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The third person of the Trinity: the Spirit

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 5 October 2017

The early Church had a jolly time deciding what words would be used to describe the three entities of the Trinity. One unacceptable description, given by Tertullian, was that the entities had corporeal existence as a kind of thinking gas. More realistic negotiations that recognised the non-corporeal nature of the entities involved both Greek and Latin words, like substantia, ousia, hypostatis and persona. The eventual result rested on "persons". The identities are even now referred to as the first, second and third person of the Trinity. This usage of the word "persons" confirms the original Pauline usage in calling the first two persons "Father" and "Son" but also applies it to the third, the Spirit.

Calling the trinitarian entities "persons" is obviously metaphorical since they are not persons as you and I are persons. However, the metaphor carries with it the notion of being in relation and of sentience. This is a major problem for inhabitants of late modernity, immersed as we are in notions of cause and effect. How does a non-corporeal entity act with intention in the world? We may as well say that the trees and the mountains care for us.

We can only accept the Trinitarian entities as being like persons if we allow some slippage in our adherence to an understanding of cause and effect as in Newton's laws of motion. This may work well in the physical world but not so well when we come to the conscious life, or, to use the old language, to the workings of the soul. For example, when we describe God as "the One who raised Jesus from the dead" we encounter not a statement similar to "the roses were pruned by the gardener" that links an actor (gardener) to an act (pruning) but an event in the Trinitarian life of God in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all implicated in a non-causal way. In this conception, the nexus between actor and action is cut. Attempts to describe the event of the resurrection of Christ in terms of cause and effect reduce it to an event that exists in the world contrary to what we know about how the world works. The resurrection becomes a nature miracle with no real import for those who come after.


Escape from the rules of cause and effect may be achieved when we allow ourselves into the imaginative world or Scripture in which God may part and Jesus may walk on the waters knowing that such things did not actually happen but that they are stories that carry a weight of meaning. We must allow ourselves to go with the story and discover the drama and the meaning as we do so often when we read a novel or watch a drama. If we allow this kind of imaginative work to include the persons of the Triune identity then we are on the way to breaking down the barriers to understanding placed in our way by reductive and materialistic thinking.

The danger of this thinking is the tendency to objectify the individual persons and lapse into Tritheism. There is a delicate balance here between the unity and multiplicity of the persons. The persons never exist on their own but exist only in constant relation to each other. This is reflected in statements like "The Father sent the Son in the power of the Spirit." God is defined by his action. God's being is in His act. The simplicity of God is preserved in this action. Any conception that separates the persons encourages superstitious belief that often sounds close to Tertullian's "thinking gas". We cannot summon the Spirit as we would summon the dead soul of a loved one in a séance! Composers of public prayer should be warned.

The use of "person" to describe the Trinitarian entities is apparent in how the Spirit is described. The Spirit has a mind of its own and blows where it will and will not be conformed to the desires of human beings. Indeed, especially in the gospel according to Luke, it is the Spirit that is the major player in the drama. The Holy Spirit is instrumental in the incarnation, people are "filled with the Holy Spirit", the Spirit reveals and guides and people are baptised in it. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness and is poured out on the Church at Pentecost. The Spirit is like an intentional being but it is also like a wind or a breath that can fill a person bringing life out of death. In the Nicene creed the Spirit is named as "The Lord, the giver of life."

It is obvious from this that Augustine's psychological analogyof the Trinity, although a helpful guide, cannot open into the richness of Trinitarian language we find in the New Testament. This is where the theological insight, the artistry and the imagination of the evangelists must take over.

If we understand the Spirit in Augustine's analogy as what is left of a visual experience once the object of that experience is removed, we understand that the Spirit has a lot to do with memory. The power of the Spirit is born from the power of the event of Christ, an event so powerful in the minds of his followers as to be unforgettable and a motive force even in the face of shameful death on the cross that appeared to abolish all hope. The experience of the Spirit is the experience of the presence of Christ because it is His Spirit that is present. This means that Christ is experienced not only as the memory of a dead man but the presence of a living person. This is given voice in the Resurrection, He is not dead but alive! This ensured the continuing presence of Christ as the risen one. The resurrection is an event not in history but in the Spirit. Likewise, the Spirit causes Christ to be present at every Eucharistic meal (do this in memory of me!).

Thus, it is the Spirit that extends faith through time and saves the Church from being a society of remembrance only. Without the Spirit, the Church would not have a future that differs from the past. The Spirit takes the role of Jesus when, before his death, spoke into death bound situations, disturbed the confidently religious and deposed the powers of the world. The Church must, if it is to live in the Spirit, look both to past traditions and be ready to have the Spirit visit, as if from the future, to transform the world and those traditions. The reason that totalitarian churches do not trust the work of the Spirit is because it is always out of their control. Exhortations to obedience may be a sign that a church is trying to manage believers rather than run the risk of the Spirit breaking old boundaries as it did when the Gentiles were invited into the Church.


Neglect of the Spirit produces sterility and abstraction in which desire, is displaced by intellect. Paul says that "No one can say "Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit."(ICor. 12:3) There is something self-serving and preposterous to think that coming to faith is a matter of weighing the evidence and deciding on intellectual grounds alone that God exists, a process that is all very much under our control and leaves us as we were, confident in our own wisdom and sealed off from any encounter with God. This is in contrast to the examples presented in Scripture in which it is said the Holy Spirit inhabited the person giving rise to transformation of the self and the community.

To have an experience of the Spirit is to have an experience of God. Without the Spirit we are left with theory, there is present for us no "God with us".

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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