The first article in this series outlined the arguments that moved the early Christians toward the doctrine of the Trinity. They accepted the divinity of the Jesus they worshipped, yet maintained the oneness of God.
Based on Scripture and rejecting pagan philosophy, they understood that for Jesus to be fully God, He must be Creator, independent of the created world. He is therefore eternal, omnipotent, ever-present and all-knowing. If He is less, He would be a second God. But as the Father and the Son are clearly two distinct persons or personalities, it follows that in the one God, there is more than one person. This Bible-based conclusion moved the early church to the next step, the identity of the Holy Spirit. How did the Christian church reach its understanding of the Holy Spirit as eternal God, distinct from, and yet one with, the Father and the Son?
Because Christians were convinced of the full, eternal divinity of Jesus Christ, the numerous triadic or trinitarian references to the Godhead in Scripture naturally led them to understand the Holy Spirit in a similar way. The Spirit was mentioned in line with the Father and the Son and is evidently, therefore, both distinct from and of the same rank.
As stated by Jesus in the gospel commission in Matthew 28:18-20, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 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, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (NKJV).
By mentioning the three persons but using the singular, referring to only one “name,” Jesus indicates the close unity of being that characterizes the one Godhead with its three distinct persons or personalities.1 Other well-known examples from the many triadic references scattered throughout the New Testament are found in 2 Corinthians 13:13 and Revelation 1:4-6.2
BUT WHAT ABOUT . . . ?
But is not the word “spirit” used about human beings referring to the identity of that person himself, not another person? Is not the term “spirit” itself and a number of the metaphors used for “spirit” impersonal? And if the Spirit with a capital “S” really is God, why are no prayers and no worship in Scripture directed toward Him, and why is so little said about the nature of the Spirit at all?3
Such challenges and objections are often raised today as if completely new, yet they were far from unknown to the early Christian church. Its response then in some ways mirrors the modern history of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, as we have also come to understand the Holy Spirit as a distinct personality, yet one with God and part of the Godhead. Reflecting on these questions leads us toward a better understanding of both God and our own personal spiritual life and salvation. The task is not just an intellectual exercise.
HE IS A PERSON
A number of biblical texts speak about the Holy Spirit in ways different from when Scripture mentions the spirit of man. Texts like these underline the personhood of the Holy Spirit:
• “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Corinthians 12:11, NRSV).
• “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30, NIV).
• “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:31, 32, ESV).
The Spirit has His own will and chooses accordingly. He can be grieved and blasphemed against. Such expressions are not fit for a mere power or influence but are characteristics of a person. Is the Spirit then a person just like you and me? No, we use limited human terminology to describe the divine, and the Spirit is so much more than we humans will never be.
YET THEY ARE ONE!
These quotations about the personhood of the Holy Spirit are important because they describe the Spirit as different from the Father and the Son. He is another. Jesus tells us that sin against the Spirit is not identical with sin against Himself. Though united as one in a way no humans are, they are not the same person. They are distinct.
This distinctiveness is expressed in many New Testament texts. For example, Luke underlines the “threeness” in his description of the baptism of Jesus, where Father, Son, and Spirit clearly are not identical (see Luke 3:21, 22). And Jesus Himself— when sharing the promise of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit—also made it clear:
• “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16, ESV).
• “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26, ESV).4
This difference between Jesus and the Holy Spirit was significant for the early Christians’ understanding of the heavenly sanctuary. Jesus had entered as our heavenly High Priest and, maintaining His humanity, He limited Himself. When Peter, following the Day of Pentecost, further explained the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he, therefore, emphasised that Jesus “must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:21, NIV).
HE POINTS TO ANOTHER
So why does the Spirit tell so little about Himself? Why are no prayers in the New Testament directed to the Holy Spirit? The answer to these questions spring out of the role of the Spirit in the plan of salvation. Jesus said, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14, ESV).
In a sense, the Holy Spirit is the humble representative of the Godhead. He is not speaking about Himself but pointing to another. It is in Jesus we know God as a person. The Sovereign of the universe has chosen to come to us as a human being in Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus, we know God as Saviour and friend.
When praying, we communicate with God. Prayer is part of a dialogue. So, when we pray, we focus on the person we address, as we know Him. We know Him as Jesus, not as the Spirit. But when we pray, the Spirit comes to our aid to portray Jesus as He is. The Spirit who inspired the writers of the Bible comes to us to illuminate our minds to see God in Jesus when we read the Word and in prayer to respond to the divine mercy and love.
