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Where the wind wills
Can God tell preachers to kick old ladies in the head?
It's 2008. A preacher called Todd Bentley is on stage in his megachurch being televised in front of thousands of people. The band is playing, people are praying, and suddenly the preacher stoops down, and kicks a nearby old lady in the head.
Why? Because the Holy Spirit told him to. He was told it would “heal” her.
At least that's his story. The Holy Spirit also seems subsequently to have prompted him to do all sorts of other things which have made it into the press, but I don't think I need to go into those here.
So, did the Holy Spirit tell Todd Bentley to kick an old lady in the face or not? I hope that we would instinctively answer no. And we would be right.
But why? Why might we not suppose that the Holy Spirit, which Our Lord says “blows where it wills,” could tell anyone to do anything at any time. Can't God dish out orders at his will?
There have been theologians who would argue just that. The 13th century Franciscan Friar William of Ockham maintained that had God so willed it, the Ten Commandments could all have been the direct opposite of what they in fact are. So, if God had commanded “Thou shalt kill,” or “Thou shalt commit adultery” instead of their opposites, then those things would be meet, right and just, simply because God had willed them so. Of course, Ockham averred, God did not will it so, therefore it is not so; but it could have been. But later, at the Reformation, Calvin would pick up this idea and emphasise above all else the “sovereign will of God.” Something is good only because God wills it to be so, and God can will whatever God wishes. Later theologians still, following the same trajectory, noted several instances in the Old Testament where God does indeed appear to change His mind and will something different from what He had originally planned. Following the motif of sola scriptura, basing their doctrine on Scripture alone, divorced from the theological and philosophical tradition of the earlier Church, this did risk making God look rather like the arbitrary bogeyman of the new atheists, dispensing justice at His unfathomable whim.
So doesn’t this leave us in the position of thinking that perhaps Todd Bentley was right and the Holy Spirit did indeed command him to kick the old lady in the face? Who are we to judge the inscrutable ways of God? And on what grounds?
Well, as it happens, we do have grounds to judge and, as Christians, we have to. There is indeed a stable and unchanging authority to which we can and must refer. And that is the authority of God's living Word, who spoke by the prophets, and became Incarnate and was born of the Virgin Mary. If we want to know what God is like, then we need to look no further than Jesus Christ, who is the unchanging image of the Father, His Logos or mind. And God’s mind does not change: for if it did, that would imply that there was something greater than God, or something God could not foresee, which could influence Him. So, let's see if what Christ has to say about the Holy Spirit might help with our problem here.
Our Lord does indeed say that the Holy Spirit confers the power to heal, and the Apostles were certainly vessels of that power. When He breathed upon them, he conferred the highest power of healing, that which is only in God's power to heal, namely sin: for it is the healing of sin, not the healing of the body, which leads to life eternal. For the Spirit is the Spirit of life, breathed out by our Lord upon the Cross, in John’s account. It is through that outbreathing on the Cross that we can understand the work of the Spirit throughout time, right from time’s beginning. Go back to Genesis 1, and as I never tire of pointing out, you will find God creating by the speech of His Word and by the outbreathing of His Spirit. That Spirit, in Hebrew ruach, simultaneously signified to the ancients soul, breath, wind and life: not because they had one word for what we now consider four separate things, but because they really saw them as just one thing, namely Spirit. So, the Spirit that hovered over the face of the waters, that breathed life into Adam, that inspired the Prophets in the writing of Holy Scripture, is all one and the same life-giving breath/wind/life/soul of God. And yes, it blows where it wills: but it is only through the Cross that we see very clearly where in fact it does will, since it is the very breath and life of God Himself, expired from the Cross in self-giving love, and that is the defining revelation of what God is. The Spirit heals because it is life itself, the self-giving life of God, given to the world through the death of God Crucified.
But that is not all Our Lord has to say about the Spirit. He also calls the Spirit the Counsellor, the Spirit of Truth and of Unity. As Spirit of Truth, He cannot lead anyone into falsehood. As Spirit of Unity, He cannot contradict the revelation of God's living word, whether Incarnate or in Scripture. The manifestation of God the Holy Spirit in the world does not lead people into disunity and does not teach anything which is in disunity with God's nature and God's will. He is the same Spirit who inspired the prophets before Christ and the Apostles after. There can be no question of new revelations which contradict the old. Rather, when the Resurrected Christ met the disciples on the Emmaus Road, they came to know Him only once they had, with Him, “searched the Scriptures” – the Hebrew Scriptures, that is, since the New Testament had not yet been written! So, the Old Testament pointed to Christ, but it is only once the disciples encountered Him risen from the dead that the full meaning of both those Scriptures and the Lord Himself became clear. That is, the Word made Flesh and the Word in Scripture mutually interpreted one another, though the Word made Flesh was and remains the hermeneutic key.
But, someone might argue, if God cannot act in a way that contradicts His self-revelation in Christ, does this not unreasonably limit Him, rendering Him something less than “Almighty?” Are we not placing an undue restriction on the liberty of God if we say that God cannot change His mind?
