Spiritualism and the New Testament: Introduction

This study series will explore what I believe is a significant (and largely neglected) area of study: namely, the question of whether, or to what extent, spiritualist tendencies are present in the New Testament Scriptures. Unfortunately, the term “spiritualism,” or “spiritualist(s),” is one of the most ill-defined and misunderstood in the history of religious studies. Even more so than “mysticism” and “gnosticism,” the term “spiritualism” suffers from careless and imprecise application. For more on this, see my article in the Definitions and Explanations of Terms feature.

To summarize the discussion in that article, I define and explain “spiritualism” as follows:

A religious phenomenon whereby the esoteric (i.e., inward and invisible) aspect of religion is decidedly given priority over the exoteric (i.e., outward and visible) aspect of religion. The latter includes such things as: rituals, sacred places and objects, religious meetings/gatherings, institutional/organizational structures, written texts, laws and creedal formulations, etc. This “inward” aspect is understood in terms of the idea of the spirit (Latin spiritus, Greek pneu=ma, pneuma)—whether human or divine.

The related term “spiritualist” simply means: related to spiritualism or characterized by it. As a religious phenomenon applicable to Christianity, I have defined it, somewhat more concisely, as:

A set of beliefs or tendencies which emphasize the role and place of the Spirit (of God) as the supreme principle governing all aspects of religious life and experience. According to this principle, the inward and invisible spiritual aspect takes priority over all outward/visible/material elements of religion.

As noted in the aforementioned article, Christian spiritualism is distinctive because of the strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Thus, we may further define the principle of “spiritualism”, in the context of Christianity, as follows:

The presence and manifestation of the Spirit takes priority over all other external aspects and religious features. The Spirit is the normative, guiding force for believers, rather than rituals, sacred places, written texts (i.e. the Scriptures), creeds, and so on.

In this very specific and qualified sense, we may properly speak of spiritualism in Christianity, and also of Christian spiritualism.

Since, in Christian spiritualism, the spirit (pneu=ma) refers primarily, if not exclusively, to the Holy Spirit ([to\] pneu=ma [to\] a%gio$), we may fairly infer that any spiritualist tendencies in the New Testament derive (and would have developed) naturally from the early Christian understanding of the (Holy) Spirit. And, as may be demonstrated quite readily, the early Christian view of the Spirit, in turn, was derived from the view of the Spirit in Old Testament and Jewish tradition. I have discussed the latter in some detail, examining all of the most relevant passages, in a recent series (cf. the links at the end of this article), and so will not be repeating that analysis in the current study series. However, I will, on occasion, refer to certain key examples that may be seen as having specifically influenced aspects of the (possible) spiritualist tendencies in the New Testament.

As for the references to the Spirit in the New Testament Scriptures, I also have treated these extensively in earlier series—two in particular: “…Spirit and Life” and “The Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition”. Here, I will be focusing almost exclusively on the passages which may reflect spiritualism (or spiritualist tendencies), and only occasionally discussing the other references. All of the principal passages are found in the Pauline and Johannine Writings.

Before proceeding with that extended study, however, it will be necessary to discuss several aspects of the Spirit-references in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, which may have helped lead to the development of a seminal kind of spiritualism among believers in the first-century. I would isolate four such aspects:

    • The association of the Holy Spirit (that is, the Spirit of God) with the person of Jesus, being manifest and located on/in his person.
    • The tendency whereby Jesus, in his person, came to take priority over the external elements of Jewish religion—the temple and its ritual, along with the Torah regulations, etc.
    • The application to Jesus of Messianic and eschatological expectations, including those drawn from exilic and post-exilic Prophetic tradition, involving the coming of the Spirit upon God’s people in the New Age. That is, the New Age is fundamentally characterized by the guiding presence of God’s Spirit in (and among) His people.

