One e-mail group that I belong to has been having a good deal of discussion lately about whether the Holy Spirit is God. This, of course. leads directly into the question of what we mean when we speak of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the “Holy Trinity”, “Three persons and one God.”
Seeing that we are now in that part of the Church Year which focuses either on the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), or the Trinity itself, it seems important to come to some conclusions on the subject, or else admit that a substantial portion of the church year is being wasted in idle talk.
Perhaps the first thing to remember is that the concepts of Holy Spirit and of the Trinity are not things that were thought up by theologians who had nothing better to do with their time. Rather, they reflect and seek to explain the actual experiences of members of the church.
The visible world needs an explanation for why it exists at all, let alone in the size, detail and complexity that scientists in so many different specialties observe. So we come up with the idea of a Creator. In the man Jesus, we see love, wisdom, forgiveness and spiritual power in a degree never experienced before in humankind, and we believe Him to be divine, and to express the nature of God in so far as human form can do so. In the Holy Spirit, we find those same qualities residing in and among the members of the church. We believe this power also to be divine.
Though many ideas and concepts were tried and discarded in trying to understand what the church had experienced, the explanation that emerged as most satisfactory and was adopted as orthodoxy, was that of three ‘persons’, but ‘one God’. (On this, see the “Creed of Saint Athanasius” in the Book of Common Prayer, page 695.)
That word ‘persons’ is really the key. Drama, and particularly meditation on the sometimes horrific history of their forefathers, was an integral part of the religious festivals of the ancient Greeks. In their theatre, though, the number of players was limited. A single player would play more than one part in the drama by speaking through different masks that he put in front of his face, each mask depicting a different character. The word ‘person’ described the mask through which the voice travelled, ‘per’ meaning ‘through’, and ‘sono’ having the same root as our word ‘sound’. A single actor would therefore speak in different characters, even though it was the same individual behind the various appearances.
So with the Trinity—one God revealing Himself to mankind in three different guises, or ‘persons’. Not three Gods, but one.
And behind these ‘persons’? Simply, as Moses was told by the voice in his encounter with the burning bush in the wilderness: ‘I am what I am.’