THE HOLY SPIRIT: The Paraclete, A “Person” by Raniero Cantalamessa

Meditations on the Veni Creator

The Paraclete, A

From: Come, Creator Spirit

“Paraclete” is the title that most clearly expresses the personal character of the Holy Spirit.  Using that title, the author of the hymn takes us a decisive step forward in contemplating the Holy Spirit.  If by the term, “Creator,” he affirmed that the Spirit was by nature divine, now by the term “Paraclete” he affirms that the Spirit is also a divine person.  The other titles and symbols of the Spirit – water, fire, love, and the very name Spirit  – might of themselves at the very most convince us that there is “something divine” about the Holy Spirit.  Paraclete, however, is in itself a personal title: it can be attributed only to a person, because it implies both intellect and will.  Grammatically, it is not a neuter like pneuma, “breath,” but masculine, and the corresponding pronoun is “he,” not, “it.”  In the text where John is referring to the neuter pneuma, he writes, “He [ekeinos] will glorify me,” (John 16:14), so showing that he would rather disregard the rules of Greek grammar than be untrue to his notion of the Holy Spirit.

By this we do not intend to imply that John had clearly in mind our own concept of the divine Persons or of the Trinity; all we want to say is that what he had in mind was enough to justify the future faith of the church.  This is an absolutely crucial point on which we cannot allow any uncertainty to remain unresolved.  Otherwise, we will simply not understand anything at all of the Veni Creator, for the whole of the hymn is a cry to a real person, a someone, who is truly able to hear, to “come,” and to “visit.”

In John, the relationship of the Spirit to Jesus is modeled on the relationship of Jesus to the Father.  The Father is the one who testifies to the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the one who testifies to Jesus (John 15:26); the Son does not speak simply on his own account, but says what he has heard from the Father; neither does the Spirit speak simply on his own account, but says what he has heard from the Son (John 16:13).  Jesus glorifies the Father (John 8:49; 17:1) and the Spirit glorifies Jesus (John 16:14).

On this point Paul is in total agreement with John, and we cannot afford not to listen to his testimony as well.  For him, too, the Spirit is not merely an action but also an agent, that is, a principle endowed with intellect and will, who knows what he is doing and chooses freely to do it.  Paul says that the Spirit teaches, bears witness, groans, intercedes, is made sorrowful, knows, desires.  This clear evolution toward a subjective rather than an objective conception of pneuma is confirmed by Paul’s use of triadic formulas like the following: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” (2 Corinthians 13:13). 

Read, as it is right to do, in the light of Matthew 28:19 (“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) and also of the later unfolding of the faith, the triadic formulas indicate a new orientation in the understanding of the revelation concerning the Holy Spirit, linked with revelation concerning the Father and the Son, that is, with the revelation of the Trinity.

There are some who would explain the Holy Spirit in Saint Paul as “a power that is to be identified with the Lord in Glory considered, not as he is in himself, but insofar as he is active in the community.”  This view, however, does not take account of the fact that in the Bible the Spirit is there before the resurrection of Christ, and even before his very incarnation.  Paul calls him, “Spirit of God,” and not simply, “Spirit of Christ,” (see 1 Corinthians 2:11-14).  If, then, the Holy Spirit is to be identified with the risen Lord “insofar as he is active in the community,” how would it be possible to attribute the resurrection itself to the work of the Spirit?   And what could be the meaning of phrases like, “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead,” (Romans 8:11), or, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit,” (1 Corinthians 12:3)?  Do not these expressions presuppose a certain clear distinction between the Spirit and the risen Christ?

Surely enough, there is a very close relationship between the Spirit and the risen Lord.  Paul also uses expressions like, “the Lord is the Spirit,” (2 Corinthians 3:17, immediately followed, however, by, “the Spirit of the Lord”) and “the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit,” (1 Corinthians 15:45).  Nevertheless, these affirmations cannot be taken in isolation from the rest, as if to suggest that Christ is no more than the Spirit incarnate, and the Spirit is no more than Christ spiritualized.  To do this would be to wind theology back to the time of The Shepherd of Hermas and the writings of other authors of the second century that are in fact characterized by a sort of binitarian view that takes account only of two realities: God and God’s Spirit.

