The Spirit of Truth

In a recent meandering discussion on Brant Hansen’s blog, we got into the issue of the Holy Spirit guiding us into all truth. I decided that it might be better to continue the discussion over here, as this is getting way off the topic of Brant’s original post.

I first wrote:

If you rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance, how do you discern His voice from competing ones?

Brant responded:

Third, there really IS this question of “Is a church, a group of believers, adrift without hierarchy or traditional authoritative structures?”

I say no, though I admit it seems illogical. But such is mystery:

Paul describes using his conscience as confirmation, “in the Holy Spirit.” He also says when you’re a believer, you’re marked with a seal — the Holy Spirit, Who is a “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.

Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the spirit of truth, and promises He (the Spirit of truth) will be with us forever. We’ll know Him, Jesus says, because He lives in us.

Then Jesus says the Holy Spirit will teach us all things(!).

Jesus says the Holy Spirit will “guide you into all truth.”

There’s no way a house church in China is on its own, and no reason to expect that it’s given to heresy, in my opinion, than a church where millions of dollars and power structures and turf are at stake.

Honestly, should we be surprised if they’re led into truth even without a copy of the Bible? I know we ARE, but should we? (Irony: People will accuse me of diminishing the role of Biblical revelation with my arguments using by Biblical revelation…)

God is the authority, and Jesus clearly said He, through the Spirit, will lead them into all truth.

Let me start off by saying that I’m no theologian either (and that I’m probably going to compress this too much for it to completely make sense). But, I’m going to pretend to be one and speculate a bit on the current situation in Christianity and whether or not we could all possibly be equally led by the Holy Spirit. I am completely convinced that Brant is convinced that he is being led by the Holy Spirit. I am also completely convinced that the Holy Spirit is guiding me. The only problem is: the Holy Spirit is guiding one of us away from organized Christianity, but the other of us into the most organized of all branches of Christendom. And Brant and I are actually closer to each other in our theology, in our beliefs, than some other people who are also equally convinced that the Holy Spirit is leading them. There are fundamentalists who are convinced that I, a Catholic, am going straight to Hell for idolatry. The Holy Spirit is teaching them that, too. Or, so they say.

Perhaps that’s a bit of hyperbole. I think most of us would agree that said fundamentalist has gone astray due to a restrictively literal interpretation of Scripture. He has been led into error, and that leading is not from the Holy Spirit. But, he surely thinks he hears the Spirit’s voice. So do the rest of us, but what guarantees us that what we’re hearing is the Spirit, and what is our own inner voice (or maybe even something demonic)? It cannot be a subjective feeling, a “burning in the bosom”. It cannot be just from your particular reading of Scripture. It can’t even be from the collective reading of your particular local Christian community. He will lead you into all truth. But how do you know it’s Him?

I think we can all agree that the New Testament Church was definitely led by the Holy Spirit into all truth. People heard, believed, and received the Holy Spirit, usually by the laying on of hands of one of the Apostles, but in the case of the centurion and family, it’s clear that there could be exceptions to that rule. The Apostles and those they appointed, deacons like St. Stephen and bishops like Sts. Timothy and Titus, were undoubtedly filled with the Holy Spirit, as were thousands of others who believed. They were united in one Faith.

But yet, even in the New Testament, there is more than a hint that Jesus’ prayer in John 16 that they all be one was already coming apart at the seams. St. Paul is abundantly clear in 1 Corinthians that divisions have occurred in the Corinthian church, and he’s none too happy about it. Most tellingly, he claims in 1 Cor 10:19, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” To show which of you have God’s approval. Obviously, those who have God’s approval are those who stick to what St. Paul and the other Apostles were teaching.

Here is where the Catholic and Orthodox (and some Anglican) doctrine of Apostolic Succession comes into play. What happened in the generations after the Apostles? There are clues in the New Testament, in the appointment of Sts. Timothy and Titus as bishops. But, the New Testament only takes us so far. Thankfully, there are writings preserved from the early Church in the generations immediately after the NT. It is utterly indisputable, unless you want to buy into the conspiracy theory that only the writings of the big, bad “orthodox” group of Christians remain because they quashed all the other, well-meaning, Spirit-filled believers who thought otherwise, that from the beginning of the 2nd century at the latest, the Church had an episcopal structure, and these episcopal posts were handed down from generation to generation by the laying on of hands.

