Pneumatology and the Christian Trinity

by Dr. Bob Hughes

In Christian theology, the Holy Spirit is considered the third member of the Godhead, joining God the Father and God the Son (Jesus Christ) as one God. To have a mature view of the Godhead, then, requires a fundamental understanding and acceptance of the Trinity. How does the Holy Spirit fit into this broader concept of “God,” along with the Father and the Son? This presents a huge problem for humanity, as Hans Kung put it, “ … the Spirit still remains, for many, theologically absolutely unintelligible” (Kung 696). Admittedly, this inscrutable doctrine of the Trinity is impossible to comprehend in human, natural terms. The reason is simple: The Trinity is not natural, but rather, supernatural. This means that no known natural law, and no known natural mind, can explain how one God can show his very being in three distinct ways and yet remain unified as one. Several English language terms have been tried to help with comprehension of this spiritual, supernatural mystery: the three-membered Godhead, the triadic formula, the divine tri-unity, the Godhead trilogy, the Three-in-One, the Undivided Godhead, and of course, the more common term, the Trinity, among many others.

So, in a natural world governed by natural laws, the insertion of supernatural laws becomes hard to understand because the supernatural level is not where humans normally operate and what they know. Though difficult to fathom, this supernatural aspect of laws existing above and beyond the scope of natural laws can be illustrated by several things that Jesus did. For instance, there is no known natural law for turning water into wine (John 2:1-11), or feeding a multitude from five small loaves and two fish (Matt. 14:17-21; Mark 6:38-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:5-13). Naturally, it just cannot be done. But if a supernatural law, above and beyond natural law, is in operation, and not subject to natural law limitations, natural impossibilities can become supernatural realities.

It is a serious error, though, to think that supernatural law negates and does away with natural law. Supernatural applications do not negate natural law; they simply act outside of and above natural law as a more powerful and superior operation. The Law of Gravity states, in simple terms, what goes up must come down because gravitational principles will see to it. However, if one puts to use, say, a Law of Rocket Thrust that is more powerful than the Law of Gravity, what goes up may not come back down. In this case, the Law of Rocket Thrust does not negate the Law of Gravity; it simply works outside and beyond that law as a more powerful force. So it is with supernatural law compared to natural law. Both exist but each operates in its respective sphere with supernatural law absolutely the more forceful and the only one of the two with crossover powers into the other’s realm.

Though the New Testament nowhere discusses the Trinity as a formal doctrine, “It does speak repeatedly of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit … in such a way as to compel a trinitarian understanding of God” (Stagg 38). A supernatural existence of three-in-one is precisely how Scripture depicts the one omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God of the universe to the world. This is “Trinitarian oneness,” not a “tri-theistic, three-god” depiction. Naturally, this is difficult for human nature to comprehend completely. This difficulty is foreseen in Holy Scriptures and the term “mystery”(humanly speaking) is often used to help human consciousness through this problem of the existence of one, trifold Godhead (Eph. 1:1-22; 6:17-24; Col. 2:2-5; I Tim. 3:9-16). Max Anders put the difficulty this way,

“The doctrine of the Trinity, that there is one God who exists eternally in three Persons, one in substance yet three in subsistence, is one of the central teachings of Christianity. Yet it is one of the most difficult to understand and one of the most frequently choked upon, for the simple reason that it seems impossible. One God exists in three Persons. Even to write it or read it, one stumbles over the mathematics. If something is one, it cannot be three. If something is three, it cannot be one” (qtd. in Wagner 74).

 

Anders rightly (as quoted above by Wagner) fingers the problem from the natural, human standpoint. In spite of the difficulty of apprehending this concept, trying to divide the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit into separate entities from each other creates a worse difficulty. Dividing them would either create three individual and co-equal gods, or have one or two of them subordinate to the other and thus create a class of demigods (Feurbach 7ff, 263-4). Monotheism demands one God.

It is faith in the supernatural power of an unequalled Deity that resolves this issue satisfactorily. Each of the Trinity manifestations (persons) serves distinctive purposes within that unified whole with a singleness of intent and agreement. The one most powerful unifying factor that clearly displays this “singleness” of the Godhead is “love.” “Love as the power that manifests itself in the mutual relations of the Trinitarian persons is identical with the divine essence” (Pannenberg 427). Love, then, is not a quality of the Godhead, but is its very essence, substance and supernatural state of being. Love is therefore not a quality of God, but is God absolutely. This love is for all of creation and is unconditional, unmerited, and is the very heartbeat of this unity. Someone has well said that “Love” is another way to spell “God.” The Scripture is very plain that God HAS power, God HAS knowledge, God HAS wisdom, but that God IS love (1 John 4:7-10; John 3:16). God the Father is largely seen as Creator (Gen. 1; 2:1-3), Sustainer (Job 33:4), and Lover of all his Creation (John 3:16). God the Son is largely seen as Creator (John 1:1-3), Sacrifice (Heb. 1:1-18), Messiah/Redeemer (Job 19:25-27; Mark 8:27-29; Gal. 3:13; Rev. 5:9), and Lover of a Lost and Dying Humanity (Matt. 18:11; John 14:1-21). The Holy Spirit is largely seen as Creator (Gen. 1:2), Instructor/Guide (John 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:10-16; 1 Cor. 12:3-13), Comforter/Strengthener (John 14:16-18, 26), Reprover (Convictor) of sin (John 16:7-11), Dispenser of Spiritual Gifts (1 Cor. 12-14), and Lover of the Family of God and the Lost (Rom. 8:26-27). Again, note that the single most unifying factor is that of “love” for all of creation. Their specific offices may involve specific duties, but love is the single, unifying constant at every turn that directs these activities and defines the unity.

