Chapter 10: The Spirit and the Divine Triunity

The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 10: The Spirit and the Divine Triunity

The writer of a devotional book I read more than forty years ago -- a book whose author and title I have forgotten -- made an interesting point about the Holy Spirit. The writer described the Spirit, in a phrase I have not forgotten, as "the humblest person in the Godhead." That may not be a particularly happy phrase, but the idea the writer was seeking to express is important. One could put it in other words and say that the Holy Spirit is most frequently unrecognized because the Spirit usually works anonymously among us. The Spirit, as we shall show more fully when we come to discuss the triunitarian conception of God, is concerned primarily with response to the outgoing, revelatory, and redemptive action of God. Hence there is always the possibility that the Spirit with the Spirit’s responding work, will be equated or identified with the medium through which the response is made, more especially in the human movement of response.

In the years since the book mentioned above was written, we have witnessed an enormous growth in what is today called "the charismatic movement" in the Christian world. What was formerly taken to be a peculiarity of "holiness" sects has become a reality in the mainline churches; indeed, it has been said that the fastest growing group in these churches is composed of adherents of just this charismatic position. I do not wish to attack people who are charismatics and who both claim to know and also quite obviously manifest the fruit of the Spirit in visible ways. At the same time, it must be pointed out that in one sense at least such visible Spirit-filled response is a novel feature in the Christian fellowship, however many expressions of it may have occurred here and there in the past. And for theological purposes the phenomenon can be subsumed under the more general and less visible working of the Spirit as this has been known and presented in the work of Christian thinkers.

Now, while humanity’s movement toward conformity with God’s will and purpose as revealed in Christ is in its deepest reality the operation of the Holy Spirit, we are quite right to speak of this as also our response. Of course it is our response, but as we shall see, it is ours through the subtle and persuasive working of the Spirit within us, never denying or disregarding human freedom and accountability. Only by recognizing this double truth can we both see the genuine part that humankind plays in the whole God-world relationship and avoid the error of claiming that of ourselves, with but the slightest aid from God, we can achieve our own fulfillment.

As we read the New Testament we are struck at once by the fact that the emergent Christian community was possessed by a spirit (and I use here the lower case’s intentionally) which bound it into a unity of discipleship, of worship, and of responding love to the Action of God in Jesus Christ. So profound and real was this spirit, so much more powerful than anything humankind could establish, so highly personal in its impact, that the early church was convinced that here, in this enthusiasm of which its members were so conscious, was an operation of the Spirit of whom the prophets had spoken in the older Israel. That Spirit had now been "poured out on all flesh," and the Christian fellowship, knowing the power which worked through it, called itself the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. So gradually it came to be understood that wherever and whenever human response is made to what is seen and known of the activity of God in the Word or divine Self-Expression, and in whatever manner or form, the basic significance of this response was to be found in the working of the Spirit of God within and among them. Or, as we might put it, spirit with a lower case s was tied in with and taken to be an operation of Spirit with an upper case S.

As with the development of the "doctrine of Christ," this is not the place to present a detailed account of the way in which the "doctrine of the Spirit" was discussed, stated, and finally more or less formalized in succeeding centuries. Our concern here is with the question of the meaning or significance of belief in the Holy Spirit for us today, using a process perspective to illuminate and help explicate the matter.

First of all, then, the work of the Holy Spirit is not to be confined to the Christian fellowship, although there have been some theologians -- and great ones at that -- who have been guilty of such parochialism in their thinking about the Spirit. The common sense of the Christian ages, however, has been much more generous in its understanding. It has been impelled to say that just as the eternal Word of God -- God in God’s Self-Expression worldward -- is not confined humanly speaking to Jesus Christ but rather defined in him, so also the activity of the responding Spirit of God is defined but not confined to the specifically Christian response in faith within the Christian community. The danger of seeing the Holy Spirit simply in the context of Christian life -- and, even worse, solely in the context of ecclesiastical experience -- is that we narrow intolerably one great aspect of the operation of God in the world. This is both absurd and blasphemous.

