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The Giver of Life

One of the strange aspects of church history is the relatively minor role given to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and the limited theological discussions thereof.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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One of the strange aspects of church history is the relatively minor role given to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and the limited theological discussions thereof. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is clearly the most in evidence of the three persons of the Trinity. From His part in creation, through His constant presence as the source of revelation through the prophets, His part in the miraculous conception of Jesus Christ, on through Pentecost through John’s Revelation, the Spirit is the Person most in evidence in Scripture, if not in theology.

Moreover, when theology deals with this doctrine, the role of the Holy Spirit varies from an impersonal influence to a displacing and total power. Without agreeing with the charismatics, in particular with the tongues emphasis, I must say all the same that the rise of the charismatic movement is a very important theological as well as historical fact. It compels the church to give attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Thus far, the debate has been localized and has been man-centered; i.e., it has centered on such things as the validity or non-validity of tongues. Clearly, this is an important question, but not even remotely as important as the nature and person of the Holy Spirit Himself. Our concern must be with more than His manifestations; it must be with the Spirit Himself.

Confessional Poverty

This confessional poverty goes back to the creeds. The Apostles’ Creed, in its final form, says simply, “I believe in the Holy Ghost.” The Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan creed (381 A.D.) in its developed form declares:

And (I believe) in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father (and the Son); who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.

The Athanasian Creed repeatedly asserts the unity of the Trinity. It also says specifically:

23. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten: but proceeding.
24. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
25. And in this Trinity none is afore, or after another: none is greater, or less than another (there is nothing before, or after, nothing greater or less).

This limited emphasis is in one sense understandable; the early church began in a Jewish context in which God the Father, and the Spirit, were “recognized” doctrines; the point of conflict was the doctrine of Christ. Hence the confessional emphasis on Christology. However, what the early church failed to appreciate sufficiently was that the word God referred to different things in different cultures, so that in the Greco-Roman world, and amongst barbarians, God and the Holy Spirit had radically different meanings. With the Reformation, the emphasis was on justification and ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) so that the doctrine of the Spirit received minimal emphasis. Luther’s Small Catechism declares:

I believe in the Holy Ghost….
I believe that I can not, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith; just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church he daily forgives richly all my sins, and the sins of all believers; and will raise up me and all the dead at the last day, and will grant everlasting life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true.

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563 A.D.), in Question 53, asks, “What dost thou believe concerning the Holy Ghost?” and answers:

First, that he is co-eternal God with the Father and the Son. Secondly, that he is also given unto me, makes me by a true faith partaker of Christ and all his benefits, comforts me, and shall abide with me forever.

The French Confession of Faith (1559 A.D.) cited the work of the Holy Spirit as basic to the inward illumination which enables the believer to know God’s Word and to distinguish it from other ecclesiastical books. The French Confession also said:

XXI. We believe that we are enlightened in faith by the secret power of the Holy Spirit, that it is a gratuitous and special gift which God grants to whom he will, so that the elect have no cause to glory, but are bound to be doubly thankful that they have been preferred to others.

The Belgic Confession (1561 A.D.) restates the creeds in their emphasis on the eternity of the Spirit, and His equal procession from the Father and the Son (Art. XI). The same is true of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, and of the Methodist Articles of Religion (1784 A.D.), as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith (1729).

A Fuller Statement

The fullest statement from this era comes from the Scotch Confession of Faith (1560 A.D.).

Art. XII. Of Faith in the Holy Goste
This our Faith and the assurance of the same, proceeds not fra flesh and blude, that is to say, fra na natural power is within us, bot is the inspiration of the holy Goste: Whom we confesse GOD equall with the Father and with his Sonne, quha sanctifyis us, and brings us in all veritie be his awin operation, without whome we sulde remaine for ever enemies to God, and ignorant of his Sonne Christ Jesus; for of nature we are so dead, so blind, and so perverse, that nether can we feil when we are pricked, see the licht when it shines, nor assent to the whill of God when it is reveiled, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus quicken that quhilk is dead, remove the darkness from our myndes, and bowe our stubborne hears to the obedience of his blessed will. And so as we confesse, that God the Father created us, when we were not, so also do we confesse that the holy Goste doth sanctifie and regenerat us, without all respect of ony merite proceeding from us, be it before, or be it after our Regeneration. To speak this one zit in mair plaine words: as we willingly spoyle our selves of all honor and gloir of our own Creation and Redemption, so do we also of our Regeneration and Sanctification, for of our selves we are not sufficient to think one gude thocht, bot he quha hes begun the wark in us, is onlie he that continewis us in the same, to the praise and glorie of his undeserved grace.

In 1848, the confession of the Evangelical Free Churches of Geneva united the Spirit’s work of salvation with the doctrine of election, seeing clearly the sovereignty of grace in choice and operation:

XII. We believe that the Holy Ghost applies to the chosen ones, by means of the Word, the salvation which the Father has destined for them and which the Son has bought, so that uniting them to Jesus by faith, he dwells in them, delivers them from the sway of sin, makes them understand the Scriptures, consoles them and seals them for the day of redemption.

In 1876, The Reformed Episcopal Church in America expanded the Thirty-Nine Articles’ affirmation concerning the Spirit:

Article IV. Of the Holy Ghost.
The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.
It is the work of the Holy Ghost to reprove and convince the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment; to take of the things of Christ and show them to men; to regenerate — making men willing, leading them to faith in Christ, and forming Christ in them the hope of glory; to strengthen them with might in their inner man, that Christ may dwell in their hearts by faith; and to secure in them that walking in the ways of God which is called the Fruit of the Spirit the true Church is thus called out of the world, and is builded together for an habitation of God through the spirit.

