Deity and Personality of the Holy Spirit-The
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
There are two obvious dangers to be avoided when we seek to explain the nature of any of the blessed persons within the Godhead. The first is reluctance on our part to state how the separate, yet connected, persons of the Godhead are revealed to us in scripture. The second is an excessive curiosity into the nature and activity of any person within the Godhead where scripture is deliberately silent on the matter. We need therefore to be circumspect in what we write and be conscious of biblical teaching, otherwise it will simply be idle (and dangerous) speculation on our part.1
One of the major issues that faced the early church was not so much why they professed belief in God as a Trinity, but how could they express this doctrine and still maintain belief in the unity of God? As Arthur Wainwright points out, ‘if the Word had not been made flesh then there would have been no stumbling block for Jewish monotheism’.2 The fact, however, that the Word did enter into human experience, John 1. 14, meant that the church needed to explain the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, i.e., they had to explain initially a binitarian concept. That would prove to be a huge challenge for them, especially as it then spoke of a third person within the Godhead, namely the Holy Spirit. Whether the early church actively sought to explain this unique relationship within the Godhead is a moot point. They might have been conscious of the inherent danger of being associated with polytheism and so positively refrained from emphasizing that God was three in order to avoid confusion and conflict. Clearly, though, the early church did regard the Godhead as a Trinity of equals, hence Tertullian’s later term ‘tri-unity’, which expressed the unity of the Godhead. Tertullian was, in fact, the first person to use the words ‘person’, ‘substance’ and ‘Trinity’ in explaining the relationship within the Godhead. So recognizing that the early church found support in scripture for Trinitarianism, our series of studies in respect of the Holy Spirit must start with establishing precisely why we believe in the deity and personality of the Holy Spirit.
Old Testament background
The Hebrew word for ‘spirit’ in the Old Testament is ruach, which is also the same word for breathe or wind. This means that it is often very difficult in many passages to determine whether the reference is in fact to the Holy Spirit, or whether to an impersonal force, e.g., Genesis chapter 8 verse 1. The title ‘Holy Spirit’ only occurs in Psalm 51 verse 11 and Isaiah chapter 63 verses 10-11 and, on the face of it, these references apply generically to God. Other passages, in the main, refer to the Spirit of God, for example, Genesis chapter 1 verse 2. However, what is clear from the Old Testament is that the Holy Spirit is extremely active, and His presence is noted in the following activities:
- In the act of Creation – Gen. 1. 2;
- In bestowing extraordinary ability on Bezaleel for the work of the tabernacle – Exod. 31. 3;
- In an endowment of power to Othniel to become a judge – Judg. 3. 10;
- In giving the breath of life – Eccles. 12. 7;
- In the commissioning of Ezekiel to serve as a prophet – Ezek. 2. 2.
The Holy Spirit came upon individuals in the Old Testament, e.g., Judges chapter 3 verse 10, but there are few instances of the Spirit actually indwelling them. It is also very difficult to piece together any coherent doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit, because of the lack of biblical material. Nonetheless, the Old Testament does not detract from the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, but His personality is very much shrouded in mystery. This mystery needed New Testament revelation, and particularly the ascension of the risen Christ, to formally effect the truth that not only would the Holy Spirit come upon God’s people, as in the past, but that he would now indwell them, John 14. 17.3
The Deity of the Holy Spirit
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit was little debated in the first few centuries of the early church as the majority of controversies centred around the person of Christ. It was only the Arian controversy in the fourth century that moved the church to formulate and formally recognize the distinctness of the Holy Spirit. Part of the Athanasian Creed states, ‘so the Father is God: and the Son is God: and the Holy Spirit is God’. Later, Gregory of Nazianzus is credited with advancing this view to a neo-Nicene position where he demanded that the homoousian4 of the Holy Spirit (with the Father) should also be recognized. He, thus, became the primary architect of the classical doctrine of the coequal Trinity, i.e., how the divine unity coexists in three coequal hypostases.5
We consider, then, the deity of the Holy Spirit by asking ourselves a simple question. What constitutes deity? The English word ‘deity’ comes from a Latin word Deus which means ‘God’, or someone who has ‘divine nature’. So when we speak about the ‘deity’ of the Holy Spirit we are in fact stating that the Holy Spirit is God without any reservation or qualification. Put another way, we believe that the Holy Spirit has all the essential attributes of God without which He would cease to be God. But this, then, begs a second question. If the Holy Spirit is God, how is this demonstrated in scripture? Perhaps a supplementary question should also be raised at this juncture, what are the essential characteristics or attributes of God? Taking the supplementary question first, most scholars suggest that the attributes of God include, among others things, holiness, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, immutability. Other attributes, such as impeccability, transcendence, and eternality are closely linked with these other attributes. Let’s therefore examine scripture ‘to see if these things (are) so’, Acts 17. 11.
