By James Bratt
When I was a kid, I never got the big deal about Pentecost. For one, it didn’t come along with any special songs or meals. Compare that to Easter, where you could get both of those in one package: “Low in the Gravy Lay.” Actually, you didn’t really want the gravy my mom served with her Easter ham dinner, although we offset that salt-special with her lime jello concoction that combined all four food groups: pear chunks, shredded carrots, chopped walnuts, and a Kool-Whip topping for your bit of dairy.
If it was Aunt Jen’s turn to host the extended-family gathering, you could count on treats my parents tried to avoid for the sake of dental bills, hyper-activity, and uncomfortable fertility symbolism: chocolate eggs, marshmallow chicks, and unlimited jelly beans.
For Christmas, of course, we had several family reunions, with jello (there’s a pattern here), chips, and pigs-in-the-blanket sure to pop up along the way. Plus carols at church and home, gift exchanges, and enough sentiment stirred up to suffuse the heart against all pain and doubt.
Weird and Discomfiting
But Pentecost? Nuthin’. No canonical hymns, no special dinner (except your beef roast and mashed potatoes were always special, Mom), no family gatherings, only weirdness topped by discomfiting admonitions.
The weirdness lay with those tongues of fire and mighty wind. Hey, springtime in Michigan is tornado weather, so ixnay on the turbulent atmosphere already! The Sunday School pictures of bearded, berobed guys whose heads were suffering from mis-directed charcoal lighter inspired distaste rather than the tears evoked by Baby Jesus or the awe attending the Risen Lord.
Plus one heard rumors of crazy people who used Pentecost as a label, “holy rollers” who handled snakes and claimed, against all reason and scientific evidence, that they could perform miraculous healings. Not that we Dutch Reformed types denied miracles—just that you shouldn’t bet on them or have the audacity to command God to deliver them on cue. Or really expect one for yourself.
As for the discomfiting admonitions, well, the Pentecost sermon was bound to urge us to go out and “witness,” which to me meant cold-calling strangers door-to-door or confronting random persons on the street and asking them where they would be spending eternity if they died tonight. Christian Reformed people tended not to be very good at that, and—it still seems to me—for very good reason. Nor did I yet know Mark Twain’s response to that question: “I’ll take heaven for the climate and hell for the company.” Why does that advice seem so apropos today?
Junior Partner/Tag-Along Child?
The biggest problem with Pentecost, however, seemed to be that there just wasn’t much for the Holy Spirit to do. I mean, how did this guy merit inclusion in the Trinity along with the Father and the Son, who obviously carried out some pretty heavy lifting? Wasn’t the Trinity really a 2+-ity, the alleged Third Person really qualifying as a junior partner, something like the trailing child born to a couple who thought they were done after #2? After all, the Spirit gets only one Q&A in the Heidelberg Catechism while the Father gets three and the Son twenty-four! And however rich the answer to Q&A 53 may be, what I took out of catechism class was that the Holy Spirit had just two jobs: to comfort us when sad and to inspire the writers of the Bible so that their texts were infallible. That is, all those unpredictable, unsettling actions hovering around the Holy Spirit package were stripped away so that God was back in the box of words bound within black-leather covers. Back in the text. Our sure and perfect text-box.
Calvin–Theologian of the Holy Spirit?
People my age and of similar background have told me they learned it very differently, so part—much?—of my truncated understanding probably reflects bad reception rather than bad teaching. In any case, my real education on the point has come in three parts. It began in grad school when I dove into The Spirit of the Reformed Tradition by Eugene Osterhaven, late professor of theology at Western Theological Seminary. I was astounded to come across a line describing John Calvin as a—perhaps the premier—theologian of the Holy Spirit. And to see that characterization attributed to B. B. Warfield of all people, co-inventor of the theory of biblical inerrancy. But as I read on, there and in other sources, of Calvin’s teaching about the testimony of the Holy Spirit—the action that transforms the dead page of scripture into the living word of God in our hearts—various old doubts and conundrums in my head began to be resolved, and the Third Person took on a richer role, something of a mentor and companion. Not a miracle-worker, maybe, although keeping me from behaving down to my worst level might sometimes be miracle enough.
Things got richer yet in doing research for my biography of Abraham Kuyper. In his Work of the Holy Spirit (1888-89; E.T. 1956) Kuyper ties the Spirit’s role closely to his own favorite themes of creation and culture. Out of the chaos attending the human fall into sin the Spirit has been, is, and unto the end of time shall remain busy bringing out a new creation that will finally sing perfect praises to its Maker, as was the divine intention in the first place. Meanwhile, Kuyper continued, all along the Spirit has been bringing forth the first notes and sounding forth the big themes of that grand symphony. Included here are the well-known tasks of working sanctification among the saints—more accurately, conveying Christ’s perfections to them—as well as inspiring the Scriptures, conceiving the person of Christ, and building the church as Christ’s representative on earth.
But the Spirit’s sweep goes far beyond the elect and the familiar tropes of redemption, Kuyper insisted. Every human gift, every talent, every good work is the Spirit’s work. The vocation of every person, redeemed or not, and the “genius” of every nation are the Spirit’s gift. The “work of the Holy Spirit,” Kuyper even said, “touches every creature, whether animate and inanimate”—those butterflies and bears and rocks and trees and skies and seas are charismatic that way. Nor is the Spirit’s work in creation a once and done affair; it is still active today, “quickening and sustaining life” in every creature’s “being and talents.” (E.T. 45-46)
This Incredibly Benevolent Force
All these reflections were called back up but also re-set when I recently read This Incredibly Benevolent Force: The Holy Spirit in Reformed Theology and Spirituality (Eerdmans 2018), the published version of the 2014 Warfield Lectures given at Princeton Theological Seminary by my friend Cornelis van der Kooi. As a professor at the Free University in Amsterdam, Kees stands literally in Kuyper’s line; but with additional duties as director of the Center for Evangelical and Reformation Theology there, he has also taken on the role of being a critical friend of the ongoing charismatic movement, both at home and abroad.
Kees trims back some of Kuyper’s enthusiasms; the master was too enamored of secularization and technology, as well as dualistic as to spiritual-material distinctions. At the same time, This Incredibly Benevolent Force is a tour de force on the state of play between Logos and Spirit Christology, bringing Christ down out of the clouds of Greek philosophical abstraction into the living, learning, suffering, and finally triumphant life of Jesus. It is the Spirit who made and makes him Emanuel, the one who is “with us”—and for us. At the same time, it is the Spirit that bears the love of God into the unfathomably far reaches of a cosmos that would otherwise remain a blank space, the big empty.
From down here to the farthest out there the Spirit is active, inviting us indeed to bear witness to the wonderful works of God. To me that “witness” means mostly watching and living accordingly, using words, á la St. Francis, only when necessary. In any case, Pentecost turns out to be a big deal after all.
Reformed folk can join with those claiming to be a “full-gospel church”—maybe even remind the others of some overlooked elements in that mix. I’ll pass on the charcoal lighter and snakes, though; just settle for a decent meal. Hmmm, maybe some bread and wine.