Is the Holy Spirit the Love Between the Father and the Son?

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We have a deficiency in the English language when we talk about love, because we only have one word for the word “love.” People can say, “I love chocolate; I love my favorite sports team; I love my car; I love my mom; I love Jesus; I love America"; and each of these are a different kind of love. You do not love your mom the same way you love chocolate and you do not love Jesus the same way you love America. Undoubtedly love is complex, and the English language makes it challenging to be specific in what kind of love we mean when we talk about love in any particular situation. (And now I have given you the subplot of every TV sitcom and and recycled romantic comedy I have ever seen.)

What we mean by love when we use the word matters, because as Christians we hold love in the highest regard. “These three abide: faith, hope, and love,” writes Paul, “and the greatest of these is love.”

Love is the supreme Christian ethic because the God we worship is Love. [tweet this]

We can rightly say God is love, because God is not a stagnant monolith, but a dynamic, self-giving community of persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A common way of thinking about the Trinity is identifying the Father as the lover, the Son as the beloved, and the Holy Spirit as the mutual love between the two. This picture of the Spirit as the mutual love between the Father and Son goes back to Augustine who wrote: “And the Holy Spirit, according to the Holy Scriptures, is neither of the Father alone, nor of the Son alone, but of both; and so intimates to us a mutual love, wherewith the Father and the Son reciprocally love one another" [1].

This view of the Trinity is true enough. God is love. The Holy Spirit is God. So it would seem to follow that the Holy Spirit is love. While I cannot deny the logic of Augustine’s formula, it has always bothered me. It always seemed like this description shrunk the personhood of the Spirit, as if the third person of the Trinity had been reduced to Luke Skywalker’s force or a mystical power under the control of charlatans. I have always raised my eyebrows a bit when the Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, is described as the mutual love between the Father and the Son, and I am not the only one.

Colin Gunton, Trinitarian theologian from King’s College in London, challenged what he calls the “weakness of the traditional Augustinian account of the Spirit” not because this view reduces the personhood of the Spirit, but because it minimizes the missional and eschatological work of the Spirit [2]. Gunton argued, before his untimely death in 2003, for a robust Trinitarian theology that shaped the mission of the church. If the Spirit was merely the reciprocal love from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father, then the Spirit-as-love closes the circle of Trinitarian life.

This kind of love hints at a love that is more self-centered than community-centered, a love that is focused inward instead of outward.

Gunton sees a more missional Spirit in the economy of the Trinity. The Spirit is not the love that binds the Father to the Son; the Spirit is, in Gunton’s words, the “one who perfects the love of God as love in community” [3]. The Spirit present as the means by which creation came into existence, the Spirit who empowered Jesus in the missional life of proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom of God, the Spirit poured out on the church to infuse it with missional life, is the Spirit who enables the Trinity to exist as an ever-opening community of persons. This kind of love is consistent in what we see in the second person of the Trinity. Jesus who comes as a demonstration of the what God is like shows us a love that is ever open to the other.

The Holy Spirit, for Gunton, does not close the Trinitarian circle but opens it. He writes: "the third person of the Trinity is the one whose function is to make the love of God a love that is opened towards that which is not itself, to perfect it in otherness. Because God is not in himself a closed circle but is essentially the relatedness of community, there is within his eternal being that which freely and in love creates, reconciles and redeems that which is not himself” [4].

When we as a church pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit we are asking God to enable us with a missional spirit, so that as a community we would be ever focused on the other, the broken, the forgotten, the overlooked, the marred, and the immoral. We remain open not out of duty but out of a love flowing from the heart of the Trinity.

We remain open to receive those who would come, so they may be transformed by that love.

[1] Augustine, On the Trinity XV.17.24
[2] See Colin Gunton, Theology Through the Theologians, London: T &T Clark, 2000, 126
[3] Gunton, 127
[4] Gunton, 128

(If you are interested in reading more about Gunton's pneumatology, check out Michael Stringer's 2008 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Notre Dame, Australia entitled, "The Lord and Giver of Life: the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the trinitarian theology of Colin E Gunton.") 

[photo: Waiting For The Word]

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2 responses to “Is the Holy Spirit the Love Between the Father and the Son?

  1. You are reducing St. Augustine’s view to a primitive charicature to tear it down. I am reminded when I read things like this why so many of us fled Evangelicalism and Protestantism in general to find orthodoxy, whether it was in Rome or in Constantinople. This analysis seems almost postmodernist; I”m trying not to be harsh but Augustine’s revered because of how utterly brilliant and rich and layered and textured his analyses were, and you reduced this to a child’s understanding almost like the Creationists do to Genesis.

    I’m not going to argue with you anymore but I suggest you start reading some Augustine, or stuff on Augustine from one of those evil old-line orthodox perspectives, since we consider him one of ours truly and for a reason, and not for a superficially described idea of his theology like this.

    (Sorry to be blunt. I’m not hostile so much as impatient. Yours in Christ.)

    1. It was not my aim to either reduce Augustine’s thought or tear him down. Perhaps you took it this way because this a 1,000 word blog and not a 25 page academic essay? I do affirm the truth and logic of Augustine’s view as stated in my blog. Colin Gunton and I are simply pointing out that Augstine’s formula has some weaknesses.

      Pointing out such weaknesses is not at all what fundamentalists do with Genesis. There is no certitude in what I wrote. There is no outright rejection of Augustine or his position. I am doing what theologians do. We build on the work of others be improving on what we perceive are weaknesses or blind spots of those who have gone before us. Christian theology is not a static processes. It is not like everything theologically was settled in the sixth century and we are done. The work of theology continues as we stand on the shoulders of giants like Augustine.

      I have not read De Trinitate, and I should…along with Catholic and Orthodox commentaries. I agree with you there. Although the Orthodox opinion of Augustine is varied. Some Orthodox theologians vehemently oppose Augustine on a number of theological points, including original sin. Protestants (as well as Evangelicals) should have a seat at the table of theology and be able to discuss the work of other theologians. We can do this in a spirit of ecumenical unity…at least, I strive too. All we ask is a little patience.

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