The Nicene Creed describes the third person in the Trinity this way:
We believe...in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-giver, that proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spoke through the prophets.
Thus in contemporary orthodox faith the Holy Spirit is believed to be a persona of a Divine Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; "God in three persons blessed Trinity," so the hymn goes.
The confession in creed and hymnal sounds plausible, but when one goes to the biblical texts to confirm that the earliest Christians actually shared this fourth/fifth-century belief in a Triune Godhead there is a significant problem. The Trinity (i.e., belief in a three-in-one-God), as such, is not in the Bible—at least not in so many words, although all three of these figures are mentioned together in 2 Corinthians 13:14 (except that the earliest Greek manuscript omits the word holy). They appear side by side in a benediction that does not claim these three figures as the Trinity of orthodox faith.
In the earliest Christian literature (the Pauline letters) Paul maintains a healthy distance between God and Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:27-28; 8:4-6; Philippians 3:3); Paul clearly conceives God as one (i.e. as a singular unity: 1 Cor 8:4, 6; Romans 3:30; Galatians 3:19-20). His emphasis on the unity of God ultimately derives from the Israelite faith (see the Shema, Deut 6:4-5).
Paul is a writer of letters and not religious handbooks; and does not usually express himself systematically, which means that ideas must be tracked here and there throughout his letters. When Paul calls God "spirit" he is describing the essential nature of God. Spirit is not an appendage of God, so that one may distinguish it as an entity independent from God. God is spirit. That seems clear from Paul's appeal to Exodus 34:25-35 when arguing for the new covenant in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:4-18). "The Lord (i.e., Yahweh, God of Israel) is the spirit" (2 Cor 3:17a) to whom people turn (2 Cor 3:16-18) to have the veil removed from their minds when the books of Moses are read:
And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (as happened to Moses, Exod 34:29-30, 35); for this comes from the Lord who is the spirit (2 Cor 3:18).
God as spirit is described by Paul in various ways: "the spirit" and "his spirit" (Rom 8:11), "the spirit of God" (Rom 8:9), "the spirit of holiness" (Rom 1:4), "the spirit of the living God" (2 Cor 3:3), "his holy spirit" (1 Thess 4:8), the "holy spirit" (Rom 5:5). Spirit and holy spirit are used interchangeably in 1 Cor 12:3. He even uses the expression "spirit of Christ" interchangeably with the "spirit of God" (Rom 8:9-11; Gal 4:6-7).
Here is how I make sense of the interchangeableness of God's spirit and the spirit of Christ in the Pauline letters. Jesus was a human being appointed son of God "by the spirit of holiness" at the moment God raised him from the dead (Rom 1:3-4; compare Rom 5:15-17). He, the human being, was the "first fruit of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor 15:20; 1 Thess 4:23), and as the first fruit became the means through whom God "was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor 5:19). Thus, he is the "precursor" whose spirit, having been first transformed by the spirit of holiness, enabled other human beings to share that experience (1 Thess 4:8). Through the transformed spirit of this human being (Christ) other human beings become sons of God (Gal 4:4-7; Romans 8:9-11) by sharing in the divine spirit—yet the divine spirit remains a singularity and undivided is how Paul's reasoning must have gone (cf. 1 Cor 8:6; 12:4-13), even though he is hardly clear in his expression and terminology.
God's "Anointed" (i.e., Christ), as precursor, became the conduit through whom the blessings of the divine spirit are shared (1 Corinthians 8:6;compare Hebrews 6:20, where a later writer uses the term "precursor"): grace (Rom 5:2, 21; 1 Cor 1:4); peace (Rom 5:1), reconciliation (Rom 5:11; 2 Cor 6:18), deliverance (Rom 7:24-25), sanctification (1 Cor 1:2), victory (1 Cor 15:57), all God's promises (2 Cor 1:20), justification (Gal 2:16), righteousness (Phil 1:11), salvation (1 Thess 5:9)—all come through Christ.
It does not appear to me that Paul conceived God as a Trinity, as later orthodoxy did. But then, to judge by his letters Paul was scarcely an orthodox Christian in the sense of the later creeds, as some already suggested in the second century (2 Peter 3:14-17). Perhaps my essay might even have been construed by the writer of Second Peter as a twisting of Paul's words? What do you think?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University