The Great Trinity Debate (Comments Part 4)

The fourth round of The Great Trinity Debate is now available at Parchment & Pen, this round specifically focusing on the Holy Spirit. As the Trinitarian, Rob Bowman sees the Holy Spirit as a divine person, distinguished from the Father and Son. David Burke, Unitarian-Christadelphian sees the Holy Spirit not as a person, but as an extension of the Father, His divine power at work in the world. Click here for Rob Bowman’s fourth article and here for David Burke’s fourth article. My previous comments are in these three posts: post 1, post 2, post 3.

Just a few paragraphs in, Burke comments:

Due to the paucity of evidence, Rob may argue that his doctrine of “God the Holy Spirit” is merely “implicit” in the NT, as he does with the Trinity as a whole…By contrast, I argue that the Bible provides us with explicit doctrines about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which in previous weeks I have shown to be firmly rooted in OT theology. Thus, if we are to understand the Holy Spirit correctly, we must begin with the OT and follow its lead into the NT.

Again, as I have have argued previously, I think such statements are somewhat lacking. I am fine to start with the Old Testament, for the Bible begins there, and even Genesis 1:1-2 gives insight into the work of the Spirit of God. But the Old Testament does not become our final and ultimate source for our theological understanding of any subject matter. Rather, we must recognise that Christ and the New Testament shed greater light on the seeds and foreshadowings of the Old Testament.

Let me give an example: Suppose you arrived to watch a movie in the cinema. The movie is scheduled to last two and a half hours. But, lo and behold, you receive a call about one a half hours into the movie. The call is from your spouse saying that your daughter has fallen and hurt herself. Your spouse is on the way to the hospital, could you please head that way as well.

Thus, you miss a good portion of the movie. Now, once the whole situation is settled with your daughter, she is shaken but will be fine with a good night’s rest. As you arrive home in the evening, you start to ponder the movie you saw, but you are only able to ponder just over half of it. You begin to make guesses as to how the story ends. By knowing the characters, a lot of the plot line, and other such things, you make an educated guess.

And you know what? Once you re-watch the movie, a major part of your hypothesis is proved right. But, you still were off on a few things. You still did not realise a few other events would take place. And, after watching the whole entire movie, including the hour you previously missed, you are now able to understand why certain things were said and done by particular characters early on in the movie. Yet, if you had not seen that last hour, again, your educated guesses were pretty decent. But they were not fully correct.

The same is true of Scripture. Of course we start in the Hebrew Scriptures. But it’s the final part, which we identify as the New Testament, that helps make sense of some of the things said and done in the Old Testament. It clarifies.

So, with the Holy Spirit, or Christ, or anthropology, or eschatology, or soteriology – let’s start in the Old Testament. It’s a good place to begin. But if we do not allow the New Testament to more readily inform our theology, we shall fall well short of the bigger picture. I say that with great certainty, knowing that many Jewish followers do just that today (as well as Christians on many a doctrinal beliefs).

Personification of Wisdom

One of the greater arguments from those who believe the Holy Spirit is merely God’s power or force active in the earth is that there are many examples certain things or entities being personified in Scripture. The major example is the personification of wisdom in Proverbs. Burke shows examples of this personification of wisdom:

The problem here, which Bowman also points out, is that we need to identify the genre of literature we are looking at. Proverbs is poetic wisdom literature. Hence, personification is going to be utilised regularly, as well imagery, parallelism, etc.

But, with regards to the teachings of the New Testament on the Holy Spirit, we are dealing with two completely different sets of literature: narrative prose-history and didactic-teaching material. Of course, poetic language is embedded in there at times. But as a whole, when we consider passages on the Holy Spirit from the New Testament, the ending of the story that sheds greater light on the beginning of the story, we are dealing with a lot of straight forward statements, if you will. No poetic imagery and personification.

Burke then goes on to claim:

The Bible explicitly describes wisdom in terms which mainstream Christians traditionally associate with the Holy Spirit, even going so far as to imply literal deity.

He gives four examples of wisdom indwelling the believer:

  • Exodus 28:3, “‘You are to speak to all who are specially skilled, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom’”
  • Exodus 31:3, “‘and I have filled him with the Spirit of God’”
  • Deuteronomy 34:9, “Now Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had placed his hands on him”
  • Job 38:36, “‘Who has put wisdom in the heart, or has imparted understanding to the mind?’”

