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The Holy Spirit in the World by The Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis

The Holy Spirit in the World

The Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis


Coping with Pluralism

The increasing pluralism of modern societies and its implications for the self-understanding of the Christian identity are an issue that all Christian churches are currently facing. How should they cope with the inescapable challenge of the cultural, ethnic, and religious pluralism of the present world? Regardless of how extensively and radically the cultural and religious landscape has changed, the identity of the church in the modern world depends on its faithfulness to the Apostolic tradition, the critical awareness of the changing landscape in which it finds itself, and the unswerving belief that in all historical situations and movements God is actively present through God’s Spirit despite the ambiguities, conflicts, and destructive evil forces that one finds in them. The awareness of the presence of God’s Spirit in history is the basis of the church’s prayer for its guidance so it may do the will of God. Turning to God in situations of fear and uncertainty is also emboldened by the assurance of Christ: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage: I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33).

The Particularity and the Universality of the Christian Faith

How can the church remain faithful to the particularity of its tradition and moral practices, continue to claim the universal validity of its beliefs, and at the same time, find room for values and moral perspectives of different people and communities? The question is raised at the end of an era when the emphasis was heavily on finding ways of transcending cultural and religious differences and achieving some universal principles —principles binding on all people, under all or most circumstances. What characterized the communities of that era was their concern as communities, made up of diverse individuals and groups, to find a way to transcend those differences in order to reach consensus on some matters of common human welfare. Now the pendulum has swung and the communities, in light of the homogenized global forces, seek ways to affirm their particularities and reconfessionalize themselves so they can continue to justify their particularity in a plural world. The church, by giving primary emphasis to its particularity at the expense of the universality of the gospel, runs the risk of reducing itself to a sect that is contrary to those communities who overemphasize their universality at the expense of their particularity, and they run the risk of abandoning their specificity. The church is at the same time particular through God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and universal in its eschatological orientation. Its faith is grounded in the history of God’s revelation that culminates in the coming of God’s reign, which is inclusive of all creation.

Discernment of the Spirits

On occasions that the church should judge a conflict between, or among, particular beliefs and moral practices or should choose which particularism it ought to embrace or reject, it will have to seek some universal principle to make that possible. In each concrete situation of life, the church, through prayer, theological reflection, and critical appreciation of its contextual situation, must identify through its judgment the will of God. While doctrinally the church has identified theological and historical criteria that may guide it in discerning in some instances the will of God, it is difficult to interpret the dynamics of the modern world. This can be a highly contested matter if, in light of the advances of human knowledge and science, the church must revise some of its beliefs and moral practices. The difficulties are heightened once the church recognizes the divine presence in other religious and secular communities. How can we discern the active presence of God’s Spirit in the ambivalent modern world, and in religious and secular others, without compromising the integrity of the Christian gospel? For Paul, the “discernment of Spirits” is a gift of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:1–11) that has its origins in God (“the same Spirit,” “the same Lord,” “the same God who activates all of them in everyone”) and it is given for “the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). It is the Spirit that makes the church a real foretaste of God’s reign, the guide and criterion of discerning the Spirit in the realm of history.1 The identification of God’s Spirit in history with human actions, ideologies, and movements must not overlook the fact that sin and error condition every human act. The Orthodox contribution to the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches (1991) warned that “Given the intrinsic ambiguity of history and the awareness that spirits other than the Holy Spirit may act in the world, we must be cautious not to identify in an absolute manner the Holy Spirit with human progress, actions, social movements, and ideologies.”2 Since the reign of God is an outright gift of the Triune God, we must concur that all human actions in themselves are essentially fallible and imperfect. They contain, despite their claims, hidden elements of evil. This awareness shapes the critical task of the church in the life of the world as the power that unmasks and resists all new and old forms of idolatry and false messianic expectations.3 The mere existence of the church delimits the claims of any present political organization or movement on the life of its members. 

