Argument for the Trinity #3: The Holy Spirit, a True Person

The diversity among non-Trinitarian groups regarding the Holy Spirit is staggering. Among Mormons, the Holy Ghost is a separate God from the Father, while the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force. For most modalists like oneness Pentecostals, the Spirit is just another mode of God and so is the same Person as the Father and the Son. This article is going to focus on the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and so on its deniers, which are mostly the various Unitarian groups. Their beliefs are not all the same though.

Jehovahs Witnesses: The Spirit is a force, like electricity

Spirit and Truth Fellowship (Splinter of the Way International under John Schoenheit): There are two spirits. “The Holy Spirit” is just another way of referring to the Father, and is the one in view whenever indications of Personhood are present. On the other hand, “holy spirit” (no article and no caps) is a gift given to Christians and is impersonal. It is analogous to water and is the source of the miraculous power exercised by Christians in the book of Acts. (This view is common from those that are descended from the Way)

Restoration Fellowship (Anthony Buzzard’s Group): The Spirit is not a person, but is the active presence of God, but also the Spirit is Jesus, somehow.

Christadelphians: The Holy Spirit is the power of God and not a Person.

Iglesia Ni Cristo: No official position. Some leaders teach that the Holy Spirit is a person, but less than God, while others deny personhood.

What these groups have in common is that, since they reject the Trinity and the Deity of Jesus, they have to do something with the Spirit other than to say that He is a divine Person distinct from the Father. That would be Trinitarianism, so that can’t be right. So, almost universally, they do deny that the Spirit is a person, so that “it” can just be the power of God in some sense, and they can then avoid belief in the Trinity that way.

I would say that the Way International and its splinter groups have the most defensible version of these, in the sense that it has an explanation for why the Spirit is referred to as a Person in so many ways, but that interpretation has its own problems that I’ll address in a moment

First, let’s look a small sampling of the available Scriptures concerning the Personhood of the Holy Spirit. After that, we’ll look at some arguments non-Trinitarians use to get around this. These Scriptures, like those that describe the actions of other persons, such as human beings or God, simply describe the actions and decisions of the Spirit, showing clearly that the Spirit is a Person.

The Holy Spirit speaks:

John 16:13

But when he—the Spirit of truth—comes, he will guide you into all the truth. For he will not speak from himself, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will proclaim to you the things to come.

Acts 1:16

“Men and brothers, it was necessary that the scripture be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit proclaimed beforehand through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus,

1 Timothy 4:1

Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,

The Holy Spirit makes judgments:

Acts 15:28

For it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us to place on you no greater burden except these necessary things

The Holy Spirit intercedes with the Father:

Romans 8:26

And likewise also, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as one ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with unexpressed groanings.

The Holy Spirit can be lied to:

Acts 5:3

But Peter said, “Ananias, for what reason has Satan filled your heart, that you lied to the Holy Spirit and kept back for yourself some of the proceeds of the piece of land?

The Holy Spirit has a will:

1 Corinthians 12:11

But in all these things one and the same Spirit is at work, distributing to each one individually just as he wishes.

The Holy Spirit is set in opposition with evil spirits, which are agreed (by most) to be persons.

1 Timothy 4:1

Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,

1 John 4:2-3

2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God, and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.

The Holy Spirit shows humility in not speaking of Himself, but of Christ.

John 16:13-14

13 But when he—the Spirit of truth—comes, he will guide you into all the truth. For he will not speak from himself, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will proclaim to you the things to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and will proclaim it to you.

Now, this is all just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways that the Spirit is spoken of as a Person. Notice also that these are not poetic sections of Scripture that are just “personifying” the wisdom or power of God. These are straightforward teaching coming from Jesus and His Apostles. There is no reason in any of these texts to deny that the Spirit being spoken of is indeed a Person. Whenever we see these types of actions applied to anyone else, whether God, a good/evil spirit, or a human being, we just assume that the text is speaking of a personal being.

The only times we wonder if it is indeed a personal being or if it is just symbolic language is when we are in clearly poetical sections of Scripture, and the name of the one being described is something like “wisdom”, “integrity”, etc. Symbolic language exists that personifies descriptions of people or God, but there is no evidence that is happening in these texts. So, on what basis do non-Trinitarians say that the Holy Spirit is not a Person?

Arguments Against the Personhood of the Holy Spirit

There are a few ways that the Holy Spirit is argued to be impersonal, of course. These include apparently impersonal language applied to the Spirit. Also there are times when the Spirit is left out of certain sentences that include the Father and the Son, both in terms of greetings and benedictions, but also in narratives. Thirdly, there are a few passages that seem to identify the Spirit with the Father or the Son in some way that could be understood as just an aspect of one of them, and not another Person. Let’s look at these arguments and some responses.

