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Prophetic Dialogue: An Invitation to the Dance – God Inside Out: Toward a Missionary Theology of the Holy Spirit

July 22, 2013

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich

Steve Bevans

Stephen Bevans, SVD

During 2013, The Center Blog is exploring the theological, biblical, and practical implications of joining in the dance of prophetic dialogue – the theme of the Center’s Convocation in Chicago, IL on July 25-27, 2013.

What follows in this reflection is a powerful perspective on the Holy Spirit.  As we familiarize ourselves afresh with the activities of the Spirit, may we take up our calling as church to be the “face” of God’s Holy Spirit in history.


How do you picture the Holy Spirit?  Whether the Spirit be pictured as the warmth and light given by the sun, the life-giving water from the spring, or the flower filled with seeds from the root, what we are actually signifying is God drawing near and passing by in a vivifying, sustaining, renewing, and liberating power in the midst of historical struggle. So profoundly is this true that whenever people speak in a generic way of God, of their experience of God or of God’s doing something in the world, more often than not they are referring to the Spirit, if a triune prism be introduced.  Read More…


Implications of the Change in Perspective.   This change in perspective, emphasizing the Spirit’s chronological and experiential priority, has profound implications for the theology of Christian Mission. To discover some of these implications I offer a two-fold proposal.  Read More…


The Activity of the Spirit.  What is the Spirit’s activity in the world? From the Bible, Christians associate the Spirit first of all with creation, where God’s Spirit sweeps like “a mighty wind…over the waters” (Gen. 1:2), New American Bible), or, in Elizabeth’s Johnson’s description, “hovers like a great mother bird over her egg, to hatch the living order of the world out of primordial chaos.”  Read More…


Jesus and the Spirit.  Jesus mission, it would seem, is to align himself with the Spirit’s work, and thus make historically concrete and visible what God had been doing through the Spirit since the creation of the world.  Read More…


The Church and the Spirit.  The community of believers—women and men who share and continue Jesus’ mission in the world—are, in Paul’s image, the body of Christ. As such, they continue to be the “face” of God’s Holy Spirit in history. Read More…


Mission and the Spirit.  The Spirit’s activity as God Inside Out in the world might be expressed by the notion of transcending immanence.  Immanence because God is totally and thoroughly involved and interwoven within cosmic and human history.  Read More…



Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Read Johnson’s quotation at the beginning slowly and meditatively, letting the images play in your mind. How do these images relate to your understanding of God?
  2. What difference might it make to think of the Holy Spirit first, to give priority to the Spirit?

More Questions…



How do you picture the Holy Spirit?


Whether the Spirit be pictured as the warmth and light given by the sun, the life-giving water from the spring, or the flower filled with seeds from the root, what we are actually signifying is God drawing near and passing by in a vivifying, sustaining, renewing, and liberating power in the midst of historical struggle. So profoundly is this true that whenever people speak in a generic way of God, of their experience of God or of God’s doing something in the world, more often than not they are referring to the Spirit, if a triune prism be introduced.1

trinityMost theology conceives of the Spirit in what we might call Johannine terms: God (theos) sends Jesus who sends the Spirit. Holy Mystery is incarnate in Jesus and continues to be present in creation through the Spirit. With Elizabeth Johnson, however, I’ve come to see that it is indeed the Spirit that we know first, who precedes Jesus not only in our own lives but in the history of the world and in cultures which have not known him. And it is the Spirit whom Jesus reveals to us the Holy Mystery that is only intimated by the Spirit in the fabric of history, culture and life.

