Anti-Trinitarians often argue that the Holy Spirit is “missing” in many biblical passages where one might expect him to be mentioned, if the doctrine of the Trinity is true. For example, they notice that Paul’s salutations usually mention both the Father and the Son but never mention the Holy Spirit (e.g., “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” Rom. 1:7). Jesus once said, “No one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). Why didn’t Jesus mention that the Holy Spirit knew the Father and the Son? When Jesus said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not the angels in heaven, nor even the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32), why didn’t Jesus say “but only the Father and the Holy Spirit”? New Testament visions of heaven often include visions of the Father and the Son, but not of the Holy Spirit (for example, Acts 7:55-56). Examples of arguments of this type could easily be multiplied; virtually any text in the Bible that mentions the Father and the Son but not the Holy Spirit could potentially be viewed as grist for this mill.

I addressed this question in a debate with Oneness Pentecostal pastor Robert Sabin back in the early 1990s (see video below). In the rest of this post, I will go into further detail dealing with the specific biblical passages cited by anti-Trinitarians.


 

The basic problem, from a logical perspective, with this type of argument is that it commits the informal fallacy known as the argument from silence (or argumentum ex silentio, for those of you into Latin). An argument from silence fallaciously reasons that if a particular speaker or writer did not mention something it must be because he was ignorant of it (or even that he would have denied it, given the chance). Such arguments are notoriously unreliable because speakers and authors rarely tell us everything they know. The “silence” may be the result of the specific context, or due to some circumstance or intention on the part of the speaker or author, or reflect his assuming something that from his perspective did not need to be stated, or in general be indicative of a different way of thinking about the topic.

Such arguments crop up in biblical studies and theology surprisingly often. Paul does not mention the Virgin Birth, we are told, and therefore did not believe it. Only Matthew mentions the guard at the tomb, so it must be a late apologetic fiction. The Gospels do not report Jesus ever saying anything about homosexual behavior, so evidently he didn’t have a problem with it. Josephus never mentioned Nazareth in his writings, so apparently Nazareth did not exist in his day. All of these arguments are flawed. Paul may simply not have had occasion, in his letters to various churches, to discuss the Virgin Birth. None of the Gospels claims to give exhaustive information about what happened after Jesus’ burial. If the Gospels report no saying from Jesus about same-sex relations, it is more likely to be because Jesus agreed with the prevailing Jewish view of such behavior than that he disagreed with it. Josephus made no pretense of cataloguing all of the tiny villages in Galilee.

It is true that there are many passages in the New Testament that mention the Father and the Son but not the Holy Spirit. This is true of all of Paul’s salutations, for example. However, the Holy Spirit is mentioned in one of Peter’s salutations: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure” (1 Pet. 1:1-2). Here “the Spirit” is mentioned alongside God the Father and Jesus Christ in the salutation. So, it is not true that the Holy Spirit is mentioned in none of the salutations. But why is he not mentioned in most of them? Any number of reasons can be suggested, all of which are to some degree speculative (because they are attempts to explain what is not said). Perhaps Paul did not mention the Holy Spirit in his salutations because he thought of the Father and the Son as acting in their roles as sending the Holy Spirit to instill these blessings within us. Perhaps he did not refer to the Holy Spirit in these texts because referring to the Father and the Son was sufficient to establish the context of his epistles as representing a Christian perspective. Perhaps Paul was going for a rhetorical effect in which the two blessings of grace and peace were attributed to the two divine persons of the Father and the Son. Who knows? In any case, the salutations do not deny the existence of the Holy Spirit as a divine person distinct from the Father and the Son. It’s not an issue in these verses.

There is a kind of unreality in the claim of anti-Trinitarians that Jesus should have mentioned the Holy Spirit every time he made a statement about himself and the Father. Two points need to be made here.

1. For one thing, it would seem that Jesus did not expect his followers to understand that the Holy Spirit was a distinct divine person until he came into their lives in a transforming way after Jesus’ resurrection (at Pentecost). The Gospels report Jesus saying very little about the Holy Spirit until the night before he was killed, and then Jesus speaks at length about the Holy Spirit (in John 14-16). In this same context, Jesus makes it clear that he does not expect his disciples to grasp fully what he is saying until the Holy Spirit comes to be their new Advocate (John 14:25-26; 16:13-14). Therefore, it is rather unrealistic to demand that Jesus make specific and distinct reference to the Holy Spirit prior to his unveiling this truth in the sustained way we find in John 14-16. When Jesus said that only the Father knew the Son and vice versa (Matt. 11:27), it is rather silly to argue that Jesus should have said “and the Holy Spirit” in this context. The same is true for Jesus’ statement that only the Father knew the day and hour (Mark 13:32). Introducing the Holy Spirit at these junctures would only have confused his hearers, who did not yet know anything about the Holy Spirit as a distinct divine person.

2. No reference to the Holy Spirit in these contexts is really necessary, because, assuming the existence of the Holy Spirit, his knowing about these things might be legitimately taken for granted. Let me give an illustration. Suppose Mr. Smith, the head of a company, tells his vice-president that he will be stepping down as president of the company in six weeks, and then adds, “Please don’t tell this to anyone; you are the only person who knows about this.” It would obviously be unwise to infer from this statement that Mr. Smith had not yet told his wife about his plans to step down. In context, Mr. Smith probably means only that no one else at the company, or in the business world, knew about his plans. Thus, even in the case of statements using exclusionary language like “only so-and-so knows,” there may be legitimate exceptions that are not specified because they are irrelevant to the context. This is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the lack of any reference to the Holy Spirit in such texts as Matthew 11:27 and Mark 13:32.