But, when we turn to the New Testament, we see that the Spirit and wisdom are distinguished. Notice how the seven chosen in Acts 6:1-7 are distinctly filled with both the Spirit of God and wisdom. Specifically vs3 notes this:

Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.

Now, one might argue that being filled with the Spirit of God would lead to being filled with the wisdom of God. But I don’t think this could be utilised in arguing these two are to be equated. Just like Barnabas was filled with both the Spirit and faith (Acts 11:24).

Yes, one can be filled with wisdom, even the spirit of wisdom. But, firstly, wisdom and the Spirit of God are distinguished from one another in many a places and, secondly, to speak of a spirit of wisdom does not imply that the Spirit is impersonal just as wisdom is impersonal, especially if the Spirit of God is specifically spoken of in personal terms. And I believe He is, especially in texts like John 14-16 and the book of Acts.

I don’t need to spend too much time on John 14-16 and Acts, but they are rich with the personality of the Spirit of God. I cannot imagine a force able to do what the Spirit of God is able to do. But I’ll let you read Bowman’s thoughts.

Scripture Speaks

In his first section on the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, Burke challenges the Trinitarian with these words:

Verses which tell us that the Holy Spirit can “speak” (e.g. 2 Samuel 23:2, Acts 10:19-20, Acts 13:2, Acts 20:23, Acts 21:11, Acts 28:25-27, Hebrews 3:7-11) merely employ the same literary device by which Scripture can “speak” (John 7:38, 42; John 19:37; Romans 4:3; Romans 9:17; Romans 10:11; Romans 11:2; Galatians 3:8; Galatians 4:30; 1 Timothy 5:18; James 4:5). How many Christians would claim that Scripture is a person? None that I know of; they would tell me that this is just a form of poetic license. Yet when faced with verses in which the Holy Spirit “speaks”, they insist that it must be a literal person. But why differentiate in this way? Which interpretation is more likely: that the same use of language implies a completely different conclusion in two identical cases, or that the same use of language implies the same conclusion for both?

I don’t believe this is a strong argument. Why? Well, of the ten verses stated above, eight of them are misused to support the point. What I mean is that all of them, outside of Romans 9:17 and Galatians 3:8, are utilised in a quoting manner. The New Testament writer or speaker is saying something to this affect: ‘The Scripture says this,’ and then quotes or refers to a passage from the Old Testament. This is not personification. This is quoting.

For the other two passages, it is interesting what they say:

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Romans 9:17)

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8)

In both contexts, the main purpose is, again, quoting the Old Testament. But it is fine to recognise personification here. So, we have the possibility of two New Testament passages personifying the Scripture. But, of the 379 references to pneuma, the Greek word for Spirit, how many of them personalise the Holy Spirit? I don’t know, as I haven’t counted as of today. But let’s just start in John 14-16 and the book of Acts and see how much personal attributes are assigned to the Spirit. I’m thinking over 100 at least. But two given to Scripture.

I think it’s pretty safe to conclude, 1) Scripture is, though rarely, personified, as wisdom was. 2) The Holy Spirit, noting the enormous amount of personal language attributed to Him, rather than only two references, is being more than personified in the vein of wisdom or Scripture. He is being personalised.

Three Distinguished Persons

I was surprised that this week’s posts did not bring up the passages that mention the Holy Spirit distinct from the Father, i.e., the words of Jesus with regards to baptism in Matthew 28:18-20:

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Another passage is what is known as Paul’s Trinitarian benediction:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14)

Finally, we read these words of Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

Specifically, vs4 refers to the Spirit, vs5 refers to the Lord Jesus and vs6 refers to God (Theos being normally associated with the Father).

My point is to show how the Spirit is distinguished from the Father. This is important because the Unitarian, or at least the Christadelphian, will simply acknowledge that the Spirit of God is an extension of the Father, His power at work in the earth. But why distinguish the Spirit from God the Father if the Spirit is simply an extension of Him?

This is where a notable author becomes helpful. Actually Burke quoted Max Turner quite a lot, professor of New Testament Studies at London School of Theology. A few month’s back, I read one of Turner’s books, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: In the New Testament Church and Today (my thoughts on the book can be found here).

In his chapter 11, Turner looks to give biblical and theological evidence for the personal deity of the Holy Spirit. As we have noted continually, most who deny the personal deity of the Spirit (Judaism, ‘cults’) would say that the Spirit is actually an extension of the Father’s own personhood, not a distinct person Himself. For when the Spirit acts, it is the Father Himself acting, because it is His Spirit.