Johnson is not the only theologian to point out the priority of the Spirit’s presence in our knowledge of God. In 1972, at the beginning of his book The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission, British theologian John V. Taylor urged Christians to recognize that the Spirit needs to become “so central to our thoughts about God and about man that when the name ‘God’ is used our minds go first to the Spirit, not last.”2 To cite another important expression of this insight, Frederick E. Crowe has proposed an intriguing thesis:

We have simply to reverse the order in which commonly we think of the Son and the Spirit in the world. Commonly we think of God first sending the Son, and of the Spirit being sent in that context, to bring to completion the work of the Son. The thesis says that, on the contrary, God first sent the Spirit, and then sent the Son in the context of the Spirit’s mission, to bring to completion—perhaps not precisely the work of the Spirit, but the work which God conceived as one work to be executed in two steps of the twofold mission of first the Spirit and then the Son.3


Implications of the Change in Perspective


This change in perspective, emphasizing the Spirit’s chronological and experiential priority, has profound implications for the theology of Christian Mission. To discover some of these implications I offer a two-fold proposal.

churchinsideoutThe first part of my proposal corresponds to the first part of the title of these reflections: “God Inside Out.” I intend this title to be reminiscent of Johannes Hoekendijk’s challenging ideas in ecclesiology and in particular of the title of one of his books, The Church Inside Out.4 Hoekendijk insisted that the essential nature of the church (its “inside,” its ad intra nature) is not to be discovered by focusing on the church but on the church’s mission (its “outside” or ad extra character). The church is radically “ec-centric” and “centrifugal.”5

In a way that I believe supplements Hoekendijk’s insight, I would propose to apply this same logic to God. Echoing Karl Rahner’s now-famous dictum about the immanent and economic trinity,6 I propose that God’s “inside (i.e., God’s mystery) can be known only from God’s “outside” (i.e., God’s movement to creation in mission. Furthermore, in the light of the insights of Johnson, Taylor, and Crowe recalled above, this movement is accomplished in the first place through the action of the Holy Spirit. God’s deepest nature, in other words, is discerned by focusing not on God’s inner Trinitarian, communal life, but on God’s “ec-centric,” “centrifugal” reaching out to the world in love. The first way that God reaches out is through the active presence of what the Christian Tradition has named the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is divine mystery sent from “inside” to be that mystery fully present and active “outside”—in the world, in human history, in human experience: the Spirit is God Inside Out.

The second part of my proposal corresponds to the second part of my title and relates specifically to the missionary implications of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as God Inside Out. I propose that the church will live out its mission worthily only to the extent that it allies itself with and is transformed by the Spirit. Only in this way can it live in fidelity to its Lord, who himself was allied to the Spirit in his mission and was transformed by the Spirit’s power. If the Spirit is the first way that God sends and is sent, the Spirit’s activity becomes the foundation of the church’s own missionary nature. If the church is to express its nature, therefore, it need first to look to the Spirit’s activity. Its task is, like that of Jesus, both to follow the Spirit’s lead and to be the concrete “face” of the Spirit in the world.7


The Activity of the Spirit


bird_over_nestWhat is the Spirit’s activity in the world? From the Bible, Christians associate the Spirit first of all with creation, where God’s Spirit sweeps like “a mighty wind…over the waters” (Gen. 1:2), New American Bible), or, in Elizabeth’s Johnson’s description, “hovers like a great mother bird over her egg, to hatch the living order of the world out of primordial chaos.”8 The Creator Spirit is also the Life-Giving Spirit (Gen. 2:7); as Elihu attests in his speech to Job, “the spirit of God has made me, the breath of the Almighty keeps me alive” (Job 33:4). The Spirit endows prophets with authority so that they can speak the Word of God (Ezek. 2:2); Mic. 3:8), calling Israel back from unfaithfulness (e.g. Hos. 10:12) or announcing God’s healing, forgiveness, and freedom (Isa. 61:1-3). It is the Spirit that renews and restores life, giving flesh and breath to dry bones (Ezek. 37:1-14) and turning hearts of stone into hearts that beat again (Ezek. 36:25-28). It is the Spirit by whose power Mary conceives Jesus (Luke 1:35), who is poured upon Jesus (Matt. 3:16), and who sets the agent for his ministry (Luke 4;18-19). The same Spirit that guided Jesus is promised to be given to the disciples, and in that Spirit they will understand all of God’s purposes (John 14:26).

