Who is the Holy Spirit? He is, of course, God, and he helps us know where God is. But in talking about “where” God is, Christians are forced to retain two equal and (seemingly) opposing truths. We must with one hand cling to God’s transcendence—the doctrine that the triune God is utterly and infinitely beyond creation; and with the other to his immanence—the doctrine that he is utterly and infinitely close to his creation. The Holy Spirit helps us understand the latter.
Once we begin to trace the outlines of God’s immanence, we quickly see that the story of his closeness to the world and to those made in his image is a Spirit story. Why? The answer lies in his distinctiveness among the members of the Trinity. The blazing uncovered glory of the Father does not pair well with human life as we currently experience it—think of Moses begging to see God’s face. “No one may see me and live,” the uncreated One says to the prophet on the holy mountain (Exodus 33:20). The Father’s closeness to creation maintains distance, loving fury veiled in clouds and flashes of lightning, the shrieks of six-winged seraphim rending eardrums and causing us to fall prone, crying like Isaiah that we are undone, (Isaiah 6). We are never allowed to forget his Source-ness, his almighty power and utter authority. His kingship and fatherhood so deep that nothing is outside his decree, all is sourced from his perfections.
The Son, unmade yet eternally begotten, became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, prone to limitations of a human body. That blessed body, Scripture says, sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven even now, at this moment, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. His incarnation is glorious in its chosen limitations, but limited nonetheless.
But the Spirit? He is able to be immanent, close, and intimate in a way that is distinct from the ways the Father and Son can. His presence can be gentle, unbounded by body or place. His omnipresence is perfect, yet his personality and divinity are unquestionable. He is God, the uncreated Creator from before any beginning of beginnings, perfect and transcendent, and yet able to be here in a way of true and gentle love for his people. He may remain hidden, invisible, but it does not diminish his presence or his power. And in him, Creator and Sustainer, we live and move and have our being.
This is not to say that the Trinity has three natures. God is one, and his nature is one. Nor is it to affirm the idea that he takes on different forms in different places. It simply says that the various persons of the Trinity work in different ways, consistent with the one nature and the distinctives of each of the three.
Is the whole Trinity immanent? Yes, but not in the same ways. And it is the Spirit’s ways of immanence that I believe we most often forget, to our great loss.
What do we lose? We lose the capacity for seeing the wonder and wisdom of God in places where we commonly overlook it. We lose the daily holy awareness that in God’s economy there is nothing worthless that he has made. We lose the chance to have the visceral, unspoken realities of embodied life become paths of sanctification and quiet worship for us. We lose the chance for God’s closeness in the world to give holy quiet shape to our inner lives. We lose the chance to know him, even if just a little, by noting his close presence.