The anonymity of the Holy Spirit

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

The anonymity of the Holy Spirit

Jan. 6, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0425}

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An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

The ecumenical church acknowledges that the triune God is an ineffable mystery, but it especially acknowledges the mystery of the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the teaching that there is one God who is three persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct, but dwell in an incommunicable unity. St. Basil routinely refers to Father, Son and Holy Spirit as "a community of essence." Each person is God in equal glory, and none is subordinate, although there is an order in the Triune God since the Father is the "cause" of the other persons, the Son being begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father.

In God's revelation to us, the Father and the Son are knowable to us in ways that the Spirit is not. In the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, we are able to perceive rather clear distinctions between the Father and the Son, for it is to the Father that Jesus as the incarnate Son prays.

The Eastern theologian Vladimir Lossky speaks of "a certain anonymity" that characterizes the third person of the Trinity.

Consider the name of the Holy Spirit. It does not clearly distinguish the third person of the Trinity since the words "holy" and "spirit" refer to the triune God and not merely to one person.

The anonymity of the Spirit helps explain why the doctrine of the third person was developed by the church at a later stage than its doctrines of the Father and the Son. The first creeds of the churches ended simply with, "I believe in the Holy Spirit." It was not until the middle of the fourth century that the church was forced to say more about the Holy Spirit to correct the heresy that the Spirit is a creature rather than God. The full creedal affirmation of the Holy Spirit is what we call the Nicene Creed, adopted in A.D. 381 (probably based upon a creed used in Constantinople by Gregory of Nanzianzus).

The witness of the Scriptures is that the Spirit is known more in the Spirit's work of salvation than in the Spirit's place in the Trinity. The Spirit is "the giver of life" who proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son following his life, death and resurrection. The Spirit is God present in power to make known Jesus Christ; to constitute the church; to dwell in each believer to effect faith, repentance, new birth and holiness; and to consummate the new creation. You might say the Spirit chooses to be anonymous because the Spirit does not want to draw attention to himself (or herself, as the ancient orthodox Syrian Christians would say) because the work of the Spirit is to take what is Christ's and declare it to us (John 16:14). United Methodist theologian Albert Outler describes the Holy Spirit as "God the Unobtrusive."

The glory of the Holy Spirit is that the Holy Spirit is perfectly given with no limits. If the son "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (Philippians 2:7), then how much more superabundantly does the Spirit empty himself for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world! The Spirit is the self-emptying of God because of love in its infinity.

To know the Holy Spirit in his anonymity — in his presence as sheer, infinite donation of love — is the source of our praise, gratitude and joy. What matters is the opening of ourselves even more fully as a community and as persons to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The revelation of the Holy Spirit is known precisely in the Spirit's anonymity, which is the Spirit's mission to present Jesus Christ to us and give us all of the blessings of the love of God offered once and for all in the coming of Jesus Christ.


This article relates to Christian Doctrine/The Trinity.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.

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