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Showing posts with label Trinity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Trinity. Show all posts

Thursday 13 January 2022

Biblical Unitarian Pneumatologies and the Danger of Bitheism

Is biblical unitarianism bitheistic (believing in two gods)? Such a question, posed by a Trinitarian, may strike unitarians as audacious and absurd. "We accuse you of denying monotheism. How dare you accuse us of that." In this article, however, I am going to make an argument that the answer to this question is, "Yes." The argument is intended to be slightly tongue-in-cheek; its main purpose is to show that a particular unitarian logical argument against Trinitarianism is self-defeating. However, I also hope to persuade unitarians to think more carefully about their pneumatology—their doctrine of the Holy Spirit. 

I will not be arguing—though one could—that by worshipping and praying to a mere man (on which unitarians have historically disagreed amongst themselves) and ascribing the divine Name to him, unitarians are effectively making Jesus a second god. Instead, I will rely on the logic of Prof. Dale Tuggy, a philosopher who happens to be one of the world's leading biblical unitarian apologists. Tuggy has made a formal logical argument that the Trinity contradicts monotheism. I argue here that, if this argument is valid (which I deny it is), it also implies that unitarian theology contradicts monotheism, unless the Holy Spirit is defined in a way that does violence to the biblical witness.

Let me state up front that, unlike Tuggy, I am not a philosopher or an analytic theologian. So I will not be too formal or technical in my argument. If the reader spots flaws in my logic, please do let me know by leaving a comment.

In his research review essay, "Metaphysics and Logic of the Trinity," Tuggy briefly traces out the history of the Trinity as a philosophical theory (as he sees it).1 Tuggy then constructs a formal logical argument against the Trinity and discusses various ways that recent analytic theologians have sought to counter it (unsuccessfully, in his view) and salvage the Trinity.

The full argument can be viewed here; the claims and justifications (without the logical and semi-logical translations) are reproduced below.

1. The Father is divine.Premise
2. The Son is divine.Premise
3. The Father and Son have differed.Premise
4. Things which have differed are non-identical.Premise
5. Therefore, Father and Son are non-identical.3, 4
6. For any two (or “two”) things, they are the same god only if each is divine, and they are identical.Premise
7. Therefore, Father and Son are not the same god.5, 6
8. Therefore, there are at least two gods.1, 2, 7
9. There is exactly one god.Premise
10. But this is contradictory.8, 9
11. Therefore, one or more of these is false: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9.1-10

Tuggy observes that premises 1, 2, 3, and 9 are affirmed in Trinitarian dogma and argues that 4 and 6 follow from "Unaided human reason, quite apart from any theological concerns." If the argument is valid, it entails that the doctrine of the Trinity is polytheistic and thus contradicts monotheism (premise 9).2 Tuggy maintains that it is valid, and that the best option—in light of biblical revelation—is to deny premise 2 (that the Son is divine) and adopt unitarianism. Tuggy uses the argument to describe various Trinity theories in terms of how they seek (unsuccessfully, in his view) to avoid the conclusion that the Trinity contradicts monotheism. This is usually done by denying one or more of the premises.

While I personally lack the philosophical expertise to formally argue the point, my intuition is that premises 4 and 6 are both invalid as applied to God, since they treat "Father" and "Son" as "things" and "god" as a "sort" of thing. This runs contrary to the classical Christian doctrine of God's simplicity, which posits that God is not composed of parts and implies that God is not merely the greatest of all "things" that exist, but is existence itself, and thus the ground and cause of all "things."

However, for purposes of this article I am going to assume arguendo the validity of Tuggy's argument. In the next section, we will alter the argument slightly by replacing the Son with the Holy Spirit and use the revised argument to conclude that unitarian doctrine also entails multiple gods (bitheism to be exact).

We revise Tuggy's argument simply by replacing all references to "the Son" (in 2, 3, 5, and 7) with "the Holy Spirit."

1. The Father is divine.Premise
2'. The Holy Spirit is divine.Premise
3'. The Father and Holy Spirit have differed.Premise
4. Things which have differed are non-identical.Premise
5'. Therefore, Father and Holy Spirit are non-identical.3', 4
6. For any two (or “two”) things, they are the same god only if each is divine, and they are identical.Premise
7'. Therefore, Father and Holy Spirit are not the same god.5', 6
8. Therefore, there are at least two gods.1, 2', 7'
9. There is exactly one god.Premise
10. But this is contradictory.8, 9
11. Therefore, one or more of these is false: 1, 2', 3', 4, 6, 9.1-10

From a Trinitarian perspective, nothing has changed about the validity and implications of the argument (since, for Trinitarians, the Holy Spirit is another of what the Son is).3 From a unitarian perspective, however, the Holy Spirit is not another of what the Son is, but is something entirely different. This is precisely what makes the revised argument interesting, for while unitarians certainly deny the original premise 2 (that the Son is divine), it is not clear that they deny 2' (that the Holy Spirit is divine). Consequently, unless unitarians deny one of the other premises in the revised argument, the conclusion follows (according to Tuggy's logic) that unitarianism contradicts monotheism.

We will describe unitarian pneumatology in more detail below and discuss how unitarians might rescue monotheism from the jaws of Tuggy's argument, and at what cost in terms of interpreting the biblical witness. But first, let us pre-empt a shortcut that some unitarians may wish to take to avoid the issue. Perhaps a unitarian would deny premise 3', that the Father and the Holy Spirit have differed. But not so fast. Consider Tuggy's own justification for the original premise 3 (that the Father and Son have differed):
Premise 3 is implied by the New Testament and by any trinitarian theology. The Father sends his unique Son to save the world, but Jesus does not do that; Jesus doesn’t send his own Son into the world.
The same justification can be given for premise 3'. God (the Father) sends his Spirit,4 but the Holy Spirit does not send its Spirit. Therefore, the Father and the Holy Spirit have differed. By Tuggy's own logic, premise 3' stands.

There does not seem to be any doctrinal consensus among biblical unitarians concerning what the Holy Spirit is. Indeed, the statement of belief that one must affirm to join the Unitarian Christian Alliance (a biblical unitarian network organisation) makes no mention of the Holy Spirit! Thus, while biblical unitarians (today, at least) seem to be united in what they deny about the Holy Spirit—that it is a Person—there seems to be no particular affirmation about the Holy Spirit that unites them.

Moreover, unitarian/Trinitarian polemic concerning the Holy Spirit tends to concentrate largely on the question of personhood (and, a functional level, on whether the Holy Spirit is active).5 This debate is over personhood is practically a red herring, as I have argued previously. This is partly because unitarian-Trinitarian debaters do not agree on (and often do not even mention) a definition of personhood,6 and partly because Trinitarian theologians do not claim that "Person" (or any other noun) completely captures what the Father, Son, and Spirit are in their distinctness.7 Whether or not the Holy Spirit is a "Person" is also irrelevant to Tuggy's logical argument and thus will not be discussed here.

Biblical unitarians, then, emphatically deny that the Holy Spirit is a person, but it is very difficult to pin down what biblical unitarians affirm about that the Holy Spirit. I will attempt to summarise four views that I have encountered, but I must stress that biblical unitarian writers often use vague language about the Holy Spirit and sometimes seem to vacillate between two or more of the views below in the same document.

