Since I started this thread on the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, I have received the same question over and over again: What about the Holy Spirit? As I’ve repeatedly answered, I can’t really deal with that question until I finish explaining how the “orthodox” view of the relationship of the Father and Son came to be settled.
In fact, that view never was really settled. There were debates for a very long time. But I’ve taken us up through the major issues, up to the council of Nicea, where it was decided that Christ was not a subordinate divine being from eternity past who at some point long, long before the creation of the universe had been brought into being by God, but that he had always existed, along with the Father and was not subordinate to him but was equal to him in every way, “of the very same substance” as the Father.
And so, we have two persons, completely equal, both fully God, distinct from one another, but in some sense the same – equal but not identical, unified in every way but distinct.
OK, it’s a bit of a mind blower. But even so, why did Christianity not simply end up with a Duality rather than with a Trinity?
That question obviously takes us to the Holy Spirit, who became a third person in the Trinity: three persons, all of whom are fully God, but only one God.
I have never written about the place of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity in any context, not on the blog, not in any book or article. I’ve never even lectured on it. That may seem weird, but in fact, the discussion of the Holy Spirit in scholarship is quite sparse in comparison with the discussion of the Father and Son.
My take on the matter is that once the relationship of Father and Son was worked out (and even while it was being worked out) the Spirit as a third element simply made sense and was far less problematic. And I think that’s because of the presence and role of the Spirit throughout the Bible, where it is simply taken as a given that God sends his Spirit to earth and to people on occasion; the biblical authors never considered that problematic or worth reflecting on at length. So let me explain how I think it works in the Bible. This will take a few posts.
The Spirit of God is present already “In the Beginning,” in fact, in the second verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:2.
1In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2The earth was formless and void, and darkness covered the deep. And the Spirit of God hovered over the water.
There are all sorts of problems with translating, let alone understanding, these verses. Hebrew Bible scholars can literally write a book on them. Let me simply mention two problems of translation. The first is a question of Hebrew grammar, whether v. 1 is a complete sentence or the introduction to the sentence (a subordinate clause).
For complicated reasons, scholars today almost always prefer the latter, which means that a better translation is something like this: “When in the beginning, God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and…” May sound strange at first, I know. But it’s an important difference. With this translation, the heavens and earth were not created out of nothing in v. 1 and, when first created, were without form and dark; instead, they were already there in the beginning. That is, God “created” the heavens and earth out of pre-existing material. What was there in the beginning before “creation” was formless, void, and dark. In that case, as well, “the water” was already existing before God “created” anything.
In other words, creation is not ex nihilo – the bringing of the material world into existence out of nothing “Creation” means that God took some kind of already existing dark, chaotic, mass and gave it form, made something out of it.
As I’ve indicated, this translation (“In the beginning, when God began to create…”) is almost certainly what the Hebrew means, as Jewish and Christian scholars of Hebrew now widely recognize. It is not a new realization: Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages already knew that. But our English translations, with the familiar “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” have been long part of the Christian heritage, because that’s how the text was rendered in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, well before Christianity arose (by Greek translators who did not recognize this rather fine point of Hebrew grammar), and so it was the version Christians had always been familiar with.
The payoff of all that is that the idea that nothing existed before God created the universe is not actually found in Genesis 1:1, as Christian theologians throughout the centuries have assumed (and many still do assume). This is where they got (get) the idea that NOTHING existed except God before Gen. 1:1. But it turns out that that’s not true. At least for Gen. 1:1.
As an additional note, it is worth pointing out that this view that “creation” involves a God who who “shapes” and “organizes” and “brings coherence out of chaos” is widely known through the cultures of the Ancient Near East. We have numerous creation stories in other cultures (Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian) that have a very similar notion, and there is very solid linguistic evidence that the Genesis account is modeled on these others, or at least closely related to them.
The second translation issue is even more relevant to our present concerns about the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. When v. 2 says “The Spirit of God hovered over the water,” it is almost certainly not – in the Hebrew original – referring to a divine being “the Spirit.” The word in Hebrew, rûaḥ, principally means “breath” or “wind.” The passage is not talking about God’s Spirit hovering over the water; it appears to mean that God has sent a wind to drive back the water and/or dry some of it up – just as he does after Noah’s flood in Gen. 8:1 (same word), when he dries up the water that had killed everyone and kept the ark afloat.
The word rûaḥ was naturally translated in the Greek translation as pneuma, which also means “wind” or “breath,” and, like the Hebrew, can also come to mean “spirit.” The logic is that your “breath” is what makes your body alive, and we think of that as your “spirit.” That comes into English as well, in our term “inspiration” (related obviously to “spirit”); when in reference to a person or a writing, the term inspiration means that God has breathed into it, so that the words come from God.
In any event, the early Christians used the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT). When they read that, they read that “God created the heavens and the earth.” Full stop. And that “Spirit of God” was involved with that creation. So you have God and you have his Spirit. They are not the same but are somehow closely related and both involved in creation.
Connect this to the fact that early Christians came to think that Christ was the one through whom God created all things. I’ll talk about what led them to think so in a subsequent post (spoiler alert: it has to do with Proverbs 8. Check it out!) But that means there were three divine beings there at the creation.
And for the Christians this was confirmed later in the same passage, when God says “Let us make man in our own image” (Gen. 1:26). Note: “us” and “our”! Plural. Who’s he talking to? Who else is back there with the creator God? For Christians: His Spirit and His Son! Whoa! The Trinity is already in Genesis 1!
At least for the Christians. Readers of the Hebrew Bible would never have thought that, or at least they never did.
I will have a lot more to say about the Spirit becoming part of the Trinity. It did not happen because of this passage. But once it happened, this passage was pulled into the discussion as “evidence.”