The personhood of the Holy Spirit has become, I believe, the most abandoned or overlooked attribute of God within orthodox Christianity in recent decades. With the rise of the charismatic movement in the 1960s, little by little meaningful and accurate representations of the personhood of the Holy Spirit began to disappear from the pulpits of our churches in an effort to separate ourselves from the dogmatic teachings and representations concerning the Holy Spirit by the charismatic churches. But in an effort to distinguish orthodox Christianity from the chaotic charismatic movement, the church has allowed itself to minimize or even downright abandon the personhood, individuality, and ministry of the Holy Spirit. Without sound teachings on this topic from the pulpit for the past sixty or so years, and with the norm now having become that men and women of the church are no longer expected to partake in theological training in Sunday/Sabbath school or intentional theology lectures apart from the morning sermon, we find ourselves in a world where it is not common for professing evangelicals to say, “Well I don’t think the Holy Spirit is really a person; it’s more like a force of God.” Of this I am concerned.
I have taken it upon myself here, then, to write a defense of the divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit – that is to say that I intend to demonstrate from the text of the Bible that the Holy Spirit is not just some active force of God, but that he is the third person of God’s being, existing from all eternity past, coequal with God the Father & God the Son, and continually active in the redemption process of mankind to its creator. I will do so by appealing to three particulars from the text – the equality expressed of the Spirit with the Father & Son and the operational ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The Equality Expressed of the Spirit
It seems that most people today who deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit believe him to be merely a force of God which is less than or unequal to the Father and the Son. However, the text of the New Testament contains instances where the Holy Spirit is given the same attributes that are given to the Father and the Son which are used in defense of their equality. I, myself, used various texts in part four of this series to demonstrate that the Son is equal with the Father and the same attributes within those texts about the Son are seen throughout the New Testament in reference to the Holy Spirit.
In John 1, we read that the Son has existed eternally with and as God before the creation of the universe, making the Son equal with God the Father in reference to his eternality. No created being shares in an eternal nature with the Father and the Son, for all other beings were created in the beginning (John 1:3). However, the author of Hebrews, when speaking of the perfect sacrifice of the Son for the purification of sins, makes mention of the eternal nature of the Holy Spirit.
By using the term eternal (αἰωνίου) to speak of the Holy Spirit, the author of Hebrews has thus equated the Spirit with both the Father and the Son, for nothing other than God is eternal. If we are to believe that John 1 provides proof that the Son being eternal necessitates that he is equal with the Father and is God himself, we must then follow suit in believing that the Spirit here is affirmed to share in that same equality and divinity.
Consider then, also, that if the Holy Spirit were merely a force which has been sent to the Earth to accomplish particular tasks in the past and now in the present, that force would be acting in some sort of agency, much like an angel sent from God to speak on God’s behalf, and would not be eternal in its own independent nature (like an angel), for the existence of a force from God would be entirely dependent on the existence of God, making it a contingent being; but the Spirit is clearly eternal as shown in Hebrews 9, necessitating that the Holy Spirit is not contingent on anything. Being that the Holy Spirit is independent, eternal, and commits to sentient personal acts and behaviors (which we will address in the second portion of this part in the series), it seems as though the Spirit is a personal individual with a will much like some sort of super angel, and all that seems contradictory to the idea that the Holy Spirit is merely a force from God, as that idea seems more akin to God acting as some sort of ventriloquist. But in all of these cases, a force sent from God would not actually be God, for no agent sent by a sender is in equal nature to that sender. King David (and the rest of the kings throughout Israel’s history) was seen as God’s representative while sitting on the throne in Israel, and even personally claimed that he was an agent sent in the name of God during his encounter with Goliath.
Even though David came in the name of the LORD – that is to say that David was representing God in agency – he was not seen as God himself nor was his being equal with God in any sense. Likewise, the angels who were on Earth in God’s stead were not equal with God in any sense. John, as he was being told all that would unfold in his revelation, even tried to bow at the angel’s feet and worship, which the angel condemned.
It is clear, then, that if the Holy Spirit is merely a power sent from God or an agent acting in his stead, it would not share in the equality of being any more than David or the angels shared in the equality of being with God. Rather, it seems clear that the New Testament demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is equal in his being with God, being eternal, and thus is God just as much as the Son is God.
Equality of the Spirit with God the Father and God the Son can also be seen in the baptism of Jesus. During the baptism, we see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all involved simultaneously and with no indication that the Spirit is anything less than equal with the other two.
In this passage, we see the person of the Son being baptized, the person of the Father blessing the baptism of the Son, and the person of the Spirit actively coming to rest upon the Son. The symbol of a dove expressed characteristics of gentleness and peace rather than judgment; consider the dove being sent out from Noah to determine whether God’s time for judgment on the Earth had ended (Gen 8:10) or the presence of the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep in the calmness of creation (Gen 1:2). The descent of the Spirit like a dove confirmed the coronation of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, for he would now carry out the work of his ministry in the power and presence of the Spirit. He is now the one who is to baptize with the Spirit (Matt 3:11), who will be led by and empowered by the Spirit (4:1), who will usher in the Messianic age through the Spirit (12:18-21), and is now anointed by the Spirit for his public ministry; through all of this, the Holy Spirit is seen within the ministry of Jesus as an active person with personal qualities, not some robotic force or angelic agent.