One of the most common definitions of the Holy Spirit that one finds in biblical unitarian literature describes it as God's power. For example, a website called Australian Christadelphians summarises Christadelphian beliefs about God thus: "There is only one eternal, immortal God. Jesus Christ is his only begotten son and the Holy Spirit is his power." Catechetical materials produced by the Christadelphian Bible Mission (CBM) state that "The Spirit of God is His power through which He makes and supports all things."8 The BBC's profile of Christadelphians states simply, "They believe that the Holy Spirit is the power of God." Christadelphian apologists James H. Broughton and Peter J. Southgate describe the Holy Spirit as "the Father's mind and power." They subsequently describe God's Spirit as "His agent," while qualifying that this agent is "not a separate person" and does not have "its own volition."9

This language is frustratingly vague. What kind of agent lacks volition (which seems to be necessary for agency)?10 And what exactly is meant by "his power"? Jesus Christ is also called the power of God (1 Cor. 1:24), but no one would accept "God's power" as an adequate definition of Jesus Christ. So what is this thing that is God's power? Is it something concrete like an energy or force, or something abstract like a property or attribute?

Some biblical unitarian writers tend more in the concrete direction. The Racovian Catechism of the Polish Brethren (originally published in 1605) offers such a view: "The Holy Spirit is a virtue or energy flowing from God to men, and communicated to them."11 In our own time, Anthony Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting write, "In both Testaments 'Holy Spirit' describes the energy of God directed to creation and inspiration. It is God in action and an extension of His personality."12 The 19th-century founders of the Christadelphian movement, John Thomas and Robert Roberts, describe the Spirit of God in concrete, quasi-physical terms as a kind of energy or matter, and Roberts seems to literally equate it with electricity.13 Graham Pearce characterises the Spirit of God as "power, as light from a source."14

Biblical unitarian writer Sean Finnegan, in an article entitled A Unitarian View of the Holy Spirit, sets out to "put forth a scriptural definition of the Holy Spirit." Having dismissed the idea that the Holy Spirit is "merely an impersonal power...like a battery pack," Finnegan describes "spirit of God" as a "literary device," "a way of referring to Yahweh in action" (which sounds like definition 4.3 below). Yet when he finally offers a "definition," it is more convoluted:
The holy spirit is God in action...as well as the abiding helper distributed under the auspices of the Father by the ascended Messiah... Thus one could say, 'the holy spirit is God,' as well as, 'the holy spirit is Christ,' even though it is technically neither, since they are in heaven, whereas the holy spirit is in God's people. The spirit is simply the way God and Christ are able to indwell and influence the church.
So the holy spirit is God in action, but one would technically be wrong to say "the holy spirit is God." The definition starts off plainly but ends with a non-definition, as a "way...to influence" simply raises the question, "So what is it?" Indeed, "way...to influence" sounds very much like an impersonal power, so it seems Finnegan has taken the reader by a circuitous route back to what he had rejected earlier.

If "Holy Spirit" names a concrete thing like an energy or force distinct from the Father, and this energy or force is divine (which appears to follow if it can be called "God in action" and "God's power"), then premises 2' and 3' hold firm. Therefore, this brand of unitarian pneumatology entails bitheism, if Tuggy's argument is valid.

Summarising his argument concerning the Holy Spirit in a debate with a Trinitarian, Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke writes,
In Week 4 we saw that the OT provides a consistent doctrine of the Spirit as the power of God manifesting His divine presence; yet not a divine person ('God the Holy Spirit') or the totality of God Himself. We saw that throughout the OT, God’s Holy Spirit is described as something that belongs to Him, like a property or a power. We saw that the NT follows this model exactly, without deviating in any way from OT teaching.
Again, we have some serious vagueness here. Is it like a property or a power, but in fact some unnamed third thing, or is it a property or a power? And if the latter, which of the two is it? (It is a recurring theme of biblical unitarian pneumatology that writers are unable to capture what the Holy Spirit is under a single term.)15 But, notably, Burke characterises the Holy Spirit as something that belongs to God but cannot be fully identified with him ("not...the totality of God Himself").

Is the Holy Spirit therefore something distinct from God? Or is the Holy Spirit a part of God (akin to his mind, or analogous to the spirit of man)?16 If the former, then premise 3' holds, and bitheism follows according to Tuggy's argument (unless the Spirit is sub-divine, on which see below). If the latter, then premise 3' may not hold (as the Spirit is then part of the Father, not different from him), but we are not out of the woods. This would be a denial of the classical doctrine of God's simplicity (which holds that God is not composed of parts). But if God (the Father) is a totality composed of parts, and his Spirit is one of the parts, there must be at least one other part that is not the Spirit. Take that part and replace "the Father" with it in premises 1, 3', 5', and 7' in the revised argument. We will still have two things (the Spirit and the Other Part) that differ and that are divine, so by Tuggy's argument we still have at least two gods.

A third view denies that the term "Holy Spirit" names any distinct reality. "Holy Spirit" is simply a name of God or a circumlocution for God, a "way of speaking" that emphasises especially God's presence and activity in creation. This view is less commonly articulated by Christadelphians but is prevalent among other biblical unitarians such as those who maintain the 21st Century Reformation website and BiblicalUnitarian.com.

The 21st Century Reformation website states, "The spirit of God is not a separate individual from the Father. It is the Father extending himself to us by his mighty power" (emphasis added). In another article on the same site, J. Dan Gill states, under the heading "His Spirit is Him,"
The spirit of God is the Father himself at work... the spirit of God is not a separate agent or person of co-Deity. Rather, it is the Father in action. What has been done by the hand or spirit of God has literally been done by the Father himself.
An anonymous article "What about 'the Holy Spirit'?" on BiblicalUnitarian.com expresses a similar view:
Since 'the only true God' is 'the Father,' and since He is 'holy' and He is 'spirit,' He is also referred to in Scripture as 'the Holy Spirit.' ... The Giver is God, the only true God, the Father, the Holy Spirit... the Holy Spirit is not a person, existing independently of God; it is a way of speaking about God’s personally acting in history, or of the risen Christ’s personally acting in the life and witness of the Church. (emphasis added)
Another anonymous article on the same site, "What is the Holy Spirit?" adds that the term "Holy Spirit" has two distinct meanings in Scripture, which should actually be capitalised differently to distinguish them:
In the Bible, “HOLY SPIRIT” is primarily used in two very different ways: One way is to refer to God Himself, and the other way is referring to God’s nature that He gives to people. God is holy and is spirit, and “the Holy Spirit” (capital “H” and “S”) is one of the many “names,” or designations, for God (the one God, known as “Yahweh”). Also, however, God gives His holy spirit nature to people as a gift to spiritually empower them, and when HOLY SPIRIT is used that way it should be translated as “holy spirit” (lower case “h” and “s”)... “HOLY SPIRIT” is either a way of speaking about God, or the gift of God’s nature17
This view of the Holy Spirit looks a lot like Sabellianism or modalism, a heresy in the early church that reduced the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to modes of divine revelation like masks God would put on, rather than maintaining the real distinction between the three.18 However, it is not really modalism, because in this case God the Father is the reality and the Holy Spirit is neither the reality nor a mode. It is merely a "way of speaking about" the Father: a literary device; a figure of speech. In short, the Holy Spirit as such does not exist—does not name any distinct ontological reality—and for that reason this circumlocution pneumatology could be called apneumatism. It is not very far removed from the view held by some disciples in Ephesus who admitted that they were not aware "that there is a holy spirit" (Acts 19:2).

The circumlocution view does avoid the charge of bitheism under Tuggy's argument, since it denies premise 3' (that the Father and the Holy Spirit differ). The question is, at what cost in terms of fidelity to the biblical witness?

