The Holy Spirit's Testimony


by Doug Ward

The Ligonier Ministries' State of Theology 2020 Survey posed a series of questions to a sample of 3002 Americans, including 235 who identified themselves as evangelicals attending church at least once a week. Not surprisingly, 98% of the 235 evangelicals strongly agreed with the statement, "There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit." However, 33% of them also agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being."


Some of the confusion evident in these responses may be due to the variety of ways in which the Bible refers to the Holy Spirit. For example, the Spirit is "the power of the Most High" (Lk 1:35) and can be "poured out" (Isa 32:15; Ac 2:33; 10:45; Tit 3:5-6) and sometimes "quenched" (1 Th 5:19). This kind of language could describe a force that is not a personal being. On the other hand, the Spirit "intercedes for us," has a "mind," and can be "grieved" (Isa 63:10; Ro 8:26-27; Eph 4:30), qualities associated with personal beings.


Biblical language about the Holy Spirit does not by itself tell us what the Spirit is, because this language can be figurative. For instance, 1 John 5:6-12 names three witnesses that Jesus is the Son of God, through whom God gives us eternal life: The Spirit, the water of Jesus' baptism, and the blood that Jesus shed in his death. We normally think of a "witness" as a personal being, but water and blood are not personal beings. Determining who or what the Spirit is requires a deeper study.


Such a study was undertaken by early Christians. Jesus, on the night before his crucifixion, had told his disciples that they would come to know the Helper that he was sending them (Jn 14:15-17). Through the Spirit they received a sense of God's presence; gifts of healing, miracles, and inspired speech; and empowerment to live holy lives. Moreover, the Spirit opened the Scriptures to them, bearing witness to Jesus (Jn 15:26) and guiding them to additional truth (Jn 16:13). That truth included a greater understanding of the Spirit.


Divine Conversations

As early Christians searched the Hebrew Scriptures, they located several passages in which God the Father and the Messiah are mentioned together, often interacting in some way. The most famous is Psalm 110:1, where David writes, "The Lord says to my Lord: `Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.' " Jesus himself had identified "my Lord" in this verse as the Messiah and used Psalm 110 to argue that the Messiah would be much more than a human descendant of David (Mt 22:41-46; Mk 12:35-37; Lk 20:41-44). His disciples quoted the verse to show that Jesus had ascended after his resurrection to the right hand of the Father (Ac 2:34-35; Heb 1:13; 10:12-13).


A second key passage of this type is in Psalm 45, a psalm praising a Davidic king and queen at a royal wedding. In verses 6-7, the psalmist's attention turns to the Messiah, the ultimate Davidic king: "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions." The author of Hebrews identified the one being addressed here as Jesus, and he quoted these verses as proof that Jesus is God and King, anointed by the Father to rule forever (Heb 1:8-9).


The second century church father Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165 AD) used these two passages as evidence that there are two divine "Lords" in the Hebrew Scriptures (Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 56). He added to this list Genesis 18-19, where Abraham hosts three "men" (18:3) who turn out to be two angels and a third figure identified as "the Lord" (18:22-19:1). A distinction is made between this Lord and the Lord in heaven in Genesis 19:24: "Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven."


Justin also pointed to Psalm 24:7-10 as a passage involving multiple divine figures. For Justin, these verses picture the risen Christ (the "King of Glory") ascending to heaven. When he arrives at the gates of heaven, the angels guarding the gates are told to open them so that the King could come in and be seated at the Father's right hand (chapter 36).


Look Who's Talking

Church fathers Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 135-200 AD) and Tertullian of Carthage (ca. 160-225 AD) followed Justin in citing scriptures with "two Lords" as evidence of the preexistence and deity of the Son and the distinct roles of the Father and Son. Tertullian also mentioned Isaiah 53:1-2, where both the Father and the Son (as Suffering Servant) are in view: "Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant ...."


Such passages raised an important question for the Church fathers: Who is the speaker in these verses? They reasoned that the speaker must be someone distinct from the Father and Son who has detailed firsthand knowledge of their activities. Noting Paul's statement that "no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God" (1 Co 2:11), they reasoned that the speaker must be the Holy Spirit. They viewed these passages as examples of the Spirit searching "the depths of God" (1 Co 2:10) and bearing witness about Jesus (Jn 15:26). They concluded that the Spirit, the source of this information, spoke these words to the human authors as a divine personal being rather than merely serving as the signal (an impersonal force) conveying the revelation from another divine speaker.


There is much more to the story of how Christians came to understand that the Holy Spirit is a personal being and not merely an impersonal force.1 That story led, by the late fourth century AD, to the doctrine of the Trinity that is universally affirmed (though not always well understood) by Christians. It turns out that each chapter in the story, like the ones covered here, was based on careful and prayerful study of the Scriptures of Israel.


1For further discussion, see Kyle R. Hughes, How the Spirit Became God: The Mosaic of Early Pneumatology, Cascade Books, 2020.

Issue 36


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