The Acts of the Apostles, often called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, is a theology of history that reflects on the role of the Spirit in the coming-to-be of the church. Acts is the amazing story of how the Spirit challenges and stretches the early community’s prejudices and presuppositions and calls it beyond anything it dreamed possible—or, as Donald Senior puts it, how the Spirit “drives” the community to universal mission and to its identity as “church.”9 The Apostle Paul attests that the early communities are not only “created and formed by the Spirit,” they are “a fellowship of the Spirit” as well.10

The Spirit’s activity, to summarize this quick tour of the Bible, is creating and life giving, prophesying and renewing, empowering and uniting, freeing and inspiring.


Jesus and the Spirit


jesusJesus mission, it would seem, is to align himself with the Spirit’s work, and thus make historically concrete and visible what God had been doing through the Spirit since the creation of the world. Jesus is the “face” of God’s Holy Mystery in history,11 the mystery hitherto known through the Spirit’s powerful yet “anonymous” presence.12 In a concrete human nature, within the parameters of a concrete human culture at a very particular time in human history, Jesus is led by the Spirit to perform acts of life-giving healing, to say words of prophetic insight and renewing forgiveness. He lives a life of freedom within the Mosaic law, draws people together in a table fellowship that includes those who had been excluded, and shows by his death the depth of God’s love for humanity. The same creative, prophetic, life-giving and death-negating power that characterized the Spirit in the history of Israel is active in Jesus, who is raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit and who lavishes the Spirit in a concrete and focused way on those who believe in his name.


The Church and the Spirit


The community of believers—women and men who share and continue Jesus’ mission in the world—are, in Paul’s image, the body of Christ. As such, they continue to be the “face” of God’s Holy Spirit in history. They give concrete shape and focus to the creative, life-giving, challenging, renewing, uniting power of the Spirit that has always been loose in the world.13 It is as the body of Christ and the “face” of the Spirit that the church discovers its mission in the world.

world_handsIn view of the priority of the Spirit’s activity, however, the word “mission” needs to be understood in a particular way. The church is not so much “sent” as it is simply part of God’s embrace of the world, an embrace made flesh in Jesus but accomplished already in the past, present, and continuing presence of the Holy Spirit. As John Paul II has said forcefully, the Spirit is indeed “the principal agent of mission,”14 or, in the words of John V. Taylor: “Our theology would improve if we thought more of the church being given to the Spirit than of the Spirit being given to the church.”15 The church’s task is therefore not so much to “do it all” as it is to point, name, witness to, and cooperate with God’s powerful and transforming presence. As Jesus made this visible in his life, death, and resurrection, so the church makes this visible in its community and its commitment to God’s creation. Proclaiming Jesus is proclaiming, as Taylor insists, not knowledge about Jesus but knowledge of Jesus; and the knowledge of Jesus is to be transformed, like him, by God’s out-reaching love in the Holy Spirit.


Mission and the Spirit


The Spirit’s activity as God Inside Out in the world might be expressed by the notion of transcending immanence. Immanence because God is totally and thoroughly involved and interwoven within cosmic and human history. Transcendence because God’s presence and activity is beyond the capacity of human beings to predict, control, grasp, or express. The Spirit is God so involved in the world (immanence) that we need constantly to be amazed and challenged by God’s presence (transcendence).

insideoutThe transcending immanence of God Inside Out means that, in Johnson’s words, “Spirit-Sophia is the living God at her closest to the world, pervading the whole and each creature to awaken life and mutual kinship.”16 As the Spirit works, so must the church. Since nothing is foreign to the Spirit, nothing needs to be foreign to the church. Since the Spirit pervades all things, so must the church. The task of the church is to be in the midst of history, to be partners in God’s creation, to be a living sign in its community of creation’s future. The church’s mission is world mission in the fullest sense; one might even speak of cosmic mission. Nation building, earth keeping, ecological action, education, preserving and transforming culture, enhancing the quality of life, cultivation of the arts—all these are fields of activity for those who are given to the Spirit. The church’s mission, like God’s mission, arises out of passion for all that is and can be. It does not replace God’s mission, of course, but it points to and cooperates with God’s activity with all its heart.