We ought to be willing to acknowledge that when an artist, for example, responds with his or her whole being to the aspect of reality that has been disclosed and seeks to set down on canvas that truth, it is at bottom the Holy Spirit who is enabling and empowering the artist. So also the poet is often compelled to say the work he or she has done was his or her own, yet (in a phrase of D. H. Lawrence’s) "the wind that bloweth through me" has been in and behind that work. The sense of being possessed, of being grasped and used by something not ourselves but through which we realize our fullest potentialities, is indeed familiar to us all, although not necessarily in the vivid and striking way a person of genius or a great saint can know it. The honest effort to do one’s duty, the attempt to live one’s life in love and charity with others, the deep concern for justice for the underprivileged, the pursuit of goodness, or the search for truth, and all else that conforms our lives to the pattern of their intended perfection can only be explained when we have seen that in the last resort there is a working of the Spirit of God in each of these human situations.

We may say also that the same principle applies in the natural world. The growth of the acorn into the oak is, from one point of view, the unfolding of latent potentialities that are describable in scientific terms, just as the process of "conversion," from false centering on the self to releasing openness to God, is describable in psychological or sociological terms. Yet at bottom the growth into the pattern of oak-hood that is intended for the acorn is given proper theistic meaning only when we can say that deeper than any scientific description, and in no sense contradicting that description, the divine drive to fulfillment of potentiality has been at work. So also with conversion. The Christian doctrine of the triunitarian nature of God, to which we shall come in the latter part of this chapter, is a symbolic account that gives a better ultimate explanation of what the whole story is about than does some account true (so far as it goes) which is given in scientific (or similar) terms alone.

The intensity, although not always the recognizable intensity, of the working of the Spirit is in proportion to the intensity (again not always recognizable) of the divine Action to which it is a response. That is why in the fellowship of Christians the Spirit is believed to be more adequately known and more fully at work than elsewhere. Above all, that is why in Jesus himself -- who (as we argued in the preceding chapter) is best conceived as that human existence where the divine Action was incarnate, given adequate expression, in human life -- it could be said that "it is not by measure that [God] gives the Spirit." In Jesus there is both the focus of the divine Action, the eternal Word or divine Self-Expression, in created things and also the focus of the divine Response (which we may now capitalize), the Holy Spirit who moves graciously in creation to lure it on toward its proper end.

Furthermore, in each of us it is the Spirit who works in us gently and quietly for the most part but also sometimes powerfully and overwhelmingly, molding us to Christ. This is the basic meaning of the theological term "sanctification." We are being made holy -- that is, being made to belong more and more to God and to reflect more and more God’s character of love, goodness, righteousness, truth -- as the Holy Spirit works within our human wills and lives. It is the same Spirit too who by divine "inward testimony" (as the Reformers of the sixteenth century phrased it) or deeply experienced witness enables us to recognize that same divine Action, in lesser degree and in different fashion to be sure, but nonetheless truly, wherever God is moving toward us, soliciting an answer from us, awakening desire in us, urging us to respond to the divine revelatory act.

The Christian is bound to believe that in its growing apprehension of the significance of Jesus, the church was led by the Spirit who informs it to discern more and more of the meaning of the Man of Nazareth. The historian might see but the best of all people, the great Jewish prophet who crowned a long series of prophets of the older Israel. The Spirit-informed faith of the Christian community, by that Spirit’s deepening the insight of all men and women, brought about the understanding of Jesus as more than a prophet, more even than the best of all people. That Spirit-informed faith came finally to see in Jesus the one in whom God dwelt or through whom God worked with singular intensity, to provide a re-presentation of what God is always up to in the world and intends for humanity. Thus it may rightly be said that the Spirit guides the Christian fellowship "into all truth," "taking of the things of Christ and declaring them unto us."