Holy Spirit Described in Impersonal Ways

We can be filled with the Holy Spirit, like something we drink.

Eph. 5:18

And do not be drunk with wine (in which is dissipation), but be filled by the Spirit,

The Spirit can be poured out.

Acts 2:17

‘And it will be in the last days,’ God says,

‘I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

and your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams.

The Holy Spirit is described as fire.

Matthew 3:11

I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who comes after me is more powerful than I am, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The Holy Spirit is given as a gift.

Romans 5:5

and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Unitarians argue against the personhood of the Spirit in various ways, but the most common is to point out impersonal language like what is found in the above passages to make their case. How can a person be “poured out”, “fill” another person, be a “fire”, or be “given” to others? Answering the “how” of it all is impossible, but does it prove the Holy Spirit isn’t a Person? No. If you’ve read my article on the “word study” defense, you may recall that I said that sometimes, it’s a good defense, and this is one of those times. All of these concepts are applied to other persons besides the Holy Spirit as well, showing that they don’t necessarily indicate a non-person. Let’s look at some examples of that.

We are filled up with God.

Ephesians 3:19

and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Paul was poured out.

Philippians 2:17

But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and rejoice with all of you.

2 Timothy 4:6

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is imminent.

Yahweh is a fire.

Deuteronomy 4:24

for Yahweh your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.

Hebrews 12:29

For indeed our God is a consuming fire.

People are given by the Father to the Son.

John 17:6

name to the men whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours, and you have given them to me, and they have kept your word.

Jesus was given.

John 3:16

For in this way God loved the world, so that he gave his one and only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.

Romans 8:32

Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, together with him, freely give us all things?

Interestingly, in an article called, “34 reasons Why the Holy Spirit Is Not a “Person”—Separate from the Only True God, the Father,” John Schoenheit states in reason number 27 that, “It is also confusing to contemplate how the gift of a ‘person’ is even possible, and the only answer Trinitarians can provide is that this is part of the ‘mystery’ of the Trinity” (scare quotes in the original). Of course it’s possible. The most famous verse in the Bible says it.

Now, why doesn’t my word study defense fall under the same criticisms as the Unitarian arguments I addressed in that post? Well, first, none of the impersonal language applied to the Holy Spirit is said in any of these texts to prove anything or to be exclusive to the Holy Spirit. So it is not equivalent to, say, Jesus statement to “only” worship God. Also, the argument from this impersonal language is not supported by any clear statement that the Holy Spirit is not a Person. In the above-quoted article, not one of those reasons is “Scripture says the Holy Spirit is not a Person”. There are only inferences to possible parallels with non-persons, but these don’t actually prove the case. The fact that there are clear, unambiguous statements that speak of the attributes of personhood related to the Spirit, then we have no clear, positive statement to cause us to deny it.

Schoenheit’s group, and others that splintered from the Way International, typically have, as I mentioned, a more sophisticated take on the Holy Spirit, that separates “the Holy Spirit” from “holy spirit”. When the name is capitalized, it is just another name for the Father Himself. This would be how they attempt to deal with all the clear, personal language. When in lower case, it refers to the gift given to believers and is impersonal. Space does not permit a full refutation of this view here, but I will point out a few things.

The distinction helps to deflect arguments that show personhood in the Scriptures, which groups that do not have this distinction have a harder time defending against. However, there are some problems. For example, there is no Scripture that explains this difference. We do have a few mentions of the Spirit of God or Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, but mainly the Spirit first really comes on the scene at Pentecost, and then we have all of the speaking about Him throughout the New Testament. What doesn’t happen is a clear explanation at any point that the writers of Scripture will now sometimes be speaking of the Father as the Holy Spirit, and frequently, but also they will start now talking about this new gift as the “holy spirit” as well. What is the purpose of introducing a new way to refer to God and a new gift but call them the same thing? Why cause all the confusion? Also, if you read carefully, some of the above passages that do speak of the Spirit as a Person also differentiate Him from the Father and the Son.

Arguments from Silence

Another argument advanced against the personhood of the Holy Spirit is the fact that He does not appear in some Scriptural texts. In the above linked article, Schoenheit calls them arguments from “omission”. The argument goes that if you don’t have the Spirit mentioned where the Father and Son are, this is evidence that the Spirit is not a Person. This happens in Paul’s greetings at the beginning of his letters, and we’ve looked at one Schoenheit cites in Revelation, where the Father and Son have a throne, but where is the Spirit’s throne?

