The Deity of the Holy Spirit

George Smeaton


THE topic on which we enter is by no means superfluous at this time. We may safely affirm that the doctrine of the Spirit is almost entirely ignored. The representatives of modern theology, it is well known, have almost wholly abandoned it. Many of them deny the Spirit’s personality in the most open and undisguised manner. Some affirm that a dogma on this topic is not essential either to religion or theology, and that we may altogether dispense with it. On the contrary, wherever Christianity has become a living power, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has uniformly been regarded, equally with the atonement and justification by faith, as the article of a standing or falling Church. The distinctive feature of Christianity, as it addresses itself to man’s experience, is the work of the Spirit, which not only elevates it far above all philosophical speculation, but also above every other form of religion.

In this day it is impossible to divest the mind of the impression that, among those who take religion in earnest, a disposition exists, in no small measure, to pass over the super-natural agency of the Holy Spirit, and to speak and write upon religious truth as if the gracious intervention of the Son of God came more impressively home to men’s business and bosom when disencumbered of any reference to another Person as the great Applier of redemption. In many cases that tendency may rather be called a sentiment than a formal dogma; with others it is a system. But in either case it betrays the most defective views of the relations of the Trinity. By maintaining silence on this doctrine, one of the grand provisions of the gospel for meeting the wants of mankind is omitted.

But it may be asked, not without reason, can any man in the nineteenth century from the entrance of Christianity be in any doubt as to the Personality, Deity, and work of the Holy Ghost? Does not the Church declare her belief in it as an elementary and fundamental truth in every administration of the ordinance of baptism? Is it not inserted in all the Church-creeds? Have not theologians discussed and vindicated it from Patristic times and since the Reformation so copiously, that many pages might be filled with a mere enumeration of the writers’ names, and with the titles of their works? The answer is: Unsettled opinion and doubt prevail upon this point, to a surprising degree, abroad and at home, even among those who profess to accept as authoritative the words of prophets and apostles, and the sayings of our Lord. One explains them in one way, and another explains them in a different way, in order to exclude this doctrine.

No one, it is true, has attempted, in reference to the doctrine of the Spirit, to show that the Lord’s own teaching differed, in essential points, from that of His apostles. The harmony is so unquestionable and so obvious, that it gives to all a sufficient ground of confidence. Moreover, less is said than formerly of accommodation; for reverent minds are ready to admit that deception, however subtle and refined, is still deception; and that this is an element which is not to be endured in a divine revelation. Theological opinion has taken a forward step in this respect, though not much is really gained, while the language of Scripture—which a natural interpretation would make conclusive as to the personality and work of the Spirit—is explained away as figurative, or as a mere personification, by many modern divines.

To set forth the doctrine of the Spirit EXEGETICALLY, according to the programme which I have sketched, is not an unnecessary task in the present state of theology; and, in carrying out this undertaking, my object is truth, and truth alone, without the bondage of any artificial system, past or present. So far as the outline of Scripture testimony is concerned, I shall largely content myself with the results of investigation, and often hold the statement of the process in abeyance. And where the word is silent, I shall accept its silence as well as its declarations without hesitation or reserve. The Jewish Church was formed by a special education to receive Christianity when it should come. It was the issue of a long development, meant to lead them to comprehend the import of Christ’s instruction.

As we come in contact, in the course of this discussion, with the doctrine of the Trinity at every point, it may be fitting to refer to that great theme at the outset, so far at least as concerns the relation which essentially belongs to the Holy Spirit. This will pave the way for the consideration of the other doctrines which we have to discuss. Though every attempt to comprehend or to unfold the mystery of the Trinity has failed, and must fail, from the ineffable nature of the subject, we may affirm that in the five following propositions the faith of the Church is satisfactorily exhibited, viz.:—

  1. That there is one God or divine essence.
  2. That the same numerical divine essence is common to three truly divine Persons, who are designated Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
  3. That between these three divine Persons there obtains a natural order of subsistence and operation: that the first Person hath life in Himself (John v. 26); and that the second and third Persons subsist and act from the first.
  4. That this order of the divine Persons belongs to the divine essence prior to, and irrespective of, the covenant of grace.
  5. That this natural order of subsistence and action is the ground and reason of the several names, Father, Son, and Spirit; the Son being begotten of the Father, and the Spirit by spiration proceeding from both.

