Beliefs Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Phyllis Tickle’s Holy Ghost heresy

Phyllis Tickle grins at a Veritas Forum event, "Sacred Explorations: Learning to Pray with the Medievals," hosted by the University of Tennessee . - Image courtesy of Wyoming_Jackrabbit (
Phyllis Tickle grins at a Veritas Forum event, "Sacred Explorations: Learning to Pray with the Medievals," hosted by the University of Tennessee . - Image courtesy of Wyoming_Jackrabbit (

Phyllis Tickle grins at a Veritas Forum event, “Sacred Explorations: Learning to Pray with the Medievals,” hosted by the University of Tennessee . – Image courtesy of Wyoming_Jackrabbit (

Phyllis Tickle may look like a sweet grandmother, but do not be fooled. She’s sassy, smart, and always does her homework.

Tickle is founding editor of the religion department at “Publishers Weekly,” the author of multiple books, and a matriarch among many progressive Protestants. For several years, she’s argued that Christianity undergoes a massive transformation every 500 or so years and is currently entering a period she has labeled “the Great Emergence.” Here, we discuss her newest book, “The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church,” and the revival of interest in the Holy Spirit seen in churches across the theological spectrum. Her answers, which she labels “heresy,” will undoubtedly make some Christians squirm.

RNS: Phyllis, you’re always out there stirring up trouble and I can assume you’re doing no less with this book. Why did you want to write a book about the Holy Spirit?

PT: You cut right to the chase, don’t you Mr. Merritt? I began the whole business of chasing emergence Christianity when I was at “Publishers Weekly” and I began to write about how this was one of many upheavals in Christian history. When my first two books on the topic were finished, it was clear that this thing that what was happening—whatever you want to call it—was going to have the significance of what we saw 2000 years ago. And one of the key characteristics of this period is the completion of the Trinity, whereby we engage the third part of the Trinity more.

This is I call a “continuing maturation” of the faith, and it is heresy. I can already smell smoke from my burning flesh as they roast me for it. In the Old Testament days, we see a greater clarification of and engagement with God the father. Then when Christ comes, God reveals God’s self, showing what God would look like in human flesh. This allowed humankind to know Godkind within time and space. But then there would come a time when the third part of the Trinity would also move as easily in and out of human affairs and human worship as had God the father and God the son. That was the prophecy of the mystics.

RNS: A lot of this has been built on the rise of emergence Christianity. But a lot of folks have observed what may be called the decline of the so-called Emergent Church. What once had commercial appeal and a mainstream following seems to have somewhat disbanded. How does this affect your thinking?

PT: I have argued that when we are talking about Emergence Christianity, we’re talking about what is emerging out of the brouhaha right now. But the Emergent Church is not the same of Emergence Christianity. It is one of several expressions that would also include charismatics and new monastics and progressives, for example.

Image courtesy of Baker Books

Image courtesy of Baker Books

RNS: Fair enough. So exactly how do people today think about and interact with the Holy Spirit differently than Christians in years past?

PT: There is a greater experiential intimacy. Traditionally, a Christian has been able to say “I feel the Spirit” and mean it. But they largely entered into that personally and privately, without the expressions we saw at Pentecost and in the early church in the days following Pentecost.

Additionally, we’re seeing a need to experience the Spirit everyday and a belief in the accessibility of the Spirit. Most Christians 100 years ago would have prayed to Jesus. Today, people are actually praying to the Spirit with regularity. So, there is greater engagement with the Spirit in a way that would not have been true in years past.

Finally, our ecclesiology has changed. The Holy Spirit seems to like and speak to women as much as men. The Spirit seems to like street people as much as the rich and powerful and blessed. So an equalness is emerging as a result that is undeniable.

RNS: But why? What’s driving this interest in the third person of the Trinity? Why do you think the Spirit would wait until now to “show its face” like this?

PT: Why would God the son wait 6,000 years to show his face? I don’t mean to sound like a smart ass; I’m really asking. If you read scripture, you’ll find that in the beginning we had “El” and that morphed to the Father and then we had the Son. I would say that these expressions of God were the expressions we needed. It wasn’t that the Spirit wasn’t present in the beginning, but there was no widespread engagement by plain people until after Christ comes. I suspect that the Spirit didn’t show up like this until we evolved, until we were able to receive the Spirit.

RNS: Could a greater reliance on the Holy Spirit weaken the authority of the scripture? When looking for answers, many Christians look first to the Bible. Are they now going to look to the Spirit in place of the Scriptures?

No, I think quite the opposite, but I may be wrong. My assessment is that we go to the Scripture and we ask the Spirit to discern what the scripture is saying. Scripture is going to hold as the center and remain the word of God. But it will be discerned through the Spirit rather than the mind, logic, and intellect. It won’t be Protestant inerrancy, but it will stay central.

RNS: You’re 80 years old. Having lived four-fifths of a century and having been a Christian for a large portion of that time, how your engagement with and connection to the Spirit morphed over the course of your existence?