It may seem that to emphasize the pervasive operation of the Holy Spirit, as well as to stress the Spirit’s focal action in the life of Jesus and its consequences, will in the end reduce men and women to mere automatons used by God with no respect for their freedom, their dignity, and their own responsible decisions, without any personal or social human contribution to the process. But the fact is that in human existence our highest freedom is found not in our self-will or our attempts to be on our own but in the opening of that existence to the divine reality. "Our wills are ours, to make them thine," wrote Tennyson. "In God’s will is our peace, said Dante. And Augustine said, "Thou hast made us toward thee; and restless is our heart until it finds rest in thee."

But how can we understand this? I believe that the mystery of human love will help us here. We know that it is not when we are self-centered and concerned only with doing what we please that we find our deepest happiness and realize our best human fulfillment. We find these when we lovingly surrender ourselves to those for whom we care. We must indeed do our part; we are in that sense free to choose, free to decide, free to act in this way or that. But being in love is always a matter of grace; it is a gift much more than it is an achievement entirely our own. We never say, if we think about it carefully, that self-surrender in love is nothing more than a work we do or something we accomplish by ourselves. Nothing is so pathetic or so frustrating as the attempt to buy love or earn it. Such attempts come to a dead end. Love can only be received, as we are caught up into the surrender of self to self. In that experience we remain ourselves, in all our personal identity and with all our freedom and responsibility; yet we are mysteriously and wonderfully "oned" with another, so that the other person lives in us and we in him or her.

I used this analogy earlier in my attempt to get at the significance of Jesus as what has traditionally been called the incarnation of God in human existence. But the same analogy may be used as an aid to understanding the working of the Holy Spirit within us. We do indeed respond, since we as humans have that capacity. Yet in the depths of our being, the Spirit responds in us and through us. This is an example of what theologians have styled "synergism" -- a working together in which we act but in which the Spirit also acts. And the Spirit’s act, like all divine action, is "prevenient" -- prior and preparatory -- to our human response. Thus we can assert that our highest and finest moments are indeed ours and yet also reflections of, expressions of, movements of, the action of the Spirit who works with us as Paul puts it, "bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God." I believe that once again process thinking helps us to reach this conclusion.

Christian thinkers in the West have spoken regularly of the Spirit of the Father and the Son. In the East, however, the words I have italicized have never been used, although thinkers in the Eastern church have agreed that one might say the Father through the Son." This may seem a petty theological quarrel, but it is not. As we shall see, an important truth is at stake, although to understand it we need to consider the triunitarian nature of God.

In the development of Christian thought it has been stressed that the Spirit of God, while indeed the Spirit come from God the Father, is the Spirit who is mediated to the world through the Son. However, this ought not to be taken to mean that it is through Jesus only that the Spirit comes. The word Son here refers to the eternal Word of God, the divine Self-Expression, who in much Christian discourse has been called "the Son" -- although some of us regret this because it tends to confuse things when a term appropriate to Jesus as humanly God’s Son is applied to the divine reality itself. Something about this will be said later in this chapter. For the present, however, the point is that the quality of the Spirit, and hence our criterion for knowing whether any given spirit is indeed to be linked with the Spirit of God, is for Christians the congruity which that spirit does, or does not, possess with what we have learned of God, God’s character and purpose and manner of operation, through Jesus Christ in his revelation of the divine nature and agency in the world.

In other words, we need to determine whether the spirits are of God or whether they are misleading and alien. The way to test them is to determine whether or not they point to and are consistent with what we know of God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s righteousness, and God’s saving power in Jesus. Thus all that is upbuilding, expressive of love and tenderness, eager for the right, concerned for justice, informed by courage, able to establish sound relationships and sound dealings -- all that manifests beauty and that speaks of truth -- all this is the working of God, who moves in the world by the Word and from that world receives the Amen of responsive conformity through the Holy Spirit active in the creation.