Turner includes some helpful discussion on this topic, of which here are a few words:

‘Indeed, the “sending” of the Spirit by the Son “from the Father” (John 15:26) itself implies some kind of differentiation of the Spirit from the Father.’ (p173)

His point is that Jesus is the actual one who gives and pours out the Spirit. This shows that the Spirit is connected to not only the Father, but also the Son. And such is true when we read Acts 16:6-7; Galatians 4:6; and Philippians 1:19.

This is important for developing a holistic pneumatology, informed by the complete revelation of Scripture. The Spirit is not only the Spirit of the Father, but also the Spirit of the Son. I believe this both speaks volumes about the nature-status of Christ and the nature-status of the Holy Spirit. It challenges us to come to terms that the Spirit is not only an extension of the Father, but shows the connection between the Son and the Spirit. Here we have three distinguishable characters, or persons, if you will. And this falls right in line with Trinitarian theology.

Thus ends my fourth post of comments. Don’t forget to check out the interaction at Trinities blog, as well as a blog I just became familiar with today known as Kingdom Ready, where there is also some live interaction going on.

But, I end out with Paul’s Trinitarian benediction:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14)

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19 thoughts on “The Great Trinity Debate (Comments Part 4)

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  3. Hi Sammie –

    Thanks for commenting. I, by no means, see myself as THE rebuttalist to Burke or representing Trinitarians. There are many much better than I. I simply decided to follow the debate, post comments and responses, and interact where I can. I’ve learned a lot and even built a cordial relationship with Burke. It’s been good.

  4. Scott,

    Rather, we must recognise that Christ and the New Testament shed greater light on the seeds and foreshadowings of the Old Testament.

    That’s fine. But this is missing the point Burke makes. The point he makes is that the Trinitarian has the burden of evidence to prove that a shift in theology was actually initiated by Christ or his apostles. That’s precisely the point Dale Tuggy identified.

    It’s just not good enough to justify a re-interpretation of a theological point established in the Old Testament with the claim ‘Well that’s how Christ and the apostles re-interpreted it’, or ‘The New Testament shed new light on this, and tells us that now we have to think of it in a completely different way’, unless you can provide evidence that the New Testament actually says this.

    The New Testament shows that Christ and the apostles ‘shed new light’ on:

    * The Messiah
    * The Law
    * Circumcision
    * The Gentiles’ entry into the Abrahamic covenant

    In each case it is possible to find unmistakable and undisputed explicit evidence that such a shift was initiated. Indeed, we also find controversy and outrage provoked as a result.

    Yet Trinitarians want us to believe that Christ and the apostles somehow introduced a complete shift in how God and the Holy Spirit are to be understood, without once spelling it out explicitly and without causing any controversy about the point whatsoever. That’s a big ask.

    • Fort –

      Yet Trinitarians want us to believe that Christ and the apostles somehow introduced a complete shift in how God and the Holy Spirit are to be understood, without once spelling it out explicitly and without causing any controversy about the point whatsoever. That’s a big ask.

      Well, I might be arrogant enough to say that’s what I am trying to engage with. Though I know you think I (and Bowman) have poorly failed. 🙂

      • Scott, I understand that’s what you’re trying to do. What I don’t understand is why you aren’t providing me with any passages in which Jesus or the apostles explain the shift to a Trinitarian understanding of God.

        As I’ve pointed out, the Messiah, the Law, circumcision, and the salvation of the Gentiles were all significant shifts in standard 1st century Jewish understanding, and caused immense controversy. We can identify many passages in which these shifts were spelled out explicitly by Christ and the apostles.

        If you want to claim that such a shift took place with regard to the Trinity, then you need to provide actual passages in which Jesus and the apostles told people that this shift was taking place. Just your favourite five for the Holy Spirit would be good.

  5. My point is to show how the Spirit is distinguished from the Father. This is important because the Unitarian, or at least the Christadelphian, will simply acknowledge that the Spirit of God is an extension of the Father, His power at work in the earth. But why distinguish the Spirit from God the Father if the Spirit is simply an extension of Him?

    Because the Spirit of God is not the Father. Look at the phrase which is used consistent, ‘the Spirit OF God’. That is the language of an attribute.

