What Is The Holy Spirit?

In discussions as to the identity of the holy Spirit, argumentation generally revolves around the issue of personality or a connection with a triune God. In some trinitarian presentations the text at Acts 5:3, 4, is used to show that the holy Spirit is God:

But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land? While you kept it, didn't it remain your own? After it was sold, wasn't it in your power? How is it that you have conceived this thing in your heart? You haven't lied to men, but to God."

In Acts 5:3 Ananias and Sapphira are said to have lied “to the holy Spirit” while in verse 4 they are said to have “lied to God.” These sources simply ignore all the cases in the Bible where an agency is spoken of as if doing what the person directing matters himself actually does. The Scriptures speak of Solomon as building the temple, yet they clearly show that he himself did not build it, did none of actual work. But it was his project, done at his direction, and so it is attributed to him. Similarly to lie to God is also to lie to his spirit and vice versa. But that does not make them interchangeable. We read that “God is light.” But we would not say “Light is God.” (1 John 1:5) So, too, we read that “God is love,” but that does not mean that “Love is God.” (1 John 4:8) Exodus 3:2-6 states that “an angel of the Lord [Jehovah]” appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Yet in subsequent verses it states that God called to Moses out of the bush. Was the angel Jehovah or is Jehovah an angel? Or was the angel simply an agency used by Jehovah? Which? (Compare similarly Genesis 16:7, 10.)

In Matthew’s account, Jesus is presented as saying to his accusers: ‘If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Luke renders the same expression as follows: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Luke 11:20) If the holy Spirit were indeed part of a triune God, co-equal with the Father, as taught in trinitarian theology, how could that Spirit possibly be designated simply as the “finger” of God?

1 Corinthians 12:11 and Hebrew 2:4 are sometimes cited as showing the holy Spirit has “will.” The expression “his will” in Hebrews 2:4 clearly refers to the will of God, mentioned at the start of the verse. As for 1 Corinthians 12:11, we may compare the expression “just as the Spirit chooses,” with Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus that “the wind blows where it chooses.” (John 3:8) We would not thereby understand the wind to be a person.

It is true that, as others point out, the holy Spirit is spoken of as speaking, teaching, guiding, being grieved, etc., etc. However, anyone who has read the Bible as a whole would realize that it is extremely common to personify objects and forces, pictorially describing them as acting AS IF they were persons, though they are not. Wilderness, dry land, desert are spoken of as being glad, rejoicing with joy and singing (Isaiah 35:1, 2), the earth and the mountains are called on to break forth in singing (Isaiah 49:13), the rivers clap their hands and the hills sing together for joy (Psalm 98: 7, 8), or, in an opposite way, the gates of Jerusalem lament and mourn, and the city sits ravaged upon the ground (Isaiah 3:26). Since Christ knew the Hebrew Scriptures perfectly, why should we think he would not use similar figurative expressions in his teaching?

In the book of Proverbs wisdom is spoken of as if it were a woman and far more is said about personified wisdom than is said about personified holy Spirit. She is said not only to speak, but to cry out, to raise her voice, exhorting people, extending her reproof as she offers to ‘pour out her thoughts to them, make known her words to them,’ but they reject her, ignore her counsel, despise her reproof; she laughs at and mocks them when disaster comes. (Proverbs 1:20-30) She also keeps and guards persons, can be loved and embraced. (Proverbs 4:5, 6, 8, 9) She has a mouth, lips, lives with prudence, attains knowledge, both loves and hates, has insight, strength, walks in paths of justice, gives wealth to persons, has a house with its gates and doors, where she slaughters animals, sets table, has daughters or servant girls, offers bread and wine. (Proverbs 8:1-21, 34; 9:1-6) Trinitarians often make up a list of things said about the holy Spirit which, they say, demonstrates its personality. The list about wisdom far, far exceeds such list.

And it is clear that that style of speaking, of personifying, was as true in the time of the writing of the Christian Scriptures as it was in the time of the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus we read at Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:35 that “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” is “vindicated by all her children,” essentially the same type of language as found in Proverbs. Trinitarians make much of texts of the holy Spirit speaking and seem to ignore that, not only the Spirit, but blood and water are spoken of as testifying and agreeing together. (1 John 5:6, 7) At Romans 10:6 it states that “the righteousness that comes from faith says,” and righteousness is not a person. That is why even the Catholic Dictionary says of the texts so often referred to as demonstrating the personality of the holy Spirit:

Most of these places furnish no cogent proof of personality.… We must not forget that the NT personifies mere attributes such as love (1 Cor. xiii:4), and sin (Rom. vii. 11), nay, even abstract and lifeless things, such as the law (Rom. iii.19), the water and the blood (1 Jn. v.8).

So we may ask, how different is it to speak of the holy Spirit as ‘guiding’ and to speak of wisdom as ‘reproving,’ ‘guarding’ and ‘keeping’? How different is it to speak of the holy Spirit as ‘being grieved’ and to speak of love as being ‘patient,’ ‘enduring,’ ‘not quick to take offense or be irritable?’ If one asks, how can something not a person be grieved, one must similarly ask how can something not a person (love) show patience, endure, refrain from being resentful or irritable? If the things said of the holy Spirit actually demonstrated its personality then, by the same token, the things said about wisdom and love would show that they are persons. On the spirit’s being “grieved,” do not we ourselves speak of “wounded pride”? That is why one finds so much of such reasoning superficial.

