Descent of the Dove
Charles Williams

Charles Williams

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Descent of the Dove

A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church

Copyright © 1939 by Charles Williams

Preface A motto which might have been set on the title-page but has been, less ostentatiously, put here instead, is a phrase which I once supposed to come from Augustine, but I am informed by experts that it is not so, and otherwise I am ignorant of its source. The phrase is: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.” As a maxim for living it is invaluable, and it—or its reversal—summarizes the history of the Christian Church.
Chapter I.
The Definition of Christendom

The beginning of Christendom is, strictly, at a point out of time. A metaphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the Ascent of Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the Paraclete. That measurement, the measurement of eternity in operation, of the bright cloud and the rushing wind, is, in effect, theology.

The history of Christendom is the history of an operation. It is an operation of the Holy Ghost towards Christ, under the conditions of our humanity; and it was our humanity which gave the signal, as it were, for that operation. The visible beginning of the Church is at Pentecost, but that is only a result of its actual beginning—and ending—in heaven. In fact, all the external world, as we know it, is always a result. Our causes are concealed, and mankind becomes to us a mass of contending unrelated effects. It is the effort to relate the effects conveniently without touching, without (often) understanding, the causes that makes life difficult. The Church is, on its own showing, the exhibition and the correction of all causes. It began its career by arguing about its own cause—in such time as it had to spare from its even greater business of coming into existence.


Great beginnings

They had not the language; they had not the ideas; they had to discover everything. They had only one fact, and that was that it had happened. Messias had come, and been killed, and risen; and they had been dead “in trespasses and sin,” and now they were not. They were re-generate; so might everyone be. [...] In every kind of way it was true that the God of Israel would not leave their souls in hell nor suffer his Holy One to see corruption.

The Council of Jerusalem issued its decision with the ratification of a phrase almost incredible in its fullness, and yet natural in its simplicity: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us.” The sentence is, from one point of view, absurd; from another, quite ordinary. But it is neither; it is the serious implicit declaration by men that a union exists, a union denied, defeated, forgotten, frustrated, but, at the bottom of all, actual by a common consent. [...] But the Church has never forgotten, though it may apostatize often, that this is the real claim towards which it must, inevitably and indefectibly, aspire, and in which, awfully, it believes: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost”—O vision of certainty!—“and to us”—O vision of absurdity!— . . . and what? “to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.” It is the choice of necessity; it is the freedom of all that is beyond necessity.
Was the God-man (the phrase would not have been easy to them) to be regarded as Judaic? Or was Judaism only an accident of the God-Man? Was Manhood or Judaism to come first? The Church, or the Spirit in the Church, corrected its original misconceptions, springing from the phenomena of the human nature of Messias. Grace was to be mediated universally—to Gentile as to Jew—through all the new creation. Race had nothing whatever to do with it; rites had nothing whatever to do with it. The decision has lasted universally, in spite of any sins of individual Christians or of classes of Christians at various times. No idea, no nationality, no faith, no anything, has been allowed anywhere or at any time to interpose as a primal and necessary condition of Christianity. No personal experience, however it may have preceded or led to Christianity, has been allowed to interpose between the God-Man and the soul. All doctrine, and all doctors, have been relegated into subordination.
It united, as it were, Paul the Jew to Paul the man, and it gave the manhood the dominating place. But also it united Paul the man with Paul the new man, and it gave the new manhood the dominating place. It did all this in a personality which possessed, with much other genius, a desire to understand and a desire to explain. In order to understand and to explain the convert produced practically a new vocabulary. To call him a poet would be perhaps improper (besides ignoring the minor but important fact that he wrote in prose). But he used words as poets do; he regenerated them.
The doctrine of grace was the statement of the fact; the fresh morality was the adjustment of the individual to the fact; faith was the activity that united the individual to the fact. And the fact was (among other things) that the law—the law of right living, of holiness, of love—which could not be obeyed by man had discovered a way of obeying itself in every man who chose. Man perished if he did not obey the law. Yet the law was impossible, and it could not be modified or it would become other than itself, and that could not be. What then? how was man to find existence possible? By the impossibility doing its own impossible work on man’s behalf, by the forgiveness (that is, the redemption) of sins, by faith, by eternal life; past, present, future states, yet all one, and the name of that state “the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Yet it seems a pity that the Church, which realized once that she was founded on a Scandal, not only to the world but to the soul, should be so nervously alive to scandals. It was one of the earliest triumphs of “the weaker brethren,” those innocent sheep who by mere volume of imbecility have trampled over many delicate and attractive flowers in Christendom. It is the loss, so early, of a tradition whose departure left the Church rather over-aware of sex, when it might have been creating a polarity with which sex is only partly coincident. [...] It failed, and it must be added that St. Paul’s foresight was justified. The Church abandoned that method in favour of the marriage method, which he had deprecated, and eventually lost any really active tradition of marriage itself as a way of the soul. This we have still to recover; it is, no doubt, practised in a million homes, but it can hardly be said to have been diagrammatized or taught by the authorities. Monogamy and meekness have been taught instead.

