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The Personhood of the Holy Spirit
Catholic and Protestant Views

by Paul Sumner

  Various theologians and historians of Christianity have voiced their views about whether the Holy Spirit — as described in the Bible — is thought of as a Third member of the Godhead. That is,

Do the signs of "personality" attributed to the Spirit demand that the Spirit is a separate, independent, coexistent being, other than God himself or other than the resurrected Messiah?

In the history of Christian thought, the Holy Spirit long presented a quandary. The earliest Ecumenical Creeds acknowledge the "reality" of the Spirit, but do not place the Spirit on co-equal par with God (the Father) and Yeshua (the Son of God) in perfect equilateral symmetry.

The first creedal gathering at Nicea (AD 325) merely concluded: "We believe in...the Holy Spirit"; without elaboration.

At first, there was no triadic or three-in-one concept in Christian creeds, in spite of some "triadic" passages in the HB and NT (Isa 48:16; Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14; Eph 4:4-6; Rev 1:4-5).

That initial uncertainty and indecision was officially overcome at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. There the Holy Spirit was affirmed to be "the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified."

Students of the New Testament, however, have always questioned whether the Bible is so clear about the independent personhood of the Spirit. Attributes of personality are given to the Spirit, but are they "his" as a distinct person separate from the Father and Son?

In contrast to later doctrinal innovations of the church fathers, the Bible stops short of giving the Spirit his (or its) due, especially at those times when one would expect clarity of testimony.

Here are three points of evidence:

(1) The testimony of Yeshua himself should be central. He neither prays to nor worships the Spirit. He speaks of the Father being present with him, but not the Spirit—even though he was anointed with the Spirit (Matt 3:16; Luke 4:1, 18). He says the Father is "with" or "in" him (John 8:26-29; 16:32; 10:38; 14:10). Yet he is silent about the Other Person.

My judgment is true, for I am not alone in it, but I and he who sent me. . . . He who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone. (John 8:16, 29)

I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to babes. (Matt 11:25)

(2) In mirroring this pattern in Yeshua's life, his disciples also never pray to or worship the Spirit. The voice of the Spirit is the Voice of Yeshua, the resurrected Messiah:

[They were] forbidden by the Holy Spirit...the Spirit of Yeshua did not permit them. (Acts 16:6-7)

This shall turn out for my deliverance through...the provision of the Spirit of Yeshua Messiah. (Phil 1:19)

See the full evidence in: The Shepherd-Lord of Acts and The Messiah and the Spirit [PDF].

When the book of Hebrews paints a mental picture of "Mount Zion...the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem," we are given to see only "God, the judge of all" and "Yeshua, the mediator of the new covenant" (Heb 12:22-24). The Spirit is not mentioned.

(3) The heavenly beings and martyrs in the presence of God do not mention the Spirit as a third with God and the resurrected Messiah.

"To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever." (Rev 5:13)

He showed me the river of the water of life...coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb. (Rev 22:1)

Elsewhere, John writes:

Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Yeshua Messiah. (1 John 1:3)

The antichrist [is] the one who denies the Father and the Son. (1 John 2:22)

These and other many passages show that the later model of a triune "God" does not dominate (if it occurs) in the teachings of Yeshua and his disciples.

(I discuss some triadic NT passages, such as Matt 28:19, at the end of this article.)

Later Jewish literature indirectly confirms the New Testament emphasis on God and his "Lord," Yeshua. Very early, the rabbis began to reject a doctrine of "Two Powers" in heaven held by the so-called Minim ("believers"). Until the 4th century (the time of the first Trinity councils at Nicea and Constantinople), the rabbis do not condemn belief in Three, only Two.

See quotes at the end of "The Heavenly Council in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament." Some sources on the Two Powers subject include Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven (1977); R. Travers Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903); Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord (1988).


The quotations below from Roman Catholic scholars are authoritative positions of the Church of Rome. The views of the Protestant scholars, however, are not necessarily the official stance of particular traditions or denominations. Nor do their views quoted here necessarily express a scholar's full range of convictions about the Spirit.

I quote them because of their honesty about the content of Scripture.

The reader will note that Catholics express no obligation to affirm theological unity between the Old and New Testaments. Progressive revelation from and about the Godhead and progressive understanding by the church fathers are a hallmark of Catholic belief. They do not need OT validation of either NT or later Christian doctrine.

