Metonymy and the Holy Spirit
by Bill Wong
The Trinity doctrine basically uses any verse with the word ‘spirit’ to say it must be pertaining to the Holy Spirit as the 3rd person in a Trinity. However, this is reading into the Scripture to interpret it according to a bias and is misleading and incorrect in two significant ways.
The first is the very meaning of the word spirit. Spirit can not only mean a supernatural being, but it also has many other meanings which most times are the primary usage: breath, supernatural essence or substance, the core principle of something, the mind of something, and the character or disposition of something. So many times the word spirit does not mean a supernatural being at all. For instance, God is composed of holy spirit. A Trinity doctrine ignores this fact.
Ignoring this, to support their belief, the Trinity doctrine then goes on to say that the Holy Spirit is called God and is therefore a 3rd person of a triune godhead. One can only arrive at the Holy Spirit being called God and a 3rd person if they are already predisposed to that idea.
But the truth is the reverse. There is a difference – a big difference.
The Lord Jesus tells us that His holy father, God, is a spirit (John 4:24). God is holy. Hence, God is a holy spirit. Since His father is the Almighty God, it is safe to say He is the Holy Spirit. It is an appropriate name and description for Him, because that is what He is and the Bible uses it as a name for God.
The term holy spirit is merely a descriptor or title of God. It is a metonym for God.
The second issue is that a Trinity doctrine ignores the use of metonymy.
This is the definition of metonymy:
A figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated – Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
An example: "The throne" issued an edict instead of "the king and queen" issued an edict.
If what the Trinity doctrine says is true, then the term Almighty or Holy One of Israel can be called other persons in the Godhead. But we know the Almighty and Holy One of Israel mean the same, but are merely different names for God which describe Him and His attributes.
Some examples of metonymy:
In Matthew 12, we read:
31 Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.
32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit,
it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come
(also in Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10)
Comment: Though a Trinity doctrine believes the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit to be co-equal, it does recognize there exists a hierarchy with the Father coming first, then the Son, then the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if blasphemy against even the Lord Jesus can be forgiven, is the unpardonable sin really directed at the Holy Spirit, the third person in the Trinity? Or is Holy Spirit in reality just a metonym for the Father – God, who comes first in the hierarchy?
The weight of the Bible says that the Father is above all and it does not matter if a Trinity doctrine believes it is only by relational position. The reference to the Holy Spirit here is a metonym for the Father Himself, because by Christ’s own admission many times and the context of the verses themselves, indicate that the Lord is referring to one who is greater than Himself who we must not blaspheme. This would be His Father.
The Lord Jesus is warning us not to do what Job was able to refrain from doing – cursing or blaspheming God, who is our heavenly Father. The enemy (Satan) wanted Job to curse God, but Job did not:
11 But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face."
22 Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.
5 However, put forth Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse You to Your face."
9 Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!"
10 But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women speaks.
Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
In Acts 28, we read:
24 Some were being persuaded by the things spoken, but others would not believe.
25 And when they did not agree with one another, they began leaving after Paul had spoken one parting word,
"The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers,
'GO TO THIS PEOPLE AND SAY,
"YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND;
AND YOU WILL KEEP ON SEEING, BUT WILL NOT PERCEIVE;
27 FOR THE HEART OF THIS PEOPLE HAS BECOME DULL,
AND WITH THEIR EARS THEY SCARCELY HEAR,
AND THEY HAVE CLOSED THEIR EYES;
OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT SEE WITH THEIR EYES,
AND HEAR WITH THEIR EARS,
AND UNDERSTAND WITH THEIR HEART AND RETURN,
AND I WOULD HEAL THEM."
28 Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen."
This portion of Acts 28 quotes directly from Isaiah 6:9-10. In Isaiah 6 we find that the one who speaks to Isaiah is the LORD of Hosts:
1 In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple.
2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet,
and with two he flew.
3 And one called out to another and said,
"Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts,
The whole earth is full of His glory."
4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.
5 Then I said,
"Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts."
Comment: The LORD of Hosts is another name for God, our Heavenly Father, who is above all. The LORD (word ‘lord’ in capital letters) represents the name of God which is YHWH. So the reference in Acts 28:25 to "The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers” means it is the LORD of Hosts – the Father, who speaks. And therefore, the Holy Spirit is a metonym for the Father, God, just like the LORD of Hosts is.
In Hebrews 3, we read:
6 but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house--whose house we are,
if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.
