many ills and dysfunctions in the psychology of our worship.  I guess that’s reason #473 why worship leaders need to be thoughtful students of theology, history, and the Bible. 

2 Comments on “An Untruth Which Has Affected our Worship Landscape: The Holy Spirit was Forgotten but Rediscovered 100 Years Ago”

  1. I couldn't agree more. In fact, though Francis Chan is an excellent and orthodox communicator, I got frustrated with the mere title of his popular book, "Forgotten God" about the Holy Spirit. In a way, it's mere title is a rhetorical smack in the face of the Puritan tradition to which many Presbyterians hold to and have not forgotten. Who says He's been forgotten?

    I also loved your presuppositional-style critique of how the Spirit "moves" in a worship service. To say that the Spirit only speaks in spontaneity is to, in fact, limit the Spirit, which is the very thing the spontaneous-seekers do not want to do.

  2. Spot on my friend. Excellent post. Due to the popularity and the cross denominational triumph of modern evangelical worship there are few who venture to question or even lovingly criticize it. You nailed it. I'm on board with you.

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