The Mission of the Spirit and the Mission of Christ

It is the mission of the Spirit in the world to bring humanity and creation into unity with the crucified and risen Lord, providing, even in this life, a taste of what it means to live in God’s kingdom. What the Holy Spirit does must always be seen with what the Son is doing. Both the Spirit and the incarnate logos act differently but not independently in communicating and doing the will of God the Father. The Holy Spirit cannot be separated from the creative and salvific work of Jesus Christ in God’s economy, and neither can Christ be understood apart from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes the one Christ into many and the many into one. It distributes Christ to all and unites all into Christ, constituting the body of Christ, the church. The Holy Spirit is presently active in the world—whenever and wherever people of goodwill transcend their self-interests, self-sufficiency, and containment, and build bridges of communion and communication that lead all into a unity which ultimately brings them into the unity of God in Jesus Christ. He is the Spirit of communion that relates all with Christ and unites all, empowering people to transcend their individuality and become persons. Wherever the Holy Spirit blows, the boundaries of individualism are transcended, and love and communion emerge. Liberation from individualism in the Holy Spirit results in freedom for others in a community.

The Church as Communion

The Holy Spirit is inconceivable without the community of the people of God, which the Spirit assembles and creates. Being the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8: 9–11), the Spirit naturally creates a Christocentric community, the body of Christ. It makes the church the place where creation liberates itself from self-sufficiency and is offered to its creator as being “God’s own.” In the Eucharist, it is offered to God by the high priest, our Lord Jesus Christ, and is returned to us as eternal life in the body and blood of our Lord. This whole movement takes place through the invocation of the Spirit (Epiklesis) and is significantly called communion. The baptized believers, once they have recognized their limitations and been purified by the Holy Spirit, participate through the Eucharist in God’s holiness and thus experience within the Eucharist the fullness of their humanity according to God’s will and love. Sanctification and holiness transform the human being into a person who sees God, shares God’s glory, and relates to the world with the same predispositions of love that God has for the world.  Once we affirm that the Holy Spirit constitutes the disciples of Christ into a community, the church, and its plenitude, how does the Holy Spirit act beyond the visible boundaries of the church? Here, we must categorically state that although the Triune God is actively present in the church, which is the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, we cannot limit God’s presence and operation to within the boundaries of the church. God is free to operate in the world in multiple—although incomprehensible for finite beings—ways. The Holy Spirit is as unpredictable as the wind that “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (Jn 3:8). The Spirit’s presence is apprehended only from the effects of the Spirit’s activity. The Holy Spirit opens up the boundaries of whatever the Spirit touches and brings it in relation with the transcended God. It liberates humanity, and creation in general, from all forms of self-sufficiency and “autonomy” vis-à-vis God. As the other paraclete4 is “everywhere present and fills all things,” it leads all into unity with the incarnate logos. While this unity is transparent within the church, the unity of the world outside of the church is of another nature, realized in different degrees. It depends on contextual realities, human predispositions, and receptiveness of cardinal aspects of the Christian gospel. The unity of humanity and creation with Christ becomes real only in the church since it is the body of Christ in history. In other words, there is salvation outside of the church through the church.

The Holy Spirit Brings the Eschaton into History History and creation are in the process of becoming what God has expected them to be, and already have become, through Christ and the Holy Spirit. They are open entities that find their fulfillment in God’s reign. Their selfenclosure and total alienation from God lead them into disintegration and finally into an existential impasse. The Spirit, through Christ, offers the possibility to humanity and the created world to transcend its creaturely limitations and enter into God’s glory (Rom 8:20–21). This movement cannot be realized just through human efforts and desires; it is primarily a gift from God and, for this reason, the church invokes the Holy Spirit (Epiklesis) because it believes that the world finds its fulfillment, and transcends the limitations of its nature, only in its unity with God. The church, because of its eschatological nature, resists all immanent ideologies—religious, secular, economic, political, cultural, and ethnic—that imprison humanity into the “iron cage of history.” It debunks their claim to be comprehensive interpretations of reality and challenges them to be inter-relational and open to a better future from what humans can imagine, based on its eschatological vision. This critical distance from all anthropocentric human ideologies does not in any way mean that the church should not be open and appreciative of the advance of human science and wisdom under, of course, the presupposition that they do not claim for themselves any sense of ultimacy. It is the mission of the Spirit to bring the eschaton into history. The Spirit, most notably in the Eucharist, makes the church an icon of God’s kingdom. It brings the eschaton into history, albeit not permanently until the second coming of Christ. The new creation is present in history but is not yet history. This new creation will be fully realized when God does away with all our afflictions, suffering, and death. This point is clearly made in 2 Corinthians 1:22 and 5:5 and Ephesians 1:13–14 with the term “guarantee.” The Spirit is, as it were, a down payment—the “promised Holy Spirit” of greater gifts in the future (Eph 1:13). The Spirit enkindles something of God’s new world even in this world, or as Hebrews 6:4-5 puts it, once we taste the power of God’s future. This gift of the Spirit is a “pledge” (ἀρραβών) (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5), a “first fruit” or “down payment” (ἀπαρχή) (Rom 8:23) of what God is offering to God’s beloved creation. It is the presence of God in the world, driving all creation and history toward their ultimate destiny, disclosed and anticipated, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a result of God’s initiative, it is possible to experience God’s glory in this life through the power and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. The life of the baptized believers and their spirit-filled communities continue to live in history, and their lives are affected by all the fragmentation, evil, and corruption that exists in the world. The new creation by the Spirit is not a flight by faith into heaven, but rather a recognition of the limitations of the world and a commitment to bring to the world the freedom that the Holy Spirit grants from death, corruption, and evil. The eschatological future is strongly determined by a negation of the negative and by an openness to the development of the positive. The negation of the negative is described in Revelation 21:4, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” The further development of the positive condition is reflected in the words “they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them ... And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (Rev 21:3, 5). God has sent God’s word and the Holy Spirit to the world as a foretaste and promise of all that is yet to come.

