The orthodox/creedal doctrine of the Trinity is a complex doctrine, composed of many important and essential elements. It consists of important assertions about the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and about all three together. Under each of these four broader headings can be found a number of important asserts pertaining to each, adding still more complexity. Within this complex doctrine of the Trinity, there are many weak points. We might examine trinitarian equivocation on the term person; the utter absence of any description of God as being multi-personal or triune in the Bible, and the fact that the Bible clearly reveals that God is only one person, the Father of Jesus Christ; the problematic fact that the Bible tells us Jesus’s origin, and it isn’t in ‘eternity past’; or the issue that the Bible defines divinity as relational and functional, not ontological or essential. There is no one single ‘weak point’ of the traditional doctrine of the Trinity; at many of its most important junctures, the doctrine falls apart under unbiased scrutiny, and is shattered to pieces by the Bible’s own contrary teaching about Who God is, and who the Lord Jesus Christ is.
But one important weak-point of the doctrine of the Trinity is the quarter or so of the overall doctrine which deals with the Holy Spirit. For the trinitarian, the Holy Spirit must be the third person of the one God, co-eternal and co-essential with the Father and the Son, perfectly knowing all that God knows, and a participant in every action of God. Yet, this understanding of the Holy Spirit is utterly foreign to the Bible. The Holy Spirit is presented by the Bible not as being a person of or in any way a part of the one God, but as a person entirely distinct from the one God; the Holy Spirit is presented as not knowing all things as God does; and the Holy Spirit simply cannot be proved to be God in any sense from the Bible.
Firstly we note that the Holy Spirit is a person distinct from the one God. For a closer look at why we ought to understand the Holy Spirit to truly be a person, see here. That this person is distinguished from the one God (Who is only one person, the Father), we may turn to John Biddle’s twelve arguments demonstrating that the Holy Spirit is not the one God, a few of which I hope to review in this article. These arguments show us that the Holy Spirit is not individually and numerically identical with the one God, but is genuinely another rational individual being (viz, a person) besides the one God. We shall address arguments pertaining to the notion that the Holy Spirit, as a distinct individual from the one God, shares a generic essence or divine nature with the Father, below.
Here are a few of Biddle’s arguments:
He that speaketh not of himself, is not [the one] God.
The Holy Spirit speaketh not of himself.
Therefore, the Holy Spirit is not [the one] God.
The minor premise is clear from Joh. 16. 13. “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” (NASB) The major premise is proved thus: God speaks of Himself; therefore if there be any one that speaks not of himself, he is not God. The antecedent is of itself apparent; for God is the primary Author of whatsoever he doth; but should he not speak of Himself, He must speak from another, and so not be the primary, but secondary author of His speech; which is absurd, if at least that may be called absurd, which is impossible. The consequence is undeniable. For further confirmation of this Argument, it is to be observed, that to speak or to do any thing not of Himself, according to the ordinary phrase of the Scripture, is to speak or do by the shewing, teaching, commanding, authorizing, or enabling of another, and consequently incompatible with the supreme and self-sufficient Majesty of God. Vid. John 5. 19. 20, 30. Joh. 7. 15, 16, 17, 18, 28. John 8. 28, 42. Joh. 11. 50, 51. John 12. 49, 50. John 14. 10, 24. John 15. 4. John 18. 34. Luke 12. 56, 57. Luke 21. 30. 2 Cor. 3. 5.
He that changes place, is not [the one] God.
The Holy Spirit changes place:
Therefore, the Holy Spirit is not [the one] God.
The Major premise is plain: for if God should change place, he would cease to be where he was before, and begin to be where he was not before; which everteth his Omnipresence, and consequently, by the confession of the adversaries themselves, his Deity. The Minor premise is ocularly apparent, if following the advice of the adversaries, you will but go to Jordan; for there you shall have the holy Spirit in a bodily shape descending from heaven, which is the terminus a quo; and alighting upon Christ, which is the terminus ad-quem, Luke 3. 21, 22. Joh. 1. 32. Neither let any man alledge, that as much is spoken of God, Exod. 3. and chap. 20. and Gen. 18. For if you compare Acts 7. 30, 35, 38, 53. Gal. 3. 19. Heb. 2. 2, 3. and chap. 13. 2. with the foresaid places, you shall find, that it was not God himself that came down, but only an Angel, sustaining the Person and Name of God; which hath no place in the history touching the descent of the holy Spirit.
He that prayeth unto Christ, to come to judgement, is not [the one] God.
The Holy Spirit doth so:
Therefore, the Holy Spirit is not [the one] God.
