Spring 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 9-18.

Barbara Finan:
      The Holy Spirit: An Issue in Theology

If Christian theology is to be adequately Trinitarian, it must attempt to identify the unique mission of the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is personally present in creation.

Sister Finan, O.P. (Columbus), is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Marquette University currently writing a dissertation on Rahner's pneumatology.

Two mistakes are to be avoided in attending to the mystery of the Holy Spirit -- or any mystery of faith. On the one hand, we may attempt to bracket our spiritual life in the pursuit of "pure" theological reflection. But theology which seeks to operate outside the dimension of lived faith eventually ossifies into some game of words. On the other hand, we may subscribe to the false notion that "all that theoretical stuff" contains no practical implications for the life of faith. Authentic theology, however, is not only from faith; it is also -- and perhaps more significantly -- for faith. Our hearts are, as Augustine said, to remain restless until they rest in God. Essays and tomes about God are meant to intensify that holy restlessness, as is this overview of concerns in recent thought about the Holy Spirit.

Even a brief survey of recent literature on the theology of the Holy Spirit indicates that theologians are now (and have been from the earliest days of theological reflection) dissatisfied with their attempts at understanding the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Seldom does one read an article or a book on the Holy Spirit in which the author does not refer to this lacuna in Christian theology. J. Patout Burns and Gerald M. Fagin, for example, begin their study of the Holy Spirit in the writings of the fathers of the church with the statement: "Contemporary interest in the Spirit has highlighted again the oft-bemoaned neglect of the Spirit in the reflection of the Christian community, especially in the Western tradition."(1) In like manner, Kilian McDonnell recounts numerous "bemoanings" in his "A Trinitarian Theology of the Holy Spirit?" and says somewhat sardonically that "anyone writing on pneumatology [theology of the pneuma, the Greek word for spirit] is hardly burdened by the past."(2)

Various reasons are suggested for this forgetfulness or neglect of the Spirit. If the Spirit's role in salvation is to unite us to Jesus and thereby to lead us to the Father, then it is natural, say some theologians, for us to concentrate, not on the Spirit, but on the other divine persons.(3) The Spirit's own self-forgetfulness or kenosis is, perhaps, an underlying cause for our own inattention. The Spirit functions not so much as a dialogue partner, and thus as an Other to whom we attend, but more as dialogue's inspiration. As the one in whom we are joined to Jesus and thus enabled to address the Father, the Spirit becomes for us the horizon within which we recognize that Jesus is the incarnate Word of the Father. The Spirit enables us to attend to the Father's self-revelatory coming in Jesus. It is therefore understandable that theological reflection has centered on the person of Jesus as the revelation of the Father. Attention, however, to the unique role of the Spirit in the self-communication of the Father through the incarnate word could serve to intensify our appreciation of the trinitarian character of the divine self-gift.


Kilian McDonnell claims that the primary reason for theology's failure to deal adequately with pneumatology is its lack of a bold Trinitarian theology. "Within Trinitarian doctrine, whether economic or immanent," says McDonnell, "it is a lack, in one way or another, of a sense of proprium,"(4) that is, we are reluctant to admit that the Spirit has a role in salvation which belongs to the Spirit alone, and that the Spirit can be understood according to its own unique way of existing. We hesitate to take seriously the Trinitarian doctrine that the Spirit is other than (even though one with) the Father and the Son. We have carefully assigned what belongs uniquely to each, but have failed to do the same for the Spirit.

Too much stress on the uniqueness of the sending-forth of the Son and the Spirit could result in the misleading impression that the God-beyond (the Father) gives the divine self to us in the separate works of the Son and the Spirit. On the other hand, too much stress on the unity of the divine work outside the divinity itself can result in the misleading impression that the God-beyond gives self to us in the indistinguishable missions of the Son and the Spirit. The latter misconception easily leads to the implicit affirmation of a two-personed God who is both beyond and near, or to a Unitarian God whom we call Father, Son, or Spirit only because this one God reveals the divine self in three modes.(5)

As Karl Rahner noted several years ago, many of us are, despite our orthodox confession of the Trinity, almost unitarians. "We must be willing to admit," he said, "that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged."(6) The underlying cause, claimed Rahner, is exactly that which McDonnell is describing: we have failed to give appropriate attention to the specific, unique sendings of the Son and the Spirit. Rahner identifies these two distinct (yet mutually conditioning) moments of the Father's self-communication as the two principal chapters of Trinitarian theology. Insofar as they constitute the Father's self-communication outside the divinity, the missions constitute what is called the "economic" Trinity, that is, the Trinity as manifested in creation and redemption. The Father is among us in Jesus the incarnate Son and in the holy ones gifted by the Spirit. Thus our theologies of the economic Word (Christology), and the economic Spirit (pneumatology, or theological anthropology) are the distinct, yet mutually conditioning, chapters of Trinitarian theology.(7)

If Christian theology is to be adequately Trinitarian, therefore, it must attempt to identify the unique mission of the Spirit. What can that mission proper to the Spirit be? Can the gift of sanctifying grace, which is commonly only "attributed" to the Holy Spirit, be understood as the effect of the Spirit's own peculiar mission? Is the singular sending of the Holy Spirit the condition of possibility for the unique relations of the Father and the Son to graced persons? Is the Spirit sent into our hearts precisely in order to unite us to Jesus and lead us through him to the Father?

