“Your Word Is Truth”
The Holy Spirit—A Person?
WHILE Jesus was on earth with his followers he taught them as well as provided them with his help and guidance. But what was to happen after his death? Would they have no spiritual help?
On the night before he was executed Christ made an assuring promise to them, saying: “I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete [Greek, pa·raʹkle·tos], that he may abide with you for ever. The spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, nor knoweth him.” (John 14:16, 17, Catholic Douay Version [Dy]) Persons who use the King James Version (AV) may be more familiar with the term “Comforter,” which that version uses instead of “Paraclete.” In either case, many persons conclude that Jesus was promising that a divine person would help his followers, that the holy spirit or “Holy Ghost” is a person.
But does what the Bible says about the “Paraclete” or “Comforter” really prove that the holy spirit is a living person?
Both the Hebrew and Greek words for “spirit” are the same words that are translated “wind.” Like the wind, the holy spirit cannot be seen; still it is an active force that can produce effects. Its being referred to as the “Spirit of God” or the “Spirit of the LORD” is evidence that it is an instrumentality that belongs to God.—Gen. 1:2; Judg. 15:14; AV, Dy.
Evidence of the impersonal nature of the holy spirit is found in the way it is mentioned in the Bible in association with other impersonal things, such as water and fire. As John the Baptist baptized with water, so Jesus would baptize with holy spirit and fire. (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Acts 1:5) You can baptize a person with water or fire by immersing him in such, but you cannot baptize a person with another person. Hence, the holy spirit must be impersonal, as are fire and water. Also, the Bible speaks of persons as being “filled with” holy spirit, and of the spirit’s being “poured forth,” which obviously rule out its being a divine person, a part of a triune Godhead.—Eph. 5:18; Luke 1:67; Acts 2:33; Dy.
How, then, are we to understand the references to the holy spirit as the Paraclete or Comforter, as if it were a personage? And why does the Bible use such personal pronouns as “he” and “himself” with reference to the “Spirit of truth”? (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7, 13, Dy, AV) Since all Scripture is truthful and inspired of God, there must be a reasonable explanation.—2 Tim. 3:16, 17.
What Jesus promised was another pa·raʹkle·tos. In extra-Biblical Greek literature that term was applied to a person who served as “a legal adviser or helper or advocate in the relevant court.” But in the Bible the word “seems to have the broad and general sense of ‘helper.”’ (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by G. Friedrich, Vol. V, pp. 803, 804) While some Bible versions translate the word as “Comforter,” “Advocate” or “Counselor,” many modern Bible translations render pa·raʹkle·tos as “helper.”
Even though pa·raʹkle·tos was a word applied to a person who performed a certain function, this does not necessarily establish that the holy spirit is also a person. Its use in the book of John may be viewed simply as a personification. At Matthew 11:19 Jesus personified “wisdom” and depicted it as having “works” or “children.” Yet “wisdom” is not a person with an individual existence. Also, Romans 5:14, 21 personalizes “death” and “sin” as reigning kings. But they are not living personages. Evidently Jesus did the same in regard to the spirit; he personalized something that was actually not a person.
Why, though, if the spirit is not a person, does the Bible refer to the “helper” or “Paraclete” as “he” instead of “it”? Pa·raʹkle·tos is Scripturally treated as the masculine form of the word. A feminine form is pa·raʹkle·tri·a. In speaking or writing Greek, if one uses either of these words, the pronouns applied to it must match in gender—“he” and “him” with pa·raʹkle·tos and “she” and “her” with a feminine form. It might be compared to the English words “emperor” and “empress.” With “emperor” you use “he” and with “empress” you use “she,” but with neither does “it” apply. Thus when John presents Jesus’ words about the “helper,” he is simply following proper Greek grammar by employing personal pronouns such as “he” instead of the impersonal “it.”
However, it is noteworthy that in the same context John uses the Greek word pneuʹma (spirit), which is neuter, having neither a masculine nor a feminine gender. In accord with Greek grammar, John employs the corresponding neuter pronoun au·toʹ (it), as at John 14:17. Many Bible translations hide this fact by substituting personal pronouns. (Dy, AV) Nevertheless, the 1970 Roman Catholic Bible translation called “The New American Bible” admits in a footnote on John 14:17: “The Greek word for ‘Spirit’ is neuter, and while [in this translation] we use personal pronouns in English (‘he,’ ‘his,’ ‘him’), most Greek MSS [manuscripts] employ ‘it.’”
Used as a noun pa·raʹkle·tos and matching personal pronouns can be employed in reference to something that is not a living person. This might be illustrated with how the word could be applied to the sun, the Greek word for “sun” being heʹli·os. Anyone will admit that the sun is not a person; it does not think or live. Like the wind, (aʹne·mos) the sun is inanimate.
Nonetheless, the sun might be personified as a “helper,” just as the holy spirit was personified as being. Jesus said that Jehovah makes “his sun rise upon wicked people and good.” (Matt. 5:45) The sun does good, producing good effects. For instance, the sun helps the earth to produce vegetation. Also, scientists believe that the sun’s shining on a person’s skin helps him to produce Vitamin D, called the “sunshine vitamin.” Thus, if a man was experiencing bone changes resulting from a lack of Vitamin D, a doctor might advise the patient to get more sunshine. The doctor could refer to the sun (heʹli·os) as his “helper” (pa·raʹkle·tos) in bringing the man to good health. But the sun is still not a person. Neither is the holy spirit (pneuʹma, neuter), which serves as a “helper” too.
Consequently, what is recorded in John chapters 14 through 16 about the pa·raʹkle·tos (Paraclete, Comforter or helper) harmonizes with what the rest of the Bible says about the holy spirit. Jehovah through Jesus Christ used the holy spirit to help Christians in the first century C.E. By means of it as a “helper” they gained increased understanding of God’s purposes and prophetic Word. (Acts 2:33; 1 Cor. 2:10-16; Heb. 9:8-10) Men miraculously aided by the spirit spoke in foreign languages, explained God’s will and prophesied. (John 14:26; Acts 2:4; 21:4, 11; 1 Cor. 12:4-11; 14:1-4, 26) Thus, even though it is not a person, the holy spirit was used by God to help the Christians, to teach, to guide and to upbuild them.