The Major premise is granted. The Minor is evident from Revel. 22. 17. compared with the 12 verse. “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”… He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.”” (NASB). Neither let any man think to elude this proof, by saying, that the Spirit is here said to pray, only because he makes the Bride to pray: for when the Scripture would signify the assistance of the Holy Spirit in causing men to speak, it is wont to affirm, either that the Holy Spirit speaks in them, as Matth. 10. 20. or that they spake by the Holy Spirit, as Rom. 8. 15. We have received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, Abba, Father. But here it is expressly said, that the Spirit and the Bride say, Come; not the Spirit in the Bride, nor the Bride by the Spirit.
The interested reader is referred to Biddle’s complete presentation of his arguments, linked above, for more arguments demonstrating that the Holy Spirit is not the one God, but another individual being besides the one God.
We may also here note that the Holy Spirit, by the admission of all trinitarians being a person distinct from the Father, does not, according to the Lord Jesus Christ, know all things:
But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.Mark 13:32 NASB
If no one but the Father alone knows the day or the hour, and the Holy Spirit is a person distinct from the Father, then it is plain that the Holy Spirit does not know the day or the hour of Christ’s return. In the case of Jesus saying that he does not know, in this passage, the trinitarians have the cavil of appealing to his having two natures or of having emptied himself somehow, and arguing that he both knew and did not know at the same time. But never do we read of the Holy Spirit undergoing an incarnation, or of emptying itself. Yet the Holy Spirit did not know this, but only the Father did. This disproves the trinitarian claim that the Holy Spirit, as person of triune God, shares one mind with the other persons of the Trinity, and knows all things. God is omniscient; the Holy Spirit is not. This shows that the Holy Spirit is not individually the same as the one God, Who knows all things, and also, according to the logic of the trinitarians, shows that the Holy Spirit is not co-essential with the Father at all, as to be omniscient is considered an ‘essential’ attribute of God, which any person who has the same generic essence must then also possess.
The Holy Spirit, then, is shown to not be individually the same as the one God, but distinct from Him. Some primitive forms of trinitarianism, however, would have no problem with such a proposition; they would simply assert that the Spirit is generically co-essential with the one God, the Father, and so shares a common nature with the Father and is “true God of true God”. This point we have already shown false, by the fact that the Holy Spirit is not omniscient, something which, according to trinitarians, is an attribute of the divine essence, and must be possessed by any person co-essential with God the Father.
However, we may also simply note that there is no basis for supposing the Holy Spirit is generically co-essential with the Father in the Bible. In the case of Jesus, trinitarians twist passages that call Jesus “God” or “a god”, and say that the divinity Jesus possesses is essential and ontological. This is not the case; deity in the Bible is always relative, relational, and functional; it is not a species or essence. However, in the case of the Holy Spirit, unlike that of Christ, there are simply no passages of the Bible from which one might prove that the Holy Spirit is God. In no text of scripture can it be shown that the Holy Spirit is called “God” or “a god” such that this confession might be twisted to support the notion that the Spirit shares a generic essence with the Father.
On this point, we must note what most trinitarians will readily acknowledge in any other circumstance, that a passage of the Bible which may be interpreted as supporting any doctrine x, if it can also validly be interpreted as not supporting doctrine x, cannot be ushered as proof of doctrine x. Yet, trinitarians ignore this when it comes to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit; in a scramble to find something, anything, in the whole Bible which would identify the Holy Spirit as God, they come up empty-handed. Therefore, they typically appeal to a couple of passages which absolutely do not prove that the Holy Spirit is “God”, but which, with some difficulty, may be interpreted as calling the Spirit “God”, as one of multiple valid interpretations. That is, these passages can be read as calling the Holy Spirit “God”, but can also be interpreted validly as saying no such thing. Therefore, neither of them can in any way honestly be represented as proof that the Holy Spirit is God.
These passages are Acts 5:3-4 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-6:
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”Acts 5:3-4 NASB
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. 6 There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.1 Corinthians 12:4-6 NASB
The first passage can best be read as being based upon the notion that God was working in the apostles by the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit He had given them. Since God worked through Peter by the agency of the Holy Spirit, to lie to Peter was to lie to the Holy Spirit working in Peter; and by lying to the Holy Spirit who was acting as God’s agent, also lied to God. There is simply no need, and no basis in the text of the passage itself, for saying that “God” here in verse four is being used in reference to the Holy Spirit. While this interpretation cannot absolutely be ruled out, it is an unnatural reading, given how throughout the Bible the Holy Spirit is distinguished from God, and is not a necessary interpretation. Since this text can ultimately be taken either way, however, no trinitarian can rightly claim that this is proof that the Holy Spirit is God.
