The following is an excerpt from It is the Spirit Who Gives Life: New Directions in Pneumatology, edited by Radu Bordeianu (CUA Press, 2022).
The Holy Spirit, Witness, and Martyrdom
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the sevenfold Spirit which is before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the first witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.(Rv 1:4–5)
The writings of the New Testament make strong connections between the Holy Spirit and witness. The Greek terminology for witness (martys, martyrein, martyria, martyrion) provides our English word for the ultimate witness, the “witness unto death”: martyrdom. My main purpose here is to display how, and to what ends, the Holy Spirit works to conform Christians to “Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession,” and for whose “appearing” we wait (1 Tm 6:13–16).
First, we shall look at the Apostle Paul, both for the setting of a theological frame for our topic and for the sake of his existential example. Then, other biblical literature will be examined for what it says about testimony in the circumstances of persecution and in the cause of evangelism. The next step will be to observe the links established historically and theologically between the passion and death of Christ and the sacrificial martyrdom of his disciples. Finally, we shall treat the part played by martyrdom in the building up of the Church and in the attainment of salvation. In all this, our focus will highlight the pneumatological dimension of witness to the gospel. What we discover here about witness and martyrdom may, in reverse, hold implications for our understanding of the Holy Spirit, but these will remain as hints rather than being developed in detail in this place.1
THE PAULINE THEOLOGY AND EXAMPLE
We may begin innocuously enough with what the Apostle says in Romans 8:15–16: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with [or “to”] our spirit [auto to Pneuma synmartyrei tô pneumati hemôn] that we are children of God.” That is the foundation of all Christian prayer, beginning with the prayer that the Lord himself taught to his disciples. It would take us too far afield to investigate the variant reading in the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer, whereby “May thy Holy Spirit come upon us” is substituted for “Thy kingdom come.” Nevertheless, the ambivalent phrasing of that petition opens up for us an eschatological prospect in which to consider the work of the Spirit.
The Apostle Paul confirms that perspective when he immediately continues: “And if we are children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:17–18). Moreover, from those verses it appears that the way to glory lies through suffering, and even a suffering that somehow shares the suffering of Christ (eiper sumpaschomen hina kai sundoxasthômen, v. 17). And this is all given a corporeal dimension by the frequent mention of our bodies in the same chapter: having already “the first fruits of the Spirit,” we await “the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23): “If the Spirit of him who raised Christ Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you” (v. 11). The “love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” will see us through all danger, even “death” (vv. 38–39):
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,(8:35–37, citing Ps 44:22)
“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
As the opening verses of Romans 8 make clear, the condition of all this is that we have appropriated to ourselves the redeeming work of Christ, the Son sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh” so that sin might therein be condemned and we might “walk according to the Spirit” (vv. 1–10).
It is the Spirit who aids our stumbling lips when we groan and pray for full salvation in the midst of a creation that is itself groaning for liberation from decay (Rom 8:22–27)—just as it is the Spirit who (we shall soon see) puts words into the mouths of those who confess Christ in the setting of the hostile court room. It is the same Spirit who, knowing the depths of God, reveals to believers “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:6–12); and this no doubt brings consolation and hope to those who are being persecuted for Christ’s sake.
Thus Paul, above all in Romans 8, sets a theological frame for our topic in terms of euchology, soteriology, and eschatology.
- G. W. H. Lampe spoke of “a pneumatology of martyrdom” (recognizing that martyrdom also had a “christology,” a “soteriology,” an “anthropology,” and even a “demonology”). In a chapter on “martyrdom and inspiration” in the early Church, he wrote that “the martyr’s testimony was believed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the Christian who confessed his faith in circumstances of persecution was regarded as closely akin to the prophet as a recipient of revelation and a proclaimer of God’s word”: “The Christian was essentially a missionary, and martyrdom was for him the supreme and most effective mode of evangelism.” See William Horbury and Brian McNeil, eds., Suffering and Martyrdom in the New Testament: Studies Presented to G.M. Styler by the Cambridge New Testament Seminar (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 118–135. For a brief, multi-faceted pneumatology, see Geoffrey Wainwright, “The Holy Spirit,” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, ed. Colin E. Gunton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 273–95.