David Taylor – A Reflection on Pentecost Songs

"May Hour Pentecost" by Makoto Fujimura

This past week Cardiphonia released a large collection of songs [Pentecost Songs] celebrating the person and work of the Holy Spirit in conversation with over a 1000 years of texts for Pentecost Sunday (June 12).  The response to the project was so verdant in its musical presence that I hoped to continue the conversation with other forms on what it means to worship the 3rd person of the Trinity.

To that end I asked David Taylor, a Thd student in theology and the arts at Duke, an avid blogger at “Diary of an Arts Pastor” and the editor of “For the Beauty of the Church” if he would engage the project in a conversation on the Holy Spirit in faith formation and worship.

Here is the brief article he was kind enough to craft for us:

June 12, 2011

w. david o. taylor

Reflection for Cardiphonia Pentecost Album

“Christian worship is, therefore, our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father, in his vicarious life of worship and intercession.” – James Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (1996)
“[The Spirit] who created a praiseful worship of the Father and the Son in ways that were authentic to all the cultures and centuries in which the gospel has been confessed, will do the same in new ways that are authentic to the end of the twentieth century. The prayer of the Spirit will be liturgical, in continuity with what has gone before, but it will also be free, creative and spontaneous.” Tom Smail, The Giving Gift: The Holy Spirit in Person (1994)

The first thing to say about the Holy Spirit is as obvious as it is regularly forgotten: nothing is possible in Christianity without the Spirit. In fact, without Pentecost we remain estranged from the saving purposes of God in Christ. John Calvin certainly said as much. As did St. Athanasius and Jonathan Edwards.

It is surprising, then, and not a little distressing, to note how often our speech habits as Christians follow a binitarian rather than a trinitarian pattern. Listen to the preacher’s sermons. Read through the devotional books. Watch the blogs and prayers. Grab a hymnal. Once you begin to look for it, you see it nearly everywhere. God language and Christ language suffuse our common life as Christians, yet Spirit language receives only scant attention, surfacing far less even than language of “spirit” or “spiritual.”

The weak pneumatology that often surfaces in our doxological life as Protestants stretches far back. (A certain reading of St. Augustine might bear part blame.) We frequently conceive the Spirit’s role in passive rather than active ways. The Spirit becomes the harmony of the Trinity rather than the harmonizing One. He becomes the static presence of divine life instead of a Person with dynamic functions, dimly perceived through his works of inspiration and sanctification, but quickly fading, yielding to the more prominent roles of Father and Son.

To my mind, it isn’t the Spirit’s “invisibility” that is at stake, it is the Spirit’s de-personalization and therefore the weakening of the trinitarian character of classical Christian faith that is at stake. Our speech habits and our practices of worship simply make manifest what we uncertainly believe.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, and both Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 AD) and this Pentecost album summon the church to a more vibrant pneumatological faith. The one reminds us of the worship that is proper to the Spirit, while the other invites us to inhabit this worship.

St. Gregory writes in his thirty-first Oration:

“Look at the facts: Christ is born, the Spirit is his forerunner; Christ is baptized, the Spirit bears him witness; Christ is tempted, the Spirit leads him up; Christ performs miracles, the Spirit accompanies him; Christ ascends, the Spirit fills his place. Is there any significant function belonging to God, which the Spirit does not perform?”

Gregory spends a germanically long paragraph answering in the negative. No, there isn’t a function or a title that belongs to the Godhead which does not also belong to the Spirit. The Spirit makes all right worship possible, to be sure, as John 4, Romans 8 and 1st Corinthians 14 demonstrate. But the Third Person of the Trinity is also deserving of our adoration. All that God actively performs, the Spirit performs. Thus He is to be glorified.

This is good and well, but what if we lack means to enact this reality in our public worship? We revert to broken binitarian patterns. So this is where Bruce Benedict and his merry band of troubadours do the church right. They provide the church what Charles Wesley believed essential, namely the musical means to practice right theology, where the good news of Pentecost can become soaked into our hearts and minds and bodies.

In Ephesians 5:18-20 St. Paul declares that the filling of the Spirit occurs as we or perhaps to the extent that we speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. From Greg Scheer’s haunting “Glossolalia” to Benedict and Mills’ reworking of the ancient hymn, “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” the music of Pentecost Songs makes this Pauline insight a rich possibility for local congregations. They introduce a broad variety of Pentecost hymns into our worship “play list” and so remind us of the Spirit’s essential and ubiquitous role in the Christian life.

So I say, bravo, songwriters! Thank you for your courage and energy. Thank you for your generous service to the body of Christ. May you be blessed in your creative endeavors even as we the people of God will be blessed by the singing of your songs at Pentecost—and beyond Pentecost too.

Some Further Reading:

Steve Guthrie, Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of becoming Human.

NT Wright – Worship and the Spirit in the New Testament

Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit

St. Athanasius – Letters on the Holy Spirit

St. Gregory – On the Holy Spirit


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