The Noetic and Ontological Role of the Spirit in John’s Gospel

Throughout the ages, John has been often been referred to as “the spiritual gospel”. Some have used this moniker to describe John’s interest in deeper, theological truths (and on some occasions, the erroneous corollary was drawn that John was disinterested in historical matters). But another way that we can think of John’s gospel as a spiritual gospel is its many references to the spirit, and its emphasis on the coming of the Holy Spirit. In this post, I want to draw out two aspects of the Spirit in John’s Gospel that have struck me as I’ve read and listened to the Fourth Gospel, and examine how John’s account of the Spirit has informed, and can continue to inform the Church’s pneumatology. These two aspects are the noetic role of the Spirit, in reminding Jesus’s disciples of who he is, and the ontological role of the Spirit as the agent that unites us to the Son and unites the Son to us.

The Noetic Role of the Spirit: The Spirit Reminds Us of Who the Son Is

First, the Spirit leads the disciples into all truth by reminding them of who Jesus is (16:13). The Spirit, Jesus informs his disciples, “will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you” (14:26). The Spirit teaches, but also reminds. We have references in different places of the disciples remembering Jesus’s words after his death and then recognising who he is (see 2:17, 22; 12:16; 16:4). The special role of the Spirit is to remind Jesus’s followers of his identity after he is glorified (7:37-39). The Spirit inspires the minds of the disciples to recognise who Jesus is.

In other words, the Spirit performs a “noetic” role in transforming the minds and memories of Jesus’s followers (noetic comes from the Greek word for mind, nous and refers to the imagination, understanding or intellect). This complements the portrayal and activity of the Spirit in Luke’s gospel. There, the Spirit inspires songs of praise in the Infancy Narrative (as well as conceiving Jesus in the womb of faithful Mary; cf Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25, 26). But there is also a sense of dawning recognition with the disciples in Luke’s Gospel. When the terrifying angels appear near the empty tomb and inform the disciples that Jesus has been raised, the disciples “then remembered his words” (Luke 24:6,8). The angel reminds the disciples at the tomb. The disciples on the Road to Emmaus, having received the scripture lesson of a lifetime and having broken bread with incognito Jesus, experience their eyes being “opened” so that “they recognised him”. They then recall how their “hearts burned within them” when Jesus opened the scriptures to them. In the opening of the scriptures and the breaking of Bread, the disciples remember and recognise Jesus.

In John’s gospel, this noetic role is attributed more emphatically to the Spirit. The role of the Spirit in reminding Christ’s followers of who he is also makes sense of the name the Spirit is given, as the Paraclete. This can be translated as Comforter or Helper but another translation, which might make better contextual sense is Advocate, which maintains the clear legal overtones of this moniker. Literally, the Paraclete is one who stands alongside, or in the contemporary parlance, a legal assistant. The Spirit stands as prosecutor of the world (16:7-11) but also as defence attorney (14:16, 25-27). As Advocate, the Spirit plays a keep purpose in fulfilling the purpose of John’s Gospel: the Spirit reminds Jesus’s followers that “the Messiah is Jesus and that in believing in him you might have life in his name”.

The Ontological Role of the Spirit: The Spirit as a Person of the Trinity that Unites Our Persons To Christ’s Person

Second, the Spirit also makes the presence Christ known in the disciples: “he lives with you and will be in you” (14:17). The Spirit of God works as a member of the Trinity to make Christ’s very being and self known in us. By ontological, I refer to the Greek word ontos and the fact that the Spirit makes the Son’s being known in our being. Of course, John does not explicitly develop a full-blown doctrine of the Trinity, but the seeds are there. Jesus through his Spirit and with the Father makes his home with and in us (14:23). The Spirit seals and guarantees Jesus’s presence in our very lives, persons and identities.

The Spirit, in other words, is the agent of our union with, or participation in, Christ. He not only seeks to remind the first disciples, and us, of who Jesus is, but to unite us to his very person, and to unite his very person to ours. And in so doing, we are united to God’s very self.

There is a deep intimacy to this union. This is clear from John’s reference to the Father and Son “making a home with” the believer. But it also comes across in John’s use of the term “know”: “But you know him for he lives with you and will be in you”. John uses the word know throughout his gospel not to refer to cognition but to a relationship of intimacy (there are no sexual connotations but of course the verb to know can have this sense in the Hebrew and Greek). The intimacy of this union with Christ is also drawn out through John’s use of the term “in the bosom”. The Son is referred to as “being in the bosom of the Father” (1:18). The Beloved Disciple whose testimony is recorded in this gospel—perhaps a Jerusalem disciple called John?—is described as leaning or reclining against the bosom of Jesus, on the night before Jesus’s death (13:23). And it is through the Spirit that we, too, are brought into the closest relationship with God’s very self, brought into the bosom of the Son, and so have communion with the Father.

