Arguments from Silence: Bad Arguments against the Personhood of the Holy Spirit #2
Arguments from Silence: Bad Arguments against the Personhood of the Holy Spirit #2
Anti-Trinitarians often employ a number of objections to the personhood of the Holy Spirit that are examples of fallacious arguments from silence. An argument from silence infers from the fact that something is not said that it is being denied, or that it is not true. Arguments from silence seem ubiquitous in religious discourse. However, in order for the silence of a particular text or act of speech to be the basis for any conclusion, we must know that the writer or speaker would have known the point at issue and would have said something about it on that specific occasion if he did. In short, we need to know a lot more than what we usually know about what is in an author or speaker’s mind and what his or her intentions and concerns were. Arguments from silence typically ignore evidence contrary to the assumptions that the person making the argument brings to the subject.
Arguments from silence pertaining to the personhood of the Holy Spirit are perhaps the most common types of arguments used by anti-Trinitarians on this issue. I will address four such arguments here.
Anti-Trinitarians routinely argue that the Holy Spirit must not be a person because the Bible never attributes a personal name to him, as it does to the Son (“Jesus”).1 This is a clear instance of an argument from silence. To support the belief that the Holy Spirit is impersonal, the argument depends on knowing that (a) the Holy Spirit would have a personal name if he were a person, (b) biblical writers would know that personal name for the Holy Spirit if he had one, and (c) they would tell us that personal name if they knew it. Those are a lot of assumptions, for which no evidence can be provided.
It is true that the Son of God has a personal name—Jesus. But he existed as a divine person before he had that name (John 1:1-18; 8:58; 17:5; etc.). So this isn’t much of a precedent, since the Holy Spirit has not become a physical, human being and evidently never will do so.
One may grant that Holy Spirit isn’t a proper name as we would understand it. That is, Holy Spirit isn’t a proper name in the same way that Jesus, Thomas, John, Mary, and Elizabeth are proper names. However, I can think of no reason why the Holy Spirit would need to have a proper name of this sort. The argument from silence presupposes that every person must have such a proper name, but this claim needs to be proven or the argument has no foundation.
In biblical parlance, on the other hand, the term “Holy Spirit” is a name; that is, it is a recognizable designation that distinguishes him from Jesus the Son, from the Father, and from angelic and demonic spirits. Thus the Bible refers to each of the following as a “name” (Greek, onoma): “Father” (Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2; John 17:1, 5, 11, 21, 24, 25); “Christ” (Matt. 24:5; 1 Pet. 4:14, 16); “Jew” (Rom. 2:17); “Lord” (Phil. 2:9-11; cf. Eph. 1:21); “Son” (Heb. 1:4-5); “Word of God” (Rev. 19:13); and “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16).
In any case, the Bible explicitly refers to “Holy Spirit” as a name when it quotes Jesus as saying, “Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). A careful study of Matthew 28:19, I have argued, shows that “Holy Spirit” is one of three names in this text, denoting three distinct persons.
One Jehovah’s Witness in an online discussion suggested that a point against the Holy Spirit being a person is that the Bible never refers to the Holy Spirit having a “face” (prosōpon, a word that sometimes is even paraphrased with the word “person,” as in Gal. 1:22 ESV; 1 Thess. 2:17 ESV, NRSV). The word occurs just 76 times in the New Testament, a fact that calls into question whether one would have any right to expect this particular word to be used in connection with the Holy Spirit as a person.
The fallaciousness of the argument is rather easily illustrated. The New Testament never uses the word prosōpon in reference to any of the demons or unclean spirits. Yet Jehovah’s Witnesses and most other anti-Trinitarians recognize that in New Testament teaching the demons are personal beings, not impersonal forces. I also could not find any New Testament texts using prosōpon in reference to women or children; hopefully we can all agree that this bit of linguistic trivia does not call into question the personhood of women and children!
It is highly doubtful that the New Testament writers had a handbook on their desk (as a matter of fact, they probably didn’t have desks at all!) that included such instructions as, “When referring to persons, be sure to throw in the word prosōpon once or twice so your readers will know they are persons and not forces.”
The argument that the absence of the word prosōpon somehow indicates that the Holy Spirit is not a person is a particularly bad argument.
No Two-Way Conversations Reported
Another bad argument from silence that some anti-Trinitarians use is to reason that the Holy Spirit is not a person because no biblical text reports a conversation between the Holy Spirit and someone else.2 This argument supposedly trumps the positive evidence of the various texts that report the Holy Spirit speaking (e.g., Acts 1:16; 13:1-4; 28:25; Heb. 3:7). Yes, the anti-Trinitarian argues, the Bible says that the Holy Spirit said something, but it never reports anyone responding to the Holy Spirit; there is never any two-way communication between the Holy Spirit and someone else. The Bible reports conversations between the Father and the Son, between Jesus and the devil, and between human beings; so why, if the Holy Spirit is a person, is he never reported to have participated in a two-way conversation?
Here again, the anti-Trinitarian has manufactured an argument that seems to fit the biblical data on this narrow matter of usage, but that assumes that the Bible should present the Holy Spirit in a certain way in order to warrant readers understanding that the Holy Spirit is a person. But we have no reason to place such a demand on Scripture—which is to say, we have no reason to place such a demand on God in the way he reveals truth to us. The argument fallaciously reasons from the “silence” of the text about any conversations involving the Holy Spirit to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit is not a person.
