Who is the Holy Spirit?

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In his 2008 address to young people at World Youth Day, Pope Benedict XVI suggested that the Holy Spirit is “in some ways the neglected person of the Blessed Trinity,” adding that a clear understanding of the Spirit “almost seems beyond our grasp.” One can certainly understand the reasoning behind the pontiff’s theological “hot take”: Father and Son are relational terms that are easily understood; the language that the Scriptures ascribe to the Spirit’s person and work varies considerably (wind, breath, fire, water, tongues, etc.); and it remains difficult to sketch a systematic account of that which is called “Spirit.” It’s easy to see how one could get lost in the theological weeds with discussions on the Spirit.

But this is not to suggest that the Church has been silent on the issue altogether. Rather, the Christian archive is replete with substantial reflections on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, some of the more significant contributions being St. Basil’s De Spiritu Sancto, St. Augustine’s De Trinitae, and of course the Athanasian Creed (a topic covered in this post: http://edod.org/theology-matters/what-is-the-athanasian-creed/).[i]

Our own Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, 1979 answers the question—“Who is the Holy Spirit?”—with the concise but wonderfully dense answer—“The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, God at work in the world and in the Church even now” (p. 852). This succinct definition summarizes what the Church has said about the Spirit’s work ad intra and ad extra, i.e. how the Spirit relates to the Father and the Son within the LORD’s self, and how the Spirit relates to creation. First, it’s important to note, as I’m sure other blog posts on the topic have done, that the Spirit is not called “third” in order to designate a lesser status for the Spirit. Rather, the Holy Spirit is “consubstantial, co-equal, and co-eternal with, the Father and the Son, and in the fullest sense God.”[ii] The Spirit is the LORD, just as the Father is the LORD and is the LORD.

Second, the Catechism’s definition helpfully associates who the Spirit is with what the Spirit does—“God at work in the world.” The Catechism is thoroughly Augustinian in this regard, as Augustine highlighted several key insights into the relatedness of the Spirit’s person and work. In both his study on the First Epistle of John and the Trinity (De Trinitate), Augustine contends that the Holy Spirit is abiding love itself. While it is certainly the case that John’s words “God is love” refer to Godhead as a whole, Augustine suggests that it also represents a “particular characteristic of the Holy Spirit.”[iii] In his study of 1 John 4:16 (“whoever abides in love remains in God and God in him”), he further expounds on this pneumatological delight: It is the Spirit that makes us “remain in God and God in us; yet it is love that effects this. The Spirit therefore is God as love!”[iv]

 Another way in which the person of the Spirit spills over into, and is intimately connected with, the work of the Spirit is notion of the Spirit as unity. His reasoning goes something like this: The two words “holy” and “spirit” denote the divinity of God, which is shared by the Father and the Son, i.e. their communion. Since, therefore, the distinctive characteristic of the Holy Spirit is to be what is shared between the Father and the Son, it can be said that the Spirit’s particular quality is unity.[v] It is this “Spirit as unity” about which St. Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 12: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” It is by the Spirit that Christians are united to one another and to Christ.

Finally, Augustine suggests that the Gospel of John reveals the Holy Spirit as “God’s gift” in Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman.[vi] Jesus tells the woman that he will give living water which will result in eternal life.[vii] Several chapters later, the Gospel tells us that this living water is actually the Spirit, whom Jesus was to send after his ascension.[viii] Augustine therefore concludes that the Holy Spirit is the LORD sharing the LORD’s Self with us as gift.[ix]

These characteristics of the Spirit, elucidated by Augustine—Spirit as love, Spirit as unity, Spirit as gift—remind us that God is at work in the world, so that the world would be reconciled to Him, and that we might be “knit together in love.”[x]



[i] I would commend them all to your study, dear reader, as they will doubtless enrich your theology and vivify your worship.

[ii] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3 rev. ed.), ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston, Oxford University Press, 2005.

[iii] “VIGIL WITH THE YOUNG PEOPLE: ADDRESS OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT” XVI,” http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2008/july/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080719_vigil.html

[iv] De Trinitate, 15.17.31

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.; De Trinitate, 15, 18, 32

[vii] John 4:4-26

[viii] John 7:39.

[ix] Vigil.

[x] Colossians 2:2

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Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.