PT: That’s a good question, and I’ve never thought about it. Isn’t that interesting? Look in the mirror, Tickle, and see what you find! Over time, my spiritual life has matured and where I’ve seen it the most is my engagement in God the father and much clearer understanding of God the son. But in recent years I’ve become a consumed, burning Trinitarian.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


Click here to post a comment

  • I’m not sure what is heretical about this. Christians have always believed in the Holy Spirit and believed that it moves among us. At one time or another Christians might have focused more on one person of the trinity than another, but it’s not a clear linear progression from one person to another to another. It’s not clear that today more people are “engaging” the spirit than in other time periods. Different groups and denominations have focused on different things at different times.

    Self-labeling it heresy sounds more like an attempt to get attention and sell books…but maybe I’m being too cynical. 🙂

  • Very interesting interview. I’m not sure I’d go as far as an Age of the Spirit, but a rediscovery of the role of the Spirit is certainly afoot. I’m thinking of the role of discernment circles in Quaker or Mennonite traditions and the transformative role in Wesleyan and Holiness movements. We can thank the pentecostals for legitimizing conversations about “being led” even in non-charismatic circles. I see a look to the Spirit as a helpful corrective to the hyper-rationalization of the Gospel (and Scripture) of recent decades.

  • Tickle is a fascinating character. And she certainly knows what buttons to push to sell books. But I’ve never been sold on her ideas. For example, the 500 year cycle. Heck, I can find lots of cycles in 500 year intervals. This is the kind of thinking you get from smart people who don’t bother to do their homework. The history of Christianity is far more complex that 500-year cycles. Similarly, I feel the same about this “Age of the Spirit.” Jonathan Edwards was consumed with the Holy Spirit. So, too, many medieval mystics, And then there are people like Origen, who was similarly consumed. Talking about “Ages” is reductionist and ultimately not all that helpful. Tickle, like so many others, I believe, is trying to find some way to salvage a dying faith tradition. Smarter than most. But not that different.

  • I agree with Ms. Tickle that Christianity (indeed, religion in general) is undergoing a sea change. But to identify this change with the third person of the Trinity, before it has barely begun to take shape, is premature. In fact, to equate such a potentially transformational period with a trinitarian Holy Spirit belies Ms. Tickle’s suggestion that Christian scripture will begin to be discerned and interpreted in new ways, ways that may have little use for a fourth century Greek theological concept.

  • There is nothing heretical about the idea that the Spirit speaks to us. The problem with Phyllis Tickle’s concept of the Holy Spirit is that it is divorced from external authority, and thus becomes a breeding ground for heresy. While seemingly still centered on the authority of Scripture it is essentially relativism repackaged. Any person can claim the authority of God when they interpret Scripture or speak prophecy “by the Spirit”, and how can they be challenged really? Each person’s “discernment of the Spirit” becomes truth for them and anyone that follows them. That is why old heresies like Sabellianism (modalism) find new life in some protestant Charismatic circles. Anything can be thrown over when you have convinced yourself that it is God speaking anew.

    This is one of the reasons God gave us the Church, so that we would not be navigating the ocean alone, or subjecting ourselves to smart, sassy, surely charming, but ultimately wrong teachers. Catholics and Orthodox have held together when other bodies have divided over and over because they have held onto their apostolic foundations. I became a Catholic in part because of teachers like Phyllis. I realized that if I recognized no external authority that carried greater weight than my own discernment then I ultimately had no defense against someone, who operating under the same principles, taught heresy.

    I don’t think you are being cynical by the way. I agree that Phyllis would likely enjoy being “roasted” as a heretic with all of the attendant attention.

  • “This is I call a “continuing maturation” of the faith, and it is heresy.” I believe that’s what she’s referring to as heresy….the continuing maturation of the faith, not the fact that people are engaging the spirit differently.

  • Suppose there is no Trinity, but only the one God who sent Jesus and the Spirit to benefit humanity, not to be worshiped? Now that would be heresy but early forms of Christianity existed without a Trinity. The Emperors were the ones who wanted doctrinal pronouncements, rigidity and conformity. What if there is no need for absolute authority in Christianity, whether from the pope or the Bible?

  • This is not a new heresy-it is very old, and in fact Tickle in at least one of her other books has mentioned the name of one of those who taught on the three ages of the Trinity, Joachim of Fiore. There have been some very radical teachers of this including Pentecostals in contemporary times who have and do teach the idea of the “manifested sons of God.” They will supposedly overcome death for the rest of the church. The interesting thing about the heresy, and it is heresy, is that in the so called age of the Spirit, what ever the particular teaching the teacher is focused on is also the new truth the Holy Spirit is bringing.
    That said it is always the age of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I have written a small piece about Tickle and her views of the age of the Spirit here: I have not read the new book but after seeing this have ordered it.

  • I suppose that depends on what she means by “continuing maturation”. The Catholic Church certainly believes our understanding of Christian doctrine can be “developed”, in other words more deeply understood. Too frequently though the tendency is to toss over or distort Christian doctrine in favor of the understanding of the age and personal interpretation. Scripture can be ripped from its context, the traditions and creeds can be pushed aside, the meaning of the body of Christ redefined, and all of it in the name of revelation given by “the Spirit”. Then “maturation” becomes a remaking of God, His revelation, and His gifts to us. That is when heresy springs forth. I don’t know much about Phyllis Tickle, so I’m not calling her a heretic, but I will say that her ideas sound highly subjective and individualistic, and place the burden of authority on private discernment. It’s not hard to find modern movements that share her ideas and that have gone completely off the rails.

