Triune Relations (Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, part 2)

This post continues a series presenting "The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit," an essay by Dr. Gary Deddo, President of Grace Communion Seminary. For other parts, click a number: 1, 3456, 7.

Last time, we noted that every act of God, whether in creation, redemption or bringing about the perfection of creation itself, is done together as one God. But how then are we to understand those places in Scripture that ascribe certain acts of God to one of the divine Persons? Take, for example, the Incarnation. The Father and the Spirit are never said to be incarnate, as is the Son. Note also that the Spirit seems to descend on Pentecost and indwell the believing church in a way distinct from the Son and the Father. The explanation in these two and similar examples is that all three of the divine Persons are involved together in all the acts of God, but often in different (distinct, unique) ways.

Holy Trinity (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

How are the divine Persons distinct?

Scripture leads us to understand that each of the divine Persons contributes to the unified act of God from their own, particular “angle.” We could say that one “takes the lead” in certain actions: the Father in Creation, the Son in atonement, the Spirit in perfecting creation. But we can only say that if we aren't thinking of the three Persons as acting separately, or as being out of phase with the others. The three Persons always act in a conjoint way. Theologians call this the doctrine of appropriation. An act can be appropriated to the Person of the Trinity who takes the lead, as long as the other two are not regarded as having nothing to do with it, but are co-involved, each in their own way.

We should not think that the contribution to an act of God by one of the Persons is what constitutes their being as a distinct Person in the Trinity. For example, it is an error to think that being the Creator is what makes the Father different in Person from the Son, or that being Incarnate is what makes the Son different in Person from the Father. The Father is the Father, the Son is the Son, and the Spirit is the Spirit, whether or not they perform any actions external to their own triune being. The three Persons are distinguished by their internal relationships, not by their external actions. The being of God is not dependent upon God's relationship to that which is external to God.

So, as long as we don’t leave the Son and the Spirit behind, we can say the Father leads in creation. We can also say the Son leads in our redemption. But if we think the Father is absent or has a different view, attitude, purpose or intention for the Cross than does the Son, then we’ve split the Trinity apart, placed them at odds with one another! Even in Jesus’ earthly life, we need to remember that he only does what he sees the Father doing. He only says what the Father is saying. They’re saying things together. They’re doing things together. They’re never separate because they’re one in being.

The work of the Son

It is proper to say the Son takes the lead and that only the Son is incarnate. So, we can affirm that the Son physically suffers on the cross and not the Father or Spirit. Not being incarnate in our humanity, they cannot physically suffer and die. But, if we think the Father is absent or the Spirit has gone on vacation and isn’t around when Jesus is on the Cross, then we’ve strayed way off the theological path. The Spirit and the Father are present with Jesus, each in their own non-incarnate way. So, Jesus says, “Father into your hands, I commend my Spirit.” In the book of Hebrews we read, “how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to worship the living God (Heb. 9:14). They’re all acting together in Christ’s redeeming work. Yes, we can say one leads. But don’t let them fall apart just because one is leading.

The work of the Spirit

We can say that the Spirit perfects. However, we must also say that he perfects human beings with the perfection accomplished by Christ. The Spirit shares with us the holiness and the sanctification of Jesus, himself, in our humanity. He doesn’t give us a spiritualized or divine perfection, a non-bodily, inhuman existence. But rather the Spirit joins us to Christ’s glorified human body, mind and soul. The Spirit makes us to share in Jesus’ self-sanctification. The work of the Spirit is not separate from the work of the Son, but the Spirit does lead in dwelling in us now.

Beware the error of tritheism

Though we can talk about the Spirit leading, we must not think of the Spirit branching off, saying, “Father and Son, you’ve done a good job over there, but now I’ve got to go do something over here that you don’t have anything to do with. It’s my turn to do my own thing.” That’s a mistake. That could only happen if God wasn’t one in being and was three beings—tritheism! We don’t want to go there. We can distinguish between the various contributions the Father, the Son and the Spirit make by the way they take their lead, but we don’t want to separate them or place them in any kind of opposition or in tension with each other. And we don’t want to say that their differing contributions to what they accomplish together are what make them distinct in Person from all eternity.

As so we distinguish but we don’t separate. The divine Persons are one in being and distinct in Person, both in their internal and eternal being and in terms of what they do in creation, redemption, and consummation.

Beware projecting on God

Why do we get tripped up in this? I think there are a number of reasons, but one is that we tend to think of God in ways we think of ourselves. We start with ourselves, then try to get to our understanding of God. Think of how we usually distinguish ourselves from each other. How do I know I’m not you and you’re not me? I note that you have a different body. You’re over there, and I’m over here. You do this, but I do that. You live there, but I live here. You think that’s funny, but I don’t. I want X, but you want Y. We’re different in all these ways, and that’s how we know we are distinct persons.

So we can project this perspective on God, and think that’s how the Father, Son and Spirit are distinguished. The Father is over here, the Spirit’s over there. The Father wants A, and the Son wants B. They each have different jobs to do. We try to distinguished them from each other in the same way we distinguish ourselves. The problem is, God is not a creature like we are. So, you can’t just take the idea of how we distinguish ourselves and apply that reasoning to God. Thinking that way would only work if God was a creature. But he is not.

