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The Trinity

Question: I am disappointed by your denomination's teaching about the Trinity in the last issue and find your reasons for rejecting the concept less than satisfactory. It is indeed one of the not-so-easy-to-grasp things of God.

Your selected passages highlight that the Spirit of God is just a wind, or a power, some inanimate thing that can be poured out and quenched, etc. But that's not the whole picture. Jesus refers to it as the Counselor who can only come and will come when Jesus leaves the earth, and that that was to be our great comfort (John 16:7).

Furthermore there are numerous places where the Holy Spirit is described in his activity with verbs such as help, dwell, is being sent forth, bears witness and searches all things, just to name some. Sounds like a person to me! Lastly, a personal favorite and quite appropriate here: "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express" (Romans 8:26).

Answer: We appreciate your question. The current concept of a Trinity has been around for many centuries, and so most people look at the Scriptures through this lens, whether consciously or unconsciously. It's interesting to consider how the original writers of the Bible viewed the Holy Spirit. As noted in our previous answer, the concept of the Trinity was not agreed upon until hundreds of years after the Bible was written and long after the apostles had died.

Let's first address why some scriptures appear to refer to the Holy Spirit as a masculine personage. Many people assume that the Holy Spirit is a person based on references to the Spirit as "he," "him" and "himself" in the New Testament. This confusion arises from the use of gender-inflected pronouns in the Greek language (a difficult concept to understand for those who speak only English).

Greek, like the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.), invokes a specific gender for every noun. Every object, animate or inanimate, is designated as either masculine, feminine or neuter. The gender is often unrelated to whether the item is indeed masculine or feminine.

For example, in French the word livre, meaning "book," is of the masculine gender and is referred to by a pronoun that would be equivalent to the English pronoun "he." And in Spanish, mesa, or "table," is in the feminine. Clearly, although these nouns have gender, their gender does not refer to books and tables actually being male or female. In the English language, in contrast, most nouns that do not refer to objects that are male or female are referred to in the neuter sense, with the pronoun "it."

We might note that in the Hebrew language, in which the Old Testament was written, the word translated "spirit," ruach, uses feminine pronouns. But the Holy Spirit clearly is not a woman.

In Greek, both masculine and neuter words are used to refer to the Holy Spirit. The Greek word translated "Counselor," "Helper" and "Comforter" in John chapters 14-16 is parakletos, a masculine word in Greek and thus referred to in these chapters by Greek pronouns equivalent to the English "he," "him," "his," "himself," "who" and "whom."

Because of the masculine gender of parakletos, these masculine pronouns are grammatically correct in Greek. But to translate these into English as "he," "him," etc., is grammatically incorrect.

For example, you would never translate a particular French sentence as "I'm looking for my book so I can read him." While this grammatical construction makes sense in the French language, it is wrong in English. In the same way, to suppose on this basis that the Holy Spirit is a person to be referred to as "he" or "him" is incorrect.

There is no theological or biblical justification for referring to the term "Holy Spirit" with masculine pronouns, even in Greek. The Greek word pneuma, translated "spirit" (but also translated "wind" and "breath" in the New Testament), is a grammatically neuter word. So, in the Greek language, pronouns equivalent to the English "it," "its," "itself," "which" or "that" are properly used in referring to this word translated into English as "spirit."

Yet, when the King James Version was produced in 1611, the doctrine of the Trinity had already been generally accepted for more than 1,000 years. Thus the translators of that version, believing the Holy Spirit to be a person, usually (and incorrectly) chose masculine rather than neutral pronouns when referring to the Holy Spirit in English.

However, this wasn't always the case. Notice that in some passages in the KJV the translators did use the proper neuter pronouns. Romans 8:16, for example, says: "The Spirit itself [not himself] beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God." Similarly, Romans 8:26 says "the Spirit itself [again, not himself] maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."

Another example is Matthew 10:20, where Jesus says: "For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which [not who] speaketh in you." Another is 1 Peter 1:11, which refers to "the Spirit of Christ which [again, not who] was in them . . ." The KJV translators did use the proper neuter pronouns in these verses.

