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
Whether a unity or a trinity, we try to capture the essence of God, because we do not know exactly who God is. We like to see ourselves as spirits in order to believe we, as spirits, will have life after death. The great polarity of life is to live forever.
Of all present day church doctrines, the Trinity seems to me as odd as they get! To quote Thomas Jefferson (letter to Rev. James Smith, Dec. 8, 1822, "He proves, also, that man, once surrendering his no reason has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder, is the sport of every wind."
Dennis Dean Carpenter
No I don't think your essay twists Paul's words at all... It appears that the supporters of a Trinity doctrine need to obtain their scriptures from John instead. Your essay very succinctly and methodically uncovered Paul's references to God's spirit, and he did not appear to view it as a separate entity.
John is the only writer in the new testament (and whoever wrote Acts) who uses the term Paraclete. When did the term paraclete become widely used? Or was it added later in order to give the Athanasians solid footing for promoting their Trinity doctrine?
St. Louis, MO
Good afternoon Unknown,
You suggest that we humans are concerned that our spirits survive death in order that we might live forever. Folks around here in Missouri (and in Mississippi where I grew up) always claim that potential for the soul. So far as I recall it is not usually the spirit that is claimed as that part of the human psyche that has the potential to live forever.
My question is do you discount the soul or see it playing some other role in the human psyche? Or do you regard soul and spirit as exchangeable values?
I completely agree with Jefferson that reason is our only sure guide through life.
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
I only know of one use of parakletos in New Testament literature outside of John's gospel. It is in 1 John 2:1.
The word is used in ancient Greek by authors before the New Testament period as someone summoned to someone's aid in a court of justice; hence an advocate. I have not checked on how many different ways translators translate it in John's Gospel. One translation is counselor and the term advocate is used to translate 1 John 2:1. The word appears frequently in later Christian writers, as you suggested.
Hi Charlie, I have an additional question with regard to "parakletos." Are the authors of John's Gospel and 1 John the only ones to deliberately link "paraclete" and "Holy Spirit?" Or did other early church fathers attempt to establish that link as well? If you can think of a book or commentary or essay that may answer this question, let me know.
Thank you as always,
I set some phrasing side by side on the translation of pneuma (spirit) from the New Revised Standard Version and the Westar Scholars' Version: The Authentic Letters of Paul. The former seems more literal, the latter more interpretive. Also it seems that the use of capitals is not agreed upon. Could you share some thoughts about the art and science of translation and what some of your preferences might be. Thanks!
Gal 5:22-25 “the fruit of the Spirit” (NRSV), “the evidence that God‘s power is present“ (ALP)
“If we live by the Spirit” (NRSV), “If God’s power has given us life” (ALP)
“let us also be guided by the Spirit” (NRSV), “we should live in accordance with God’s power” (ALP)
1 Cor 12:3 “speaking by the Spirit of God (NRSV), “inspired by God” (ALP)
“the Holy Spirit” (NRSV), “the authentic power of God” (ALP)
2 Cor 3:3 “the Spirit of the living God” (NRSV), “the power of the living God” (ALP)
2 Cor 3:6bc “a new covenant of spirit” (NRSV), “a new covenant that’s alive in us” (ALP)
“the Spirit gives life” (NRSV), “the power of God’s presence gives life” (ALP)
2 Cor 3:8 “the ministry of the Spirit” (NRSV), “the new order of life-giving power” (ALP)
2Cor 3:17 “the Lord is the Spirit (NRSV), “the ‘Lord’ refers to God’s presence and power” (ALP)
“the Spirit of the Lord” (NRSV), “the Lord’s power” (ALP)
2 Cor 3:18 “the Lord, the Spirit” (NRSV), “the term ‘Lord’ really means God’s presence and power (ALP)
Rom 8:9-11 “you are in the Spirit” (NRSV), “you are with God‘s power and purpose” (ALP)
“the Spirit of Christ“ (NRSV), “the spirit that was in the Annointed” (ALP)
“the Spirit is life” (NRSV), “your spirit is alive” (ALP)
“If the Spirit of him” (NRSV), “if the power of the One” (ALP)
“through his Spirit” (NRSV), “the power and presence of God“ (ALP)
Good Morning Elizabeth,
You have asked a difficult question--at least it is for me. John specifically (although rather awkwardly) identifies the Holy Spirit with the Paraclete (Jn 14:26), but that leaves open (in my view) how the Spirit of Truth (Jn 16:8-11) is to be construed in relation to the other two; is this figure just another name for the HS and the Paraclete, or a new figure? I don't think the issue is resolved but you can check out the entry in the Anchor Bible Dictionary 4:377-78. Both the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible and the New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, as well as the IDB Supplement have entries and there is a long entry in the Theological Dictionary of the Bible, volume 5 under παρακλητος.