But, you say, we know that there were groups in the early Church that went into error, even lots of bishops that went into error. That’s certainly true. At one point in the Arian controversy in the 4th century, a vast majority of bishops had gone over to the Arian side. But, it is historical fact that the See of Rome never went into what is classically defined as heresy, and that there have always been “orthodox” bishops and communities in communion with it. For sure, that’s a bit of circular logic because we define “orthodoxy” by the stance of the Bishop of Rome (and the Eastern Orthodox do so by the doctrines defined by the first Seven Ecumenical Councils). But, we believe that through the evidence of history, and through Jesus’ declaration that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church founded upon St. Peter (and through his succession, the Bishop of Rome), that the Holy Spirit has guided the Catholic Church to all truth.

Ultimately, then, it’s a matter of faith, and a matter of history. You can place your trust in subjective feeling of guidance by the Holy Spirit, or in an apostolic Church. I prefer the latter, because I just don’t trust myself to make the judgment of whether I’m hearing the Holy Spirit, or not. I’ll finish this lengthy ramble off with a lengthy quote from my favorite Church historian, John Henry Cardinal Newman:

Let them consider, that if they can criticize history, the facts of history certainly can retort upon them. It might, I grant, be clearer on this great subject than it is. This is no great concession. History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of colour rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.

And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every writer on the Protestant side has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. It is shown by the long neglect of ecclesiastical history in England, which prevails even in the English Church. Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicæa and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophesies of St. Paul and St. John. It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon. To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

ADDENDUM: Some of y’all might enjoy reading Cardinal Manning’s book The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost. (And yes, it was written in 1865, and yes, I do have a tendency to value books written before 1940 or so. Their clarity is breathtaking once you get used to reading more sophisticated English than we use today.)


4 Responses to “The Spirit of Truth”

  1. 1 Bekah January 14, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    This was a topic I’d written quite a lot on in another forum in which Edmund and I participated in days gone by. 😉 I’m gonna try to resurrect the data I saved, but I have to go to another computer to do it. Until then, I’ll make a post, at the risk of over-simplifying.

    One thing I noticed immediately upon my conversion was that the way I’d been interpreting Scripture, the way the churches I attended interpreted Scripture, was a little helter-skelter. The default setting seems to be that any “you” in the text is interpreted as aimed to the believer, and most “us”-es as well. I think this has come about because the thrust of evangelicalism these days is about making the Scripture relevant to us in our time, thus the predominate interpretation is usually an answer to “How can I use this passage in my life?” This is not necessarily an incorrect exegesis, but does tend to obscure overarching themes and concepts in the original texts and what they mean for the wider Church. It most certainly should not be the default exegetical strategy.

    In my renewed vision of Scripture I suddenly noticed contextual clues that never occurred to me before. Mainly, perhaps most importantly, that it is crucial to discover exactly who is being addressed at any point in time. We bumped against this topic slightly in our previous conversation about Peter and the rock below.

    On this particular topic, the particular Scripture in question is John 16:13 “…when the Spirit of truth has come, he will guide you into all truth…” (my paraphrase). This passage falls within Christ’s dialog with the apostles at the Last Supper. While there may or may not have been other disciples in attendance at this meal, the conversants within the dialog are Christ and the apostles, so my first observation is that this passage is directed primarily at the apostles, who I know were also the recipients of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. I take this then, as a prophesy whose primary fulfillment was with the Apostles at Pentecost. Any further relevance it has to me as a believer should be cast in that light, with the fact that I am NOT an apostle.

    My next observation is that this passage has a striking resemblance to 1 John. This isn’t surprising, since tradition holds they had the same authorship. Comparing John’s insights in both passages can lead us to further insight into the Holy Spirit’s role in the believer’s life.

    In particular, both passages place an emphasis on the characterization of the believer as one who is imbued with Love. These believers are judged to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit: 2: 20 “But you have an anointing fromt he Holy One, and you know all things.” So there is good reason to know that the Holy Spirit guides anointed believers to truth, not only the Apostles.

    Both passages likewise bear some clues in discerning others who are not true believers. Conspicuously, a critical passage in this regard directly precedes that just quoted: v. 19 “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued wiht us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.”

    The first test, then, is unity with the Apostles, then followed by the leading of the Spirit. The question is then, “How does the Holy Spirit lead?”

    In many ways, I find it ironic that St. Paul is the preferred Apostle by Evangelicals (which I reference being my particular background, not judging whether Brant or other readers are among their number). If you pay close attention to his own path to apostleship, there are striking parallels with those of us who begin as some other Christian, but eventually end up in the Catholic Church. St. Paul, as you have illustrated, is quite the champion of unity.

