The plan of salvation makes sense only when the Holy Spirit is seen as a personal and equal member of the Trinity with the Father and the Son.
Christopher R. Mwashinga
Down through the history of the Christian Church, people have held different views about the Personhood of the Holy Spirit. Some view Him as the personification of holy power in the same sense that they view Satan as the personification of evil power, and they conclude that neither Satan nor the Holy Spirit is a personal being. Others see the Holy Spirit as the energy of God, an impersonal power that God uses to activate His will in the universe. Still others maintain that the Holy Spirit is a Person and that He was active with the Father and the Son in creation, incarnation, and redemption. A theological and biblical understanding supports the view that the Holy Spirit as a member of the Trinity, a personal being as opposed to an impersonal force.
A Historical Overview
Struggles to define the identity of the Holy Spirit characterized theological activities from the end of the New Testament era to the end of the sixth century A.D. During part of the second century A.D., Christians held different views on the identity of the Holy Spirit. Some thought of the incarnation as the taking of a human body by the Holy Spirit before He was recognized as having a separate existence from the Son. During Origen’s lifetime (184–253), the identity of the Holy Spirit was still unclear to him and other Christians. “It is not yet clearly known,” he wrote, “whether he [the Holy Spirit] is to be thought of as begotten or unbegotten, or as being himself also a Son of God or not.”1 The prevailing situation demanded that the church find a clearer definition of the Holy Spirit, and Origen urged the church to seek one. “These are matters,” he wrote, “that we must investigate to the best of our powers from Holy Scripture inquiring with wisdom and diligence.”2
The fourth century A.D. continued to witness Christians struggling over the identity of the Holy Spirit. Some identified Him with a whole host of minor deities, while others, especially among the Arians, maintained the notion that the Holy Spirit was an angelic being. The bottom line of these characterizations was clear: The Holy Spirit was subordinate to the Father and to the Son. In other words, the Holy Spirit was not of the same substance as the Father and the Son. This subordinationism was the error the Cappadocian theologians aimed to correct in the second half of the fourth century A.D. The Cappadocians were successful in helping the church accept the Holy Spirit as a full member of the Trinity with the Father and the Son.
Although the Council of Constantinople approved of the Holy Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity, it affirmed that He proceeded from the Father and not from both the Father and the Son. Apparently, the Latin wing of the church, which was poorly represented in the council, did not agree with the theological position of the Eastern wing regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit, so the Latin church later added the dual procession (filioque) of the Spirit from both the Father and the Son. Generally, from the end of the patristic period on, Christians who agreed that the Holy Spirit was a Person also accepted Him as divine.
In every successive generation, theologians have sought to clarify the nature of the personality of the Holy Spirit for their time. Medieval theologians were not different. Peter Abelard, along with other medieval theologians, including Anselm of Canterbury, Anselm of Havelberg, and Peter Lombard, worked to defend the orthodox position, stressing that the Trinity is one and indivisible, coeternal, consubstantial, and coequal. Thomas Aquinas, even though he accepted the Personhood of the Holy Spirit, interpreted the Spirit’s relationship to the Father to mean the love of God. He wrote, “So God the Father produces creatures through His Word, the Son and His Love, the Holy Spirit. God substance is common to all three persons.”3 However, the struggle to refine the definition of the Holy Spirit and affirm His Personhood did not end with the medieval scholars but continued into the Protestant Reformation era.
The 16th-century Reformers, in opposition to Rome’s theories, gave the study of the Holy Spirit a lift as they stressed that the church was not necessary for a correct interpretation of the Bible, but only the Holy Spirit illuminating the human mind. Martin Luther’s pneumatology was closely tied to that of Augustine; he believed that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. Luther wrote, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, who with the Father and the Son is one true God and proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son yet is a distinct person in the one divine essence and nature.”4 John Calvin affirmed the view that the Holy Spirit was a distinct Person from the Father and the Son. He wrote, “The words, Father, Son and Holy Spirit certainly indicate a real distinction only not division.”5
During the Enlightenment, Christian thinkers had opposing views about the Personhood of the Holy Spirit. For example, John Wesley believed in the full equality of the three Persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He wrote, “I believe the infinite and eternal Spirit of God, equal with the Father and the Son, to be not only perfectly holy in himself, but the immediate cause of all holiness in us.”6 Wesley also believed that the Holy Spirit was a Person and not an impersonal force. Friedrich Schleiermacher, on the other hand, taught that the Holy Spirit was “the continuous influence of Christ on the church which unites and inspires the community,” and he did not see the concept of personhood as applicable to the Holy Spirit.7
In the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, a number of influential theologians continued the discussion about the Personhood of the Holy Spirit. Charles H. Spurgeon taught and preached sermons that affirmed the Personhood of the Holy Spirit. “We are so accustomed,” he wrote, “to talk about the influence of the Holy Spirit and his sacred operations and graces that we are apt to forget that the Holy Spirit is truly and actually a person.”8 Charles Hodge, in his theological system, argued for the Personhood of the Holy Spirit and concluded, “The people of God have always regarded the Holy Spirit as a person.”9 While some people affirmed the Personhood of the Holy Spirit, however, others denied His divinity and Personhood. They considered Him an impersonal force or power of God and carried this attitude into the 20th century.
Every Christian generation has struggled with the question of the Personhood of the Holy Spirit and has maintained at least two opposing views: one, that the Holy Spirit is a Person, and two, that the Holy Spirit is not a Person but some form of force or influence. It appears that before the Council of Constantinople, which approved the view that the Holy Spirit was a member of the Trinity, the church was looking forward to establishing an orthodox position on His Personhood. On the other hand, after the council, theologians looked back with the intention of either defending the Personhood of the Holy Spirit or rejecting it.
