Christ and the Spirit: Fleshing Out the Vision of A.B. Simpson's Imitation of Christ

Craig J. Slane

 In theological circles A.B. Simpson is not usually considered a first-rate thinker, if he is even read at all. To theologians his arguments will seem loosely spun and too quickly curtailed in favor of what many would call “practical living.” I have always regarded Simpson as a man of passionate wisdom, a first-rate devotional writer whose sure-handed sense for those spiritual currents which undergird Christian life continues to inspire genuine Christian piety. Recently I've begun to consider anew some of Simpson's theological insights. As my affinity for him has grown, so has my conviction that he was at bottom a man with sound theological intuition, even if lacking the precise tools to hone and tune some of his most seminal insights. Like many figures who exhibit extraordinary charisma, the elaboration and marination of their insights is a responsibility that falls upon those of us who follow. As one who labors in theological ministry at the institution which bears his name, I assume this cheerfully as one of the implicit charges of my office.

 One insight of Simpson's seems particularly relevant in our present North American context1: the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus. The Christian and Missionary Alliance has occasionally (and sporadically) teetered on the verge of excessive longing for and preoccupation with dramatic and powerful manifestations of the Spirit. Cast in its best light, such longing testifies to a healthy realism concerning the dangers of a religious formalism which under certain conditions may become more an obstacle than an aid to fellowship with God. It also expresses the winsome conviction that, though the Scriptures are primary in our corporate life, the Spirit of God is ever new and creative and may lead the Church in surprising directions. These are positive convictions and I see them as genuine strengths of our denomination. Yet, like all things in God's creation, even good convictions are subject to distortion and manipulation. In a dimmer light, then, the longing for spiritual power and drama may divert attention from the very Christ to whom the Spirit bears witness and thus do an injustice to the gospel itself. Or, in the terms of this essay, it may fail to grasp the full scope of Christ's relationship to the Spirit.

 In this essay I argue on the one hand that Simpson's insight into the Christ-Spirit relationship evokes a possibility for the imitatio Christi which the Christian tradition has largely overlooked. On the other hand, I argue that Simpson was not sensitive enough to the radical depths of Trinitarian thought and thus was unable to work his insight to its logical conclusion. This essay is devoted to a synopsis of these two perspectives in the hope that a more fully nuanced understanding of the imitatio Christi might emerge. It is also my hope that perhaps, in some small way, the church may begin to appreciate, articulate and embrace in the Christ-Spirit relation a regulative function for its corporate life.

 I. Reflections on a 1905 Sermon

 The topic of this essay makes its appearance in Simpson's thought in a sermon titled The Holy Spirit and the Gospel delivered in 1905 to the Gospel Tabernacle in New York.2 The text for this sermon is based on a particular incident in Luke's extended chronicle of Jesus' activities following His baptism (Luke 3:21-22). We will recall that when the Spirit led Jesus back to His native Nazareth of Galilee, He maintained the tradition of His family by attending synagogue. So it was surely no extraordinary event when Jesus was asked to give the reading from the prophets, whereupon He took the scroll from the scrollkeeper, and began reading the following selection from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” As it was customary for esteemed guests to give a brief comment on the text, Jesus added these words: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). At this point the narrative takes a sharp turn. Those present express astonishment, for the humble Son of Joseph had indulged Himself in the quite monstrous claim that the new work of God's Spirit was uniquely attached to Himself!

 This interesting narrative marks something of a “coming-out” for Jesus, an open confession concerning the kind of Messiah He would be and the kind of mission He would have. Jesus was entering public ministry by a patent and daring identification of Himself with the Spirit of God. It is the riveting boldness of Jesus' Messianic claim that gets Simpson's attention and swarms at the periphery of his sermon on this day. Something utterly transforming—some watershed event—has happened even in the life of Jesus. Listen now to Simpson:

There is no doubt that in some sense the Lord Jesus had the presence of the Holy Spirit in connection with His birth and His early life. The announcement of the birth stated explicitly, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee; therefore that Holy Thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Christ therefore was born in His divine and human Person through the Holy Ghost. Nor can we question that the wonderful grace and wisdom which marked his childhood and youth were the result of the Holy Spirit's influence. And yet there came a day when in some entirely new and higher sense the Holy Spirit, like a dove, descended upon Him (emphasis added). . . . Indeed, from this time He attributed all His works to the power of the Holy Ghost who dwelt in Him, and one of the very reasons why the sin of rejecting Him was so aggravated was just because it was a sin not only against Him, but against the Holy Spirit who dwelt in Him and spake and wrought through Him.3

