Christian tradition starts speaking of the Spirit by saying that the Holy Spirit is God, based on the Bible.
The Spirit has the attributes of God :
Not only is the Holy Spirit is God, the Spirit is a full person of the Trinity. What is meant by that? (Forgive me for talking strange here, but this is about the Holy Spirit, the One that can least be described by words.) The Spirit is an 'I', able to take action and cause action. The Spirit is able to be a 'we' with other 'I's. The Spirit can be addressed as 'you' by other 'I's (such as you and me), and can respond as an 'I'. Thus, when we say, "Come, Holy Spirit", the Spirit can come, not as if on command, but as promised.
In a Barna survey in 1997, 61% of US residents surveyed agreed with the statement that the Holy Spirit is "a symbol of God's presence or power, but is not a living entity". Even more: that answer was held by a majority or near-majority of those in most every Christian denominational family, including mainline Protestants and evangelical Christians, and was most common in non-whites and young people. It's not a new view. There were differences early on which the Church's thinkers probed and prodded and discussed at length. Back in the days of the early church, some held that the Holy Spirit was an 'emanation' of God the Father. Others thought of the Spirit in the same terms as the Talmudic discussions on the divine Shekinah (Presence), as an expression of what Christians call the 'Father'. Those are not far off, they're just describing part of a larger picture, like speaking of an elephant by describing its ears without reference to its trunk, tusks, or thick legs.
The Bible shows that the Holy Spirit is a person and is God :
The Holy Spirit is not a mere symbol of anything. No mere symbol is able to:
Thus, the proper question is not "What is the Holy Spirit?" but "Who is the Holy Spirit?". Yet the Spirit doesn't always seem so personal in a given situation, and that may be the Spirit's choice. More importantly, it matters little how you ask the question and a lot more that you ask, for a lot hinges on the asking. God already knows what you meant.
As God, the Holy Spirit can act in whatever manner the Spirit wants to act. The Spirit generally acts through the church, but doesn't have to; the Wind blows where it will. The Spirit is free not to always be seriously focused on those purposes; the Spirit can have fun while at work.
This is all stuff that can't be true of a mere (or even
'The') Force. That is how we often experience the Spirit and know of the
Spirit's presence, but that is not what the Spirit is. As God, the
Holy Spirit is cause, and that cause has effect. Yet, there are those in the Christian churches who reduce the Holy Spirit
to a force, or to a collective will or sum of all spirits, or a living memory of the gathered believers, or
the force of emotion or conscience within a person. Those people, fine as
they may be, are describing a different spirit than
the Holy Spirit as viewed by the Christian faith. The Spirit works in ways that seem like each of
these ways and more, yet against all of them at times. The Holy Spirit works in whatever ways are needed to do what needs to be done, except in choosing not to take forceable control of people's actions. The Spirit is at work leading all of us toward Christ, whether from inside or from outside. Thus, we must not be quick or harsh when correcting each other, lest we get in the Spirit's way.
Back To Top
Doctrine on the Holy Spirit is difficult to speak about, because it defies normal theo-logical definition. All activity of God in earthly or churchly life is by the Spirit. Without the Spirit, the Bible would be a closed book to us, the sacraments would be mere ritual, our lives would not be inspired to change with redirection and growth in Christ. Our churches would fail to be a fellowship and would not be knit together as a body. In a sense, we talk around the Spirit rather than on the Spirit; we describe the effects but not the nature. Yet, since we can't comprehend any of God's work on earth without the Spirit, we cannot engage in theo-logy without talking theo-illogically about the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit does not bear witness of itself but of Christ - which of course makes the Spirit even harder to understand. The Spirit does not physically do anything. All action happens through the physical world's beings and activities. So it's easy to mistake the Spirit's work for our own work, or that of other people or of nature or science or society -- and vice versa. Easy, but crucially wrong. Barth described the Spirit as "the subjective reality of revelation".
The early Eastern Orthodox teachers put it this way: the 'face' of the Father is revealed by the Son; the 'face' of the Son is revealed by the Spirit. Notice: there is no Person who reveals to us the 'face' of the Spirit. The shape of the Spirit's 'face' is recognizable only by way of the unseen Spirit itself, working through the the Scriptures in revealing Jesus. Even the Scriptural witness to the Spirit as a vigorous and powerful entity is not direct, visible, or clear. The Spirit, after all, is who makes the Bible so useful in revealing faith matters. The Scriptural witness is to the presence, activity, and effect of the Spirit -- a second-hand report of the 'face' as seen in a fog bank. If we are to look in Scripture for the Spirit's 'face', it's best found in the same source that best reveals the Father -- Jesus. For it is Jesus who is God-with-us, God at His most tangible and most detailed. Even that, however, is indirect, for Jesus is not the same Person as the Spirit. This leaves the followers, the 'church', or 'Body', of Christ, formed by the Spirit -- but that comes in countless shapes, and is often far from living in a way that reflects the Triune God. Thus, the mist remains. We are left to probe, try, test, ponder, and ultimately just live in the mystery of the Spirit.
The key way of giving the Holy Spirit grief is malice, which is shown as bitterness, rage, anger, clamor (making lots of noise and disruption), and slander. Paul follows this description by what makes for a happy Holy Spirit: forgiving others as, in Christ, God forgave you.