While theology grapples with the question of the particular role of the Spirit, it must also be concerned with that role's Christological and Trinitarian implications. How are we to understand the influence on one another of the work of the Son and the Spirit in creation and humanity? How does our understanding of that mutuality affect our understanding of the identity of the Spirit within the Godhead itself, in the "immanent" Trinity in contrast to the "economic" Trinity?

We cannot answer all these questions here, but we can consider some of what is being said in response to them and ask ourselves what all this might mean for us as we attempt to live more fully in the Spirit's presence and power.


Western Christian theology has stressed the divine activities in the realms of nature and grace. It has emphasized the related doctrine of "appropriation," that is, "attributing" to one or another divine person an activity or effect common to all those persons through the one divine nature. The result has been the neglect of the proper missions of the Son and the Spirit.(8) Although theology has never denied that only the Logos entered into what is called the hypostatic (or personal) union with the humanity of Jesus, that fact has not been a controlling datum for Christology. If, however, the God of our salvation is the eternal Triune God, and if that God's self-communication in the sending of the Son and the Spirit is truly the communication of God's triune self in its diversity of persons (yet unity of nature), then the fact that the Logos (and neither the Father nor the Spirit) entered into a hypostatic union with the humanity of Jesus is not insignificant. The Son is a divine person in a way other than the way of either the Father or the Spirit. The manner of being person that is the Son's is such that, if the Son is sent by the Father, then the Son must become incarnate and enter into what Christology calls the hypostatic union with the humanity of Jesus. The humanity of Jesus, furthermore, is not some previously existing reality which is joined to the person of the Word by some external bonding, but is that reality which comes to be precisely as the created effect of the Son's mission.

Something similar occurs when the Spirit is sent. The sending of the Spirit by the Father results in a hypostatically or personally special (although non-unitive) relation of the Spirit with the graced person. Analogous to the humanity of Jesus, which comes to be as the created effect of the Son's mission, is the gift of created grace, which comes to be as the created effect of the Spirit's mission.(9)

David Coffey in "The Gift of the Holy Spirit," a critique of Rahner's occasional (yet significant) suggestion that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit communicate themselves to us in grace, maintains that the general tenor of Rahner's theology calls for a unique role of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying grace.(10) Coffey claims that sanctifying grace must be understood as the gift precisely of the Holy Spirit. The uncreated gift that is bestowed upon graced persons is the Holy Spirit. This identification of sanctifying grace with the Holy Spirit does not negate the fact that the Father and the Son also dwell within graced persons nor that the gift of the Spirit results in a created effect, namely, holiness or created grace.

There is created holiness, created grace. The reality of created grace, however, is not to be confused with its cause or condition, the gift of the Holy Spirit (uncreated grace). There is no need to abandon the notion that sanctifying grace is precisely the gift of the Holy Spirit because the gift of the Spirit is other than its created effect, that is, holiness or sanctifying grace as received. The gift of the Holy One effects holiness.

Identifying the gift of sanctifying grace as the proper mission of the Holy Spirit does not mean that only the Holy Spirit dwells with graced persons; graced persons enjoy the indwelling presence of the Father and the Son as well as the indwelling presence of the Spirit. The Father and the Son are present in graced persons, how ever, not because Father and Son are sent, but because the Spirit is sent. The Father sends, but cannot be sent. The Son is sent; but when the Son is sent, the proper created effect is Jesus, not grace. That is not to say, however, that the Father and the Son do not "come" to the graced person. They come, but their coming is in Virtue of the mutual indwelling of the divine persons.(11) The gift of notifying grace is a Trinitarian gift, then, precisely because it is the effect of the unique mission of the Spirit. The union of graced persons with the Father and the Son is thus only analogous to graced persons' union with the Holy Spirit.


The gift of the Spirit is also the gift of the Spirit of Jesus. When we say that the missions of the Son and the Spirit are "mutually conditioning," we claim not only that each is impossible alone, but also that each is the condition and consequence of the other. There is no experience of the Spirit that is not somehow the experience of Christ; there is no experience of Christ that is not mediated by the Spirit.(12) Both pneumatologists and Christologists have become increasingly conscious of the need to develop Christologies which take this mutuality more seriously.

