HOLY SPIRIT: The Spirit As Distinct Divine Person by Tom Smail

The Holy Spirit in Person

The Spirit As Distinct Divine Person by Tom Smail

From The Giving Gift

But none of these passages answers or even raises the question that is to be central to this chapter, Is the Holy Spirit a distinct, divine person?  The doctrine of the Trinity is that God is one divine substance in three distinct persons.  The passages we have quoted give good grounds for thinking of the Spirit as participating in the being of God; but, is there a New Testament basis for believing that the Holy Spirit is a third divine person in unity with, but also in distinction from the other two?

Before we can tackle that question, we must clarify it and ask first what in this context we mean by speaking of a person.  To embark upon a history of that slippery term in Trinitarian theology would take us far out of our way and maybe out of our depth as well!  We can perhaps rest content with a preliminary working definition that will be clarified as we proceed: a divine person is one who reveals himself as the source and center of the kind of actions and relationships that, by analogy with ordinary human experience, we recognize to be personal.  That certainly begs all the questions; but, in a common sense kind of way, we all know roughly what it means and at least for the moment it will serve our purposes quite well.

To continue the process of clarification we must recognize that to say that the Holy Spirit is personal can mean two quite different things.  It can mean: “Does the Holy Spirit act in ways that are characteristic of a person rather than in ways that are characteristic of a thing?”  Or it can mean: “Is the Holy Spirit a third divine person, distinct from both Father and Son and related to each of them as one person is related to another?”

We may ask: “Is the Holy Spirit just God acting personally?” or “Is he a distinct person within the life of God?”  To ask if the Spirit is personal is to ask about his relationship to us and whether he acts in us in a personal or an impersonal way; but, to ask if the Spirit is a person is to ask about his relationship to the Father and the Son and whether he is a third divine center and source of personal action and response over against them.

There would be nothing inherently illogical in concluding that his action is personal but that he himself is not a person: as we shall see, some theologians do in fact hold that position.  We could hold that the statement, “Christ relates himself to us by the Holy Spirit,” just means, “Christ relates himself to us in a spiritual way.”  In that case, the action is thoroughly personal, because it is Christ who acts; however, it involves only one divine person, Christ, and not two, Christ and the Spirit.  In other words, on this view Holy Spirit describes the way in which Christ acts, rather than another person acting alongside and in unity with him.  The Spirit had ceased to be a third divine person and has become just the way in which the other two act.  This theology would make us binitarian, affirming only two persons in one God, rather than Trinitarian, affirming three persons in one God.  The distinctions may seem subtle, but they are very important not only for what follows, but for our whole understanding of the person of the Spirit.

So, we have to deal separately with two connected but distinct questions: (1) Is the action of the Spirit the action of the person? and (2) Is the person who acts distinct from or the same as the Father or the Son?

The second question is the main concern of this chapter.  Yet we need to look at the first, if only briefly, because it has often been discussed very fully.  We can answer on a New Testament basis with a resounding, Yes.  The actions attributed to the Holy Spirit are personal actions, the doings of a divine person.  When we encounter the Spirit, we meet not an “it” but a “he,” one who guides, (John 16:13), restrains, (Acts 16:6), distributes gifts as he wills, (1 Corinthians 12:11), can be grieved, (Ephesians 4:30), to name just a few of the distinctively personal actions that are attributed to him.  To encounter the Spirit is like meeting another person distinct from myself, who indeed enters my experience, but has a life of his own outside my experience and beyond my control.  I possess the gifts of the Spirit but I do not possess the Spirit who gives the gifts.  He stands over against me in the autonomy and freedom that one person has over against another.  He is the wind who blows where he wills in all the mystery of his divine freedom, (John 3:8).

John emphasizes this in his preference for the masculine noun, paraklētos, over against the neuter noun, pneuma, when speaking of the Spirit.  When he does use pneuma he deliberately uses the personal pronoun, ekeinos, alongside the neuter noun to underline the personality of the one of whom he is speaking, (cf. John 14:25; 16:23, 14).  Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians 12–14 by distinguishing between the gifts of the Spirit like tongues and prophecy that are within the responsibility and under the control of the person to whom they are given, and the Spirit himself who remains sovereign and under no human control in the way he distributes these gifts.

Heribert Mühlen points to the New Testament image of the Spirit as a seal, (2 Corinthians 1:21; Ephesians 1:13), in this connection.  The Spirit acts on us in the same way that the seal acts on the wax, so that what is characteristic of him is impressed upon us.  Although seal and wax bear the same significant shapes, they remain distinct and different from each other.  In the same way, although the Spirit makes us like himself, he and we remain distinct, the one from the other.

Even when the New Testament speaks of the Spirit in impersonal images, the chief of which are wind, fire, and water, the images are used dynamically to show that they are pointing to one who has the will and the power to control us rather than to something we ourselves can control.  Throughout the varied images used the personal sovereignty of the Spirit in his relationship with us is affirmed and maintained.  The one who gives himself to us is one who is and remains other than us and distinct from us.

The moral quality of his self-giving depends on that fact, just as the moral quality of my wife’s love for me depends on the fact that she is a free and autonomous person who chooses to use that freedom in giving herself to me.  The combination of otherness and self-giving defines the relationships of persons to each other, and just that combination marks the relationship of the Spirit to us.  We, as human persons, receive the divine Spirit; but, he does not become human and we do not become divine.  He gives himself to us and remains himself; we receive him and remain who we are.  Our relationship to him is always a relation of persons and not a merging of spirits.  Thus the Holy Spirit is a person distinct from us who in his own spontaneous and sovereign freedom gives himself to us.  So, in his dealings with us, the Holy Spirit acts personally towards us: that is our answer to the first question and it is in line with the witness of the New Testament and the classical Christian tradition.

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