A few moments’ reflection can generate several if not many examples of other persons in the Bible for whom we happen not to have any report of them engaged in conversation. For example, we have no report in Scripture of a two-way conversation involving Joseph of Nazareth (Mary’s husband); an angel speaks to Joseph, but the Gospels never mention Joseph responding verbally to the angel or of Joseph speaking to anyone. Is this evidence against Joseph’s personhood? Of course not. Noah is the major figure in Genesis 6-9, but the text does not report him having any conversations.
Although the argument is fallacious, it also happens to be factually mistaken. We do have at least one instance, apparently, of a two-way conversation involving the Holy Spirit. Consider the following passage:
8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste....” (Isa. 6:8-11).3
It is beyond dispute that the above passage presents a two-way conversation. The speakers in the text alternate back and forth between the Lord (vv. 8a, 9-10, 11b) and Isaiah (v. 8b, 11a). And now for the completion of the argument: the apostle Paul stated explicitly that in Isaiah 6:9-10 the Lord was the Holy Spirit speaking:
And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people, and say, “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them”’” (Acts 28:25-27 ESV).
Thus, according to Paul, Isaiah 6 reports a two-way conversation between the Holy Spirit and Isaiah. Do we need this passage to prove that the Holy Spirit is a person? No. Had Paul not told us that it was the Holy Spirit speaking in Isaiah 6, we would still have plenty of other evidence in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, that the Holy Spirit is a person. There is no rule that requires the Bible to report two-way conversations for each person it mentions. Thus, with or without Isaiah 6 and Acts 28:25-27, this anti-Trinitarian objection to the personhood of the Holy Spirit is a bad argument.
The Missing Holy Spirit
My final example of a bad argument from silence is the claim that the Holy Spirit is not a person because he is not mentioned in certain passages. Chief among the offending texts are the salutations—the opening greetings in the New Testament epistles that usually read something like “Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Anti-Trinitarians commonly infer from the “absence” of the Holy Spirit in these texts that he is not a person distinct from the Father and the Son.4
Besides being an obvious argument from silence, this argument overlooks contrary evidence. The Holy Spirit is mentioned in one of the New Testament epistle salutations:
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you” (1 Peter 1:1-2 ESV).
Here the Father, the Spirit, and Jesus Christ are all mentioned together in the salutation.
There is no end of arguments appealing to the “missing” Holy Spirit. Why isn’t he mentioned in John 1:1? The better question is, Why should he be? John 1:1-18 is an introduction to a Gospel account of the teaching, death, and resurrection of the Son, Jesus Christ. Such objections are worthless as evidence against the personhood of the Holy Spirit.
Some anti-Trinitarians read a lot into the fact that there are passages that mention the Father and the Son together but not the Spirit (e.g., John 1:1; 1 Cor. 8:6; 2 John 3). But the omission of the Spirit in such texts proves nothing. There are also passages that mention the Father and the Spirit but not the Son (e.g., Luke 11:13; 1 Thess. 4:8) and others that mention the Son and the Spirit but not the Father (e.g., Matt. 12:31-32; Acts 9:31; Gal. 3:13-14; 1 Peter 1:11-13). No theological deductions may be drawn from the “omissions” in such texts.
In an earlier article on the Trinity, I made the following observations of relevance to this argument from silence:
Viewed historically, confessions of Jesus’ followers probably began as simple Christological statements such as “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Rom. 12:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11). As the gospel was taken to Gentiles who often did not know much or anything about the God of Israel, the message would typically have a dyadic structure of faith in God and in his Son Jesus (e.g., Acts 17:30-31; 1 Thess. 1:9-10), reflecting Jesus’ own references to the Father and the Son (Matt. 11:27; John 5:17-26; etc.). The more elaborate triadic or Trinitarian statements are often associated with baptism and the church’s corporate worship and ministry (e.g., Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; Eph. 4:4-6). The point is that there are historical and contextual reasons why some passages refer to all three divine persons and others do not.5
The arguments from silence discussed in this article probably don’t exhaust the anti-Trinitarian arsenal of such arguments, but they illustrate the problems with such arguments. Don’t fall for them.
1. E.g., Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound (Lanham, MD: International Scholars Publications, 1998), 228.
2. Buzzard and Hunting, Doctrine of the Trinity, 230. I have also encountered this argument in online dialogues with Jehovah’s Witnesses. A variant of this argument comes from David Bernard, who appeals to the lack of any report of a conversation between the Holy Spirit and one of the other two members of the Trinity. David K. Bernard, The Oneness of God, Pentecostal Theology 1, rev. ed. (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 2001), 195.
3. All biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
4. E.g., Bernard, Oneness of God, 207; Buzzard and Hunting, Doctrine of the Trinity, 228; Mark H. Graeser, John A. Lynn, and John W. Schoenheit, One God, One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, 2000), 601-602. Graeser, Lynn, and Schoenheit like this argument so much they present it as two separate points (#30 and #32).
5. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Triadic New Testament Passages and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Journal for Trinitarian Studies and Apologetics 1, 1 (Jan. 2013), 11.