John O'Donnell has described this current interest in the relation of Jesus and his Spirit as the result, in part, of contemporary sensitivity to the influence of the model used in thinking about Christ.(13) The model of the incarnate Word, although normative for Christian faith, is no longer considered sufficient. Biblical studies make it clear that Jesus was initially understood, not only in this predominantly Johannine way, but in terms of other concepts and images as well. One of the most obvious and potentially fruitful of these images is that of Jesus as the Anointed One of the Spirit: Jesus the Christ.

Before the Council of Chalcedon (451), there was a "Spirit Christology." It focused primarily on the experience of Jesus as anointed by the Spirit. But this Christology was short-lived and ill fated. Philip Rosato, in his essay "Spirit Christology: Ambiguity and Promise," has shown, however, that theology must revitalize the positive thrust of this pre-Chalcedonian Christology which avoiding its denial of who Jesus Christ is in his very being.(14) Today's Spirit Christology need not reduce Jesus to being merely an adopted son of God.

Christologies based on the incarnate Logos model may be appropriate explanations of the significance of Jesus; our appreciation of the significance of Jesus for salvation, however, requires the added awareness of Jesus' experience of the Spirit. Jesus' absolute uniqueness as the incarnate Word of the Father must be correlated with Jesus' universal significance. The latter, however, is made possible only by the Spirit of the Father. The saving significance of Jesus rests on the unity of the distinct missions of the Word and the Spirit. Attention to the person and mission of Christ, therefore, necessarily implies scrutiny of the person and mission of the Spirit.

One way to visualize this Christological and pneumatological issue is to ask: Who is central, the Spirit or Christ. Kilian McDonnell has criticized the efforts of some to explain the mutual (yet distinct) centrality of the Son and the Spirit as two loci of an ellipse. Such a model, says McDonnell, too easily overemphasizes the distinction between the mutually conditioning missions of Son and Spirit and thus may unwittingly lead to the notion of three Gods rather than one God redeeming humanity. McDonnell suggests that we visualize the two missions "as two circles of equal size and 'depth,' which only appear to be superimposed on one another to the point where they seem to be one, but are in reality unmixed and without confusion, forming one geometric reality . . in a way reflective of the unity and diversity proper to God."(15) Son and Spirit -- each is central, but each is central in a unique way. "If Jesus Christ is the 'what," says McDonnell, "the Spirit is the 'how.'"(16) The pattern of liturgical prayer, which is addressed "to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit," is a daily reminder of the mutual, yet distinct, centrality of both the Spirit and the Son. The mission of each lies at the heart of our experience of the Fathers saving love.

If the missions of Son and Spirit outside the Godhead are mutually conditioning, and if these external activities reveal and communicate what is within the divinity, then are not the processions of Son and Spirit within the divine being also mutually conditioning? Dare we speak of a spirituque which complements the filoque? Our theologies of the divine processions (at least in the West) undoubtedly affirm that the Son "leads to" the Spirit and that the Spirit is "inexplicable" without reference to the Son. Those theologies, however, may not be sufficiently attentive to the fact that the Spirit "leads to" the Son and that the Son is "inexplicable" without reference to the Spirit. If we take seriously the fact that the mission of the Spirit is not only the consequence but also the precondition of the mission of the Son, then we must also ask what this mutual conditioning implies for the divine processions within the depths of the Godhead.

"A Spirit proceeding from (rather than to) the Son in eternity," says Alasdair Heron, "squares ill with a Spirit coming upon, being received by, and then given from the Son in history."(17) We usually think of the Father's first sending the Son, and of the Spirit's being sent later (within the context of the incarnation) as the completion, as it were, of the mission of the Son. It is better, perhaps, says Frederick Crowe, if we reverse this pattern and think of the Son bringing to completion (and explicitation) the work of the Father which was begun in the mission of the Spirit.(18) The visibility of the Son, although we may know it first, is not necessarily the first reality, suggests Crowe. The mission of the Spirit correlates with the universal call to salvation and with the Father's foundational gift of Love; the mission of the Spirit reaches its completion, however, only in the absolute offer of salvation who is the Father's incarnate Word. The two missions, of course, must be seen in their mutual conditioning if we are not to subordinate the "second" to the "first" or the "condition" to the "climax." The two distinct missions are of equal significance for our salvation, just as both the Son and the Spirit are equally (although distinctively) divine.