In a spirit of reverence of an obedience to the transcending immanence of the Spirit’s holy creation, we can devote ourselves to inculturation and interreligious dialogue, and see them as truly essential parts of mission. Through efforts of inculturation we come to the full meaning of God’s embrace of the world, and by engagement in dialogue (at all levels) we become aware of how thorough is the Spirit’s presence and just how wondrous are the magnolia Dei to which we witness and which we proclaim. Mission carried out in obedience to the Spirit is the “mission in bold humility” that David Bosch wrote about so eloquently and lived so convincingly: “We know only in part, but we do know.”17

“To think deeply about the Holy Spirit,” writes John V. Taylor, is a bewildering, tearing exercise, for whatever he touches he turns inside out.”18 The Spirit is the Spirit as God turned inside out; the Spirit given to Jesus turned him inside out and opened him up to the vision of God’s reign among women and men. The Spirit lavished through Jesus turns his disciples inside out as they include unthinkable people and go to unthinkable places. Thinking missiologically about the Holy Spirit can turn the church inside out, perhaps making it more responsive to where God is really leading it in today’s world.



Questions for Reflection and Discussion


  1. Read Johnson’s quotation at the beginning slowly and meditatively, letting the images play in your mind. How do these images relate to your understanding of God?
  2. What difference might it make to think of the Holy Spirit first, to give priority to the Spirit?
  3. Reading the biblical texts, what is the role of the Holy Spirit?
  4. How does Bevan’s view the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit? How does this relate to your understanding?
  5. What difference does it make to think of the church given to the Holy Spirit rather than the other way around?
  6. We are accustomed to thinking of the church as the “body of Christ.” What does it mean to think of the church as the “face” of the Holy Spirit?
  7. How might the notion of transcending immanence shape and motivate the church’s mission in new ways?
  8. How could the vision of “God Inside Out” transform our vision of God, God’s mission, the church’s mission?



1 Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse (Crossroad, 1992), p. 127.

2 John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission (S.C.M. Press, 1972), pp. 5,6.

3 Frederick E. Crowe, “Son of God, Holy Spirit, and World Religions: The Contribution of Bernard Lonergan to the Wider Ecumenism,” Chancellor’s Address II (Regis College, 1985), p. 8.

4 Johannes C. Hoekenijk, The Church Inside Out (Westminister Press, 1966).

5 Libertus Arend Hoedemaker, “Johannes Ch. Hoekendij,” in Mysterium Salutis, vol. 12 (Quiriniana, 1978), p. 658.

6 Karl Rahner, The Trinity (Herder & Herder, 1970), p. 22.

7 John Breck, “The Face of the Spirit,” Pro Ecclesia 3 (Spring, 1994): 165-78.

8 Johnson, She Who Is, p. 134.

9 Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (Orbis Books, 1983), p. 259.

10 Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), p. 872.

11 Breck, “The Face;” Robert Dotzel, “The Face of the Spirit: A Dialogue with John Breck,” Pro Ecclesia 4 (Fall, 1995): 5-10.

12 Crowe, “Son of God,” p. 18.

13 Dotzel, “The Face,” p. 8.

14 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris missio, para 30.

15 Taylor, The Go-Between God, p. 96.

16 Johnson, She Who Is, 147.

17 David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis Books, 1991), p. 489.

18 Taylor, The Go-Between God, p. 179.


Steve Bevans is an internationally acclaimed scholar and friend of the Center community. He has contributed significantly to a theology of mission in the 21st Century, which he immediately describes is more a ‘spirituality’ than a ‘strategy,’ a “prophetic dialogue” — a bold yet humble engagement with today’s cultures and contexts. Steve is Professor of Mission and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, USA. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines. His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009). Steve’s most recent publication with Roger Schroeder is Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today (2011 Orbis Books).


Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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