It was in the attempt to state these profound truths that thinkers within the Christian fellowship, building upon what has been called "the Palestinian experience of God," came to develop the distinctively Christian conception of God: God as "triune," God as the unity of three interpenetrating modes of activity. In an earlier day, when a "substance" philosophy was prevalent, this was talked about as "the divine subsistence," not only as if God were to be distinguished from the world but also as if God’s existence was somehow other than God’s activity. Such a view cannot be maintained when we come to see that "a thing is what it does" (in words of Whitehead already quoted) and when we have to do not with substances but with events or occasions or (again to quote Whitehead) "actual entities" which are essentially "becomings" rather than "beings." With this reminder we may now turn to a consideration of the doctrine of the divine Triunity -- and notice that I have said "triunity" rather than "trinity," because the latter carries a suggestion only of three divine realities, whereas the former makes it more obvious that our discussion is about some "three in one" and thus preserves the essential unity or oneness of God from the possibility of slipping away into polytheism.

There is an ancient Christian theological document miscalled "the Athanasian Creed" (it had nothing to do with Athanasius himself but was evidently the work of Hilary of Poitier and should be given its proper name of Quicumque Vult) that can help us here. Whatever fault we may find with that document in other respects -- and Anglicans may be grateful that it is no longer commonly said, as ancient prayer books required, at public worship on certain great festivals of the Christian year -- it gives us the right understanding of this triunitarian conception of God when it affirms "This is the Catholic faith: that we worship Godhead in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity." Outlandish and absurd as this may sound to the non-Christian, it puts the emphasis just where it belongs. The faith in God is supremely acted out in worship; and for a Christian loyal to the Christian community that worship is of "God the Father," manifested in what through the Self-Expression (and for us supremely in the event of Jesus Christ) God has done, is doing, and will do in the creation, and given response through the working of the Holy Spirit, enabling the world and humans within it to say their Amen to God’s initiating activity.

If this doctrine of the triunity of God were merely intellectual speculation or an intellectual answer to an intellectual problem, it might be interesting to academic minds; it might be a way of meeting a difficult question and providing a better or worse solution to that question. But it would not be much more than that. And some recent attempts to do away with the conception have been at that level. The trouble is that they have taken the doctrine of the divine Triunity to be a literal statement about God. But it is much more a symbolic kind of speaking about the ways in which God’s human children have come to think about deity, in the manner of their worship and prayer, quite as much as in their attempts at faithful discipleship. Process thinking will help us see that God and the world are in mutual relationship. Its talk about God as primordial and as the continuum of all possibility, about God as consequent -- affected and influenced by the creation -- and about God as "superjective" in giving back to creation the transfigured and enriched contributions it has made to the deity, may suggest certain parallels to the traditional doctrine, although to work in this fashion is both unnecessary and misleading. We do better to follow the suggestion of Prof. Hartshorne who on one occasion remarked to me that this doctrine, like the traditional ones of incarnation and atonement, should be seen as valued, historically-freighted symbols that provide insight into God and God’s ways in the creation. And precisely because we "worship Godhead in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity" we can see the appropriateness of just such symbolism. For worship, above all, is imaginative, poetical, or metaphorical; and its language should never be taken as if it were as exact as, say, would be an entomologist’s description of markings on some insect’s back! Triunitarianism is a matter of "high religion" not of logical discourse.

It is not too difficult to see how the belief in God as "Trinity in Unity" -- Triune God -- came to develop. First of all, there was the God of Israel, whom the early Christians, like their Jewish neighbors, believed to be the one and only God of the whole earth. In "advanced" Judaism this God was identified with the "supreme God" of other religions, although there were special characteristics such as divine righteousness and loving-mercy (chesed) found in the Jewish picture more than in some of the others. Jewish thought was thoroughly monotheistic, at least from the time of Second Isaiah if not before. But although the God of Israel was identified with the one God of all monotheistic religions, divine self-revelation through the history and experience of the Jewish people had given this God, as we have just noted, a special quality. This God was indeed creator and sovereign ruler, but also the God who would and did communicate the divine self to humankind, so that they could know God as the loving parent of those children.