Aside from the baptism of Jesus, there exists another passage within Matthew which seems to be a significant claim to the equality of the three persons of God. In what is known as the Great Commission (Matt 28:18b-20), Jesus commands his disciples to spread the message of the Gospel to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
It is of importance that we note that Jesus does not command the disciples that they were to baptize in the names (Grk. ὀνόματα; plural) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but in the name (Grk. ὄνομα; singular). In what seems to be the most pro-trinitarian statement of the Son, he in one statement invokes the distinctiveness and equality of the three persons of God’s triune nature while simultaneously recognizes their complete and utter equality of being.
However, I would commit a disservice to scholarship without disclosing that a great many scholars theorize that this passage in its original form reads “make disciples in my name.” Put forth first by scholar F. C. Conybeare (1856-1924), the argument is supported by the quoting of the passage multiple times by Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339) as having read “make disciples in my name.” This is considered to be evidence of Eusebius having quoted from an earlier manuscript than anything we have in existence today, as there is no evidence in the MSS that the reading would not be in the trifold name; our earliest extant manuscripts (Sinaiticus & Vaticanus), written in the 4th century, both include the trifold name. However, the absence of any manuscript containing “in my name” can be explained in the fact that the emperor Diocletian in his persecution of the Christian church ordered all sacred books to be burned in 303 CE. It is quite possible that the only surviving manuscripts are those which have been altered into the traditional trifold reading. On the contrary, however, it is entirely possible that Eusebius was quoting from an altered version of a single manuscript available to him or that he was paraphrasing the original trifold name and that the overwhelming uniformity across the wide distances and languages (aside from one late Hebrew manuscript dated to 1385 CE) of our tradition is the original reading of the passage. Because of all this, though I hold to a trinitarian view as I believe to be expressed throughout the rest of the New Testament, my entire stock cannot be put into this passage alone nor can it serve me as a certifiable proof text of my position.
In an earlier passage of John, Jesus refers directly to the Holy Spirit not as an unequal agent or force from God, but as a paraklete. This is significant when one considers the contextual meaning of usage of the term.
Jesus uses the unusual Greek term παράκλητος (paraclete) to describe the Holy Spirit. The “helper” or “counselor” comes from this Greek word unique to John (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; 1 John 2:1) and is difficult to translate as no one English word has the exact same range of meaning. Older English versions translate it as “comforter,” but that seems to suggest a sympathetic mourner. “Counselor” is too broad, as it could suggest contexts like “marriage counselor.” “Helper” or “assistant” is inadequate as it suggests a subordinate rank. “Advocate” is preferred as it conveys the meaning of legal representative, as a legal context is certainly present in John 16:5-11. But it is of most importance that Jesus says that the Father will send another advocate (παράκλητος), for 1 John 2:1 later says that Jesus was the first advocate (παράκλητος) sent to us by the Father.
The Son was the first advocate sent by God and is now sending a second advocate. This not only means that the ongoing ministry work of the Spirit within the lives of the believers is a continuation of the ministry work of Jesus himself, but also that the Son and the Spirit serve equally alongside one another in earthly ministry. God the Son was sent by God the Father as the first advocate for the people of God, and when God the Son completed the work of his earthly ministry, God the Father sent God the Spirit to continue the work of his earthly ministry, not in his stead, but as an independent person who actively regenerates (Jn 3:5), teaches (Jn 14:26; 1 Cor 2:13), distributes spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:11), forbids (Acts 16:6-7), and intercedes (Rom 8:26-27).
How, then, can we read at the words of the New Testament which validate to us that God the Son is a personal being independent of God the Father while still God in being, yet in the same breath claim that the Holy Spirit, who actively does those same things and more, is not a personal, independent, equal person of the Trinity? We would be hard-pressed to make this argument, I believe, in light of the equality expressed within these texts. Perhaps it is the temptation to read the Old Testament in isolation, not through the lens of the revelation of the incarnation, that has caused many to see the Holy Spirit as a force or agent. I have spoken with personal friends who have claimed that they cannot believe in the personhood of the Holy Spirit because that truth is not directly revealed through the Old Testament in isolation of the Christian perspective; I agree that the doctrine of the Trinity, or at least the doctrine of the personhood of the Holy Spirit, can be found with an isolated reading of the Old Testament. However, if we were to apply that same principle to the Old Testament in regards to the doctrine of justification, of substitution, of incarnation, we would also be forced to abandon such fundamental and necessary doctrines.
I would argue that Jesus and the New Testament authors make it clear that Christian do not have such liberty of reading the Old Testament in isolation apart from our revelation of Christ and his incarnation, for the incarnation is the hinge of history – the moment when that which had been hidden from those of other generations was made known to us (Eph 3:1-13) – and through that lens we are able to know and understand the complexity of God’s nature as made known to us in both testaments, even within the texts of the Old Testament which did not aim in their initial pennings to reveal what we now know. That makes for a nice transition into my final defense.