Regrettably, later translators of the Bible have gone further than the King James translators in referring to the Holy Spirit as masculine rather than neuter. Thus the Holy Spirit is almost always referred to as "he" or "him" in modern versions. This reflects not linguistic accuracy, but the incorrect assumptions or doctrinal bias of Bible translators.

What about the second part of your question, where the Holy Spirit is described as apparently engaging in personal activity?

While at first this might seem to indicate that the Spirit is a distinct person, it doesn't really prove that at all. In the languages of Bible times, nonpersonal things were sometimes described in personal ways and as having personlike activities.

For example, in Genesis 4:10 God says to Cain: "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground." Here Abel's shed blood is described as having a "voice" that "cries out" from the ground. Yet clearly this is figurative language, as blood has no voice and cannot speak.

Similarly, in the book of Proverbs wisdom is personified as calling aloud and crying out (Proverbs 1:20-21). Proverbs 8 describes wisdom as crying out, standing on a high hill, calling to men, speaking, having lips and mouth, loving and being loved, having children and having accompanied and rejoiced with God. Yet obviously wisdom is not a person and does none of these things.

In Habakkuk 2:11 stones and timbers are described as talking to each other. In Psalm 65:13 pastures and valleys are said to shout and sing. Yet these things clearly do not happen literally.

At times the Bible applies such figurative language to the Holy Spirit, ascribing activity to it as though it were a person. Yet, as noted in our earlier answer, the Bible also describes the Holy Spirit in ways that show it is not a person.

In some cases where the Holy Spirit is described in a personal activity, we should understand this as God using the Holy Spirit as the power or agency through which He acts. Consider, for example, that if a man's hand takes hold of a book and lifts it, this does not make the hand a separate person. The hand is merely the agency through which the man is acting.

Even so, the Holy Spirit is the agency through which God—Father or Son or both—acts. Of course, the Holy Spirit is far more than a hand. It is the very power, mind and life essence of God—pervading infinity so that by it God is omnipresent.

The reference to the Holy Spirit as a Counselor or Advocate is a personification that provides a good analogy of part of the Spirit's function in the lives of true Christians. Yet, many passages show the Spirit as the power of God, not a separate person.

For example, in Matthew 1:20 we see that the Holy Spirit is not a distinct entity, but God's divine power, the agency through which He worked. Here we read that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus continually prayed to and addressed God the Father as His Father and not the Holy Spirit (Matthew 10:32-33; 11:25-27; 12:50). He never represented the Holy Spirit as His Father.

Jesus likewise never spoke of the Holy Spirit as a divine third person. Instead, in numerous passages He spoke only of the relationship between God the Father and Himself (Matthew 26:39; Mark 13:32; 15:34; John 5:18, 22; etc.). The Holy Spirit as a person is conspicuously absent throughout Christ's teaching. Of particular interest in this regard are Jesus' many statements about Himself and the Father, especially when He never makes similar statements about Himself and the Holy Spirit.

We should also consider that, in visions of God's throne recorded in the Bible, although the Father and Christ are seen, the Holy Spirit as a third person is completely absent. See, for example, Acts 7:55-56, Daniel 7:9-14 and Revelation 4-5 and 7:10. Jesus is repeatedly mentioned as being at the right hand of God, but no one is mentioned as being at the Father's left hand. Nowhere are three divine persons pictured together in the Scriptures.

Even in the final book of the Bible (and the last to be written), the Holy Spirit as a divine person is completely absent from its pages. The book describes "a new heaven and new earth" (Revelation 21:1) wherein "the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them" (verse 3). Christ, the Lamb of God, is also present (verse 22). The Holy Spirit as a separate person, however, is again absent—another inexplicable oversight if this Spirit is the third person of a triune God.

This is why Paul states in 1 Corinthians 8:6 that "there is only one God, the Father, . . . and one Lord Jesus Christ . . ." without mentioning the Holy Spirit as a divine person.

We must not cling to long-held religious traditions if they contradict the Scriptures. Our beliefs must rest solidly on the teachings of the Holy Bible. Jesus said, "[God's] word is truth" (John 17:17).

©2005 United Church of God, an International Association
Used with permission.

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