In part 1 I argued that Bowman attributes a non-existent fallacy to unitarians. After this faltering start, things get better. Continuing his pre-emptive rebuttal, Bowman argues that there is nothing about the roots of the Hebrew and Greek words translated “spirit” that requires them to mean a force or energy. Surely, this is correct, and his examples show this.
In the end of his pre-emptive rebuttal, Bowman attributes this argument to unitarians:
- The Bible contains no progressive revelation concerning God.
- The OT does not reveal the Holy Spirit as a distinct divine person.
- Therefore, the NT does not reveal the Holy Spirit as a distinct divine person.
I suspect that some current day unitarians do endorse this argument. (Does Burke?) Christians of any stripe who believe in any sort of Hell, in souls, or that the NT more clearly reveals the character of the Father, would probably reject 1. For these sorts of reasons, I reject it myself. In my view progressive revelation is different from the Islamic idea of “abrogation” (later Quranic verses contradicting and cancelling out or over-ruling earlier ones). Progressive revelation doesn’t involve contradiction of something earlier asserted, but rather clarifying something previously unclear, and contradicting things one might have inferred from what was formerly asserted. But back to Bowman.
Bowman opines that the OT unclearly hints at the Spirit being a distinct divine person, but he wants to say that this truth is only first clearly revealed in John 14-16. I think this puts him far off of patristic exegesis, btw – but maybe that’s a good thing.
The real meat of Bowman’s case is his exegesis of the books of John and Acts. His first positive argument is essentially this. Jesus promised that after leaving, he’d send “another Paraclete” – another helper, comforter. This implies that Jesus was the church’s first Paraclete. If Jesus was the first Paraclete, then doing that job requires being a self. Therefore, the Holy Spirit is a self. Moreover (and I’m not sure what this adds to the case) “The descriptions of the Paraclete in John pervasively describe the Holy Spirit in terms that echo what the Johannine writings say about the Son…” (original emphasis) I guess in Bowman’s view God adds a bunch of hints in – that this “holy spirit” is really, really like Jesus.
Bowman admits that just because something is truly described in personal terms, it doesn’t follow that it is a self. His examples: the Bible “speaks” to us, and Jesus’ miracles “testified” to him. He concedes that this weakens the trinitarians’ case for the personhood of God’s Spirit.
However, take these and the other elements of what John 14-16 says about the Holy Spirit cumulatively in the context of the narrative in which one person, the Son, is leaving and before he goes promises to send someone like him, the Holy Spirit, in his stead, and the argument really becomes irrefutable.
Irrefutable? I don’t get it. Story time.
The day had come. Pa had to leave on the cattle drive. Ma, junior, and Sally stood outside the ramshakle cabin, looking at the ground, unsure of what to say, and weighed down with the prospect of the lonely months ahead. Pa’s horse was already saddled, and it stood calmly facing the rising sun. Pa spoke.
“I’m goin’, but you know I’ll really be with ya. I’ve left a friend with you. He’ll remind you of me. He’ll make you feel safe at night. If you want, he’ll even sleep in your bed. And if any rough types or Injuns come around, he’ll yell at them till they high tail it away. He’ll make you strong, and he won’t leave you night or day till I come back. If you go on a trip, he’ll ride shotgun with you.”
With a kiss for Ma, and a hair tussles for Junior and Sally, Pa mounted and rode slowly away. Returning to the warmth of the cabin, Ma found a pistol on the table.
Ma was not compelled by Pa’s plethora of personalizations to consider the Colt single action revolver to be alive.
In another argument, Bowman says that starting in Acts, we see the Holy Spirit “appear as a named actor or participant in the biblical narrative”, just as we’d expect if He really was a self, newly revealed as such by Jesus towards the end of his ministry. The Spirit says things, gives directions. It/he is “poured out”, but in the Bible people can be said to be “poured out”, and it/he “fills” people, but Satan is said to “fill” people’s hearts as well (5:3).
Bowman sums up:
We have, then, compelling evidence in the NT, especially in John and Acts, that the Holy Spirit is a divine person, distinct from the Father and the Son. This means that Unitarianism is incompatible with the NT. Given that the Holy Spirit is either God himself or an aspect of God’s being, the evidence that he is a person distinct from the Father shows that the Trinitarian understanding of the Holy Spirit best accounts for the NT teaching.
This last part is typical Bowman – arguing that the NT straight up logically implies his view, but also urging, as if he’s aware that the first part isn’t too clear, that his view is the best explanation of what is in the NT (explicitly and implicitly). If the first works, the second is unnecessary, and if the second works, the first is misguided. In any case, what to make of his case?
