Testing the Spirits

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3, ESV throughout).

I am in the midst of lesson preparation and filming for a series on Romans.  I want to be about that work; I need to be about that work.  But, I find myself, like Jude, compelled to a different task at the moment — one that I consider necessary.  My attention was diverted toward it and away from Romans by several promptings, not least an important essay by ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach on “Neo-pagan Anglicanism” in the newly published book The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism (McDermott, Gerald, ed. Crossway, 2020.).

It was the Archbishop’s reflection on the Holy Spirit in his contribution that provided the impetus for my own thoughts.  I must quote a lengthy section of his essay.

The Holy Spirit, according to neo-pagan Anglicanism, is what feels right for the moment, not actually a distinct person of the Godhead who calls the believer to repentance from sin and transforms the believer into biblical holiness and righteousness.  I say “what feels right” because there seems to be no revealed boundaries for the Holy Spirit in neo-paganism.  For example, while the catechism in the 1979 BCP of the Episcopal Church clearly says that one recognizes truths taught by the Holy Spirit “when they are in accord with the Scriptures,” the Episcopal Church continues to embrace teachings and practices opposed to Scripture.  I remember hearing the Episcopal bishop of Atlanta explaining to his diocese why he voted to affirm the consecration of a bishop who had divorced his wife and was partnered with another man:  “I followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”  Apparently he had rejected the Anglican tradition’s insistence that the Holy Spirit does not contradict Scripture.  In contrast to that tradition, the neo-pagan Anglican believes that the purpose of the Holy Spirit is to motivate the people of God to love, accept, and welcome everybody without insisting, as the gospel does, on repentance from their sins (pp. 91-92).

It might have been enough simply to let that excerpt from Archbishop Beach’s essay stand alone, without my comments, had other promptings not been present.  

There is a spirit of error loose in this time masquerading as the Holy Spirit and leading even the faithful astray:  delusion presenting as truth.  It has ever been so:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world….We are from God.  Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.  By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:1, 6).

So, this is the presenting question for me:  How do we test the spirits, whether they are from God?  When a brother or sister claims direction by the Holy Spirit, when we ourselves feel a “stirring of the spirit,” how do we know?  How do we avoid delusion?

Volumes can and have been written on this.  Entire spiritualities, e.g. the Exercises of St. Ignatius, have developed around this discernment of spirits.  I have nothing so grand in mind, but rather only a few practical suggestions for testing the spirits.

First, the Holy Spirit will never lead one to reject the ancient, consensual interpretation of Scripture.  Let me state that more explicitly:  If the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church in its various communions — Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican — historically agree on an interpretation of Scripture, that is because the Holy Spirit has revealed and sealed that interpretation.  The Holy Spirit will never lead one to reject that agreement.  Rather, the Holy Spirit will work with individuals to confirm the truth of the Church’s corporate understanding.  Anyone moving away from orthodox doctrine — the faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf Jude 3) — is not being guided by the Holy Spirit.  When in doubt, the Vincentian Canon provides a good check of orthodoxy.  It is a threefold test of catholicity and thus orthodoxy:  that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.    If a doctrine is geographically limited and not accepted throughout the churches, it fails the test.  If a doctrine is novel and in disagreement with the ancient tradition of the Church, it fails the test.  If a doctrine is accepted by only a small group within the Church, it fails the test.  The Vincentian Canon is not perfect or foolproof, but it has proven its validity and usefulness throughout the generations and is a good starting place in the testing of spirits.

Does that mean that the Holy Spirit can never do “a new thing”?  That the Holy Spirit is imprisoned by the past?  Certainly not.  But the “new thing” will not be a contradiction of what has gone before, but rather a fulfillment of it.  When accepting the Gentiles qua Gentiles as followers of Christ seemed to be a radically new and thus suspect thing, James insisted that is was instead the fulfillment of ancient promises only now fully understood by the revelation of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 15:1-21).  Moreover, there was conciliar agreement.  So, yes, the Holy Spirit may reveal a new fulfillment of Scripture in our day.  But, the Spirit will also lead the Church — the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church — to conciliar agreement.  In the absence of such agreement, one cannot state with any confidence that the Spirit is leading.

Second, the Holy Spirit will never sow discord in the Body of Christ.  As St. Paul emphasizes to the Church at Ephesus:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-6).

Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit:  Where discord is present in the Church, where unity is strained or broken, the Holy Spirit is not leading.  Not to reopen old wounds, but that is the testimony of our own recent history and ongoing struggles in the Anglican Communion.  Several provinces — the The Episcopal Church USA (TEC) chief among them — departed from the faith once delivered to the saints.  And what was the result?  A tear in the fabric of the Anglican Communion and discord in countless local parishes.  It is not possible for TEC to claim direction from the Holy Spirit when rejection of orthodoxy and disunity are the results of its actions.  What is true on a global level is just as true on a parish or personal level.

Then Paul continues by enumerating Christ’s gifts to the Church given through the Holy Spirit:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph 4:11-14).

There is an order and a teaching authority in the Church that derives from the Holy Spirit for the building up of the Church.  Consequently, the Holy Spirit will never lead one to oppose those leaders exercising their authority on behalf of the Church and in keeping with the consensus faith of the Church.

Related to this, the Holy Spirit will never lead one to reject the rightful judgment and possible correction of the Church.  Even St. Paul submitted his apostolate, his vocation, and his gospel to the authorities in Jerusalem for discernment and validation.

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.  I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain (Gal 2:1-2).

This humility of submitting oneself to the judgment and authority of the Church is a hallmark of one led by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit will never lead one to rejection of rightful authority or to the arrogance of refusing correction.

Lastly, and on a positive note, the leading of the Holy Spirit is evidenced by the absence of the works of the flesh and by the presence and increase of the fruit of the Spirit.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desire of the Spirit are against the desires of the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.  Now the works of the flesh are evident:  sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things life these.  I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25).

There is nothing novel here; God forbid.  This is simply sound wisdom from Scripture for testing the spirits and for avoiding error and delusion.  It is not novel, but it is essential.


About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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