 Reflecting in retroactive fashion upon Jesus' baptism, Simpson perceives in Jesus' synagogue commentary the inauguration of a new quality of filial intimacy between Son and Spirit. Simpson's thought is not groundbreaking here. Yet the tenacity with which he pursues the distinction between the pre-baptized and baptized Jesus reveals that something quite important is at stake for Him. According to Simpson, in Jesus' baptism “something transcendently more than the incarnation of Christ” happened, for “up to this time there had been one personality, henceforth there were two; for the Holy Spirit was added to the Christ.”4 Behind this rather awkward theological speech lies Simpson's rationale for Christian life in the Spirit. Just as Christ's natural birth in the Spirit did not obviate the need for a baptism in the Spirit, the same could be said of His followers. The subject of Christ's relation to the Spirit

. . . is a subject well worthy of the closest study, for it teaches us much practical truth not only in connection with the Master, but also with our own spiritual life. For if He was our Forerunner, and if it be true that “as He is so are we also in this world,” then the definite steps of our Lord's experience should be repeated and fulfilled in the lives of His followers.5 (emphasis added)

 Here we encounter Simpson's abiding interest in the imitatio Christi, which marks so much of his work. We are not concerned here with the general message that Christ's followers are to imitate Him. In myriad ways this theme has been treated in the broader Christian tradition, from the Christ-mysticism of Hilary of Poiters to Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic work The Cost of Discipleship. But in these classic works the Holy Spirit plays at best an auxiliary role in the imitatio. We are concerned, however, with Simpson's quite specific suggestion that in Jesus' own experience of the Spirit we have the basic structure for Christian life “in the Spirit.” The mutual intimacy (what the ancient church called perichoresis, literally a “dancing-around”) of Son and Spirit constitutes a pattern repeatable and fulfillable in Christ's followers. Reading between the lines (as we must), we might venture that Simpson is dissatisfied with the classical Christian understanding of the imitatio Christi on the grounds that it does not incorporate adequately the New Testament portrait of Jesus as a dynamic bearer of the Spirit. Implicitly Simpson calls us to consider the possibility that the tradition of the imitatio Christi may be deepened and intensified if we return to one of the salient features of the Synoptic Gospels, i.e., its pneumatological Christology.6 Let's follow on to see how Simpson describes Christ's experience of the Spirit.

 Following baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Jesus wrestled with the devil, but amidst all strategies aimed at His destruction “He stood unmoved in his obedience to the Father's word” and thus “came forth more than a conqueror.” This leads Simpson to the conclusion that “the first thing we may look for, after the baptism of the Holy Spirit, is the wilderness with its desolations and privations.”7 Christ's first experience in the Spirit is that of a deliverer from temptation.

 From the temptation narrative the scene shifts to Jesus' native Galilee where He is seen teaching in the synagogue. He clearly connects His ministry with the long lineage of Israel's prophets (Luke 4:21-27), but Luke understands Jesus as a special kind of prophet, for He evokes a spontaneous amazement in the crowds who can only mutter with astonishment that His words resonate with an unprecedented authority (4:32). Consequently, the crowd is enraged and seeks His destruction, but Jesus slips away to Capernaum where He performs an exorcism. Jesus' reputation as a wonder-worker spreads rapidly through the region. Simpson works Luke's narrative to show how in this new spiritual state “all His works, all His miracles of power [are] attributed directly to the Holy Spirit.” By Himself Jesus could do nothing. In humility He took His place alongside us, “suspended the direct operation of His own independent power and became voluntarily dependent on the power of God through the Holy Spirit.”8 Joseph's Son—and from lowly Nazareth at that!—has arisen as a charismatic phenomenon with a growing national reputation. Simpson plays the irony with excellent skill and parlays it into the thesis that without the Spirit of God upon Him Jesus can do nothing. Jesus is utterly dependent on the Spirit for His charismatic vitality.

