Interpretive Options on the Holy Spirit

In an earlier post I offered an inconsistent tetrad (or set of four claims) about the Father and Jesus. Naturally, for any theology of the New Testament to be complete, we need to consider who (or what) the Holy Spirit is. When we combine our understanding of the Holy Spirit with our understanding of the Father and the Son, there are many positions we might take.

Come, Holy Spirit

Recall that the inconsistent tetrad about the Father and Jesus is the following:

1. God alone is truly divine. ∀x[Tx → (x = g)]. i.e., for any x, if x is truly divine, then x just is God.
2. The Father is truly divine. Tf
3. Jesus is truly divine. Tj
4. It is not the case that Jesus just is the Father. ~(j = f)

Again, these four claims form an inconsistent tetrad because you can only accept any three of them at a time.

Now, there are three more claims about the Holy Spirit that we can add to help us think about what “Holy Spirit” refers to:

5. The Holy Spirit is truly divine. Th
6. It is not the case that the Holy Spirit just is the Father. ~(h = f)
7. It is not the case that the Holy Spirit just is Jesus. ~(h = j)

How these three claims relate to the tetrad above is important. Let’s suppose you go with a simple Oneness Pentecostal view of the Father and Jesus. (I use the term “simple” here because of what I’ve said about one Oneness view elsewhere.) That means you reject (4), and therefore accept the entailment that Jesus just is the Father. Well, if you also accept (5), then using the same logic that yields the rejection of (4), one accepts that the Father = Jesus = the Holy Spirit. That means that both (6) and (7) are false, on the simple Oneness view.

Reproducing the results is technical, but depending on which of (1)-(4) we deny, and which of (5)-(7) we accept, there are over 30 overall positions one might take about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s because of the logical (not necessarily biblical or defensible) options one make take on the Holy Spirit. I’ll turn now to what those interpretive options are.

Spirit Fall

Here are the logical options for one’s view of the Holy Spirit.

1. The Trinitarian view. This is where the Father, Jesus (i.e., the Son), and the Holy Spirit are all distinct divine Persons. Of the claims in the last section, this view accepts (2)-(7) and rejects (1). (Well, at least typically.)

2. The binitarian view. I don’t know of anybody who would accept this view, but this would be where the Father is a divine Person, the Holy Spirit is a divine Person, and the Father is not numerically identical with the Holy Spirit. This leaves Jesus out of the Godhead. An odd view indeed, but still a logically possible option.

3. The unitarian view. The only divine Person there is must be the Father, and therefore the Father just is the Holy Spirit. One can be either a Oneness Pentecostal, biblical unitarian, or perhaps Jehovah’s Witness and accept this sort of view. What distinguishes unitarian views about the Spirit depends on which of (1)-(7) one accepts or denies. I’ll say more about this momentarily.

4. The neo-Arian view. The Holy Spirit is a created person who is numerically distinct from the Father. This view is consistent with a biblical unitarian view that accepts Jesus is his exalted heavenly ministry just is the Holy Spirit.  This view is also consistent with one that holds that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are numerically distinct persons, neither of which just is the Father. We might call this a “two creatures” view. I take it that this view is biblical indefensible, but again, a logically possible one.

5. The impersonal view. The Holy Spirit is something impersonal. There are many ways of speaking about the Spirit one might turn to for this. In particular, the Spirit is “poured out” in Acts 2, and hence something like a liquid. But Peter also says that the Holy Spirit is a “gift” (Acts 2:38). At other times, it seems as if “Holy Spirit” refers to God doing something, or “God in spiritual action.” This makes the Holy Spirit something more like a state of affairs, and no state of affairs is a person. Some might reduce all New Testament language about the Spirit to this view, and in that case we have a sort of “Pneumatological reductionism” on our hands.

6. The equivocal view. One can accept that the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit as something impersonal, and yet accept some of the other options at the same time. It might be that, in one context, the Holy Spirit refers to a distinct divine Person (as on Trinitarianism), while in other contexts the Holy Spirit names something impersonal. An equivocal view is going to affect which of (5)-(7) in the last section one accepts at some time and context, but not necessarily which one accepts at all times and all contexts.

7. The confused view. The New Testament authors didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to the Holy Spirit. Some authors speak about the Spirit in contradictory ways, or they contradict the way(s) other New Testament authors speak. The New Testament, when taken as a whole, is just confused about the Holy Spirit.

8. The agnostic view. This is where one doesn’t know, or refuses to assent to, some view or other about the Holy Spirit. At least some bishops in the fourth century seem to have taken this sort of view.

What all of these views come down to are the following questions:

  1. Does “Holy Spirit” ever refer to a P/person?
  2. Is the Holy Spirit numerically identical to the Father or to Jesus?
  3. Can (1) and (2) be true at different times and contexts?

This yields some logical options that I don’t think anybody should defend (e.g., the “two creatures” view). At the time time, these options can help one think through how the New Testament speaks about the Holy Spirit to see which view best explains the biblical text.


Image Credit: “They Were All Filled” by Lawrence, OP

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