I believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. This is how I would formulate this doctrine:
I believe in one God (ousia), who exists eternally in three persons (hypostasis) — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit — all of whom are fully God, all of whom are equal.
Since there is only one God, one member of the Trinity, in his essence, cannot have more power, authority, or dignity than another. They all share in the exact same nature (ousia, ontos, “stuff”). I did not understand this until later in my Christian life. For many years I existed as a functional polytheist (a tritheist, to be technically precise). I believed the three members of the Trinity shared in a similar nature, not the exact same nature. In other words, just like you and I share in the nature of being homo sapiens, so the members of the Trinity are all from the “God species” . . . or something like that. But this is a bad analogy since, though you and I may be the same species, we are different in essence. You are you and I am me. I have my body and you have yours. But in the Trinity, all three persons share in the exact same essence. One in nature; three in person. One what; three whos.
Confused? Good. Anytime you have an “aha!” moment with regard to the Trinity, it is a good sign you have just entered into the world of heresy.
While I don’t believe there is an ontological hierarchy (gradation of essence, or all that stuff I said above), I do believe there can be a hierarchy in person. In other words, one member of the Trinity can take on a different rank than another. I think we can all agree that at the incarnation, this hierarchy presented itself as Father, then Son, then Spirit. After all, even Christ said that the Father was greater than he was (John 14:28). This is sometimes called a “functional hierarchy.” This should not be too difficult to process, as we can see many analogies to this in our own world. For example, President Obama is greater than I am in one respect. He is the President of the United States. Therefore, his position and authority are greater than mine. But he is not greater in essence. Similarly, parents are greater than children in rank. But they are not greater in their being. And (cover your eyes, egalitarians) I believe the Bible presents the husband as having greater authority than his wife. However, he is not greater in his ontos or humanity.
When it comes to the Holy Spirit, I believe the Holy Spirit is last on the divine authority totem pole. The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Holy Spirit, and the Father is sent by none. There is much less said about the Holy Spirit in the New Testament than either the Father or the Son. But as far as honor and dignity, it would seem that Jesus Christ tops them all. When I read the Bible, I am struck by how much Christ is the center of all things. He is the image of God which is seen, the one who becomes incarnate and relates to humanity more than any other, he is the one who calls us friend, he is our intercessor, and he is the one in whom we are to believe for eternal life. In fact, the very name of our faith finds its basis in his name. It is not called Holy Spiritanity or Fatheranity. It is not even called Yahwehanity. It is called Christ-ianity.
Another way to think about it can be illustrated as follows: The first two members of the Trinity have very relational names. We find it easy to relate to the title “Father,” since most of us have an example (though not perfect) through our earthly fathers. So “Father” is endearing. And “Jesus” is a personal name. I figure that he will always go by that handle. And the father may always go by “Father.” But what about the Holy Spirit? “Holy Spirit” is such a distant and (forgive me) cold name. Is that really his name? First name “Holy” last name “Spirit”? Do those who are close to him just call him “Holy,” while everyone calls him “Mr. Spirit”? Maybe in heaven we can get the insider scoop on what his real name is (not Yahweh…that is a Trinitarian name, as they are all Yahweh). Maybe Bob, John, Nate, or Michael. Just something more personal, as I envision having a very distinct relationship with him in the new earth.
My point is this: the Holy Spirit, while having equal power, authority, and diginity as the Father and the Son, and having the same nature as Jesus and the Father, is the least spoken about and recognized of all three members of the Trinity. By the way, before you begin to feel sorry for him, realize this: this is intentional. The Holy Spirit does not seek air time. We often talk about Christ’s humility (and rightly so), but we rarely recognize the Holy Spirit’s humility. His primary purpose is not to get you to recognize him (as deserving as he is), but to recognize Christ.
In the Upper Room Discourse (John 14-17, the most Trinitarian section of the Bible), Christ speaks a lot about sending the Holy Spirit (sometimes called “the Helper” or “the Spirit of Truth”), but notice what the primary goal of the Holy Spirit will be:
“When the Helper [Holy Spirit] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me.”
Did you get that? The all-powerful, omniscient, everlasting creator of all things — the Holy Spirit — will not testify about himself, his glory, and his person, but about Christ, whom the Holy Spirit loves with a greater love than we ccould ever imagine. Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit testify about himself? After all, he has every reason to pat himself on the back and toot his own horn, yet all he wants to talk about is Jesus. Why?
I can’t tell you how the role distinctions were chosen for redemption. It is possible that the Holy Spirit could have been the one who became incarnate and died on the cross. It could have been the Holy Spirit to whom all attention was given. Yet this is not the case. He elected to humble himself to the point of almost non-recognition.
I believe the Holy Spirit is just as much God as the Father and the Son. I believe the Holy Spirit deserves as much honor as the other members of the Trinity. Yet the greatest way for you to honor the Holy Spirit and evidence his work in you is to glorify Christ. What an example He is.
Why is Jesus greater in function than the Holy Spirit? Because that is the way he wants it. Amazing!