The Primacy of the Spirit in Experiencing the Trinity

In certain portions of Scripture, such as the Prologue of John, and in the creeds spelling out the work of the Trinity (such as Nicaea), there is a linear description or an unfolding of the working of the Trinity which allows (indirectly) for subordination of the Spirit. John’s focus on the work of the Logos may seem to privilege the Father and Son, with the Spirit portrayed more as a consequence. So too, the Council of Nicaea was focused on the equality of the Son with the Father and creedal clarification of the Spirit was subsequent to this primary concern. [1] There may be several issues at work in muting a primary role for the Spirit: Paul, who will describe the primacy of the Spirit in Romans, records the difficulty incurred at Corinth when the immature are carried away by both the erotic and emotional excesses of an unbalanced view of the Spirit; the early heresy of Montanism records similar emphasis and excesses that the early church found peculiarly dangerous. Nonetheless, in Scripture and church history the Spirit is accorded full divinity as one of the persons of the Trinity, but in both instances this giving full place to the Spirit is developed in an unabashed conjoining with the erotic and experiential. That is, to understand the equality of the persons of the Trinity, what scriptural and historical precedent calls for is not esoteric abstractions about three in one, but a turn to human experience at its most personal. While the tendency may be to separate out the “high and mighty” things of God from what may be considered the base things of man, the biblical and historical precedent indicates that human sexuality, for example, is not an obstacle but a means of contemplating God. Implicit is the assumption that human experience – the experience of desire, the experience of prayer, the experience of the world, the experience of self, are all part and parcel of right understanding and experience of God. Stated in this way, it is hard to imagine that it could be otherwise. To imagine, as moderns have, that language transports beyond embodied experience and that right understanding can be based on what is not knowable in experience is precisely the fallacy refuted by giving primacy to the Spirit.[2] The Spirit is experience of life in God.

The Incorporating Work of the Spirit

Romans 8, one of the clearest depictions of the work of the Trinity, focuses on the incorporating work of the Spirit, drawing all creation into the life of the Son, bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of the Father (Romans 8:15-16). Using this passage as a guide, the work of the Spirit is given its immediacy, not just in an objective “bringing to mind” of revelation, but bringing about conformity to the substance of life in the Son. Paul’s continual refrain in the opening of chapter 8 is that the embodied realization of the work of the Spirit sets aside fractured experience. In chapter 7 he describes the impossibility of ipseity: his mind and will are disengaged from one another, with his mind, body and ego producing three levels of discordant experience. Chapter 8 resolves the discord depicted in chapter 7.

In place of three discrete realms of experience (the law of the mind, the law of the body, and the experience between these realms), Paul describes the Trinity as bringing about a unified experience. The Spirit unifies desire of the mind and the law of God (what pleases God), while the alienated experience pits one against God and his law (in a necessary hostility), creating the respective experiences of life and peace (in the Spirit experience) and death (in the flesh experience). Life in the Spirit is immediately life and peace and, by the same token, life in the flesh is immediately death (Romans 8:5-8). Just as death is the direct experience of being divided and alienated, so too life in the Spirit is immediate experience of (Abba) the presence of God. So, Paul’s is a prayer-based, embodied, and experiential logic, which is not to say it is experientialism, but it is the experiential realization of the incorporating power of the Spirit.

Sin as Exception to the Law

At the opening of chapter 7 (1-6) Paul uses sex and marriage to describe both alienated and unified experience. A woman who might desire to consort with another man experiences the split Paul describes as existing in himself (later in the chapter). On the one hand, if the woman’s husband is alive and she consorts with another man, this pits her union with her lover against the reality of her living husband. Perhaps Paul has in mind an experience in which “true love” or the “deepest” part of the self is felt to stand outside of the law. Isn’t normal society, with its laws, only an externally imposed norm? Am I supposed to recognize myself in this objectified norm? Isn’t my experience of myself more immediate and doesn’t the standard of the law threaten to interfere with who I am in this immediacy? As Woody Allen explained, after he married his adopted daughter, “The heart wants what it wants.” Being an exception is itself an authentication. The law or social norms cannot account for either true love or the deepest part of self. Aren’t these realms apart from who I am, so it is only in being outside of the law that I arrive at my true self?

This perverse notion of exception, the temptation to transgress to obtain what lies behind the obstacle of the law, is sin.  In the case of Adam and Eve, true knowledge is thought to lie in partaking of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the case of the woman who would consort with another man, true love is posited outside of the law. Throughout the chapter, Paul is playing off the experience of Adam and Eve in their temptation and fall. As displayed in this prototypical sin, sin is to go beyond the law in order to obtain what the obstacle of the law seems to create (true knowledge, true love, an authentic self). In the lie of the serpent, God seems to be tricking Adam and Eve by luring them away from true knowledge with the prohibition. Paul’s description of sin is this transgressive allure which constitutes fallen desire.

The Unity of the Spirit as Suspending the Exception

The point of Christianity is to break free from this notion of an obscene God or a perverse law, always holding out on us. This is not accomplished by thwarting desire but by reordering desire by suspending the perverting effect of the law. In Paul’s description, one must die to the law (7:4) and this is accomplished by a union which extends sexual like incorporation beyond gender and sex: “you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another” (v. 4). The sexual metaphor now depicts consummation of desire through union with Christ, giving rise to conception and birth. The fruit of this labor (in chapter 8 he explicitly appeals to childbirth) is the fruit for God of a new sort of offspring.

In chapter 8 Paul continues to deploy the language of desire (“those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” v. 5), conception (“we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit” v. 23), birth (“groaning as in the pains of childbirth” v. 22), and incorporation into the family of God (“the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship” v. 15) to describe the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who incorporates into the family of the Father, who engenders life in the Son, who draws into the realization of life and peace. The Spirit is not a consequence but the experiential reality of God blended with our spirit (v. 16). The Spirit is simultaneous in our experience with the Son and the Father (“the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” v. 15), and this simultaneity is the basis for recognition of equality of the persons of the Trinity.

This unified experience stands in contrast to the split experience in the body (“this body of death”). In sin the “I think” (the law of the mind) is never joined with the one thinking (the law of the body). In chapter 8, the will of God is is in the immediate experience of the Spirit testifying with our spirit (there is no objectified mediating law). This Spirit draws together what was formerly held apart in the law of the mind, the law of the body, and the experience of death.

Paul’s description of contemplative prayer fills the formerly empty, discordant spaces of self with the persons of the Trinity. The law of the mind is now occupied by the will of the Father, and the alienated body is displaced by the body of Christ, and the cry of death (“who will rescue me from this body of death” (7:24) is displaced by the deep groanings of the Spirit and the cry, “Abba, Father” (8:15).

 The Spirit as God’s Self Bringing to Fulness the Human Self

By focusing on the Spirit and the role of the Spirit in the Trinity, Paul is describing divine ipseity in which God’s Trinitarian Self-hood enables human self-hood. This prayer based ipseity of the Spirit with the Son and the Father is the reflexive reality we enter in prayerful participation in the Trinity: “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (vv. 26-27).

(Registration will open October 11th for the PBI Class on the Holy Spirit. As the catalogue describes, “This module is an advanced theological study of the Holy Spirit as a practical outworking of lived salvation as it looks forward to the telos, or end goal, of the kingdom of God in Christ.” The course will begin October 18th and run through December 17th.)

[1] See Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (p. 101). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] To imagine language is capable of taking us out of embodied experience is the fallacy refuted by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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