A Southern Baptist seminary professor who challenged a World Council of Churches leader for saying the Holy Spirit “reaches in mysterious ways to people of all faiths” is guilty of placing limits on God, a U.S. ecumenical leader says.
Russell Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, denounced the WCC, an ecumenical body that includes nearly all the world’s Orthodox and numerous Protestant denominations, as a “boutique of paganism in Christian garb.”
Moore cited comments by the WCC’s moderator, Catholicos Aram I of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
“According to biblical teachings, God’s gift of salvation in Christ is offered to the whole humanity,” Aram said. “Likewise, according to Christian pneumatology, the Holy Spirit’s work is cosmic; it reaches in mysterious ways to people of all faiths.”
Moore said in Baptist Press that Aram’s suggestion that the Holy Spirit “operates in non-Christian religions” should lead “regenerate” believers around the world to recognize the spirit of the WCC as “the spirit of antichrist.”
But Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations with the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., says a foundational Bible passage of Christian pneumatology–the study of the Holy Spirit–is the third chapter of John, where Jesus tells Nicodemus the Spirit cannot be contained.
“The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going,” Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:8. “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
The Greek word used in the verse, “pneuma,” can mean wind, spirit or Spirit, “each of which occurs in this context,” according to the Holman Christian Standard Bible, published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Bible says Nicodemus, identified as a “man from the Pharisees,” was bewildered by Jesus’ words. “Present-day Nicodemuses, like the Pharisee of old, stand bewildered at the breadth of God’s Spirit,” Premawardhana said.
Christians view the Holy Spirit as one of three persons in the Godhead. Though the word Trinity is not in the Bible, it became a central dogma describing the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the early centuries of church history.
In her 2003 book, Joining the Dance: A Theology of the Spirit, Baptist theologian Molly Marshall revisited theology developed in the fourth century to propose a “holistic” view “that relates all creation to the Trinitarian history without succumbing to pantheism or to the hierarchical dualism that sharply separates the divine from the creaturely.”
Beyond enlivening and empowering the church, Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan., said, God’s Spirit “indwells all creation” and is the reason humans yearn to worship.
Such a theology has implications for the environment, she wrote, and social issues. Liberation movements like those for women’s and civil rights, she said, are part of the Spirit’s “winnowing work” in the world, toward liberation and overcoming evil, including beyond the walls of the church.
As far as relating to people of other faiths, Marshall wrote, “An increase in religious tolerance (at least in many sectors) and a growing receptivity to pluralism in contemporary society have opened avenues of dialogue never before possible between religions.”
“As one learns more about other religious pathways, one discovers not only momentous differences, but also striking similarities of meaning,” she wrote. “At this point in human history, we must find new ways to engage adherents of the disparate religions for the sake of understanding and for the sake of continued coexistence.”
“When we can cease our triumphalist monologue long enough to listen deeply, we can hear the breathing of the Spirit through these other ways of faith,” Marshall wrote. “It seems plausible to interpret the truth that is encountered as nothing less than the work of God’s Spirit guiding into all truth,” a quotation from John 16:13.
Recognition that the Spirit is at work in other traditions, Marshall wrote, does not “diminish the significance of the Christ.”
“As the Spirit draws persons toward God, they are moving toward the one we confess as Trinity,” Marshall said. “Although we cannot say with certainty how their faith is met by the grace of God, the Spirit’s sustaining presence with them grants hope.”
Premawardhana, an ordained Baptist minister, said Moore’s “fundamentalism seems to close his mind to the possibility of the Holy Spirit’s movement outside his own narrow theological constructs.”
“Let alone in other religious traditions, his theology won’t even allow God’s Spirit to be working within one of the largest manifestations of the Body of Christ in the world, which, by the way, includes several Baptist bodies,” he said. “‘Are you a teacher of theology,’ Jesus might say, ‘and yet you do not understand these things?'”
Premawardhana said Jesus “took very seriously” attempts to limit the Holy Spirit, or in other words, to limit God.
“Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him,” Jesus says in Matthew 12:32. “But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.