Oh, what a solemn spectacle it is to see the Son of God spending thirty years on earth without one single act of public ministry until he received the baptism of power from on high. Then He concentrated a whole lifetime of service into forty-two short months of intense activity and almighty power!9

 To summarize, out of relative obscurity Jesus is (1) born of the Spirit as He submits to John's teaching and baptism; (2) then the Spirit engages Him in an excruciating course of temptations—the so-called “wilderness experience”—which work as a kind of crucible from which the minister emerges; (3) finally the Spirit inaugurates Him in a charismatic ministry characterized by displays of amazing power. Here Simpson presents a model for interpreting Jesus' life and ministry together with ours, a model rooted in Jesus' own experience of the Spirit. The event by which the Church is taken into the Christ-Spirit relation is Pentecost. By this means the Spirit of Jesus now rests upon the Church and establishes a profound continuity between Christ and His followers.

Let us accept this mighty gift. Let us believe in Him and His all-sufficiency. Let us receive Him and give Him room, and let us go forth to reproduce the life and ministry of Jesus and perpetuate the divine miracles of our holy Christianity through the power of the blessed Comforter.10 (emphasis added)

 II. Analysis

 What one makes of Simpson's understanding depends in large measure on the kind of Christological assumptions one brings to the theological task itself. If we evaluate Simpson's model alongside the greater history of Christian thought, it receives but scant support. Since the gravitational pull of the earliest Christological heresies11 forced the Church to contend against various “Spirit Christologies,” caution was coded into the very genes of subsequent theology. Hence, from the skirmishes of the fourth century through the Chalcedonian Definition (A.D. 451) and beyond, spiritual interpretations of Christ occupy only a small corner in the great room of Christian tradition. But one must, as Simpson does, hold open the question whether their small space in the tradition might inadvertently have perpetuated a lopsided view of Jesus. Could the Church's well-intentioned dogmatic, protective stance have contributed to the eventual loss of a substantial portion of the Christ's original charismatic vitality?

 Recent discussions are beginning to revisit the matter in a fresh way. In response to both the de facto emergence of the Pentecostal churches in this century and the rediscovery of the kingdom of God as the primary horizon for Jesus' ministry, it seems that contemporary scholarship is creating elbow room once again for spiritual interpretations of Jesus.12 In dogmatics, Jürgen Moltmann's recent work The Spirit of Life takes up this angle in expert fashion, and in Jesus scholarship the theme is manifesting itself as well. It seems that we are entering upon a time in which it will be nigh to axiomatic that the New Testament (the Synoptic Gospels in particular) showcases Jesus' life in terms of the Spirit. A retrospective glance reveals that Simpson may have anticipated one of the key movements in contemporary scholarship in his suggestion that the seminal impulses of Christian life are hidden away in the intimacy of Christ's own experience of the Spirit.

 It remains something of a misfortune, therefore, that Simpson did not follow his insights to their logical conclusion. Put succinctly, some of the most significant moments of Jesus' career as bearer of the Spirit—namely His suffering and death—are given little or no attention.13 It might be argued that the set of concerns which occupied Simpson, for example the premium placed upon victory in Christian life, poised him to stress certain elements in Jesus' life over others. Or perhaps these “moments” were simply assumed by him and others in the movement and thus needed no mention. Yet there remains also the possibility that some undercurrent in Simpson's theology itself deterred him from this portion of Jesus' career “in the Spirit.” It is not as if we can pinpoint a chronological “edge” in Jesus' life whereafter Simpson had neither the time nor energy to develop further His relation to the Spirit. What we have instead is a considerable gap. Though one finds sustained treatment of the Christ-Spirit relation in the resurrection and frequent mention of the Spirit's subsequent work of joining believers to Christ's resurrection,14 it would appear that Jesus' experience of suffering and death in the Spirit has been bypassed, either because Simpson did not see it as constitutive for Christian life, or because he was unable to understand just how this experience could be adjusted to fit his central theological concerns. In Simpson's defense it should be pointed out that the passion narratives are mostly silent about the Spirit; only by theological reflection can one advance in this area. Yet, if Jesus' relation to the Spirit reveals the structure of Christian life as Simpson supposes, then the integrity of this relationship (and therewith the power of Simpson's suggestion) is maintained only if we keep it at the forefront for the entirety of His ministry.

