Overcoming an Objection to Paul’s Trinitarian Theology: The Personhood of the Spirit in Romans 8

While the doctrine of the Trinity in Paul’s thought has received renewed attention recently (e.g., Fee, Hill, Tilling, Rowe, Gorman, Watson, et al.), it continues to be a neglected topic in many corners of Pauline scholarship. There are various reasons for such neglect. The first reason is the dreaded fear of anachronism. If the doctrine of the Trinity was not formally established until the fourth century, then why would anyone expect to find trinitarian theology in Paul’s writings? The second reason is that if Paul was a monotheistic Jew, then would this constraint not keep him from ever adopting something like the Trinity for his conception of God?

Nevertheless, there is one other noteworthy reason that has kept some from considering the possibility that Paul might have been, in some meaningful sense, a trinitarian: an unwillingness to accept the “personhood” or the “personal nature” of the Holy Spirit, which, as noted by scholars like Arthur Wainwright and Gordon Fee, leads to a denial of the possibility of finding trinitarian thought in Paul’s writings from the outset. In Paul’s thought, if the Holy Spirit is not a distinct “person” in relation to the Father and Son, then there is no prospect that Paul could have conceived of anything like the Trinity, even in an incipient form.

This paper will analyze Paul’s language regarding the Holy Spirit in Romans 8 and argue that Paul does, in fact, conceive of the Holy Spirit as a distinct person in relation to God the Father and to Christ. To prove this thesis, I will give my attention, first, to the instances in Romans 8, which describe the Spirit as acting in or on behalf of believers. In this text, Paul notes that the Spirit dwells in (8:9), raises to new life (8:11), leads (8:14), bears witness with (8:16), helps (8:26), and intercedes for (8:27) Christians. These specific actions, individually and collectively, imply the personhood of the Holy Spirit. This paper will then focus on the relationships between God the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit portrayed in the eighth chapter of Romans. Of note will be Paul’s parallel statements regarding the “Spirit of God” and the “Spirit of Christ” in 8:9. This language could potentially blur the lines regarding the distinctions between God, Christ, and the Spirit, but that is not the required reading of these words. If the Spirit is conceived of as a distinct person in Romans 8, then one objection against finding a trinitarian theology in Pauline writings is overcome.

While this conclusion does not prove that Paul was trinitarian, it does help legitimize two ongoing pursuits regarding Paul’s trinitarian thought. First, if the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit are distinct persons, then it is possible to ask questions regarding their identity as it pertains to their relationships with one another (cf. Hill, Rowe). Second, if Christ and the Spirit are distinct persons, then it is appropriate to pursue Paul’s understanding of the nature of their divinity. Viewing the Spirit as a person in Romans 8 provides a foundation for these questions to be asked in Pauline/NT Christology scholarship.

6 thoughts on “Overcoming an Objection to Paul’s Trinitarian Theology: The Personhood of the Spirit in Romans 8”

  1. Overcoming an Objection to Paul’s Trinitarian Theology
    The topic is interesting and worthy of discussion. It is hard to judge from the abstract how well this student paper handles this discussion. I was not able read the professor’s “recommendation letter.”

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