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An Anointed Ministry: Insights for Pastoral Practice from Third Article Theology

“Why do churches wound their leaders?” “Being a senior minister is the hardest job in the world!”

Both the statements above were posted on my facebook feed this morning, underlining the angst many of my pastor friends experience in their roles. Indeed, the catalogue of challenges facing the modern church leader is virtually endless – consumerism, church hopping, loss of cultural respect for the clergy, the sexually promiscuous age we live in, the increasingly discretionary nature of church attendance, the complexities of family life in the 21st century, maintaining holiness in the face of personal vulnerability, increasing demands leading to a deficient prayer life, and on and on. But perhaps the biggest concern for church leaders is the realisation that for all the assurances we have of ultimate victory, right now we seem to be losing ground. Despite our determined efforts and deep concern as church leaders, Christianity isn’t thriving in New Zealand. Certainly, there are days when pastors feel like they have the best job in the world; days when people are saved, released from bondage, or grow deeper in Christ – days we would happily work for free. But there are many other days that are so difficult we return home thinking that no amount of money is worth what we have endured. Particularly for those of us who intentionally try to keep the big picture in mind, there is so much effort for such little return. Contemporary ministry can feel a little like leading the French resistance in the face of a German blitzkrieg. It is a tough time to be a pastor.

Third Article Theology (TAT) has some significant things to say to church leaders facing the challenges of our age. This recent and continually developing approach to theology examines the full breadth of reality through the lens of the Spirit – the “third article” of the Apostle’s Creed. The insights it gives are directly relevant to those in the pastoral trenches. As Lyle Dabney, the Methodist theologian who first advocated for the development of a TAT says, this theological approach can help us to “act our age. This does not mean conforming the faith to the age, it means proclaiming that faith in a manner that is appropriate to the age, in a way that is both faithful to God and authentic to God’s world today.”[1] This article first introduces the approach of TAT, and then outlines three key insights it gives for ministry in twenty-first century New Zealand – insights that make a difference personally, pastorally, and prayerfully. While by no means an exhaustive account of TAT’s benefits, it illustrates the value of church leaders intentionally training themselves to see reality through a “Spirit”-ual perspective.

What is Third Article Theology?

At least initially, Third Article Theology is most easily understood by describing what it isn’t. First, TAT is not merely pneumatology. Its scope is much wider than this, for it aims to look through and not merely at the Spirit. TAT should also be distinguished from First and Second Article Theologies. First Article Theologies start with the Father. Consequently, they focus on God’s creation and humanity as its pinnacle. Their emphasis lies on our inbuilt capacity for and tendency towards God. First Article Theology is most clearly seen in medieval scholasticism, with exemplars such as Thomas Aquinas – “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.”[2]

Second Article Theologies view reality through the lens of the Son, and so focus on humanity’s universal rejection of God. Rather than tracing a continual route from nature through to grace, they centre on the darkly impenetrable discontinuity between God and humans, and the Son who comes down to meet fallen humanity. This theological approach is most clearly seen in the work of the Protestant Reformation and its descendants, with exemplars such as Martin Luther – “On the part of man however nothing precedes grace except ill will and even rebellion against grace.”[3]

In contrast to both of these theological approaches, TAT starts with the Spirit. Rather than humanity’s universal tendency toward or universal rejection of God, it focuses on the particular – the reality of the Spirit in specific persons, communities, and relationships. Rather than focusing on the continuity or discontinuity between humanity and divinity, TAT illuminates the pneumatological possibility of transformation. So, the central and crystallising concept for TAT is not the beatific vision (First Article Theology) or justification (Second Article Theology) but participation – the drawing of individuals and communities into the full life of God.

The image of the Spirit as a lens is helpful here. When we look at a lens, it is transparent and difficult to focus on. When we look through a lens, the object in view comes into perspective. TAT aims to use the Spirit as a God-given lens by which to conduct theological enquiry. We look through the Spirit to clearly see reality in a new focus, explicitly allowing the Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16:13). There is no claim that such a theological method is entirely novel or unique. Irenaeus, John Owen, and Edward Irving, among others, have all utilised this approach, and theologians utilising other methods have certainly not neglected pneumatologically inspired insights. Neither is there any claim that TAT should replace theologies built on the first or second articles. The aim of TAT is to complement rather than supersede the insights of other methodological approaches. Nevertheless, the contention of those theologians currently developing a TAT is that the lens of the Spirit has not been explicitly utilised with sufficient depth and rigour, and so deserves to be more comprehensively pursued. As Kiwi theologian Myk Habets summarises: “Across the traditions, calls for a pneumatological enrichment of the received tradition are mounting.”[4]

An Anointed Life – A Personal Application of TAT

To date, the greatest effort and development in TAT (and by quite some margin) has been made in the area of Christology. Examining Christology through the lens of the Spirit means “viewing Christ as an aspect of the Spirit’s vision, instead of (as is more usual) viewing the Spirit as a function of Christ’s.”[5] The result – a Spirit Christology – reveals a far deeper understanding of Christ’s humanity, and consequently of ours as well. The implications it has for how we are to live are profound.

