In the Beginning Was the Spirit
The Third Person in Genesis 1
The most widely recited Christian creed, the Nicene Creed, confesses faith in the divine person of the Holy Spirit in its third article:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.
While every part of this confession about the Spirit is worthy of attention, the focus of this article is on the rich biblical truth communicated by the words “Giver of Life.”
By confessing the Holy Spirit to be the giver of life, the Nicene Creed ascribes to the Spirit the divine work of creation, acknowledging that the Spirit gave life to all things in the beginning. The Holy Spirit was active in the same work of creation that is also ascribed to the Father and the Son. In the first article of the Nicene Creed, Christians confess faith in the divine person of the Father, designating him as “Maker of heaven and earth.” In the second article, the faithful confess that Jesus, the Son of God, is the one “by whom all things were made.”
The Nicene Creed, then, attentive as it is to biblical categories, is a confession of faith in the triune God, who is the Creator of everything that exists that is not God. The creed presents the divine work of creation as an undivided work of all three persons of the Trinity. Therefore, throughout the rich history of Christian confession, Christians have affirmed that the Holy Spirit is the Creator of the world, along with the Father and the Son.
“The Holy Spirit is the Creator of the world, along with the Father and the Son.”
But what is the biblical basis for this confession of the Holy Spirit as giver of life? Furthermore, is there anything in particular about the person of the Holy Spirit in the work of creation that might enrich our worship and contemplation of the triune God? I hope to answer these questions by demonstrating from the Scriptures that the Holy Spirit is the perfecter of every undivided work of the triune God in the world, a truth that can be known, in part, by examining the biblical teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit in the Genesis account of creation.
Trinity in the Old Testament?
Before turning to Genesis, though, some may question the legitimacy of reading an Old Testament text in explicitly Trinitarian terms. After all, the doctrine of the Trinity could not be confessed by the people of God apart from the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and the subsequent apostolic testimony to these events contained in the New Testament. Therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity is New Testament doctrine, properly speaking.
That said, the doctrine of the Trinity belongs to the New Testament category of “mystery,” meaning that it is always true, once concealed, now revealed (Romans 16:25–26; Ephesians 1:9; 3:1–6). Since the one true and living God always has been the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — it should not surprise us to find in the pages of the Old Testament the revelation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Benjamin Warfield wisely stated that the Old Testament doctrine of the Trinity is like “a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted” (Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 2:141). The New Testament provides the necessary light to discern the location and beauty of the Trinitarian furniture that was there all along. With this in mind, we turn to the Genesis account of creation.
Holy Spirit in the Beginning
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). In the first moments of space/time/matter, the earth was not yet a suitable dwelling place for mankind or any other living thing the Lord God would make. It was “without form and void” (Genesis 1:2) because it was covered with darkness (no light) and water (no land). The six-day creation narrative tells of how God subdued the darkness and the water (in the first three days) and filled the newly formed heavens and earth with heavenly bodies and living things (in the last three days). At the end of the sixth day, God declares the finished work of creation to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31), a far cry from “without form and void” at the beginning of the first day.
For our purposes, the most important observation is the fact that this six-day work of creation was brought to completion according to a specific pattern of divine operation: God worked through his Word and by his Spirit. As such, the Holy Spirit is portrayed as the perfecter of the divine work of creation.
Hovering Over the Wasteland
Though the earth is “without form and void” at the beginning of day one, we are given hope that the earth will not remain in this condition for long. “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The Hebrew word translated “hovering” (rachaf) is instructive here. This same verb is used only one other time in the Pentateuch. In Deuteronomy 32, Moses says that the Lord’s presence with Israel in the wilderness was “like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters [rachaf] over its young” (Deuteronomy 32:11). Strikingly, the wilderness is described as a “wasteland” one verse earlier (Deuteronomy 32:10), and “wasteland” is the same Hebrew word translated as “without form” in Genesis 1:2 (tohu).
