Thinking about the Trinity is never an easy task; after all, trying to hold onto the unity of substance while simultaneously grasping the plurality of existence is enough to make one’s head spin.
For when we consider an act such as creation, for example, the unity of substance requires us to maintain that such activity is not the provenance of one person over against the others (as if the Father is creator but the Son and Spirit are not) but is an act that pertains to the divine substance, and thus is the activity of the Trinity in unity.
But even more thorny are the economic modes (also known as temporal missions) of the divine persons and how they relate to the unity. For example, the Holy Spirit is given to believers, and within theology is often given the specific attribute of ‘Love’ or the title ‘Love of God.’ Many of the church fathers saw the passage in Romans 5 (God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us) as providing insight into Love as a specific appellation of the Holy Spirit.
But is this appropriate? After all, if God is one, and if the attributes in God are not therefore distinct but simply what God is, then is not ‘Love’ something that could be predicated of the Father and the Son? As the axiom goes: one cannot give what one does not possess.
Given this seeming disjunction, is there a sense in which Love is specifically appropriate to the Holy Spirit?
Although the divine persons will all by necessity possess the fullness of the divine nature (which includes love, per our example), they cannot therefore be distinguished on the basis of any attribute which would be applicable to that nature. However, theology in the Western church has developed an understanding in which each divine person has a ‘personal property’ which distinguishes him from the others. Naturally, this property is not an attribute like love, power, etc., but rather a distinction in relation.
St. Thomas Aquinas more fully developed the notion of a ‘subsisting relation,’ in which a relation (e.g., paternity) is not accidental to a person but, since it is applied to the divine substance, is subsistent:
Now distinction in God is only by relation of origin… while relation in God is not as an accident in a subject, but is the divine essence itself; and so it is subsistent, for the divine essence subsists. Therefore, as the Godhead is God so the divine paternity is God the Father, Who is a divine person. Therefore a divine person signifies a relation as subsisting. And this is to signify relation by way of substance, and such a relation is a hypostasis subsisting in the divine nature, although in truth that which subsists in the divine nature is the divine nature itself. Thus it is true to say that the name “person” signifies relation directly, and the essence indirectly; not, however, the relation as such, but as expressed by way of a hypostasis. So likewise it signifies directly the essence, and indirectly the relation, inasmuch as the essence is the same as the hypostasis: while in God the hypostasis is expressed as distinct by the relation: and thus relation, as such, enters into the notion of the person indirectly. (Summa, 1, Q. 29, A. 4)
In this understanding, the personal properties are thus related to each relation, and the way in which this get explicated varies from author to author, depending on the particular approach they take.
Richard of St. Victor, for example, comes at each relation in so far as it pertains to existence, and specifically as to how each person possesses existence. There is one person who has existence from himself alone (the Father), another who receives existence from another and transmits it to another (the Son), and one person who receives existence without transmitting it (the Holy Spirit). Naturally, Richard’s uses of receiving and transmitting existence is not meant to entail that the Son and the Spirit were brought into existence or created, but rather that the Father is the principle of their existence. He famously makes use of the movement of charity-love to explain this point by way of analogy:
- Charity-love requires that one love and desire to be loved in return
- This going-out-of-oneself of charity-love thus finds its object, who in turn receives it fully and reciprocates
- But in this receiving of charity-love there is the desire to love and be loved in return
- Since both persons are already loved, there needs be another who can be loved and then return that love
In the perfection of charity-love Richard can thus find three relations:
- First person: giving-only
- Second person: giving-receiving only
- Third person: receiving-only
Thus, although the economic modes of the Trinity are not identical to the ontological-relational property which distinguishes each divine person, there is nevertheless an affinity between the personal property and the temporal mission. One might well state that “as one is, so one acts.” (Giles Emery, The Trinity, p. 163.) As it pertains to the Holy Spirit specially as love, “the economy of the Holy Spirit reflects his very being.” (ibid.)
This revealing and reflecting of the Holy Spirit in the world as he is in being cannot, however, be isolated from the act of the love by which the Trinity is in the unity of the divine being. The special affinity towards love which the Holy Spirit possesses as his property is also wrapped up in his relation to the Father and the Son. Within Richard of St. Victor’s parlance, the Holy Spirit is receiving-only love, which is distinct from the giving-love and giving-receiving-love of the Father and the Son and yet, at the same time, the same love in its essence. St. Augustine describes this relation of love in the divine unity:
And if the love by which the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, ineffably demonstrates the communion of both, what is more suitable than that He should be specially called love, who is the Spirit common to both? For this is the sounder thing both to believe and to understand, that the Holy Spirit is not alone love in that Trinity, yet is not specially called love to no purpose. (St. Augustine, De Trinitate, XV.18.32, 19.37)
As that inter-relation of love is poured out into the world, the Holy Spirit is thus specially termed love in regards to his economy:
The Father and the Son love each other and love us by one and the same Love, the Holy Spirit who proceeds and introduces the Church into the Trinitarian Communion. (Giles Emery, The Trinity, p. 158.)
Richard of St. Victor notices a similar relationship between the Holy Spirit and creation, humanity and the church, for the gratuitous love which the Father gives is not a love which can be possessed by us. In fact, all that we have is that which we have received; thus, any love which we give to God is due love, since he first loved us. But even this due love cannot be given by us unless, as Richard says, we are “rearranged according to the Holy Spirit’s property”:
For this, in fact, [the Holy Spirit] is given to humanity, for this he is inspired [to humanity], so that humanity—in the measure in which it is capable—be rear- ranged to the Spirit. After all, this Gift is sent. (Richard of St. Victor, De trinitate, Book 6)
The love which God gives to us is not distinct from his very nature as God, for God is love. Thus, for us to enter into this love requires that we enter into a likeness of the one who is this love. The economy of the Holy Spirit in bringing us into the love of God thus gives us an image of the bond of love that characterizes the Trinitarian communion. The mind-boggling reality of the Holy Spirit’s work in our life is that as we allow him to guide us into God’s love, we are ushered into the love which God ‘experiences,’ as far as we are capable. As I note in my upcoming book:
In a sense, the Holy Spirit is the face of our mode of love within the Godhead. The dependence of our being upon God’s gratuitous love is seen to be in some way analogous to the Holy Spirit’s receiving the fullness of the divine substance from the Father and the Son. As such, the Holy Spirit is a gift both because he receives all he has without giving gratuitously and because he is given to humanity in a similar manner: “This sending is given at the same time and in the same way both from the Father and from the Son, since the Holy Spirit obtains from both [of them] everything that he possesses.” The sheer intimacy of this connection is staggering, for the Holy Spirit has the ‘experience,’ so to speak, of receiving in a way that is fundamentally related to our predicament. While that experience is essentially distinct, it is nevertheless oriented towards humanity so that our union with God is not only made more complete, but rather is made possible at all. Humans whose hearts are infused with divine love by the Holy Spirit are thus ushered into the deepest mystery of all, for they participate in the very sharing of divine love which comprises the divine relations.