Time has been said to be the great problem for philosophers; nor is it otherwise with the believers. How, and with what, do we fill time? How, and how far, do we pass out of time? The apostates are only those who abandon the problem; the saints are only those who solve it. The prayer for final perseverance which the Church so urgently recommends is but her passion for remaining faithful, at least, to the problem—of refusing to give it up.

The City is the state which the Church is to become. In the impact of Messias, in the evocation of her elements, in the impact of the Spirit, in the promulgation of her unity, she for a moment, was one with her state. But she was too soon all but divided from her state. It was inevitable; had it not been so, she whould have had no reason for existing. Her reason is not only in the error of the world; it is in her own error. Her error is her very opportunity for being. That is what she is about.
St. Paul travelled in an Empire of which he approved, and which, largely, approved of him. He had the highest respect for the magistrates, and they had little fault to find with him. He had some odd deity, but that was common enough. Salvation, initiation, second birth, were ordinary dinner-talk and public-house chat. Nicodemus may have found difficulties in the idea, but no ordinary person in the non-Judaic world would have blenched. Pilate had been quite unmoved—except to a mild curiosity—by assertions that Jesus had called himself the Son of God; he was only a little surpresed that the Jews should resent it. Christianity, so far as anyone understood it, was naturally supposed to be a tolerant religion, as tolerant as any of its rivals; its credal intolerance was as shocking then, when discovered, as it is to-day.
It is bad enough to be contradicted on what one does believe; it is intolerable to be contradicted—perhaps with vehemence or superiority—on what one obviously does not believe. The Jews, it is true, did not adore; but everyone knew about the Jews. They were formally excused; they were a racial, not a religious, body, or only religious because racial; and they were not at all propagandist. It was extremely difficult to become a Jew. But it was becoming more and more difficult not to be harried by suggestions that one ought to become a Christian. [...] In the eyes of most of the Empire, this meant primarily a separation from official activities, from social holidays, from festivities and games, from anything that involved the worship of the Genius of the Emperor and the admission that other deities might exist or other mysteries be illuminating. The quietest and nicest Christians tactfully stopped away on such occasions; if they came they did not inquire about “meats offered to idols”; they did not parade their consciences. But since they did not, in the last resort, wish to pour out libations to the household gods of their friends, they were all driven gradually—or suddenly—to drop dinner-parties. To any ordinary Roman it was all very odd and rather beastly.

“Remembering how she felt but what she felt Remembering not”—or rather not exactly knowing, the infant Church pursued its way, a very little distance down the ages. That happened to it which happens to all such tremendous experiences. The Romantic discovery was followed by a grand intellectual Romantic movement, as it might be called. It was inevitable; it was proper. But it went, as Romanticism unchecked will, to the wildest extremes. It was almost a literary movement; in the days of printing it would have been a literary movement. It had two sections, the one harmless if unreliable, the second harmful and even less reliable. The first consisted of the romantic tales of Christ and the Apostles. [...] There was as yet no Canon of Documents accepted by the Church as inspired, and these floated round with the more authentic writings. Some edified and some did not, but they did not much relate to serious matters.

The other part of this Romantic movement was much more deadly. It was a more philosophical Romanticism, or rather it was a Romanticism which expressed itself in terms of philosophy. [...] The lost or pseudo-Romantic, in all times and places, has the same marks, and he had them in the early centuries of the Faith. He was then called a Gnostic.

The revolt against the Gnostic influence depended on two things. There was the capacity of individual anti-Gnostic writers, such as Irenæus of Lyons. There was also—and far more important—the actual belief of the separate Churches. It was no many points yet undefined; there were speculative points on which it has not yet been defined. But all those groups in all those cities, founded in the apostolic doctrine, made it clear that they did not, in fact, believe what the Romantic philosophers declared; that this was not the Faith as they had received and held it. [...] Faith was not a poor substitute for vision; it was rather the capacity for integrating the whole being with truth. It was a total disposition and a total act. By definition, all men were in need of salvation; therefore, of faith and repentance in faith. The Gnostic view left little room for the illuminati to practise love on this earth; “they live as though they were indifferent,” said Irenæus. The Church anathematized the pseudo-Romantic heresies; there could be no superiority except in morals, in labour, in love. See, understand, enjoy, said the Gnostic; repent, believe, love, said the Church, and if you see anything by the way, say so.
Why the New Testament? because Christendom universally produced it. But why Christendom? Roughly, because if Christendom is what it says it is—for example, in the New Testament—then it is a Nature in which we choose to believe, as against the personal righteousness, the social order, the cultural speculation.
Chapter II.
The Reconciliation with Time

It would not be true to say that the Church consented to have her extraordinary supernatural graces driven underground; it would be truer to say that she made preparations for drawing into herself the whole of normal human existence. A change of method, an assent already in operation, became more marked. She suffered, she manipulated, she hierarchized, she intellectualized. All this she had done already, but now she entered upon it as a steady mode of behaviour.

