One of the big ways that my faith diverges from “standard” Christian doctrine has to do with the Holy Spirit. I don’t believe that a Trinity is the best way to describe the nature of God as revealed in scripture. If you’re reading how I talk about the Holy Spirit and how more well-known Christian authors talk about the Spirit you’ll notice few differences, but we are approaching this topic from very different assumptions.
This post is week 3 of 7 in our count to Pentecost, which makes it a good time to talk about the Holy Spirit. I grew up in a church that teaches that the Holy Spirit is the power of God and the part of Him that communicates with our spirits rather than a third person in a Trinity. We believe the Godhead consists of two Beings — God the Father and The Word who became Jesus Christ.
As I’ve studied the topic for myself, this has become my belief as well. The governing principle for how I (try to) approach faith and study is that because the Bible is God’s word it acts as the ultimate authority on any subject. Church traditions and teachings can be valuable resources, but if they ever contradict the Bible then they’re the ones who are wrong. That’s how I approach the topic of the Holy Spirit. Start with the Bible, then see which teachings and traditions line-up with what God has revealed through His word.
Understanding And Relationship
One of the core principles of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it cannot be understood. Walter Martin says, “the Trinity is still largely incomprehensible to the mind of man. Perhaps the chief reason for this is that the Trinity is a-logical, or beyond logic” (Essential Christianity, 1975, page 21). Proponents of the Trinity get around this problem by saying we shouldn’t try to fully understand God anyway because He is so far above us.
This sounds good at first — after all the Lord’s judgments are “unsearchable” and “His ways past finding out” (Rom. 11:33). It would be the height of hubris to think that a statement God makes about Himself is invalid because we can’t understand it. However, He does not tell us He exists as a Trinity. I find it hard think that the God who makes eternal life contingent on knowing Him would make the most basic fact of His nature so obscure, hidden, and mysterious.
This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ.(John 17:3, WEB)
In John 17, Jesus defines eternal life as a relationship between a human being, God the Father, and Jesus Christ (incidentally, if the Holy Spirit is a third person, why isn’t he mentioned here?). This key to eternal life seems simple, and indeed it is supposed to be. Our relationship with God the Father and His Son are central to our faith, and as such this concept must be easy enough for even a child to understand. There are unfathomable depths to faith in the one true God, but Christianity is also intended to be a religion that’s accessible for everyone.
Leaving out 1/3 of God?
The exclusion of the Holy Spirit from so many verses that talk about the Godhead should be sufficient reason to reexamine the Trinity as a doctrine. Take the example of the apostles’ opening remarks in all their letters. Every one focuses on the Father and the Son, while only one makes mention of the Spirit. This will be a lot of text, but I’m going to quote them all here from the NKJV translation:
- “Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:1-3)
- “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:1-3)
- “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Co. 1:1-2)
- “Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me, to the churches of Galatia: grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Gal. 1:1-5)
- “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 1:1-2)
- “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1:1-2)
- “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Col. 1:1-2)
- “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thes.s 1:1; 2 Thes. 1:1-2)
- Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the commandment of God our Savior and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope, to Timothy, a true son in the faith: grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Tim. 1:1-2)
- “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, a beloved son: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. (2 Tim. 1:1-2)
- “Paul, a bondservant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect and the acknowledgment of the truth which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began, but has in due time manifested His word through preaching, which was committed to me according to the commandment of God our Savior; to Titus, a true son in our common faith: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 1:1-4)
- “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philemon 1:1-3)
- “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” (Hebrews 1:1-4)
- “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: greetings.” (James 1:1)
- “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace be multiplied.” (1 Peter 1:1-2)
- “Simon Peter, a bondservant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:1-2)
- “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:1-3)
- “Jude, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to those who are called, sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ: mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” (Jude 1:1-2)
When the men who were personally taught by Jesus Christ wrote to other believers, they opened their letters by talking about the two God-beings who are the whole reason for our faith. The only time the Holy Spirit is mentioned (which is in 1 Peter) it’s spoken of as the means of sanctification, not as a third person. This isn’t enough on it’s own to disprove Trinity doctrine (for example, when they speak of “God” without specifying “God the Father,” the word could be understood in a plural sense). However, it’s definitely worth noting in the context of the other points we’re talking about in this article.