7 Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says,
"TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE,
8 DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS AS WHEN THEY PROVOKED ME,
AS IN THE DAY OF TRIAL IN THE WILDERNESS,
9 WHERE YOUR FATHERS TRIED Me BY TESTING Me,
AND SAW MY WORKS FOR FORTY YEARS.
10 THEREFORE I WAS ANGRY WITH THIS GENERATION,
AND SAID, 'THEY ALWAYS GO ASTRAY IN THEIR HEART,
AND THEY DID NOT KNOW MY WAYS';
11 AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH,
'THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST.'
This is quoted from Psalm 95:
6 Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.
7 For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand
Today, if you would hear His voice,
8 Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
As in the day of Massah in the wilderness,
9 When your fathers tested Me,
They tried Me, though they had seen My work.
10 For forty years I loathed that generation,
And said they are a people who err in their heart,
And they do not know My ways.
11 Therefore I swore in My anger,
Truly they shall not enter into My rest.
Comment: Hebrews 3:6-11 is quoting from Psalm 95. Verse 7’s reference to the Holy Spirit speaking (“Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says,”) means it is the Father, God, who is speaking, because it is God who is called the LORD our maker, who was resisted 40 years in the wilderness. It was not a third person in a Trinity that guided the people of Israel in the wilderness. Again, we see that the Holy Spirit is a metonym for God, our heavenly Father.
In Hebrews 10, we read:
14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,
16 "THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THEM
AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD:
I WILL PUT MY LAWS UPON THEIR HEART,
AND ON THEIR MIND I WILL WRITE THEM,"
He then says,
17 AND THEIR SINS AND THEIR LAWLESS DEEDS I WILL REMEMBER NO MORE."
18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.
From Jeremiah 31:
33 "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD,
"I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
34 "They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,'
for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity,
and their sin I will remember no more."
Comment: Hebrews 10:14-18 quotes from Jeremiah 31:33-34. There is no doubt that it is the Father, God – the LORD, who speaks in Jeremiah. He is the one who will write the law in the hearts of His people. In Jeremiah it is abundantly clear that God Himself speaks by using the pronoun "I" and He further identifies Himself by using His name YHWH (the LORD). Again, the Holy Spirit is seen to be merely a metonym (another name) for the Father Himself, because Hebrews 10:15 makes it clear that the Holy Spirit spoke in Hebrews 10:16-17, but we see it is the LORD who actually speaks in Jeremiah 31:33-34. The LORD is the Holy Spirit, because He is holy and He is spirit.
In Acts 7, we read:
48 However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says:
51 You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit;
you are doing just as your fathers did.
55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God,
and Jesus standing at the right hand of God;
Comment: In Acts 7 we see an example of two ways the term 'holy spirit' is used.
Firstly, in verse 48, God is called the ‘Most High’. Then in verse 51, God is called the ‘Holy Spirit’ (verse 51 alludes to what we discussed in item #3 above where Israel resisted God). Verses 48 and 51 both use metonyms – other names for God, and refer to the same person.
Secondly, in verse 55, Stephen is filled with holy spirit. Please note very importantly here, that Stephen only sees the Father and Son in heaven. There is no 3rd person anywhere. If such a 3rd person exists and is within Stephen, why can it not also be in heaven if it is supposedly co-equal and therefore should be omnipresent? The Bible truth of the matter is that holy spirit is not a 3rd person at all. Holy spirit can be used as both another name for God or metonym, and the essence or power of God – this is what filled Stephen and was poured out upon the believers like tongues of fire in the upper room on Pentecost.
We have given only a few examples of the way metonymy is used in the Bible. It is important to remember that God is a spirit and therefore His substance is also spirit (as a man is composed of flesh), and God is holy. Therefore, calling God a holy spirit or the Holy Spirit does not suddenly create a 3rd person in a Godhead.
It would be no different than the fact that another person is not in view or created if we called Martin Luther King, Jr. a great man. He was great (God is holy) and he was a man (God is spirit). Referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. as the great man does not make “the Great Man” suddenly another person. It is obviously just describing or being used as another name for him. And this is the exact same way holy spirit is used when it describes God or is used as another name for Him.
The earnest believer must fight for the faith once for all given to the saints (Jude 1:3). This means we must fight for truth and not be deceived by the ideas and traditions of men which cloud God’s truth. We must seek God’s Truth – the Bible truth. It alone can set us free. Blessed are those who do not add to His truth and turn it into a lie.