The Bible constantly refers to the Spirit of God as the ‘Holy Spirit’, which means that the Spirit is intrinsically holy, or holy in essence. This is contrasted with an assigned or dedicated holiness such as the tabernacle, which was made holy by God’s presence, Exod. 29. 43. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is so serious an offence that it cannot be forgiven, Mark 3. 28, which clearly suggests that the inherent holiness of the Spirit is unparalleled. Similarly, lying to the Holy Spirit is regarded as an unholy act, Acts 5. 3, as is profanity, Heb.10. 29. In Romans chapter 1 verse 4, Paul states that it was in the power of the spirit of holiness that Christ was declared to be the Son of God. Most commentators assume that the expression ‘spirit of holiness’ is a reference to the Holy Spirit. Charles Cranfield suggests that it simply reflects the Hebrew expression ruah hakkodes (the spirit of holiness) found in Rabbinic literature, which can be compared with Psalm 51 verse 11(MT) and Isaiah chapter 63 verses 10f.6 Interestingly, the Septuagint (LXX) version of Isaiah chapter 63 verse 10 uses an almost identical expression to that of Paul in Romans chapter 1 verse 4.
This attribute reflects the fact that the Holy Spirit has absolute and unlimited power in the way in which He acts. Earthly potentates might often consider themselves to be omnipotent, but ultimately their power is shown to be finite, and fleeting, e.g., Nebuchadnezzar, Dan. 4. 29-33. But the Holy Spirit is all powerful continually, as not only did He bring creation into being, Job 33. 4, but He continues to maintain His providential control over the created world, Ps. 104. 30. By parallel reasoning in John chapter 3, our Lord indicates that to be born of (or through the power of) the Holy Spirit is equivalent to being born of (or through the power of) God. The Holy Spirit gives eternal life, which only God can do, John. 6. 63.7 It was in the power of the Holy Spirit that Christ effected His work upon the cross, Heb. 9.13-14, and later signs and miracles were effected by Him through Paul’s instrumentality.8 Grant Osborne states, in this context, that ‘the Spirit both undergirds everything Paul does, including his miracles, and brings the Gentiles into the sanctifying presence of God (v.16)’.9
1 John Calvin took a similar view with regard to the emotive subject of ‘predestination’, see chapter 21 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.
2 Arthur Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament, SPCK, pg. 3.
3 We do not disagree with Wayne Grudem’s comments at page 637 per se (Systematic Theology), i.e., that the Old Testament does frequently speak of people who had the Holy Spirit in them or who were filled with the Holy Spirit, e.g., Joshua, Num. 27. 18, but these are fairly exceptional cases, and, in our view, the interpretation of John chapter 14 verse 17 as suggested above is a legitimate option.
4 The term ‘homoousian’ (ὁμοούσιοv) was initially used in the Nicene Creed to express the view that Jesus was equally God. It helps to explain the unique relationship between the Father and the Son, and then later it was also applied to the Holy Spirit. Essentially, it confirmed that all three persons are consubstantial and co-eternal.
5 The A-Z of Patristic Theology, SCM Press, pp. 151-152.
6 Charles Cranfield, Romans, The International Critical Commentary, T&T Clark, pg. 64/n. 2.
7 Note also Hebrews chapter 9 verse 14.
8 See , Rom. 15. 18-19; Gal. 3. 5, e.g., Acts 14. 3; 15. 12. In 2 Corinthians chapter 12 verse 12, Paul indicates that these ‘signs, and wonders and mighty deeds’ confirmed his apostolic credentials. The expression ‘signs and wonders’ has textual echoes of similar expressions found in the Old Testament, which relate directly to the exercise of God of His divine power, e.g., Exod. 7. 3; Deut. 34. 11; Neh. 9. 10.
9 Grant Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, pg. 390, my underlining.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.