Christian tradition describes Christ as fully divine and fully human, the incarnate Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity become human. A Spirit Christology completely concurs with these descriptions, but argues that understood exclusively they are incomplete. To illustrate, consider the question: “How on earth did Jesus do miracles, control nature and resist temptation?” An exclusively Logos-based Christology would respond that Jesus could do these things because he is God. In other words, he utilised the resources of his divine sonship in order to achieve what we cannot. But this solution simply will not do. If Jesus used his divinity to do what we cannot, then he has not genuinely experienced our humanity. Jesus’ true humanity is denied precisely to the extent that he utilised his divine nature.

So, how does a Spirit Christology resolve this dilemma? By arguing that all of Jesus’ words and actions were achieved not through the utilisation of his divine nature, but through dependence upon the Spirit. Such a conclusion is entirely biblically warranted. For example, after an exhaustive review of the gospel accounts, former Wheaton College Professor of Greek, Gerald Hawthorne concludes that all the words and actions of Jesus, including his prayers and worship, were “spoke[n] and performed not by virtue of his own power, the power of his own divine personality, but by virtue of the power of the Holy Spirit at work within him and through him.”[6] The theological conclusion that we draw is that the incarnate Son voluntarily submitted his actions to the Spirit of God, who guided and empowered him. As Tom Smail explains, “This new man, Jesus Christ, is the work of the Son of God operating in his own human nature in the power and energy of the Holy Spirit.”[7]

We are very familiar with the idea that the great victory of Jesus’ death was won not through strength and power but rather through weakness and submission. It is only because Jesus fully submitted himself to the will of the Father on the cross that death was finally defeated. What a Spirit Christology teaches us is that exactly the same is true of Jesus’ life. Minute by minute and second by second, Jesus chose a life of submission and weakness. Jesus was truly and completely divine, the Son of God incarnate, and as such he had limitless power at his fingertips. But, as the incarnate Son, he did not rely on the power of his divine nature, but chose to live instead in utter and continual dependence upon the Spirit of God.[8]

The immediate and inescapable consequence is that the same should be true of our personal lives as well. Through the Spirit we participate in Christ’s life, and consequently, our way of living should imitate his. And this is a perspective that can bring an extraordinary amount of encouragement to those of us who are ministers in the contemporary Western church.  With all of the challenges facing pastors, and all of the demands being placed on us, we might assume that the road to victory lies through us gradually increasing our strength and skills. If we become more and more capable, if our abilities grow and grow, then we will be able to tackle the problems that face us and ultimately triumph. But it didn’t work like that for Jesus, and neither will it work like that for us. As Roger Haight explains, “One can project upon [Jesus] all the weaknesses of human existence in order to retrieve from him the inspiration of the power of his earthly life. Spirit Christology gives a solid grounding for a spirituality of following Christ.”[9]

The life we are called to in imitation of Christ is a life of growing trust and dependence. Success comes (ultimately) through submission. In a world where more often than not, technique is idolised and what works overshadows what is right, reminding ourselves that we are called to such a life can be a challenge. But it is worth remembering that as we learn to imitate Jesus, we have access to every resource that he utilised in his time on this earth. The Spirit that empowered him to win such tremendous victories is exactly the same Spirit, in both kind and degree, that empowers our own personal lives, if and when we submit to him.

An Anointed Church – A Pastoral Application of TAT

While theologians have been exploring Spirit Christology for the better part of the last four decades, the extension of Third Article Theology beyond Christology is a much more recent endeavour. And this is quite appropriate, as Spirit Christology is foundational to TAT, just as Christology is foundational to all theology. It is only “on the foundations of Spirit Christology [that] one might suitably construct a renewed doctrine of the Trinity, ecclesiology, and even eschatology.”[10] So when we examine the doctrine of the church through the lens of the Spirit, the primary vantage point we look from is that of a Spirit Christology.

And in many ways, the ecclesial logic developed by a TAT parallels the Christological logic outlined above. The primary insight of Spirit Christology is that a full understanding of Christ irreducibly requires the involvement of both the Son and the Spirit. Similarly, the primary insight of a Third Article Ecclesiology is that you cannot understand the church without considering the work of both the Son and the Spirit as foundational. But theologically and practically, we don’t often do that.

