Depersonalizing the Holy Spirit, Modalism, and Worship (Horton)

Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God's Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life

Michael Horton’s recent book on the Holy Spirit is quite helpful in many ways. I was re-reading the opening chapter this morning and the following paragraphs were a good reminder for me. Here they are:

Even in broader Christian piety, there is a tendency to treat the Holy Spirit as a force or source of power more than a person who is powerful. People are looking for “empowerment.” We still want to be in charge, but we would like to know where we might find additional resources for physical and spiritual health so that we may fulfill our dreams. In Christian circles we speak of “appropriating the Spirit,” drawing on the Spirit as if he were something like an electrical outlet or a generator that we “switch on and use,” as [J. I.] Packer puts it. No doubt, this tendency is part and parcel of an age obsessed with human autonomy, in which we try to find a place for God in our story of personal meaning, success, and achievement rather than allow ourselves to be written and cast into God’s story of the cross and resurrection.

A common temptation is to collapse the hypostases of the Trinity into one person: the heresy known as modalism. If we tend to confuse the persons in our thinking and praying the danger is especially apparent with respect to the Holy Spirit. Even when we hold the distinction between the Father and the Son clearly in our hearts, it is easy to collapse the Spirit into “God” (a generic essence) or to consider the Spirit a divine ‘something’ (the power or energy of God) rather than a divine ‘someone’ (“the Lord and giver of life”). Do we sometimes halt when we confess that the Spirit “is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son”? It is the strength of good prayers – said and sung- to train our hearts in the Trinitarian faith.

…However, in many churches today prayers and songs have been stripped of Trinitarian references that had in earlier generations been woven into the warp and woof of worship. Not surprisingly, the result is often extemporaneous prayers that reflect our default setting of modalism. Even in doctrinally orthodox circles one hears prayers that are confusing, as if the persons of the Trinity were interchangeable – perhaps even the same person. At least it seems that the person being addressed shifts back-and-forth without any specification. Sometimes the Father is thanked for coming into the world to save us, for dying for our sins, for indwelling us, or as the one who will return again. Very frequently, prayers conclude with “in your name, amen.” In whose name? Scripture teaches us to pray to the Father in the name of Christ: it is not the Father or the Spirit but the Son who is our mediator. Some contemporary praise choruses reflect and reinforce the confusion of the persons, with praises directed to the Father for specific acts of the Son or the Son for specific acts that Scripture attributes to the Spirit, and so forth….

Michael Horton, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit, p. 23-24.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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