The Godhead is indivisible in a way that is humanly impenetrable mentally, while showing the world three distinct, operative manifestations. This existence is often called the “Undivided Trinity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 253). John (1 John 5:7) plainly states this oneness, though some critics have suggested that this passage is an interpolation by some editor or other and may not even belong in the original. Regardless of that contention, other Scripture references reinforce and underscore the Trinitarian nature of God so that passage is certainly not an aberration. Consider what Jesus said in John 14:6-31 about his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit (the Comforter) that he would send after his ascension to the Father. The Godhead is totally unfettered and absolutely non-restrained to the full extent of the terms omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. Luke 1:37 states this perfectly when the angel is explaining to Mary how it is possible that she is expecting a child without having had sexual relations with a man. A virgin becoming pregnant under those conditions is naturally impossible. Isaiah had prophesied just such a thing with, “Therefore the lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14, KJV). Young women (as the RSV translates the word “virgin” in this context) have babies every day. That is not much of a “sign.” That is regular, normal, expected and usual. However, if a virgin should conceive and bear a child, now that is a SIGN indeed! (The RSV translators might need to reconsider this point.) Though in the natural world a virgin giving birth could not happen, in the supernatural realm, all things are possible. Luke nails it down in this situation (and all others) with, “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (1:37). As conventional Christian wisdom has it, the impossible with God does not take even one second longer.

Human understanding as to how the Holy Trinity can exist as three-in-one is also hindered by the fact that there is nothing else to which we may perfectly compare God. There is nothing else in the universe like God. He is the absolute singularity. Usually, comparisons are helpful for clarification and seeing deeper into a subject. But here all comparisons would fall far short of accurately describing “what God is like.” Analogies and comparisons might be of limited use, and might help some, but since the Godhead is alone in its selfness, it stands alone, truly. However, we can glimmer from God’s creation some hints as to his nature, if we are careful not to think we have achieved the impossible with a perfect description of Perfection Itself. God will always remain above all comparisons.

Since the Holy Trinity is the founding base of everything, and since “ … God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, …” (Gen. 1:26-27), there might be an indicative clue here (being careful, remember, not to “push” things too far logically, or to think we have found the perfect humanly contrived description of the Godhead since God’s aloneness is absolute). Trying to reason about things, though, is why God gave brains to us, and as long as we do not substitute human reasoning for divine revelation, we are well within scriptural boundaries (Is. 1:18). So, let’s ruminate a bit about things from a trinitarian (small “t”) perspective. Human beings are tri-parte: body, mind and spirit (soul, some would say for the latter word). Could this be a tiny trinity model of sorts? Is this what is meant by the words, “in our image”? Once more, resisting the urge to declare that we have a perfect picture of God unfolded before us through natural comparisons, let’s look at several hints for whatever they may be worth.

Suppose we continue just a bit more with the human being as body, mind and spirit (perhaps “soul”), as made in God’s image (Gen. 1, again). Would it be absolutely wrong to say that the human body has somewhat of a parallel in Jesus Christ the Son since he came in a physical body? Could the human mind with its logic, thinking ability, and capacity for obtaining wisdom and directing action be somewhat related to the omniscience of the mind of God the Father who sent the Son and who maintains authority and control over all things? Could the human spirit, even if called “soul,” be a sort of foreshadowing of the work of the Holy Spirit in the way the deeper callings of the human spirit keep playing with our consciousness and consciences? Naturally, human nature is limited while the supernatural Godhead is not, as already discussed, but this may be of some help for trying to delve deeper into this mystery.

Or, consider the preponderance of the numeral three awash in the universe-at-large. Of course there are other important numbers as well, but the number three (a God number) is repeated too often to seem circumstantial. So, without trying to become a superstitious numerologist of some stripe or other, examine the following list as a starting place (and this is certainly not intended to be an exhaustive list by any means): the atom, building block of all creation, has three components (protons, neutrons, electrons); there are three forms of matter (solids, liquids, gasses); three known dimensions in human experience (length, breadth, depth); three divisions to time (past, present, future); three full measures of positive description (good, better, best); three full measures of negative description (bad, worse, worst); three primary colors from which all humanly visible colors come (red, yellow, blue); three natural stages of existence (birth, life, death; remembering of course that granting immortality is not counted here as that is a supernatural action — Thess. 4:15-18; 1 Cor. 15:50-58); three stages for any action or activity (beginning, middle, end); three organizers of systematic thought (introduction, body, conclusion); three parts to syllogistic logic using major premise, minor premise, conclusion; three concrete forms of existence (animal, vegetable, mineral); three levels of mathematical measure (below average, average, above average); three descriptors of motion (backward, lateral, forward); the family trilogy (father, mother, offspring); and of course, the Trinity. The whole natural universe seems to mirror the image of a supernatural God. His name and signature are all over it.