And then came Jesus. He lived as a man with other men and women. He was known and loved, followed as master and revered as teacher. He believed that he was sent from God with a mission in the world. In the end, that mission included his death on the cross. But afterward, by what have been called "many infallible signs," the members of the early Christian community were convinced that he was not a figure in the dead past but was somehow wonderfully alive as their present, living, and active Lord. They found it natural and proper to try to relate him to God who had sent him. At first they saw him as Messiah, the supreme representative of God come to establish God’s kingdom in the world. But soon they felt that this was not sufficient.

What Jesus had been and continued to be for them, what he had done and continued to do, were so tremendous in their impact on those who responded to him that they found themselves compelled to say that in Jesus God had "visited and redeemed" humankind. Using ideas which, as we have seen, were derived from both Jewish and Greek thought, they spoke of him as the Word of God made flesh -- or, as we have preferred to say, that One in whom the divine Action so possessed and used a human life that here God’s Self-Expression was seen focally in a genuine and complete human existence. So there was not only the God of Israel but also Christ the Lord, the "tabernacling" of God with us in a supreme action for human wholeness.

Nor was that all. For as we have been saying, the early Christians knew themselves to be united in a community of loving, worshiping, and obedient response to the Action of God in Christ; and that community, in their experience, was no ordinary social grouping but itself a working of God among them and within them. It was, they believed, the Holy Spirit who created that community, moved through it, worked in it, and urged its members toward conformity with the pattern given in Christ by God. Whatever we may think about this, whatever revisions we may wish to make in its statement, the fact remains that it was in the fellowship of the Spirit that the God of Israel was freshly experienced as "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." In the New Testament this is not worked out in any detail. Maybe it would have been better to leave it -- as it was at the start -- a matter of a threefold experience which for such strict mono-theists as the early Christians could only be explained as somehow integral to, yet distinctive within, the reality of God in the divine fullness. Paul puts the experience in well-known words when he writes of "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit," certainly an incipient triunitarian formula but yet stated in the idiom of religious life.

Thus the doctrine of the divine Triunity developed first in very simple terms, then more in the form in which it has become part of the theological tradition of the Christian community. One of the most difficult problems associated with this development was the safeguarding of the genuine divinity of the Action of God in Jesus Christ and of the Response (Response, with an upper case R, since we are talking about a truly divine operation) in the Holy Spirit. Certainly for devotional purposes it is hard if not impossible to distinguish between these two; indeed, it is equally difficult to distinguish these two from whatever is known of "God the Father." Professor Geoffrey Lampe has remarked (and I believe what he says is correct) that

those who talk of meeting and speaking to Jesus would find it hard to explain the difference between that experience and encountering, or being encountered by, God: and in fact I think the latter is what they actually mean: they are experiencing God who was in Jesus, God who is, therefore, recognized by reference to the revelatory experience recorded in the New Testament and reflected upon in the whole subsequent Christian tradition. (God as Spirit, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 21.)

Certainly we need to make sure that we do not talk as if there were three gods. It was for the early Christians and for later Christian reflection impossible to think that. The threeness represented more than transitory aspects of the divine reality, however, for God is Truth and surely God must let the divine self be known. After much trial and error, not to speak of a good deal of somewhat unseemly controversy, it was generally agreed that the divine Action in Christ was not to be restricted to Jesus alone, although in him it found what I have styled a "focus"; rather, that Action worldward is present and at work everywhere. So also with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was active in, but not only in, the Christian life of response to God in Christ. In each instance, the specifically Christian reality was a manifestation of God in act, set in the context of a wider manifestation of God in act in all human experience, in all history, and in the whole natural order. Of that wider manifestation in act, what had taken place in Jesus and what took place in the Christian response was a vivid "re-presentation" of the whole range of divine operation.

