Identifying the Holy Spirit
DID you know that the holy spirit affects the life of every one of us? And did you realize that it can make enormous improvements in your life? This may surprise you. In fact, you may ask: ‘Who or what is the holy spirit?’
If you belong to one of Christendom’s churches, you have probably heard a clergyman christen a baby “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19, The New English Bible) When asked to identify the holy spirit, most clerics quickly respond: ‘The holy spirit is the third person of the Trinity, equal in all ways to God the Father and to the Lord Jesus Christ.’
However, this view was not held during the first few centuries of our Common Era. To illustrate: Some three centuries after the death of Jesus Christ’s apostles, Gregory of Nazianzus wrote: “Some assume that [the holy spirit] is a power (energeia), some a creature, some that he is God, some cannot decide which of these.”
Today, most churches in Christendom accept the Trinitarian view of the holy spirit. But is that what the Bible supports? Or is it merely an opinion based on tradition? Actually, the Bible never speaks of the holy spirit in the same way that it speaks of God or of Jesus. For example, in the Bible, the holy spirit does not have a personal name.
Is that just an insignificant detail? No, names are important in the Bible. God stressed the importance of his own name when he said: “I am Jehovah. That is my name; and to no one else shall I give my own glory, neither my praise to graven images.” (Isaiah 42:8) The importance of Jesus Christ’s name was emphasized before his birth when an angel told Mary: “You are to call his name Jesus.” (Luke 1:31) If the names of the Father and of the Son are so important, why does the holy spirit not have a personal name? Surely, this detail alone should make a person wonder whether the spirit is really equal to the Father and the Son.
The Scriptures and the Holy Spirit
In the Hebrew Scriptures, or the “Old Testament,” there are references to the “holy spirit” and to “my [God’s] spirit.” (Psalm 51:11; Joel 2:28, 29) We read that the holy spirit can fill a person, come upon him, and envelop him. (Exodus 31:3; Judges 3:10; 6:34) Some of God’s holy spirit can be taken from one person and given to another. (Numbers 11:17, 25) The holy spirit can become operative upon someone, enabling him to perform superhuman feats.—Judges 14:6; 1 Samuel 10:6.
What can reasonably be concluded from such statements? Surely not that the holy spirit is a person. How can a portion of a person be taken from one individual and be given to another? Moreover, there is no evidence that when Jesus was on earth, faithful Jews viewed the holy spirit as a person equal to the Father. They certainly did not worship the holy spirit. Rather, their worship was directed solely to Jehovah, the One whom Jesus himself called “my Father” and “my God.”—John 20:17.
Like the so-called Old Testament, the part of the Bible called the Christian Greek Scriptures, or “New Testament,” says that the holy spirit can ‘fill’ a person or be “upon” him. (Acts 2:4; Luke 2:25-27) Holy spirit was ‘given,’ ‘poured out upon,’ and ‘distributed.’ (Luke 11:13; Acts 10:45; Hebrews 2:4) At Pentecost 33 C.E., the disciples received “some of” God’s spirit. (Acts 2:17) The Scriptures also speak of baptism with holy spirit and of anointing with it.—Matthew 3:11; Acts 1:5; 10:38.
Such Biblical statements prove that the holy spirit is not a person. This conclusion is confirmed when we see that the holy spirit is listed with other impersonal things. For instance, the Bible states that Stephen was “full of faith and holy spirit.” (Acts 6:5) And the apostle Paul recommended himself as God’s minister “by purity, by knowledge, by long-suffering, by kindness, by holy spirit, by love free from hypocrisy.”—2 Corinthians 6:4-6.
True, at times the Bible personalizes the holy spirit. For instance, Isaiah said that certain rebels ‘made God’s holy spirit feel hurt.’ (Isaiah 63:10) Paul said it could be ‘grieved.’ (Ephesians 4:30) And a number of scriptures say that the holy spirit teaches, guides, speaks, and bears witness. (John 14:26; 16:13, 14; 1 John 5:7, 8) But the Bible also personalizes other nonliving things, such as wisdom, death, and sin. (Proverbs 1:20; Romans 5:17, 21) This is actually a vivid way in which the Scriptures sometimes express matters.
Today, we speak of the Bible in a similar manner when we say that it says something or teaches a doctrine. In using such expressions, we do not mean that the Bible is a person, do we? Neither does the Bible mean that the holy spirit is a person when it uses comparable expressions.
What, then, is the holy spirit? It is not a person. Rather, it is God’s own active force, used by him to accomplish his will. (Genesis 1:2) But how are our lives affected by the holy spirit? And how can we personally benefit more from its activity?