This is the second in a series of five reflections by Father Anthony Oelrich.
The second promise of Jesus concerning the Paraclete, found in John 14:25-26, declares:
I have told you this while I am with you. The Paraclete, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.
As Fr. Ignace de la Potterie, SJ, points out, “this text concentrates the attention directly on the nature of the mysterious rapport that unites the teaching of the Spirit and that of Jesus” (La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 362). At first sight, it might appear that there are two distinct actions taken by the Holy Spirit. First, the Holy Spirit will teach and, secondly, the Holy Spirit will recall to the minds of the disciples the words or teaching of Jesus. The question this raises is whether it is right to expect some new teaching from the Holy Spirit. Does the Holy Spirit have his own unique teaching to accomplish?
Throughout the gospel of John, what one discovers is that there exists a mutual interiority to the work of the Father and the Son. Wherever the Son is, there is the Father as well. One cannot know the Father without knowing the Son.
As John turns now to Jesus’ teaching concerning the Holy Spirit we discover that this same relationship of mutual interiority exists between the Holy Spirit and the teaching of Christ. This is to say that it is precisely by recalling the words of Jesus to the minds of the disciples that the Spirit teaches them everything.
To help in understanding the relationship between the teaching of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the Greek theologian Nikos Nissiotis offers a helpful distinction. Nissiotis speaks of Jesus as the ‘what’ of revelation while the Spirit is the ‘how’ of revelation. The content of Christian doctrine is contained in the life and person of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit gives disciples access, or a way into that teaching in the here and now. In short, the Holy Spirit is “the ‘how’ by which the ‘what’ is effected in history” (Kilian McDonnell, The Other Hand of God, 114).
Let me try to make this more concrete. Imagine yourself in a classroom being taught some algebraic formula. Your teacher is effective, speaks clearly, and goes through the formula slowly and patiently. At this point, it is not that the teacher is unclear or that you don’t understand what he is saying, but you still do not see the point of the formula or understand how it works. You listen to the lesson and you work with the formula. At a certain point, suddenly the formula makes sense. You grasp the inherent logic of it and see how it effectively works to bring you to a conclusion. This is, you might say, the ‘aha’ moment. At this point, you now get it. You understand this formula for yourself. You can take your own concrete problem, apply the formula, and reach the information the formula opens up to you.
The Holy Spirit plays this ‘aha’ moment role in communicating the teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection communicates the truth of God and who we are in relationship to God. The role of the Holy Spirit is to make this a knowledge internal to us and our experience within our daily lives.
This makes sense of what Kilian McDonnell says concerning the role of the Holy Spirit in theology. “Pneumatology [the study of the Holy Spirit] is to theology what epistemology [the study of how we come to know] is to philosophy” (Ibid., 214). The Holy Spirit makes the truth of Jesus Christ accessible to us in the concrete of our daily lives so that we can increasingly live our lives in the light of that truth. The Holy Spirit is how we come to know the truth of Jesus for us in the here and now.
Before concluding, I would like to make one more point concerning this promise, which applies equally to each of the promises concerning the Holy Spirit. It is important to notice that these promises are spoken not to disciples individually but to the community of disciples. It is from within the Church, the body of disciples of Jesus existing throughout history, that the Spirit acts to bring believers to a living knowledge of Jesus Christ and his teaching.
In this promise, we see that “Christ remains the unique revelation; but only the action of the Spirit allows the Church to appropriate in faith this revelation” (Ignace de la Potterie, La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 378). The wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit is to make the truth of Christ alive and active in our lives today!