I really like your questions, but I cannot do full justice to it in the blog. You are correct that some translators are more interpretive than others. In general I prefer the RSV (not NRSV), because it is less interpretive and more literal. In my judgment the more literal is to be preferred. When a text is unclear I try to preserve the ambiguity in the translation and do my guessing in a note, but I strayed from that practice a bit in my Gospel of Thomas translation, where I aimed for a reliable idiomatic English translation (see the back cover of the book). With regard to capitalization: in general unless an ancient scribe has capitalized words in the original papyrus/vellum manuscript all capitalization is due to the interpretation of the translator. The Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament except for proper names and sentence beginnings is lower case. Holy spirit, for example is not capitalized.
I have published twice in the 4th R on how translators mislead readers:
"Making Oxen out of Unicorns" 4th R 18.4 (July-August 2005), 17- and "Satyrs or Wild Goats? The Politics of Translating the Bible: 4th R 25.6 (Nov-Dec 2012), 21-22, 24.
Very very helpful, Charlie, thanks!
What is God? God is spirit, (John 4:24).
God is spirit not “A” spirit as that would localize Him. God’s Spirit is God and God working in and thru it. That which God does thru His spirit is GOD DOING IT and not something else.
It’s like your arm, your arm is an extension of the You yet the arm is not you because the you is what caused the arm, ( something of you) to function. It’s the same way with God. That which God does thru His spirit is God doing it. Therefore the holy spirit is not a separate entity, it is God who is Holy and is Spirit working that which is by spirit. “The Holy Spirit” is similar to the phrase “The arm of God” or “The right hand of God.
Rick from Missouri
Thanks for joining the discussion. Your comment suggests that you likely have a Unitarian view of God rather than a Trinitarian. In either case I gather that it is your personal view, which owes a great deal to the three great monotheistic religions of the modern world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the motivating factor for a theology of the Trinity was to keep Christianity Monotheistic). But the views of God in the History of Religions are much more diverse. For example, Ancient Israel (I would say) practiced Monolatry--recognition of the existence of many Gods but with the consistent worship of only one God, and of course Paul grew to adulthood amidst the polytheism of the Greco-Roman world. There was not a general monotheistic trend in the ancient world until the third century CE with the worship of sol invictus (the invincible sun).
In my case God is not accessible by the usual means I apprehend things (see, taste, touch, feel, hear) so what little I know of God is only what I am told, and that usually differs with who is doing the telling.
It is interesting your quote on polytheism -
“and of course Paul grew to adulthood amidst the polytheism of the Greco-Roman world”
(Polytheism, being the belief in or worship of more than one god).
And yet here we have Paul saying: 23"For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the UNKNOWN.' What therefore you worship as UNKNOWN, this I proclaim to you.. 24"The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth,”
28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of “YOUR OWN POETS HAVE SAID”, For WE ARE HIS OWN OFFSPRING. (Your own poets being the Athenians)
In my previous post I was merely stating that since God IS spirt, and God is everywhere and that spirit emanates from God, we cannot have His spirit as “A” God in and by itself.
Now of the two left who is God? The Father? The Son?, then we have the shema stating …“The Lord our God is ONE God”.
If the Father is God and the Son is God, then we have TWO Gods and not one God .
And yet while The Father IS Spirit. In Him we live and move and have our being (are). He was Spirit when Yahweh (aka Jesus) was in the desert with Moses, and they lived and moved and had their being in Him.
Your Quote: “In my case God is not accessible by the usual means I apprehend things (see, taste, touch, feel, hear) so what little I know of God is only what I am told, and that usually differs with who is doing the telling.”
That is so true.
Then it must also be true.. the statement: “Not by might, nor by power, but by MY spirit,”
Thanks for your reply
Rick in Missouri
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