Who is the Holy Spirit?

From time to time, a stubborn and longstanding perplexity resolves suddenly into an intelligible pattern. An opacity clarifies, a lacuna is illumined, and one sees for the first time how to begin thinking about it. The ordered relations of a great mass of ideas are revealed as a new node in their net is neatly knit together, and unsuspected connections to other domains of inquiry suggest themselves. Thoughts that had been stymied by confusion pour forth in a generous, refreshing cascade. Things fall into place.

This recently happened to me respecting the Holy Spirit. I had never known quite how to think about him, had never understood quite what he does within the Trinity. He doesn’t get much attention, compared to the other two Persons. When he does, he is usually spoken of as the Love that flows between the Father and the Son, or as the Life of the Trinity. But these characterizations, while true enough, don’t get at the nub of it. The Holy Spirit is a person, and a person is not just his love or his life, but rather their subject.

What is it that the Spirit experiences, then, that is different from what the Son and Father experience of each other? What does he add to what they are, and know, and do? None of the explanations I had read quite hung together; there seemed to be little to hang them on. I had nothing to work with, nothing I felt I could lay hands on, until the other day, when at last pneumatology began to open to me.

It happened while I was reading Sergei Bulgakov’s Sophia: the Wisdom of God (an amazing book, highly recommended). Not because of any one thing he wrote, but rather because he was shocking and teaching me, shaking things up; and in reading I was again contemplating the Holy Spirit. This is how such conundra are usually resolved, I find: one simply rests the attention on the problem, or on related subjects, and eventually the solution becomes apparent. But it can take years.

Nothing about the way I am now trying to think about the Holy Spirit is new. All that has happened is that I feel as though I finally see what the Scripture and the Fathers, the liturgy and the Doctors of the Church, have always been saying about him. I read or remember them now in the light of this notion I’ve stumbled upon, and it all fits. Indeed, so plain is it to see in the writings of the Church, that I feel now as though I’ve been rather stupid not to have twigged it long since. Yet I have reason to believe that the Holy Spirit is just as much of a black box to many of my contemporaries as he has been to me. So I shall try to share what dawned upon my dim wits last week.

The Holy Spirit is one of three Persons of the singular being of God. Each of the Persons plays a distinct role in God’s existential act. Their roles in the establishment of the Godhead may be understood as phases of a stepwise procedure. Stuck as we are with stepwise ratiocination, there seems to be no other way for us to understand it. So, I explain it that way. But the thing to remember is that all these steps take place as aspects of a single eternal pure act of the Godhead, so that while they have an order of logical priority, they are a single motion, as the act of engraving and what is engraved are one simultaneous motion, appearing together and integrally in history:

  1. There is the Father.
  2. The Son apprehends and expresses the Truth of the Father – this being the Way that the Son is the Image of the Father.
  3. The Spirit apprehends and expresses the Beauty of the Son – i.e., of the Son’s expression of the Truth of the Father, and of his filial relation to his Father.
  4. The Father apprehends and expresses the Goodness of the Spirit, and thus implicitly of the relation between the Father and the Son.

Note that the Creation and the Trinity both reach their completion with the Father’s judgement that what has been done is Good.


  1. The Father is the Good
  2. The Son is the expression of the Truth [of the Good]
  3. The Holy Spirit is the expression of the Beauty [of the Truth]
  4. The Father is the expression of the Goodness [of the Beauty]

The establishment of the first step is completed by the fourth step. But all four steps are one dynamic motion. And it is circular; this is why the flux of each of the Persons into all of the Persons is called circumincession.

Thanks to circumincession (and omniscience), each of the Persons knows all that the others know. The Trinity being established, each sees the whole Trinity in both of the other Persons. So they all share in the Goodness, Truth and Beauty that, therefore, characterize the whole Godhead.

The actus purus of the Godhead is consummated in the Spirit’s Beautiful expression of joy, praise, adoration and glorification – of worship – and the Father’s evaluation of the Goodness of the Spirit’s worship is the complete satisfaction and Sabbath rest of God’s being.