The notion that the Holy Spirit, like the Son, is a sub-divine creature or created thing would allow unitarians to escape Tuggy's argument by denying premise 2'. However, this does not seem to be a popular position among contemporary unitarians. It has had its proponents historically; it seems to have been popular among non-Trinitarians of the patristic age.19 A famous post-Reformation defender was the 17th-century English unitarian John Biddle. In his Confession of Faith, Biddle argues that Ephesians 4:4-6 implies that the Holy Spirit is created:
For when he saith, that there is one Spirit, he must mean either one created, or one uncreated Spirit, since (whatsoever some talk to the contrary) no other kind of Spirit is conceivable: Not one uncreated Spirit, for so there will be another uncreated Spirit besides God, (which is absurd) since this Spirit here is plainly and purposely distinguished from God; wherefore he meaneth one created Spirit20
He proceeds to infer "that the holy Spirit is in the number of Angels... I intimate the Holy Spirit to be an Angel"21 To identify the Holy Spirit as an angel one must first accept his personhood, which Biddle did but most unitarians do not.22 However, it is in principle possible to view the Holy Spirit as a sub-divine energy or power (as in 4.1) that God creates or produces. Some contemporary unitarians seem to hint that the Holy Spirit is sub-divine without explicitly stating that it is created. Dave Burke, for instance, writes concerning the Farewell Discourse of John 14-16 that Jesus' language
does not ascribe any divine names or titles to the Holy Spirit, and it does not ascribe any uniquely divine properties, privileges or attributes to the Holy Spirit. Why doesn’t Jesus refer to the Holy Spirit as “God”, or even “Lord”?
Despite such language, one generally does not find unitarians who hold view 4.1 or 4.2 above explicitly calling the Holy Spirit sub-divine or denying that the Holy Spirit is divine. There are obvious logical reasons for this: how can "the Spirit of God" not be divine? How can God make himself present through a sub-divine force or energy? Or how can God have a sub-divine property or be composed of sub-divine parts?

Those who hold one of the first two views—that the Holy Spirit is a divine thing (such as a power or energy or property or aspect)—seem to affirm premises 2' and 3', and are therefore, by the logic of Tuggy's argument, bitheists. Those who hold one of the last two views—that the Holy Spirit is a circumlocution for God the Father, or a sub-divine created thing—escape the charge of bitheism, by denying premise 3' or 2', respectively. The third and fourth views are thus stronger theological positions (again, assuming the validity of Tuggy's argument). The question that we need to ask, however, is whether these two positions are tenable in light of the biblical witness. In the next section, we will argue briefly that they are not.

Before discussing the merits of views 4.3 and 4.4 in light of Scripture, let us observe that these two pneumatologies are in direct contradiction, as strongly as (say) Arianism and Sabellianism in Christology. Any argument that the Holy Spirit is simply a "way of speaking about" the Father will necessarily refute the idea that the Holy Spirit is sub-divine or created, and vice versa. In fact, however, the Scriptures overwhelmingly testify that the Holy Spirit is both distinct from the Father and divine.

In the Hebrew Bible there is definite tension between the identification between God and his Spirit and the distinction between God and his Spirit. Mehrdad Fatehi summarises well:
The ruach Yahweh in the OT is a relational concept referring to Yahweh in his active relation to his creation and his people. This has three important corollaries: 1) The Spirit does not refer primarily to Yahweh as he is in himself or to his inner being or personality, but to Yahweh as he communicates himself, i.e. his power, his life, his wisdom, his will, or his presence, to the world. 2) Nevertheless, the Spirit of Yahweh is never regarded as an entity distinct or separable from Yahweh. It rather represents Yahweh himself in his action towards the world. 3) Yahweh though is not reduced to his ruach. The identification between Yahweh and his Spirit is always dynamic. Yahweh is always greater than his revelatory or redemptive act through his Spirit.23
There is an obvious tension here: the Spirit is Yahweh himself but in a dynamic relation that cannot be reduced to simple identity as in Yahweh = ruach Yahweh. The tension means that the Spirit cannot be reduced to a sub-divine entity separate from God (pace view 4.4 above) but also that it cannot be reduced to a circumlocution for God (pace view 4.3). Preserving this tension and avoiding reductionism is one of the advantages of Trinitarian theology. But I digress.

One of the most intriguing references to the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible occurs in Isaiah 48:16. Here, between two oracles spoken by God in the first person ("Thus says Yahweh...") is sandwiched a little speech by a mysterious third party:
Draw near to me, hear this!
From the beginning I have not spoken in secret,
from the time it came to be I have been there.
And now the Lord God has sent me and his spirit. (NRSV)
This verse has so vexed scholars that some regard part or all of the verse as a late gloss, or propose various emendations of the text.24 If we interpret as it stands (as the Church Fathers did, unsurprisingly in Trinitarian fashion),25 we have a quasi-divine figure who uses language just like Yahweh has been using throughout deutero-Isaiah about having existed and spoken from the beginning,26 and yet who distinguishes himself from God as having been sent by him. Most intriguing for our purposes is that the quasi-divine speaker groups himself together with the Spirit as having been sent by God. If the Spirit is merely a circumlocution for God, we apparently have in this passage two circumlocutions for God—one of them unnamed—who are distinguished from God as having been sent by him!

Pursuant to the idea expressed in Isaiah 48:16, in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is re-revealed as a figure (whether you choose to call it a person or a thing) analogous to the Son of God. Just as the Father sent the Son, so he will sent "another Advocate" (allos paraklētos, John 14:16) who, like Jesus, will not speak on his own, but what he hears from the Father (John 16:13; cp. 5:30; 7:17). Since biblical unitarians emphatically affirm that the Son is distinct from the Father—indeed, Tuggy used precisely such "sending" language as proof of this—they should have no difficulty acknowledging that the Spirit is likewise distinct from the Father. And if this were not enough, we have numerous passages where the Holy Spirit is listed alongside the Father and the Son.27 How can we read "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19) and conclude that the Son is really distinguished from the Father but the Holy Spirit is not? Or how can the Spirit be described as the Spirit of God's Son (Gal. 4:6) if God's Son is a distinct,28 sub-divine figure but the Spirit is a circumlocution for God himself?

Although, as mentioned, few unitarians since John Biddle have denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, it is worth briefly commenting on this issue. We have already stated that it is difficult to conceive of how the Holy Spirit could be a power, energy, property, or part of God without being divine itself. As for being a creature, the Scriptures speak of the Spirit's involvement in creation (e.g., Genesis 1:1-2, Job 33:4, Psalm 104:30, Judith 16:14), but never—as far as I can tell—of the Spirit having been created. In Acts 5:3-4, Peter equates lying to the Holy Spirit with lying to God. And Jesus teaches that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the one kind of blasphemy that will not be forgiven (Matt. 12:31-32 par.) This, together with the broad evidence for dynamic identity between God and his Spirit (as acknowledged by the "circumlocution camp") ought to suffice to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is divine.

