Is the Holy Spirit Really a Person?
THE holy spirit can be grieved and can speak, teach, bear witness, act as a remembrancer and serve as a helper. Would you not expect that to be said about a person, yes, about the “third person” of the Trinity? Yet some other things attributed to God’s spirit are never applied to persons. For example, that spirit can be ‘poured out’ upon humans and can ‘fill’ them. How might this be explained? Who or what really is God’s holy spirit?
A PERSON OR AN ACTIVE FORCE?
In themselves, the Hebrew and Greek words for “spirit” give no hint of personality. They convey the idea of breath, air in motion, wind. (Compare Zechariah 2:6; Job 41:16; John 3:8.) So these terms point to something that is invisible, an active force. Such an active force could be ‘poured out’ or imparted to numerous persons at the same time and could ‘fill’ them, as is stated of the holy spirit.—Acts 2:4, 33.
Of course, the Bible does apply the term “spirit” to persons. We read: “God is a Spirit.” (John 4:24) “And he makes his angels spirits.” (Heb. 1:7) God and his loyal angelic sons are holy and therefore all are ‘holy spirits.’ Might God’s holy spirit likewise be a person? If that were so, should we not expect the Bible to differentiate between that holy spirit and other ‘holy spirits’? Whenever no identifying term is used in connection with such holy spirit, the definite article should at least appear to show that THE Holy Spirit is intended. But is this the case? No. An examination of a number of passages in any interlinear translation reveals that the expression “holy spirit” appears without the definite article, indicating the spirit’s lack of personality.—Acts 6:3, 5; Rom. 9:1; 1 Cor. 12:3; Heb. 2:4; 6:4; 2 Pet. 1:21; Jude 20.
But what about such functions as speaking, guiding, teaching, bearing witness and the like? Do not these functions indicate the personality of God’s spirit? Not necessarily. Note the comments of a Trinitarian source, the New Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. 13, p. 575):
“The majority of N[ew] T[estament] texts reveal God’s spirit as something, not someone; this is especially seen in the parallelism between the spirit and the power of God. When a quasi-personal activity is ascribed to God’s spirit, e.g., speaking, hindering, desiring, dwelling (Acts 8.29; 16.7; Rom 8.9), one is not justified in concluding immediately that in these passages God’s spirit is regarded as a Person; the same expressions are used also in regard to rhetorically personified things or abstract ideas (see Rom 8.6; 7.17). Thus, the context of the phrase ‘blasphemy against the spirit’ (Mt 12.31; cf. Mt 12.28; Lk 11.20), shows that reference is being made to the power of God.”
Yes, personifications are no positive proof of personality. For example, the Bible speaks of sin as ‘ruling as a king,’ “receiving an inducement,” ‘working out covetousness,’ ‘seducing,’ and ‘killing.’ (Rom. 5:21; 7:8-11) Wisdom is similarly personified and is spoken of as having “children” and “works.” (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:35) Yet no one would claim that this means that “sin” and “wisdom” are persons. Likewise the personifying of God’s spirit does not conflict with clear Bible testimony that it is indeed “something, not someone.”
Since the holy spirit is closely associated with its Source, God, one who goes contrary to God’s will ‘grieves his spirit.’ (Eph. 4:30) How can this be so if the holy spirit is not a person? The apostle Paul’s words about his own spirit or dominant attitude illustrate this. At 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 we read: “I for one, although absent in body but present in spirit, have certainly judged already, as if I were present, the man who has worked in such a way as this, that in the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are gathered together, also my spirit with the power of our Lord Jesus, you hand such a man over to Satan.”
In this case, through Paul’s letter, the Corinthian Christians knew Paul’s spirit or attitude regarding the allowance of corrupting influence in the congregation. So when they met to consider this matter, Paul’s spirit or forceful attitude was right there, as if a person. Once a decision was made that agreed with the spirit Paul showed, Christians at Corinth could in effect say, ‘We ourselves and Paul’s spirit have decided to expel the unrepentant man.’ On the other hand, had they gone contrary to the right spirit that the apostle manifested, they would have ‘grieved’ it.
‘But,’ someone may object, ‘all that does not change the fact that the Bible refers to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the same context. Surely this proves that the Spirit is a person.’