And as to the divine WORKS, the Father is the source FROM WHICH every operation emanates (ex ou), the Son is the medium THROUGH WHICH (di ou) it is performed, and the Holy Ghost is the EXECUTIVE BY WHICH (evx w) it is carried into effect.

The Christian Church, from the beginning, believed in the doctrine of the Trinity with unhesitating faith. It was not a conclusion formed gradually in the consciousness of the Christian community, partly by reflection, partly by Biblical inquiry. The Church found in the baptismal formula an emphatic allusion to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and simply accepted it as her doctrine of the Trinity. It was brought within the scope of every Christian mind, learned and unlearned, as the fundamental and the primary truth, of which no Christian disciple could plead ignorance. The substance of the doctrine is, that God is one, and that the Persons are distinct; and after all the investigations that have confounded and fatigued the acutest understanding, we only return to the same simple formula of baptism, which is level to the capacity of the humblest.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not so much a point among many as the very essence and compendium of Christianity itself. It not only presents a lofty subject of contemplation to the intellect, but furnishes a repose and peace which satisfies the heart and conscience. To explain this mystery is not our province. All true theologians, who have trained their minds in the right school, whether in expounding positive truth or in combating erroneous views, have uniformly accepted it as their highest function simply TO CONSERVE THE MYSTERY, and to leave it where they found it, in its inscrutable sublimity, or, as the poet expresses it, “dark though excessive bright.” Leibnitz happily said, If we could bring it within the terms of any humanly constructed definition, it would be a mystery no longer. The zeal and erudition of the Fathers, accordingly, were mainly employed to retain and preserve the mystery.

And when we look at the doctrine from the practical point of view, a belief of this great truth is absolutely essential to the Christian man and to the Christian Church. Without it, Christianity would at once collapse. As this doctrine is believed on the one hand, or challenged on the other, Christian life is found to be affected at its roots and over all its extent. Every doctrine is run up to it; every privilege and duty hang on it. It cannot escape observation that scarcely a heresy ever appeared which did not, when carried out to its logical results, come into collision with the doctrine of the Trinity at some point Through the whole history of opinion, the ever-recurring fact presented to Us is, that however a man may begin his career of error, the general issue is that the doctrine of the Trinity, proving an unexpected check or insurmountable obstacle in the carrying Out of his opinions, has, to a large extent, to be modified or pushed aside; and he comes to be against the Trinity because he has found that the doctrine of the Trinity was against him.

The attacks on the Trinity, menacing though they might be for a time, have commonly been the occasion of real benefit to the Church. The Church might have been less on the alert than was found to be imperatively necessary when asked, for instance, by the Sabellian to allow within her pale a mere modal distinction in the Trinity, or when asked by the Arian to give a certain amount of liberty to such as questioned denied the supreme Deity of the second or third person of the Trinity. By varied discipline and experience, she has seen schooled to apprehend the doctrine of the tri-personal God, or the threefold personality in unity, as the most fundamental, vital, and practical of doctrines; that it forms the ultimate ground of every truth; that it is absolutely intertwined with the essential provisions of the gospel; and that the plan of salvation cannot be left standing entire, if this great doctrine, the keystone of the arch, is either loosened or displaced.