Not at all. That would be a mistaken notion of liberty. We have to remember that, as our Lord has said, “God alone is good.” God is good – by nature. Now, nobody freely wills to go against what is good for them, unless by coercion or error. But God is subject to neither error nor restraint. To say that God would be truly free only if God could go against his nature, which is goodness itself, would in fact be to say that God is restricted, forced by something external to Him to do what is contradictory to His nature and therefore not good. It is to accuse God of being susceptible to evil. Real freedom, on the other hands, whether God’s or ours, consists not in resisting but in pursuing the good. We are made in the image of God: His goodness is our true nature, and therefore true freedom consists of seeking that image within and following our true nature. The Holy Spirit does indeed blow where it wills, but its will is not other than the Father’s. As the Spirit of Peace, the Spirit works God’s will in us, restoring creation to the harmonious, hierarchical shalom of the seventh day of creation, when God rested on His throne and declared the heavens and earth good.
So, if we naturally recoil against the idea of the Holy Spirit telling pastors to kick old ladies in the head, it is because we know, innately, that this is not a God-like action. We do not have to be Christians to know this, only humans who truly know ourselves. Both Jews and pagans on the streets of Jerusalem were able to recognise the truth of the Spirit when they encountered Him speaking through the Apostles on Pentecost, and hence so many of them were that day brought to the fullness of a truth which they had until then only dimly surmised.
We can see this momentum of truth and unity in the way the Holy Spirit particularly animated the Apostles that day. When they went outside and preached, the speakers of many languages heard them proclaim the one truth of the Gospel. Though they were from all reaches of the earth and spoke many languages, they did not hear “their truth,” or the “Apostles’ truth,” but one truth, spoken to them, personally, in their own language. What God had separated at Babel, God now joined together in a new Babel built not by human hands, but by the power of the Spirit.
So, to recap: God is good; it is not good to kick old ladies in the head; we know this because kicking old ladies in the head has no precedent in Scripture or tradition and is inconsistent with God’s revelation in the Lord Jesus and the consensus of the Apostolic Church; therefore, the Holy Spirit of God does not command people to do such things!
The Spirit of Truth does not teach falsehoods about God's nature. The Spirit of Unity does not contradict God’s sacred Word. No Todd Bentley can have an inspiration of the Holy Spirit that leads to disunity or that contradicts the truth of God's self-revelation to the world in Christ. But what holds true of individuals holds true also of the Church and its constitutive limbs.
Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the Church. This is not strictly true, since the Church is the body of Christ, and Christ our Lord was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Further, the Spirit was outpoured from the Cross and breathed on the Apostles in the Upper Room before Pentecost. It was fitting that the Mother of God was there at each event, since she is also the Mother of the Church, to whom the Crucified Lord gave John in adoption, as model of the faithful disciple who stands by the Cross to the end.
Yet it was specifically on the Apostles’ heads that the flames of the Spirit manifested, foreshadowing the mitres of bishops to come. The bishops’ mitres show that by the gift of the Spirit, they too are called to be the defenders of unity and truth in the Church. It follows, then, that no single Bishop or group of bishops or pastors, no one church among the Church universal, has a special hotline to the Holy Spirit that the others lack. The Apostles spoke in unison on Pentecost, and Paul later berated those who claimed to be disciples of him, or Peter, or Apollos (1 Cor 3), that is, of any one Apostle against the others. If that supposed hotline seems to suggest novelties unknown to the ancient Apostles, new revelations which their other successors have not received, we should be even more wary: it is sheer spiritual hubris for one church to claim special revelations from the Spirit which the majority of bishops in the universal church have not received, that our denomination knows better than the others, better than the saints before us, better than the Apostles themselves. And if those supposed revelations find no support in God's Holy Word in Scripture, they are equally incompatible with the Body of the Living Word that is the Church.
God's mind and God's will do not change. They have been perfectly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, in His Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection. If we cannot trust that the Spirit empowered the simple fishermen He chose to understand and to preserve the truth, then we cannot trust the Bible or the Creeds and determinations of the Councils approved by their successors. The whole edifice comes tumbling down. To be blunt, the present-day successors of the Apostles have no more right to innovate than they had. There can be no change, no development in the doctrine of the Church, if it is to remain a true reflection of the image of the Divine Logos, the mind of God revealed in Christ. No synods or national churches have the authority to go it alone and to claim that they know better. Teaching which contradicts the truth and disrupts the unity of the Church cannot, by definition, be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Though, the Apostle did warn that the Devil has been known to appear as an angel of light.
Different Christians and different Christian churches will indeed have diverse charisms and callings, sustained by diverse powers of the Spirit. But whether we are called to be prophets or pastors or healers, and whether we are infused with wisdom or knowledge or fortitude – in short, whatever our particular vocation and whatever particular gifts we enjoy to fulfil it – our prior vocation is to be Christlike. We are all called first and foremost to be saints. We will be so in diverse ways, as the saints of old, but only as aspects of the one Way, the one Life and the one Truth.
So come, Holy Spirit: transfigure us with your light, reveal to us what we must do to become more like Christ, both in our personal vocations and as a church, graft us firmly only the True Vine, and lead us away from disunity, into the unity and truth which Our Lord commands of all his faithful, and which alone leads to life eternal in the Triune God.