 From here we could fill in the gap and sketch out the implications easily enough were it not for a nagging difficulty, and one which presents his interpreter with a puzzle. Despite the absence of suffering and death as a feature of Christ's relationship to the Spirit, Simpson does not abandon the theology of the cross. True, in his thought the cross functions primarily in the realm of redemption as the means of atonement, but it is not jettisoned as a “mark”15 of Christian life nor as an instrument of revelation,16 themes so important for Luther and the large strain of Reformation Christianity which followed him. Simpson, like Luther, was too sensitive to Paul's writings to stray from the cross. In the “Christ life,” as Simpson liked to put it, “we cannot overestimate the significance of His death.”17 In writings like The Cross of Christ and The Christ Life, Simpson speaks much like any classical exponent of the imitatio Christi when he argues that a key feature of Christian experience is that “dying with Christ” whereby we follow Him and enter into “fellowship with His cross.” Clearly Simpson does not take the path of so much Pentecostal theology which minimizes suffering and death as constitutive features of Christian life. At the same time, Simpson makes no attempt to understand Christ's suffering and death in terms of His life in the Spirit. Let us now state the puzzle by means of a three-part thesis:

T1 - According to the 1905 sermon, Simpson desires the Christian life to be an imitation of Christ's life in the Spirit.

T2 - Simpson stresses Christ's experience of the Spirit in the pre-Easter years of His ministry and also in the post-Easter life of the Church, but he does not account for the Spirit in the period of Christ's life marked principally by suffering and death.

T3 - Yet Simpson does not ignore the death of Christ when explicating the nature of Christian life as an imitation of Christ.

 Theologically speaking, the missing pieces of this puzzle turn out to be: (1) Christ's experience of the Spirit in His suffering and death, and (2) a description of how that experience might illumine the structure of Christian life as an imitatio Christi. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to placing these missing pieces into the puzzle as I have presented it.

  Before proceeding it might be helpful to state the problem in terms of the reciprocity of Christ and the Holy Spirit to avoid construing the Christ-Spirit relationship as only one dimension, i.e., Christ's experience of the Spirit. What if we were to look at this relationship from the standpoint of the Spirit's experience of Christ? If following Jesus' baptism the third person of the Trinity is joined profoundly and inseparably to the second (i.e., co-inheres in a perichoretic unity), then it should be possible to speak from this side too. Moreover, since the baptism of Jesus is a moment in the movement of the triune God—the Father's pleasure with the Son and the Spirit's presence upon Him being constitutive features of the event—the reciprocity of Son and Spirit cannot be isolated from the purposes of the Father. And to carry it a step further, we must be ready to describe the suffering and death of Jesus as an intra-Trinitarian event as well. We should not suppose it possible to explicate this relationship simply by choosing the Spirit's experience over the Son's. In the end it is the reciprocal nature of the Christ-Spirit relationship that really matters, and all the more when considered as an aspect of God's inner life. In any case, what if we could elaborate this reciprocity and let it inform our understanding of the imitation of Christ? What further insights, corrective or otherwise, might be gained?

 III. A Trinitarian Reading of Christ and the Spirit18

 It is important to understand that a dramatic new movement of the Spirit on earth preceded the baptism and ministry of Jesus. John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit from his mother's womb (Luke 1:15). In the Gospels Jesus first appears publicly as a disciple of John's, identifying Himself with the Baptist's call for national repentance. Jesus neither usurps, supplants nor competes with John's ministry; rather He waits for John to be forced out of the public arena (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14). Jesus recognized John's ministry as the forward edge of the Spirit's work. As Jesus begins His public ministry, His first words according to Matthew are “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” the precise message of John. Clearly Jesus identified Himself with the Spirit's prior work in John's ministry. When Jesus offers Himself for John's baptism He hears a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Then “like a dove” the Spirit descended and rested upon Him.

 The Gospel writers see in this event the rationale for Jesus' mighty works in the Spirit. At various points in the narrative Jesus is described as “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1), “in the power of the Spirit” (4:14), “led by the Spirit” (4:1), “sent” by the Spirit (Mark 1:12) and having the “Spirit without limit” (John 3:34). However, the Spirit's “descent” should be interpreted not only as Jesus' endowment with power, but also as the “pouring out” or emptying of God's Shekinah. Beyond this point the Spirit will participate increasingly in the lowliness and humility of the Son. Thus, by implication, the kenosis of the Son (Philippines 2:6-11) means also a kenosis or self-emptying of the Spirit. To be sure, Jesus' ministry is marked by a tremendous “fullness” of Spirit, the point Simpson rightly seized upon in his interpretation. Jesus drives out demons, heals the sick and serves the poor by means of the Spirit's power. All the while, however, the Spirit is leading Jesus toward something else.