Theologically, we often see the church’s sole foundation as being Christ. The church is Christ’s body, we maintain, for she was historically founded by Christ (existing only because of his life and death), metaphorically, she is like Christ (imitating him as his physical body on earth), and organically, she is connected to Christ (participating in his sonship). A TAT ecclesiology completely concurs with these descriptions, but argues that by themselves they are incomplete. For each of these connections happens exclusively through the Spirit. Consider the biblical descriptions. Christ founded the church by breathing the Spirit on her (John 20:22; Acts 2:1-4). We imitate Christ because the Spirit forms us as Christ’s body (1 Cor 12:12-13). And together, we participate in Christ’s sonship through the Spirit testifying that we are genuinely children of God (Rom 8:16) and enabling us to relate to the Father personally (Gal 4:6). If the Bible so strongly emphasizes the pneumatological nature of this connection, then a coherent theological understanding of the union between Christ and the church simply cannot be formed without reference to the Spirit. Theologically, it is through the Spirit that the church is the church. As Paul says, the church is the temple of the Spirit (1Cor 3:16). The early church father Irenaeus expresses this beautifully: “where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and all manner of grace” (Irenaeus, Haer. 3.24.1).[11] Or to put it more starkly: no Spirit; no church.[12]

Practically we make the same mistake, often viewing the Spirit as a welcome but non-essential part of church life. When many people think of the Spirit’s ecclesial role, they divide church activities into two different types. First, there are the normal activities – attending a service, joining a homegroup, setting up the chairs, washing the dishes, chatting with people after the service is over, and so on. It’s not that the Spirit is uninvolved with those activities, it’s just that we do not see him as particularly active in them. Then there are the exceptional things that happen. If we go to a home group that was particularly emotional, we might say the Spirit really moved in that meeting. Or if someone preaches a particularly touching sermon, we might say how anointed it was. Or if something truly miraculous happens – a friend gets healed or walks on water or their face shines like a light bulb – we would say that’s a clear sign that the Spirit is moving in our church. But the Bible simply doesn’t make that kind of distinction. While our experience of the Spirit may vary, the theological reality is that everything the church is and does, from the most mundane activity to the most spectacular experience, is only because of the Spirit.[13]

Recognising the foundational role of the Spirit in the church’s life can be extraordinarily encouraging for those of us who are pastors. We often default to thinking that the church is primarily about what we see. When many people define “church,” they talk about where we’re focused (Jesus), how we relate (community), what we believe (Bible), or what we do (mission and discipleship). None of these are entirely wrong, but they are not entirely right either. There is another side to the church, and it matters more than all of these wonderful activities and intentions put together. Church is not just about what we can see. The church simply is … and it is because of the Spirit. There is far more to the church than us. What we do matters, but it is not all there is. Most of what happens in the church is invisible to us. We forget this at our peril. If we make church entirely about what we see and do, then the incredible work that the Spirit is already doing “is left on the bench while we call timeout, huddle together with our heads bowed and figure out a strategy by which we can compensate for God’s regrettable retreat into invisibility.”[14]

The beauty of the pneumatological lens is that it brings into focus realities that remain hidden. American author Eugene Peterson helpfully illustrates this using the word “inscape.” He notes how some painters or photographers merely capture the reality in front of them (landscapes). Others, however, convey the inner truth of what is really going on (inscape). As we look through the lens of the Spirit, we penetrate the “obvious ordinariness” of the church’s life, and see the truth within – Christ himself.[15]

An Anointed Relationship – A Prayerful Application of TAT

Perhaps the clearest example of TAT’s practical relevance for ministry are the implications it has for our prayer lives. Few subjects are more likely to provoke guilt in the life of the average pastor than prayer, both in terms of their own experience and that of their congregation.[16] TAT suggests a radical revisioning of our understanding of prayer that undercuts this guilt entirely.

It begins with the Trinity. Traditionally, the Trinity has been described as three persons and one substance, a theologically rich, poignant and precise description. In practice, many see the Trinity similarly to the way in which Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf describes it in After Our Likeness – three individuals that together form a relational, egalitarian, and nonhierarchical community.[17] And, as Volf argues, we should aim to reflect this Trinitarian community in our church life. Putting these ideas together means that we join the Trinity like one friend joining a group of three friends.[18] So the qualities that characterise the Trinity (relational community, love etc.) should characterise the church as well. Consequently, prayer is conversation with these friends, and worship is simply us telling the Trinitarian community how awesome they are.

