Christ and the Spirit – Part 1

Traditional Christology, taking its cue from the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD, considers Jesus Christ as one person in two natures, one divine, one human. After the incarnation, when the eternal Son ‘assumed’ a human nature into his own person, Jesus is (forevermore) fully man, fully God. Christology then, is all about trying to understand better how this can work, and it pursues this goal by thinking about the relation of Christ’s divine nature to his human nature. This means that as a theological discipline, it has historically, broadly speaking, often stood alone: having been pursued without reference to Trinitarian theology, or pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit).

Trinitarian Theology, one the other hand, taking its cue from the Councils of Nicaea in 325AD, and Constantinople in 381AD, concludes that God is one God in three divine Persons. Trinitarian Theology, in its consideration of Jesus Christ, thinks of him as the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, become incarnate, and thus is more concerned with his relationships with the other persons of the Trinity: the Father, and the Holy Spirit.

The relatively new discipline of ‘Spirit Christology’ (last 50 years), considers Jesus Christ specifically in terms of his relationship with the Holy Spirit. It is motivated by observing the intimate and subtle interactions between Christ and the Spirit in the Gospels. Let’s think about that.

The very first thing to note is that even the word ‘Christ’ implies the Holy Spirit! In the name, Jesus Christ, Christ is not Jesus’ surname. It’s a title, meaning ‘anointed’. The word ‘Christ’ derives from the Greek, christos, anointed.

As Irenaeus (c130-202) pointed out, speaking of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan:

For in the name of Christ is implied, He that anoints, He that is anointed, and the unction itself with which He is anointed. And it is the Father who anoints, but the Son who is anointed by the Spirit, who is the unction.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 18

What a legend! He’s saying that the very word Christ implies three: the Anointer (the Father), the Anointed (the Son), and the Anointing (the Holy Spirit).

Just think about Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3:21-22

Clearly here we are seeing the Father permanently anointing his well-pleasing Son with the Holy Spirit, in a way which leads us to reconsider David’s anointing for kingship by the prophet Samuel in 1 Sam 16:13.

Let’s not miss one other important fact about Jesus, according to John the Baptist. John said to the crowds:

I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Luke 3:16-17

According to John there, Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit for those who repent and believe, fire for those who don’t, is what I think he means).

But this Spirit-focus of Jesus’ ministry began way before this: even his birth is a Holy Spirit produced phenomenon. As the angel Gabriel said to Mary:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy— the Son of God.

Luke 1:35

And it continues after Jesus’ baptism too. In fact, immediately after. Luke writes:

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil.

Luke 4:1-2

Having overcome every temptation thrown at him by the devil (by the way: in his wilderness testings, he embodies true, obedient, Israel, unlike original, disobedient Israel in their wilderness testings recounted in Deut. 6-8), we read:

14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country.

Luke 4:14

Jesus goes out, led by the Spirit, to the wilderness temptation full of the Spirit, and returns to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. What happens next? In the synagogue at Nazareth (the so-called ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ of Luke 4:16-21), Jesus stands up to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (he’s reading Isaiah 61:1-3), as follows:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me  to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. 

Luke 4:18-19

Then he hands back the scroll, sits down, and says “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In other words, Jesus is saying, “You hear that – he’s talking about me. My ministry will be executed in the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit.”

And although the rest of Jesus’ ministry is performed by the power of the Holy Spirit, this fact is mostly implicit rather than explicit. However, there is one place where Jesus himself makes explicit what has been implicit. When he is accused by the religious leaders of casting out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons (i.e. satan), he replies:

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

Matt 12:28

So, let’s pull all this together.

Jesus is the Christ: the very word ‘Christ’ meaning anointed. He is conceived by the Spirit in Mary’s womb. John the Baptist says that he is the one who will baptise with the Spirit. He is anointed by the Father with the Spirit at his baptism by John. Full of the Spirit, he is immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness,  where he defeats satan. He returns in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, where in the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ he explains that his ministry is due to the anointing of the Spirit. His ministry of healing and deliverance is then performed by the Spirit, as he himself testifies.

We could add that even his death on the cross is Spirit-empowered (see Heb. 9:14), that he (possibly) offers up the Spirit on the cross (see John 19:30 – the Greek original says ‘he handed over the Spirit’), and that post-Resurrection he breathes on his disciples on Easter Sunday and says “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).

What does all this mean?

I am persuaded that it means that Christology should no longer be studied in glorious isolation, as has been the tendency throughout Church history. As well as thinking in classical Christological terms about how Christ can be one person in two natures (although we should note that the gospel accounts are pretty silent on these two natures, which should at least give us pause for thought), we must also think in Trinitarian terms about how Christ is one person in relation to two persons (the Father, and, of course, the Holy Spirit). And perhaps, given that Scripture seems more interested in the latter than the former, that should be our focus too. More on this next time.