In one instance the prefigured reconciliation took its opposite shape. In the year I6I Marcus Aurelius Antoninus ascended the Julian throne. Under that strenuous and ethical rationalist, persecution began to change. The self-consciousness of the Empire as regards Christians took, through the mind and person of the Emperor, a more deliberate form. What had been irritation, fury, riots of the blood, became a deliberate moral and intellectual effort. [...] Partly, no doubt, the best Emperors had the highest idea of their duty to the safety of the State. But also they had the highest sense of moral balance and the least sense of the necessity of Redemption. The worse Emperors—Commodus, Heliogabalus—had a more superstitious impulse which was certainly more in accord with the asserted dogmas of the Gospel. Gods, and the nature of the Gods, are likely to be better understood by sinful than by stoical minds.

The very nature of the Church involves the view that, apart from human sin, what happened was right. This certainly gives a great advantage in argument to any hostile, intelligent, and sceptical mind, but the belief can hardly be abandoned because of that intellectual inconvenience. Messias seems to have indicated that in the Church, as well as in daily life, the Blessed One will conform his actions—at least, to a degree—to the decisions of his creatures. If the Church determined on something, then that something should have been or should be true; and it is arguable that Messias was born of a pure Virgin as much because the Church would believe it as for any other reason—all things else being therefore made conformable.
The Rigorous view is vital to sanctity; the Relaxed view is vital to sanity. Their union is not impossible, but it is difficult; for whichever is in power begins, after the first five minutes, to maintain itself from bad and unworthy motives. Harshness, pride, resentment encourage the one; indulgence, falsity, detestable good-fellowship the other.
It had already established that system of Penance which is the only system of judgment ending, and meant to end, only in forgiveness. Sins were not to be forgotten; they were to be remembered. [...] The fault, the failing, is to be offered to God: grace demands that everything should be recollected by man, as to God everything is present.
Origen, like all intelligent readers then as now, realized that he needed a check upon his own brain and he found it, where all Christians have found it, in the universal decisions of the Church. This authority he recognized; this relationship he desired. The recognition of authority is the desire for union, but also it is the knowledge that the individual by himself is bound to be wrong. The “State” of the Church was the “State” of a City. Schism was the worst sin, for schism was bound to nullify the justice from which it might arise. However right a man’s ideas, they were bound to go wrong if he nourished them by himself.



He strongly maintained, if indeed he did not discover, the voluntary Subordination of the Son; he contemplated in Deity Itself the joy of obedience: obedience which is a particular means of joy and the only means of that particular joy. The Son is co-equal with the Father (as Origen held, and as was afterwards defined), yet the Son is obedient to the Father. A thing so sweetly known in many relations of human love is, beyond imagination, present in the midmost secrets of heaven. For the Son in his eternal Now desires subordination, and it is his. He wills to be so; he co-inheres obediently and filially in the Father, as the Father authoritatively and paternally co-inheres in him. And the whole Three Persons are co-eternal together—and co-equal.

The imaginations of the Alexandrian Fathers were courteous; their visions were humane. Origen extended that vision so far as to teach the final restitution of all things, including the devils themselves. It is impossible that some such dream should not linger in any courteous mind, but to teach it as a doctrine almost always ends in the denial of free-will. If God has character, if man has choice, an everlasting rejection of God by man must be admitted as a possibility; that is, hell must remain. The situation of the devils (if any) is not man’s business.

Yet perhaps the greatest epigram of all is in a more ambiguous phrase. Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century, had tossed it out on his way to martyrdom: “My Eros is crucified.” Learned men have disputed on the exact meaning of the word: can it refer, with its intensity of allusion to physical passion, to Christ? or does it rather refer to his own physical nature? We, who have too much separated our own physical nature from Christ’s, cannot easily read an identity into the two meanings. But they unite, and others spring from them. [...] The physical and the spiritual are no longer divided: he who is Theos is Anthropos, and all the images of anthropos are in him. The Eros that is crucified lives again and the Eros lives after a new style: this was the discovery of the operation of faith.

text checked (see note) Sep 2012

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