We might phrase it in this way: In the event of Christ there is a concentration, as it were, of what goes on generally; in the response to Christ in Holy Spirit there is similarly a concentration of what goes on everywhere. The threefoldness of what might be named "the Palestinian Trinity" of early Christian days is a reflection of a cosmic triunity. But as I urged above, it would be wrong (in my judgment) to try to interpret all this too literally and logically; Prof. Hartshorne was right, I said, in saying that the symbol of the divine Triunity, like the "incarnation" and "atonement" as symbols, is much more appropriately retained as a symbol, as imaginative proclamation; it can then retain its indicative and suggestive value without our seeking to phrase it in the idiom of some particular philosophy or world view. In other words, the divine Triunity is a religious rather than a logically explicit affirmation. But this means that we are not to think that a word such as "persons," applied to Father, Word, and Spirit, can be interpreted in the way in which we today would use that term. In any event, even in the theology of the church the Greek word hypostasis (translated into the Latin as persona and then into the English as "person") had nothing like our modern sense. The Cappadocian fathers in the early church meant by that Greek word "abiding modes of being and activity"; Thomas Aquinas spoke in the Middle Ages of the "persons" of the Triunity as "relations in Godhead." I doubt if we need to worry ourselves about such technicalities, however, and if the suggestion I have quoted from Prof. Hartshorne is adopted, we have every reason to avoid any such worry.

The Christian conception of God in a triunitarian fashion has one value that must not be overlooked. It gives us a richer view than one which talks of deity as simply monadlike could do. Somehow in God the basic truth of personality is combined with the equally basic truth of sociality -- and this has implications for our view of human nature, too, as we shall see in the next chapter. The triunity of God can serve as a symbol offering a hint or intimation into the mystery of God as God is active in the world; and our process conceptuality has made it clear that God is the divine Activity. To repeat Whitehead’s saying, "A thing is what it does."

I conclude with another important point. It has been conventional in philosophy of religion to talk of God as transcendent and as immanent. But there is possible a third term, not commonly found in such conventional discussion: "concomitance." The triunitarian picture intimates that God’s activity in creation, and hence God in the depths of the divine nature, is both inexhaustible and unexhausted, and therefore that God is indeed transcendent. It intimates that God is "in" the creation, luring it to response and self-fulfillment, and therefore that God is immanent. But it also intimates that God is (as I like to put it) also "alongside" or "with" the creation, acting not only upon it and within it but also as self-identified with each and every created event or occasion. This may seem a highly speculative proposition, yet I am sure it has practical consequences, for it protects and values the variety of religious life. It makes a place for the sort of deism that when taken in separation from other ideas, tended to make God remote but also managed to assert the divine creatorhood and the divine transcendence. It makes a place also for the truth so imperfectly expressed in monism or a quasi-pantheistic notion of God as genuinely within things. And it also makes a place for a religiously minded "humanism," such as that found in some words of the ancient Christian writer Tertullian when he said, "When you see your brother, you see your Lord." Each of these, taken by itself, can lead to partial and even erroneous exaggeration, but when the three are combined it may very well be that a more adequate picture of God is set forth.

Nonetheless, the talk about the triune God began in a religious experience and is most adequately known in religious worship. The former -- religious experience -- need not be highly articulated nor even highly conscious of God as God; it may be vague, diffused, and unformed, yet also a deliverance of what it feels like to be dependent upon a reality greater than anything human or natural. The worship may not be explicitly developed in a triunitarian direction, but it does provide an opportunity to adore God in all God’s ways and acts. Thus this conception of God can be lived. For any loyal Christian the worship of God as manifested in action in Christ, and the energizing of the Holy Spirit as an empowering for Christian living toward the image of God which in Jesus Christ is humanly visible, may very well be summed up in the versicle and response familiar to many in the "Catholic" churches:

Versicle: Let us bless the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit:

Response: Let us praise and exalt him for ever.

I have italicized the pronoun him because it makes clear that no matter what we say about "threeness, we are committed also, and preeminently, to the "oneness" or unity of the basic thrust and drive in things we call "God."