If you’ve read my A Short History about Vinnie and God story then you know that I grew in a Christian cult until I was fifteen years old. Although the cult believed that the Bible was God’s inspired word the church held some very different views about the nature of God that were not commonly found in the mainline churches. One of the main differences was their view on the Holy Spirit. Throughout this blog series I will use the terms, Holy Spirit, the Spirit, and Holy Ghost interchangeably to refer to the same thing.
One pillar of the cult’s view on God was that there was no such thing as the trinity – the popular Christian doctrine that states that there is only one God, but that He is expressed in three persons via God the Father, God the Son as Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit with all three entities being equal to each other in origin, power, rank, and divinity. (If you’re not a church person this probably sounds wacky and hard to wrap your head around – your right, it is pretty weird. You might wonder, how can the being we think of as “God” claim to be one person, as it does in Deuteronomy 6:4, but yet be manifested as three separate persons that are all co-equal at the same time??)
The theory of the trinity is one of those beliefs that most mainstream churches, protestant and catholic alike, firmly embrace. However, the belief wasn’t embraced in my church. And we weren’t alone either. The Latter Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the trinity either. The rejection of the trinity isn’t a new phenomenon either. The will to depart from the mainstream view goes back at least as far as Arianism in the 3rd century.
Instead of the trinity my church believed that God the Father was the only “God” and is first in hierarchy of what makes up the God-family. Jesus was God’s son, which yes of course made Jesus a divine being, but insomuch only that He was a fully separate independent person whom God created at some later point in time that was secondary to Father in power and origin. Now, regarding the Holy Spirit, my church believed that it was most certainly NOT a person, and not even a individual stand alone entity, but instead the term Holy Spirit was only a figurative word that was employed to simply describe the power and/or mind of God. God the Father and Jesus were two separate and distinct persons, with God the Father as the head, that made up the God-family and the Holy Spirit was a term used express God’s power and mind.
So, as I grew up in my church I was taught that God the Father was the only real true God and the one whom you have relationship with. Jesus was subordinate and second in rank who merely accomplished God’s will on the cross. I heard absolutely nothing about there being a person called Holy Spirit. For all intensive purposes, I had never heard of the Guy.
In 1994-95 the church made some major doctrinal changes that led them into converting the whole organization into an evangelical church. It adopted most of the orthodox evangelical doctrines, including the trinity theory, which along together with all the other changes the denomination made completely fractured and split the church. My family decided to follow the new direction of the church and fully embraced the new practices and teachings. Our family and reformed church became conservative evangelical (now called Grace Communion International).
For me, the transition to evangelical thought was head scratching. The church was now telling me that Jesus himself was also God. And not just a separate divine being as I as was told before but Jesus was also somehow completely one with the Father making up only one “God”. I thought, “What, two Gods? But then both equally distinct too? Separate and yet the same person at the same time?” This was soooooooo confusing to a fifteen year old. I remember that one of the biggest obstacles in my mind that made my head spin was who was I suppose to pray to now – Do I pray to God? Or do I pray to Jesus? Or both? And does it even matter who I pray to if they are the same Person anyways? It was difficult to rightly divide this paradox in my head.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had struggles with the concept of the trinity. Even though a lot of Christians would say they believe in the trinity my guess is that if we were to press them on the matter they too would have a hard time explaining its metaphysics. I’ve had some people explain the trinity to me recently and no matter how good their reasoning is their explanation always concludes with the necessity for me to require a vast leap beyond logical thinking, or on some level an acceptance of a unfathomable paradox. And I would wager that for a great number of others the only thing that comes to mind when they think of the word “trinity” is where the priest or pastor says something like, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost”, like they do at the end of church service or wedding ceremony where it’s used as a prayer or proclamation. Some folks accept the trinity but haven’t spent the time trying to fully dissect it and reason it out.
I certainly don’t claim to understand the trinity in full, but I personally haven’t found a better model that explains the strange nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as those three concepts are laid out together in the Bible. When I compare the doctrine of the trinity with the other alternatives the trinity theory seems to be the best guess out there for as to how we should explain the strange relationships between these three entities. Although I strongly lean toward trinitarianism, let me also add that I definitely hold onto the doctrine more loosely than traditional evangelicals. And because I come from a background that didn’t believe in the trinity, which was backed up with good reasoning and with plenty of Bible scriptures and critical analysis, I have a lot of respect and understanding for those who don’t embrace the trinity. I can see elements of truth in both arguments. I don’t think that relationship with God depends upon accepting the trinity either. I sincerely love my non-trinitarian friends!