In the Bible, the main image used of the Spirit is that of wind or breath (Heb. ruach; Gk. pneuma; -> Latin spiritus).
We can know when the wind is there, for it blows against us, chills the skin, leaves windburn, or blasts us with desert sand. We do not see it, yet we can feel its direct action, its unseen force on us, as we lean against it or move with its help. We can see the wind's effects on the sands that it blows into dunes, or snow that it piles up as drifts, or sailing ships it makes to glide over the sea. Wind can act with terrible force concentrated in a moment, such as with a hurricane or tornado, and then be gone in the next moment.
Breath moves in and out of the lungs through the mouth and nose; its moisture is seen vaguely in cold weather, just as the Holy Spirit is often most visible when things are spiritually cold and we most need to see some sign of life. Our breath operates all the time, so steadily that we don't normally even notice it. Breath brings the oxygen we need, and sends out the carbon dioxide that would kill us if we didn't get rid of it. When breath is no more, so are we. Thus each breath is an unseen grace, bearing the unseen power of visible life.
In the Bible, the Holy Spirit has intellect, passions, and will, and can be grieved. In short, the Holy Spirit has a personality. The Spirit reflects the will and the thoughts of the Father, and brings them to us in many ways, most central of which is the Holy Scriptures.
The Spirit shows up in the Old Testament (OT), especially in the prophets' books.
In the main OT Jewish way of looking at it, the Spirit was a life force
or energy of God, the operational side of what a Christian would term "the
Father", rather than a Person in the Trinitarian sense. A psalmist
speaks of God's 'Spirit' acting in a personal way (Psalm 143:10), but the use of 'spirit' there is probably
another way to say 'God' (Hebrew poetry uses many ways to say the same or
similar things). Isaiah and Ezekiel give hints toward envisioning the person-ness
of the Spirit, but it is not until the writings between the testaments that
this vision takes on a clearer shape, and not until Christ that it is given
its full dimension.
More on the Spirit's presence and work.
More on the Holy Spirit:
"We do not need to wait for the Holy Spirit to come: he came on
the day of Pentecost. He has never left the church."
------ John Stott, "Setting the Spirit Free" (*Christianity Today*, 12 Jun 1981, p.21)
"In Luke ... receiving the Holy Spirit is the way that those who
already believe in Christ are empowered to serve Him. .... It's more important
to focus on how one lives the Spirit-filled life than on a rigid formula
for receiving it.... Receiving the Spirit in the Lucan sense is not a one-time
event, but an ongoing way of life."
------ Larry Christenson (attrib.)
"the Spirit has his own existence and personal function in the inner
life of God and the economy of salvation: his task is to bring about the
unity of the human race in the Body of Christ, but he also imparts to this
unity a personal, and hence diversified, character."
------ John Meyendorff, *The Orthodox Church*, p.197
"The work of the Spirit is the bringing to be of the vision of God....the
capacitating of persons to 'see visions' and 'dream dreams'. .... The birth
of the Church is the beginning of the End. ..... The Kingdom of God as the
miracle of ocular newness when 'the blind see' makes its impact on history
in the creation of a visionary
community . [[The tongues were]] the language of the world to
come... Therefore in this birth of the Church, the risen and ascended Lord
takes to himself a Body on earth with eyes opened by the Spirit to see the
------ Gabriel Fackre, *A Christian Story*, p.157-8, The Descended Spirit
Why should the children of a king
Go mourning all their days?
Great Comforter, descend and bring
Some tokens of your grace.
Do you not dwell in all your saints,
And seal the heirs of heaven?
When will you banish my complaints,
And show my sins forgiven?
Assure my conscience of her part
In the Redeemer's blood;
And bear your witness with my heart,
That I am born of God.
You are the earnest of his love,
The pledge of joys to come;
And your soft wings, celestial Dove,
Will safe convey me home.
"Spell this out in capital letters: THE HOLY SPIRIT IS A PERSON. He is not
enthusiasm. He is not courage. He is not energy. He is not the personification
of all good qualities, like Jack Frost is the personification of cold weather.
Actually, the Holy Spirit is not the personification of anything...... He has
individuality. He is one being and not another. He has will and intelligence.
He has hearing. He has knowledge and sympathy and ability to love and see
and think. He can hear, speak, desire, grieve and rejoice. He is a Person."
------ A. W. Tozer, *The Counselor*
"The Holy Spirit, object of faith, is also an object of prayer :
we must not only pray that we receive the Holy Spirit. We must pray to him."
------ Karl Barth, *The Faith Of the Church*
Every time we say, "I believe in the Holy Spirit," we mean that
we believe that there is a living God able and willing to enter human personality and change it.
------ J. B. Phillips, *Plain Christianity*
Thy Holy Spirit, Lord,
can bring the gifts we seek in prayer;
His voice can words of comfort speak
and still each wave of care.
*Thy Holy Spirit, Lord, Alone*, v. 3, by Henrietta Blair
Thinking about God the Holy Spirit? Try these pages :
Email me ||
get verbed ||
Facebook page ||
the Holy Spirit in Bible authors|
about Spirithome.com || Christian basics || subject index.
If you like this site, please link to it and tell others about it --
|ver.: 09 August 2012|
Welcome, Holy Spirit. Copyright © 1995-2012 by Robert Longman.