I wrote the following in response to a book review published here.
It’s always well-advised to seek a more adequate, thorough understanding of God, as the author Powell has suggested. Trinitarian thought may provide “the basic conceptual framework of a Christian vision of God,” but such a proposition appears more speculative and historical than explicitly scriptural. . . .
[The remainder of this blogpost is a considered expansion on the original response.]
In the NT writings, the expression “the Spirit” (often seen in juxtaposition with God or Christ (i.e., “Spirit of God” or “the Spirit of Christ”) clearly depicts something real and active, but most of the Spirit texts may reasonably be read as referring to the essence/core of God—not necessarily to a third entity. Moreover, simplifying the basic reading of the Greek genitive case to the simplest English possessive form can clarify:
For example. in Rom 8:14, the phrase πνεύματι θεοῦ | pneumati theou is sometimes given in English as follows:
“led by the Spirit of God“
The phrase can become, in an alternate translation,
“led by God’s Spirit” or “led by God’s Essence“
In the first rendering, the Spirit almost seems to jump out as a different entity, but this ontological understanding is not necessary. The Spirit could be a “third,” or this and other passages could simply be dealing in specialized ways with God and not referring to a separate entity per se. One could also reasonably de-capitalize “Essence,” remembering that such explicit “proper noun” differentiation by upper-case lettering was not a part of the earliest manuscripts: “all who are being led by deity’s core essence are ‘sons’ of our deity.”
In using language (and lower-case letters) like that, I am not in any sense intending to de-emphasize or de-elevate thoughts of God. I am only seeking to understand and probe more deeply than typical assumptions and common-market literature allow. I have noticed that some secular labeling frameworks these days (I think here of voice-dictation modules for electronic devices) appear to default to lower-case letters or some other means of ostensibly devaluing the believed-in divine. While that trend bothers me on some level, it doesn’t seem inherently secular or disrespectful to use an expression such as “the essence of deity” or “our father’s holy spirit” or even “the spirit of the christ.”
The presence or absence of capital letters is a surface-level concern. We ought to probe more deeply, considering how we conceptualize the “Spirit.”
The baseline assumption of the orthodox theologian is that “the Spirit of God” is a third “person” of the “Godhead.” (N.B. the quotation marks: these are figurative expressions.)
The common question of mass-marketed pop-Christian literature is “How can I live a ‘Spirit-filled’ life?”
At the root, at least for me, is the proposition of attempting to describe the Indescribable.
And how might people attempt to depict the indwelling, ongoing aspects of the Almighty in our age? Maybe by fashioning a model with multiple entities and/or by attempting to reduce aspects and operations of God to three distinctly labeled partner-beings.
I suggest that (1) “Father,” (2) “Son,” and (3) “Holy Spirit” is an insufficient framework. It is, after all, a superimposed idea, not as biblically based as most people think. God transcends our rational attempts to figure Him out, and I appreciated Bruner’s (the review author) spotlight on Powell’s (the book author) attention on the healthy reality of the mystery that is our God.
In speaking of the so-called Trinity (with capital “T” used advisedly), the late Leroy Garrett has said that he doesn’t want to require of God something that the scriptures do not themselves require. I agree: the “trinity” construct may be a helpful and even unifying framework, but it should not be presented as an end-all, absolute way to understand God.
Do you meet other believers on Sundays and park near a sign that says “Trinity ___ Church”? Maybe you can move beyond the underlying assumption.
Do you sing the third stanzas of songs that address the “Holy Spirit” seemingly out of obligation, or the songs that include the wording “Three in One”? Maybe you can reconsider those.
Trinitarian doctrine has been adhered to through the centuries by most Christian believers, but it is not beyond challenge. Historically, “the church’s understandings have gone awry in so many other instances that we ought to suspect divergence here, too. But there is something more important than the history of Trinitarian thought: its restrictiveness. It is a confining doctrine, placing God in a box rather than moving us to ponder and worship the Infinite.