Essay / The Third Person of the Trinity

The Presence(s) of the Holy Spirit

Dr. Daniel L. Hill wrote the chapter “”Holy Pedagogue, Perfecting Guide: The Holy Spirit’s Presence in Creation” in the book I recently co-edited with Oliver Crisp, The Third Person of the Trinity: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Zondervan Academic, Dec. 2020). I asked him a few questions about what he does in that chapter, and how it relates to the rest of his theological work:

What’s your chapter in The Third Person of the Trinity about?

My chapter in Third Person of the Trinity is about the question of divine presence and how that relates to the person of the Spirit. More specifically, I’m trying to parse out what it means for God the Spirit to be present and how can we talk about different “kinds” of presence vis-à-vis the Holy Spirit while still maintaining a commitment to the doctrine of divine omnipresence. I try to set the paper up in three stages. In the first part, I present the problem and how one theologian, Robert Jenson, tries to resolve it. Jenson appeals to what we might call the “container-theory” of divine presence, but I find that less than satisfying for a few reasons. I then dive into the work of Basil of Caesarea, who I think offers some helpful tools for how we can think about divine categories. For Basil, we need to “purify our concepts” of God and prioritize divine activity. Finally, I try to then apply Basil’s schema for how we understand the presence of the Spirit in birds and rocks and Fiddle Leaf Fig plants.

How does this chapter fit into your teaching or your writing?

I do quite a bit of writing in both theological anthropology and ecclesiology. In each of those two fields we have to deal with the fact that the same Spirit who is present in all of the world is portrayed in Scripture as “uniquely present” within believers and the church. The question, a question which I try to answer in my chapter, is how do we talk about that while also maintaining a commitment to the notion that God is not extended in space-time.

More generally, I think that the chapter relates to the very nature of God-talk (and theological anthropology as well). It seems that we often fall into what Karen Kilby refers to as the “Error of Projection” where we presume that our experiences or understandings apply univocally between God and humanity. Over and over again, I find myself trying to teach students to take out a theological toolkit when reading passages of Scripture, because we tend to assume “natural” reading that can end up being a bit problematic. Don’t get me wrong, the very words of Scripture are important. But we still need to take care when we talk about God so as to avoid constructing him in our own image and likeness.

In my own writing, this same kind of move comes up again and again when we talk about what it means to be human. Robert Spaemann has a dynamite quote when expressing human particularity: “I do not know what it means to be human, only this or that human” (N.B.: I have butchered that quote…). For example, what does it mean for God to get angry? What does it mean for God to regret? We tend to assume a level of fluidity between “divine” and “human” anger/regret, but is that appropriate? I honestly don’t really know what it means for you to feel angry or to experience regret, especially not on a phenomenological level. Consequently, I need to exercise caution so that I don’t end up merely projecting my own experience into the heavens, transcendental or otherwise, as if I’m somehow normative for being or even human being. There’s a lot more that could and probably should be unpacked there, but that’s at least one way that the ideas developed here relate to larger themes I try to address.

Where did the idea for this particular essay come from?  

Honestly, I’m not quite sure. My beloved doctoral advisor Marc Cortez, may his work flourish in perpetuity, wrote an essay on the imago Dei that has influenced some of my thinking. For Cortez, image language in Scripture is about divine presence vis-à-vis the person of the Spirit. But if that’s the case, how do we talk about the Spirit’s presence in all of humanity in virtue of the image as opposed to the Spirit’s presence in particular human beings in virtue of regeneration? I was trying to work through some of that which took me to language of divine presence in Pannenberg and T. F. Torrance, which I wrote on a little over a year ago. Somehow, I stumbled into Basil somewhere along the way, but I couldn’t tell you how or why.

What’s the next thing you’re working on, or looking forward to working on?

I’ve got a book coming out in the coming months which is on how ecclesiology and theological anthropology relate to one another, entitled Gathered on the Road to Zion. I try to work this out from a Free Church perspective to show that Free Church ecclesiological commitments have
robust anthropological significance. I’m also currently working on a paper on social sin, which may seem like quite the pivot from divine presence! The paper is targeted toward refining some of the language we use when we talk about sin on a supra-personal level. A particular frustration of mine is the lack of precision that this conversation seems to take and the manner in which some of the logics undergirding it can quickly fall apart under pressure. Of course, I’m being sufficiently vague (sorry!) but the paper hopes to gesture toward some possible solutions.
I’m got a couple other papers in the works, in various stages. I’m working on a couple papers on the imago Dei in theological anthropology, a paper on Christological anthropology, another one on wisdom and aging, and a project on the political theology of David Ruggles and Olaudah Equiano. I’ve also got a book chapter on MLK’s political theology that I should be working on right now.

A bonus question not related to this book chapter: What’s the most stimulating thing you’ve read lately in theology?

The most stimulating thing I’ve read in theology lately? That’s a good question, most of it has been project related. I’ve been reading quite a bit of Martin Luther King, Jr. However, the most stimulating has probably been Ellen Charry’s God and the Art of Happiness as well as my re-reading of Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations. O’Donovan’s work is a tour de force, and Charry’s affirmation that God desires our happiness is delightful to read.

For more sneak-peeks of The Third Person of the Trinity, check out our other interviews. You can pick up a copy of the book here.

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