The outward operation of the Holy Spirit in the production and maintenance of the created order, in the inspiration of the Prophets, in the Incarnation, and in the Church and all her choirs of saints, angels and martyrs in Heaven and in Earth, is to engender worship. The full and proper motion of the Creation, of the inspired mind, of Mary and her Son, and of the Church and her members, is worship. The enlivening inspiration of the Holy Spirit imbues and sanctifies all his hosts with the Spirit of Holiness and of Truth. Looking upon his creation, and seeing it at its fulfillment everywhere suffused with the Beauty of Holiness, the Father Truly judges it Good.

15 thoughts on “Who is the Holy Spirit?

  1. Pingback: Who is the Holy Spirit? | Reaction Times

  2. @Kristor “The full and proper motion of the Creation… is worship.

    I disagree! I would regard the F&PMotC as *relationship* – relationship in terms of an ideal and eternal version of what we know as familial relationships and (that even rarer thing) true friendship.

    We would both of course say that worship/ relationship is ultimately Love – but the relationship metaphor makes quite a large difference in terms of conceptualising what is the *main* kind of thing going on ‘in Heaven’ (or The New Jerusalem).

    • A little boy worships his father. This does not prevent them from enjoying a bout of rough-housing, or a cuddle. On the contrary. That so vast and mighty and noble a being as his Dad should love and enjoy him is to a boy something like ecstasy.

      Worship does not preclude friendship.

      • @Kristor “A little boy worships his father. This does not prevent them from enjoying a bout of rough-housing, or a cuddle. On the contrary. That so vast and mighty and noble a being as his Dad should love and enjoy him is to a boy something like ecstasy. Worship does not preclude friendship.”

        I would say that – insofar as a small child does ‘worship’ his Father, this is displaced by friendship as the child matures. I would assume that much the same happens through theosis to become Sons of God.

      • The Apostles worshipped Jesus as God and the Son of God. This did not preclude their friendship with him. It did not prevent Jesus from frying up some fish for them to share on the beach. The Apostles did not have to stop worshipping God in order to hang out with him.

        Worship of the Living God does not entail the debasement of the creature. On the contrary, it raises and ennobles the worshipper. Viz., Mary, the Queen of the angels. Fealty to a great lord likewise does not demean a vassal, but rather endows him with a special privilege. Great honor is due to men worthy to serve in the company of a great Captain.

        We’d all rather be friends with those we admire. The more we admire them, the more valuable to us is their friendship.

        I’m just not seeing how worship is at odds with friendship, or a fortiori with sonship. As among humans, perhaps; as a son grows, so he comes to understand his father’s weaknesses, so that his worship cannot but dwindle, and rightly so. But as between humans and God, the greater our familiarity with the Perfect One, and the more godlike the span and depth of our knowledge, the more must our admiration grow.

  3. This kind of thing, and not reading the Gospels, is what drove Unitarianism. Aquinas argues that God does not participate in being, which is esoteric, but purely logical. Here we have some mapping between the Holy Trinity and “good, truth, and beauty”.

    I liked what CS Lewis said, and the humility with which he said it, better.

    • I too like better what CS Lewis said. Did he say much about the Spirit?

      I don’t see how anyone could cook Unitarianism out of this sort of hard Trinitarianism, other than by misunderstanding it.

  4. Kristor, the Latin phrase for “pure act,” suggests that you believe the divine simplicity doctrine, right? Since I believe it, I wouldn’t say that the divine Persons shared in anything. If I tell you that the divine Persons share in omnipotence, I might mean that each Person has a third of it.

    • Or sharing might imply that each divine Person had a different percentage of it when He’s actually fully omnipotent.

      • An excellent point. It is all too easy for us to lapse into tritheistic thinking. But I am not sure that the use of “share” is actually the source of such danger. The characteristics of God are such as to allow any share in them only insofar as that share is exhaustive. Take omnipotence. If a person is omnipotent, that means his share of all power is all the power there is. If two persons share omnipotence, they both have all the power there is. There’s only one omnipotence out there, and there’s no way to have it at all except by having all of it; and if you don’t have it all, you don’t have it at all.