The Church, accordingly, has always posted herself here as in the Thermopylæ, where her last stand is to be made. She knew that, without this doctrine, the Creed would have no coherence, nor her members have any solid peace. The enlightened Christian in this field neither expects nor wishes to find that which will not baffle his comprehension by its vastness, nor dazzle him by its splendour. Nay, the appeal to the ADORING WONDER of the finite mind becomes more powerful when its limited capacity fails to comprehend the theme in all its magnitude. We cease to comprehend and begin to adore. The Christian Church, feeling that she has to believe what God has condescended to declare, is alive to the fact that there is no loyalty greater than the loyalty of the intellect; and she calls for the submission of the finite reason. Hence every one feels the force of these beautiful words of Gregory Nazianzen in reference to the Trinity. In his sermon on Baptism he says: ou fqanw to en nohsai kai toi" trisi perilampomai ou fqanw ta tria dielein, kai ei" to en anaferomai. “I cannot think of the ONE but I am immediately surrounded with the splendour of the THREE; nor can I clearly discover the three, but I am suddenly carried back to the One.”

The objection to the Trinity on the ground of the unfathomable mystery, has been repeated in every successive age. And it may not be out of place to say that if there had been no mystery, an opposite objection might not improbably have emanated from the very same parties. Had there been no inscrutable doctrines beyond the sounding line of man’s reason, no profound mysteries in the revealed account of God’s Being, purposes, and works,—if such a thing were conceivable in a revelation communicated from God to man, — the objectors might have decried and depreciated it from a wholly different point of view as a stale, flat, and unprofitable message, which had nothing in it worthy of the claims which it made on men’s minds, because it had nothing beyond the discovery of the human understanding. When we reach the manhood of our being, we may understand what we cannot now fathom. Addison and Swift both conjectured, not unwarrantably, in connection with these very mysteries, that new faculties might be given in the life to come to apprehend what is now incomprehensible and unknown.

I shall endeavour to bring out the testimony of Scripture to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as contained in the Old and New Testaments. As my object in this division is to set forth the place which the doctrine of the Spirit occupies in contrast with the modern Sabellianism, I shall rather state the cumulative import of the Scripture testimony, than launch into a full or exhaustive exegesis of all the passages. And in fulfilling this task it will be my aim, except where some elucidation is necessary, to mix with it as little of my own as possible, lest foreign elements should invalidate the evidence which is so conclusively furnished by the harmonious testimony of the Scripture itself from first to last. I shall try to evolve what the Scriptures say; and for that end transplant myself into the circumstances in which the writers of the different ages were placed. To penetrate, as far as possible, into the teaching of inspired prophets before the coming of Christ, and of inspired apostles subsequent to His resurrection, it will be necessary to bring out, in a condensed outline, their scope and harmony.

That the Scripture testimony about to be adduced in reference to the Holy Spirit may also be readily applied to the refutation of modern errors, it may not be out of place to mention the Sabellian postulate, and the deduction from it to which Schleiermacher has given expression in this century. According to the view stated by Schleiermacher in his own ingenious way, all that is intimated by the names SON OF GOD and SPIRIT OF GOD did not exist before the work of redemption, and before the founding of the Christian Church respectively. It was held by him that God is Father as He creates, Son as He redeems, and Holy Spirit as He unites Himself to the Christian Church, but without the personality which the Church doctrine ascribes to each of them. Sabellianism was always at a loss to explain the Biblical truth that all things were created by God through the Son and the Holy Spirit; for the divine Persons must manifestly have existed before they could act. That was the argument which of old the Patristic writers adduced with invincible force against the Sabellian theory; and neither Sabellius in former days, nor the Schleiermacher-school in recent times, have done anything to meet or answer it. The Jewish Church, though carefully trained, failed at the decisive moment, from this same Unitarian bias which had come to predominate in it. And many have, in all ages, been engulfed by opinions which impugned the Spirit’s personality on the one hand, or questioned His supreme Deity on the other. Of those who deviate from Church-doctrine in our day, the majority are led by a strong Sabellian bias, which, while it admits that predicates of Deity are undoubtedly ascribed to the Spirit, interprets these allusions as descriptive of a mere influence or energy, or as attributes and manifestations of Deity without the personal distinction in any form. This Sabellian view is at present a theological current of immensely greater force and wider diffusion than is commonly suspected by theological readers in this country.

We shall endeavour in the present dissertation, introductory to the six dogmatic lectures afterwards given in proper form, to give an outline of the Biblical testimony to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. This will supply an exegetical foundation.

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