I called this section “arguments from silence” because that is just what these are. And an argument from silence is a specific kind of well-known logical fallacy. This fallacy occurs whenever someone draws any conclusion from a speaker/writer’s silence in a given instance other than silence. So, for example, if we were to conclude from the fact that a scene in the Gospels specifically names only Jesus and one disciple, that no one else was there, would be fallacious. Just because someone isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Likewise, to conclude whether other people were there who are not in any way mentioned would also be fallacious.

This type of faulty reasoning is common among skeptical or atheistic critiques of the Scriptures. One Gospel account mentions something that another doesn’t, and there are accusations of contradiction in the text. Really, one author mentioned something that another omitted, but that omission is not a statement that it wasn’t there. It would be rather silly to insist that every scene described in the Gospel should include every detail about everything there, including an exhaustive list of all participants, etc.

This is exactly the kind of reasoning we find in many Unitarian arguments against the Personhood of the Holy Spirit. Why doesn’t Paul include the Spirit in his greetings? Why isn’t the Spirit said to have a throne in the book of Revelation? It would be one thing if there were literally no passage in the entire Bible that described the Holy Spirit as doing things that a Person does. Then, we could at least conclude that the Bible nowhere ascribes personhood to the Spirit. But we’ve seen that there are many passages that do describe the Spirit this way. So the fact that some don’t doesn’t mean those other passages are wrong. That would be like saying that because Yahweh is described as a fortress (Psalm 18:2), and fortresses are structures, not persons, therefore Yahweh cannot be a Person.

This is why the argument from silence is a fallacy. We cannot conclude that an omission of the Spirit from any text proves anything about the Spirit, let alone that He isn’t a Person. Biblical theology is determined by what the Bible actually says, not by human inferences based on what it doesn’t say.

And often, there are counter examples to these arguments as well. For example, there are passages that omit the Father or Son but still mention the Spirit (Matt. 12:32, 1 Thess. 4:8). Also, though Paul’s greetings omit the Spirit, Peter’s included Him (1 Peter 1:1-2). Again, the simple fact that Scripture is silent in a certain way in a certain text is a flimsy thing to try to build a theology on, but people try.

There are other arguments put forward, of course, but none address the simple fact that the Holy Spirit is repeatedly affirmed as a Person in Scripture, as we’ve seen. So any theology that holds a blanket denial of the Spirit as a Person is false. But what about Schoenheit and others like him who make a distinction that allowed them to affirm that the Spirit is a Person, but just identical with the Father? considered on its own, this explanation does at least present an explanation for why the Spirit is identified as a Person without admitting He is a distinct Person from the Father and the Son.

When we examine the Scriptures, however, we find that this perspective doesn’t hold up. First, on a logical level, it is inconsistent with another common Unitarian argument that the Trinity should all be explained in one passage, since there is no passage that clearly distinguishes between “the Holy Spirit”, another name for the Father, and “holy spirit”, the gift and power of God that is impersonal. If the Trinity has to all be explained in one passage to be true, then there must be a passage explaining the difference between these two kinds of “Spirit” for that distinction to be true. There is no such passage, so Schoenheit and those who agree with him must either abandon this perspective on the Spirit/spirit distinction or they must abandon the argument against the Trinity based on not having it all explained at once. He cannot keep both consistently.

But, more importantly, there are Scriptures that contain both the language that shows the Spirit is distinct from the Father and that He is a Person. Some we have already cited, but consider the following.

John 16:13

But when he—the Spirit of truth—comes, he will guide you into all the truth. For he will not speak from himself, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will proclaim to you the things to come.

Here Jesus is specifically talking about the outpouring of the Spirit, and says He Himself is going to the Father, but the Spirit will come to His people. He speaks what the Father tells Him. This is not the Father, but it is a Person.

Also, the Spirit intercedes with the Father.

Romans 8:26

And likewise also, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as one ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with unexpressed groanings.

Intercession is an act of a Person. It is pleading the case of one person before another. What passage of Scripture says that God’s own power and presence pleads with God on behalf of people? And it cannot be the Father here, either, because who would the Father ever be pleading with?

Conclusions

Ultimately, the Scriptures speak of the Holy Spirit in diverse ways, including affirming He is a Person. However, never, not once, do they explicitly deny He is a Person, not even in any figurative way. The only reason anyone denies that the Spirit is a Person is that they have a theology that cannot allow it. If you’re committed to denying the Trinity, then you have to find ways around these texts. If your brand of Trinity-denial follows the Unitarian model, then there’s no room for a personal Holy Spirit. That is what it really comes down to. It is not the text that is creating this theology, but the theology that is driving the interpretation of the text into absurdity.

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