The Secret Agent

Fall 2007
PAGES 3, 4
[original publication]

Think about the Holy Trinity and your head may start to hurt. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Three persons, but only one God. It occurs to you that you do not know how to picture this three-and-one. Who is this mysterious being? How many of him are there? Do you imagine a single transcendent person so versatile that he can create, redeem, and cleanse like a fresh wind? Can he do these things simultaneously? Just one person who, so to say, wears three hats or plays three roles? Alternatively, do you imagine a small transcendent committee, just three members, of perfect equality but voluntary division of labor? Or should you picture one of them as largely in charge, sending the others on various errands into the wilderness? Or is the whole project of trying to picture God in these ways futile and maybe impious? Or what?

For centuries Christians have reflected on this central mystery of the nature of God, searched the Scriptures, and brought forward the fruit of their search. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, says simply, "Three distinct persons are one, true, eternal God" (Q and A 25).

There you are. Three distinct persons; one true God. That is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It can be stated in eight words, but the words hide great riches and mysteries.

One of the mysteries is that the biblical portrait of one of the persons seems hazier than those of the other two. The Father and the Son have family names. The Holy Spirit does not. "Father" and "Son" are clearly the names of personal beings, capable of interpersonal relationships. "Spirit" is ambiguous. It might refer to a personal being, such as an angel: "the seven spirits before his throne." But, then again, it might also refer to a person's character (he has a generous spirit), or vitality (she played with such spirit!), or mood (his spirit sagged). Sometimes "spirit" refers to a person's influence, as when we say that the spirit of Lincoln still hangs over Gettysburg.

A spirit can be a person, but a spirit can also be a quality of a person. This makes Bible translators twitch. When Paul writes to the Romans (1:4) that Jesus was "declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness," should "spirit" be spelled with a big "S" or a little one? Is Paul speaking of a person or of a quality of a person? Bible writers often tell us about the Spirit of. It's the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Christ that we read about. Is this a person, like the Christ of God? Or is this a quality of a person, like the love of God, the glory of God, the name of God?

Still further, the New Testament writers sometimes refer not to the Holy Spirit, but to Holy Spirit (without the definite article). Both Jesus (Luke 4:1) and the believers at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) were filled with Holy Spirit. Mary became pregnant of Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18), and believers are baptized in Holy Spirit (Acts 11:16). This last expression, like God's promise "I will pour out from my Spirit" (Acts 2:17), suggests that the Spirit is being thought of as something like a fluid.

The Spirit is called "God" at most once in the Bible (Acts 5:3). Bible writers say of Jesus Christ that he is equal with God, in the form of God, in the image of God, and that he bears the stamp of God's being. But they do not say any of these things about the Holy Spirit. John tells us repeatedly of the love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father. But he never tells anything about the Spirit's love for the Father or the Son, either as giver or receiver. Finally, and most significantly, the Holy Spirit in the New Testament is never an object of worship or prayer. All prayers there are directed to the Father and the Son. We contemporary Christians do pray to the Holy Spirit (think of all the Holy Spirit hymns that are prayers), but it took centuries of tradition to get us into the habit.

The general biblical portrait of the Holy Spirit is somewhat indistinct. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Ghost of the Trinity. Using a lovely image, my former pastor, John Timmer, likes to speak of the Holy Spirit as "the shy member of the Holy Trinity."

So how did the church come to confess that the Holy Spirit is a person, a divine person, a fitting object of prayer and worship along with the Father and the Son? Did the church fathers figure that if Scripture gave them only 2.7 persons of a trinity they might as well round up to 3?

No. There are good biblical reasons why the Holy Spirit "with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified." I'll give five of them.

First, while biblical authors sometimes describe the Holy Spirit in language that could be read impersonally, the rest of the time they use strongly personal language for the Spirit. The Holy Spirit speaks to believers (Acts 21:11), searches the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10), teaches the disciples and reminds them of things Jesus had said (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit can be lied to (Acts 5:3), and can also be grieved (Eph. 4:30), which strongly suggests that the Spirit is not only a person, but also a person who loves and whose love can be wounded. In a sentence of great mystery and beauty Paul tells us that when we don't know how to pray, then the Holy Spirit intercedes for us "with sighs too deep for words" (Rom. 8:26).

Second, while the Holy Spirit can sometimes seem more anonymous than the Father or the Son, he nonetheless does extraordinary work. He's a kind of secret agent—a very powerful one. So the gospels tell us that the Holy Spirit is the one who begets Jesus Christ within Mary (Matt. 1:18). The Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, to identify him, and then remains on him (John 1:32-33). The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, where the wild things are, so that Jesus may be strengthened for the start of his ministry (Mark 1:12-13). After Jesus' ascension, the Spirit ("another Counselor") unites believers with their "Abba" (Gal. 4:6), inspires believers to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3), and directs and empowers the mission of the apostles just as Jesus had done for the disciples (Rom. 15:19). The Holy Spirit imparts life, freedom, glory, deliverance— all the benefits of the saving work of Jesus. He performs actions only God performs: he breaks the power of sin in people (Rom. 8:2), sanctifies them (15:16), frees them to be children of God and to recognize themselves as such (8:15-16), and sparks in them faith in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:9). He generates both supernatural gifts (1 Cor. 12) and supernatural fruit (Gal. 5).

Third, Paul makes much of our union with Jesus Christ. He often says we believers are "in Christ" and that Christ is "in us." What's interesting is that he also states, with seemingly no difference in meaning, that we are "in the Spirit" and that the Spirit is "in us." The ascended Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons, but much of their work is functionally equivalent. Consider this: In Romans 8:26, as we saw, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. Eight verses later, Paul says exactly the same thing about Jesus Christ, "who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us."

Fourth, the Holy Spirit can be blasphemed (Mark 3:29, Luke 12:10). Indeed, in Mark's gospel Jesus calls blasphemy against the Holy Spirit an unforgiveable sin. Blasphemy is, generally speaking, an act of verbally injuring someone who is divine— usually God the Father. So when Jesus warns us against blaspheming the Holy Spirit, he is in effect warning us against injuring God.

Finally, the New Testament contains at least a dozen "triadic formulas." These are places where the names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit appear together. Perhaps the most famous is Jesus' Great Commission—"baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). But there are a number of others too, almost all of which are in the writings of Paul. A famous one is often used as a benediction: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." (2 Cor. 13:13) A natural conclusion here is that if "Father" names a distinct divine person and "Son" does too, then so does "the Holy Spirit."

These and other considerations have led the church to worship and glorify the shy member of the Holy Trinity right along with the other two. No person of the Trinity is God alone. Each is God only with the other two. "The only true God" is the Holy Trinity itself. And so, as the Athanasian Creed says, we worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity.

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