The Person of the Holy Spirit

Dynamic Interrelationship of Unitive Being
By: Gregory S. Neal

Our faith in God as the Trinity comes as a response to God’s self-revelation in scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. Such titles as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have not been invented out of whole-cloth but, rather, have developed in our “rise to faith, our attempt to speak about the Divine Being who is beyond our ability to fathom.  Our inability to speak about the Trinity without walking the fine line of heresy – our almost inescapable need for splitting God into three units – has been the root of much theological controversy within the church.  This has been strikingly true with regard to God the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit’s relation to God the Father and God the Son.  Our need for clarity in our language regarding the nature of the Trinity can be seen in the Church's split into east and west over the little Latin Filioque clause.  Of specific difficulty here was, and continues to be, “modalistic” concepts of the God-head which exist in near-absolute forms.  What is often sorely missed in many theological circles is that, no matter what we may say about God, the moment we begin explicating is the moment we run the risk of losing sight of orthodoxy: God is the Divine Mystery, infinitely beyond clarification in or by human means or reasoning.  Still, thanks to God’s revelation, differentiation in three persons is still important for coming to grips with the various nuances of God’s nature and activity.  And, so, we speak of the Holy Spirit as being God in union with the Father and the Son. John Macquarrie is clear on the importance of the unity of God, and so his stress on understanding the Holy Spirit as unitive Being should provide a clear hint as to his argument on both the nature and function of God as Holy Spirit.

Macquarrie rightly speaks of the Holy Spirit as “proceeding” in the most active of senses. The Holy Spirit proceeds into creation to perform “unitive” functions, “to indwell it and to build it up” (Macquarrie p. 328). In building creation, the Holy Spirit promotes unity, or cohesiveness, with God for all of creation, including human beings.  It is in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit that God is known; for, “he [the Holy Spirit] is God at his closest to us” (Macquarrie p. 333). The Holy Spirit is the agency for all divine revelation and, in this way, is in a dynamic interrelationship with Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate revelation of God. Hence, the language of procession from the Father “and the Son,” (which was added to the Latin text of Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and was, by the eleventh century, fully accepted in the West as authoritative) finds its roots in this theological discourse. The question is not, however, one of source but one of function; and here is where the trouble begins.

Macquarrie's discussion of the Holy Spirit as “proceeding” is clear and, in my opinion, correct. To simplify, unitive Being proceeds into creation for the purpose of promoting and furthering the becoming, or “letting be,” of creation.  In so doing, the Holy Spirit is present at the moment of creation, at the moment of the incarnation, and at this “present” moment.  This proceeding is not so much from the source as it is into the subject.  In creation, all things are brought into being and allowed to become.  In the incarnation, unity of Spirit is made possible between fallen creation and God; fallen humans are made capable of becoming toward God. And, in this “present” moment, the continuation of becoming toward God is founded upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit through such vehicles as Baptism and the Eucharist.

Because of the nature of Holy Spirit's proceeding, unifying nature, the importance of Jesus Christ relative to it has been so crucial as to require strong creedal ties between the two persons. John Macquarrie outlines four reasons for linking the Holy Spirit closely with Jesus Christ.  Firstly, it ties a potentially amorphous concept of spirit to a concrete person, and by this it links the Holy Spirit’s action to the action of Christ. Secondly, it personalizes the Holy Spirit’s nature within the framework of Jesus Christ, differentiating it from “an impersonal force invading human lives.”  Thirdly, it provides a Christ-centered focus for testing individual claims of Holy Spirit inspiration. And, fourthly, it gives us a clear structure for spirituality (Macquarrie p. 331).

If one is determined to think of the Spirit and Jesus together, then at the human level there should be less danger of a merely emotional or ecstatic spiritualism, cut off from the guidance of the understanding [logos], though equally there should be no arid intellectualism without emotional color or the commitment of the will (ibid).

Macquarrie's first and second arguments are basically the same: the Holy Spirit is linked to Christ in such a way that we are provided with a concrete concept of the third person, canceling out any undue abstract characteristics.  The third and the fourth arguments can also be understood as nuances on a related theme: the Holy Spirit governs Christian life within the context of Christ’s example; without the Holy Spirit, acts are not Christian, and without Christ, the inspiration is not from the Holy Spirit.  All four of Macquarrie's arguments are utilitarian and, in my opinion, inadequate reasons for circumventing “apostolic practice” and unilaterally altering the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The West's point is well taken:  Christ must be, and is, dynamically involved in the proceeding of the Holy Spirit into creation.  The East, however, has an incredibly strong point when it argues that introducing further differentiation between the Father and the Son into the Creed is both “unnecessary and unwarranted.” (Elements of Christian Learning: A Russian Orthodox Catechism. Petrograd [Leningrad]: Holy Synodal Press, 1914., p. 4. Reprint, 1968.  Translation mine.)  John Macquarrie thinks that this thought is unconvincing, but I disagree.  In saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, the east is not claiming that the Son is absent from the unitive actions of the Spirit.  Indeed, the Russian Orthodox Catechism clearly states the opposite: “The Holy Spirit,with God the Father and God the Son, gives life to all creatures, and especially spiritual life to men [people]”  (ibid).  Their argument, and one with which I tend to agree, is that the West's differentiating between Father and Son in the proceeding of the Holy Spirit is an unnecessary step, promoting the addition of confusion and stress to a topic which is, ultimately, shrouded in mystery.  In addition and, in my opinion, of greater importance, is the notion that such a differentiation between the Father and the Son, relative to the Holy Spirit, only heightens the already-pregnant modalistic tendencies of the theological dialog.

A realization that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God, and without any one of them God is not, is important for understanding procession. The Holy Spirit does not proceed through "emanation" from the Father; the Holy Spirit is not God's spirit … rather, the Holy Spirit is God.  The Holy Spirit is God in God’s unitive action in creation and in relation to human beings.  By attempting to differentiate between the Father and the Son in the proceeding of the Holy Spirit, the Creed in the West is making a metaphysics mistake.  The Holy Spirit does not have two sources, nor should procession be understood in such a mechanical fashion.  In the east, such concepts of physical procession are left to a minimum and the numenos, or mysterious nature of the Holy Trinity, is promoted through appeal to what Macquarrie would call primordial being.  It is in and from the depths of the mystery of the Father that the Holy Spirit proceeds into creation.  Since the Father is not God without the Son, the Holy Spirit cannot be said to proceed at all without all of God – ie, the Son – in play.  This conclusion is not Macquarrie's, but it does follow from the nature of procession as he addresses it.

Refining the nature of procession cannot solve the East-West controversy. God the Father and God the Son are intimately and inexplicably involved in God the Holy Spirit’s unitive action. Additionally, by differentiating between the two, further splits are promoted between the first two persons of the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, a realization of the nature of the Holy Spirit as being all-God, not just a part or an emanation of God, is closer to the truth than any Trinitarian doctrine. The person of the Holy Spirit is God only if the Son and the Father are in unity with the Spirit in the nature of the God-head.


Macquarrie, John. Principles of Christian Theology. New York: SCM Press, (1987)
Elements of Christian Learning: A Russian Orthodox Catechism. Petrograd [Leningrad]: Holy Synodal Press, 1914., p. 4. Reprint, (1968).  Translation mine.


© 1990 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved

*This paper was written in 1990 for a Course in Systematic Theology which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from