But with all the good that accepting the “evangelical way” did for the church they still didn’t talk about any tangibility or relationship of the Holy Spirit. I remember teachings about God’s grace in Jesus, old and new covenants, being born again, repenting from sin and so on, but there was no teaching or demonstration of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit was just as a vague of a topic as it was before. I knew God the Father. And now I knew Jesus. But who is the Spirit??
When I entered into college at eighteen years old I felt like I had a good balance with being in relationship with our “one God” as expressed through God the Father and Jesus. Looking back I can say that I don’t really remember any substantial insights about the Holy Spirit. In those first years in college it seemed like the Spirit was a simply a side note to the Christian experience. The Spirit was a nebulous person who supposedly lived inside of me via faith in Jesus. And that resident presence within me was apparently intangible. The phenomenon of this “indwelling of the Spirit” was just something to be taken by faith and accepted as truth and complete absent from a personal experience with It. The emphasis in from the evangelical church pulpit was for believers to just focus on Jesus. Simply turning from our sins to put faith in Jesus, in their minds, completed the whole sum of Christian conversion and there was nothing to follow.
Traditional evangelical teaching backs up my early college thinking of the Holy Spirit. It holds that the gospel message is fully realized by putting faith in Jesus and receiving His forgiveness for our sins. The Holy Spirit presence in coming to live in you usually isn’t even mentioned when evangelicals preach the gospel. Their entire focus on “bringing someone to Christ” is aimed not on helping people receiving the gift of the Spirit, and thereby receiving life and intimacy with God, but is instead focused on getting a persons sins forgiven so that they don’t die and go to hell.
Foe example, If you have 6 extra minutes you can watch a classic Billy Graham meeting where he gives an invitation to everyone to get born again – notice that very little is mentioned about the Holy Spirit being apart of this experience. He only mentions it in passing in that it is the Holy Spirit that draws people to come to Jesus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQI47sDrOrs .
But if you dig deeper into what most evangelicals believe you will find this at its core – at the exact moment someone becomes asks Jesus into their heart and become born again and they also receive the Holy Spirit. This “Holy Spirit coming to live within you” at the time of conversion is said to be a coincidental event that automatically happens when one comes to believe in Jesus. According to evangelical thought the Spirit enters in without someone asking for it or even knowing about it. It just happens when you ask Jesus into your heart. (Here is another Billy Graham preaching a sermon on the Spirit and at about 8-9 minutes in he says that the Spirit comes into you the moment you receive Jesus – further highlighted at time index 13:00-end: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zi8SPyP4LPw ).
As an evangelical, receiving the Holy Spirit is thought of to be a passive intangible experience. You won’t know that the Spirit is there, you just have to believe you got it when you turned to God and put your faith in Jesus. You don’t even have to ask for it or do anything. It’s an automatic byproduct of coming to faith in Jesus. And since I had already come to faith in Jesus as a teenager, and chose to follow Him, the evangelical teachings I heard said that I had the Spirit already fully living in me. There was nothing more.
But in all reality there was very little teaching or practical day to day life instruction in the evangelical church in regard to the Spirit. Although I had come a long way in my faith the Holy Spirit was still a mystery to me. As far as the trinity was concerned the Spirit just seemed like the neglected third wheel of God – the kind of third wheel that is awkward and no one really talks about, kinda like a tag-along nerdy friend who follows your group around in high school. The nerdy friend is always there but doesn’t play a strong role in the group, is often overlooked, under utilized, deemphasized, and pushed into the back by the stronger personalities.
As a regular ol’ evangelical at 20 years old all of this seemed fine and dandy to me. I knew my Bible well and I knew Jesus personally and that was enough for me to feel complete in Him. I remember having a lots of conversations about God with other believers in college. I thought of myself as a theologian and was proud of myself that I knew so much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. In my college conversations we didn’t talk much about the Spirit. But, I’m sure that if you would have asked me back then I would have said that I fully understood the concept of the Holy Spirit. Looking back now I realize that hadn’t the faintest clue. I wouldn’t have known who He was back then if He walked up and introduced Himself and said, “Hey, remember me?” I would have said, “No actually, I don’t believe we have met.” Although I believed in Jesus I didn’t have a relationship with the Spirit so much as to even be able to pick Him out of a line up.
However, when I turned 20 I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit that changed my life. So let’s move on to part 2…..
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!