The Person of the Spirit

Sister White wrote on several occasions that the Holy Spirit is “a person.” Today, many take these statements as evidence that she thought that the Holy Spirit is another being like the Father and the Son, the third member of a Triune God. Here are two of these statements:

“The Holy Spirit is a person, for He beareth witness with our spirits that we are the children of God.” (Ev 616)person spirit ellen white

“Sin could be resisted and overcome only through the mighty agency of the Third Person of the Godhead” (DA 671)

On the other hand, there are many other statements which demonstrate beyond doubt that there are only two divine Beings, Father and Son. Here are a couple of them:

“Christ the Word, the Only Begotten of God, was one with the eternal Father,–one in nature, in character, and in purpose,–the only being in all the universe that could enter into all the counsels and purposes of God.” (GC 493)

“And in order that the human family might have no excuse because of Satan’s temptations, Christ became one with them. The only Being who was one with God lived the law in humanity.”(ST, October 14 1897)

Obviously, when we read that Jesus was “the only Being in all the Universe” who was one with God and the only Being that could enter into God’s plans and purposes, we understand that no other being is a part of these plans and no other being is one with God. Ellen White, in these statements, speaks only about two divine Beings.

The following statements support this conclusion:

“The Father and the Son alone are to be exalted” (YI, 7 July 1898)

Here we are told that there are only two divine Beings entitled to our worship, what would be wrong if the Holy Spirit was a being like the Father or the Son?  Read also the following:

“No man, nor even the highest angel, can estimate the great cost; it is known only to the Father and the Son” (The Bible Echo, October 28. 1895)

If the Spirit is a divine being, separate from the Father and the Son, how is it that he cannot know the price paid for our salvation?

Further Sister White wrote that only two Beings participated in the great work of creation:

“God, in counsel with His Son, formed the plan of creating man in their own image” (RH, 24 February, 1874)

“The Father and the Son engaged in the mighty, wondrous work they had contemplated–of creating the world… After the earth was created, and the beasts upon it, the Father and Son carried out their purpose, which was designed before the fall of Satan, to make man in their own image. They had wrought together in the creation of the earth and every living thing upon it. And now God said to His Son, “Let us make man in our image.” (SR, 20.21).

“Jesus had united with the Father in making the world.” (2T 209)

“In the beginning the Father and the Son had rested upon the Sabbath after Their work of creation.” (DA 769).

The following quote is also interesting:

“By the power of His love, through obedience, fallen man, a worm of the dust, is to be transformed, fitted to be a member of the heavenly family, a companion through eternal ages of God and Christ and the holy angels.” (Ms 21, Feb.16, 1900)

If the Spirit is a being or individual, separate from the Father and Son, how can it be that he is not a companion with man?

She also wrote that the third-ranking person in the universe, following after God and Christ was Lucifer:

“Lucifer in heaven, before his rebellion, was a high and exalted angel, next in honor to God’s dear Son” (SR 13).

“He (Satan) was next to Christ in exaltation and character” (RH, 22 October 1895)

“Sin originated with him who, next to Christ, had been most honored of God and was highest in power and glory among the inhabitants of heaven.” (PP 35)

So, we have two groups of statements which at first glance seem to contradict each other. Ellen White speaks about two divine Beings and three divine persons. How can we resolve this apparent contradiction?

The main problem in all these discussions, in my opinion, is the disagreement about what constitutes a being as well as the refusal of many to accept the possibility that Ellen White used the word “person” in a different manner than it is being used and thought of today.

This controversy is not new. At the beginning of the twentieth century the well known Adventist physician John Harvey Kellogg had the same John kellogg trinitarianproblem. In a letter from 1903, addressed to G.I. Butler, former president of the General Conference, he wrote:

“As far as I can fathom, the difficulty which is found in ‘The Living Temple’, the whole thing may be simmered down to the question: Is the Holy Ghost a person? You say no. I had supposed the Bible said this for the reason that the personal pronoun ‘he’ is used in speaking of the Holy Ghost. Sister White uses the pronoun ‘he’ and has said in so many words that the Holy Ghost is the third person of the Godhead. How the Holy Ghost can be the third person and not be a person at all is difficult for me to see.” (Letter from JH Kellogg to GI Butler, 28 October 1903).