 When the Spirit “leads” (Luke) or “sends” (Mark) Jesus into the wilderness it is above all for the purpose of instruction. Each of the temptations presupposes Jesus' unique relationship to God, which the devil attempts to bend in a certain direction. “If you are the Son of God . . .” then provide bread for the hungry masses, perform some Herculean feat of strength to free Jerusalem or take charge of the kingdoms of this world! The devil would have Jesus construe His relationship to God as one of coercive power whereby the divine will is immediately and forcibly imposed on the present structure of Palestinian life. The Spirit is dragging Jesus through these trials19 to teach Him what kind of Messiah He is to be, that is, the Spirit of God is teaching Jesus to surrender ambitions for political-economic release from Roman influence and violent action in behalf of the kingdom. God's will involves an entirely different modus operandi. Already in the temptations, therefore, we see projected the future course of Jesus' life in the Spirit. The way rejected in the wilderness anticipates the way of the cross. Some time later when Jesus discloses to the disciples that He must suffer and die, Peter rebukes Him and incurs Jesus' harsh response: “Out of my sight, Satan!” (Mark 8:33). Jesus' brazen response is explained by the fact that the same temptation of the desert comes to Him now again: assume a Messiahship which avoids suffering and sacrifice and instead pursue power. One imagines this to have been the major temptation of Jesus' life, even into the Garden of Gethsemane, where the human will of Jesus wrestles itself into conformity with the divine. The point is plain: if Jesus holds fast to the direction revealed by the Spirit His life will be marked not by power in the ordinary sense of the term, but by the power to surrender His life in weakness. Only the Spirit's abiding presence with Jesus makes this kind of life possible. The Spirit's presence is not for the purpose of making Jesus into a superman but for sustenance and diligence along that road which leads to the cross.

 This means that Jesus' charismatic displays of power are never the focal point of His ministry. They are signs of the kingdom, pointers to that marvelous work of God whereby this dear old creation is being re-born. In themselves such signs are always ambiguous and open to misinterpretation, so that Jesus on many occasions was reluctant to perform with the Spirit's power. Jews demand a sign, but Jesus will give none but Jonah (Matthew 12:38-41). Nor will He perform for Herod Antipas when asked to “act” like a Messiah. Signs are ambiguous and prove nothing. Jesus will use the power of the Spirit to serve and love others, but He will not use it to anchor or “prove” by themselves His identity. To the contrary, it appears on many occasions that Jesus intentionally veiled His identity. In Mark's Gospel especially, which tells the story of Jesus as the history of the Spirit with Jesus, it is not until the dramatic scene before Pilate that He confesses Himself to be the Messiah (Mark 15:2). Why would Jesus come out openly at this late point? Why not in the “prime” of His ministry when He flowed in regal splendor from one Galilean town to the next enjoying great popularity? It is because Jesus wants to define for Himself what the office of Messiah entails rather than lend His support to the misguided perception of the public (and even His own disciples!). Spit upon and mocked, finally He can become the canvas against which God paints His own intent for the Messiah. Finally He can demonstrate in His very being what the Spirit has been teaching all along: Messiahship and suffering are inseparable. Perhaps it is too strong to say that the healings and exorcisms have been merely pointers, but clearly the trajectory of Jesus' life relativizes these expressions of power by orienting them to the cross.

 Jesus is no less a bearer of the Spirit in His passion than in His early ministry. The Spirit does not vacate, but it undergoes the same suffering and rejection as the Son. Jesus goes “in the Spirit” to His death. In Jesus' dying the Spirit's experience is that of being “breathed out” and “yielded up.”20 Afterward the Spirit, having shared life so intimately with the Son, waits to be reunited with Him, and can even be seen as the active agent in that reunion (Romans 8:11). Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday one might say that the same Spirit which intercedes for us in our weakness, interceded for Christ with groans too deep for words (8:26-27). When Jesus is resurrected the Spirit and Son enjoy reunion and intimacy once again. The bond between Spirit and Son is so strong, perhaps even so “exclusive,” that unless the Son ascends the Spirit cannot be released from Christ to fall upon the disciples (John 16:7). The shared intimacy between Son and Spirit in the history of Jesus is the basis upon which the Spirit can be invoked in Christ's name. From the point of view of the Spirit, three or so years of intimacy with Christ transforms the “Spirit of God” (in the Old Testament sense) to the “Spirit of Christ” (in the Pauline sense). By sharing the ministry and fate of Jesus, the person of Holy Spirit in the Church—Christ's body21—will now be forever in the service of the Son, magnifying and glorifying Him. The Church, as the inheritor of the Spirit of Christ, shares even now in the fellowship of Christ and the Spirit. Indeed, as fantastic as it sounds, the Church has been made a participant in the intra-Trinitarian fellowship of God (cf. 1 John 1:3).

