Who Is the Holy Spirit?
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, such as :
- eternal, having neither beginning nor end (Hebrews 9:14),
- omni-potent, having all power (Luke 1:35);
- omni-present, being everywhere at the same time (Psalm 139:7); and
- omni-scient, understanding all matters (1 Corinthians 2:10,11).
Not only is the Holy Spirit 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 words are least able to describe.) 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 1997 Barna survey, 61% of surveyed US residents agreed with the statement that the Holy Spirit is "a symbol of God's presence or power, but is not a living entity". A majority or near-majority of those in almost every Christian denominational family saw it that way, including mainline Protestants and evangelical Christians. It was most commonly held that way by non-whites and young people. It's a view with ancient roots. 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 Divine Wind in the same terms as the Talmudic discussions on the divine Shekinah (Presence), as an expression of what Christians call the 'Father'. Those views are not far off, but they're just describing part of a larger picture. It's like speaking of an elephant by describing its ears without reference to its trunk, tusks, or thick legs.
The Holy Spirit In the Bible
The Bible shows that the Holy Spirit is a person and is God :
- the Spirit's work in the Old Testament is closely identified with the Word of YHWH spoken by the prophets (this was affirmed by the early church in 2 Peter 1:21, and in the Creeds).
- the close ties between Jesus' mission and the work of the Spirit (see the work of the Holy Spirit).
- the close ties between the mission of the apostles and the work of the Spirit; esp. see 1 Peter 1:12.
- The episode with Hananiah (Ananias) in Acts 5, where first, Peter says that Hananiah lied to the Holy Spirit, then later says that he lied not to men but to God.
- The trinitarian baptismal formula found in Scripture (Matt 28:19): "in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". It dates to the church's earliest days.
- Jesus made a habit of confronting traditions with "box-breaking" actions. He ate with tax collectors and other scorned people. He turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple. He talked to the woman at the well. He healed the occupier-centurion's daughter. The Holy Spirit does the same kind of thing in Acts, and ever since.
- In Acts 9:31, it is said that the church lived and grew not only in the fear of the Lord, but in the comfort of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit As a Person
The Holy Spirit isn't a mere symbol of anything. No mere symbol is able to:
- communicate ('speak') (Acts 13:2),
- intercede (step in on behalf of someone) (Romans 8:26),
- testify (John 15:26)
- guide (John 16:13),
- command (Acts 16:6,7),
- appoint (Acts 20:28),
- lead (Romans 8:14),
- reveal to someone how wrong, foolish, or sinful he/she was (John 16:8).
- seal God's promise in believers' hearts (Ephesians 1:13-14).
- live within a believing Christian (1 Corinthians 6:19).
- shape the life of each person and community to Christ's (Romans 8:1-17)
In the Bible, the 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.
Thus, the proper question is not "What is the Holy Spirit?" but "Who is the Holy Spirit?". Yet the Spirit doesn't always act so personal in a given situation, and that may be the Spirit's choice. Thus, the Spirit can be depicted in non-personal ways, such as wind and fire, and indeed Scripture itself does so. More importantly, it matters little how you ask the question and much more that you ask, for so much 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 Divine Wind is free not to always be seriously focused on those purposes; the Inspirer can have fun while at work.
Thus, to say it again, amidst all the haze and disguise: who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is a Person. The Holy Spirit is God. The Holy Spirit is at work in the world we live in, and within and/or on ourselves. In different ways, with different potency, with different effect, at different times, but most definitely here and at work.
No Mere Force
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 some who reduce the vibrant Unseen Spirit of God to:
- a force,
- a collective will,
- the sum of all spirits,
- a living memory of the gathered believers,
- the force of emotion or conscience within a person.
Those people, fine folks as they may be, are describing a different spirit than the Holy Spirit known by the Christian faith. The Holy Wind works in ways that seem like each of these ways and more, yet against all of them at times. The Holy Presence 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 each and 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.
Grieving the Spirit
We can cause the Holy Spirit grief. The main way to do that is malice, which shows itself though bitterness, rage, anger, clamor (making lots of noise and disruption), and slander. In malice, one acts with the purpose of doing harm. Paul follows this description by what makes for a happy Holy Spirit: forgiving others as, in Christ, God forgave you.
Imagery of the Unseen Spirit
In the Bible, the main image used of the Spirit of God is that of wind or breath. Hebrew ruach. Greek pneuma. And generations later, the Church used 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 don't 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 sand 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 calm in the next moment.
Breath moves in and out of the lungs through the mouth and nose. Its moisture is most seen in cold weather, just as the Holy Spirit is most easily seen when life is spiritually cold and we most need to see signs 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.
The Holy Spirit In the Old Testament
The Spirit shows up in the Old Testament (OT), especially in the prophets' books.
- The OT does not use Heb. nephesh (soul of earthly beings) to describe God. It uses Heb. ruach.
- ruach isn't treated as mediator between God and humans. The Holy Spirit is God at work, not a go-between. The word ruach means a movement of air (wind, breath)
- There are 'general' references to the Spirit of God, including several on the lips of a non-believer. When that happens, the term may have been used to mean 'divine spirit', a recognition that a god (whomever the god is) is at work, and some sort of power or authority beyond the usual is rather obviously causing things to happen.
- The Messiah is said by Isaiah to be specially endowed with God's spirit: Isaiah 11:2; 42:1; 61:1.
- The Spirit is seen as God's presence in the hearts of each believer: Psalm 51:11; Psalm 139:7.
- The Spirit sustains life (Psalm 104:29-30)
- In Ezekiel (37:9) and Isaiah (34:16; 48:16; 63:10), there is a hint of personality, unlike in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the main OT Jewish way of looking at it, the Divine Breath 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.
The Spirit Is Undefined, Yet Known
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 Holy Breath, 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 rather than 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 the Holy Spirit, but of Christ - which of course makes the Spirit even harder to understand. The Divine Breath does not physically do anything. All of the action we know about happens through the physical world's beings and activities. Just as Jesus incarnates God, the Spirit inspires material life, including us. So it's easy to mistake the Holy Ghost'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. Karl Barth described the Holy 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 Holy 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, working through the the Scriptures in revealing Jesus. Even the Scriptural witness to the Spirit as a vigorous and powerful entity is rarely direct, visible, or clear. The Inspiring 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 Holy 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, and operates in a different way. This leaves us with 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 live in the mystery.
[It's always a challenge to convey the definition-bursting, un-material, inside-out nature of the Third Person of the Trinity. So I use many different names. (That, and Google hates keyword-stuffing ;)) The main name is "Holy Spirit", or "the Spirit" for short. But there's also "Spirit Of God". Or the Germanic/older English term, "Holy Ghost". Or "Divine Breath", "Divine Wind", "Unseen Spirit", "Pneuma", or "Holy Breath". I try not to get too poetic, because this is not a poem. But there are poetic terms you can use. Divine creativity is boundless, and while ours falls short of that, it too is vast.]
More on the Divine Breath:
Quotes 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