Luke 1:35 and Definition by Parallelism: Bad Arguments against the Personhood of the Holy Spirit #3
One of the most common arguments against the personhood of the Holy Spirit appeals to the parallelism in Luke 1:35, in which Gabriel says the following to Mary:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you….”1
Anti-Trinitarians commonly argue that in this statement “the Holy Spirit” is parallel to, and therefore synonymous with, “the power of the Most High.” They conclude that this verse teaches that the Holy Spirit is the power of God, meaning, they claim, either that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force of power that in some way emanates from God or is an abstraction for the divine attribute of God’s power.2
There are at least two problems with this argument. The first is that even if the text did call the Holy Spirit “the power of the Most High,” this would not mean that the Holy Spirit is merely God’s power (his attribute of power or a force or energy emanating from his being). We know this would be a faulty conclusion because the Father and the Son are each also called the Power of God:
“But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69; cf. Matt. 26:64).
“…but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).
In Luke 22:69, “the power of God” is a circumlocution for God himself, specifically God the Father (obviously, since Jesus, the Son of Man, will be seated at his right hand). In 1 Corinthians 1:24 “the power of God” is a descriptive way of saying that in Christ God has exerted his power to save us. Neither verse, obviously, is denying the personhood of the Father or the Son.
Twice in his epistles, the apostle Paul also calls the Christian message “the power of God”:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
Neither of these texts, obviously, means that the gospel or message of the cross is a divine person. The expression “the power of God” has different connotations or nuances depending on context. Notice that Paul can say that “the word of the cross” is “the power of God” and then just a few verses later say that Christ is “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18, 24). There is no discrepancy here and no problem of understanding, as long as we don’t try to construe “the power of God” in a flat-footed manner.
Thus, even if Luke 1:35 meant that the Holy Spirit is the power of the Most High, this affirmation would not prove or mean or imply that the Holy Spirit is less than a person. That just isn’t how this language works.
Second, the argument that the use of parallelism proves an identity between the Holy Spirit and the power of the Most High is exegetically fallacious. Parallel terms in such Hebraic parallelism may be synonymous but they also may not be. Biblical speakers and authors did not use parallelism as a coded way of conveying the meaning of terms; they used similar or related terms in parallelism because they expected their hearers and readers would already know what the terms meant. The two lines in synonymous parallelism each state similar thoughts (not necessarily identical thoughts) but in different words; the words in the two lines do not always form direct one-to-one correspondences in meaning. Consider the following examples:
“The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars,
Yes, the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon” (Ps. 29:5).
David does not mean that the voice of the Lord is the Lord; he does not mean that the Lord is a voice!
“I will establish your seed forever
And build up your throne to all generations” (Ps. 89:4).
The above verse does not mean that David’s seed is his throne.
“I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring,
And my blessing on your descendants” (Isa. 44:3b).
God does not here “define” his Spirit as his blessing. Having God’s Spirit on them is certainly a blessing, but the text does not mean that blessing and Spirit are synonymous terms. Likewise, Luke 1:35 does not define Holy Spirit to mean the power of the Most High.
No matter how obvious it may seem to anti-Trinitarians, and no matter how often they say it, Luke 1:35 does not define the Holy Spirit in impersonal terms. It is not referring to the Holy Spirit as another term for God’s attribute of power or omnipotence, nor is it referring to the Holy Spirit as God’s impersonal force or energy. The text simply does not say these things. The appeal to the parallelism of Gabriel’s statement to prove that the Holy Spirit is nothing more than God’s power is simply a bad argument.
1. All biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
2. 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.