    Try this:

    * The house OF Scott is really Scott
    * The car OF Scott is really Scott
    * The hand OF Scott is really Scott
    * The friend OF Scott is really Scott
    * The attitude OF Scott is really Scott

    Which of those statements are true?

  6. Yes, one can be filled with wisdom, even the spirit of wisdom. But, firstly, wisdom and the Spirit of God are distinguished from one another in many a places and, secondly, to speak of a spirit of wisdom does not imply that the Spirit is impersonal just as wisdom is impersonal, especially if the Spirit of God is specifically spoken of in personal terms.

    I believe you missed Burke’s point here. He is not saying that just because wisdom is personified it means the Spirit is an impersonal force. Nor is he saying that wisdom and the Spirit of God are the same, nor is he saying that the spirit of wisdom is actually the Holy Spirit.

    He was identifying a wrong method of interpretation, and he pointed out that the exposition he gave of Proverbs 8 is actually false if applied.

  7. Fort –

    He is not saying that just because wisdom is personified it means the Spirit is an impersonal force. Nor is he saying that wisdom and the Spirit of God are the same, nor is he saying that the spirit of wisdom is actually the Holy Spirit.

    He was identifying a wrong method of interpretation, and he pointed out that the exposition he gave of Proverbs 8 is actually false if applied.

    I know the argument Burke was taking. I was only pointing out that, to argue wisdom is spoken of in personal terms, but is actually impersonal, does not have strong, inherent bearings on what we read in the text about the Holy Spirit. The same goes with Scripture.

    All it does is show us that impersonal objects can be spoken of in personal terms. And I agree with this thinking. But I don’t believe this has too much bearing on our pneumatology. What it does do is make us ask, ‘Ok, if wisdom is impersonal, then is it possible that the Spirit is also impersonal but is being spoken of in personal terms?’ But, then going to the text, a Trinitarian believes there is evidence for the Spirit being personal and personally distinguished from the Father, as well as the Son.

  8. Scott,

    I know the argument Burke was taking. I was only pointing out that, to argue wisdom is spoken of in personal terms, but is actually impersonal, does not have strong, inherent bearings on what we read in the text about the Holy Spirit. The same goes with Scripture.

    Yes it does, for precisely the reason you identify here:

    All it does is show us that impersonal objects can be spoken of in personal terms. And I agree with this thinking. But I don’t believe this has too much bearing on our pneumatology. What it does do is make us ask, ‘Ok, if wisdom is impersonal, then is it possible that the Spirit is also impersonal but is being spoken of in personal terms?’

    That last sentence is exactly Burke’s point.

    But, then going to the text, a Trinitarian believes there is evidence for the Spirit being personal and personally distinguished from the Father, as well as the Son.

    Yes, going to the text a Trinitarian already has the preconception that the Holy Spirit is a person. That’s the problem. They are not interested in what the text says, they’re interested in how to interpret it in a manner which reconciles with what they already believe.

    • Fort –

      That last sentence is exactly Burke’s point.

      I am aware of this. But, while I agree that this is worth considering, after looking across the text, I don’t believe this principle is applied to the Holy Spirit. Again, I know you don’t like my conclusion. But I really am looking at the text and considering it, and if this principle for wisdom should be specifically applied to the case of the Holy Spirit.

      Yes, going to the text a Trinitarian already has the preconception that the Holy Spirit is a person. That’s the problem. They are not interested in what the text says, they’re interested in how to interpret it in a manner which reconciles with what they already believe.

      That’s always our problem, I know. I’m silly to even consider that the Spirit is a divine person distinct from the Father and Son. I will say that this seems a little ad hominem.

  9. Fort –

    Scott, before we continue just tell me which of those statements is true.

    I don’t know why it wouldn’t let me comment directly under your comment.

    * The house OF Scott is really Scott
    * The car OF Scott is really Scott
    * The hand OF Scott is really Scott
    * The friend OF Scott is really Scott
    * The attitude OF Scott is really Scott

    Which of those statements are true?

    I’m not sure how you want me to answer that. I would say none of these are really me. But if you are wanting me to choose one of the five, I’d lean towards the fifth.

  10. Fort –

    I should have not posted the link on Dale’s blog. You dog me too much. 🙂

    If you want to claim that such a shift took place with regard to the Trinity, then you need to provide actual passages in which Jesus and the apostles told people that this shift was taking place. Just your favourite five for the Holy Spirit would be good.