We can very briefly respond to six of biblical unitarian Sean Finnegan's objections about the Holy Spirit, though he is not explicitly objecting to the Holy Spirit's divinity, but to the idea that the Holy Spirit is a distinct "person." (1) Finnegan objects that the Holy Spirit does not have a name, whereas the Father and the Son do. But Matthew 28:19 explicitly says "in the name of the Father and [the name] of the Son and [the name] of the Holy Spirit." The words to onoma ("the name") are not repeated thrice as this would be verbose and redundant, since it is obvious to the reader that the parallel occurrences of kai tou ("and of the") refer back to onoma. (2) The Holy Spirit never sends greetings in the salutations in Paul's letters. But if we regard Paul's letters as Scripture, and the Holy Spirit speaks through scriptural authors (Acts 28:25), then the Holy Spirit is speaking these greetings from the Father and the Son. Furthermore, Finnegan seems to have overlooked that in Revelation 1:4-5, the seven churches of Asia do explicitly receive greetings from God, "and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ". As Bogdan G. Bucur writes,
The blessing with ‘grace and peace’ is suggestive of a divine origin. The three must, then, in some way stand for the divinity…It seems most likely, therefore, that the mentioning of the ‘seven spirits’ corresponds to the expected reference to the Holy Spirit. In other words, the author’s expression ‘seven spirits’ would designate what the early Church usually referred to as ‘Holy Spirit.’29
(3) The Holy Spirit is owned by God, because it is called "the Spirit of God" the way Grace's dog might be called "the dog of Grace." This is an oversimplification of the function of the genitive, which has many functions besides ownership. Moreover, if Finnegan's argument holds then the phrase "the Spirit of Christ" implies that the Holy Spirit is also owned by Christ—a real oddity for unitarian theology. In fact, the genitive can refer to source. And as the Creed itself states, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. (4) The Holy Spirit is never prayed to. This objection misapprehends the function of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. The Spirit is not primarily regarded as dwelling in heaven but in the church and in the hearts of the faithful. Therefore, rather than praying to the Holy Spirit, believers pray in the Holy Spirit (Eph. 6:18; Phil. 3:3; Jude 20), and the Spirit intercedes for them (Rom. 8:26-27). (5) The Holy Spirit is missing from statements like that of Matthew 11:27 ("No one knows the Father but the Son, and no one knows the Son but the Father"). This is an argument from silence; if the theological implication is that the Holy Spirit does not know the Father or the Son, it is odd that Paul should elsewhere write, "So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God." (1 Cor. 2:11 NRSV) (6) The Holy Spirit is left out of heavenly throne visions such as those in Isaiah 6, Daniel 7, and Revelation 4. Firstly, some early Christian interpreters understood the two "seraphim" in Isaiah's vision to be the Son and the Spirit.30 Secondly, the absence of the Spirit of God from the vision of Daniel 7 is hardly surprising given that the Book of Daniel never mentions the Spirit of God at all.31 Thirdly, the throne vision of Revelation 4 does mention "and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God" (Rev. 4:5 NRSV). The unusual phraseology does not mean that the seven spirits of God are other than the Holy Spirit; the expression alludes to the seven operations of the Spirit of God mentioned in Isaiah 11:2-3 LXX.32 In Revelation 5:6, the seven spirits of God are depicted again, now as seven horns and eyes of the Lamb in the midst of the throne. So the Holy Spirit is certainly not absent from the throne in this vision.

Biblical unitarians who teach a pneumatology like that described in 4.1 or 4.2 above—that the Holy Spirit is a power, energy, property, or aspect of God—have departed from monotheism, at least according to the logical argument of unitarian philosopher Prof. Dale Tuggy. Biblical unitarians who wish to avoid bitheism basically have two options, which are the circumlocution pneumatology that I have pejoratively called apneumatism (4.3) and a sub-divine creature pneumatology like that of John Biddle (4.4). However, both of these positions are biblically untenable.

An alternative is to reject the logic of Tuggy's argument. But in that case, biblical unitarians must either construct a new argument or admit that the doctrine of the Trinity is monotheistic. And so perhaps the best option of all for biblical unitarians is to return to their catholic roots and accept the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, the touchstone of Christian unity for over 1600 years. While Trinitarian theology is often accused of overcomplication, the Trinitarian view of the Holy Spirit can be stated very straightforwardly: the Holy Spirit is another of what the Father and the Son are. Call it a divine "Person" if you prefer.
  • 1 Dale Tuggy, "Metaphysics and Logic of the Trinity," Oxford Handbooks Online (2016): 1-8. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935314.013.27.
  • 2 "Multitheistic" might be a more accurate term, since the prefix "poly-" means "many" and not merely "multiple." However, the word English multitheism is usually used to refer to the existence of multiple kinds of theism, rather than the belief in multiple gods.
  • 3 This is not to say that the Son and the Holy Spirit are identical for Trinitarians, since for example the Son has become incarnate and the Spirit has not.
  • 4 See, e.g., Psalm 104:30, Wisdom 9:17, John 14:26, Galatians 4:6, 1 Peter 1:12, Revelation 5:6.
  • 5 The debate over whether the Spirit is active is sharpest among Christadelphians, who have historically held a hypercessationist position. I have not looked extensively into what other biblical unitarian groups believe about the Spirit's present activity, but they do seem to allow for it.
  • 6 See further discussion on pp. 3-4 of my Review of and Response to The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound, By Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting.
  • 7 St. Augustine discusses this at length in his work de Trinitate. He usually refers to the Father, Son, and Spirit as three personae ("persons"), but acknowledges that this term is insufficient: "When, then, it is asked what the three are, or who the three are, we betake ourselves to the finding out of some special or general name under which we may embrace these three; and no such name occurs to the mind, because the super-eminence of the Godhead surpasses the power of customary speech" (de Trinitate, VII.4.7). At one point he famously remarks that it cannot be denied that there are tria quaedem ("three somethings," de Trinitate VII.4.9), just as St. Anselm would later write, "And so it is evidently expedient for every man to believe in a certain ineffable trinal unity, and in one Trinity; one and a unity because of its one essence, but trinal and a trinity because of its three—what (tres nescio quid, literally "three I know not what")? For, although I can speak of a Trinity because of Father and Son and the Spirit of both, who are three; yet I cannot, in one word, show why they are three" (Monologion 79).
  • 8 Some biblical unitarian writers suggest that the Spirit of God and the Holy Spirit are different (e.g., Graham Pearce, The Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit Gifts [Adelaide: Logos, 1975], 13). Such a distinction is unwarranted. That these terms are interchangeable is evident from passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:3, Ephesians 4:30, and Romans 15:16-18. Often in the New Testament the shorter term "the Spirit" is used.
  • 9 The Trinity: True or False? (2nd edn; Nottingham: The Dawn Book Supply, 2002), 82, 93, 97.
  • 10 One definition of agency given by Cambridge Dictionary is "the ability to take action or to choose what action to take". Notably, 1 Corinthians 12:11 certainly appears to ascribe volition to the Spirit, stating that it allots gifts to each person as it wishes.
  • 11 Thomas Rees (trans.), The Racovian Catechism (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1818), 285).
  • 12 The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound (Lanham: International Scholars Publications, 1998), 226.
  • 13 See footnotes in the tenth paragraph of this article for relevant quotations from their writings.
  • 14 The Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit Gifts, 13.
  • 15 It is the Father's mind and his power; it is like a property or a power; it is one of the names of God and it is the gift of God. Christadelphian writer Aleck Crawford, in his book The Spirit: A General Exposition on New Testament Usage (1974) does not give any definition of the Spirit, and seems to think it inadvisable to do so. But he conflates the multivalence of the Greek word pneuma with the particularity of the reality designated "the Holy Spirit" or "the Spirit of God": "The very large number of attempts that have been made at establishing a blanket rule is itself an indication of the difficulty, not to say the impossibility, of arriving at a universally satisfactory solution to the problem."
  • 16 We have seen above that Broughton and Southgate equate the Holy Spirit with the Father's mind. About the closest that Christadelphian writer Peter Schwartzkopff comes to defining the Spirit of God in his book of that title is, "Clearly in one sense the Spirit of God has to do with his mind –his way of thinking and feeling" (The Spirit of God [n.d.], 5). To his credit, Schwartzkopff realises that he is trying to "Defin[e] the Undefinable" (ibid., 3), seemingly acknowledging that there is an element of mystery in any attempt to describe God. Biblical unitarian Kermit Zarley writes that "the Spirit of God is to God what the spirit of man is to man." This matter-of-fact anthropomorphism seems to miss that any analogy we may make from the human sphere to describe God is going to be woefully inadequate for describing his infinite majesty.
  • 17 Ironically, another biblical unitarian, Kermit Zarley, criticises Trinitarian translators for capitalising "Holy Spirit" whereas the original biblical manuscripts did not distinguish between lower and upper case and thus only reflect interpretative bias.
  • 18 Notably, Sean Finnegan actually describes Old Testament language about the spirit of God as "ways of referring to the almighty, transcendent God in His mode of acting within creation".
  • 19 Fourth-century Church Fathers such as St. Basil of Caesarea warned about those who attack the Holy Spirit (called Pneumatomachi) by asserting that he "is a creature" (Basil of Caesarea, Letters, 8.10).
  • 20 John Biddle, A Confession of Faith Touching the Holy Trinity according to the Scripture (London: 1648), 3.
  • 21 Confession of Faith, 50, 57.
  • 22 Biddle rebuts the arguments of other non-Trinitarians who held the Holy Spirit to be a personified power.
  • 23 The Spirit’s Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul: An Examination of Its Christological Implications (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 63.
  • 24 For an overview of the text and interpretative options, see Wonsuk Ma, Until the Spirit Comes: The Spirit of God in the Book of Isaiah (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999), 117-21.
  • 25 Origen, the earliest extant writer to cite this passage, writes: "Since, however, it is a Jew who raises difficulties in the story of the Holy Spirit's descent in the form of a dove to Jesus, I would say to him: My good man, who is the speaker in Isaiah who says 'And now the Lord sent me and his spirit'? In this text although it is doubtful whether it means that the Father and the Holy Spirit sent Jesus or that the Father sent Christ and the Holy Spirit, it is the second interpretation which is right. After the Saviour had been sent, then the Holy Spirit was sent, in order that the prophet's saying might be fulfilled" (Contra Celsum 1.46, trans. Henry Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum: Translated with an Introduction and Notes [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953], 42).
  • 26 Cf. Isaiah 40:21; 41:4; 41:26; 45:21; 46:10. Ma notes that if v. 16b ("And now the Lord God has sent me and his spirit") is removed, "the entire passage from v. 12 to v. 22 flows undisturbed" (Until the Spirit Comes, 117). In other words, there is nothing about the first part of v. 16 to suggest that it is spoken by a figure other than God himself.
  • 27 E.g., Matthew 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 13:13, Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Peter 1:2, Revelation 1:4-5.
  • 28 See also Acts 16:7, Romans 8:9, Philippians 1:19, 1 Peter 1:11.
  • 29 Angelomorphic Pneumatology: Clement of Alexandria and Other Early Christian Witnesses (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 92.
  • 30 Origen, for instance, writes concerning his Jewish Christian teacher, "My Hebrew master also used to say that those two seraphim in Isaiah, which are described as having each six wings, and calling to one another, and saying, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God of hosts, were to be understood of the only-begotten Son of God and of the Holy Spirit." (De Principiis 1.3.4). This interpretation likely also underlies the throne vision in the late-first-century Jewish Christian apocalypse The Ascension of Isaiah (on which see more here), in which Christ and the Spirit are seated at the right and left of the great throne, and both receive worship and worship the Great Glory. 
  • 31 There are several mentions of "a spirit of the holy gods," but always on the lips of Babylonians.
  • 32 "And the spirit of God shall rest on him, the spirit of (1) wisdom and (2) understanding, the spirit of (3) counsel and (4) might, the spirit of (5) knowledge and (6) godliness. The spirit of (7) the fear of God will fill him." (NETS; numbering added). St. Augustine, quoting this text, asks, "Are they not there called the seven Spirits of God, while there is only one and the same Spirit dividing to every one severally as He will? But the septenary operation of the one Spirit was so called by the Spirit Himself" (Tractates on the Gospel of John 122.8). St. Hippolytus of Rome actually paraphrases Isaiah 11:2 as stating, "And the seven spirits of God shall rest upon Him" (Fragment on Proverbs 9:1).