New Testament visions of God or Christ or both are too infrequent to justify any sort of generalization that depends on an argument from silence. In the Book of Revelation, John’s first vision is of Jesus Christ alone (Rev. 1:13-18). The anti-Trinitarian claim that such visions never include the Holy Spirit is, however, mistaken. In the Book of Revelation, the visions of the heavenly throne room are highly symbolic. In John’s later visions, Jesus Christ is represented by the image of a Lamb (Rev. 5:6). God is described as simply someone “sitting on the throne” (Rev. 4:2, 9, 10; etc.). In some of these same visions, the Holy Spirit is depicted symbolically as “the seven Spirits that are before the throne” (Rev. 1:4) or “the seven spirits of God” (Rev. 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). The idea that these are seven literal spirits of some kind is just as big a mistake as supposing that the Lamb is a literal woolen four-footed animal. Rather, it is a symbolic picture of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah’s sevenfold description of the Spirit’s ministry through the coming Messiah, who of course is Jesus (see Is. 11:2). No biblical writer ever offers a literal description of the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is incorporeal and does his most important work in the hidden recesses of the heart; the lack of any description of the Holy Spirit’s appearance, then, is consistent with the way he actually works. Once again, the argument from silence makes assumptions that are not warranted.

Our doctrine of the Holy Spirit must rest on what Scripture says, not on what it does not say. Once we get such arguments from silence out of the way, we can see that there is much positive evidence for the distinct person of the Holy Spirit.

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This entry was posted on Monday, October 20th, 2008 at 5:16 pm and is filed under theology, Trinity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 comments so far

jasondulle
 1 

Mr. Bowman,

What would you recommend as the best 3-5 books on the Trinity? I’ve read various articles on the subject, as well as shorter treatments of the subject (McGrath, William Lane Craig in Philosophical Foundations for A Christian Worldview, Millard Erickson in Christian Theology, etc.), but I am looking for a more in-depth treatment of the subject. What I have read so far seems to focus on the Biblical basis for the doctrine, and the historical development of the doctrine. I am looking for books that deal more specifically with metaphysical issues such as the relationship between the persons, and their inner workings; books that deal with concepts such as the perichoresis, and address the question of whether or not the Trinity should be thought of as being one, or three minds (centers of consciousness).

Regarding the last issue, what is your opinion on the matter? Would you say each person in the Trinity has His own mind, so that there are three centers of consciousness (and three wills) in God, or would you say God is a single mind (and will), and the persons are only to be distinguished by their internal relations of being unregenerate, begotten, and proceeding? It seems to me that Trinitarians differ on this topic. What would you say the consensus view is?

October 31st, 2008 at 1:38 pm
 2 

Jason,

You might take a look at Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective, edited by Fred Sanders; God the Holy Trinity, edited by Timothy George; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by Bruce Ware; and The Holy Trinity, by Robert Letham. These recent books will lead you to other books as well.

If Trinitarians answer your question in different ways, this is probably because there is no direct answer in Scripture and because of the limitations of human language in describing God. The three persons of the Trinity are indivisible in their knowledge and will, since each, as God, knows all things and wills the same thing. Yet some sort of distinction seems biblically valid, since the three persons know each other (in a relational way) and act on each other’s behalf (see my Outline Study for biblical support for these statements). It is possible to overstate the distinctness in a way that leads implicitly to tritheism, and also possible to overstate the unity of mind and will in a way that leads implicitly to monarchianism or modalism. Trinitarian theologians may differ among themselves as to how to avoid these two unbiblical extremes, but they all agree that both extremes are to be avoided.

November 1st, 2008 at 12:59 pm
David Bunch
 3 

Mr Bowman,

I found this article while searching for Argument from Silence (AfS) and was pleased to see that the subject matter was related to use of scriptures, as my searching was more about how I perceived its use in relation to a study of Revelations I was recently involved in. I really liked the summary statement of “Our doctrine of the Holy Spirit must rest on what Scripture says, not on what it does not say” as that was almost verbatim what I have been thinking about some comments made by my teacher of Revelations.

While topically the use is different, I am concerned that the teacher who led the class used this type of fallacy in making a couple of points and am asking if you have an opinion of its use as follows.

1) The Teacher said – In Revelations chapter 4 through 19, there is no mention of the church. Because these chapters do not mention the church then the church is not present during this time period. In chapter 4, John is called up into heaven which is symbolic of the church being raptured up to heaven.

Now I do not mind if someone gives me a text clearly saying the church was taken up, but this argument smacks to me of being similar to your points made above, except this time rather than suggesting the author was ignorant, instead that the absent text “the church” or it’s like indicates an absence from the events described. It sounds like an AfS too.

2) After quoting several verses including Zechariah 14:4, “4 And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, from east to west, making a very large valley; half of the mountain shall move toward the north and half of it toward the south”, to show the post-tribulation return of Christ, he then cited 1 Thess 4:16-17, ” 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.” He then said that because this text does not say anything about Jesus feet touching down on the mountain, then this must be a different event and that is the pre-trib rapture.

Both of these look very much like the AfS. If you wish I can take any reply via email if you wish to keep this question separate from the topic here.

Thank you for your consideration and any response you might give.

March 11th, 2009 at 11:40 am
 4 

David,

You nailed it on the head both times. Both of the arguments you described are arguments from silence.

The first argument is ironic because the church is not mentioned, by that name, anywhere after Rev. 3:22 and before 22:16 (which is a general reference to the book as a revelation to the churches). Does this mean that the church is “absent” in Rev. 20-22, the passage concerning the new heavens and new earth?

Most fallacious arguments from silence can be similarly falsified by such counterexamples. If a text needs to mention Jesus’ feet touching the ground to refer to his second coming, then there are precious few such references in the Bible.

March 11th, 2009 at 12:55 pm

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