The Holy Spirit – Love, Gift, Unity

Using a paper written for Communio by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) in 1998, I would like to examine the implications of the Holy Spirit’s nature for a proper doctrine of the Church. In this paper, Benedict examines Saint Augustine’s treatment of the Holy Spirit, under the rubrics of love, gift and unity, and shows how this treatment leads to a more robust theory of the Church as the Body of Christ. After discussing Augustine’s exegesis of several key Pauline and Johannine passages, Pope Benedict summarises the saint’s initial findings:

The gift of God is the Holy Spirit. The gift of God is love. God communicates himself in the Holy Spirit as love. For Augustine this reveals a number of very important, meaningful conclusions. First of all, the presence of the Holy Spirit is essentially proclaimed in the manner of love. That is the criterion of the Holy Spirit as opposed to the unholy spirit. In fact, that is the presence of the Holy Spirit himself and, in that sense, the presence of God. The basic and central meaning of what the Holy Spirit is and what he effects is ultimately not “knowledge” but love…

…the full clarity of this statement first comes to light in ecclesiology, where Augustine is forced to address the practical question: “What does love mean as a criterion of the Holy Spirit and therefore also as a criterion of being Christian and of the Church?”

taken from The Holy Spirit as Communio: Concerning the Relationship of Pneumatology and Spirituality in Augustine in Communio: International Catholic Review, 25, Summer 1998, p.328.

            The texts Saint Augustine examines to draw out these conclusions are from the First Letter of John and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, particularly (though not solely) by comparison of the following passages:

1 John 4:7 – ‘if we love one another, God abides in us…

1 John 4:16 – ‘God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.

1 John 4:13 – ‘By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.

Romans 5:5 – ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

            By examining these texts side by side we can see what Augustine saw, namely that the terms ‘spirit’ and ‘love’ are used interchangeably, that love is the means by which we abide in God and He in us, and that this love (which is the Spirit) is something given to us by God – i.e.; God’s gift is Himself, the Holy Spirit, who communicates Himself as (and also, in a fundamental sense is) love. The repercussions of this for us, are that the essence of our spiritual lives must be that of unification, of communion, which necessarily involves constancy and patience – their primary characteristic must be that of faithfulness to communion with others, over and against the promptings of the individual will:

Love proves itself in constancy. Love is not recognizable right at any given moment, or in just one moment; instead, love abides, overcomes vacillation, and bears eternity within itself, which also shows, in my opinion, the connection between love and truth. Love in the full sense can only exist where constancy exists. Where abiding exists. Because love has to do with abiding, it cannot take place anywhere except where there is eternity.

From this there emerges the basic framework for a doctrine of the discernment of spirits and a directive for the spiritual life. Clearly anyone who looks for pneuma only on the outside, in the always unexpected, is on the wrong path. He or she fails to appreciate the basic activity of the Holy Spirit: unifying love entering into abiding. This gives rise to a decision of great significance: “Is pneuma only to be sought in the discontinuous or does it dwell precisely in ‘abiding,’ in the constancy of creative fidelity?” If the latter, then it also means that spirit is not present where one speaks “in one’s own name” or “seeks one’s own fame,” thus creating a faction. Pneuma is present precisely in remembering (Jn 14:26) and unifying.

ibid, p.328-329.

            As a concrete example of this seeking of one’s own name, and the concomitant withdrawal from that abiding in the unity of the Spirit mentioned above, Pope Benedict cites Augustine’s dispute with the Donatists. Given that they had the same sacraments and faith as the Catholic Church, what was at the root of their heresy? Benedict (via Augustine) gives the following reason:

They have departed from the true faith because they have placed their own idea of perfection above unity. They have held on to everything that is part of the Catholic Church except that they gave up love when they gave up unity. Without love everything else is empty. The word caritas receives here a very concrete, ecclesiological meaning, and in fact, in Augustine’s language it completely penetrates the concepts, for he says that the Church is love…

…Thus, Augustine thinks of schism as a pneumatological heresy which takes root concretely in the act of living. To remove oneself from the abiding, which is the spirit, from the patience of love, is to revoke love by revoking abiding and thereby denying the Holy Spirit, who is the patience of abiding, of reconciling. Augustine does not assert that whoever remains in the Church automatically has caritas, but rather, that whoever does not willingly remain leaves caritas behind. Therefore his proposition: one possesses the Holy Spirit to the degree that one loves the Church.

ibid, pp.332-333.

