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Echo & Narcissus: Why Does the God Need the Holy Spirit?


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Ah, the Trinity!

Writing about the Trinity is theological Kobayashi Maru.

Yes Sheldon, I am.

I’ve been reading Sarah Croakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (although I think ‘deep, meaty, what-the-heck-are-you-talking-bout book’ might be a better way to describe it than ‘essay’!)

One of the underlying questions is why God is three? Why not simply stick to a duality between Father and Son? Obviously Scripture reveals the Spirit is truly God and the Councils of the Church confirm this. We also know to that we need the Holy Spirit but why does God need God the Holy Spirit?

We often think of the Spirit as simply the Third (and frankly least important) Person of the Trinity. There’s the more important Father-Son relationship. And then there’s the Spirit… who does “stuff.” I love Krista from Daily Theology’s description:

As a kid, I found the idea of Spirit very confusing… For a while I thought the Holy Spirit was a dove – literally a dove, as the pictures portrayed. The dove idea didn’t last long, though. I saw plenty of fathers and sons walking around, but I never saw any doves, at least not of the pure white variety that appeared in the Son’s hands in Church iconography.

One of these is not like the others...

One of these is not like the others…

In many ways, this is understandable. Christianity is all about how Jesus comes as the Son of God, the Son of the Father and by His life, death and resurrection redeems us from sin and makes us children of God. And then there’s the Holy Spirit… who does “stuff.”

We instinctively think of the Spirit as the result of the already existing Father-Son relationship. Sarah Croakley writes,

“The Holy Spirit cannot be a mere ‘third’. The Spirit cannot be an add-on, an ‘excess’, or a ‘go-between’ to what is already established as a somehow more privileged dyad (the Father and the Son). Instead, the Holy Spirit is intrinsic to the very make-up of the Father-Son relationship from all eternity…”

Yet, I want to suggest that the Spirit is as much the source of the Father and the Son as the Father and the Son are the source of the Trinity. (Warning: potential heresy icebergs ahead!)

Think about Narcissus. In Greek mythology, Naricussus was an incredibly beautiful man. He was lured by Nemesis, the goddess of revenge to a pool of water. There, he saw his reflection and fell in love with it, not realising that it wasn’t real. When he finally did, he despaired and committed suicide… or became a flower.

Many of us know the story but what we often forget is that the reason Narcissus was punished by Nemesis was for rejecting the advances of Echo. She was a nymph who herself had been punished by Hera to only repeat the last word: to be an echo.

In this myth, I see the way a lot of Christians, myself included, think about the Holy Trinity. The Father who loves His own image, the Son, and then the Echo of the Spirit off to the side… doing “stuff.”

Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903

Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903

Narcissism is a truly vile thing. Interestingly, it sometimes called having a God complex. Yet, such self-absorption is the opposite of who God is, not simply because God is not one, but also because God is not two.

Without the Spirit, the rapt gaze of the Father and Son would be all-encompassing. Like Narcissus, it would be static and dominating. It would be binary. Binaries create opposites. Although quite useful for computers and the like, binaries trap the Other.

The I is defined by what the You is not and thus, opposition would lie at the heart of God. 

This is not the Trinity

The Spirit, however, interrupts this gaze. We can almost imagine the reflection of Narcissus turning towards Echo in love…

Rather than a mere image who is eternally begotten and eternally swallowed up as the Other, the Son receives a distinctive relational personhood by eternally spirating the Holy Spirit from the Father. Thus, by interrupting this gaze, the Spirit distinguishes the Father and the Son, making the Father truly Father and the Son truly Son. At the same time, the Spirit binds and encircles this gaze, uniting the Three in One.

You follow?

The Spirit proceeds from the Father and through the Son. The Son is begotten by the Father through the Spirit. The Father is distinguished by the Spirit through the Son.

If God were simply Father and Son, God would not be Love but because there are Three, both the solitariness of the One and the narcissism of the Two is averted. Three requires constant movement: a mutual out-pouring and in-dwelling that creates unity in trinity and trinity in unity.

Indeed, Narcissus and Echo is replaced by the another image from Greek mythology, that of the Three Graces.

Three Graces from Primevera, Sandro Botticelli, 1482

Three Graces from Primevera, Sandro Botticelli, 1482

Traditionally, the Trinity is conceived in strictly hierarchical terms. The Father begets the Son and, through the Son, spirates the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is invariably thought of as the end of the Trinity, so much so that Duns Scotus argued for the infecundity or infertility of the Spirit! (Don’t worry, no one listened to him.)

Far from being infertile, the Spirit “creates” the Father and Son. The only way to truly guard the hypostatic integrity of the Spirit and thus of the Trinity is if:

  • The Father “makes” the Son and the Spirit.
  • The Son “makes” the Spirit and the Father.
  • The Spirit “makes” the Father and the Son.

These “makings” are all different and while we want to maintain, in a sense, that the Father is the source of the Trinity, in another sense the Spirit is the Source and so is the Son. After all, how can the Father love without the Spirit who is Love or how can the Spirit be Love without the Son who is loved?

As Thomas Weinandy in his book The Father’s Spirit of Sonship: Reconceiving the Trinity puts it:

A proper understanding of the Trinity can be obtained only if all three Persons, logically and ontologically, spring forth in one simultaneous, nonsequential, eternal act in which each Person of the Trinity subsistently defines, and equally is subsistently defined by, the other Persons. The Trinity is one simultaneous and harmonious act by which the Persons are who they are, and they are who they are only in the one act of being interrelated.

(This is another book I have to read because I think Weinandy argues with all the finesse of a world-class theologian what I’m vaguely trying to get my head around here! So I could well be coming back to this topic.) Remember!


The one thing we cannot do is the one thing we are so good at doing: making the Holy Spirit the mere ‘echo’ of a previously established and already privileged relation between the Father and Son.


On the contrary, just as “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Co 12:3), so the Son cannot be the Son except by the Spirit.

And just as it is only by the Spirit we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15), so the Father cannot be the Father except by the Spirit.

The Spirit is not an echo for God is not an echo.

God is harmony.


  1. says


    Thank you for addressing this problem of how Christians in the West commonly conceive of the Holy Spirit. I completely agree with Sarah Croakley when she says, “the Holy Spirit is intrinsic to the very make-up of the Father-Son relationship from all eternity.” And not simply as an attribute of the Father and Son or of the Father-Son relationship, but as an active agent Who is essential to the relationship so that it is in actuality a Father-Son-Spirit relationship.

    This problem that you’re addressing though is, I think, particular to the West. In my experience I have never gotten a sense of the Spirit being an “add-on” or “extension” among Byzantines. I believe the reason for this is because of the prominence of the filioque in the West and how it has been used. What has helped me the most in my understanding of the Trinity over the years came from the Eastern Fathers, especially the Cappadocians: emphasis on the persons rather than the nature, and most especially always keeping in mind the monarchy of the Father by which I simply mean the person of the Father being uniquely the origin of the Holy Trinity.

    Thank you for all your wonderful posts. I always enjoy them when they pop-up in my Facebook feed.

Let me know what you think!