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A Church Where no one Worshipped the Spirit

In the early church, no Christian offered praise to the Holy Spirit.  No prayers to Him are recorded.  No praises to Him can be found.  No one thanks Him or asks Him for anything.  Not a single phrase of a single song.  Not once.  It is just not there. 

This blog post will be the first of several posts (not in a row) that will address this thorny issue. 

Larry Hurtado, in his insightful book, Early Christian Worship, makes note of this.  He refers to this as the Binitarian nature of early Christian worship. 
What does this mean?  In the early church, the majority of worship and prayer is addressed to God or to God through the Lord Jesus Christ.  In a few passages, worship or prayer were directed to Christ with no reference to God the Father.  In no instance does the Holy Spirit receive direct address in worship or prayer.

This surprising absence of the Spirit being directly addressed remains consistent throughout the early centuries of the church.  Even in the developing epiclesis, the prayer calling for the Spirit to come upon the elements of the Eucharist, the wording is clear: Father, send Your Spirit upon these…

Let me make something clear: I am firmly committed to a classic Trinitarian understanding of God (as is also true of Hurtado).  The faith of the early church as finalized in the Nicene Creed, that there is One God in Three Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, is entirely justified by scripture and apostolic practice.  In other words, I believe in the actual, personal, and divine nature of the Holy Spirit.  He is real.  He is one in nature with God.  He is present in my life and in the life of the church and I thank God for the Holy Spirit.

In fact, the reality of the Holy Spirit can be seen throughout the Bible.  He is present at the dawn of creation, hovering over the surface of the waters.  His power is evident to Pharaoh in the character of Joseph.  He gifts Bezelal to decorate the Tabernacle and empowered the seventy elders Moses had selected to prophecy. He is the source of the power and wisdom of the judges of Israel, as well as the long line of prophets that will follow.

In the New Testament, Christ is conceived by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit (to preach good news to the poor), led by the Spirit, does miracles by the Spirit, and is raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit.  The Spirit is promised to come to the church as the Comforter and to be Christ in us, the hope of glory.  The Spirit guides, empowers, and animates the church.  He is poured into our lives as a proof of the love of God, marking each of us as a child of God.  He leads, empowers, gifts, guides , and intercedes on behalf of all Christians.  He is right there, in the closing words of the canon, pleading both in and through the church to all who are thirsty, “Come.”

It is also clear that people can interact with the Spirit.  He can be lied to, grieved, quenched, and blasphemed against.  But, in context, these are not describing people directly addressing Him.  To lie to the church is, in Acts 5, to lie to the Spirit.  To accuse Jesus of being allied with the Devil is to at least prompt a warning that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an unforgivable sin.  To be wholly given over to Christ, the context suggests, is to be filled with the Spirit.  Yes, He can be grieved or quenched.  In context, however, it is obvious that it is resisting holiness and giving in to rancor and immorality, not leaving Him out of a praise song, that is the source of His grieving. 

Finally, I would point out that there is also no prohibition given to the church about addressing the Holy Spirit.  They are not told not to (yes, that’s a double negative, and one with a dangling preposition).  There is no “thou shalt not sing to the Holy Spirit” in scripture or in the later writings of the Church Fathers.

This all leads me to make three observations, followed by one suggestion, that will draw this particular article to a close:

  1. Since God is, indeed, Father, Son, and Spirit and no prohibition exists regarding addressing the Spirit, I am not going to say that directing a prayer or words in a song to the Spirit is wrong (although I may refrain from singing at that point).
  2. This whole subject is unrelated to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, or other doctrines often discussed between charismatics and more traditional evangelicals.  Those are separate questions that continue to exist whether or not Christians ought to directly pray to the Holy Spirit.
  3. The most important question this article raises is not what we do, but what thinking is behind what we do.  What does it mean that the early church never seems to have even thought of doing it?   How did they understand the nature and role of the Holy Spirit so differently from us?  We often say things to the Holy Spirit.  They did not. What is behind this difference?  Since this goes to our understanding of the Trinity, this needs to be more than just an esoteric discussion among academics.

Finally, here’s the suggestion: study.  Dig into the Word.  As a leader or at least influencer of the worship of the church, these questions are important enough for you to step back from your denominational assumptions, hallowed traditions, or favorite praise songs (even those you have composed) long enough to give this some serious prayer and study.

In a coming blog post, I will address how the assertion in the Nicene Creed that the Spirit, along with the Father and the Son, receives worship is true and yet does not contradict the statements I made above.  In a third post, I will show how understanding the unique and quite distinct roles the Father, Son, and Spirit play in the Bible can explain the practice of the early church, enrich our appreciation of the Holy Spirit, and deepen our worship.

As in all posts in adorate, you are welcome to offer comment and questions.

1 comment:

Kirra said...

I have definitely not thought of this before. . . . Not sure what to say. I'll have to think on this a while.