A TAT approaches the situation quite differently. First, it argues the best way of understanding the Trinity is from the basis of Spirit Christology, for it is there we most clearly see all three persons of the Trinity interacting and at work. As Catholic theologian David Coffey maintains, “Spirit Christology provides our best mode of access to the theology of the Trinity.[19] Several Third Article Theologians have noted that there is a recurring Spirit Christological pattern where the Father incarnates (or sends, names, indwells, and acts through) the Son by the Spirit, and the Son responds (or worships, loves, and dwells in) the Father through this Spirit given to him. They argue that this repeated earthly pattern points to an eternal truth, and so they describe the Trinity as the Father eternally and continually begetting the Son by the Spirit, and the Son eternally and continually returning the love of the Father by the Spirit in which he was begotten.[20] So the Trinity is certainly a relational, non-hierarchical community as Volf suggests, but rather than just being a collection of three individuals whose relational connections change and vary, the persons are always relating to each other in the same ways. In other words, the persons are eternally distinct from one another precisely because of how they are being continually constituted. The Father is always begetting the Son by the Spirit, and the Son is always returning that love to the Father by the Spirit.

Extending these ideas to humanity, a TAT argues that the Spirit reprises his eternal role in time. So, just as the Son was begotten in eternity through the Spirit, just as Christ was hypostatically united in the incarnation through the Spirit, so the church is adopted as sons and daughters of God in Christ through the Spirit. In other words, we do not participate with the Trinity (like a friend joining another group of friends) we participate in it. Hence, not just like Jesus, but actually in him, we are continually being begotten as children of the Father by the Spirit, and in Christ, we continually respond in love to the Father through the Spirit he has given us. In other words, we do not merely take on Trinitarian characteristics, reflecting the qualities of their relationship in the church, we actually indwell the Trinitarian life.[21]

Consider the implications of this for prayer. In Volf’s understanding, prayer is ultimately something that we do. Prayer and worship cannot be sourced from the Trinitarian persons, because ultimately it is offered to them. So while no doubt we need God’s help to pray and worship, in the doing of it, we are inevitably thrown back on our own initiative. If this is the case, then guilt is the right and honourable response to our deficient prayer lives. But the picture of prayer emerging from TAT is significantly different. In this understanding, we do not pray to God, but in God. There already exists an active, dynamic, immanent Trinitarian life where the Son prays and worships the Father through the Spirit, and we (all of us together) get to join in this prayer and worship that is already happening.[22]

What that means is that when we pray and worship, we are not starting something new. We are joining in with something that is already going on. Before we get to church, worship is already happening. When our individual devotions finish, prayer continues. In our place and on our behalf, the Father, Son and the Spirit are enjoying an intimate depth of fellowship in which we participate. The Father initiates, directing Christ through the Spirit as to how we should pray. And Christ in turn directs us as we are in him (opening our lives to his reign) and in the Spirit (enabled to hear him guiding us). Then, because of our union with Christ, as we obediently follow the guiding of the Spirit, the Father accepts our prayers as if they were from Jesus. As Sarot comments: “It is only because the Christian community in prayer is the body of the Son that it has through the Spirit access to the Fatherhood of the Father.”[23]

From a practical perspective, what this means is that the pressure is off. Prayer and worship can certainly involve active intercession and supplication, but it can also involve resting in God, simply reminding ourselves of his ongoing presence in our day. Listening, stillness, and quiet are no less (and no more) effective than polished, heartfelt, oratory masterpieces. Imagine a young, single mother dragging herself to church after enduring a sleepless night comforting a baby with colic. Imagine a young man turning to his quiet time after enduring a bitter war of words with his wife. Imagine a teenager trying to pray after reading a scathing comment about her online. Imagine a pastor who has endured a “no amount of money is worth this” kind of day opening the Bible to prepare for yet another sermon. Sometimes the words aren’t there. But our response in these times should not be guilt, but gratefulness. For we do not initiate prayer and worship, we join it. And even if the words don’t come, through the Spirit we continue to participate in the ongoing communal life of the Father and the Son.


“It’s not about you.”

Rick Warren began his bestseller – A Purpose Driven Life – with this phrase,[24] although opinion is divided on whether he carried through or subverted this theme in the rest of his work.[25] However, “it’s not about you” is the clear and appropriate conclusion of applying the insights of TAT to ministry. First, in our lives, it is not about our strength and skills. Success (ultimately) comes through submission, because the same Spirit that empowered and guided Jesus continues to empower us. Second, in our churches, it is not so much about our activity or even about what we can see. Most of what happens in churches is invisible, and a pneumatological lens can help us recognise what God is already doing. Looking through the Spirit can enable us to realise that Christ himself is present and how he is active in our congregations. Third, in our relationship with God, it’s not about our initiative. We are not thrown back on ourselves to offer God the worship and praise he deserves. In contrast, through the Spirit we join in the already, ongoing and ever-continuing communion that exists between the Son and the Father. These three insights reveal only a taste of what TAT has to offer, but even from such a small sample, the flavour is easy to discern.