The Operational Ministry of the Holy Spirit (OT vs NT)
Even non-trinitarians will recognize that the “Spirit of the Lord” operated in many ways throughout the Old Testament. I believe, however, that a New Testament, New Covenant perspective lens through which we now read the Old Testament will unveil even more truth concerning the Holy Spirit’s ministry within the Old Testament than what the original authors may have even known while penning the words.
There exists a paradigm throughout the Old Testament where the Holy Spirit would come upon appointed individuals for a specific task and would enable them to do that task which God had called them, but this resting of the Spirit on the person or persons was not a permanent state of being in comparison to the permanence of its indwelling in our present time. I would like to inspect a few passages from different eras of the Old Testament to better demonstrate this pattern.
Later within the Torah, Moses is in need of help judging Israel and settling disputes. God instructed Moses to gather seventy men of the elders of Israel and bring them into the Tabernacle so that he could fill them with the Spirit to assist in bearing the burdens of the people.
During the time of the Judges, God would fill specific individuals with his Spirit in order for them to rule over Israel and to defeat their enemies.
Even King David was aware that the presence of the Holy Spirit within his life was a temporary indwelling that could be taken from him by God.
The most notable temporary presence of the Holy Spirit is, I believe, its dwelling on top of the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies. Upon the construction and dedication of the Temple under King Solomon, the “glory of the Lord” came down, consumed the burnt offerings, and filled the Temple (2 Chronicles 7:1-3). But years later prior to God bringing in the Babylonian army to defeat and enslave Israel because of their idolatry, the Holy Spirit left the Temple, effectively abandoning Israel to their enemies.
The theme of the Old Testament was that the Holy Spirit dwelt temporarily both within specific people to accomplish specific tasks and within the Temple itself. Neither of these cases were a permanent state of dwelling, but were the Holy Spirit choosing to abide in specific locations for specific times. Let me break here to say that I agree with many of the skeptics in not believing that any person reading these passages ignorant of the New Testament and its revelation would conclude that the Holy Spirit was a separate person or anything other than a force from God. However, when read through the lens of the church – that is the revelation of the incarnation and indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us – we can see how the Holy Spirit was already at work in the Old Covenant. However, this temporary indwelling of those in the Old Testament is in complete contrast to the New Testament where the bodies of believers have become the permanent abiding place of the Holy Spirit.
Through the unfolding of the Book of Acts, we see the promise of Jesus made in Acts 1:8 that the Apostles were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem (Acts 2), Samaria (Acts 18), and the ends of the Earth (Acts 10-11, 19), and this is facilitated by the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit, known as baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11). And through this permanent indwelling within Christians, the Holy Spirit operates his ministry in particular ways which necessitate him being a sentient, personal being. The following are some of the ways in which the Holy Spirit operates:
- John 3:5 – The Holy Spirit regenerates people
- John 14:26 – The Holy Spirit teaches
- 1 Cor 2:13 – The Holy Spirit teaches
- Acts 8:29 – The Holy Spirit speaks
- Acts 13:2 – The Holy Spirit makes decisions
- Acts 15:28 – The Holy Spirit has individuality/opinions
- John 16:13 – The Holy Spirit guides
- Eph 4:30 – The Holy Spirit has feelings
- Hebrews 10:29 – The Holy Spirit can be offended/outraged
- Acts 5:3-4 – The Holy Spirit can be lied to personally
- Acts 16:6-7 – The Holy Spirit can forbid speech and actions
- 1 Cor 12:11 – The Holy Spirit distributes spiritual gifts
- Romans 8:26-27 – The Holy Spirit intercedes for us
- 2 Timothy 3:16 – The Holy Spirit inspired scripture
- John 16:14 – The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus
- Romans 15:30 – The Holy Spirit loves
It would seem then that Jeremiah’s prophecy has proven true in saying that God has now chosen to dwell within us as the person of the Holy Spirit, not to complete some task and then take leave, but to set up residency permanently while writing his laws within us and on our hearts. Now, no Christian shall ever have to say to another Christian, “know the Lord,” because we will all know him through the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.
As I conclude, I would like to echo my concern as expressed within the introduction of this part of my series: I remain concerned for those who stand unconvinced that the Holy Spirit is not the third person of the triune God. This concerns me because I believe that only through an accurate, biblical understanding of the personal nature of the Holy Spirit can we better embrace and know him who dwells within us than if we believe him to just be a force or tool given to us from God which we then use to accomplish the tasks set before us. By recognizing the personhood of the Holy Spirit, Christians can confidently say that the work we do as the hands and feet of Christ are accomplished not through our own efforts using some sort of tool bestowed upon us, but done by a personal God within us and through us. Through the power and guidance of our advocate the Holy Spirit, Christians are equipped to be the witnesses of Christ to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the Earth, and I believe that by recognizing the divine personhood of our Holy Spirit and our dependent and communal relationship with him, we are better equipped to share our God with the world who does not know him.