Is the child in a family an image of the Holy Spirit?

I recently received some questions about how the family is an image of the Trinity. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously mapped the relationships in a family onto the relationship within the Trinity, such that the child in a family is seen as the proceeding love of the husband and the wife and so corresponds to the Holy Spirit who proceeds as the love of the Father and the Son. Scott Hahn picked up that outline in his popularization of Trinitarian theology. Is this a good way to talk about the Holy Spirit?

It can be difficult to dispute Trinitarian theories, because the Trinity is the deepest mystery of our faith. And within the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is arguably the most mysterious of the three persons: What does God’s “breath” or “wind” actually mean? Scripture tells us so little about him!

But our scarcity of information about the Holy Spirit is one reason I would resist describing the Holy Spirit in terms of the child proceeding from a husband and a wife. We have so very few things that we can say for certain about the Holy Spirit that each gleam of light is precious. One of the very few solid things the Church has defined about the Holy Spirit is that he does NOT proceed as a son.

When we speak of the child as the proceeding love of the husband and the wife, I think we get into difficulties on the side of marriage as well. Although beautiful and noble in itself, the union of husband and wife ultimately finds its goal and completion when it is subordinated to the good of children. Speaking of the child as though it WERE the union of husband and wife confuses the two ends of marriage to allow union (the lesser good) to gobble up children (the greater good).

All things considered, I think it best to follow the example of John Paul II. He spoke of the family as an image of the Trinity, but he kept his comparison at the level of “communion of persons.” The family is the first natural communion of persons, and so it points to even more primal Trinitarian communion. John Paul did not attempt to make the Father line up with a husband, the Son with a wife, and the Holy Spirit with a child. When you press the likeness that far, you end up in difficulties.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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