Religious Studies Faculty Publications

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2001

Publication Source

Christian Scholar's Review


When Copernicus and Galileo proposed that the earth circled the sun and not the 217 other way around, Christian believers faced the difficult prospect of surrendering a long-held belief that had seemingly undeniable support from the biblical text. After all, Joshua reported that the sun, not the earth, stood still; what could this mean if not that the sun orbited the earth? Today, centuries later, believers unanimously hold a heliocentric view of the solar system and are somewhat embarrassed by the ignorance of our pre-Enlightenment brothers and sisters. Ironically, however, such embarrassment masks the possibility that we ourselves may one day be found guilty of having held notions yet to be realized as "backwards."

We face just such a possibility with our conception of the Holy Spirit's presence. It is my suspicion that, contrary to some of our most trenchant modern sensibilities, we are mistaken when we construe the presence of the Spirit in largely individualistic terms. Yet in this case, it is not the biblical text that is misleading. In contrast, a close inspection of the biblical record and of its earliest interpreters reveals that the earliest Christians naturally understood the presence of God's Spirit primarily in corporate rather than individualistic terms.

The holism that marks first- and second-century conceptions of community life tends to strike our modern ears as a form of primitive hocus-pocus. However, very recent discussions of "emergence" and "supervenience" in philosophical circles may provide us moderns with the conceptual resources necessary for better owning the biblical record.

In this paper, I argue that biblical notions of the Spirit's "indwelling" and "filling" ought to be primarily understood as descriptive of the Spirit's relation to the believing community and perhaps only secondarily in relation to believing individuals. I begin by examining the biblical texts and the witness of the second-century apologists. I then proceed to summarize philosophical discussions regarding emergence and supervenience. I end with a suggestion that we can recover the biblical sense more fully by appropriating the language of emergence and supervenience: (1) the Body of Christ emerges from the system of individuals living under a particular form of life; and that (2) descriptions of the Holy Spirit's presence supervenes upon descriptions of this particular form of communal living.

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Hope College





Place of Publication

Holland, MI

Peer Reviewed