Another example, as limited as it may be for deep theology, causes us to admit that we only “know is part” (1 Cor. 13:9-12) for now. Since the Godhead is perhaps best described as being one in supernatural nature but three in personhood, what does that mean? It means that there are three ways in which God manifests himself to his creation, though his supernatural nature never changes. He is one God with three distinct forms that confront humanity, sin, the devil, etc., and yet remains united as having one super-naturalness. That nature is to love: the Father loves, the Son loves, the Spirit loves. Now, the question remains in the human mind, how is this possible to be Three-in-One? We have admitted that the answer is because it is supernatural and beyond natural explanation, which makes the Trinity a mystery to the human mind in many ways. However, we can get a small, imperfect glimpse as “we see through a glass, darkly” as Paul said (1I Cor. 13:12). We truly can only know in part now (Paul again, 1 Cor. 13), but by deep reasoning and thinking seriously about this Godhead who loves us as the Trinity, we can perhaps strengthen our faith by another example.

The imperfect example we shall use is that of common water, or to science, H2O. Water can occur in three distinct forms though its nature is always to be H2O. If taken below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, H2O becomes a solid, but it is always by nature, H2O, though this form is solid. If held between 33 degrees and 211 degrees Fahrenheit, H2O assumes a liquid form but its nature is still H2O. If subjected to temperatures at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and beyond, H2O becomes a gas, or steam, yet a third form, but its nature is still H2O. Therefore, though H2O never changes its nature of being H2O, it can be all three known forms of matter, depending upon circumstances as called. The supernatural nature of God is one God but there are three ways in which he shows himself to his creation as circumstances may require, though the nature of the Trinity remains constant. Love is the unifier of the Godhead oneness, but at the same time, that oneness is perceived in three personhood applications, though the supernatural nature never changes. (We do not need to rush out and proclaim that God is like water and begin to worship thusly, but the analogy, as imperfect as it is, may help some.)

The equilateral triangle that is sometimes used to depict the Trinity is also an instructive analogy, though, like all the others, is somewhat limited, of course. The nature of an equilateral triangle is to have three equal angles that show that nature. Its nature is not that of a rectangle, a square, a trapezoid, or even a right triangle, etc.  It has three distinct and co-equal angles that identify its nature as an equilateral triangle. It is three-in-one by nature as the triangle is one geometric figure with three distinguishing features. Might this give us some thought of the Godhead, however imperfect the illustration? The very nature of the equiangular, equilateral triangle is to be a co-equal three-in-one, and we recognize it as such though it is only one geometric figure. At the same time, that one also has a three-ness existence that actually defines it.

So, the Holy Spirit cannot be totally separated from the Trinity in any meaningful way, with perhaps one limited exception. If the particular work of the Holy Spirit is considered, that is, if the special offices the Spirit performs are collected into a canon, we get a glimpse, a feeling for, who the Spirit is from what the Spirit does. We know from Scripture, human experience, and the teachings of Jesus, that: the Spirit convicts of sin (John 16:7-11); teaches, leads, and guides to truth (John 14:26); comforts, strengthens, and encourages believers (John 14:16-18); empowers disciples (Luke 24:49; Acts 2); and distributes spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12), among other things. Though these duties may be the particular provenance of the Holy Spirit, they in no way separate him (in the sense of dividing him apart) from the other two members of the Trinity.

The best news is that we do not have to rely upon our imperfect examples and attempts to understand the Trinity, or the work of the Holy Spirit, when we have revealed Scripture and sure revelation to rightly direct us. There will always be some mystery connected with faith because by very definition, faith is “ … the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). That is, things are seen in the natural world from a natural perspective. On the supernatural level, what creature can possible understand its Creator? One is clearly greater and far beyond the other in understanding, knowledge, power and wisdom. But if the Creator reveals to the creature some of that supernatural fixative, whatever and however it is, the creature can rest easy knowing things are as they should be, even those difficult to mentally habituate. Let us revel in the revelation that deals with doubt and mental questioning, and let us do it with thanks to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

  1. Carver, W.O. The Self-Interpretation of Jesus. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1961. Reprint.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference. 2000. Print.
  3. Feuerback, Ludwig. Trans. George Eliot. Essence of Christianity. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1957. Print.
  4. Kung, Hans. Trans. Edward Quinn. Does God Exist? An Answer for Today. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company. 1980, Print
  5. Kung, Hans. Trans. Edward Quinn. On Being a Christian. New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1984. Print.
  6. Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Systematic Theology, Vol. II. Grand Rapids: Eardmans Publishing Company, 2001. Print.
  7. Stagg, Frank. New Testament Theology. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1962. Print.
  8. Wagner, E. Glenn, ed. The Awesome Power of Shared Beliefs. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995. Print.

 

Dr. Bob Hughes is pastor of Pembroke Advent Christian Church in Pembroke, Georgia.

 

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