It’s an old puzzle in Christian God-talk and prayer. “Father” and “Son” come preloaded with images and associations; “Spirit” feels a little harder to grasp. Sarah Coakley’s book God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘on the Trinity,’ even jokes about the way Christian artists have seemed unsure of how prominently to feature the elusive Spirit. Anyone looking for depictions of the Spirit ends up having to play “hunt the pigeon,” says Coakley. The problem belongs not only to visual artists, of course, but equally to theologians and those of who, in our living and praying, want to recognize the Spirit.
All of that can serve as an invitation to reconsider what I call here the Spirit’s self-portrait, as it’s given in Scripture.
Let’s begin at the end. The Book of Revelation records seven letters to seven first century churches. Each letter is presented as dictated by the risen and ascended Christ to John (Rev. 1:9–16). And each letter closes with the same sign-off: “Let anyone who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). When Jesus talks, apparently, the Spirit talks.
Biblically speaking, the Spirit and divine speech always go together. Across the whole Christian Bible—Law, Prophets, Psalms, Gospels, Acts and Epistles—the Holy Spirit is mentioned as energizing, animating force of language wherever Israel’s God has something to say. In fact, while the Bible openly attributes its many book to diverse human authors, it also lays its bounded whole at the feet of one Author, this same Holy Spirit (see Num. 11:29; Isa. 59:21; Ezek. 3:24; Ps .29; Acts 4:8, 25; 28:25; Heb. 3:7; 10:15). Methodist preacher Will Willimon calls the God of the Christian Scriptures “the chatty God.” Talkative, loquacious, verbose: that’s the Holy Spirit in the portrayal of Scripture.
How odd, then, that the One portrayed as speaker of Scripture remains so elusive in those same Scriptures. In her poem “The Bat” the American poet Jane Kenyon relates an evening when the titular creature upended her calm and led her on a chase through the house. “At every turn it evaded us,” she says, “like the identity of the third person / in the Trinity.” The Bible shows us the LORD appearing to Abram, sings of Israel’s Man of War, gives us God the Father ready to dole out fish and bread at the asking, the Son of God who sees and touches, feeds and weeps and sleeps—and it gives us God the Spirit. God the Breath, God the Wind (Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma). This is the “Holy” Spirit mind you, but adding the adjective “set apart” doesn’t seem to give us a more concrete handle on this ‘evasive,’ slippery third person of the triune God. As many Christians (and even some theologians) have noticed, the Holy Spirit comes off rather self-effacing, at least if we go by His/Her/Its God-breathed, Self-inspired portrait.
Suppose we take that to heart. What follows? For one thing, it would mean the Spirit shouldn’t be played off or against Father or Son. If the Bible’s animating Breath is this Holy Spirit, then we already have in hand what it wants to say of Himself/Herself/Itself. And what does the Spirit want us to know about the Spirit’s identity? In large part: the Father and the Son. That, it seems, is the self-effacing, show-and-tell character of the Spirit.
Now, this pattern of yielding and giving over doesn’t belong solely to the Holy Spirit. Recall that in the Letter to the Philippians Paul tells us that the Father gives the Name above all names to the Son (Phil. 2:9), the Name which is the Father’s most intimate, precious possession (Isa. 48:11). And remember that Paul likewise says Jesus will hand over the kingdom come to the Father’s keeping at the end (1 Cor. 15:28), just as this same Jesus attributes the style and substance of his words and action to the Father throughout John’s Gospel (John 5:19–20; 14:7–11). So when the Spirit shuttles our attention toward Father and Son, we are not witnessing the most subservient member of a trio; we are glimpsing the Spirit’s distinctive way of playing out a shared pattern.
Why does noticing this matter? Because the Spirit’s indistinct self-portrait sometimes proves a little too alluring. One problem with Jesus is that he’s just so specific. Jesus of Nazareth was and is a rural Jew whose mother tongue was not mine, and whose life’s peculiar shape — while sublime when admired from a distance — calls into question some of my dearest ideas about who God ought to be and what the good life should be like. Jesus embraced obscurity, lived without material security, behaved unpredictably, depended on friends who abandoned him and died looking like a joke without even sticking up for himself. No wonder many modern Christians like me prefer the blurred lines of the Holy Spirit. From time to time we might even superimpose the Spirit in order to soften and blend out the hard edges of Jesus, as if the Spirit were a charcoal smudge stick, and our few touch-ups could deliver us a more attractive Teacher-Saviour. But if — as in Revelation’s seven letters — when Jesus talks the Spirit talks, and if this Holy Spirit who spoke through prophets and apostles insists we see the Father and the Son, then we should resist the allure of the indistinct. Otherwise we find ourselves at cross-purpose with the Spirit, fixing our eyes on the pointing finger instead of where it’s pointing.
Given all that, though, it might sound as if the Holy Spirit were all deference and no definition, so exhaustively kenotic (self-emptying) as to be void of form. But that’s not right either. Anyone who has seen enough stained glass windows, icons, paintings, or wall-hangings will have noticed various symbols tied to the Holy Spirit. All of these symbols trace back to Scripture in some way. One possible list goes like this: The Spirit is breath or wind (Gen. 2:7; 1 Kings 19:2; Acts 2:2), water (Isa. 44:3; Ezek. 47:1–12; John 4:10; 7:37–39), fire (Ps. 29:7; Luke 3:16; Rev. 4:5), cloud (Exod. 13:12; 2 Chron. 5:13–14; Luke 9:34), bird (Gen. 1:2; Luke 3:22) and wine (1 Sam. 10:9–10; Eph. 5:18). This clutch of symbols makes the Spirit anything but formless. The Spirit is, in a way, the shapeliest, the most highly figured persona of the triune God. In Scripture’s depiction, the Holy Spirit is marked less by apophatic evacuation than by cataphatic overload.
What’s more, each of those symbols embeds in itself ambiguity and contradiction. Water, fire, and wind can either cleanse or destroy. Clouds portend storms or shield us from summer heat. Birds swoop down as mothers or as predators. Wine makes the heart glad or the mind reel.
If we take this pattern of scriptural speech to heart too, then we must also say that the Holy Spirit chose for Itself the wardrobe of contradiction, a symbolic dialect of judgment and mercy. The Spirit self-presents as both Unsettler and Comforter.
All of this adds up to a series of clues to the presence of the elusive Holy Spirit. The presence of the Spirit, it seems, is made known by what the Spirit does. And what does the Spirit do?
The Spirit ushers us to the Father and the Son. So if we find ourselves crying “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15) in panic or pain or joy, then the Spirit is near, just as the Spirit is already alighting on us if we find our lips confessing “Jesus Christ is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3).
And the Spirit acts in double-sided judgment and mercy. So if we find ourselves drowning in affliction or washed by forgiveness, scorched by just desserts or warmed by the fire, blinded or enlightened, stormed or sheltered, set upon like prey or brooded over like hatchlings, staggering under judgment or drunk with mercy: then we should wonder with Whom we have to do.
Whatever else those moments mean, they mean this: the elusive Holy Spirit has not allowed us to elude Him.
Nathan Wall is a doctoral student at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.