The Arminian Influence

In 1902-1903, The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. added to its version of the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter XXXIV, “Of the Holy Spirit.” This statement, while following the orthodox outline, opened the door to Arminian rather than Calvinistic interpretations. Twentieth century emphases on the doctrine of the spirit have been mainly Arminian, not Calvinistic. This presents us with a contradiction. The Holy Spirit, as very God of very God, manifests in His Person and power the determining will and sovereignty of the triune God. A charismatic emphasis should thus be highly Calvinistic, but it is not normally so and is commonly very alien to such a stress. Likewise, those who are Calvinistic and who stress God’s sovereignty should logically be very emphatically given to a high emphasis on the doctrine of the Spirit. This, however, is clearly not the case.

It may be that sovereignty is confused with an exclusive transcendence so that immanence is seen as a compromise. In any case, where a strong doctrine of the Spirit is not operative and governing, a strong doctrine of the church replaces it, so that institutional controls and government replace the Spirit. On the other hand, where the doctrine of the Spirit is not in union with the doctrine of the sovereignty of the triune God, human activity and enthusiasm replace the Spirit, and men set about to engender the ostensible working of the Spirit by trying to create in themselves an emotional climate. In this way, both charismatics and anti-charismatics conclude by stressing man, institutional controls in the one case, and emotional charges within man in the other. This should indicate to us that the true starting-point with respect to the Spirit is in Scripture and the Spirit Himself.

Even here, there are problems. Man, being a material creature, finds spirit a difficult concept to comprehend. We are told of God, that He is Spirit (Jn. 4:24), but we are able to understand, within creaturely limits, God the Son because of His incarnation. God the Father we can also understand, although not as well, because Father is a term understandable to all of us. Thus, the Father and the Son have something to concretize our understanding. The titles of the Spirit, however, refer to functions rather than a concrete person, i.e., Comforter, Advocate, etc. Thus, for many God the Sprit is always somehow the remote and abstract person of the Trinity. The fault lies clearly in man’s understanding.

The Spirit at Creation

Scripture deepens the mystery at the very beginning. According to Genesis 1:2, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” The earth was a vacancy, an unshaped nothing; it was a void, a nothing, a vacuity, and it was dark. All was an abyss or sea. The Spirit of God moved, brooded, hovered, or fluttered over the waters, according to the commentators. Cassuto has called attention to the inadmissible nature of brooding or blowing as translations. He rendered or paraphrased the line as possibly, “Although the earth was without form or life, yet above the unformed matter hovered the ruah of God, the source of light and life.”1 But none of these interpretations penetrate the mystery of creation.

The word ruah means breath or wind, but it here refers in its Hebrew construction, as Lenski pointed out, to a person. It is the Spirit of God who is referred to. The Spirit is clearly the Creator of life in some special sense, and He is also the re-creator of life in fallen man. We have a very obvious parallelism. On the one hand, is the darkness, the void, and formlessness, and on the other is the Spirit of God, who is light, life, and order. What follows in Genesis 1:3ff. is a series of divine fiats: “Let there be…and there was.” The presence of the Spirit is inescapable life, light, and order.

In Genesis 6:3, we read, “And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.” Here the Sprit of God is closely linked to life, without being identical to it. The Spirit gives life, and the Spirit also withdraws it. For the Spirit to come upon men means at times more than life: it means prophecy (1 Sam. 10:10; 16:13). The Holy Spirit is also vexed and grieved by man’s rebellion, and He turns on them to be their enemy, and to fight against them (Is. 63:10; Eph. 4:30). The Spirit thus is very much present in this world; His immanence is most notable, and yet he is also fully transcendent. Oehler has best stated the relationship of the Spirit to creation: “Since the world is placed outside of God, it originated and subsists only by the life imparted to it by his Spirit; thus it is not separated from Him, although distinct from Him.”2 This is a very necessary distinction. It is all the more important, because the modern era has either fallen into pantheism, or so separated God from the world as to make the Holy Spirit’s presence unusual or dramatic. God is not a God who is afar off (Jer. 23:23), although men in their sin are inclined to think so (Ps. 10:1). The world of science has made the great cause of all a very remote or non-existent cause, whereas the God of Scripture is totally sovereign, omnipresent, and always governing in every event and second of time. The scientific worldview has thus aggravated man’s difficulties in understanding the doctrine of the Spirit.

Because man now sees God as distant, and the Spirit as vague or sporadic, other gods rule over men. Institutions and persons become the givers of life. As a result, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has lost its Biblical force. It is thus urgently necessary for theologians, pastors, and believers to give renewed attention to this doctrine. The revival of Christendom depends upon it, for the doctrine of the Spirit confronts us with the mystery of God. God is great and beyond our comprehension, and yet He speaks our language, which He ordained, and incarnates Himself as man, so that we might truly know Him. He is incomprehensible, yet understandable; we can know Him truly, but never exhaustively. He is most near to us in the Spirit, and yet never more remote to our capacity to grasp His infinite and inexhaustible being than in the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Ghost.


1. Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part I, (Jerusalem, Israel: The Magnes Press, [1961] 1972), 25.

2. Gustave E. Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, [1883] reprint). 118.

Reprinted from: Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Ross House Books: Vallecito, CA, 1994), 293-297.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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