        This is actually a very strong argument for homoousion. Say that you had two beings that were both omnipotent. Well, then neither of them would be omnipotent; for, neither of them could force the other to do anything. And they can’t both have 100% of all the power there is. So no more than one being can be omnipotent.

        This is not a problem for the Trinity, of course. The omnipotence of the Logos is coterminous with the omnipotence of the Father and the omnipotence of the Holy Ghost, because all three Persons are one being that is omnipotent.

        Oh, and yes, I do believe in divine simplicity. It seems to me to be implicit in homoousion.

  5. Thanks, Kristor. But to me, that theological use of the verb “to share” seems unusual. If each divine Person shares exhaustively in each omni-property, why use the phrase “insofar as” when it means “to the extent that?” During our conversation, you seem to assume, after all, that the extent of God’s omnipotence is always full. Our Blessed Lord, God the Son, is fully omnipotent. So maybe you’re implying that, although He is that way, He can still use only part of His share(?) of it when He chooses to do that? I wonder what He would reply after I asked, “Dearest Lord, how much omnipotence did you use when you raised Lazarus, a little, a lot, 20%, it all?” In his the chapter about transfinite numbers in his book “Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy,” Bertrand Russell says that some infinite sequences are bigger than other infinite ones. But he’s describing quantitative infinity when we’re talking about qualitative infinity. God’s infinity is qualitative, not quantitative.

    Tritheism is only one problem “share in” brings to mind. I mentioned divine simplicity because “share in” suggests that God has parts. St. Thomas would tell us that even potencies, possible properties, would be parts if God had them. You remember, I’ll bet, that Thomas thinks possible heat and actual heart exclude each other in the same object. Actually hot water is potentially cold, but it’s not potentially hot. To be potentially hot again, it would first need to cool to at least warmth.

    That’s partly because essences determine what potential properties and what actual ones someone, somewhere, or something can have. Since God is pure act, i.e., fully actual, there are no potentialities in him.

    In a lecture, Fr, Gregory Hesse, a hero of mine, explains potency and act, potentiality and actuality with examples. He was, God rest his holy soul, an actual priest. He was a potential natural father, too. But he wasn’t and couldn’t have been a mother. His maleness was an essential property he had. Even his soul is essentially male. Take that, transexuals. 🙂

    The post I’m answering reminds me of a chapter in the Compendium of Theology, where St. Thomas shows that, if there’s a God, the Holy Trinity is the only God there could be.

    • Sure. No disagreement. I have no commitment to “share.”

      I did not mean to suggest that any of the three Persons are ever limited in how much omnipotence is available to each of them. Indeed, that seems like a contradiction in terms. Limited omnipotence is not omnipotence at all.

  6. Kristor, I hope my OCD hasn’t made me nitpick about the phrase “share in,” but I’ve always wondered why post-Vatican-II theologians write “share in” when the word “in” seems needless.

    To me, it’s important to remember that everyday theological talk can mislead when we haven’t heard about divine simplicity. We usually use the phrases “God’s mercy,” “God’s omnipotence,” and other noun phrases as though omnipotence, omniscience, and so forth as though their names represented different properties when those expressions only give different ways to describe the same “thing,” God. If God’s omni-properties differed actually, not merely conceptually, from one another, He would have parts. Sadly, I still can’t find the words to explain what we mean when we say that God’s essence and His existence are the same thing.

    • It is of the essence of God that he exist necessarily. Implicit in his essence, then, is the actual fact of his existence. This is Anselm’s Ontological Argument, boiled down. Is the definition of God as the necessary being incoherent? No? Then he exists: necessarily so; eternally so. The coherence of the concept of God as necessary entails that he might actually exist: that, i.e., the necessary existence of God is truly possible. But if the possibility of God – that is to say, the essence of God – is real, then because actual existence is implicit in it, therefore God actually exists.

      It’s a beautiful thing.

      There are of course other reasons why we say that God’s essence and existence are coterminous, such as that the essence of God is given by the existence of God, and vice versa. When a being is eternal, you can’t get some bits of it first and other bits later, so God’s essence can’t precede his existence.


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