            Thus we have a tacit identification of the Church with caritas – an identification that Pope Benedict realises the dangers of, and in which he sees the central potential pitfall as being when those within the Church think of it as an identification that is self-evident, rather than a metaphysical truth that is to be realised within history and a standard to be held up to. However, although for much of history this does remain an ideal, it is nonetheless still a truth, and to deny this deep pneumatological nature of the Church would be to deny its character as the Body of Christ. Discussing Saint Augustine’s treatment of Ephesians 4:7-8 (e.g.; ‘he led captivity captive and gave gifts to men’), Benedict says:

Accordingly, Augustine concentrates here predominantly on the connection between Christ, Spirit, and Church as represented in this text. He concentrates not so much on the individual gifts mentioned in the New Testament as such, but rather on the fact that in all those gifts, the gift—the Holy Spirit—is given. Moreover, Augustine remains faithful to the text and correctly cites 1 Cor 12:11 as a parallel to support his view: “But it is one and the same Spirit who produces all these gifts, distributing them to each as he wills.” But if the gifts are ultimately one gift in many forms, namely the Spirit of God, and if the Spirit is the gift of Jesus Christ (which he gives and receives in men and women), then the innermost finality of all gifts is unity. Thus quite reasonably the related passage from the letter to the Ephesians concludes by setting as the final goal that all of this is “for the sake of building up the body of Christ.”

ibid, p.335.

            So we see that this threefold character of the Holy Spirit is drawn out – His nature as love, gift, and unity – each one by consideration of the other, and how it relates to the Church as the Body of Christ. By seeing the Spirit as God’s gift of Himself to us, we can see in this self-giving the character of love, and the love that is given thereby creates a profound unity – the ‘abiding’ and ‘constancy’ mentioned before. The Holy Spirit cannot be anything other than a unifying spirit, as He is the Spirit of Christ, Christ’s gift of Himself in love – and Christ cannot be divided.

The building up of this Body therefore will involve a commitment to the ‘patience of love’ that Pope Benedict mentions on p.333, which is also the ‘patience of abiding, of reconciling’ which is so characteristic of the Holy Spirit Himself. If we are to grow in the spiritual life, we must allow ourselves to be conformed by the Spirit to this way of being, and subsume our recurrent desire to protest in our own name – for this protestation, this prioritising of some particular concern over the unity of the whole Body, is at the root of all disunion and therefore of all heresy.

It is commonplace nowadays (especially as people’s idea in the West of what the Church is has been so informed by a Protestant ecclesiology) to see ‘spirituality’ as precisely the opposite of this – as a following of those individual promptings, in the name of liberty, in contrast to what are seen as the restrictions placed on this liberty by institutional religion. Saint Augustine however, saw this as antithetical to true Christian spirituality, which was formed and led by the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always oriented towards ‘building up’ – to creating a communion whose nature is abiding, patient love.

…in consequence, suspicion will always arise when someone speaks on his own account, “from within.” Such speech contradicts the Holy Spirit’s mode of being, for he is characterised precisely “by not speaking on his own” (Jn 16:13). In this respect, originality and truth can easily lead to a paradox. But that means that trust is only appropriate when one does not speak on purely private account, but from an experience of the Spirit tested in front of and standing in the context of the whole, i.e.; when one submits the experience of “spirit” to the entirety of the Church.

ibid, p.325.

            Thus, the idea of liberty as radical self-determination that was initiated in the 14th Century, bloomed in the Protestant Reformation, and have fully come to flower in our day, can be seen as not only antithetical to true Christian spirituality, but actually destructive of that building of trust and mutual love which are necessary for developing any stable and long-lasting communion.

A spirit that prizes the individual voice over the good of the Body will always lead to dissension, and this always undermines love. The true Body of Christ therefore will always and only be seen where this constancy and abiding in unity is, at least in principle, a paramount concern and an ultimate standard to be held up to. Anything else is moving away from the work of the Holy Spirit, who, as the Spirit of Christ, cannot be divided. If we are ever to achieve Christian unity then, a commitment to this deeper unity and love, a submission to the truth in the name of the good of the Body, must be a priority – simply agreeing to disagree would still leave us committed to an official toleration of dissension, and this is not what the Spirit is working to achieve.


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