Names and relations

The essential way we have been given to distinguish between the divine Persons is by means of their different names: the Father, the Son, and he Holy Spirit. These names reveal a difference of their Persons. That is also why we believe there are three, not four or two Persons in the Godhead. The names we are given in Scripture are revelatory of real differences in God. They are not just arbitrary words, concepts, ideas, or conventional labels. So we address God in worship, in prayer, by means of these three names. And in doing so, we follow Jesus’ example and instruction. He uses these names in his relationship to the Father and the Spirit, and directs us to do so as well. So he instructs us: “Pray like this: Our Father in heaven…”

Notice that divine names represent unique relationships. The Father has a different relationship with the Son than the Son has with the Father. And the Spirit has a different relationship to the Father than does the Son. The names identify and reveal to us unique relationships. Following biblical teaching, we can also find distinct designations for the different relationships.

Corresponding to the Father is the relationship of begetting to the Son. Begetting is the special term used to describe more particularly how the Son comes from the Father. The Father begets the Son. Begetting indicates a certain kind of relationship. For instance, in the early church they recognized that begetting is different from making. What is made is of a different kind of thing than the maker. But what is begotten is of the identical kind of being.  So we say that the Son is begotten, indicating a unique kind of relationship to the Father. The Son doesn’t beget the Father and the Father isn’t begotten by the Son. They each have a different relationship with each other and that difference of relationship, which is internal and eternal to God, is what makes them personally distinct from one another. The Father begets (is not begotten of the Son). The Son is begotten (does not beget the Father).

The unique names and relationships identify who the divine Persons are. They are who they are in relationship with each other. Without the relationships with each other, they would not be who they are. And they are not interchangeable. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father. Being the begetter and being the begotten one are different and not reversible. There is a direction to the relationships that can't be reversed. You can’t say the Son begets the Father. The Son has always been the begotten Son. The Father has always begotten the Son. The Son is eternally the Son, and the Father, eternally Father. That’s why we can say they are the divine Persons of Father and Son.

But the words/names don’t themselves explain everything. They represent what we have to go on and explain, namely, what they do and don’t mean as far as we can tell. In the case of the Father and Son, we have to rule out, or “think away” as Athanasius said, some aspects of the meaning of the words begotten or begetting as used of human creatures. Among creatures these words include the idea of a time sequence. But when it comes to God, the aspect of time does not apply. God is eternal and so, then, are the divine Persons. So the Father generates the Son from all eternity.

Time sequence doesn’t apply to God. There never was a time when the Son was not. The Son was always the begotten Son of the Father, which is simply to say the Son is eternally the Son and the Father is eternally the Father, begetting the Son. The discipline of theology is to discern where and how words used to refer to God must be used differently from how they are used of creatures. This would be impossible if we did not have biblical revelation to lead us.

The Holy Spirit proceeds (spirates)

Now what about the Holy Spirit? There has always been the Spirit who has eternal relationships with the Father and the Son. We use a special word to talk about those relationships, a word given in the New Testament; we say the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and, or through, the Son (John 15:26). Another word has also been used down through the ages to indicate that unique relationship, “spirates.” These words indicate unique and non-interchangeable relationship. The name and relationship indicate who the Spirit is. The Spirit would not be the Spirit without spirating from the Father and the Son. And the Father and Son wouldn’t be Father and Son without the Spirit proceeding. The relationship of the Spirit is essential to who the Spirit is and so to who the Triune God is.

We likely want to ask, “So how does that work? How does a procession work in God?” We don’t actually know. We can’t say exactly how it is different from begetting or being begotten. Along with the name, Holy Spirit, the word procession indicates that there is a unique kind of relationship of the Spirit with the Father and the Son, one that is different from the relationship of the Son to the Father. It indicates that the Spirit is from the Father and/through, the Son in such a way that the Son and Father do not proceed from the Spirit and are not the Spirit. With this unique relationship, the Spirit is not interchangeable with the other Persons. And it means that the Holy Spirit has always been the Holy Spirit. We affirm in this way that God has always been a Trinity. There never was a time when God was not Triune.

Conclusion: triune relations

The three divine Persons eternally exist in absolutely unique relationships and that is what is essential to their being distinct Persons. That’s it. They have unique relations. Each has a different relationship with the other two. We don’t know how to explain all that, what that means, but we use unique words because there are unique relations. And that’s also why we address them according to their unique names that correspond with the relations. The Father is the Father, not the Son. The Son is the Son, not the Father. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son. We have unique names to indicate the unique persons and they have unique relationships and they’re not interchangeable.

When God through Jesus says, to address him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we’re being told something. The triune name identifies who God is, which God we’re speaking of, and even what kind of god that God is. God is the Triune God. That’s the only God that is or has ever been. God is Father, Son and Spirit. The Father is the Father. The Son is the Son. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit. Don’t separate them -- they are one in being. But don’t collapse them into one Person with no relationships -- they are distinct in Person.