Monday 7 June 2021

Review of "The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound," by Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting

My blog has remained dormant for some time mainly because I have been busy with a larger work: a detailed review of and response to a work of unitarian apologetics by Sir Anthony Buzzard and the late Charles Hunting. It is not a new book (published 1998), but I had not read it until Anthony kindly mailed me a copy earlier this year. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then rebuttal must be a close second: it indicates that the work was worthy of careful study. I hope that readers will find this a useful contribution to the ancient and still-ongoing theological debate concerning the nature of the Christian God.

Sunday 6 December 2020

Dale Tuggy and the Stages of Trinitarian Commitment

Prof. Dale Tuggy, a philosopher of religion and unitarian apologist, released a podcast episode a couple of months ago entitled, The Stages of Trinitarian Commitment, based on a talk he had given at a Restoration Fellowship theological conference (available on YouTube).1 I am familiar with Tuggy's Trinities podcast, but not a regular listener; this episode came to my attention when he posted it in a Christadelphian Facebook group to which I belong.

In the talk, Tuggy describes six stages through which one might progress from an ignorant Trinitarian to an enlightened unitarian.2 While he draws extensively on his own personal experience, Tuggy does not regard his six stages as merely a personal journey. His talk is sociological in nature, and the six stages are implied to be a normative trajectory of Christian intellectual experience. Tuggy allows that not everyone follows the path exactly as he did. Some hunker down along the way and do not progress, some skip stages; occasionally someone regresses.

What then are the six stages? They are: 
1. paper “trinitarian” 
2. defender of “the Trinity” 
3. interpreter of “the Trinity” 
4. Berean trinitarian 
5. “trinitarian” ex-trinitarian 
6. unitarian Christian
To summarise briefly, a paper trinitarian is what most professing Christians in the world are. They are Trinitarians because they belong to a religious group with a Trinitarian confessional stance, but are both uninformed and bewildered about what the doctrine actually means. A trinitarian defender is one who has learned just enough about the Trinity to defend it, and does so aggressively and uncharitably, enjoying the status that comes with being a self-appointed apologist. A trinitarian interpreter is one who has delved more deeply into the philosophical underpinnings of the doctrine, and attached him/herself to one of the different models used to rationalise the doctrine's intrinsic paradox (social Trinity, psychological Trinity, etc.) One becomes a Berean trinitarian when, frustrated with the pitfalls of the philosophical models, one resolves to honestly investigate whether the Trinity is biblical. A 'trinitarian' ex-trinitarian is one who is now convinced that the Trinity is false, but resists exiting his/her trinitarian denomination to embrace unitarian Christianity, due to the attractiveness of being accepted within the "Trinity club," which keeps hold of its members with the help of a "culture of fear." Finally, when the theological traveler musters up the courage to openly accept what s/he already knew to be true, s/he becomes a unitarian Christian and has arrived at the summit of the climb.


Below are a few comments on the particular stages followed by an evaluation of the model as a whole. Firstly, just because a Trinitarian Christian is neither an apologist nor a philosopher does not mean s/he is a mere paper trinitarian. One who has been catechised in orthodox Christian doctrine and accepts the teaching in good faith is not a mere dupe for being unable to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in philosophical language. The same is true of other doctrines. Would we consider a fellow Christian to be a 'paper theist' because s/he is unable to give a philosophically sound account of the classical arguments for God's existence? A 'paper eschatologist' because s/he cannot offer a compelling account of what eternity means in terms of philosophy of time? Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity is not necessarily esoteric or irrelevant for Christians of the non-apologist, non-philosopher variety. Anyone can intuitively appreciate the significance of the notion that loving communion characterises God's own inner life, a loving communion that we have been created to share in and extend to others. The doctrine of the Trinity leads immediately to a purpose and mission for the believer's life.

Concerning the trinitarian defender stage, there surely are Trinitarian apologists more notable for their arrogance and aggression than the substance of their arguments. However, any apologist or polemicist is susceptible to arrogance, aggression, and substandard argumentation; this human weakness has nothing to do with Trinitarianism. I can attest that there are unitarian apologists out there whose arrogance matches their ignorance, for I used to be one! Similarly, an aversion to philosophically rigorous description of doctrines is not a Trinitarian disease. I grew up in a unitarian community where 'philosophy' was often used as a byword (e.g., with recourse to Colossians 2:8); some members considered philosophy per se to be bad. (On early Christian use of Greek philosophy, see here.) Bottom line: Trinitarians certainly have no monopoly on low-quality apologetics. The personal shortcomings that all too often compromise the work of amateur apologists is a result of their human weakness, not their Trinitarian ideology.