    Through Scripture, we see that upon Paul’s conversion, he did not immediately bring himself into unity with the other apostles. His situation was unique, in that he was a persecutor of the Church and needed to prove himself. He had had face to face contact with the Lord, had been given the Spirit directly, and could have remained preaching the Gospel on his own. Yet, after three years, he travels to Jerusalem to meet with Peter (Galatians 1). Acts tells us that he was first rejected by the Church, and Galatians says he stayed with Peter 15 days before leaving. Fourteen years later, he returns with Barnabas, having proved his faithfulness, is united with the assembly and the Apostles. It must have been trying, to have your faith and integrity doubted. Human nature would certainly endorse his separations from others who would so judge him. However, he seeks unity, counsels unity with those he writes, and witnesses through his life the necessity to submit to the authority that Christ established.

    This submission does not require ignoring failures of practice, as Paul chastises Peter for his hypocritical behavior towards the Gentile Christians. But there is respect for the established authority of Christ’s Church all over the Gospels and Epistles.

    If Unity as well as the authority of the Apostles are both to be regarded with such high esteem, recognizable through the inspiration of Scripture by the Spirit, it stands to reason that the leading of the believer by the Spirit must be in conformity with, not opposition to, these principles.

  2. 2 Doug Coombs January 15, 2007 at 2:32 am

    A quote by Newman. Very nice. I might become a regular reader at this rate. I tend to get hooked on blogs that regularly quote Chesterton or Newman.

    The last bit had a sad ring of familiarity to it. “It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon.”

    It reminds me of Wheaton’s (most?) famous graduate, the agnostic Dr. Bart Ehrman, Director of the Religious Studies Dept. at UNC and one of the most esteemed American scholars on early church history.

    Ironically, it was one of his compilations of early Christian writings that was most influential in my own conversion to Catholicism.


  3. 3 Edmund C. January 15, 2007 at 8:22 am

    Bekah, thanks for the insights…

    Doug, Bart Ehrman played a critical long-term role in my conversion as well, by removing any chance that I’d ever be a very strict Biblical literalist, when I took his New Testament class at UNC many moons ago.

  4. 4 Brant January 17, 2007 at 5:00 pm


    First, thanks so much for being kind, and thoughtful, enough to engage this discussion, and to write this entry.

    As it turns out, one of your presumptions is wrong: I’m not convinced that my conclusions happen to coincide with those of the Holy Spirit. Not at all.

    Yes, I want to be led by Him, but there are other factors (like, oh, say…me) that get in the way.

    And you’re right, I think, that the church itself devolved rather quickly into divisions. I think the apostles themselves had disagreements over significant issues. Were they, then, led by the Holy Spirit? I believe they were, but I don’t take this to mean that there will be complete, eg0-free, unmitigated agreement on all, even important matters.

    Which is a good thing, because, as we know, Catholic bishops don’t agree on everything. Some priests actually teach in a spirit, and in word and deed, that opposes the magisterium. A sizeable majority of the people in the American RC Church apparently disagrees with the magisterium on contraception. Some Bishops of Rome have been flatly unworthy of leadership positions, by scriptural and RC standards.

    If pointing out disagreements and divisions establishes that those who disagree and divide cannot possibly be simultaneously led by the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure what to make of all this.

    (BTW, as you likely know, I’m not a sola scriptura guy, and I’m not a fundamentalist, so many of the familiar arguments are not going to resonate here. I took a silly theological quiz and it classified me as decidedly NOT “modern liberal” and NOT “fundamentalist”, more than anything. Pretty much fits, but when you’re both, and not Catholic, it throws people…)

    I don’t think the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives means agreement on all propositional truth. I may be wrong, but if I’m right, it should be a relief to Catholics as well, and those who wonder how the apostles themselves could disagree on fundamental issues.

    As for Bekah’s reference to evangelical pre-disposition to Paul: Totally agree. I think there are reasons for it, and I don’t like them. I learned FAR more about Paul’s worldview than Jesus’s, growing up.

    At this point, I’m glad to say, I belong to Jesus, not Paul or Apollo or whomever. It’s not a fundamental matter to me which apostolic lineage I belong to, and, if Jesus intended it to be a central and fundamental matter, it’s utterly hidden in his teachings and life. I simply can’t find it, even though the evangelical church I grew up seemed to think it had.

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