There has been much misunderstanding about the holy spirit. The King James and some other versions of the Bible most often use the phrase “Holy Ghost” but the word “ghost” carries different connotations today, and most Christians generally prefer “Holy Spirit.” Most of mainstream Christendom believes that the holy spirit is a person, specifically the third person of the Trinity. I deal with the Trinity in relation to Who is Messiah in a Closer Look article. Historically the belief in the holy spirit as the third person was even later that the belief that Jesus was God. The deity of Christ became official doctrine in 325, while the holy spirit was not established as the third person of the Trinity until 381.
Most Christians think of the holy spirit as a person, partly because it is used with personal pronouns, such as “He,” “Him” and “Who” in most English Bibles. The words “he” and “him” are used because the Greek pronouns are masculine in gender. Greek, like many other languages, assigns gender to many inanimate objects, so the use of a masculine pronoun does not automatically make the noun a person. Since we don’t assign gender to inanimate objects in English, the masculine pronouns would be translated as “it” unless it was assumed that a person is referred to. Even in the King James Version, Romans 8:16 refers to “the spirit itself.” And the word translated “who” can also be translated “which,” as it is in a number of verses referring to “the spirit.”
Grammar aside, the Bible nowhere presents the holy spirit as a person. For one thing, it is never given a proper name. God’s proper name is given as Yahweh, and His Son’s name is Jesus. But the holy spirit is simply called the holy spirit. The epistles frequently include greetings from the Father and the Son. However, never do they give greetings “from the Holy Spirit.” Why would this be so if the holy spirit were a co-equal, co-eternal person?
Jesus instructed his disciples to pray to the Father, and to do it in his name. He told them to ask God to send His holy spirit. Never are we told to pray to the holy spirit, and “ask him to come into our hearts” as many do today. The spirit is poured forth by Jesus (Acts 2:33), and we are baptized in it (Acts 1:5). One cannot pour forth a person, or be baptized in a person. The spirit is described as the spirit of God or the spirit of Christ. Furthermore, Matthew 11:27 says that no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son. If the Holy Spirit were a third co-equal, co-eternal person, he would know the Father and the Son the same way they know each other. That would make this statement false. Matthew 24:36 says that no man knows the hour of Christ’s return, not even the Son, but only the Father. Paul wrote, “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ…” (II Timothy 4:1). John wrote in his first epistle that a person is antichrist if he denies the Father and the Son (I John 2:22-23). In his second epistle he wrote, “He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son” (II John 9). If the holy spirit is a third co-equal person, why is there no mention of him in verses like these?
The words “holy spirit” are generally capitalized in most writing, since they are understood to mean a person. The ministry with which I was involved believed that the holy spirit was not the third person of the Trinity, but they had an equally erroneous definition. They taught that The Holy Spirit (with capital letters and the definite article) is simply another name for God, while holy spirit (with lower case letters and no “the”) was God’s gift that He gave on Pentecost. Like the Trinitarian definition, this view of the holy spirit is read into Scriptures rather than being derived from them. Capitalizing “holy” and “spirit” or “ghost” in the English is a relatively recent device, which was not used in the earliest English translations. There was no capitalization in the Greek or Hebrew texts, so basing a difference in meaning on whether it is capitalized or not is forcing an interpretation on the Scriptures which has no foundation.
In actuality it doesn’t make much difference whether the phrase is capitalized, and even other Biblical Unitarians (those who believe God is one person and not a trinity) vary as to whether they capitalize it or not. Personally, I used to most often choose not to capitalize “holy spirit” to emphasize that it is not a person. But more recently I’ve leaned toward capitalizing phrases like “His Holy Spirit” the same way I would capitalize “His Word.” But this is a matter of choice, not of doctrine.
In addition, the article “the” is used sometimes and not others, and does not define a distinction as I was taught. One can introduce the subject as “holy spirit” and then refer back to it as the holy spirit. In grammar this is called anaphoric use of the article. In the same way I could say an angel appears, and then refer to him as the angel. There are a number of verses where the definite article is used, but clearly referring to the gift and not to God, while Matthew 1:18 and Luke 1:35 state that Jesus Christ was conceived by “holy spirit” (no article in the Greek). The idea that “The Holy Spirit” means God and “holy spirit” means His gift has no Biblical foundation.
There are some other cases where the article appears in English but not in Greek, such as Matthew 3:11, as well as all the other verses in which John’s baptism is contrasted with baptism “with [the] Holy Ghost.” John the baptist being “filled with [the] Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb” is another example, as well as several references to being filled with [the] holy spirit in Acts. In these cases it is true that the Greek reads “filled with holy spirit” (no article) and the word “the” is added in English. However there are a number of instances where the article does appear in the Greek, but it is plainly referring to the gift of holy spirit, not to God Himself. For example, when Jesus was baptized, it says that “the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him” (Luke 3:22). The Greek uses definite articles before both words, i.e., “the holy the spirit.” This form was supposed to indicate God the Giver according to my former belief system, but it is clearly not God Himself Who descended in bodily shape like a dove. Likewise, John 14:26 specifically refers to God’s gift, but uses the double article: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy the Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” Use of the definite article when it is referring to God’s gift can also be seen in Acts 10:44, 47; 11:15; 15:8; 19:6 as well as Ephesians 1:13 (literally, “sealed with the holy the spirit of promise”) and I Thessalonians 4:8 (literally, “…God, who hath also given unto us his the holy the Spirit.” Notice the double use of “the” along with the pronoun “his”).