Crowe's suggestion would seem to be compatible with Rahner's claim that "it is permissible to approach Christology from a universal pneumatology and not only to proceed in the opposite direction, so that Jesus Christ appears as the unsurpassable peak of a universal history of grace."(19) Rahner more obviously than Crowe, however, sees the reversal of the missions as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, our usual pattern of thinking about the two missions. If it is valid to consider the mission of the Spirit not only as the consequence but also as the condition of the sending of the Son, and if the economic Trinity (God's historical activity) is not to be separated from the immanent Trinity (God's internal being), then we must be prepared to rethink the order of the eternal processions. "Must room not somehow be found," Heron provocatively asks, "to affirm a double relationship between the Son and Spirit which is as ultimate in the life of God as in the work of salvation?"(20)

It is impossible to consider the role of the Holy Spirit in the mysteries of salvation and not to wonder how deeply we have welcomed the Spirit into our own life of faith. We are led to ask whether we are as forgetful of the Spirit as Christian theology has tended to be. How frequently, for example, do we address the Father in our personal prayer "in the name of Jesus" and fail to articulate our belief that such prayer is enabled by the personal presence and power of the Spirit? Are we as Trinitarian in our everyday prayer life as we claim to be in our liturgical confessions of faith? Is our life of faith centered on both Jesus and the Spirit? Are we as sensitive to the fact that we are saved only in the Father's gift of the Spirit of Jesus as we are to the fact that the Father's gift of salvation is ours only through Jesus' death and resurrection?

A major concern of current reflection on the Holy Spirit is the desire to express the mutuality of the missions of the Son and the Spirit in a manner which respects both the absolute centrality of the Christ event and the absolute equality of the two missions. If the sending of the Spirit is not as important as that of the Son, the doctrine of the Trinity collapses. That is not to say, however, as Kilian McDonnell has so carefully noted, that the doctrine of the Spirit constitutes "a second theological focus in the sense of a second theological body of knowledge alongside Christology."(21) The Spirit operates at the center of the Christological moment, at the center of Christian spirituality. Sensitivity to the presence and power of the Spirit in one's life in Christ deepens one's appreciation of the presence and power of Christ; it does not add a second "Spiritual" experience. To live in the Spirit is to live in the Spirit of Jesus. When our passion for the Spirit does not intensify our longing for Jesus, something is wrong.

A final point. The theology of the Holy Spirit is the theology of the Spirit of Jesus who is sent by the Father. The Spirit lives forever in the hearts of those graced by the Father's self-gift. If we are to appreciate the unique personal presence of the Spirit in creation and thus come to understand more deeply the person of the Holy Spirit, then we must be particularly sensitive to the mystery of grace in the lives of believers. Pneumatology is inseparable from theological anthropology. It is as impossible to know the Spirit while bracketing the communion of saints as it is impossible to know the Son of the Father while bracketing Jesus. The humanity of Jesus and the entire order of graced creation are our eternal entree to the glory of the Father.

  1. J. Patout Burns and Gerald M. Fagin, The Holy Spirit, Message of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1984), p. 11.
  2. Kilian McDonnell, "A Trinitarian Theology of the Holy Spirit?" Theological Studies 46 (1985): 191.
  3. See, for example, Burns and Fagin, pp. 11-12, and Yves M. J. Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, vol. 1, trans. David Smith (New York: The Seabury Press, 1983), pp. vii-viii and 159-66.
  4. Ibid., p. 214.
  5. See, for example, Cyril Richardson, The Doctrine of the Trinity (New York: Abingdon Press, 1958), pp. 145-46, and G. W. H. Lampe, God as Spirit, 1976 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 116, 118.
  6. Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (London: Burns and Oates, 1970), pp. 10-11.
  7. Ibid., p. 120.
  8. For a detailed treatment of the following discussion see Rahner, The Trinity, pp. 24-33. 9 Ibid., p. 100.
  9. David Coffey, "The Gift of the Holy Spirit," Irish Theological Quarterly 38 (1971): 221.
  10. Coffey uses the notion of "divine formal causality" in order to explain the sending of the Spirit; he uses the doctrine of circumincession or perichoresis to explain the concomitant coming of the Father and the Son. See pp. 206-11 and 220.
  11. Heribert Muhlen, "Das Christusereignis als Tat des Heiligen Geistes," Mysterium Salutis 3/2 (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1969), pp. 514-15 cited by McDonnell, "A Trinitarian Theology," p. 206.
  12. John O'Donnell, "Theology of the Holy Spirit, I: Jesus and the Spirit," The Way 23 (1983): 48.
  13. Philip J. Rosato, "Spirit Christology: Ambiguity and Promise," Theological Studies 38 (1977): 435.
  14. McDonnell, "A Trinitarian Theology," p. 210.
  15. Ibid., p. 215.
  16. Alasdair I. C. Heron, The Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), p. 177. Emphasis deleted.
  17. Frederick E. Crowe, Son of God, Holy Spirit, and World Religions: The Contribution of Bernard Lonergan to the Wider Ecumenism, Chancellors Address, no. 2 (Toronto: Regis College, 1984), p. 8.
  18. Karl Rahner, "Foundations of Christian Faith," Theological Investigations, vol. 19, (New York: Crossroad, 1983), p. 10.
  19. Heron, The Holy Spirit, p. 177.
  20. McDonnell, "A Trinitarian Theology of The Holy Spirit," p. 226.