Concerning the trinitarian interpreter stage, all of the examples Tuggy mentions here (including himself) are of professional philosophers or philosophical theologians. This is hardly a normative phase of Christian intellectual development! There are relatively few Christians who obtain formal qualifications in philosophy, but of those who do, many remain Trinitarian. Is it charitable to assume that such Trinitarians have merely 'hunkered down' with their unsatisfactory ideas while the eventual unitarian progresses further?

Concerning the Berean trinitarian stage, Tuggy explicitly characterises it in terms of being a 'true Protestant,' living out the sola Scriptura ideal. In so doing, he completely ignores Catholic and Orthodox approaches to doctrine. His sociological model has no room for epistemologies other than his own Protestant one.

As with the trinitarian defender stage, Tuggy's comments on the 'trinitarian' ex-trinitarian stage characterise phenomena that are common in many areas of religious experience as specific to Trinitarianism. One in the midst of any crisis of religious belief is likely to experience psychological stress (e.g., cognitive dissonance) as one grapples with the disconnect between one's own inner convictions and those of one's peers. There is a temptation to suppress one's convictions in order to preserve the stability of one's social and religious life. This is as true for a person contemplating a unitarian-to-Trinitarian shift as for the reverse, as I can personally attest.

The biggest problem with Tuggy's six-stage model, however, is not that he has inadequately described particular stages, but that he has apparently neglected to consider that some people follow completely different trajectories in their Trinitarian commitment. Below, I describe the trajectory that I have followed—by way of illustration and not to suggest that my experience is normative or objectively better than others'.

My Own Stages of Trinitarian Commitment

I would characterise my own stages of Trinitarian commitment thus:
1. Naïve unitarian
2. unitarian apologist
3. Doubt and apathy
4. Investigation and indecision
5. catholic Trinitarian
I was raised as a Christadelphian, and it was a central feature of communal religious life not only to be a unitarian but to be an anti-Trinitarian. That the doctrine of the Trinity was not merely false but nonsensical was mentioned frequently and emphatically. The doctrine was regularly misrepresented in public talks as affirming polytheism, denying Jesus' humanity, or maintaining that Jesus prayed to himself. My assumption was that the idea of the Trinity simply did not deserve serious thought, and so the notion that it might be true never crossed my mind. I was a naïve unitarian.

Although the Trinity was an obviously ridiculous idea, many Trinitarians evidently did not know this, and so it was a noble undertaking to dispel their ignorance and show them the truth. Thus, in my middle teens I became an online Christadelphian apologist, wrangling away the hours on Internet forums and starting my own apologetics website. My apologetics modus operandi consisted largely of proof-texting and lacked serious engagement with opposing arguments. I was a unitarian apologist.

Gradually, having encountered some coherent Trinitarian arguments (both online and in books), I came to appreciate that the case for unitarianism wasn't open-and-shut. I felt my first real pangs of doubt about the position I had always assumed to be the obvious truth. This was part of a larger crisis of conviction about Christianity itself, and for awhile I lost interest in Christian doctrine, while still outwardly practicing the Christadelphian religion. I had fallen into doubt and apathy.

In time, my faith in the basic truth of Christianity (e.g., the salvific death and resurrection of Jesus) returned, and with it a zeal for studying the Scriptures and thinking about Christian doctrine. I became firmly convinced on biblical grounds that Christ personally pre-existed and was in some sense divine, and it was clear that I could no longer uphold the dogmatic unitarianism of Christadelphians. I gradually withdrew from the Christadelphian community while exploring other, mainly Evangelical, religious communities. Yet I could not wholeheartedly embrace Trinitarian dogma either; I just did not see the doctrine laid out clearly in Scripture. I conceived of the Trinity as a plausible but ultimately man-made attempt to make sense of biblical revelation. I thought I could address my indecision through further study, so I undertook a formal degree programme in theology. This was a period of indecision and investigation.

Today, I am a dogmatic Trinitarian (for a fuller account of my journey to orthodoxy, see here). However, I did not reach this stage primarily through study of the biblical testimony about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Instead, I experienced a paradigm shift in ecclesiology and epistemology. My ecclesiological presuppositions had always been that it is the prerogative and duty of each individual to figure out doctrinal truth for oneself by studying the Bible; what the Church had decided in ecumenical councils carried no weight whatsoever as these councils were just deliberations of flawed humans. However, I have since come to take more seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in preserving the true faith in the Church, despite the flaws of its human members. That the doctrine of the Trinity was promulgated by the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople and has stood as the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy ever since cannot merely be waved aside. If I am critical of the judgment of flawed humans, why in the world should I trust in my own judgment to arrive at doctrinal truth?

Together with my ecclesiological paradigm shift, my epistemological assumptions also changed. I found sola Scriptura to be biblically and historically untenable, and concluded that God must have provided a living voice to authoritatively interpret his revelation. Eventually, I reached the conclusion that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church had the most credible claim to be the successor of the apostles in this respect. Finally, John Henry Cardinal Newman's ideas on the development of Christian doctrine—that doctrine is not static and dead but dynamic and living, that the Church matures in its understanding of the deposit of faith—provided me with a framework for understanding how the doctrine of the Trinity might be central to the Christian faith despite appearing in Scripture only embryonically.

Concluding Thoughts

Dale Tuggy has described his stages of Trinitarian commitment, and I have now described mine, which have proceeded in opposite directions in relation to the doctrine itself. There is, however, some common ground: both trajectories began with a naïve position, followed by an overstated dogmatism, then a crisis of conviction, and ultimately settling on a new position. Perhaps this suggests a more general sociological model than that proposed by Tuggy. Of course, the stages of commitment that one follows are subjective and independent of the objective truth of one's original or final commitments. Hopefully, whatever position one ultimately takes on the doctrine of the Trinity, one takes it with some nuance and with great respect for those who, in good faith, arrive at a different position. All of us, indeed, "know partially" (1 Cor. 13:9), and depend on the mercy of God for our shortcomings, both moral and intellectual.

  • 1 Tuggy recommends that podcast listeners check out the YouTube version to benefit from the slides. I listened to the audio while at the gym, and just checked out a couple of slides on YouTube to make sure I had correctly identified the six stages.
  • 2 I use the small-u unitarian to distinguish the theological position from Unitarian denominations.

Monday 10 June 2019

What or Who is the Holy Spirit? Christadelphian and Trinitarian Definitions

There is no better time than Pentecost Sunday to reflect on pneumatology: the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. In my years of blogging, often in conversation with the theology of Christadelphians (the unitarian sect in which I was raised and to which I formerly belonged), I have written a fair bit about the activity of the Holy Spirit, criticising the traditional Christadelphian view that the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the post-apostolic church and remains dormant today (a position I have called hyper-cessationism). I have previously focused my critique of Christadelphian pneumatology on this functional aspect, because it is not only totally foreign to the New Testament vision of the Church, but quite literally fatal to the whole Christian project, since "the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6). Without the Spirit no one can confess that Jesus is Lord or belong to him (1 Cor. 12:3; Rom. 8:9). It is, to me, perplexing and disturbing that anyone can think that they are capable of following Jesus without the Holy Spirit working in their hearts and in their ecclesial community. Jesus warned his disciples, "Without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5), and went on to explain that the Holy Spirit would be his means of empowering them after his physical departure from the earth. We could paraphrase Paul's question to the Galatians (Gal. 3:3) by asking Christadelphians, "Having begun its mission by means of the Holy Spirit, is the Ecclesia of God to complete its mission by mere human will and power?"