It is not clear to me that a unitarian must take the flat-footed approach Bowman is attacking – they needn’t read all holy-spirit-talk in the NT as referring to a power or expression of power. Thus, John Wilson:
For if the holy spirit is not, in every instance in which the term is used, merely the power or agency of God, or his influence on the human mind, or his miraculous gifts, but frequently the Almighty being himself – surely this being can be no other than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, unless clearly mentioned in the Bible as a a person distinct from AND EQUAL to the Father, – a point which is readily assumed by Trinitarians, but has never yet been proved. (p. 326 original emphases)
Wilson here puts his finger on the weakest part of Bowman’s case – sure, if sometimes “the Holy Spirit” refers to a person, why think it is a person other than God, that is, the Father? After all, it is never portrayed as enjoying a personal relationship with God, or as being a servant of God, like Jesus. It doesn’t really have a proper name. And whose spirit is it? God’s. (Acts 2) Conceptually, persons have or are spirits, but selves or persons are not the spirits of other selves. And in the Bible, God is a self.
What evidence does Bowman present that the Spirit is a self distinct from the Father/God? So far as I can see, only this: the parallelism between Jesus and the Spirit in John 14-16 – both Jesus and the Spirit are “from the Father”, and given by him. The unitarian will simply read this as God sending his power, as a number of passages say.
Is this not the sort of flexible spirit-talk we see in the OT? Did this not guide the NT writer’s usage of it? It is a little suspicious how Bowman rushes past the whole issue of OT lingo, seeing as it would have largely provided the tradition in which the NT writers were working.
Again, if Bowman is right, that at the end of Jesus’ ministry, God introduced a third divine agent, the lack of interest in this agent is striking, and cries out for explanation. As countless unitarians have pointed out, the Holy Spirit is never an object of worship in the NT (not what we’d expect, if he’s just been revealed as a divine person, co-equal with the other two), and as historians point out, there was relatively little speculation about the metaphysical nature of the Holy Spirit in early church history. Again, specialists have pointed out a “binitarian” structure to early Christian worship. Not what we’d expect, if Bowman is right.
This last is another case where Catholics have an answer, but Bowman doesn’t. Viewing the early catholic movement as holding the apostolic mantle and anointing, they think that the co-equal divinity of the Spirit was only revealed some time around the run up to the council of Constantinople in 381. Of course, the unitarians can explain these things too.
Bowman seems to think that the sheer prominence of the Spirit throughout Acts somehow confirms his views about the doctrine of John. But unitarians have an explanation as well – that when Jesus ascended, the disciples were given a qualitatively now sort of access to God, resulting in their being filled with his spirit, able to hear God’s voice (and Jesus’ voice as well), and to work miracles by this power active in them.
Finally, there is a striking fact about Christians’ personal experiences down through the ages. If you read around, you’ll find a number of instances, going back to Paul, in which Christians have experienced the risen Jesus. This is fairly rare, though. Much more common than this, is Christian experience of the presence, power, and filling of the Holy Spirit. But they take the presence of the Holy Spirit to just be the presence of God – not of someone else, as in the case of Jesus. It is a distinct sort of presence – not at all like the presence of God one reads about it Isaiah or Revelation, e.g. of God’s throne room. But it is of him, and not of one of his two associates or subordinates. That is how the recipients of these experiences describe them. Are these reports not a better fit with the unitarian view?
In sum, I think Bowman shows that sometimes the NT authors are thinking of “the Holy Spirit” as a self, and he gives a very careful and detailed case, properly conceding some points that unitarians have long insisted on, but which other catholic theologians have been loathe to admit. But he doesn’t show that the NT writers think Spirit is a self in addition to God, or that it is one which is co-equal to the Father. A position not on the table, but of interest, is one like that of early modern unitarian John Biddle, who held the Holy Spirit to be an agent subordinate to the Father. This too is an explanation that must be weighed along with the trinitarian and humanitarian unitarian ones. Before it is weighed, it isn’t clear which is the best explanation.
In a way, Bowman has put all his eggs into two baskets here – John and Acts. But as my comments above bring out, there are a number of wider issues – conceptual, historical, experiential – that seem relevant and important.
Still unresolved is the problem dogging Bowman’s whole performance in this debate – isn’t his position self- inconsistent? He seems to hold that Jesus just is God – and also, some things are true of one which are not true of the other. These can’t both be true. And also, the Holy Spirit is God – and again, some things are true of one which are not true of the other. And this third person differs from Christ as well – even though both just are God. Are we heaping up inconsistencies here?