The Doctrine of the Trinity and Acts 5:3, 4
HAROLD L. FLEMINGS
Not infrequently, members of Jehovah's Witnesses are directed to
Acts 5:3, 4 as evidence that the holy spirit is God.1
Acts 5:3, 4 reads as follows:
"But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God*". (Revised Standard Version)
In the first instance, Peter spoke of Ananias as lying to the "Holy Spirit" and in the second he spoke of Ananias lying to "God". Therefore, it is argued, God and the Holy Spirit must be one and the same being. Jehovah's Witnesses reply that this is not necessarily the case for the reasons that are now presented.
There are numerous instances in both the Hebrew and Christian Greek Scriptures where the following principle applies: Actions by, for or against "A" are logically equivalent to actions by, for or against "B". This paper will demonstrate that this principle can also apply to Acts 5:3, 4.
At 1 Samuel 12:1, we find:
"Samuel said to all Israel, ‘I have listened to everything you said to me and have set a king over you.’"
At verse 13, the account continues with Samuel saying:
"Now here is the king you have chosen, the one you asked for, see, the LORD has set a king over you. (New International Version)
One verse tells us that "Samuel" set a king over Israel, while the other verse relates that "the LORD" set a king over Israel. Probably no one would seriously argue that this means that Samuel is "the LORD", only that Samuel’s act of setting a king over Israel was equivalent to God doing the very same thing.
The anointing of David, son of Jesse, provides another clear example. At 1 Samuel 10:1, we note:
"Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, ‘Has not the LORD anointed you leader over his inheritance?’" (NIV)
1 Samuel 16:13 adds:
"So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. Samuel then went to Ramah." (NIV)
Again, 2 Samuel 5:3 relates:
"When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the King made a compact with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David King over Israel." (NIV)
Finally, at 2 Samuel 12:7:
"Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you King over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul."
Did Samuel anoint David or did Jehovah anoint David? Those involved in installing David as King over Israel were acting for Jehovah God; their acts were equivalent to God performing these acts. Clearly, no one should conclude that these passages are evidence that Samuel and Jehovah are one and the same being, because they are both described as performing the very same act. No, the principle that we proposed at the outset applies here.
At Philippians 3:6, the Apostle Paul, also called Saul, wrote:
"...as for zeal, [I was] persecuting the church..." (NIV)
But at Acts 9:5, in an exchange between Paul and Jesus, Jesus stated that he was the one Paul was persecuting:
"‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied." (NIV)
Of course, Jesus was not literally persecuted by Paul but Paul’s action against the Christian Church was equivalent to action against Jesus; by persecuting the church, he was persecuting Jesus.
Who led Israel out of Egypt en route to Canaan? Looking first at Exodus 32:33, 34, we discover:
"The LORD replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you..." (NIV)
Later, at Nehemiah 9:11, 12, some faithful Levites said this about Jehovah:
"You divided the sea before [Israel]... By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take."
The Psalmist at Psalm 77:20 similarly wrote of Jehovah:
"You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron."
Did Moses lead Israel? Did the assigned angel lead Israel? Did the pillar of cloud lead Israel? The answer to all of the questions is "yes".
Let us consider one final examcle. The passage at Numbers 14:2 reads:
"And all the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron..." (Revised Standard Version)
Later in verses 26 and 27:
"And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘How long shall this wicked congregation murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel, which they murmur against me.’" (Revised Standard Version)
Here murmuring against Moses and Aaron was the same as murmuring against God.
Returning to our subject text of Acts 5:3, 4, the analogy to the cited examples can be readily seen: lying to the holy spirit was the same as lying to God. But as can be seen from the examples, this does not make the two parties a unity of beings but a unity in connection with a described action. To argue that Acts 5:3, 4 establishes that God and the holy spirit are one and the same being is like saying that Numbers 14:2, 26 and 27 establishes that Moses and Aaron are also God.
Notwithstanding what has been presented, some have argued that lying against the holy spirit effectively ordains that the holy spirit, at the very least, is a person since, it is asserted, only a person could be lied to. You cannot lie to a "thing", only a person. This counter cannot be ignored.
In Biblical discourse, it is not unusual to find personality ascribed to abstractions and inanimate things. This is art in language; a feature as indigenous to Biblical Hebrew and Greek as it is to English. Observe the following verses:
"If my land cries out against me and all its furrows are wet with tears, if I have devoured its yield without payment or broken the spirit of its tenants, then let briars come up..." (NIV)
"Therefore say to them, ‘This is the nation that has not obeyed the LORD its God or responded to correction. Truth has perished..." (NIV)
"Should I lie against my right?" (King James Version)
"But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee..." (King James Version)
Few of us would be inclined to argue that because the land "cries out", the furrows are "wet with tears", truth and money "perish", that these things must be persons since only persons could experience these. Even so, the contrary argument is made for the holy spirit at Acts 5:, 4 by committed Trinitarians.
Perhaps no scripture challenges the Trinitarian view like James 3:14.2 Let’s see how the verse has been translated:
"But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth." (RSV)
"But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth." (KJV)
Now it is plain to see if one can lie against the truth without the truth being a person, one can lie against the holy spirit without the holy spirit being a person.
We have established that using Acts 5:3, 4 to prove that the holy spirit is God is misleading, if not dishonest.
1. One example is found in the Seventh Day Adventist publication, God's Channel
of Truth - Is it the Watchtower? by E.B. Price, p. 95: "Yes, in Acts 5:3 and 4
Peter accuses Ananias of lying to the Holy Spirit, explaining that this is lying
2. See an interesting discussion on the use of James 3:14 in connection with Acts 5:3, 4 in Nelson Herle's The Doctrine of the Trinity - Examined in the Light of History and the Bible, p. 87.