Thinking the Spirit…
Posted by joespencer on March 6, 2007
Let me begin simply by stating that I approach this topic with fear and trembling.
The question I want to think about is quite simple: What is the Holy Ghost? And let me qualify that question simply by saying that I am only interested in what the scriptures have to say on the subject, at least for now.
The passage that seems to me to be of most interest is 3 Nephi 11:24-36. It’s a bit long, but let me excerpt here the most important points. The passage of course covers two topics: baptism practically, and baptism theologically. Baptism practically is perhaps simple: it is to be done by immersion, with certain words, and it is necessary to “inherit the kingdom of God,” according to a commandment issued by “the Father” to “all men, everywhere.” But baptism theologically is never so simple. Here is the initial passage:
Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost…. And after this manner shall ye baptize in my name; for behold, verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one. (3 Nephi 11:25, 27)
It seems quite clear here that Jesus is offering a clarification of the theology of baptism: we are to be baptized in the name of three, and yet He says we are to be baptized in His name; but He clarifies that by saying that the three are one. Simple enough, right?
But here is a first difficulty: if they are one, then why is the Holy Ghost left out of the “in” business in verse 27? The Son is in the Father, and the Father is in the Son, but no such thing is said of the Holy Ghost. That this is not a textual oversight seems clear from verse 32: “and I [the Son] bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me….” Again the reciprocality between the Father and the Son is clear, but the Holy Ghost has some other place. Here the Spirit is not simply left out, but rather is taken up into the “Trinity,” but with a clearly different role: neither the Father nor the Son bears record of the Holy Ghost, but the Holy Ghost bears record of both. There is something interesting at work here.
Krister Stendahl pointed out years ago that 3 Nephi is characterized by a Johannine theology, and I think this is vital to making sense of this passage: the Father and the Son bear record of each other in a kind of reciprocality, and the Holy Ghost has the task of bearing record of precisely this reciprocality, of the Father and the Son in relation. In fact, here is Joseph Smith speaking in what must be a related register:
Everlasting covenant was made between three personages before the organization of this earth and relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth. These personages according to Abraham’s record are called God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer; and God the third, the Witness or Testator.
I’m reminded of the intertwined Latin words testimonium and sacramentum. A sacramentum (from which our word “sacrament” obviously derives) was a solemnized contract/agreement between two people. So-and-so agrees to do x and so-and-so agrees to do y. In order to seal up the agreement, a third person was needed (usually an authorized governmental or religious figure), and this sealing was called the sacramentum. The third person who stood in sealed up the sacramentum precisely by offering a testimonium, which, as any etymological dictionary will tell you, means “the memory/witness of the third party (literally, stander),” from tri- sta- and mens. It is the third party that seals up the agreement or covenant between the two.
Doesn’t this sound like the passage from 3 Nephi 11?
I think this is especially important in light of the passages that discuss the “Holy Spirit of Promise,” both in the D&C (section 132, for example) and in Ephesians: in the latter, the promised Holy Spirit seals up the faithful in the Son as a son to the Father. That is, it follows our own sacrament prayer: we approach the Father in the name of the Son, at least, inasmuch as the Spirit is always to be with us, sealing up that covenantal relation (obviously, typological thinking plays a very important part here).
So let me get to the point, at last. It seems to me that one of Joseph Smith’s fundamental insights (read: most earth-shattering revelations) was about what we ought to recognize when we encounter the “Trinity”: a Father and a Son who are sealed up by the Holy Spirit of Promise. In other words: the Trinity gives us the Nauvoo temple ceremonies, especially the sealing ordinance (notice that I am bypassing the “metaphysical” insights one can speak of here). What we are to recognize is how it is that the Spirit binds up the two Adams Paul speaks of (even typologically… what Alma would call spiritually… cf. Alma 36-37). In fact, such an insight hands us right over to the thing that obsessed Joseph’s thinking more than anything else in the last few years of his life: what will happen at Adam-Ondi-Ahman, where Adam and Christ will come face to face, and all those who have ever held the keys of the priesthood (interpreted, I think, in the broadest sense; that is, not in terms of offices, but of keys) will have their sealings to that Father-Son pair sealed up by the most Holy Spirit (I won’t here go into how Brigham interpreted all this!).
Now, I’m just trying to think about this here. I’m still not sure how to think about most of this. But I’m beginning to recognize something as I read Joseph and Brigham and especially the D&C about all of this: the Spirit is, from start to finish, a question of community. And this calls into question, for me at least, what I have been taught all of my life: that the Spirit is a personalizer. As I go back through the scriptures and read each reference to the Spirit, I’m being struck by the fact that the Spirit is never a personalizer, but always a gatherer, a sealer, a unifier. And this, it seems to me, would have major implications for thinking about what it means to study, teach, think, act, and work by the Spirit.
But those implications remain to be worked out.