SECRETS TO A SPIRITUAL LIFE
Jesus left His disciples. He serves as our High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary. Maintaining His humanity, He has limited Himself. But God is still with us. The Holy Spirit—a distinct person and part of the one God—is here to point us to Jesus. He is ready to pour out the love of God in our hearts (see Romans 5:5) and grow the fruit of love, peace and joy (see Galatians 5:22) in our lives. He shares gifts to equip the church for its service (see Ephesians 4:7-13).
He is a humble representative of God. He points to Another, and to receive His blessings, we must forget ourselves and look to that Other, namely Jesus. The apostle Paul made this point clear: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:1, 2, ESV).
We know God the Father through Jesus—God the Son. And we know Jesus through God the Holy Spirit.
MYTHS ABOUT THE TRINITY DOCTRINE
A peculiarly Catholic doctrine?
Myths about the Trinity doctrine prevail. One of the most common is that the doctrine of the Trinity is a peculiarly Roman Catholic doctrine.
The fact is that the Nicene Creed was based on a previous baptismal vow, most likely from Antioch. The 318 delegates who voted in 325 AD and confirmed the doctrine were primarily from the eastern regions of the Christian church. Only four bishops from the Western part of the Roman Empire took part and the bishop of Rome—the pope—was not present.
The Trinity doctrine was embraced by the vast majority of early Christian churches. It is historically accepted by Orthodox, Lutherans, Reformed, Puritans, Anglicans and more. It is not a uniquely Roman Catholic doctrine.
The word “catholic” originally had another sense, however, namely universal or general. It was and is the generally accepted Christian doctrine. It was the Christian understanding of God in contrast to pagan and Jewish views at the time of the early church, and to the Muslim view of Allah a little later in history.
But shouldn’t we, some say, reject the doctrine if it is shared by Catholics? In this case, should we then also reject the incarnation, the virgin birth and prayer? Of course not. While there are differences in the way Catholics and Adventists view this because of the difference in our general theological perspective, we agree on the eternal distinction, as well as the unity of the three Father, Son and Holy Spirit just as we agree with Lutherans, Reformed, Orthodox and Christians in general, in contrast to Muslims and Jews.
As Adventists, we share with other Protestants strong views on the Roman Catholic Church and have identified this power in the historical prophecies of the Bible. But it is worth noting that Ellen White never includes the doctrine of the Trinity as one of the critical elements of the teachings of Rome.
DO OTHER CHRISTIANS BELIEVE JESUS HAD A BEGINNING?
The answer is no! But confusion arises at times because the Nicene Creed uses expressions like “born, not made” and “eternally begotten/born before all times.” As strange as these and many other expressions may sound today, the intention when they were formulated was to counter the Arian teaching that Jesus had a beginning. Those who authored, voted for and later confessed the teachings of the Nicene Creed, by these terms, express their faith in the eternal divinity of the Son.
1 Various critics claim the “gospel commission” was absent from the early manuscripts of Matthew. This claim is completely without any basis in fact. Moreover, the Trinitarian baptismal formula is attested as a quotation as early as around 100 AD in the writing called “Didache.”
2 These triadic references do not always contain the sequence of Father, Son and Spirit. In Ephesians 4:4-6, the Spirit is mentioned first, then the Son and then the Father. Scholars have counted triadic references in the Pauline letters and found Jesus first in 16 instances, the Holy Spirit to be mentioned first in nine texts, and the Father first six times. This variation makes it clear the sequence is not intended to provide any ranking in authority or being.
3 The distinction made by using small or capital first letters is a recent typographical phenomenon. It never applied at the times of writing the biblical manuscripts, which only contained large or capital letters. It did not apply at the time of the translation of the King James Version. And even in the time and culture of Ellen White, there was no consistent custom of writing the personal pronouns or references to God with either small or capital letters.
4 The three are clearly described as distinct from one another. For example, try replacing the first person in John 16:14, spoken by Jesus, with the third-person reference to the Holy Spirit. The result will show the absurdity: the Spirit “will glorify himself, for he will take what is his and declare it to you!” This is not what Jesus teaches.
This is the second article in a series of three dealing with the issue of the Trinity in the Bible, in the early church and in the Seventh-day Adventist movement. This article has been reprinted, by permission, from Record magazine, published by SPD.
Paul Petersen is field secretary for the South Pacific Division, based in Wahroonga, New South Wales.