In this letter we see that the same issue that we have today about the meaning of the term “person” was at stake in the understanding of the pioneers. Dr. Kellogg had concluded that the Holy Spirit was a person separate from the Father and the Son. This was in contradiction with the faith of the church of that period, that the Holy Spirit was the personal presence of the Father and the Son. Note that Kellogg maintained his position through the writings of Sister White in the same manner that people in the church today use her writings to support the Trinity doctrine. However, if sister White were alive today, would she agree with this practice? For us to determine the possibility that many in the denomination are using the writings of Ellen White in a similarly condemned manner as did Kellogg, let us first read Butler’s response and then compare it with some statements of sister White on this issue:

“So far as Sister White and you being in perfect agreement, I shall have to leave that entirely between you and Sister White. Sister White says there is not perfect agreement; you claim there is. I know some of her remarks seem to give you strong ground for claiming that she does. I am candid enough to say that, but I must give her the credit until she disowns it of saying there is a difference too, and I do not believe you can fully tell just what she means.”  (Letter: G I Butler to J H Kellogg. April 5. 1904)

“There are some who, upon accepting erroneous theories, strive to establish them by collecting from my writings statements of truth, which they use separated from their proper connection, and perverted by association with error.” (Letter 136, April 27, 1906, to Brethren Butler, Daniels, and Irwin.)

“In the controversy that arose among our brethren regarding the teachings of this book (The Living Temple), those in favor of giving it a wide circulation declared: “It contains the very sentiments that Sister White has been teaching.” This assertion struck right to my heart. I felt heartbroken; for I knew that this representation of the matter was not true.” (1SM 203)

“I am compelled to speak in denial of the claim that the teachings of “Living Temple” can be sustained by statements from my writings. There may be in this book expressions and sentiments that are in harmony with my writings. And there may be in my writings many statements which, taken from their connection, and interpreted according to the mind of the writer of “Living Temple,” would seem to be in harmony with the teachings of this book. This may give apparent support to the assertion that the sentiments in “Living Temple” are in harmony with my writings. But God forbid that this sentiment should prevail.”(Mar. Sp. Series B, no. 2, p. 53.54)

The other pioneers did not have any such problem. Read the following statement that may shed light on our study and reveal the fact that our pioneers understood the word “person” to have different meanings:

“There is one question which has been much controverted in the theological world upon which we have never presumed to enter. It is that of the personality of the Spirit of God. Prevailing ideas of person are very diverse, often crude, and the word is differently understood; so that unity of opinion on this point cannot be expected until all shall be able to define precisely what they mean by the word, or until all shall agree upon one particular sense in which the word shall be used. But as this agreement does not exist, it seems that a discussion of the subject cannot be profitable, especially as it is not a question of direct revelation. We have a right to be positive in our faith and our statements only when the words of Scripture are so direct as to bring the subject within the range of positive proof. We are not only willing but anxious to leave it just where the word of God leaves it. From it we learn that the Spirit of God is that awful and mysterious power which proceeds from the throne of the universe, and which is the efficient actor in the work of creation and of redemption.” (JH Waggoner, The Spirit of God, It’s attributes and manifestations, p. 8, 9, 1877)

From this statement we see that the main problem during the time of the pioneers was not the personality of the Spirit, but the word “person”. They understood that two people can use that word with two different understandings in their minds. In fact, sister White was not the only one who wrote that the Spirit was a “person”. There were other pioneers who also wrote it but did not believe that the Spirit was an individual being like the Father and the Son. Here are two examples:

Q. “Do you think the Spirit of God is a person, or is it simply the power by which God works, and which he has given to man for his use? “

A. The pronouns used in connection with the Spirit must lead us to conclude that he is a person, the personality of God which is the source of all power and life.”” {S. M. Henry, The Abiding Spirit, 1899.}

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“The Spirit of God is a reality. It is as really a living reality as God himself, and is the great moving agent of God in the establishment and continuation of Christianity in the world” (J. Clarke, RH March 10, 1874) (Although Clarke does not use the word “person”, however he says that the Spirit is a “living reality as God Himself”, and a “great agent”)

I invite you to study this topic together with me. Let us first understand what constitutes a human being. To get a proper handle on this, it is necessary to study the creation of man. The Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy tell us that man was created in the image and likeness of God:

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Gen.1: 26.

“There are many issues in our world today in regard to the Creator not being a personal God. God is a being, and man was made in His image.” (7MR 373)

“God is a spirit; yet He is a personal being, for man was made in His image.” (Ed. 131)

How was man made?

1. “The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground.”

2. “…and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” Gen. 2, 7

So, God first formed man into a physically-molded entity (body). Then he blew the breath of life into the form. This breath is what the Bible elsewhere called the spirit (see Zech. 12: 1 and Ecl. 12: 7). When did man become a living being? The form of man did not become a living being until God breathed the breath of life into him. So, the physical form and the spirit together make up a being, an individual. In other words, a being has two parts, aspects, or dimensions: a physical and a spiritual.