For Protestants, who theoretically uphold the sufficiency of Scripture as the authoritative source of divine revelation, the Catholic position is unacceptable, because it inevitably leads to non-biblical dogma and doctrine.

And yet many Protestants support the conclusions of the later ecumenical creeds and fully accept "catholic" doctrine regarding the Holy Spirit and his place within the triune Godhead. As a recent evangelical Protestant has written:

We must bring our churches back to their creedal and confessional heritage that the Holy Spirit is of "one substrance, power, and eternity" with the Father and the Son. (Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology [2013], p. 615)

The implications — and dangers — of these contradictory views are outlined below and in the study called Spiritanity.


Roman Catholic Views

"Like the doctrine of wisdom ... the doctrine of the Spirit is to achieve its perfect expression in the New Testament."

On: Isaiah 11:2
NewJerusalem Bible (1985)

"The teaching on the Holy Spirit developed very slowly in the faith of the Church from the indications of Scripture. Pneumatology always lagged behind Christology. This is all the more surprising because, according to Paul, the possession of the Spirit is characteristic of the justified and distinguishes him from those who are not justified. In general, Scripture speaks more of the Spirit's function in our salvation than of his nature (pp. 53-54). In Pauline theology, the word covers a wide field and it is impossible to define exactly what Spirit (pneuma) meant to Paul (p. 55). As regards the personal nature of the Spirit, Paul does not of course use the developed concepts of the later teaching of the Church and of systematic theology" (p. 56). [bold emphasis added]

Michael Schmaus, "Holy Spirit"
Sacramentum Mundi (1969), Vol. 3

"[Devotion to the Holy Spirit] in the Christian Era has its roots in the OT, although among the Hebrews the Spirit (ruah, breath, wind) was regarded more as a manifestation of the divine presence and activity than as a divine person. The operations of the Spirit (1 Corinthians ch. 14) were not uncommon in the apostolic Church, but these provide no clear evidence of the recognition of the personal distinction of the Holy Spirit or of the tribute of a special devotion. By the mid-4th century Catholic doctrine regarding the Holy Spirit was explained fully and clearly, but for long this resulted in no widespread popular devotion. Among the elite, however, devotion to the Holy Spirit, especially as Sanctifier, existed from early times." [bold emphasis added]

M.F. Laughlin, "Devotion to the Holy Spirit"
New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), Vol. 7, p.98


"Definition: Holy Spirit, in the mystery of God's inner life, the last of the three Persons in the order of origin; he is also last in the order of revelation. His public manifestation took place at Pentecost, when the glorified Christ, by pouring his Spirit over the Spirit, ushered in a new era in the history of salvation, the era of the Spirit, or the Church era. The Spirit of God (Heb. ruah; Gr. pneuma) is well known to the Old Testament. Originally wind, breath of life, the term when applied to Yahweh refers to a divine energy, or power. God gives life through his Spirit. . . Not unlike the Word, the Spirit of God is spoken of as a Person (Is 40:13). He is not however distinct from Yahweh. Rather, he represents God himself, acting upon men, enlivening them and transforming them from within. When Christ spoke of the Spirit of his Father, the OT presuppositions made the divine character of the Spirit unmistakable. Not so with his personal character." [bold emphasis added]

J. Dupuis, "Holy Spirit"
Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion (1979), Vol. F-N, p. 1697

"The entire teaching of the Church regarding the Holy Spirit (the Holy Ghost), the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, is contained formally, either explicitly or implicitly, in Sacred Scripture. Early Christian writers, the Fathers, and theologians of the Church under the guidance of the teaching authority of the Church, gradually made more explicit that which was contained only implicitly in the original revelation. Thus the infallible Church, in the course of time, penetrated more deeply into and became more acutely conscious of what it possessed and, gradually, solemnly defined its faith. [bold emphasis added]

Catholics have always believed that the Holy Spirit is true God, a distinct Person of the Blessed Trinity, consubstantial with the Father and Son, eternal, and in every respect equal to the other two Divine Persons."

M. J. Donnelly, "Holy Spirit"
New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), Vol. 7, p.96


Some Protestant Views

"The Israelites knew nothing of the Trinity and would not have used 'the Spirit of God' for the third person of the Trinity. In the Old Testament the 'spirit of God' is understood as an extension of the power of God."