The same author states, in the same work:

The metaphysical question concerning the inward relationships between God, the Spirit, and Christ was not of any concern to Paul, and because Paul often uses the term pneuma in a clearly impersonal sense, it would be wrong to take pneuma as Paul’s first choice for referring to the third person of the Trinity.

It is true that Paul often uses pneuma in an impersonal sense, but it is also true that at least as often he uses the term to indicate someone personal, and that is enough to allow us to say that for Paul the Spirit already figured as a personal reality, that is, as someone who is active and who acts with knowledge and in freedom.  How would it be possible, for instance, to deny the personal character of the Spirit in this text: “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses,” (1 Corinthians 12:11)?

The Spirit is not merely a gift, or all the gifts taken as a whole, but the one who distributes gifts “just as the Spirit chooses” and knows what he is doing and that he is doing it.

The same author objects that “the problem of the personality of the pneuma is mistakenly raised, as shown by the simple fact that the term ‘person’ did not exist, either in Hebrew or in Greek.”  This objection is itself “mistakenly raised,” for taken to its logical conclusion it would mean that for Paul neither the Father nor the Son could be said to be “persons,” since Paul did not have access to the concept to be able to apply it to them either.  When we are dealing with something new, hitherto unknown, the lack of a term does not necessarily mean the absence of the corresponding reality.  To maintain the contrary would be tantamount to saying that it was not possible to invent the telephone until we had the word, “telephone,” and knew what it meant.  This holds true in a special way as far as the concept, “person,” or, “hypostasis,” is concerned because, insofar as these terms mean something distinct from “substance,” they did not exist in any culture until Christian thinkers began reflecting on what Jesus had revealed of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and discovering what this revelation implied.  If this fact is not recognized, it is simply not possible to explain how or why the new concept “person” ever arose or why it was developed.

We can therefore say that in Paul, and in the New Testament, we do not yet find the concept or the term “person” applied to the Holy Spirit (as, for that matter, we do not find it applied to the Father or to Jesus Christ), but the corresponding reality is clearly there.  Pneuma is no longer seen merely as a principle or sphere of action, as was the case in Hebrew thought, and neither was it any longer seen as a kind of fluid substance, as was the case for the Greeks, but it was now also seen as an agent, as one, distinct from any other, and who acts on his own account.  The Greek Fathers would later give expression to this discovery of faith, saying that the Holy Spirit was not merely a “divine energy,” but an “active substance” or a “substantial agent” possessing will and intellect.

“It is one who generates and another who is generated: one who sends and another who is sent.”  This principle that serves as basis for holding that Father and Son are distinct persons holds true also of the relationships between the Spirit and the Father, and the Spirit and the Son: “It is one who proceeds and others from whom he proceeds; those who send are other than the one who is sent.”

However, one thing is true.  When we use the term, “person,” of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we have to be careful to free the word of the meaning we commonly give it.  Applied to the Holy Spirit, the term, “person,” does not mean a center of action complete in itself, an agent independently conscious of self, in the modern sense; it signifies only the relationships-of-origin that “contrast” or distinguish the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as among themselves.  This, however, does not allow us to come to the conclusion that, “concerning the notion of person in Trinitarian theology, it makes no difference whether the Spirit is represented as a person who speaks and who acts (in the usual sense), or as an impersonal force.”  On the contrary, it is precisely the fact that the Spirit speaks and acts that allows us to be sure of the kind of relationship the Spirit has with the Father and the Son.  On the other hand, if a person in the Trinity is not simply an autonomous center of action and of will, he does participate nevertheless in that unique center common to the Three Persons, and in that sense is capable of acting and willing: “The creative will and the activity of the divine being are common to all Three Persons, but they belong to each one in a way that is special to each.”

From the time of Athanasius, one thing has been clear and commonly accepted in the Christian understanding of the Trinity: Either it is homogeneous or there is in fact no Trinity.  It cannot possibly be made up of two persons and one thing, or (in the language of the Greeks) of two hypostases and one energy.  For then there would be no Trinity but only a complex of beings of different kinds.

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