The Implications

What might these two roles of the Spirit—the noetic and the ontological—have to say to the Church today, and how might they inform our pneumatology? There is much to say here, but here are two points of application.

  1. First, John’s testimony to the Spirit profoundly challenges our tendencies to make the Spirit a function of “my discipleship”.

There are three separate, but interwoven points to draw out here. The first point is that John challenges our tendency to depersonalise the Spirit, to make the Spirit an “it”. Yet the Spirit, as the Creeds put it, “is both worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son”. The Spirit’s very person is involved in reminding us of what Jesus has said, and of his indwelling union in the very core of who we are. To depersonalise the Spirit is to run the risk of taming God and making him the object of our wants and desires.

Second, John’s witness to the Spirit challenges our tendency to separate the Spirit from the Trinity. John’s Gospel raises the question, Is the Spirit purely functional? In John’s gospel, the answer would seem to be yes, though only in the sense that the Spirit does not serve a clear role that points beyond his person. But the Spirit still acts in a very real way though does so not to promote himself but the Son. The Spirit does not speak on his own but points to the Son and glorifies the Son, who in turn does not speak on his own but of the Father who sent him (15:13-15; 5:19-45). The Spirit does not speak of himself but operates in a Trinitarian mode, making known the Son in our midst, in our very identities, the very core of who we are. John is careful to draw this out by referring to the Paraclete as “Another Paraclete” (14:16). The Spirit is not another completely divisible Person from the Son, advocating on his own. Rather, the Spirit, we could say, is in the same category of Jesus as Advocate (cf. 1 John 2:1 where Jesus is the advocate). There is continuity in their activity. The Spirit will comfort, advocate for and console his disciples just as Jesus did when he was physically present in his ministry.

And finally, bringing these two points together, John challenges us to move away from thinking of the Spirit in selfish, individualistic and functional terms. Yes, the Spirit performs a role pointing beyond himself to Christ. But this does not mean that the Spirit simply does my bidding, that God’s spirit is a function only of my discipleship or sanctification. As Grant Macaskill has pointed out, we often think of the Spirit as the bunny in the Duracell battery advertisements. God’s Spirit tops up our energy levels when we are running low. This isn’t so much wrong as inadequate. It does, however, run the risk of making an idol of our discipleship, growth and “spirituality”. Thinking of the Spirit only as a function of my growth makes the Spirit beholden to me and my identity. But in uniting us to the Son through the Spirit, the Father has a very different purpose in mind.

And this brings us to our second and more positive point of application.

  1. Second, and more positively, the Spirit’s role in uniting us to the memory of the Son and the identity of the Son places God at the centre of our identities, and not us.

We can put it this way. The Son is remembered or recalled by us through the activity of the Spirit and the Son is incorporated into us by the Spirit. I have deliberately worded this in an awkward way, using the passive tense, to make a point. Notice that the focus or subject of these actions is not us, but the Son. The Spirit is the agent. And we are the object. Of course, we too take action and are not merely passive objects in our Christian growth and discipleship. But the Son is the focus of discipleship, spirituality and mission.

This focus on God’s active agency fundamentally challenges, once again, our own, my own, selfish tendency to make the Christian life about us, about me. Paul radically challenges such selfish (or “fleshly”) conceptions of the Christian life when he writes that “he no longer lives, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul remains Paul, of course, and we should not lose this point in our attempts to recapture the reality that Jesus dwells in us. We do not become drops in the ocean of God, or anything like that. But if Paul does not lose his own identity, he is still invaded, in a very real sense, by Another Person. He is no longer Paul. Now he is Paul-in-Christ.

In a different way, but with similar results, John writes of the Father, Son and Spirit making their home in the one who believes. There is an intimacy, as we noted, to this language. And yet this cannot and should not be thought of in overly-sentimentalised or metaphorical terms—“Jesus living in my heart”. Yes, the language is comforting and, more deeply, consolatory. We are not left as orphans. But this union of our very identities to Christ’s very identity, which the Spirit enacts, cannot and should not be over-sentimentalised. In John’s gospel, the stakes are very high indeed. John speaks of those remaining in him being rescued from death (3:16-21; 5:24ff). We are right to be attuned to the apocalyptic elements here and the fact that there is a war between the flesh (not the body but the selfish self that is opposed to God…or in John’s language “the world”), and the Spirit. This apocalyptic mode reminds us that there is tussle for the very identity of each disciple and that of the Church.

As an illustration of the disruptive force of this union, we can think of what it’s like to have someone come and live in our homes. Even if we are hosting someone that we know well, and even if it is for a short time, the experience can upset our rhythms and certainly forces us to not place ourselves at the centre of all that is happening. In the same way, although to an infinitely more important degree, when the Triune God makes his home with us, the result is disruptive and terrifying, but certainly life-transforming.

Photo Credit: Unsplash (Jon Tyson)

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