Milton on the Holy Spirit
Scriptural Description of the Holy Spirit
John Milton (1608–1674), who is best known as the author of Paradise Lost, believed in a unipersonal God instead of the triune God of three persons or gods in one God of today’s orthodox Christianity. The following summaries Milton’s view of the Holy Spirit as presented in Milton on the Son of God and the Holy Spirit from His Treatise on Christian Doctrine (London, England: British & Foreign Unitarian Association, 1908). About 150 years would pass before Milton’s essay was published. Page numbers enclosed in parentheses are to the book referenced above. Biblical quotations are Milton’s translations. My comments are enclosed in brackets.
The Scriptures do not say in what manner the Holy Spirit, which is also “called the Spirit of the Father and the Son” (p. 109), exists or when it arose. “For though it be a Spirit, in the same sense in which the Father and Son are properly called Spirits; though we read that Christ by breathing on his disciples gave to them the Holy Ghost, or rather perhaps some symbols or pledge of the Holy Ghost, John XX. 22. — yet in treating of the nature of the Holy Spirit, we are not authorized to infer from such expressions, that the Spirit was breathed from the Father and the Son” (p. 109).
Milton notes, “The terms emanation and procession employed by theologians on the authority of John xv. 26, do not relate to the nature of the Holy Spirit” (p. 109). He adds that on a single statement (“the Spirit of truth who proceedeth [or goeth forth] from the Father” – John 15:16) is a weak foundation on which to base the nature of the Holy Spirit — especially since these words relate to the mission of the Holy Spirit and not to its or his nature (pp. 109-110). Moreover, nowhere do the Scriptures say that the Holy Spirit is generated or created or “is any other mode of existence specifically attributed to it in Scripture” (p. 110). [Thus, the Trinity Doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s nature or substance is based on nothing more than pure speculation.]
First, Milton examines Spirit in the Old Testament. He remarks, “The name of Spirit is also frequently applied to God and angels, and to the human mind” (p. 110). The Spirit sometimes “signifies God the Father himself — as Gen. vi. 3, ‘my Spirit shall not always strive with man’; sometimes the power and virtue of the Father, and particularly that divine breath or influence by which everything is created and nourished” (p. 110).
Then, he notes that Spirit sometimes means an angle. For example, Isaiah 48:16 (“the Lord Jehovah and his Spirit hath sent me”) and Ezekiel 3:12 (“then the Spirit took me up”).
Sometimes, Spirit means Christ, “who according to the common opinion was sent by the Father to lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan” (p. 111). [Like Trinitarians, Milton believed that the Son existed before his conception and that the preexisting Son interacted at times with Israel.] To support this supposition, Milton cites Isaiah 63: 10, 11 (“they rebelled and vexed his Holy Spirit . . . where is he that put his Holy Spirit within them”).
Occasionally, Spirit “means that impulse or voice of God by which the prophets were inspired” (p. 111). An example is Nehemiah 9:30 (“thou testifiedst against them by thy Spirit in thy prophets”).
At other times, Spirit means “that light of truth, whether ordinary or extraordinary, wherewith God enlightens and leads his people” (pp. 110-111). Examples are Numbers 14:24, Nehemiah 9:20, and Psalms 51:11, 12 and 143:10. Then, Milton comments, “Undoubtedly neither David, nor any other Hebrew, under the old covenant, believed in the personality of that ‘good’ and ‘Holy Spirit,’
unless perhaps as an angel” (p. 112).
More particularly, Spirit “implies that light which was shed on Christ himself” (p. 112). Examples are Isaiah 11:2 (“the Spirit of Jehovah shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Jehovah”) and 42:1 (“I have put my Spirit upon him”), which compares with Acts 10:38 (“how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power”).
Additionally, Spirit is “used to signify the spiritual gifts conferred by God on individuals, and the act of gift itself” (p. 112). Then, Milton cites several supporting verses.
Concluding, Milton writes, “Nothing can be more certain than that all these passages, and many others of a similar kind in the Old Testament, were understood of the virtue and power of God the Father, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit was not yet given, nor believed in, even by those who prophesied that it should be poured forth in the latter times” (pp. 112-113).
Turning to the New Testament, Milton notes that “what is called the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of God, sometimes means the Father himself” (p. 113). Matthew 1:18, 20 (“that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost”) and Luke 1:35 (“the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God”) are examples.
Sometimes, Spirit “means the virtue and power of the Father” (p. 113). Luke 11:20 (“I cast out devils by the Spirit or finger of God”) and Romans 1:4 (“declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead”) are examples.