  • To assert that doctrines such as the Trinity came from Emperors forcing conformity is either ignorance of Church history or an intentional misrepresentation. Regarding your final question, consider that Luther believed the Church has lost its authority and so he subjected himself to the authority of what he believed were the plain truths of Scripture. Even so, he and the early Reformers still held to the ancient creeds. As protestantism has progressed many people abandon creeds where they collide with their personal interpretations of Scripture, but they usually still hold onto certain core doctrines although they don’t recognize the Fathers who guarded them. Most of those individuals still hold that they are submitting themselves to the authority of Scripture.

    Your position seems like a naked acknowledgement that you reject any authority outside of yourself. Perhaps I misunderstand you, but I encourage you to read the writings of the early Church Fathers themselves. These are good resources:

    The writings of the pre-Nicene Fathers might surprise you in their understanding of the authority of the Church, and their commitment to defending the Church against doctrinal heresy.

  • Although I don’t accept it as authority, I could cite the Qu’ran.

    You make a good point. Faith could be a about joining a particular faith community (through time) or about personal enlightenment. Unitarianism (in the sense of Christianity without the Trinity) is an old tradition in eastern Europe and early new England. Many New England “divines” went the Unitarian way.

    There are also many historians who explore the Imperial imposition of Trinitarian Orthodoxy in the Middle East and North Africa. The oppressive role of the Emperors is one reason cited for why so many Christians welcomed the Muslim “conquerers.”

  • Concerning the fear of individuals interpreting/prophesying the Word according to their own agendas, I point to Deuteronomy 18:21-22. “You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?’ If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken.The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.”

    IOW – judge them by their fruits, do their words and acts build up and bring peace or love rather than serve themselves.

  • “Any person can claim the authority of God when they interpret Scripture or speak prophecy “by the Spirit”, and how can they be challenged really? Each person’s “discernment of the Spirit” becomes truth for them and anyone that follows them.”

    Thank you for this insight. My experience is that authoritative structures will do the same thing. The Catholic Church is a political entity as much as it is a church. Churches are built and run by humans who often mistake their personal beliefs and desires for the Will of God. This is because they do not understand how they as a person work mentally and emotionally. Those human traits become “god-ized” and are relocated out of the realm of science/self understanding and land in the realm of the mystical experience. And when that failure happens we end up on the wrong exit.

    Your journey through spirituality takes you into a system that is more structured and centralized but also more rule focused and -lately- more willing to shuck you off when your humanity reveals itself in violation of those rules. Pope Francis is a welcome relief to these ailments, but in the history of Catholicism he is more the blip than the standard.

    The only reason I can continue to profess belief in God is that I cannot deny my internal experience of God’s love. I learned that scriptures, men and their rules/structures cannot be trusted, nor can I hand over my free will to humans who mistake their own fantasies for the Mystical experience.

    I reject the structures of men built to mesmerize others into submission. Jesus rejected them too, though He nor those who wrote about him could tell his story that way in that time. But a careful review finds two very different systems in Judaism and Christianity.

    Finally I can honestly say I have no one else to blame when it comes time to account for my actions. I won’t have to say I tried and I failed because, just like the pharisees, I spent my entire life attempting to fulfill the Law when in truth such a thing was never humanly possible.

  • Tickle said, “Finally, our ecclesiology has changed. The Holy Spirit seems to like and speak to women as much as men. The Spirit seems to like street people as much as the rich and powerful and blessed. So an equalness is emerging as a result that is undeniable.” What does she mean? Has the Spirit not spoken to women, the poor, etc. in the past? What is meant by “the Holy Spirit seems to like and speak . . .”? Speak how? Ms. Tickle may have creative and radical thoughts, but just because she is who she is does not mean her thoughts are necessarily biblically sound.

  • John, Athanasius was exiled five times because he fought *for* an orthodox view of Christ and the Trinity. The Arian position was supported by the emperors of the time. Constantine II even sent soldiers to arrest Athanasius during a service in Alexandria. Did Constantine want a consensus in the Church on Christ, yes, did the emperors force a Trinitarian orthodoxy on the world, no. The orthodox view of the Trinity won out because it is true, in spite of powerful opposition.

    Also, your last paragraph conflates two periods and issues. By the time muslim conquerors surged into the Byzantine empire the Trinity had been orthodoxy in the Church for hundreds of years.

  • But there is another verse that must be considered if their prophesy seems to be true: “If a prophet or dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying ,’ let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them ,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.” (Deut 13: 1-3

  • Hi, merely changed to aware of a person’s site by using Yahoo, and discovered that must be definitely insightful. Now i’m destined to be thorough intended for brussels. I will appreciate should you proceed this kind of in future. Lots of other folks will likely be helped out of your crafting. Kind regards!