Giving Too Much Credit to the Holy Spirit

Yes, I know, blasphemy!

We can appreciate the urge of Christians to distance themselves from the Old Testament. The pathological anger of Yahweh doesn’t sit well with folks who rank high for empathy; his brutal laws are especially chilling, e.g. rebellious sons and sabbath breakers are to be stoned to death—and The Book of Numbers, one of five in the sacred Torah, describes the revolting ordeal that women accused of adultery must undergo, supervised by priests under the watchful eye of the Lord (5:11-31).

Yes, we’re ready to Just Say No to the Old Testament—except for some of its famous stories, I suppose. Christians are proud that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, sets the tone for much better religion—or so they think. Although if they actually read the Sermon on the Mount carefully, they’d find quite a few lines to cross out; e.g., those who have pension plans—even ministers—need to find a way to finesse, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…”

But, what’s this?—for those who are ready to put the Old Testament behind them (Matthew 5:17-19):

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Welcome to the Christian Cultural Wars

To be circumcised or not to be circumcised, that was the question…well, it was actually one of several questions, as the early Jesus sect grew. Could you become a Christian without being Jewish? That is, without being circumcised or following the complex dietary laws of the Old Testament? Dissention on that issue is reflected in the New Testament, and the Matthew 5:17-19 text is one salvo in this battle: “…until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law…” There is no parallel to this text in Mark or John, and Luke—in his considerable reworking of the Sermon on the Mount—renders it differently: “…it is earlier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot of the law to become void.” (Luke 16:17)

But when Luke wrote his sequel, the Book of Acts, he had changed his mind about “not one dot” becoming void. In chapter 10 he describes Peter’s vision of a sheet lowered from heaven with all manner of animals that devout Jews were forbidden to eat—and the Lord’s revised revelation: Yes, now these creatures can be slaughtered and consumed. Luke recounts as well that a prominent Gentile in Caesarea, Cornelius, had been visited by an angel of the Lord, who ordered him to summon Peter to his house, to hear the good news about Jesus. The message is clear, that Gentiles were eligible for the Jesus sect, without converting to Judaism first.

There is a variety of opinion about when the Book of Acts was written, with Richard Pervo, for example (The Mystery of Acts), putting it as late as 110 CE. But even if it was written a decade or two earlier, it was addressed to Luke’s audience a good 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus. And by a close reading of Chapter 11, we can figure out what the author was trying to do.

This is another article in my series on all of the chapters in the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The one on Chapter 10 is here.

Perhaps after all this time there was still disagreement in the sect about the acceptance of Gentiles, hence in chapter 11 Luke tells how the report of Peter’s visit to Cornelius was received by the “old school” in Jerusalem:

“…when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision…'” (11:2-5)

Peter relates, in detail, the vision of the sheet descending from heaven described in chapter 10, after which he found the emissaries from Cornelius at his front gate:

“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’” (vv. 12-14)

"And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

So, yes, Luke drives home the point that the Jesus sect must be inclusive—which is not a bad message, after all. There is no doubt whatever that is this is a feel-good text; it can be read from the pulpit to the delight of any congregation.

Writing History Was Not His Strong Suit

But let’s keep our heads, with an eye on how the world really works: this is fantasy literature, in which Luke specialized (see the first two chapters of his gospel especially). His agenda was to demonstrate that the early Jesus cult had special connections with divine beings. Wouldn’t that be a winner in the competition of cults in the ancient world? Both the Spirit (who would eventually be promoted in Christian theology to membership in The Trinity) and an angel have speaking roles in chapter 11. The former comes from the realm of the occult and angels are a favorite ornament in mythological tales. Anyone deeply entrenched in magical thinking, who can’t see beyond this limited horizon, might be impressed. The angel promises Cornelius that Peter will bring “a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” It will be a blanket magic spell.

Peter clinches his case with the old-school skeptics by pointing out the role of the Holy Spirit: it “…fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” He also recalls the scene with John the Baptist in Luke 3, in which a contrast is made: baptism by water can’t rival baptism by the Holy Spirit. But he neglects to mention here the vengeful apocalypticism included in John’s prediction. The Jesus who is coming “… will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17)

And with verse 18 he hits his home run. His Jerusalem critics were convinced by his report of the Holy Spirit at work: “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” Luke wants his readers to know this is how they should respond to their spiritual superiors.

The history of dissent within the church makes us suspicious: How often has this argument (“the Holy Spirit is on my side”) made much difference? People hear what they want to hear from the Holy Spirit; just as a thousand people can “pray to the Lord” for answers—and come up with wildly different answers.

Such behavior is understandable when claims are unevidenced. Robert Conner, writing here on this blog 9 September 2017, summed up the banality of this approach: “That the whispering of the Holy Spirit would take precedence over evidence and its coherence analysis is quite literally unimaginable in any discipline other than evangelical Jesus studies. Picture, if you can, the reaction should an academic historian reveal that his interpretation is being guided by the urging of a personal daemon.”

Even today we hear—what else of course—that Luke got his story straight because he wrote under the careful supervision of the Holy Spirit. Conner notes the fallacy here as well; the four gospels “…were finally declared ‘canonical’ and those four are in substantial disagreement at various seemingly crucial points. If, as evangelicals are wont to claim, the Holy Spirit used human authors to pen a record for the ages on which belief could be firmly based, then the Holy Spirit made a right shit job of it.” (13 September 2017, DC Blog)

And Conner speculates that this Member of the Trinity may still be at it: “The Holy Spirit is flitting around the world whispering into the temporal lobes of billions of people urging them to have their very own close encounters of the crazy kind.” (23 February 2018, DC Blog)

The primary gimmick of the Jesus cult is at play here as well. The ancient mystery cults won converts because they promised the secret for escaping death. Cornelius wanted his entire household “to be saved” and the Holy Spirit brought “the repentance that leads to life.” Christianity added eternal terror as an option in the afterlife, i.e., “burning with unquenchable fire.” This severity became a theme with Jesus himself; the arrival of his Kingdom would result in more suffering than at the time of Noah. Paul too was confident that sinners would suffer God’s wrath.

In verse 26 we read that it was in Antioch that disciples were first called “Christians,” and the preceding few verses report that men from Cyprus and Cyrene preached the Lord Jesus there: “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.” Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to check this out. “When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion… and a great many people were brought to the Lord.”

Thus Luke reinforces his message that Gentiles were streaming into the church.

There is a curiosity at the end of Acts 11. We read that a prophet named Agabus announced a coming famine. He “…stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world…” For those who are paying attention, the incoherence of theism can be spotted here. The Spirit knows that the famine is coming—why not, of course, if God is omniscient—but is powerless to prevent it? In Luke 9 we find the story of Jesus miraculously feeding the 5,000, so our author felt that miracle was manageable. Is God all powerful or not? There have been major, calamitous famines in world history—with staggering death tolls. What does it take to get God’s attention? Theists assure us that the Cosmos has been intelligently designed, finely tuned for the benefit of human life. If that is so, how can famine be such a constant in human experience?

It looks like we’re giving too much credit to the Holy Spirit—if it can get people to come to Jesus, but can’t step up its game to make sure humanity is well fed. Yes I know, blaspheming the Holy Spirit is an eternal sin according to Mark 3:28. I’ll take my chances. Feeding 5,000 looks like an amateur trick, not quite the fine turning of the human condition that we might expect from the best Intelligent Designer imaginable.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A brief video explaining the Library is here.


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