Milton notes that in many passages in the New Testament, phrases containing the word “Spirit” should “be understood of the power of the Father, than of the Holy Spirit himself” (p. 114). Examples are Hebrews 9:14, Luke 4:1 and 5:18 and Acts 1:2 and 10:38.
I am inclined to believe that the Spirit descended upon Christ at his baptism, not so much in his own name, as in virtue of a mission from the Father, and as a symbol and minister of the divine power. For what could the Spirit confer on Christ, from whom he was himself to be sent, and to receive all things? Was his purpose to bear witness to Christ? But as yet he was himself not so much as known. Was it meant that the Spirit should be then manifested for the first time to the church? But at the time of his appearance nothing was said of him or of his office; nor did that voice from heaven bear any testimony to the Spirit, but only to the Son. The descent therefore and appearance of the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove, seems to have been nothing more than a representation of the ineffable affection of the Father for the Son, communicated by the Holy Spirit under the appropriate image of a dove and accompanied by a voice from heaven declaratory of that affection. (pp. 114-115)Continuing, Milton notes that “the Spirit signifies a divine impulse, or light, or voice, or word, transmitted from above either through Christ, who is the Word of God, or by some other channel” (p. 115). Examples are Mark 12:36, Acts 1:16, and 28:25, Hebrews 3:7, 9:8, and 10:15, 2 Peter 1:21, and Luke 2: 25, 26. He adds “that these and similar passages cannot be considered as referring to the express person of the Spirit, both because the Spirit was not yet given, and because Christ alone, as has been said before, is, properly speaking, and in a primary sense, the Word of God, and the Prophet of the Church” (p. 116). Citing Hebrews 1:1, Milton concludes that God “did not speak by the Holy Spirit alone, unless the term be understood in the signification which I have proposed, and in a much wider sense than was subsequently attributed to it” (p. 116).
“Further, the Spirit signifies the person itself of the Holy Spirit, or its symbol” (p. 116). In Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, and John 1:32, a dove symbolizes the Spirit.
Lastly, the Spirit “signifies the donation of the Spirit itself, and of its attendant gifts” (p. 117). John 7:39, Matthew 3:11, Acts 1:5 and 11:16 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19 are examples.
Next, Milton asks who is this Holy Spirit, from where does he come, and what are his offices? He answers these questions by citing numerous passages where the Christ gives and the apostles give answers to these questions (pp. 118-119).
Then, Milton notes that the Spirit “is called the Spirit of the Father, the Spirit of God, and even the Spirit of Christ” (p. 119). He cites several verses to support this claim.
If it be the divine with that a doctrine which is to be understood and believed as one of the primary articles of our faith, should be delivered without obscurity or confusion, and explained, as is fitting, in clear and precise terms — if it be certain that particular care ought to be taken in everything connected with religion, lest the objection urged by Christ against the Samaritans should be applicable to us — “ye worship ye know not what,” John iv. 22 — if our Lord’s saying should be held sacred wherever points of faith are in question — “we know what we worship” — the particulars which have been stated seem to contain all that we are capable of knowing, or are required to know respecting the Holy Spirit, inasmuch as revelation has declared nothing else expressly on the subject. The nature of these particulars is such, that although the Holy Spirit be nowhere said to have taken upon himself any mediatorial functions, as is said of Christ, nor to be engaged by the obligations of a filial relation to pay obedience to the Father, yet he must evidently be considered as inferior to both Father and Son, inasmuch as he is represented and declared to be subservient and obedient in all things; to have been promised, and sent, and given; to speak nothing of himself; and even to have been given as an earnest (pp. 120-121).[Trinitarians have certainly ignored Milton’s advice and conclusions.]
[nowhere do the Scriptures] expressly teach the doctrine of his [the Holy Spirit’s] divinity, not even in the passages where his office is explained at large, nor in those where the unity of God is explicitly asserted, as in John xvii. 3, I Cor. viii. 4, etc., nor where God is either described, or introduced as sitting upon his throne, — if, further, the Spirit be frequently named the Spirit of God, and the Holy Spirit of God, Eph. iv. 30, so that the Spirit of God being actually and numerically distinct from God himself, cannot possibly be essentially one God with him whose Spirit he is (except on certain strange and absurd hypotheses, which have no foundation in Holy Scripture, but were devised by human ingenuity, for the sole purpose of supporting this particular doctrine) — if, wherever the Father and the Holy Spirit are mentioned together, the Father alone be called God, and the Father alone, omitting all notice of the Spirit, be acknowledged by Christ himself to be the one true God (pp. 121-122).Continuing, Milton states, “It seems exceedingly unreasonable, not to say dangerous, . . . believers should be required to receive a doctrine, represented by its advocates as of primary importance and of undoubted certainty, on anything less than the clearest testimony of Scripture” (p. 122).
Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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