The nature of the Holy Spirit is a mystery to many Christians, but still most consider it a litmus test for orthodoxy. What does the Bible really say?
In 1996 I was part of a group of ministers invited to the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. Our group was invited because we represented a new seventh-day Sabbath-keeping church, and they wanted to discuss our fundamental beliefs.
Our host for this visit was their director of interchurch relations. Before we arrived at their headquarters, he took us aside privately to discuss a sensitive doctrinal matter.
He had read our fundamental beliefs and concluded that we were not Trinitarians. He mentioned that this would be a problem in the Christian community. He told us the story of how the Adventists struggled over the doctrine of the Trinity for many years. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that they adopted the Trinity.
Today their official belief is Trinitarian: “There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three coeternal Persons.”
I remember that visit very clearly, now some 20 years later. We were aware of what the Christian community would think. But the real question we had to answer was, What does the Bible say about the Holy Spirit?
Is the Holy Spirit a person and coequal with the Father and the Son? Or is the Holy Spirit the power that comes from God? Put a different way, who or what is the Holy Spirit?
Importance of the Trinity doctrine
If you had any doubt about the importance of the Trinity in modern Christianity, consider the following quotes from scholars and religious writers:
- “We hang a person’s very salvation upon the acceptance of the doctrine. … No one dares question the Trinity for fear of being branded a ‘heretic.’ … We must know, understand, and love the Trinity to be fully and completely Christian” (James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity, 1998, pp. 14-15).
- “The dogma of the Trinity is the central dogma of Catholic faith. Only with belief in it can one grasp and explicitly believe other central Christian teachings. ‘It is impossible to believe explicitly in the mystery of Christ without faith in the Trinity.’ … Nor could one grasp the meaning of eternal life, or of the grace that leads to it, without believing in the Trinity, for grace and eternal life are sharing in the Trinitarian life” (Donald Wuerl, Ronald Lawler, Thomas Lawler and Kris Stubna, The Teaching of Christ, a Catholic Catechism for Adults, 2005, p. 150).
- “The Church confesses the Trinity to be a mystery beyond the comprehension of man. The Trinity is a mystery, not merely in the Biblical sense that it is a truth, which was formerly hidden but is now revealed; but in the sense that man cannot comprehend it and make it intelligible” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 1996, p. 89, emphasis added throughout).
Let’s be clear: The doctrine of the Trinity relies on one premise and one premise alone—the Holy Spirit is a person and therefore must be God. If you cannot prove from Scripture the personhood of the Holy Spirit, you have no Trinity.
Arius and the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Trinity and Holy Spirit
History confirms that it wasn’t until the fourth century that the Trinity was accepted as the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. This was more than 300 years after Jesus Christ and long after the death of the last apostle.
History confirms that it wasn't until the fourth century that the Trinity was accepted as the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
It was in A.D. 321 that a priest from Alexandria, Egypt, by the name of Arius disputed the divinity of Jesus Christ. From this dispute and the subsequent argument with another priest, Athanasius, came a debate over the nature of Christ that led to the adoption of the Trinity.
Through the work of Athanasius and the subsequent additions to his work by the three “Cappadocian fathers” (Basil, bishop of Caesarea; Gregory of Nyssa; and Gregory of Nazianzus), the Trinity was made the official teaching of the Roman Church in A.D. 381 at the Council of Constantinople.
The fourth-century debate became political and divided the Catholic Church into two camps: those who followed Arius and those who believed in the Trinity. The Catholic Church’s final decision to accept the Trinity was not based in Scripture but in politics.
Rather than depending on church politics and ecumenical councils, we must ask, What does the Bible say?
The Bible does clearly tell us Christ was divine. But most theologians agree that there is no real evidence to support the idea of a triune godhead in the Old Testament. And some scholars will acknowledge that there simply isn’t enough evidence in the New Testament to establish the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Of course, others disagree, but the Bible must be our guide.
Acts 5: did Peter say the Holy Spirit is a who?
Acts 5 is often used as a proof that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Godhead.
In this chapter we find the story of a husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, two members of the New Testament Church. Many early Church members were very generous and sold some of their possessions to support the gospel message. Ananias and Sapphira did too, but they held back part of the price of the sale of their property.
This would have been perfectly fine, according to the apostle Peter, but there was just one problem. They lied and said they had given it all!
God inspired Peter through the Holy Spirit to perceive what was going on, and he challenged them.
“But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God’” (verses 3-4).
What did Peter mean when he said, “You have not lied to men but to God”? Was he equating the Holy Spirit to God? Or was he equating himself to God? Clearly Ananias and Sapphira lied to the man Peter. But Peter informed them that to lie to him as a representative of God (one who possessed God’s Holy Spirit) was to lie to God.
If you argue that to lie to the Holy Spirit is to lie to God, thereby confirming that the Holy Spirit is God, you could use the same logic to conclude that Peter was also God, since they lied to him! This is faulty logic and simply not true. The Bible shows that the Holy Spirit is the power of God and not a third person called God.
There is no clear statement in the Bible identifying the Holy Spirit as a person. You would think that something of this magnitude would be easy to prove.
Is the Holy Spirit a person?
In Matthew 1:18 we are told that after “Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.”
But wait a minute! Isn’t God the Father the One who begot Jesus Christ? After all, Christ is called the “only begotten Son” of the Father (John 3:16). Therefore, the Holy Spirit cannot be a person and a coequal member of the Godhead or else the Holy Spirit would be the true father of Jesus Christ. Of course, no one believes or teaches that.
Paul wrote in Romans 1:7, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Why is the Holy Spirit not mentioned in this greeting? Maybe Paul simply overlooked the Holy Spirit in Romans 1.
One omission may be understandable, but he did the same thing in 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; and Philippians 1:2. In fact, Paul never refers to the Holy Spirit in any of his greetings. That would be hard to believe if the Holy Spirit were coequal with the Father and the Son.
In Luke 1:17 we read that John the Baptist “will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah.” The “spirit” of Elijah is not a person, separate from Elijah. Nor is the Spirit of God a separate person that is coequal with God.
The Holy Spirit is a gift (Acts 2:38) that comes after repentance, baptism and the laying on of hands (Acts 8:17). This is not another person that enters you, but it is the power of God that comes upon you.
The idea of the Trinity was developed in the Roman Church as an argument against Arius in the fourth century. The Protestants simply kept it after the Reformation. Of course the idea of a triune God actually predates Christianity and can be found in a number of ancient pagan cultures.
Who or what is the Holy Spirit?
So, is the Holy Spirit a “who” or a “what”? According to the Bible, the Holy Spirit is the power of God (2 Timothy 1:7). It is the operational presence of the mind and influence of God, as well as His character. It is what makes each of us a Christian; for if we don’t have the Holy Spirit, we are “not His” (Romans 8:9).
The lesson I learned 20 years ago while visiting with the Seventh-day Adventists is that you should never be embarrassed to believe what the Bible teaches, no matter what others may think. If we let the Bible be our guide, we don’t see three gods in one God, all coequal and coeternal.
The Bible says that the Holy Spirit emanates from God as the greatest power available to human beings. It is a gift from God that will transform your life!
Read more in our articles “Is the Holy Spirit a Person?” and “The Trinity: What Is It?” Learn more about how the Holy Spirit can transform you in our free booklet Change Your Life!