John 7:39 uses both “the spirit” and “holy ghost” (no article) referring to the same thing. “But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for … Holy Ghost [KJV has "the Holy Ghost," but there is no article in the Greek] was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.” And you can see the same gift referred to, both with and without the article, in Acts 8:17-19, “Then laid they their hands on them, and they received … Holy Ghost [no "the"]. And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy the Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive … Holy Ghost” [no "the"]. So you can see that “holy spirit” and “the holy spirit” are interchangeable; there is no difference in meaning between the two phrases.
According to the doctrine I used to hold to, the gift of holy spirit was the “incorruptible seed” which gave me eternal life. It also included the God-given ability to walk in power. It was given by God, but once He gave it to me it was part of me, and I could do with it as I chose. Thus the emphasis was on “me” and “my” spirit, instead of on “God” and “His” spirit. There were said to be a number of different “usages” of the word pneuma, the Greek word for spirit. Interestingly, hardly anyone in that organization ever looked at how the Hebrew word for spirit, ruach, was used in the Old Testament. If they had, perhaps a simpler, more straightforward understanding of the Spirit of God would have been seen.
The words for “spirit” in both Greek and Hebrew do have a number of different meanings, but all relate to the basic idea of an invisible force or influence. In the Closer Look article about the State of the Dead, we looked at the difference between soul and spirit, and the Hebrew words used for each. There we saw that the breath (or spirit) of life is the unseen force that makes man a living soul. The word can also be used to refer to literal breath, as well as literal wind, or it can mean the “spirit of man” (Ecclesiastes 3:21; Zechariah 12:1) which is used interchangeably with “soul” and basically means one’s self. For example, When Job says “I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7:11), they are both ways of referring to the anguish in the inner depths of his being. It is also parallel to the word “heart.” For example, Psalm 77:6 – “I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search.” Also Psalm 143:4, “Therefore is my spirit overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate.” (See also Exodus 35:21; Deuteronomy 2:30; Psalm 34:18; 51:10,17 and others).
Just as the spirit of man refers to the man’s inner self, or his heart, in a similar manner God’s inner self or heart is called the spirit of God, or the spirit of the Lord. For example, in Genesis 6:3 God says, “My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh.” Isaiah 63:10 refers to rebellion “grieving God’s spirit.” To say “my spirit shall not always strive” is equivalent to saying “I will not always strive.” To say rebellion grieves God’s spirit is another way of saying that it grieves God. The spirit of God, being an extension of God’s heart and mind, has the same qualities of God. But this does not make it a separate person. Paul’s explanation in I Corinthians 2 clarifies this, by comparing the spirit of God with the spirit of man.
I Corinthians 2:
10 But God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit. For the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.
11 For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so no man knoweth the things of God, but the Spirit of God.
So the spirit of God is not a separate person from God, any more than my spirit is a separate person from me.
God’s spirit also refers to His presence. Psalm 51:10 (referenced above) refers to man’s spirit, and in the next verse, David linked God’s spirit with His presence: “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11). Psalm 139:7 also connects God’s spirit with his presence. “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” The very first occurance of spirit, in fact, illustrates that God was present in His creation. Genesis 1:2 reads, “…the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
The spirit of God has been called an “impersonal force” by some, mainly as a response to the Trinitarian belief that it is a person. However, this may not be the best word to use. It is more than an abstract power, since it is the operational presence and power of God. It is His heart and personality as communicated to His creation. Alan Richardson, in his Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1958, p. 120), desribes the holy spirit like this:
To ask whether in the New Testament the spirit is a person in the modern sense of the word would be like asking whether the spirit of Elijah is a person. The Spirit of God is of course personal; it is God’s dunamis [power] in action. But the Holy Spirit is not a person, existing independently of God; it is a way of speaking about God’s personally acting in history, or of the Risen Christ’s personally acting in the life and witness of the Church. The New Testament (and indeed patristic thought generally) nowhere represents the Spirit, any more than the wisdom of God, as having independent personality.
While the vast majority of references to the holy spirit can be seen to fit this definition, there are some verses which speak of the holy spirit in terms which could seem to be referring to a person. Jesus refers to speaking against the holy spirit in Matthew 12:31-32. Ephesians 4:30 speaks of grieving the holy spirit, and the spirit is said to speak in Revelation 2:17; 14:13; and 22:17. Throughout Acts, the spirit speaks, moves, and guides the believers as well. It is verses like these that Trinitarians use to prove that the holy spirit is a person. They are also why Bullinger, Wierwille and others thought that one “usage” of the term “holy spirit” must be a name or title for God Himself. But the holy spirit, being the power and presence of God, is an extention of Himself. So all of His characteristics, all of His actions, all of His words and will, are attributed to His spirit. Thus, to speak against the holy spirit is to speak against God, especially with reference to His working in the peoples’ presence (which is the context of the Lord’s warning about blaspheming against the holy spirit). When God speaks through His holy spirit, it is said that the spirit speaks. In the same way you could say that a person’s voice speaks words, and it is understood that you mean that it is the person who is speaking. But nowhere does the Bible speak of “God the Holy Spirit” whether in the Trinitarian sense or in the sense that it is a name or title for God.
To Be Continued…