“Websterian” Theology and the “Spirit”


A couple of years ago, I was editing a journal for our organization here: “Bukal Life Journal.”. One article that I am going through right now is a reprint (most articles are original submissions, but we really wanted to print this one and we were happily given the permission) of one by Dr. Raymond J. Lawrence, the General Secretary of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. The article is  titled “The Vicissitudes of Spirituality.” The article points out how the term “spirit” has been changed over centuries to the point that it has little to do with the original or Biblical concept. He pointed out that the root terms “ruah” (Hebrew), “pneuma” (Greek), and “spiritus” (Latin) had little to nothing to do with incorporeality (or the opposite of matter/flesh). That is not to say that spirit never has to do with incorporeality— for example Jesus noting that in His resurrected state He is not a spirit in that he has flesh and bones (Luke 24:39). Words have more than one meaning and so one must look at the context. We certainly don’t want to fall into the error of Jehovah’s Witnesses who tend to interpret “pneuma” and “ruah” only one way, ignoring its context.

In the Bible, spirit is often used as a metaphor contrasting the metaphor of “the flesh.”

Living in the Spirit (living in God’s Will) versus Living in the Flesh (Living against God’s Will)

As such it is similar to the classic early church contrast of “walking in the light” and “walking in darkness.” Here, when one focuses on the concrete side it sounds like one has the choice between living corporeally or living uncorporeally.  However, one has to interpret based on the abstract quality that utilizes the metaphor rather than the concrete object it connects to.

This issue goes back to something I jokingly call “Websterian” Theology. That is, we take a principle, give it a label, then (illogically) go to the dictionary (such as “Webster’s” Dictionary) to give meaning to that label.  For example, the Bible gives a description of the powerfulness of God that theologians have often labelled as His “omnipotence.” Then people interpret omnipotence as being “able to do all things.” One might argue that being able to do all things is a reasonable assumption of the term omnipotence. However, our understanding of God is based on the Bible, not on a dictionary. The Bible certainly never says that God can do all things. God says He does not lie, for example. Is God UNABLE to lie? Don’t know. But it is something God has said that He does not do, so in practice, He can’t. It is hardly surprising that my former Mormon roommate pulled the classic question “If God can do all things, can He create a rock too big for Him to lift?” The question is a tough one if one is bound by Websterian Theology. Not so tough if one is guided by God’s Word. (If God is not limited by power, as the Bible seems to indicate, presumably He could not create a rock too big to lift (using here the Mormon conception of a corporal god, of course) since to be able to do so would demonstrate a limitation of power.)

“Spirit” get’s hit hard in the area of Websterian Theology, as is using Webster’s Dictionary. Take the definition #1 from a major dictionary (actually using in this case “The World Book Dictionary”, 1970). It says that “spirit” is “the immaterial part of man; soul.” This definition is the preferred definition by most Christians. Some Christians would prefer to focus on definition #3 “a supernatural being, such as a deity, fairy, elf, ghost, etc.” Jehovah’s Witnesses (a non-Christian religion) strongly attack these views and argue that the term “spirit” should simply mean “breath” or “wind” since the Hebrew and Greek words (ruah and pneuma, respectively) mean “breath” or “wind.” Of course, the JWs end up failing in the same way as many Christians by trying to interpret a Biblical passage using a dictionary. The terms ruah and pneuma are used in numerous ways in the Bible… many of which would be nonsensical if one was forced to translate it only as breath or as wind. The use of these terms in the Bible commonly come closer (generally) to definition #6, “courage, vigor, and liveliness.” The idea of a horse being “spirited,” meaning empowered, alive, invigorated, really suggests the idea quite well from a historic understanding. Being full of spirit or high spirited suggests full of life, full of power, full of meaningfulness.

websterDoes this matter? Sometimes, sometimes not. Looking at the figure above. The breakdown is in the lower right arrow where the dictionary interpretation is used in the process towards Biblical Interpretation. Of course, interpreting the Bible through theological filters is always risky, but far more so when the use of a theological label is disconnected from its derivation. Let me suggest four quick examples where it matters.

