A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Relax, You’re Probably Not Binitarian

As I was reading widely in preparation for writing a book about the Holy Spirit, I kept coming across a lament (an accusation?) that many Christians are guilty of forgetting, ignoring, or failing to adequately honor, the Spirit. And my own experience, after months of studying pneumatology, was that there certainly were great treasures stored up here in this doctrine, and that more people should spend more time with them. Though the time had come to finish the book and send it to the publisher, I felt like I wasn’t anywhere near finished learning about, and paying close attention to, God the Holy Spirit.

But especially at the popular level, it started to seem like 90% of the books I read about the Holy Spirit kept up the same lament: “Alas, alas, most Christians ignore the Holy Spirit! We are so awful, shame on us.” I ended up with stacks and stacks of paperbacks on the Spirit, all united in the lament that nobody talks about the Spirit. Thousands of pages about this alleged silence.

It makes you wonder. At least it made me wonder. One thing I wondered was whether perhaps the hype-generating culture of advertising might be consistently overpowering the properly theological motive in this writing. That does happen. It’s tempting for a writer to move subtly from wanting to help people by writing something that might meet a real need, to speaking as if I, I alone am a faithful herald of neglected truth, and my book, my book alone has the words of eternal life. If you take a little step in that direction, you find that the promotional rhetoric writes itself for you; ready-made, right at hand, the easy and conventional idiom of the age waiting for you to slip into it. So anyway, Buy My Book, you need it now more than ever, etc.

But one recurring bit of jargon really rankled me. It’s the charge that if somebody fails to mention the Holy Spirit, that person fails to be Trinitarian, and instead is merely Binitarian. Not Tri- but Bi-, get it? I think putting the charge this way must provide a helpful jolt for its users. Since it messes with the special word ‘Trinity,’ it carries a little charge and (if you haven’t heard it before) surprises you into paying attention to how wrong it would be to omit the Holy Spirit from the Trinity.

All I want to say about that is, if Binitarian deserves to be a word at all (outside of maybe a quite technical discussion in early Christian studies), it probably shouldn’t be wasted on people who fail to emphasize the Holy Spirit adequately. It probably ought to be reserved for people who actively deny that the Holy Spirit is to be ranked alongside the Father and the Son as a fully divine, and relatively distinct, person of the Trinity. What I mean is, you ought to have to DO something special to be a Binitarian, not just fail to do something.

This is especially the case since people who are especially interested in the Holy Spirit (it’s me, hi, I’m the pneumatology obsesser, it’s me) are prone to have a hair trigger for accusing others of failing to be adequately excited and attentive. Superfans ruin everything. This problem goes way back: it’s not just the guy who preens himself on asking the gotcha first question after a lecture (“I can’t help but notice you failed to mention the Holy Spirit in your remarks; do you think you have just grieved him, or actually committed the unforgiveable sin?”) Here’s John Chrysostom fielding an imaginary question (he’d apparently heard this one before) about why Paul says “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (I Cor 8:6) Here’s what he says:

Now if any were to say, “Why did he make no mention of the Spirit?” our answer might be this: His argument was with idolaters, and the contention was about “gods many and lords many.” And this is why, having called the Father, God, he calls the Son, Lord. If now he ventured not to call the Father Lord together with the Son, lest they might suspect him to be speaking of two Lords; nor yet the Son, God, with the Father, lest he might be supposed to speak of two Gods: why marvel at his not having mentioned the Spirit? His contest was, so far, with the Gentiles: his point, to signify that with us there is no plurality of Gods. Wherefore he keeps hold continually of this word, “One;” saying, “There is no God but One; and, to us there is One God, and One Lord.” From which it is plain, that to spare the weakness of the hearers he used this mode of explanation, and for this reason made no mention at all of the Spirit. For if it be not this, neither ought he to make mention of the Spirit elsewhere, nor to join Him with the Father and the Son. For if He be rejected from the Father and Son, much more ought He not to be put in the same rank with them in the matter of Baptism; where most especially the dignity of the Godhead appears and gifts are bestowed which pertain to God alone to afford. Thus then I have assigned the cause why in this place He is passed over in silence. Now do thou if this be not the true reason, tell me, why He is ranked with Them in Baptism? But thou canst not give any other reason but His being of equal honor. At any rate, when he has no such constraint upon him, he puts Him in the same rank, saying thus: (2 Cor. 13:14.) “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with you all:” (Homily 20 on 1 Cor)

There are a lot of lessons here, like “don’t mess with a guy named Golden-Mouth,” and “don’t try to be more Trinitarian than Paul.” It’s also important to consider everything an author wrote, and to give him credit for affirming the full range of truth he eventually gets to, without supposing that he has to say everything everywhere all at once. In my book (which buy), I point out several key passages of Scripture in which Father and Son are the topic, but the Holy Spirit is left unmentioned. These passages are written by reliable authors like Paul, John, and the Holy Spirit himself in person not talking about himself constantly. Not a Binitarian among them.

And no need to brandish that word, either, unless you hear somebody actively denying the deity, or the distinct personality, of the Holy Spirit. If they do that, they’re probably a Binitarian, so have at it. Set about them (rhetorically I mean, in love). But for most Christians, there are gentle and helpful ways of directing them to pay more attention to the person and work of the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, who sovereignly imparts life even to our speech about him.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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