    Ok, think of this. I am absolutely convinced that a shift took place in what the Sabbath of God really is. I don’t want to go into too much detail in a comment, but more is here in this article. But, all’s to say, it’s not so ‘implicit’ that the Sabbath is no longer Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, as the Law teaches. Nor is it Sundays. The Sabbath rest of God is Jesus Christ Himself. Again, I show in the article if you are interested.

    So, it seems you are asking for a book, chapter and verse statement where John or Peter or Paul say, ‘Look, we are just letting you know that you should not perceive that the Holy Spirit is only the Spirit of the Father and simply an extension of who He is and His work. Now we declare He is a divine and distinct person Himself.’

    Yeah, that isn’t there. But, as my study of Scripture leads me to be absolutely convinced that Jesus Christ is God’s true and eternal Sabbath rest, though there is no specific verse that words it that way, the same is true in regards to my theology on the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit.

    I know you probably won’t be happy, but I believe it is ok to come to deductions and use our reasoning to work through this than merely say 3 Thessalonians says such and such.

  11. with respect, i don’t think your ‘movies’ analogy really holds.
    Firstly, this isn’t about the plot line but rather about the character and nature of God. We know clearly from the OT that God does not change, he is consistent. This being true, why would we get facts about the nature of God wrong from only reading the OT? Also, if God really did choose to reveal his nature fully in the NT, why? Why would he not want to reveal himself to his chosen people in the OT?

  12. Andrew –

    Thanks for the comment. I’ll try and share answers to your questions in the best way I can. I am aware that ever analogy and illustration does not hold up when you are speaking about an infinite God and His revelation. They are merely to try and give an example that we can relate to.

    Firstly, this isn’t about the plot line but rather about the character and nature of God. We know clearly from the OT that God does not change, he is consistent.

    I am not talking about God’s changing nature. I believe He is the same yesterday, today and forever. But here is the thing – God is revealing Himself to finite people of all different languages, races, cultures and backgrounds. If we wanted to be very strict, we could challenge on why God shifted from Hebrew (OT) to Greek (NT). He didn’t change, but God was trying to communicate and reveal Himself to people who spoke specific languages. By the NT, more people spoke Greek than Hebrew, thus the need for the NT in Greek.

    This being true, why would we get facts about the nature of God wrong from only reading the OT? Also, if God really did choose to reveal his nature fully in the NT, why? Why would he not want to reveal himself to his chosen people in the OT?

    We have to realise that when the infinite looks to reveal Himself, it is a process. Not for His sake, but for our sake. Everything about Him did not drop out of heaven ‘in the beginning’. It was a slow unfolding. Again, not because God needed it, but because we did. We could ask why didn’t God simply send Christ 1500 years before He actually came? It’s because God needed to unveil/reveal some things in the time of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, etc. It all led naturally into the coming of His Son. It’s what theologians recognise as progressive revelation of Scripture.

    Hopefully those thoughts share more of what I am trying to get at.

  13. Scott, interesting. You said above in regards to the Holy Spirit and alleged personification that you hadn’t counted figurative vs literal references to the Spirit in the New Testament. I have. Granted, this was quite a few years ago and in response to the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine in regards to the Holy Spirit, but being that JWs pursue the same personification argument…

    Anyway, for comparison purposes, I went through the occurences of sin, death, water, blood and Jerusalem as well as Spirit. Primarily because JWs compare personification of sin, death, water and blood as equivalent to alleged personification of the Holy Spirit. (I added Jerusalem because I thought it might present a stronger case.) In so doing, I discovered I rough pattern in which these words are spoken of literally 4 out of 5 times (generally) while figuratively the remaining 1 out of 5 times — and further refined those results by looking at the distribution of literal/figurative references throughout the Bible. Understandably, the figurative uses were most prevalent in the poetic and prophetic books of the Old Testament (approximately 50%) with the remaining peppered throughout the rest of the Bible.

    That is not the case for pneuma, however. Instead of a 1 to 5 ratio, it’d become something on the order of a 1 to 1 or 2 — or 1 personification per 1 or 2 literal uses. And of course, these alleged personifications would not be clustered in the poetic & prophetic books but would necessarily be more heavily distributed throughout both Old and New Testaments books.

    Statistically, the personification position simply does not bear out.

    If anyone would like to have a look, I posted “The Holy Spirit & Personification” here: http://www.thearmchairscholar.org/id18.html

    Again, I did the work and wrote that paper many a moon ago, but…Food for thought.

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