Essay / Misc.

Who is the Holy Spirit?

spirit dove

Who is the Holy Spirit? What is his characteristic personhood, which distinguishes him from the Father and the Son? How is it that he isn’t simply interchangeable with the ascended Jesus Christ, or on the other hand interchangeable with the invisible Father, or on the other other hand, identical with the one divine essence? He is God, but he is not the Son and not the Father. Who is he?

In De Trinitate 5.11.12, Augustine is trying to talk about the Holy Spirit, and wondering what he should do with John 4:24’s declaration that “God is Spirit.” It’s a problem: Does “Spirit” refer to the Trinity as a whole, or to the third person of the Trinity? In the first volume of Robert W.Jenson’s Systematic Theology, Jenson puts it this way: “Is invocation of the Spirit anything distinctive over against simply invocation of God?” and then he adds, “Is Pentecost a Peer of Easter or does it merely display a meaning that Easter would any case have?”

The rest of this post gets pretty theological, but read on if you want

Robert Louis Wilken (University of Virginia) has written an enlightening little essay that takes Jenson’s question as his point of departure. (“Is Pentecost a Peer of Easter? Scripture, Liturgy, and the Proprium of the Holy Spirit,” in Trinity, Time, and Church: A Response to the Theology of Robert W. Jenson, ed. Colin E. Gunton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 158-177). Easter was celebrated (with good friday, of course, in the paschal triduum) from the earliest stages of Christianity, but Pentecost wasn’t celebrated as a special day until the fifth century. Until then the term “pentecost” referred to an extended period of time following Easter, and its content was pretty much the afterglow of Easter.

Now neither Jenson nor Wilken is immediately concerned about liturgical holidays. Wilken fastens on Jenson’s clever phraseology because he thinks that “in some ways the history of the feast of Pentecost can serve as a metaphor for the development of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit” (pp 159-160). The doctrines about Christ practically jumped off the pages of scripture and into orthodox theological confession, as compared with the way the more ambiguous scriptural statements about the Holy Spirit gradually emerged through extended doctrinal haziness. Comparatively speaking, the history of christology is the striking appearance of the solar disc of sunrise pushing back the darkness, while pneumatology is the slow dawning of an overcast day that imperceptibly turns the night into morning.

Another contrast: Christological progress always turned on confronting a heretical teaching in order to refute it and to defend the truth, a truth which became clearer in the course of conflict. Progress in pneumatology, on the other hand, was always marked by a process of culling scriptures and exploring relationships among passages. In pneumatology, Wilken says, “the Fathers are less engaged in defending something than in searching for something. Only gradually and after they peered intently at the murkiness before them, does the goal of their quest come clear.” (163)

Within this gradual process, are there any moments we could focus on for breakthrough insights? Wilken points to Hilary of Poitier, who is the first theologian to speak confidently about the Holy Spirit in terms of the many biblical passages in which it is “the distinctive characteristic of the Spirit, that he is given, received, and possessed.” (165) Hilary thus calls him the donum fidelium, the “gift to the faithful.”

Gift is a shorthand way of referring to being given, received, and possessed. Hilary has noticed something distinctive about the biblical language for the Holy Spirit, namely, that there is a field of terms in the Bible associated with the Spirit that variously depict being given and poured out, on the one hand, and being received or indwelling, on the other. That is, the “gift” is seen not only from the perspective of the giver, but also from that of the recipient. What is given enters into the life of the recipient and becomes his own, which in turn relates the recipient to the giver. Gift, as presented in the Scriptures, has built into it overtones of reciprocity and mutuality. (166)

Though there is more gradual progress, the next leap forward is probably Augustine’s decision to trace the characteristic gift-ness of the the Spirit back from the church’s experience into the immanent being of God. It is Augustine who, agreeing that the Spirit is the gift to mankind in the history of salvation, thinks to ask the question, “Was he already gift before there was anyone to give him to?” (De Trinitate 5.15.6) As Wilken paraphrases the question, “does the term ‘gift’ as a designation of the Holy Spirit only apply to the economy?” (167)

The pneumatological move here is parallel to the Christological. If Christ is the Son of God for us, he must have been the eternal Son of God. And if the Spirit is gift to us, he must have always had the character of gift. But whose gift to whom? Obviously, in the absence of creatures, the exchange would have to be between the Father and the Son. Yet “gift” seems a rather cludgy and impersonal term when applied in this way to the eternal Trinity.

At this point, it begins to matter that Hilary did not simply use proof texts to identify Spirit with gift, but rather worked with those texts to derive a fuller account of the Spirit’s characteristic role as marked by reciprocity and mutuality. Augustine takes this one step further by annexing to this gift-reciprocity-mutuality cluster the word love. If you want to discern the proprium of the third person, you must think in terms of a gift of self-involving love which creates communion. “Augustine wants to say not only that the gift of the Holy Spirit creates a communion between God and the believer but also that the Spirit is the ‘communion’ between Father and Son.” And that, finally, is why the third person is specially called Holy Spirit, even though the other two persons are holy and spirits, and God in general (the one triune God) is holy and spirit: “he is properly called the Holy Spirit …with good reason. Because he is common to them both, he is called properly what they are called in common.” (De Trin 15.19.37, cited in Wilken 172).

How certain can we be that these church fathers have accurately perceived and described the proprium of the third person? I find myself overwhelmingly convinced and grateful for their work at the level of the history of salvation. They’re just right about the giving, mutuality, and reciprocity effected by the third person in the economy. Furthermore, I doubt I would ever have noticed this without their help, though I can see it in Scripture now that they’ve given the clues. At least I wouldn’t have been articulate or confident in ascribing this character to the Spirit’s work, without such good teachers.

Further, they’re exactly right (especially Augustine) to take the next step of asking what divine reality it is that lies behind the history of salvation. A “who” question about a person of the Trinity cannot be fully answered without taking recourse to the eternal Trinity, to God in himself without any necessary reference to us and our salvation.

As for the transposition of this insight into the eternal being of God (the immanent Trinity), I am less confident of being on solid biblical ground. As I think my way up from the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost to the eternal personhood of the Spirit at home in the happy land of the Trinity, I have trouble resting in the “mutual love” or “reciprocity of communion” language this tradition presents me.

My problem is not that I can’t imagine it. I once had a professor who joked that if he invited me and my wife over for dinner, he would set two extra plates, one for me and one for her. He would certainly not set a third plate for the mutual love between us. The obvious reply to this (funny, I admit it) jab is as follows: that is one of the many differences between me and God. When I express myself in a word, the word bounces off your earbone and ripples away into nothingness. When God expresses himself in a word, it is a personal and eternal word. Similarly, when I love somebody, our love for each other is not itself another somebody. With God it is.

That is the obvious reply, and it is one that I would gladly make if and only if I found that the biblical and theological argument pushed me to the position of being completely confident that the right answer to the question, “Who is the Spirit” is that the Spirit is mutual love of the Father and the Son. That’s a helpful answer, but I can’t rest in it yet.

Wilken’s little essay does a masterful job of tracing the way the venerable traditional answer came to be articulated. He is especially sensitive (in ways I did not report on here) to the way it emerged as a process of grappling with scripture. I am confident that the Spirit is God and that he is not the Son, or the Father, or God in general. I appreciate the “mutual love” articulation of pneumatology. But I’m still poring over scripture to find a better way to articulate it. Like the church fathers (and certainly with their help), I know what I’m looking for and I’ll know it when I find it.

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