Rushdoony on “The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” from Systematic Theology (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of excerpts giving R. J. Rushdoony’s views on the person of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Ghost is God, so Christians should know Him and love well.

The Giver of Life

Without agreeing with the charismatics, in particular with the tongues emphasis, I must say all the same that the rise of the charismatic movement is a very important theological as well as historical fact. It compels the church to give attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Thus far, the debate has been localized and has been man-centered; i.e., it has centered on such things as the validity or non-validity of tongues. Clearly, this is an important question, but not even remotely as important as the nature and person of the Holy Spirit Himself… (p. 293)

This limited emphasis is in one sense understandable; the early church began in a Jewish context in which God the Father, and the Spirit, were “recognized” doctrines; the point of conflict was the doctrine of Christ. Hence the confessional emphasis on Christology. However, what the early church failed to appreciate sufficiently was that the word God referred to different things in different cultures, so that, in the Greco-Roman world, and amongst barbarians, God and the Holy Spirit had radically different meanings. With the Reformation, the emphasis was on justification and ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), so that the doctrine of the Spirit received minimal emphasis… (293-94)

The Holy Spirit, as very God of very God, manifests in His Person and power the determining will and sovereignty of the triune God. A charismatic emphasis should thus be highly Calvinistic, but it is not normally so and is commonly very alien to such a stress. Likewise, those who are Calvinistic and who stress God’s sovereignty should logically be very emphatically given to a high emphasis on the doctrine of the Spirit. This, however, is clearly not the case. (295-96)

It may be that sovereignty is confused with an exclusive transcendence, so that immanence is seen as a compromise. In any case, where a strong doctrine of the Spirit is not operative and governing, a strong doctrine of the church replaces it, so that institutional controls and government replace the Spirit. On the other hand, where the doctrine of the Spirit is not in union with the doctrine of the sovereignty of the triune God, human activity and enthusiasm replace the Spirit, and men set about to engender the ostensible working of the Spirit by trying to create in themselves an emotional climate. In this way, both charismatics and anti-charismatics conclude by stressing man, institutional control in the one case, and emotional charges with man in the other. This should indicate to us that the true starting-point with respect to the Spirit is in Scripture and the Spirit Himself.

Even here, there are problems… [T]he Father and the Son have something to concretize our understanding. The titles of the Spirit, however, refer to functions rather than a concrete person, i.e., Comforter, Advocate, etc. Thus, for many God the Spirit is always somehow the remote and abstract person of the Trinity. The fault lies clearly in man’s understanding… (296)

[T]he modern era has either fallen into pantheism, or so separated God from the world as to make the Holy Spirit’s presence unusual or dramatic. God is not a God who is afar off (Jer. 23:23), although men in their sin are inclined to think so (Ps. 10:1). The world of science has made the great cause of all a very remote or non-existent cause, whereas the God of Scripture is totally sovereign, omnipresent, and always governing in every event and second of time…

Because man now sees God as distant, and the Spirit as vague or sporadic, other gods rule over men. Institutions and persons become the givers of life. As a result, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has lost its Biblical force. It is thus urgently necessary for theologians, pastors, and believers to give renewed attention to this doctrine. The revival of Christendom depends upon it, for the doctrine of the Spirit confronts us with the mystery of God. God is great and beyond our comprehension, and yet He speaks our language, which He ordained, and incarnates Himself as man, so that we might truly know Him. He is incomprehensible, yet understandable; we can know Him truly, but never exhaustively. He is most near to us in the Spirit, and yet never more remote to our capacity to grasp His infinite and inexhaustible being than in the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Ghost. (297)

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