A.  “Holy Spirit.” Because we focus on the incorporeality of the term “spirit” (to say nothing of the term “Holy Ghost”) we tend to think of the Holy Spirit as being less… substantial… or less of a person… than other members of the Godhead. I recall descriptions of the Holy Spirit by Jon Arnot of the “Toronto Blessing” movement where the Holy Spirit was described as bouncing around the room and accidentally hitting the wrong person and more. I find it hard to believe that he would have used such language for God the Son, or God the Father (even the more general term “God” used such would probably be thought of as blasphemous). But because the term “Holy Spirit” sounds a lot (because of our internal dictionary… not the Bible) like “the Force” from the Star Wars series, it seems okay to interpret phenomena in a matter that is Biblically ridiculous. Perhaps the term “Creator Spiritus” helps us to embrace the metaphor connecting us to the third person of the Trinity better.

B.  Spirit in the sloppy term “spiritual.” People today are not particularly interested in God (in a specific or doctrinal sense), or religion, but they are interested in “spirituality.” We generally applaud spirituality and decry carnality. Certainly within the Pauline epistles there is a dualism set up between “the spirit” and “the flesh.” He was writing to Hellenized Christians so it was a useful analogy. However, Paul went on to clarify that the physical realm is not necessarily bad while not all “spirits” or “spiritualities” are good. But today, there is the temptation to suggest that being a “spiritual” person is, by definition, good.

At this point, I think bringing in a concept from Paul Tillich would be helpful. I can’t really describe myself as a fan of Tillich’s theological work… but I think he comes close to some good things in the area of the term “spirit.” He says that Spirit is best understood as the union of meaning and power. It is not simply power… it has purpose. It is not simply an idea… it has power behind it. Spirit, then, is neither good nor bad… it depends on the goodness (or badness) of its meaning. Lawrence uses the example of Nazism as a “spirituality” of meaning and power that was, and is, diabolical. Tillich goes on suggesting that the qualities of good spirit (or spirituality) is “love” and “justice.” He adds four more related qualities: (self) awareness, freedom (detached from objects and the law), relatedness (as opposed to isolation), and transcendence. Considering that the Bible describes “spirit” in both positive and negative ways supports the idea that (as Paul said) the spirits must be tested.

C.  Living “in the Spirit.” This is kind of like the previous one. However, some look at being in the Spirit as being happy, or positive, or singing, or enthusiastic (definition #7). It is judged by one’s emotional state. This seems to go back to old-time medicine where one’s emotional state was dictated by “humors” and “spirits”— fluids that flowed through the body. Humors were visible (blood, biles and such) while spirits were not visible. One may say that spirits here relate to one’s “spiritual state” rather than emotional, yet the characteristics of the state are essentially emotional in character. To draw from mathematics, “spirit” is not scalar, but vector. A scalar quality only has magnitude. A vector quality has both magnitude and direction. When we are living in the Spirit, or are led by the Spirit, this is not merely being joyful, or emotionally upbeat (drugs can accomplish that fairly well by themselves… for a time). Rather, we are empowered by God to live with a divine purpose and meaning. To say that we are baptized by the Spirit means that we (communally) have been empowered and given common purpose with all other believers in Christ.

D.  Spirituality as opposed to the Mind. Some think being led by the spirit means turning off one’s mind. The spirit is anti-intellectual. There is no good basis for this. Spirituality is only opposed to the mind if the mind is opposed to the purpose, plans, and meaning given by God. Being “in the spirit” is not an argument for doing foolish behavior.

So what does this all have to do with missions?  I would suggest that:

1.  Missionaries are to be led by the Spirit. This does not mean a turning off of our intellectual capacities and planning. This does not mean rejecting the “physical realm” and seeking a non-corporeal bliss. It means that we seek to live out our purpose both given and empowered by God.

2. Missionaries should not teach or model the idea that “spirituality” is in itself good. Spirit has direction and that direction can be good or bad. We must test the spirits. Evidence of power does not demonstrate divine spirituality either. Again, evil can have power. What is the underlying meaning and purpose (direction) of that power? Superficial or short-term benefit for a few also does not demonstrate the goodness. <The German people thought of Nazism as good because it was powerful and (temporarily) brought improvement to some of their lives. Yet it failed miserably in love and justice.>

Anyway, something to think about.

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