Who or What Is the Holy Spirit?
The general opinion in Christendom is that the holy spirit is a person, “the third person of the Trinity,” coequal and coeternal with God. Does the Bible show the holy spirit to be a person? If not, then what is it?
MOST persons in Christendom have a rather vague idea about the holy spirit. They may remember that the holy spirit appeared as a dove at the time Jesus was baptized and in the form of tongues of fire at Pentecost, but that is all. While they may feel certain the holy spirit is a person, the fact remains that “there was some indistinctness in the teachings of Justin Martyr and others of the early church fathers concerning the spirit,” as to being a person.
To understand a Scriptural subject it is always well to begin by going to the original tongue. Thus in the Christian Greek Scriptures the word “spirit” with two exceptions translates the Greek word pneuma, from which we get the words pneumatic and pneumonia. Pneuma, however, is translated not only “spirit” 288 times, but also “ghost” 91 times, “wind” once, “life” once, “spiritually” once and “spiritual gift” once. (King James Version) That “ghost” is a mistranslation is generally recognized.
The Greek word pneuma literally means “wind” and it will help us to understand our subject when we note that in all the various ways in which it is used it is like the wind in that it is invisible and powerful, showing itself in visible effects. Thus it is used to refer to invisible persons: “God is a Spirit.” Christ Jesus “the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” at his resurrection. Angels are “all spirits for public service.”—John 4:24; 1 Cor. 15:45; Heb. 1:14, NW.
“Spirit” at times describes the invisible and impersonal life force in man and animals: “So they entered . . . two and two of all flesh wherein was the spirit of life.” At death this life force or invisible “spirit returns to God who gave it.” “Spirit” is also used to refer to our mental disposition: “He who rules his spirit [is better] than he who takes a city.”—Gen. 7:15, Ro; Eccl. 12:7; Prov. 16:32, RS.
However, the use of “spirit” that specially interests us is where it is usually translated by capitals and used in relation to God and Christ as “Spirit” and “the Holy Spirit.” In these instances is a separate person indicated or does it refer to something impersonal as “spirit of life” and “the spirit of man”?
If in such instances a separate person is referred to, then many texts of the Bible simply do not make sense. For example, Jesus was to baptize with holy spirit and with fire, just as John had baptized with water. Persons can be baptized with water and with fire but can they be baptized with a bodily person? Can we imagine a person splitting himself up and distributing himself bit by bit to the one hundred and twenty disciples present at Pentecost and then filling each one of them? Can we think of Jesus receiving from his Father this holy spirit “person” and then shedding or pouring forth, like liquid fire, this person upon those disciples? Is that reasonable?—Matt. 3:11; Acts 2:1-4, 17; 11:16, NW.
Further, Christians are told not to quench the spirit. Not quench a person? God’s servants of old were said to have been enveloped or clothed by his spirit. Enveloped by a person? More such examples could be given but these should suffice to show that it simply does not make sense to attribute personality to “spirit” in such instances. Then what is this holy spirit? It is God’s active force, not just God’s power residing in him, but that power in action.—Judg. 6:34, NW; 1 Thess. 5:19.
What has helped to obscure this truth is that translators have twisted their versions according to their religious prejudices, as in their unwarranted rendering of pneuma as “ghost” and as in their capitalizing holy spirit. To make holy spirit seem to be a person they have also added the definite article “the” in 105 instances before the words “spirit” or “holy spirit,” where the original does not have it. Either the original writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures were extremely negligent or disrespectful of the “Holy Spirit” in leaving out the definite article or else those who attribute personality to the holy spirit are sadly mistaken.
Throwing light on this subject are the words of Jesus: “Every kind of sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the spirit will not be forgiven. For example, whoever speaks a word against the Son of man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy spirit, it will not be forgiven him, no, not in the present system of things nor in that to come.” Jesus’ words here defy explanation if the holy spirit is the third person of a coequal trinity, but they do make sense when we consider it as God’s active force. By means of this active force Jesus had cast out demons, and his opposers, in attributing this manifestation of God’s holy spirit or active force to the Devil, were blaspheming the holy spirit. Sins against God and Christ can be forgiven because such could be due to ignorance, but sins against a manifestation of God’s holy spirit are willful, deliberate and malicious, and so for such there is no forgiveness.—Matt. 12:31, 32; Heb. 10:26, NW.