We might, therefore, consider two scriptures that are pointed to as examples of such proof: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all.” “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”—2 Cor. 13:14; Matt. 28:19, Authorized Version.
Do these texts, 2 Corinthians 13:14 and Matthew 28:19, prove that the “Holy Ghost” is the “third person” of the Trinity? Do they say that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are but one God? No, and the mere mention of Father, Son and Holy Ghost does not tell us what their relationship is to one another.
Moreover, the fact that baptizing is to be done in the “name” of the holy spirit does not in itself establish that the spirit is a person. Even Trinitarians recognize that the word “name” at Matthew 28:19 does not mean a personal name. Says Greek scholar A. T. Robertson (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. I, p. 245): “The use of name ([Greek] onoma) here is a common one in the Septuagint and the papyri for power or authority.” That the term “name” so used does not necessarily imply the existence of a person might be illustrated with the English expression “in the name of the law.” No one familiar with the English language would conclude therefrom that the law is a person. The expression simply means ‘in recognition of what the law represents,’ its authority. Similarly, baptism ‘in the name of the spirit’ signifies a recognition of that spirit and its source and functions.
THE “HELPER” NOT A PERSON
What about the Bible’s referring to the spirit as a “helper,” “comforter” or “advocate” and using the pronoun “he” in this connection? Would that not be a conclusive proof that the spirit is indeed a person? Consider:
At John 16:7, 8, 13, the Authorized Version quotes Jesus as stating: “If I go not away, the Comforter [pa·raʹkle·tos] will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. And when he is come, he will reprove the world . . . when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.”
In connection with this passage, the New Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. 13, pp. 575, 576) observes: “So clearly does St. John see in the Spirit a person who takes Christ’s place in the Church, that he uses a masculine pronoun [e·keiʹnos] in reference to the Spirit even though [pneuʹma, spirit] is neuter in gender (Joh 16.8, 13-16). Consequently, it is evident that St. John thought of the Holy Spirit as a Person, who is distinct from the Father and the Son, and who, with the glorified Son and the Father, is present and active in the faithful (Joh 14.16; 15.26; 16.7).”
But did John really use the masculine pronoun despite the neuter gender of the word “spirit”? Was his purpose to show that the spirit is indeed a person? Why not reread the above quotation from John chapter 16? What is the antecedent of the pronoun “he”? Is it not the word “Comforter”? Yes, and the Greek word so rendered is pa·raʹkle·tos and is masculine in gender. Rightly, then, John used masculine pronouns in this passage because grammatical usage required it.
However, John did not use masculine pronouns when the antecedent was actually the neuter word pneuʹma (spirit). This can readily be seen from the readings of literal translations, such as the one by Rotherham. At John 14:16, 17, Rotherham renders Jesus’ words as follows: “I will request the Father, and Another Advocate [pa·raʹkle·tos] will he give unto you, that he may be with you age-abidingly,—the Spirit [pneuʹma] of truth,—which the world cannot receive, because it beholdeth it not nor getteth to know it. But ye are getting to know it; because with you it abideth, and in you it is.” Notice that the pronoun is masculine in gender (“he”) when the antecedent is the masculine noun pa·raʹkle·tos but neuter (“it”) when the antecedent is the neuter noun pneuʹma.
This fact is often concealed in Bible translations, as neuter pronouns are replaced with masculine pronouns. A footnote in The New American Bible on John 14:17 admits: “The Greek word for ‘Spirit’ is neuter, and while we use personal pronouns in English (‘he,’ ‘his,’ ‘him’), most Greek MSS [manuscripts] employ ‘it.’”
Thus we can see that Trinitarians point to personal pronouns when these seem to support their view but ignore them when they do not. A careful examination of passages used by Trinitarians, however, reveals that John’s use of pronouns—both neuter and masculine—is a matter of grammar and therefore does not support their claim that the spirit is a person, the “third person” of the triune God.
So, then, not just a majority of Bible passages, but all the Scriptures are in agreement that God’s spirit is, “not someone,” but “something.” A simple but careful reading of the Scriptures makes it clear that God’s spirit is indeed his invisible active force.*
For details, see the booklet “The Word”—Who Is He? According to John and Aid to Bible Understanding, pages 1541-1548.