Because of this fundamental impasse over functional pneumatology, it always seemed a bit pointless to me to interact with Christadelphian ideas on the more abstract matter of ontological pneumatology, i.e., what or who the Holy Spirit is. However, ontology is actually the more fundamental issue, since what the Holy Spirit does follows from what or who the Holy Spirit is. Moreover, while the hypercessationist functional pneumatology is not universally held among Christadelphians—it was never explicitly codified in their Statement of Faith and my sense is that it has been toned down or abandoned by significant swathes of Christadelphians today—what does seem to be universal among Christadelphians is the denial "that the Holy Spirit is a person distinct from the Father" (Doctrines to be Rejected #6). This is part of Christadelphians' broader denial of Trinitarian orthodoxy in favour of a unitarian view of God.

In this article, as a prelude to further intended writings on pneumatology and personhood, my aim is to summarise what Christadelphians affirm about the Holy Spirit and contrast it with classical Christian dogma.

Christadelphian Definitions of the Holy Spirit

The Christadelphian Statement of Faith does not contain any article specifically about the Spirit (which is telling in itself). The first article of the BASF does affirm, within a proposition about God, that God is "everywhere present by His Spirit, which is a unity with His person in heaven." This affirmation, properly qualified, would not be objectionable from a Trinitarian standpoint. However, as the Doctrine to be Rejected quoted above clarifies, the BASF is not declaring that God and His Spirit (and His Logos-Son) are a unity of persons, but that God's Spirit is numerically and personally indistinct from God. The Spirit is mentioned three further times in the BASF, but all of these are passing references to the Spirit's role in the earthly life of Jesus. The Christadelphian Statement of Faith does not offer a definition of the Holy Spirit. It clearly states what Christadelphians do not believe the Spirit to be: a person. However, it does not clearly state what Christadelphians do believe the Spirit to be.

For more insight into Christadelphian ontological pneumatology—what the Holy Spirit is, according to Christadelphians—we can look to other Christadelphian literature. We will have to offer the same disclaimer as for any other Christadelphian doctrinal issue: anything we find in Christadelphian literature amounts to privately held opinions; there is no such thing as an official Christadelphian position on this doctrine.1

The most widely encountered definition of the Holy Spirit found in Christadelphian literature is that the Holy Spirit is "God's power." For example, a website called Australian Christadelphians summarises Christadelphian beliefs about God thus: "There is only one eternal, immortal God. Jesus Christ is his only begotten son and the Holy Spirit is his power." Catechetical materials produced by the Christadelphian Bible Mission (CBM) state that "The Spirit of God is His power through which He makes and supports all things." 

A slightly more nuanced definition of the Holy Spirit is offered by Christadelphian apologists James H. Broughton and Peter J. Southgate: "The Holy Spirit is the Father's mind and power."2 They go on to describe God's Spirit as "His agent," while qualifying that this agent is "not a separate person" and does not have "its own volition."3

A biblical unitarian article—not Christadelphian, but endorsed by Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke in an online debate on the Trinity—gives a two-pronged definition of the Holy Spirit:
In every verse of Scripture in which pneuma hagion, holy spirit, is used, it can refer either to (a) one of the names of God, one which emphasizes His power in operation, or (b) the gift of God.
A problematic feature of all of these definitions of the Holy Spirit—God's power, God's mind, God's impersonal agent, one of God's names, the gift of God—is their lack of ontological or philosophical precision. Consider the most common Christadelphian definition: the Holy Spirit as God's power. There is plenty of biblical evidence identifying or linking the Spirit with God's power, but does this amount to an ontological definition? Does it tell us what the Holy Spirit really is? Clearly not. For instance, this definition does not on its own resolve the issue of whether the Holy Spirit is a person. Christ is also identified in Scripture as the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), but I doubt that anyone would claim that "the power of God" is an adequate definition of Jesus Christ.4 Likewise, the statement "the Holy Spirit is the power of God" is true but is not a satisfactory definition of the Holy Spirit. It raises more ontological questions than it answers: "What do you mean by 'power'? What sort of power?"

19th-century Christadelphian writers like John Thomas (the founder of the movement) and Robert Roberts (his protégé) did, to their credit, attempt to clarify further what they meant by defining the Holy Spirit as God's power. They described the Spirit in quasi-physical terms as a kind of energy or matter.5 Indeed, Robert Roberts appears to have identified God's Spirit as nothing other than electricity.6 I suspect that most Christadelphians today who are aware of Roberts' claims are a little embarrassed by them. Nevertheless, one has to commend the early Christadelphians for recognising that "God's power" does not suffice as an ontological definition of the Spirit, and seeking to provide greater clarity. The "electricity hypothesis" seems to have been quietly dropped but not replaced with another ontologically precise definition.

Other definitions of the Holy Spirit that one encounters in Christadelphian literature, such as God's mind, God's agent, etc., are no more ontologically satisfying.7 Perhaps most puzzling is the biblical unitarian definition of the Holy Spirit as one of the names of God or the gift of God. This definition suggests that "Holy Spirit" does not name a real entity; it is merely a term used in Scripture to refer to other entities (two in particular). The Holy Spirit is thus reduced to a label, rather than a distinct reality.

In light of the shortcomings of the above definitions, I think the question needs to be put to Christadelphians and other unitarians anew, "What is the Holy Spirit?" Is it an abstraction, like a property or attribute of God? Something more concrete, like a force or form of energy or matter? Is "Holy Spirit" merely a label or does it name a specific transcendent reality?

The Trinitarian Definition of the Holy Spirit: Is it Worth Considering?

The Christian dogmatic consensus that was formalised at the Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.) and has stood ever since defines the Holy Spirit as a divine person, numerically distinct from the Father and the Son but consubstantial (of one substance or nature) with them as God. Unpacking this definition in detail will have to await another article. What I want to do here is to try and convince Christadelphian readers at least that a closer look at this definition is merited. To do so I want to make two brief observations and one brief biblical argument.

The first observation is that the Trinitarian definition of the Holy Spirit achieves what the Christadelphian and unitarian definitions do not. It is ontologically precise, assigning the Spirit to a specific ontological category, namely person, and even more specifically, divine person. Moreover, one notices in Christadelphian and unitarian discourse a concern to both identify the Spirit with God and distinguish the Spirit from God; hence in the biblical unitarian definition above the Spirit is one of God's names (completely identified with God) or God's gift (distinct from God). The Church Fathers shared this same concern, but addressed it not by bifurcating the Spirit into two different things (an impossibility since the Spirit is one), but by offering a definition of the Spirit that simultaneously affirms both the identification with God and the distinction from God, holding them in tension.

The second observation concerns apologetic writings and debates about the Holy Spirit involving Christadelphians or other unitarians. In my experience, the main Christadelphian apologetic objective is to prove from Scripture that the Holy Spirit is not a person (thus countering the Trinitarian claim). However, the argument usually proceeds without any attempt to define what a person is. (To be fair, quite often the Trinitarian interlocutor in the debate makes the same omission.) Cases in point can be seen in The Great Trinity Debate between Dave Burke and Rob Bowman,8 and Broughton and Southgate's book.9 This is a crucial oversight for two reasons. First, it is obvious that in any debate over the proposition, "X is a person," the truth or falsehood of the proposition hinges on what is meant by "person." Second, "person" is not the sort of simple, obvious concept for which a definition can be assumed without stating it. The concept of personhood has been debated by philosophers up and down the centuries and remains a hot topic today (e.g., concerning ethical debates over the rights of fetuses, humans suffering from dementia, and animals). If even human person is not a concept one can take for granted, a fortiori the same holds for the concept of divine person. Thus, a good definition of personhood may help to resolve the theological differences between Christadelphians and Trinitarians concerning the Holy Spirit.

Some Christadelphians are likely to become uncomfortable with or even tune out any attempt to rigorously define what a person is. "Away with your philosophy; just look at what the Bible says, which is simple and straightforward." In my view, this is a case of trying to having one's cake and eat it too.10 Nevertheless, hoping to reach Christadelphians who may have this mindset, I want to close this article with a short argument for the Holy Spirit's personhood that does not require a technical definition of personhood.