Power of God
If the Bible doesn’t talk about the Holy Spirit as a distinct person in a Trinity, then how is the Spirit described? There are quite a few ways scripture talks about the Spirit. Firstly, it is called the power of God.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. (Acts 1:8, WEB)
The gospels speak of Jesus “being filled with the Holy Spirit” and moving forward with His ministry “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:1, 14). Similarly, Paul said he preached the gospel of Christ “in mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (Rom. 15:19). Power is also given to each member of the body through the Spirit:
But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the profit of all. (1 Cor. 12:7, WEB)
For God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control. (2 Tim. 1:7, WEB)
The Spirit is a part of God that has power. Unlike our spirits, which have little power to affect the outer world, God can use His Spirit to fill people with power and perform mighty works. Here is where people who believe as I do and people who believe in a Trinity start to overlap in how we talk about the Spirit. Trinitarians speak of the Spirit as part of God, but they’re defining God as a three-in-one being. I also speak of the Spirit as part of God, but not as a separate person. There are two God-beings in Elohim, a fact that is consistently revealed from Genesis through Revelation. God is spirit (John 4:26) and both the Father and Son have a Spirit (Rom. 8:9, for example, speaks of the “spirit of Christ”).
Further reading: “Who Was ‘God’ In The Old Testament?”
Essence of God
In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, it mentions that people have a spirit (G4151 pneuma — here speaking of “the vital spirit or life, the principle of life residing in man”), a soul (G5590 psuche — “the immaterial part of man held in common with animals”), and a body (G4983 soma — corporeal body). It is that spiritual part of man which makes it possible to communicate with the corresponding Spirit of God.
But as it is written, “Things which an eye didn’t see, and an ear didn’t hear, which didn’t enter into the heart of man, these God has prepared for those who love him.” But to us, God revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For who among men knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God, except God’s Spirit. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that were freely given to us by God. (1 Cor. 2:9-12, WEB)
1 Corinthians 2 is key to understanding how God communicates with us and works a change inside us It describes God using the Holy Spirit to teach us and to give us His mind so that we can begin to understand His mysteries. His Spirit works with and alters our spirits so that we can have a relationship with Him.
But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if it is so that the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any man doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his. If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised up Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom. 8:9-11, WEB)
This idea of God enlightening our spirits with His Spirit is not isolated to the New Testament. Job 32:8 says, “But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives them understanding.” Interestingly, the Hebrew word neshamah (H5367) which is translated “breath” can also mean “spirit.” Being made in God’s image, man has a spirit just like God has a Spirit (though God’s body is spiritual and ours are, for now at least, physical).
Some History Stuff
Part of the confusion regarding whether or not the Holy Spirit is a distinct person comes from a few key translation errors. One is in 1 John, where a phrase was added to the original manuscripts. I won’t get into the evidence that this phrase is added for the sake of time, but if you want more details click here.
For there are three that bear witness [in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness] on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one. (1 John 5:7-8, NKJV brackets added to indicate the addition. Compare WEB and TLV translations, which correctly exclude this phrase)
Another verse that apparently supports the idea of the Trinity is Matthew 28:19, which reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” There is some secondary-source evidence that the phrase was added (Eusebius quotes the scripture without it pre-council of Nicea). However, Eusebius’ contemporaries quote the verse with the Father, Son, Spirit phrase and there are no primary sources without it, so that’s not definitive proof.
Be that as it may, every baptism recorded in Acts is done “in the name of Jesus Christ.” Whether the phrase was added to Matthew’s gospel or not, the apostles and disciples were not baptizing “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Question of Word Genders
Let’s switch-gears now and talk about word genders. Like several modern languages, nouns and pronouns in Greek have genders — masculine, feminine, or neuter. The word for Spirit is pneuma (G4151). It is singular and gender neutral, and so the pronouns used to refer to it are gender-neutral as well. The Spirit is an “it” rather than a “he.” However, this becomes a bit more complicated in John 14 through 16 where the Holy Spirit is referred to as “comforter.”
The word “comforter” is from parakletos (G3875), which is gender masculine. Since the pronoun gender must agree with the gender of its noun, reading the Greek text will show you masculine pronouns used to refer to the Holy Spirit. However, since parakletos is being used of the Spirit — which is the gender neutral pneuma — it is still correct to translate the masculine pronouns into the English as “it” rather than “he.”
To use a modern example, the French word for book is livre, which is a masculine noun. So in the sentence, “J’ai acheté un livre pour que je puisse le lire,” the pronoun referring to book is masculine. However, we don’t translate it into English as “I bought a book so I could read him.”
There is also a historical basis for recognizing that the Trinity was an idea developed after the Biblical texts were canonized rather than an established teaching of the early church. It’s too lengthy a topic for this post, but if you’re curious this article is a good place to start: “The Surprising Origins of the Trinity Doctrine.”
I hope this post has been helpful in some way. Even if you don’t agree with me about this doctrine, at least now you’ll know where I’m coming from when I write about the Holy Spirit.