For those who doubt that man has a spirit, read the following verses:

“The burden of the word of the LORD for Israel, saith the LORD, which stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him.”Zech. 12: 1

“But there is a spirit in man…” Job 32: 8

“For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him?” 1 Cor. 2: 11

Now, what should concern us in regard to the scope of the subject of the discussion of the meaning of the term “person” is whether God, like man, has two aspects, a physical form and a spirit. We have seen that man was created in the image and likeness of God, but to what should we attribute this resemblance? Was it only a similarity in character or was it also a physical resemblance? Let’s see what inspiration says:

1. Does God have a physical form?

“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” Isaiah 6: 1

“I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.” Daniel 7: 9

“And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.” Revelation 5: 1

“Man was to bear God’s image, both in outward resemblance and in character. Christ alone is “the express image” (Hebrews 1:3) of the Father; but man was formed in the likeness of God.” (PP 45)

“In the beginning, man was created in the likeness of God, not only in character, but in form and feature.” (GC 644)

“When Adam came from the Creator’s hand, he bore, in his physical, mental, and spiritual nature, a likeness to his Maker.” (Ed. 14)

“Created to be “the image and glory of God” (1 Corinthians 11:7), Adam and Eve had received endowments not unworthy of their high destiny. Graceful and symmetrical in form, regular and beautiful in feature, their countenances glowing with the tint of health and the light of joy and hope, they bore in outward resemblance the likeness of their Maker.” (Ed. 20)

“I asked Jesus if His Father had a form like Himself. He said He had, but I could not behold it, for said He, “If you should once behold the glory of His person, you would cease to exist.” (EW 55)

2. Does God have a Spirit?

“…And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Gen. 1: 2

“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.” Ps. 139: 7.8

“Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.” Ps. 51: 11

“The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.” Job 33:4

“But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.”John 15: 26

“Without the Holy Spirit, without the breath of God, there is torpidity of conscience, loss of spiritual life.” (4 BC 1166)

“The Holy Spirit is a free, working, independent agency. The God of heaven uses his Spirit as it pleases him…” (RH May 5, 1896)

“The greatness of God is to us incomprehensible. “The Lord’s throne is in heaven” (Psalm 11:4); yet by His Spirit He is everywhere present. He has an intimate knowledge of, and a personal interest in, all the works of His hand… “Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: If I make my bed in the grave behold, Thou art there.” (Ed 131)

“The Bible shows us God in His high and holy place, not in a state of inactivity, not in silence and solitude, but surrounded by ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands of holy beings, all waiting to do His will. Through these messengers He is in active communication with every part of His dominion. By His Spirit He is everywhere present. Through the agency of His Spirit and His angels He ministers to the children of men.”(MH 417)

So, the creation story is a lesson about the being of God. God formed a physical form and thereby showed us that He Himself is not an intangible essence, but a personal being, possessing a physical form.  After this, He breathed the spirit of life in man, and in so doing, has shown that He also has a Spirit. The Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy together teach that God, like man, has both a physical and spiritual aspect. It should be carefully attended to that we are now entering into the discussion about the nature of these two aspects! We do not know the nature of the body or the spirit of God. Here silence is golden. All that we can say is that God is both the body (physical aspect) and the Spirit (spiritual aspect).

From this we can conclude that the spirit is not another being, or another individual, but rather the non-physical and spiritual aspect of both man and God.

Now let us focus on another thing, the word “person”. Please read the following statement:

“I saw a throne, and on it sat the Father and the Son. I gazed on Jesus’ countenance and admired His lovely person. The Father’s person I could not behold, for a cloud of glorious light covered Him. I asked Jesus if His Father had a form like Himself. He said He had, but I could not behold it, for said He, “If you should once behold the glory of His person, you would cease to exist.”(EW 54)

Sister White admired the “lovely person” of Jesus. In that statement, what did she actually admire? She was admiring the countenance, the face, and the body of Jesus. Further she said that she could not behold the “Father’s person. Finally, she asked Him if the Father has a form like Himself.” Read Jesus’ response: “He said He had, but I could not behold it, for said He, “If you should once behold the glory of His person, you would cease to exist.”

In this statement sister White called the form, the physical aspect of God, His “person”. This physical countenance of God which sits on the throne in heaven is God’s person.