John H. Walton
Job (2012) [commentary on Job 33:4]

"Evidence for the divinity of the Spirit is thinner and hazier than symmetrical fifth-century trinitarian statements suggest (cf. Athanasian Creed). The Spirit is called 'God' at most once (Acts 5:3). OT passages about Yahweh are not applied to the Spirit. No ontological statements of divinity appear, as they do with regard to Christ. And the Holy Spirit in the NT is never an object of worship or prayer." [bold emphasis added]

C. Plantinga, Jr., "Trinity,"
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (rev. ed. 1988), Vol. 4, p. 916

"There is nothing [in the OT] that compels us to regard the Spirit in a Trinitarian fashion. It is enough to give us pause that devout and learned Jews, making a very close study of the Old Testament with a reverent acceptance of what it says as the very Word of God, do not come to a belief in a Spirit in any way separate from the Father."

Leon Morris
Spirit of the Living God (1960), pp. 28-29

". . . the New Testament writers are not systematic theologians; they do not attempt to define the exact relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father or the Risen Christ. There is no clear demarcation of language . . . although the Spirit is not actually called God in the New Testament, yet the implicit belief in his divinity is undeniable; it was natural, therefore, that the Church should go on explicitly to confess the Godhead of the Spirit. But this explicit recognition of the divinity of the Spirit did not take place for some time; the evolution of the Church's theology was a slow process . . . " [bold emphasis added]

Alan Richardson
Creeds in the Making (1935), pp. 115-16


Implications of Quotations

The ideas expressed by these theologians and interpreters raise serious questions and lead to compass-changing implications.

On the one hand, if it is true that God's "spirit" in the Old Testament signifies God himself and not a distinct personality second to him, then what catalyst or agent of change entered into the Godhead to create and separate Another Person out of God? And why did a second Spirit of God emerge only after the Old Testament era?

On the other hand, if the Spirit in the OT is a Third Person and the ancient Hebrews knew this to be true, why haven't the Jewish people taught this all along, rather than fight so hard against it?

Christian historians (we saw above) openly admit that the Church's understanding of the Spirit evolved, that the OT prophets and even NT apostles, had no grasp of the doctrine of "the Third Person." These authorities say that only under the guiding hand of that Third Person has the Church been led to this conclusion.

If this is true, then the testimony of Yeshua must be theologically inadequate, is it not?

For if the "Spirit" with which God anointed him was indeed a Third member of the Godhead, the response of Yeshua to that person is, frankly, rather irreverent. He never talks to him or prays to him or seeks his counsel. When he refers to "us," he means his Father and himself. And he teaches that "eternal life" is found in knowing his Father, "the only true God," and the one whom he sent: Yeshua himself (John 17:3).

Why was Yeshua silent about the Other Person?

Did Yeshua completely miss the whole point of God's gift of the other Person to him? Did he not understand that he had been endowed with another Presence — his successor, the church's future "Lord and Life-giver" (Nicene Creed)? Was Yeshua not in full grasp of Christian doctrine?

Put another way:

Was Yeshua called the Christos, the Anointed One, because God placed on him the Third Person — or because the Father gave him his power to heal and resist sin, his holy nature, and his word-producing, instructing Breath — all definitions of ruach (spirit) in the OT?

In addition to all these provocative passages, we must also consider the texts in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are mentioned in a triune pattern. Some of these include Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:14, and Revelation 1:4-5.

Each passage must be carefully studied in context, but two conclusions can be drawn about each.

(1) A triune grouping does not imply or require we see a Trinity. Note the triune patterns in 1 Tim 5:21 [God, Messiah Yeshua, the chosen angels] and Rev 3:5 [Yeshua, the Father, the Father's angels].

(2) None of these triadic texts says the Three are united into one Godhead. In fact, they actually distinguish "God" from Jesus and the Spirit. One verse (in some Bibles) does describe a divine Unity among the Three (1 John 5:7). But this passage has been shown be a fraudulent insertion by Catholic scribes.

The Immersion Command at the end of Matthew (28:19) refers to the triadic "name" of the Three. But elsewhere in the NT, the Jewish apostles do not explicitly follow this command (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; Rom 6:3; Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 1:13, 15). Instead, they immerse people in the "name of Yeshua" not the Triad.

This suggests they either never heard of it or they understood Yeshua's words to mean something else. This is a serious issue. Not all historians believe the words were originally spoken by Yeshua. And in the earliest post-NT church, immersion was done in either the name of Yeshua or in the name of the Three. This suggests a difference in textual tradition. Churches had differing versions of the Greek NT.

Paul Sumner



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