Monday, June 05, 2017

God and God's Spirit

I've written a lot about the deity of Christ, but less about the personality and deity of the Spirit. That's in part because there's less material to work with. 

That's not a damaging concession. We have so much material about the Son because he became Incarnate, unlike the Father and the Spirit. The Gospels say comparatively less about the Father and the Spirit. If we only had the OT to go by, the nature of the Son would be more shadowy. In that respect, revelation about the Spirit is rather like OT revelation about the Son. Even so, it's striking that the Spirit plays a more prominent role in Acts and the Pauline epistles. That's because, in a sense, the Spirit takes over from Christ, after the Ascension. 

I think some of the traditional prooftexting for the personality and deity of the Spirit is weak and superficial, so I'd like to marshal some of the exegetical evidence differently. I'll present my material, then anticipate some objections. 

1. In Hebrews, God and the Spirit are interchangeable:

7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,

“Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, (Heb 3:7-8).

That's quoting Ps 95:7-8. In the original context, the speaker is Yahweh (v6) or Elohim (v7). But the author of Hebrews makes the Spirit the speaker. 

8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (Heb 9:8).

In this section, the author of Hebrews is alluding to Pentateuchal instructions regarding the Mosaic cultus. In the original, these are represented as direct revelation from Yahweh. But the author of Hebrews attributes these instructions to the Spirit. 

15The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First He says: 16“This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord (Heb 10:15-16). 

Minimally, this makes the Spirit the author of Scripture or agent of revelation. But it goes beyond that. The Spirit himself is making the new covenant. 

2. Paul says:

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Gal 5:22-23).

i) These virtues are dispositions. Mental properties as well as moral properties. But how can the effect be personal unless the cause is personal? How can the Spirit be the source these psychological characteristics unless the Spirit is a personal agent? 

ii) In addition, these are traits of godliness. They make Christians godlike. By the Spirit, Christians exemplify these exemplary virtues. But how can the Spirit be the source of communicable attributes unless he is divine? 

3. Paul says:

All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (1 Cor 12:11).

This attributes intelligent agency to the Spirit. The Spirit exercises discretion in choosing who will receive which gift. 

4. Paul says:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom 8:16).

i) If our human spirit is personal, can God's Spirit be less than personal?

ii) To be a witness is the action of a personal agent. 

5. Paul says:

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27).

The Spirit has a mind. The Spirit functions as a intercessor.

6. Paul says:

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (Eph 4:30).

That attributes personality to the Spirit.

7. Paul says:

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1 Cor 2:10-11).

Paul's analogy involves a distinction between self-knowledge or introspection and the perspective of an outside observer. I alone know what I'm thinking. I have privileged access to my own mind. 

Or to use Paul's imagery, only my soul knows what I'm thinking. So the Holy Spirit is like the soul of God. Only God has direct knowledge of himself. 

There's a subject/object distinction in the process of introspection, where we engage in self-reflection. 

Now let's consider some objections:

1. Scripture simply uses "Spirit of God" as a stylistic variant for "God". They are one and the same thing. The distinction is rhetorical.

There are probably passages in which that explanation works. However, consider all those passages where God is in heaven while the Spirit comes down from heaven. That can't be collapsed into a stylistic variant, for it depicts two individuals in two different places. Even making allowance for the anthropomorphic use of spatial metaphors, it's not a rhetorical distinction. 

2. The "Spirit" is metaphorical language. It would be rendered "breath" or "wind".

i) Of course, Scripture uses other figurative designations for God. God is light, fire, and rock. But that hardly means God is just a metaphor for natural forces.

ii) Scripture uses the same terminology for angels. Angels are "spirits" (pneuma). That could be rendered "breath". But it hardly means that angels are just metaphors for natural forces. Not from a Biblical perspective. 

3. We could also say that when a prophet speaks, that's equivalent to God speaking. 

True, but there's a crucial difference. In their respective relationship to divine revelation, the Spirit is productive while a prophet is receptive. Prophets play an instrumental role in mediating divine revelation, while the Spirit is the originating source. Both are sources of divine revelation, but a prophet is a proximate source while the Spirit is the ultimate source. 

4. The Spirit is simply a personification for divine action in the world. 

i) Take the parallel between the Spirit coming down from heaven and angels coming down from heaven. If the Spirit is just a personified projection of divine power, then, by parity of argument, so are angels. Yet Scripture clearly presents angels as distinct individuals and agents. 

ii) In Jn 14-16, there's a symmetry between the Father, Son, and Spirit as personal agents. 


  1. If anyone is interested, here's my blogpost in defense of the genuine personhood and full deity of the Holy Spirit.

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