“By the work of the hovering Spirit, God is going to tame the darkness and the water of the chaotic earth.”
Each of these Hebrew words (rachaf and tohu) occurs only in Genesis 1:2 and Deuteronomy 32:10–11 in the entire Pentateuch. It is remarkable that they occur together in the same context both times. This kind of linguistic correspondence, especially in texts from the same author, is not mere coincidence. Rather, Moses is teaching us to read these two accounts in light of one another. When Genesis 1:2 reports that the “Spirit of God was hovering” over the darkness and the waters, we are to imagine a bird hovering over a nest where new life is brought forth. By the work of the hovering Spirit, God is going to tame the darkness and the water of the chaotic earth and bring forth life of many kinds.
‘And God Said’
But the picture is not yet complete. Creation is also brought about through the Word of God. Immediately after we read of the Spirit of God hovering, we are told, “And God said” (Genesis 1:3). This phrase is repeated on each of the six days of creation, with two occurrences of the phrase on days three and six. The point is clear: God creates through his Word. Christians who read the Old Testament Scriptures in light of the New Testament know the identity of the creating Word of God in Genesis 1. The apostle John declares,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1–3)
John goes on to declare that this same Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Word of God in Genesis 1 is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
In the light of later revelation, the Trinitarian furnishings of the creation account come into clear focus. God creates the heavens and the earth through his Word (“and God said”) and by his Spirit (“hovering over the face of the waters”). In fact, the Trinitarian pattern of divine operation is repeated with every creative utterance of God. The repeated pattern of divine speech, followed by the actualization of what is spoken, is a Trinitarian pattern. Consider the first creative utterance on day one: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). The words “God said” refer to the Father, who speaks forth his Word. The spoken words themselves, “Let there be light,” invite us to contemplate and adore the Son, the Word through whom the world was made. Finally, the statement “and there was light” invites us to worshipfully recognize the Holy Spirit hovering over the earth and bringing to completion the word of the Father.
This same Trinitarian pattern can be discerned in every divine utterance throughout the six-day work of creation. The work of creation is an undivided work of the triune God that follows the pattern of the eternal relations of the three persons: from the Father (“God said”), through the Son (“Let there be”), and by the Holy Spirit (“and there was”). Thus, the Spirit of God who hovers over the waters is the perfecter of this divine work.
Perfecter of Divine Works
By saying “perfecter,” I do not mean that the Spirit improves upon some deficiency in the work of the Father and the Son. Rather, I mean that he brings the undivided work of the triune God to completion.
In any divine work, we can speak of the Father as the beginning of the undivided work because this notion is fitting to his eternal identity as the source of the Son and Spirit. Similarly, we can speak of the Son as carrying forward the undivided work because this notion is fitting to his eternal identity as the Son of the Father. Finally, we can speak of the Holy Spirit as the one who perfects every undivided divine work because this notion is fitting to his eternal identity as the Spirit of the Father and the Son. In his magisterial work on the Holy Spirit, Pneumatalogia, John Owen beautifully articulates this truth:
Whereas the order of operation among the distinct persons depends on the order of their subsistence in the blessed Trinity, in every great work of God, the concluding, completing, perfecting acts are ascribed unto the Holy Ghost. . . . Indeed, without him no part of any work of God is perfect or complete. (Works of John Owen, 3:94)
The biblical portrayal of a threefold pattern in the undivided divine work of creation (and all other divine work in the world) is not merely a threefold manifestation of the work of a mono-personal deity. Rather, the threefold “order of operation” is the external revelation of the triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally.
Once we understand the Genesis account of creation in Trinitarian terms, we clearly perceive the place of the Holy Spirit as the perfecter of the divine work of creation. And since his place as perfecter owes to his eternal relation to the Father and the Son, we can expect to see the Spirit operating as the perfecter of every other divine work in the world. Furnished with this understanding, our worship and contemplation of the triune God is enriched so that we can all the more profitably confess with the church through the ages, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.”