If we understand God to act in prophets and Christians through the agency of the Holy Spirit He has given us, then of course the Spirit would be involved in the incident in Acts 5. The passage can easily be understood as saying that by lying to Peter, they lied to the Holy Spirit working in him; and by lying to the Spirit by which God worked through Peter, they lied to God. The same sort of dubious logic trinitarians wish to use here, which ignores the possibility of acting through an agent, will equally ‘prove’ that the Holy Spirit is an angel in Acts 10:19-22 (NASB):
“While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.” 21 Peter went down to the men and said, “Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?” 22 They said, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you.”Acts 10:19-22, NASB
Lest we dismiss this identification of the one who appeared to Cornelius as an angel as an error on Cornelius or his servants’ part, we may also note that Luke calls this person an angel earlier in the chapter, in vs 3 and 7. Who had Cornelius send for Peter then? The Holy Spirit says he sent the men personally, yet Luke says an angel is the one who appeared to Cornelius and had the men sent. Is the Holy Spirit identified as an angel here? Certainly, that’s a possible reading (just as reading the Holy Spirit as being identified as “God” in Acts 5 is a possible reading), yet this cannot be proved to be what the passage is saying; the Holy Spirit could have worked through an angelic agent to send the men, and so, not be identified here as an angel. The same concept of agency used here allows us to understand that the Holy Spirit and God are two distinct persons in Acts 5 though; if Acts 5 is “proof” that the Holy Spirit is God, Acts 10 is equally “proof” that the Holy Spirit is an angel. The fact is, neither proposition can truly be proved from either passage, but only remain possible, yet unnecessary, interpretations.
The second passage trinitarians try to usher as proof that the Holy Spirit is God, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, is best understood as referring to the Holy Spirit only by “Spirit”, and to be referring to Jesus as “Lord”, and the Father as “God”. This follows the pattern of the way Paul speaks all throughout his epistles, where “God” is used for the Father, “Lord” for the Son, and “Spirit” for the Holy Spirit. We see this pattern in places like Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Corinthians 8:6, and in many, many other places.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:4-6, NASB
yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.1 Corinthians 8:6, NKJV
If we simply read 1 Corinthians 12 in conjunction with the rest of Paul’s writings, it seems the most natural and reasonable reading is that Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus, and God the Father in this passage, and is not applying the titles “Lord” and “God” to the Holy Spirit. Someone can argue that its possible to interpret these titles as being applied to the Spirit here, and that is technically true. Although it is neither the best nor the most natural reading, the passage can be interpreted that way; but this is only one possible interpretation, and not a necessary conclusion from the text. That means that this text, like Acts 5, cannot honestly be claimed to prove that the Spirit is God, but the most that can be said is that such a reading is one possible reading.
We see then that there is no passage from which a person may prove that the Holy Spirit is ‘God’ or ‘a god’. Even if there were such a passage, this could not rightly be taken as a statement of co-essentiality; but no such passage exists anyway. There is not even a verse that trinitarians can twist on this subject to claim to have proved that the Spirit is co-essential with God the Father.
This point, in itself, if rather damning for trinitarianism. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link; if the ontological divinity of the Holy Spirit cannot be proved from the Bible, then, since this is a necessary component of orthodox trinitarianism, neither will it be possible to ever prove the doctrine of the trinity from the Bible. This might not bother Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, who are fine with merely saying that the Spirit’s divinity is “suggested” or implied, but never stated in the Bible, and who can simply rely on tradition as a substitute for revelation on this point, without being inconsistent with their theological system. However, for Protestants, who deny that tradition is of equal authority with the Bible, this poses an enormous problem; if the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be proved from the Bible, as is shown by the absence of any biblical proof for the Holy Spirit being God or ontologically divine, then the doctrine of the trinity is simply not to be accepted. If we will base our doctrinal beliefs about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit on the Bible itself, and eschew other sources as unreliable, then we must reject the doctrine of the Trinity.
The trinitarian doctrine of the Holy Spirit is then seen to be one of the weakest pillars of trinitarian orthodoxy; the doctrine of the ontological divinity of the Holy Spirit is as essential to orthodox trinitarianism as it is weak and indefensible from scripture. This doctrine is rarely examined in depth, probably precisely because it is felt to be so weak. Trinitarians must stop ignoring this problem and the massive implications it holds for the doctrine of the trinity; our concern must not be to defend ‘orthodoxy’, but to faithfully believe what God has revealed about Himself, His Son, and His Holy Spirit.