 IV. Conclusion

 If we allow a fully Trinitarian reading of Christ's life in the Spirit—one that follows Jesus' life in the Spirit through suffering and death—to inform our perspective of what it means to follow Jesus, then suffering and death will be more than detours on the road of discipleship. Movements that elevate the Spirit by assigning Him a place of prominence in Christian life and thought are particularly vulnerable, it seems, to a certain temptation: to construe the weakness of Christ's suffering and cross as but the preparation for His resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit. When this becomes the reigning paradigm, the often harsh realities of life are not seen for what they are: opportunities to participate in creation's redemption. Followers of Christ must not expect that “life in the Spirit” is solely about victory and power. To be sure, the intimacy between Jesus and the Spirit is now made real in Christ's relationship to the Church, where victory and power are manifestly present. But the Spirit who works in the Church is still, as ever, embracing and supporting the mission of the Son. The identity of the Spirit in this world is functionally inseparable from the identity of Christ. And that is why our imitation of Christ, even when described as an imitation of Christ's life in the Spirit, must always bear the realities of suffering and cross. A consistent application of the imitatio Christi requires that Jesus' followers evince, by means of their own lives, the entirety of Jesus' life.

 When we read the history of salvation from a Trinitarian perspective we begin to see the work of God's Spirit as a re-vitalization of this fallen world. This is one reason why Christian tradition has so consistently expressed itself, whether in the Apostles' or Nicene Creed, in the poised ballast of Trinitarian language. Rooting our thoughts about salvation and Christian life in the Trinity, we can maintain the delicate but profound continuity between creation and redemption. The age of the Spirit does not mark a radical breach with what precedes, but rather signifies that God's creation may experience a return to that fullness of life originally intended for it. Thus the creeds narrate God's history with creation from beginning to end as a complementary and continuous work of Father, Son and Spirit. As imitators of Christ, being drawn into the reality of Christ and Spirit means that we may embrace our own suffering and death as an essential feature of God's redemption of earthly life. When free-willingly we allow Christ's cross-ward journey to make its mark upon our lives, we offer a space wherein the Spirit of God can make Himself known as the Spirit of New Life.

  In the light of our Trinitarian reading, we have fleshed out the partial vision of what Simpson called the Spirit-filled life. Any understanding of the imitation of Christ which fails to expand and include Christ's intimacy with the Spirit surrenders something of Christ's own vitality. But precisely because this vitality is an aspect of God's inner life as Trinity, we must be cautious never to exempt any events in Christ's life from our interpretation of Christian life generally. The suffering and death of Christ reveal the depths of God's own being and therewith something indispensable for the Spirit-filled life. Christ's death reveals that God's commitment to redeem creation will not be stopped, even if it means placing Himself at risk, pursuing suffering and death to the extraordinary length of the cross. But it also reveals that the God who lovingly embraces death for us is yet the one who winsomely baptizes this stinging scar of sin in the rich waters of His own life. Have we the audacity to avoid what God would not? Our imitation of Christ is riddled with the costliness of grace such that we may reveal ongoingly the companionship, sustenance and revitalizing work of the Spirit. With the aid of a Trinitarian reading, it is as if Simpson's insight into the imitatio Christi acquires, alas, its own voice:

For if He was our Forerunner, and if it be true that “as He is so are we in this world,” then . . . our Lord's experience should be repeated and fulfilled in the lives of His followers.22


 1 Though numerous historical movements come to mind, one thinks of the so-called “Toronto Blessing” with its various manifestations including holy laughter, falling and “drunkenness in the Spirit.” It would seem that an appropriate theological response to phenomena of this kind requires some apprehension of Jesus' own experiences in the Spirit.

 2 A.B. Simpson. “The Holy Spirit and the Gospel” (Gospel Tabernacle Pulpit, Weekly Sermon) The Christian and Missionary Alliance (1905):133-134, 138.

 3 Ibid., 133. This sermon was reprinted and enlarged into the piece “The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus,” in The Holy Spirit: Power from on High, ed. Keith Bailey (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1994): 305-314.