With regard to the first point, the association of Jesus with the Holy Spirit is expressed mainly through two lines of early tradition: (1) the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at the baptism, and (2) the resurrection of Jesus and his exaltation to heaven (at God’s right hand). The Synoptic Gospels record the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:10; par Matt 3:16; Lk 3:22), relating it to the saying by the Baptist in Mk 1:8 par (cf. also Acts 1:5; 11:16). The descent of the Spirit marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and his divine empowerment for that prophetic work. It is in Luke where this aspect is given particular prominence, with special emphasis placed on Jesus’ relationship to the Spirit—4:1ff (cf. Mk 1:12 par), 14, 18ff, characterized as an anointing by the Spirit (4:18; Acts 10:38). The presence of the Spirit gives to Jesus authority over the evil/unclean spirits (cf. Mk 1:23ff; 3:11, 22ff, 28-30; 6:7 pars), and also marks the divine character of his teaching (Mk 1:22 par; Acts 1:2, etc). Luke again places special emphasis on the Spirit in this regard, as a focus of Jesus’ teaching, such as in the pericope on prayer in chapter 11 (v. 2 [v.l.], 13, and note the contextual Spirit-reference in 10:21).

It was especially after the resurrection of Jesus, with his exaltation to God’s right hand, that he actually came to be identified with the Spirit. This divine status and position, including his specific identity as the Son of God (according to the early exaltation-Christology), enabled Jesus to communicate the Spirit of God to believers (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:5, 8; cf. also Jn 20:22; 7:39). Moreover, at various points in the New Testament, as we shall see, Jesus himself is manifest in the Spirit to believers. Through the resurrection, Jesus was united with God the Father as one Spirit (see esp. 1 Cor 15:45; cp. 6:17); this explains how early Christians could refer to the (Holy) Spirit as the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus, interchangeably.

Beyond this, the Spirit was also associated with the conception and birth of Jesus (as a human being), though this does not appear to have been part of the earliest Gospel kerygma-narrative. The relative age of the tradition, however, is indicated by its independent attestation in both the Matthean and Lukan infancy narratives (Matt 1:18-20; Lk 1:35), and may (possibly) be alluded to by Paul in Gal 4:4-6. The Spirit, of course, is a prominent theme, developed by the author, in the Lukan infancy narrative as a whole (1:15ff, 41, 67; 2:25-27).

The second point outlined above relates specifically to the subject of Jesus and the Law. The Gospel Tradition, in a number of places, exhibits the tendency whereby Jesus, in his person, came to take priority over the external elements of Jewish religion—the temple and its ritual, along with the Torah regulations. I discuss the issue of Jesus and the temple extensively in an earlier article, examining both the temple-action (Mk 11:15-18 par; Jn 2:13-17) and saying(s) of Jesus (Jn 2:19ff; cp. Mk 14:58 par; Acts 6:14, and note Mk 13:2 par). The saying of Jesus in Matt 6:6 (in the context of that particular Synoptic tradition, 6:1-8 par) is also of special significance.

Jesus’ primacy over the Torah regulations has to do, in large part, with his authoritative interpretation of the Torah regulations, situated at the heart of his teaching (e.g., in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5:17-20 ff). However, the Gospel portrait is rather more complex, and goes well beyond that limited aspect of Jesus’ relation to the Law. For more on the subject, see my survey of passages (in the series “Jesus and the Law”), as well as the articles on the Synoptic “Sabbath Controversy” episodes.

The third point relates to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and the Old Testament prophetic traditions regarding the role of the Spirit in the eschatological New Age for God’s people. As noted above, I have discussed all of the relevant passages in an earlier series of notes on “The Spirit in the Old Testament”, and I recommend consulting these for further study:

As far as Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is concerned, in which he was identified by believers as fulfilling all of the Messianic figure-types known in Judaism at the time, see the various articles in my series “Yeshua the Anointed”. On the significance of the Holy Spirit in this regard, as attested in Judaism during the first centuries B.C./A.D., you may wish to consult my earlier note on Wisdom 9:17, etc, as well as the two-part article “The Holy Spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls” .


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