But we saw earlier that God has not only a physical form but a spiritual one as well.  He possesses a Spirit through which He can be present in all places at one particular time. What is this Spirit? Is it something impersonal, a mere power or energy that comes from the person or being of God which fills the whole universe? Is it something that can be manipulated by man? The Bible is very clear that God’s Spirit has personal characteristics.  He moves, talks, may be upset, insulted etc…  In other words, God’s spirit is a living, personal entity and not some alien, impersonal power or energy. This means that the Spirit of God is as much a person as the physical form of God is a person. But pay close attention to the distinguishing fact that this is not a separate being from God, ostensibly a third member of a trinity. He is the person of God through which He is present everywhere and by which He fulfills his plans. Please consider the following statements:

“It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” Christ is not here referring to his doctrine, but to his person, the divinity of his character.” (RH April 5, 1906)

Here sister White says that when Jesus speaks of the Spirit who gives life (which is the Holy Spirit), He refers to his person, the divinity of his character (see 1 Cor. 15, 45, 2 Cor. 3, 6. 17). Here we have a clear example where Mrs. White used the word “person” with a different sense than that of a “being”. The following statement also confirms the truth that the Spirit is the person or the character of an individual:

“Our personal identity is preserved in the resurrection, though not the same particles of matter or material substance as went into the grave. The wondrous works of God are a mystery to man. The spirit, the character of man, is returned to God, there to be preserved. In the resurrection every man will have his own character. God in His own time will call forth the dead, giving again the breath of life, and bidding the dry bones live.”(6BC 1093) (please read the letter of Willie White at the end of this article)

Now, after all that we have seen so far, we can define the word “person” as:

1. A physical being, an individual

2. The phsysical or non-physical aspect of a being. His nature, character or personality. (See: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/person) webster.com / dictionary / person)

Because many Adventists have misunderstood both the second definition (#2 above) as well as what constitutes a being, they have similarly been compelled to misunderstand statements from Sister White in cases where she has referred to the Holy Spirit as a “person”.

Let us look further at some statements from the Spirit of Prophecy on this topic:

“The Holy Spirit is a person, for He beareth witness with our spirits that we are the children of God. When this witness is borne, it carries with it its own evidence. At such times we believe and are sure that we are the children of God… The Holy Spirit has a personality, else He could not bear witness to our spirits and with our spirits that we are the children of God. He must also be a divine person, else He could not search out the secrets which lie hidden in the mind of God. “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.” (Ev. 617)

For many, this statement is one of the strongest evidences that the Holy Spirit is a being just as the Father and the Son are personal Beings, but a careful analysis will prove to us that this statement actually rejects such an idea.

Ellen White says that “the Holy Spirit is a person” and that He “has a personality.” Why? What is the evidence that the Holy Spirit is “a person” and that “He has a personality? Because He “bears witness”. In other words, if the Spirit is not a person and has no personality, he could not bear witness. An impersonal power or energy cannot bear witness.  Only something that is personal and that has a personality can bring an effective witness. She says this very clear: “The Holy Spirit has a personality, else He could not bear witness”. Now read the quotation carefully and notice that the Holy Spirit is not alone when He bears witness but our own spirit is bearing witness together with him – ” for He beareth witness with our spirits”.

What then is our spirit? Following the context of the statement mentioned above, only a person can bear witness.  If the Holy Spirit is “a person” and “has a personality” because he bears witness, then our spirit is also “a person” and “has a personality” because it bears witness together with the Holy Spirit! But is my spirit some other being than I? Certainly not!  It is a part of me, my inner nature, my person, and my character. The same is true in the understanding of the Holy Spirit. It is not another being, but God Himself. Sister White says this very clearly:

“In giving us His Spirit, God gives us Himself, making Himself a fountain of divine influences, to give health and life to the world.” (7T 273)

The last part of the statement says that the Spirit “must also be a divine person, else He could not search out the secrets which lie hidden in the mind of God.”

The key for this quotation is the verse from 1 Cor. 2:11 which sister White quoted: “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.”

Acording to the words of Paul, the man and his spirit are comparable to God and His Spirit. What is true about the human spirit for the man is the same as God’s Spirit is to Himself. As the human spirit is not a different individual than the man himself, the same the Spirit of God is not another person than Himself. Otherwise, the verse would make sense.

The following statement is from “Education”, page 131:

“The greatness of God is to us incomprehensible.  “The Lord’s throne is in heaven” (Psalm 11:4); yet by His Spirit He is everywhere present.

For more see:

Ellen White on the Trinity

Third Person of the Godhead

Heavenly Trio

The Omega of Deadly Heresies

Questions and Answers

Truth About God