Essay / Theology

Tom Smail (1928-2012): "The Spirit is Given from the Cross"

Tom Smail, evangelical and charismatic British theologian of the Trinity, died last week (Feb 15). A few obituaries have appeared from those who knew him or studied with him. I knew him only from his remarkable books, which were always exquisitely balanced between tradition and creativity.

As something of an evangelical-charismatic statesman, Smail tended to write books when he wanted to make some specific change in the direction of Christian discussions. When the power or personhood of the Holy Spirit were being ignored, or when God the Father was being forgotten, for example, Smail tried to make a difference by interjecting an argument, advocating on behalf of an overlooked truth. But he avoided becoming idiosyncratic in the process; arguably he grew more conservative and traditional over the years.

The balance was no accident; Smail worked hard to achieve it. In the preface to a 1987 book, he testified,

I have become more and more convinced, certainly of the incompleteness but also of the basic correctness of the central core of classical Christian teaching about the Trinity and the Spirit. If we in our day are to do something about the incompleteness, it will be by going on from what we have inherited from our fathers and not by going back on it.

Smail’s early books were a trilogy on the Trinity: 1975’s Reflected Glory: The Spirit in Christ and Christians (1975), 1980’s The Forgotten Father, and 1988’s The Giving Gift: The Holy Spirit in Person. In each of these, he focused on something he considered timely or even urgent, but handled it comprehensively in light of the big, main, central themes of the Christian faith.

In his 1975 book Reflected Glory, Smail reported the fact that one of his central theological insights, the intimate connection between Christ and the Spirit, was “brought home” to him “very memorably” in one of his earliest experiences of charismatic worship. Here is his brief report:

a few months after I had entered into a new experience of this Spirit, I went to my first neo-Pentecostalist conference organised by the late Dr. D.P. Thomson, the of St. Ninian’s, Crieff, who had the prophetic discernment to see that something major had begun to move in the churches. There for the first time I dared to speak in tongues in public, and the interpretation was given by a young woman, unknwown to me before or since, who said, ‘There is no way to Pentecost except by Calvary; the Spirit is given from the cross.’ I was deeply impressed by that at the time and have tried to let it become one of the main themes in my teaching about the Spirit ever since. (Reflected Glory, p. 105)

Whatever you think about the source of this saying, Smail handled it with admirable responsibility throughout his career. He never treated as an authoritative private revelation that could challenge or re-orient the plain truth of Scripture. He seems to have followed up on it like a holy hunch, a tip that if he devoted his mind to the connection of Christ and the Spirit, using responsible and well-known biblical and theological tools, he would find trinitarian gold. He did indeed find gold everywhere he dug. Those who follow modern trinitarian theology closely have gotten used to saying things like, “Nobody was saying or writing about topic X or Y in the seventies and eighties… except of course Tom Smail.”

Smail was also a good writer, gifted with clarity and forcefulness. Here are a handful of my favorite Smail quotations from here and there in his Trinity trilogy. But there are dozens just as good in my dog-eared copies of the great Smail books:

“In the Son the glory of the Father becomes incarnate among us, in the Spirit that same glory becomes experiential within us.” (RG p. 46)

“There is theology in this book. But it is the theology of a grown-up little boy, who in middle life became very conscious that he had no father, and who therefore has become exalted and joyful in realising that he has always had a Father, God.” (FF, p. 11)

“The complex of relationships between Father, Son and Spirit are not just the means by which God communicates with us, they are an essential part of the content of that communication.” (FF, p. 23)

“To see the place of the Father in the life of Jesus helps us to see that our own greatest need is conversion from an obsession with our needs to an obedience-centered Christianity.” (FF, p. 28)

Note: Smail published several pieces about the atonement, which I have not read thoroughly. I would hope he struck the same balance in that crucial doctrinal area that he did in his trinitarianism.

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