Perhaps by now someone will object, saying, Did not Jesus use personal pronouns in referring to the holy spirit? True, but only when personalizing the holy spirit in its role of paraclete, comforter or helper, which nouns are in the masculine gender in Greek. It was in this capacity that the holy spirit was poured out upon them at Pentecost, they thereby receiving comfort, help, power and understanding for the work they were to do. Many times in the Scriptures impersonal things are personalized, and so Jesus in this connection used the personal pronouns because he had personalized the holy spirit as a helper or comforter.—John 14:26; 15:26.
However, he also used impersonal pronouns in referring to this “spirit of truth” which he would not have done had it been a person. “The spirit of the truth, which the world cannot receive, because it neither beholds it nor knows it. You know it, because it remains with you and is in you.” While some use the personal pronouns in this text, the fact that both Rotherham and Goodspeed, eminent Greek scholars, also use impersonal pronouns indicates that the use of personal pronouns is due to religious bias.—John 14:17, NW.
But do we not read of the holy spirit’s speaking, guiding and leading, and do not such terms indicate personality? Not necessarily. God’s invisible active force can do all these things even though not a person. To illustrate: By means of radio, city officials can keep in touch with all police patrol cars, instructing, guiding and advising them, but that does not mean that the radio is a separate person, does it? Again, the chief of state makes a speech and a news commentator quotes him over the radio. It would be equally correct to refer to it as something that the radio said, that the news commentator said or that the chief of state said, depending upon the viewpoint.
The same is true regarding the Scriptures. Concerning the prophecies we are told that God spoke, that the spirit of Christ testified and that the holy spirit caused them to be uttered, all of which is correct, for all things are of the Father, through the Son and by the holy spirit.—Zech. 4:6, AS; 1 Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:11, margin; 2 Pet. 1:21, NW.
Because all things are of the Father, through the Son and by the holy spirit, we repeatedly find them linked together as at Matthew 28:19 and; 2 Corinthians 13:14. Such linking together, however, does not prove that all three are persons or that they must be equal. How could they be equal when we read that the Father sent the Son and the Son sent the holy spirit? The sender is always superior to the one being sent.
Does the fact that the holy spirit is said to appoint servants in the Christian congregation, as at Acts 13:2 and Ac 20:28, prove that it is a person, as some claim? Not at all. In that the men who made such appointments, as Paul instructed Titus, were filled with the holy spirit and motivated by it, we can say that such appointments were made by the holy spirit.—Tit. 1:5, NW.
But surely the statement that “the spirit searches into all things, even the deep things of God,” proves that it has personality, others claim. Not necessarily. Since what we ourselves do with help of God’s active force can be said to have been done by it, we can say that it searches, meaning that the holy spirit helps us in our searching of God’s Word. A similar thought is found in the statement that “the spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children,” meaning that God’s spirit or active force by aiding in the understanding of his Word bears witness with the mental disposition of those composing the body of Christ that they are indeed sons of God.—1 Cor. 2:10; Rom. 8:16, NW.
To hold that the holy spirit is not a person is not belittling, disparaging or slighting it, but giving it its just due, for, look where we will in the Scriptures, we do not find it treated as a person. Repeatedly Jehovah’s servants had visions of heaven, such as Daniel, Stephen and the apostle John; each time they saw representations of Jehovah God and of his Son, the Son of man, the Lamb of God, but did they ever see a representation of the holy spirit as a person? The very fact that it appeared as a dove and as many tongues of fire indicates that it is not a person.
Yes, all the Scriptural testimony explicitly shows that either the holy spirit is not a person or it is of such nature that it can be harmonized with impersonality. It is Jehovah’s active force, invisible and powerful, sent forth to accomplish his purpose.
Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.—Rom. 3:4, NW.