Eucharistic Spirituality

In the Eucharist, baptized believers who are united with Christ through the Holy Spirit and among themselves because of their unity with Christ, constitute communion. It is in the Eucharist that humanity sacramentally experiences and tastes its future according to God’s intention. Wolfhart Pannenberg, in his lectures on Christian Spirituality at Yale University (1977), called the churches of the Reformation to supplant their pietistic and revivalist spiritualities and adopt a eucharistic spirituality. In his estimation, such a turn “may prove to be the most important event in Christian spirituality in our time.”5 He critiques the pietistic and revivalist spiritualties for their primary concern with individual salvation, based on his understanding that the “Body of Christ is more than an association of independent individuals.” About Christian humanism, he thinks that it operates with the same individualistic proclivities and is less successful than pietistic and revivalist spiritualities to generate loyalty to religious communities and churches. Noting the unquenched thirst and yearning of people for authentic forms of community and social life, and in light of the failure of modern society to satisfy this yearning, he calls for the rediscovery of the Eucharist primarily as a communal event that actualizes in history God’s reign.  He suggests that there is no other place or event in the life of the church where the very foundation of its life can be comparably commemorated and symbolized, as well as reenacted, than in the event of celebration and Communion. Every celebration of the Eucharist reenacts the reality that constitutes the foundation of the church, and that happens not only in the sense of memorial but also in the symbolic power of the Eucharist, where the essence of the church itself is alive, present, and effective. This assumption leads him to the conclusion that the Eucharist, not the sermon, is in the center of the church’s life. “The sermon should serve, not dominate, in the church. It should serve the presence of Christ which we celebrate in the Eucharist.”6 The Eucharist is understood primarily as an eschatological and communal event that could liberate Christians from individualism and provide the church with the universal outlook that is inherent in eucharistic experience and embraces society at large, and all humankind.7 The Eucharist, in its anthropological implications, and because it embraces the destiny of humanity, encourages and inspires political commitment for the sake of peace and justice. Its eschatological nature, however, cannot put on parity such social and political commitment with what the Eucharist symbolizes as an icon of God’s kingdom. What the Eucharist symbolizes “by far exceeds whatever social activities it may inspire: Making it subservient to the actualities of political programs [that] pervert it.”8 Orthodox theologians agree with the basic premises of Wolfhart Pannenberg about the centrality of the Eucharist for the life of the church. The communal nature of the Eucharist (κοινωνία) and its eschatological orientation express how the gospel of Jesus Christ can be experienced in life by sustaining and transforming relationships and leading all into God’s Kingdom through Christ and the Holy Spirit. The church not only preaches the gospel, but it also discloses to the world its ultimate destiny and authentic being as God has intended.


1 Gennadios Limouris ed., Come Holy Spirit, Renew the Whole Creation, An Orthodox Approach for the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Canberra Australia, 6–12 February 1991 (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1990), 39.

2 Limouris, 39.

3 Limouris, 44.

4 In John 14:16, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as “another paraclete,” indicating Jesus is the first and primary paraclete.

5 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Christian Spirituality (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983).

6 Ibid., 40

7 Ibid., 46.

8 Ibid., 47.