Over the past fifteen years I have pastored in two churches (separated by three years of Ph.D. study). Both were remarkably similar communities – wonderful, vibrant, mission focused, full of good people who love God and love each other. But the best word to describe my first pastoral stint would be “stress,” while the primary characteristic of the second is “joy.” It is not the communities that are different. It is me. This is because while I was studying, an incredible truth sunk into my being – a truth that I probably should have realised many years ago – a truth that comes directly from looking through the lens of the Spirit at what I do. Ministry is not primarily a responsibility, but a gift. It is not about me. I get to be part of what the Spirit is already doing in the church. And that is an anointed ministry indeed.

 Greg Liston has fifteen years' experience as a Baptist pastor, and four years' experience as a strategic management consultant, as well as PhDs in quantum physics and theology. Currently lecturing in systematic theology at Laidlaw College, his ongoing research explores Third Article Theology, particularly the role of the Spirit in the life of the church. He is married to Diane with two teenage children. 

[1] D. Lyle Dabney, "Starting with the Spirit: Why the Last Should Now be First," in Starting with the Spirit, ed. Stephen Pickard and Gordon Preece (Hindmarsh: Australian Theological Forum, 2001), 26.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1920), 13.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther's Works, trans. H.J. Grimm, 55 vols., vol. 31 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 11.

[4] Myk Habets, "Prolegomenon: On Starting with the Spirit," in Third Article Theology: A Pneumatological Dogmatics, ed. Myk Habets (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 3.

[5] Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996), 80.

[6] Gerald F. Hawthorne, The Presence and the Power: The Significance of the Holy Spirit in the Life and Ministry of Jesus (Dallas: Word, 1991), 146.

[7] Thomas Smail, Reflected Glory: The Spirit in Christ and Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 64.

[8] For a more detailed discussion of the roles of the Son and the Spirit in the life of Jesus see Gregory J. Liston, "A "Chalcedonian" Spirit Christology," Irish Theological Quarterly 81, no. 1 (2016): 74-93. 

[9] Roger Haight, Jesus: Symbol of God (New York: Orbis, 1999), 465.

[10] Habets, "Spirit Christology: The Future of Christology?," 232.

[11] Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (1996), 3:24:1, 1:458.

[12] For a more detailed discussion of the pneumatological foundation of the church see Gregory J. Liston, The Anointed Church: Toward a Third Article Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 91-120.

[13] See for example the merging of spectacular and everyday in the lists of spiritual gifts (e.g. 1 Cor 12:27-31 includes both healing and helping, Rom 12:6-8 includes both prophecy and kindness)

[14] Eugene Peterson, Practise Resurrection (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010), 118.

[15] For Eugene Peterson’s description of inscape, see ibid., 137-42.

[16] For example, a 2005 survey ranked “Prayer: The need for more ongoing, passionate prayer in both personal and church life” as the number one issue in the life of the evangelical church in the west. See

[17] See Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), passim.

[18] See Richard Bauckham, "Jürgen Moltmann's The Trinity and the Kingdom of God and the Question of Pluralism," in The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 160.

[19] David Coffey, "Spirit Christology and the Trinity," in Advents of the Spirit: An Introduction to the Current Study of Pneumatology, ed. Bradford E. Hinze and D. Lyle Dabney (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2005), 315.

[20] See for example Thomas Weinandy, The Father's Spirit of Sonship: Reconceiving the Trinity (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1995). Also, Myk Habets, The Anointed Son: A Trinitarian Spirit Christology (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 220-27.

[21] For more details see Liston, The Anointed Church: 303-34.

[22] The contrast between these two understandings of prayer is not dissimilar to that discussed in James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996), 20-24. Torrance simply describes the distinction between the alternatives, characterising the first as Unitarian worship and the second as properly Trinitarian. A TAT approach builds on Torrance’s understanding, providing not just a nuanced theological account of prayer “in” God, but also an appreciation of which characterisations of the Trinity enable this understanding of prayer. For more details see Liston, The Anointed Church: 329-33.

[23] Marcel Sarot, "Trinity and Church: Trinitarian Perspectives on the Identity of the Christian Community," International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 1 (2010): 44.

[24] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 17.

[25] See for example Graham Christian, "Self Help Meets God: A Classic Approach," Library Journal 137, no. 18 (2012): 38-40.