 4 The Holy Spirit: Power from on High, 309.

 5 “The Holy Spirit and the Gospel,” 133.

 6 While the Synoptic Gospels emphasize a pneumatological doctrine of Christ, the Johannine and Pauline literature stress a Christological doctrine of the Spirit. See Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), chapter 3.

 7 The Holy Spirit: Power from on High, 311.

 8 Ibid., 313.

 9 Ibid., 314.

 10 Ibid.

 11One danger of these Spirit Christologies moved in the direction of an Adoptionism like that of Paul of Samosata (condemned A.D. 268), which espoused a Jesus born as a “mere man” but ascending to Sonship through the power of the Spirit. In a slightly different direction, Spirit Christologies tended to depict Jesus as an “angelic being” who had, ontologically speaking, a divine essence, yet was without the full measure of divinity. Gnosticism and Arianism represent this tendency. Here one should note that contrary to the major currents in contemporary theology which make difficult any divine claims for Jesus, the earliest interpretations were mired in the opposite problem of affirming His real humanity. In many ways the Church's uneasiness concerning Spirit Christologies is but a necessary and protective corollary of its doctrine of the Trinity, which is always but a short step from collapse when Jesus is construed as a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led person.

 12 See Marcus Borg, Jesus a New Vision (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 39-76.

 13 For example, in The Holy Spirit: Power from on High, The Cross of Christ and The Christ Life one looks in vain for such topics.

 14 The Holy Spirit: Power from on High, 249-258; 317.

 15 Albert Simpson, The Cross of Christ (Harrisburg, PA.: Christian Publications, 1969 reprint), 35ff.

 16 Ibid., 19.

 17 Albert Simpson, The Christ Life (New York: Christian Alliance Pub. Co., 1925), 15ff.

 18 In this section I acknowledge gratefully my debt to the works of others, especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), but also Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, IL: Eerdmans, 1991-present); and John J. O'Donnell, The Mystery of the Triune God (New York: Paulist Press, 1989).

 19 As a Jew who had already cast His lot with John's passion for a national repentance, one supposes that these were trials in the truest sense. It is a subtle feature of the gospel narrative that Jesus' love for His people tempted Him at many points to pursue the path of immediate and tangible justice so prized in His native, zealot-influenced Galilee.

 20 The Gospels themselves may seem to give little warrant for reading what was “yielded up” as the divine Spirit, yet when taken in broader context the impression gets a bit clearer. If the point of the Father's turning away during the crucifixion (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matthew 27:46]) is to reveal Jesus as the God-forsaken bearer of sin, then the isolation of the Son as Sin-Bearer implies the withdrawal of Father and Spirit. Might it be that the yielding of the Spirit explains the role of the Spirit in Christ's sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14)? In the moment of death, the Spirit may be interceding for the Son. According to one layer of Scripture it is through the Spirit that the Son is raised from the dead (Romans 8:11; 1 Peter 3:18). Examined in light of Trinitarian doctrine, the conclusion that the Spirit was present with Jesus to the bitter end seems nearly inescapable.

 21 At some level, a full understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Spirit requires that the “body of Christ” be more than “symbol” or “metaphor” in the modern sense. Protestant ecclesiology always stands in danger when it explicates itself solely in terms of Pentecost and the Spirit without recognizing in due proportion the continuation of Christ's presence in the world which the Spirit makes possible.

 22 “The Holy Spirit and the Gospel,” 133.

Editorial: The Anatomy of Compromise


The Social Gospel vs Personal Salvation: A Late Nineteenth-Centuray Case Study- Walter Rauschenbusch and A.B. Simpson, Daniel J. Evearitt

The Seal of the Holy Spirit and the Eternal Security of the Believer, Eldon Woodcock

The Restoration of the Doctrine of Binding and Loosing, Paul L. King

Why Youth Groups Matter: A Social Science Research Perspective, Leonard Kageler

Reaching the World through the City, George Reitz

The Religious Celebrity Syndrome: A Contemporary Application of First Corinthians 3:1-9, Richard Brown

Christ and the Spirit: Fleshing Out the Vision of A.B. Simpson's Imitation of Christ, Craig J. Slane

Glossolalia and the Ruark Procedure: Distinguishing between True and False Utterances, K. Neill Foster

About the Authors

Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor

Home > 1997

©2006 by K. Neill Foster