Certain biblical passages, especially in the New Testament, speak of the Holy Spirit in quasi-personal terms. Christadelphian/Trinitarian debates on the Holy Spirit typically go back and forth over whether such quasi-personal language amounts to literary personification (describing a non-personal entity in personal terms for effect) or literal personification (describing an actual person). In the absence of a definition of personhood, this back-and-forth seems futile. However, what I find compelling for the Trinitarian case is not the quasi-personal language per se but a specific claim of Jesus that flows from the Farewell Discourse (chapters 14-17) of the Gospel of John. According to John 14:16, Jesus told his disciples, "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate (allos paraklētos) to be with you always" (NABRE). Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit is an Advocate. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit is sent from the Father (John 15:26 cp. 8:42). Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit teaches (John 14:26 cp. 7:16-17). Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit does not speak on his own, but what he hears (John 16:13; cp. 5:30; 7:17). Throughout the Farewell Discourse, the template that Jesus uses to teach his disciples about the Holy Spirit is himself. Crucially, however, he does so while simultaneously distinguishing the Spirit both from the Father and from himself: "the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name" (14:26); "the Advocate...whom I will send you from the Father" (15:26). Trine formulas used elsewhere in the New Testament—most notably in Matthew 28:19 but also, inter alia, in 2 Corinthians 13:14, reinforce this idea: Jesus Christ, the Son, is another of what the Father is, and the Holy Spirit is another of what the Father and the Son are. It is this eminently biblical insight that gave rise to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Of course, this insight gives rise to a very important question: what are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? To what category do these three belong? The early Church wrestled with this question at length and finally settled on the answer that they are hypostases, a Greek word whose accepted English translation (in this context) is "persons." Our next article will therefore explore the concept of personhood in more depth.


  • 1 As Christadelphians do not have any structure or body authorised to make rulings at a higher level than the local congregation, there is no mechanism by which dogma can be constructed for Christadelphians collectively.
  • 2 James H. Broughton and Peter J. Southgate, The Trinity: True or False? (2nd edn; Nottingham: The Dawn Book Supply, 2002), 82.
  • 3 Broughton and Southgate, The Trinity, 93, 97.
  • 4 Some Samaritans also acclaimed Simon Magus as "the 'Power of God' that is called 'Great'" (Acts 8:10). This claim was false, but it does show that in the historical context of the early Church, identification with the power of God and identification as a person were not mutually exclusive.
  • 5 John Thomas writes that "This ruach, or spirit, is neither the Uncreated One who dwells in light, the Lord God, nor the Elohim, His co-workers, who co-operated in the elaboration of the natural world. It was the instrumental principle by which they executed the commission of the glorious Increate" (Elpis Israel [4th edn; Findon: Logos, 1866/2000], 34). He goes on to define God's ruach as His "instrumentally formative power," adding, "From these testimonies it is manifest that the ruach or spirit is all pervading...The atmosphere expanse is charged with it; but it is not the air: plants and animals of all species breathe it; but it is not their breath: yet without it, though filled with air, they would die" (Elpis Israel, 34). Finally, after discussing the chemical composition of the atmosphere, he concludes, "These three together, the oxygen, nitrogen, and electricity, constitute 'the breath' and 'spirit' of the lives of all God's living souls" (Elpis Israel, 35). Robert Roberts describes God's Spirit as "that mighty effluence which radiating from Himself, fills all space, and constitutes the basis of all existence" (Christendom Astray [Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1884/1969], 142). Becoming more ontologically detailed, he continues: "the higher forms of intelligence cannot exclude the perception that if God has evolved the material universe out of His own energy, and sustains and controls it by His power, that energy cannot be a nullity, but must be an actually present force in the economy of things. Now, it is a fact that in our day, there has been discovered a subtle, unanalysable, incomprehensible principle, which, though inscrutable in its essence, is found to be at the basis of all the phenomena of nature—itself eluding the test of chemistry or the deductions of philosophy. Scientists have called it ELECTRICITY... Could a better name be devised than what the Scriptures have given it—SPIRIT?" (Christendom Astray, 143-44). Roberts goes on to distinguish "Holy Spirit" from "Spirit" in general: "Spirit concentrated under the Almighty's will, becomes Holy Spirit, as distinct from spirit in its free, spontaneous form" (Christendom Astray, 144-45).
  • 6 See quotation in previous note. The Christadelphians' reduction of the Spirit to energy and matter was subjected to blistering criticism by one of Roberts' contemporaries, one David King. In an 1881 pamphlet entitled The History and Mystery of Christadelphianism, preserved online here, King quotes statements from Thomas and Roberts like the above and comments, "God, then, we are asked to believe, is a material being, residing in some local centre. That which, in scientific terms, is called Electricity is in the Bible described as Spirit; the Omnipresence of God means that electricity flows from Him everywhere; the Holy Spirit is, 'that same free spirit, gathered up, as it were, under the focalization of the divine will, for the accomplishment of divine results.' Well, we have always felt something like awe at the thought of the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit, which, of course, if this doctrine be true, was but foolish superstition, seeing we have merely to do with electricity, which we control by lightning rods, send along wires at pleasure, convey into lamps to light our streets and entertainments, and get manifestation of its indwelling in the body of our puss, when in the dark we stroke its black coat the wrong way! We use this language in no flippant manner, but in sober sadness. Christadelphianism is responsible for thus terribly trifling with the nature of Deity, for this letting down of God to their sensuous conception."
  • 7 Defining the Spirit as the mind of God is not very helpful. To speak of God's "mind" is anthropomorphic, analogical language, and clearly not ontologically precise. To speak of the Spirit as God's "agent" is no more helpful, particularly when it is stated that this agent is not personal and not distinguishable from God. How can one exercise agency without volition, and without being distinguishable from the one on whose behalf one acts?
  • 8 In this debate, Burke argued at length that the Holy Spirit is not a "divine person" or a "literal person," without ever stating what he meant by "person," "divine person," or "literal person." In his opening statement, Burke had declared that "God is a personal being Who exists as a single divine Person (Yahweh; the Father)," affirmed "the unitary nature of His personhood," and declared the Father and the Son to be "two separate persons who exist as individual beings." Commenting on the Shema (Deut. 6:4), Burke states, "Biblical Unitarians can read this verse and accept what it is saying without any qualification whatsoever: Yahweh is one; ie. one person." Despite repeating such statements over and over, Burke never offers any definition of "person" or "personhood," although he does criticise Trinitarians for having "developed new definitions for the words 'being' and 'person.'" He implicitly appeals for his own definition of 'being' and 'person' to "regular human communication" (!), still without stating how he defines these terms. Having declared earlier in his opening statement that "Any proposed definitions of a word must be supported from several examples of identical usage," Burke defaults on his own principle by not even proposing a definition of the word "person," much less supporting his definition. Bowman, for his part, also does not offer a definition of personhood even as he seeks to defend "the Trinitarian position that the Holy Spirit is a divine person."
  • 9 Broughton and Southgate devote a subsection of their book to the question, "Is the Holy Spirit a person?" To defend their negative answer to the question, they explore various biblical passages about the Holy Spirit and pose such rhetorical questions as, "Is a 'person' divisible into fractions?" and "Is a 'person' a 'fluid'?" (The Trinity, 102-103), but offer no definition of "person."
  • 10 This is so for two reasons: one, because the Christadelphian Statement of Faith uses the word "person" to describe God, and "person" is not a simple and straightforward concept. Two, because anyone engaging in argument is practicing philosophy, and the typical Christadelphian aversion to technical, philosophically rigorous argument is itself the result of a philosophical approach (rooted in a philosophical school known as Common Sense Realism).