c) 2012' name='copyright'/>Michael DeShane Hinton: The Idea of Spirit in the New Testament

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Idea of Spirit in the New Testament

Use of the word “spirit” in the New Testament is very interesting.  The ancient Greeks, including Hellenistic Jews like Jesus, Paul, and others in the New Testament, believed that the human soul interacted with two outside influences that we Moderns tend not to consider: celestial bodies and spirits.

There are only two astrological references in the New Testament, one when Jesus came the first time … and one when he returns.  The Magi followed their reading of the stars to find Jesus in a manger and worship him as the newborn king.  Jesus and Peter predict astrological “signs” of the second coming but we cannot cover that subject here.

To understand the New Testament use of “spirit,” however, we must become familiar with a term in the history of religions called animism.  In animism the subject is acted upon or animated by a spiritual force or influence, whether good, bad, or indifferent.  But when the spirit acts upon the subject the thinking, behavior, and attitude of the subject is affected in a profound and overwhelming way suggesting total involvement of the person in the spirit.  One of the reasons alcohol is called “spirits” is because we see when someone is drunk how their whole personality is overtaken by the substance.  The operation of some powerful spiritual gifts has the same overwhelming effect.  An example is the apocalyptic vision of John, which is recorded in the Bible as the book of Revelation.  John wrote (1:10), “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.”  The implication is that the visions result from the Spirit’s influence upon him.  In fact, many things in the New Testament are attributed to this phenomenon.  “In the Spirit” or “in the spirit” occurs 17 times.

The existence of spirits or understanding behavior in terms of a spirit corrects several delusions.

The first delusion it corrects is that we can be completely objective about ourselves, assuming that our best judgment, which operates separately from other aspects of our being, will eventually bail us out if we get in trouble.  But is that true?  What if we have a “spirit of stupor” so that our perception of reality is way off, according to Romans 11:8?  Paul seems to think that the Spirit is required to understand the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:12 and 14).  John speaks of the “spirit of error” in his first letter, chapter 4, verse 6.

In Acts 13:4-12 is the story of a Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, who had come under the spell of a Jewish false prophet/magician, who opposed Paul’s ministry.  Even though Sergius Paulus is described as an intelligent man he needed a spiritual intervention.  He received it when the apostle strongly confronted the magician.  It was this kind of encounter that caused Paul to write, “Though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5 ESV).  “Divine power” here means the same as “in the Spirit.”  One spiritual influence is deployed against another spiritual influence.

The second delusion that that the concept of spirit corrects is the naturalistic fallacy, that phenomenon can be explained solely by a socio-economic or geo-political analysis.  When George Mitchell of Maine was appointed by President Obama to be Special Envoy to the Middle East, Mitchell said, “These are human problems with human solutions.”

Mitchell’s comments are the typical secular humanist approach to conflict resolution that has prevailed since the ethos of REALPOLITIK was adopted in the diplomacy of the Modern era.  The assumption is that everyone will be guided by personal interest, rationally conceived as the just distribution of wealth and power (with America footing the bill, of course).

But what if it is not a human problem?  What if it is a spiritual problem?  What if God exists, and the world is engulfed in a spiritual battle between good (what is of God) and evil (what is not of God)?  What if there are angels and demons, and our prayers decide the outcome to ourselves and others in this cosmic war over our eternal souls?  What if evil can be explained by evil spirits?  And what if the triumph of good can be attributed to our being filled with and led by the Spirit of God?

George Mitchell resigned as Special Envoy, citing intractable positions on both sides.  When problems defy logical self-interest, medication, and rational analysis (such as psycho-therapy) an alternative theory is provided by Scripture’s use of the word “spirit.”

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