Holy Spirit: Person or power?
Have you encountered these questions: Is the Holy Spirit a power or a person? Is He simply a divine influence or the Divine Influencer? Is He God’s energy or the Energiser of God's people? Is He a profound agent or simply a powerful effect? Is the Spirit the result of the Father or Christ’s presence or is He present and acting for and with the Father and Christ? The difference between the two ideas is profound. While one position restricts our reading of Scripture, the other opens up its riches. One position enables us to see God's glory while the other obscures and denigrates it.
Let’s re-ask the question this way: Is God's Spirit, like His understanding or power, an attribute without any substantive existence of its own, or is He God’s Spirit in the same way as Jesus is God’s Word? In the latter case the terms "Spirit" and "Word" express Persons with the closest possible unity with the Father, a shared divine nature and the exclusive ability to reveal Him in ways specific to their own identity. The Father, His Spirit and His Word, mutually and inseparably belong to each other. They cannot be understood apart from each other but neither are any to be depersonalised and collapsed into the others. Understood this way these terms (Spirit and Word) are not redundant synonyms for the power, activity or influence of a individualistic deity but revelations of an inner-related God. In essence, is God like a big powerful singular being (who creates, emanates, begets or generates a "son" and who exudes or produces a "spirit") or is God more like a communion of fellowship and love? Is God triune or not?
Testing the alternatives
Rather than speculate let us put these different views to the test. Which approach better explains the following Scriptures? Take Jesus' words in Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The Greek text is clear that this is a singular Name but Jesus is equally clear that there are three bearers of the Name. The Trinitarian model naturally asserts that all Three share the dignity of divine Personhood. The singular divine Name reveals a divine Person (Father), divine Person (Son) and divine Person (Holy Spirit). The unity plus repetition highlights the perfect symmetry and equality that constitutes God. The non-Trinitarian alternative breaks all of this. The "name" becomes an unequal confusion of God and less than God, a strange medley of persons and non-person. Depending on which version of anti-Trinitarian theology you are dealing with you can end up baptised in the name of a supreme God, a derived god and non-personal power or influence. Sounds slightly pagan! The Trinitarian reading is more coherent, logical, simple and beautiful.
Or take 1 Corinthians 13:14: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” This beautiful benediction has a profound pattern highlighting divine Personhood. The personal quality "grace" of a particular divine Person "Jesus" is paralleled to the personal quality "love" of another divine Person "God" (by implication the Father). The clearly established pattern indicates how we should read the next parallel phrase. The obvious personal quality of "fellowship" requires another divine Person, the "Holy Spirit". Here the Spirit cannot be reduced to a mere stand-in for the Father or Jesus. In parallel fashion He shares the category of individual Personhood with Them and is thus distinguished from Them by His own personal identity. This natural reading of the text yields basic Trinitarian theology.
Anti-Trinitarian interpretation tears all this apart. The brunt of the attack is directed against the Holy Spirit. The irony of course is that Paul defines the Holy Spirit with the most person-intensive quality possible—fellowship! Any theory that reduces the Spirit to the power or influence of another simply cannot cope with the text. I appreciate the power of gravity but I’ve never fellowshipped with it. I still feel the influence of my parents but that is not the same as fellowship with them. Fellowship is incomparably more than influence or power. Only mutual "persons" or "fellows" are capable of fellowship. Why affirm a teaching that robs the Spirit of what Paul declares is His defining quality?
Then we have the insightful comment by Paul that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). This verse emphasises the Spirit's own individuality and action (“the Spirit Himself”). In context this serves to distinguish Him from the Father and Christ (verses 15, 17) and our own human spirit (verse 16). And of course witnessing is the work of a person. It's no wonder that Ellen White references this verse, in combination with 1 Corinthians 2:11, in her powerful assertion that the Spirit is a divine Person. “The Holy Spirit has a personality, else He could not bear witness to our spirits and with our spirits that we are the children of God. He must also be a divine person, else He could not search out the secrets which lie hidden in the mind of God.”1
Person or power or . . . both?
At the same time we must acknowledge phrases or expressions that describe the Spirit as a power or influence of God. For example, much like water, you can be baptised by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11), filled by the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) or have Him poured out upon people (Acts 10:45). You can be anointed by the Spirit (Acts 10:38), sealed by the Spirit (Ephesians 1:13) and His regenerative work is likened to the wind (John 3:8). It is verses like these that lead some to question the Spirit’s personality. Is there a contradiction here? What are we to make of this?
At this point we either find a doctrinal model big enough to handle all the evidence or disregard evidence by constructing hopelessly narrow models controlled by earthly reason. This is where the superior explanatory power of the basic doctrine of the Trinity commends itself. If the Holy Spirit is a divine Person then we can affirm all verses that indicate personhood and we can affirm all verses that utilise language describing the Spirit or His work as a force or power or influence. The expansive category of divine person effortlessly and naturally accounts for the narrower category of power or influence. But the reverse is not true. The limited impersonal category of power can never account for the higher level concept of a Person. A personal Holy Spirit is capable of everything Scripture says about Him. A mere power only accounts for some of the biblical texts.
We must remember that when we say the Holy Spirit is a Person we do not mean that He is in all respects like a created individual person. The nature of the Holy Spirit is a mystery. This Person is omnipresent and infinite and so His Personhood may exist in a manner not possible for a created person. Just as the Father dwells in light inapproachable and is beyond comprehension, likewise, much about the Spirit is beyond human explanation. The Spirit must not become the victim of our need to force Him into the limited confines of human reason or imagination. It may be easier to reduce the Spirit to a force, energy or influence from God but the Bible demands we affirm more than that. As Trinitarians all we mean by saying the Spirit is a Person is that He has a mind and knows how to intercede for us (Romans 8:27). That through His will (1 Corinthians 12:11) and knowledge (1 Corinthians 2:11) He can talk and direct (Acts 13:2), teach (John 14:26; 16:13) and comfort (John 14:16). We want to be able to affirm that the Spirit can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30), insulted (Hebrews 10:29), lied to (Acts 5:3,4) and blasphemed (Matthew 12:31). This is only true of persons. None of this excludes describing the humble Spirit or His work with the language of a force or power. Trinitarian teaching is a "both/and" approach on this issue and not an "either/or" position. And this is exactly the approach needed to be able to affirm the profound revelation of an indwelling Spirit who intimately knows the heart of the Father and Son and is able to help us love Them as He loves them. God is personal all the way down and all the way through. Enjoy the fellowship!
1. Evangelism, pp 616,617.
Pastor Anthony MacPherson is head of Ministry and Theology at Fulton College, Fiji.