At John 16:7 Jesus said: “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor [or “Helper, “Comforter”] will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you.” In the various references to the holy Spirit as a “helper” or “comforter” and in most translations the pronouns “he” and “him” are used in the gospel account But the Greek term for “helper” or “comforter” (paraclete) is in the masculine gender and any reference to it by a pronoun has to be in the masculine gender. (Just as in Spanish where, for example, pencil (lapiz) is masculine and always takes the masculine pronoun él, even as “table” (mesa) is feminine and takes the feminine pronoun ella.) By contrast, the Greek term for “spirit” (pneuma) is neuter and always takes a neuter pronoun, even when reference is to the holy Spirit.

Why would Jesus say that it was advantageous that he go in order that the holy Spirit might come? One commentary (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, pages 156, 157) makes this observation on John 16:7:

Jesus told his disciples that his separation from them was to their best interest. As long as he was with them in person, his work was localized; and it would be impossible to communicate with them equally, at all times and in all places. The coming of the “Comforter” would equip them for a wider and more potent ministry.

As we know, by his ascension to heaven Jesus makes it possible for his followers to “have confidence to enter the sanctuary (of God’s presence) by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh),” and with him there as our high priest we can “approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:19,-22) Similarly, as the one ruling at God’s right hand, having been given“all authority in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18) he can send forth God’s holy Spirit in increased measure to his earthly servants. Fifty days after his resurrection, that holy Spirit was “poured out” on his disciples in a mighty demonstration of God’s presence and power. — Acts chapter 2.

That something not personal can be called a “comforter” is not unusual, as earlier examples have shown. Both sin and death, and also God’s loving kindness are spoken of at Romans 5:14, 17, 21; 6;12 as if rulers “reigning” over humankind (the term “reigned” renders the Greek ebasileusen, drawn from basileus, “king”).

What then, is the holy Spirit? Internationally-known Catholic scholar and professor at Tübingen University in Germany, Hans Küng refers to the holy Spirit as “the invisible power and might issuing from God.” This is somewhat similar to the Watch Tower organization’s definition of the holy Spirit as “God’s active force.” Where the Watch Tower errs is in making the holy Spirit, not simply not a person, but so very impersonal, even likening it to an impersonal electric current, etc. For similar reason Küng’s speaking of the Spirit simply in terms of “invisible power and might issuing from God” seems too limited to capture the full sense of the Spirit. It seems that some parallel at least could be drawn to Paul’s describing us as having “the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:16) We each manifest a certain spirit, though it may manifest various facets on certain occasions, a positive spirit or an angry spirit or whatever. But the basic spirit we manifest is reflective of us as persons, what we are, what is deep within us. So there is something very personal about our spirit, though it itself is not a person. So, too, with God’s spirit, or the spirit of his Son. (Romans 8:9) We can understand how the spirit can have power just by considering how this happens with humans and the spirit they show. To illustrate, there might be a group of people who got along well together, were tolerant, considerate with one another and so were at peace together. But if an individual having an aggressive, dogmatic, argumentative or quarrelsome spirit were to enter among them, it is possible that within a period of time they would be arguing and quarreling among themselves—because of being infected by his spirit. It is not something tangible or visible, yet it has power. The same is true in another direction. A group of persons might be depressed, feel incapable of doing anything, because of a negative attitude—in a word, dispirited. A person with a wholesome, positive spirit coming among them might soon result in their shedding their depression, beginning to feel energetic, with strength to do things again. Not only the power is evident but also the fact that the spirit in each case is very personal, not because of being a person but because of reflecting and emanating from a particular person.

In his merciful consideration of human weakness, Jehovah provided aids to faith for the Israelites. In their march from Egypt he caused a pillar of cloud to go before them on their journey by day and a pillar of fire to do so at night. (Exodus 13:21, 22) Those visible things served as evidence of God’s presence with them. When the tabernacle was set up the cloud covered it. It was understood by the Israelites that a divine light shone between the figures of the cherubim on the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy compartment of the tabernacle (and later the temple) giving illumination and symbolizing God’s empowering presence. (1 Samuel 4:4; Psalm 80:1) Christians have no earthly temple but themselves form a temple of God, founded on his Son as cornerstone. (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21) God’s holy Spirit is active toward them and fills them, guiding and empowering them. Expressions such as “the God of peace be with all of you,” and “the God of love and peace will be with you” (Romans 15:33; Philippians 4:9 and 2 Corinthians 13:11) undoubtedly are equivalent to expressing the wish that God’s holy Spirit be with them. The evidence of God’s being “with them” in this way is not evidenced by a pillar of cloud or of fire but by the fruitage that Spirit of God produces in their daily lives. (Galatians 5:22-25) They “live according to the Spirit,” and “set their minds on the things of the Spirit,” showing spiritual discernment and the “mind of Christ.” — Romans 8:5, 6; 1 Corinthians 2:14-16.

Since the Scriptures themselves present no detailed definition, we cannot pretend to know precisely in such areas. It does seem evident that having God’s spirit means not merely having some invisible power energize one, but results from the extent to which one comes to be in harmony with Him, to think and to feel as He does about matters, to have His outlook and feel moved to act in harmony with His own motivation or whatever term can be used to describe the driving force behind His actions and the carrying out of His will. (Compare Paul’s expressions at 1 Corinthians 5:3, 4; and 2 Corinthians 11:4.) That “motivation” is primarily love, which moved God to give his Son on our behalf, and which is the first element of the “fruitage” of God’s Spirit as described at Galatians 5:22. It seems clear that it is not merely power or force that produces that fruitage of love, joy, patience and similar qualities. It is more the influence of what God is and of our coming to know and love him for what He is.