A resurgence of the study of the Personhood of the Holy Spirit in the early decades of the 20th century, however, the question arises: Have these contemporary pneumatologies been able to go beyond the two positions regarding the Personhood of the Holy Spirit?
In examining contemporary pneumatologies, it becomes clear that the position of liberal theologians on the Personhood of the Holy Spirit is negative: They simply hold the view that the Holy Spirit is God’s presence instead of being the third Person of the Trinity. In other words, they deny the individual Personhood of the Holy Spirit. For example, Hendrikus Berkhof held the view that the Holy Spirit is not a distinct Person. He believed that “the Spirit is Person because he is God acting as a Person.” Then he added, “However, we cannot say that the Spirit is a Person distinct from God the Father.”10
On the other hand, the so-called social trinitarian theologians have an interpretation that supports the view that the Holy Spirit is a Person. However, even though they agree on their interpretation of the Trinity as consisting of three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—they do not seem to agree on the nature of the personality of the Holy Spirit. For example, even though Karl Barth suggested that the language of three persons of the Trinity should be replaced with the language of three modes, he still used the language of social trinitarianism: “In Himself He does not will to exist for Himself, to exist alone. On the contrary, He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and therefore alive in His unique being with and for and in another. . . . The unbroken unity of His being, knowledge and will is at the same time an act of deliberation, decision and intercourse. He does not exist in solitude but in fellowship.”11
Barth’s pneumatology affirmed the equality of the three members of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “What is true of the Father and of the Son,” he wrote, “is also true of the Holy Spirit of the Father and of the Son.”12 While another social trinitarian theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, affirms the persons of the Trinity, he argues that the three are not equal. “Consequently,” he writes, “we have to reject any generalizing talk about the ‘three Persons’ of the Trinity. The Spirit is different from the Father and the Son.”13 This shows that even though Barth and Moltmann see value in holding the social trinitarian view, they do not agree on the nature of the Persons who constitute the Trinity. Barth affirmed the three members of the Trinity on equal levels, while Moltmann presents Father and Son as being on the same level and the Holy Spirit on a different level.
In recent decades, contemporary theologians have presented pneumatologies that affirm the Personhood of the Holy Spirit in various ways. Proponents of female interpretations of the Holy Spirit seem to affirm the Spirit’s Personhood. By using the female gender or pronoun for the Holy Spirit, they affirm that the Holy Spirit is a Person rather than an influence or a force. The point here is not whether the Holy Spirit is female or male, but rather that the use of female/male language implies personhood as opposed to impersonhood. It seems that feminist theologians in this regard would use feminine or maternal terms out of sheer necessity in order to make their argument tenable.
In contemporary evangelical pneumatologies, the Personhood of the Holy Spirit also finds affirmation. Clark H. Pinnock, for example, affirms the divinity of the Holy Spirit as a person and not an energy or a force. “The Spirit is more than God’s presence,” he writes, “the Spirit is a Person in fellowship with, but distinct from, Father and Son.”14 Millard J. Erickson sees members of the Trinity as persons. “We therefore propose,” he writes, “thinking of the Trinity [as] a society, complex of persons, who, however, are one being.”15
The historical overview and the discussion of contemporary pneumatologies has revealed one consistent experience of the church: Christians down through the centuries have found the study of the Personhood of the Holy Spirit a challenging endeavor. The experience of the church has been one of disagreement between those who affirm the personhood of the Holy Spirit and those who reject it. The challenge comes from the fact that the Bible seems to present the Holy Spirit as both personal and impersonal. For example, while some of the names of the Holy Spirit, such as Paraclete or Teacher (John 16:26) present Him as a person, symbols such as fire (Acts 2:3), water (John 7:37–39), and wind (John 3:8) present Him as impersonal. As a result, the discussion of whether the Holy Spirit is personal or impersonal has continued to this day.
Does the Bible contain enough evidence to shed more light on this longstanding problem? Faith and attitudes toward the nature of the Bible influence how people answer this question and establish the truth about the Personhood of the Holy Spirit. The Bible has provided enough information to help us appreciate His personality.
The Personality of the Holy Spirit
To establish the Personhood of the Holy Spirit, it is important first to settle the question of the pronoun assigned to this member of the Godhead, which has generated intense debates over the centuries. Some theologians have argued that the Holy Spirit should be referred to as He; others want Him to be referred to as It. Still others have argued for the use of the feminine pronoun She. All three positions have been argued for by theologians from diverse schools of thought.
The word ruach in the Hebrew Bible, as with its Greek equivalent pneuma in the New Testament, originally signified “wind” or “breath.” This is the only word rendered “wind” in the Old Testament. It is helpful to note that the Septuagint translates the word ruach into the Greek pneuma, maintaining the same meaning, “wind” or “breath.” Looking at the use of ruach in the Old Testament, Charles Carter concludes that “ruach usually refers to the supernatural Spirit of God, and pneuma in the New Testament refers to the supernatural influences.”16 It is important to observe here that the Hebrew term ruach is usually grammatically feminine. However, this may not be “regarded as very significant, for personhood is relatively underdeveloped in relation to Spirit in the Old Testament.”17 On the other hand, in the New Testament, pneuma is grammatically neuter and the pronoun it predominates.18 These two pronouns, neuter and feminine, are predominant in the Bible, while the masculine pronoun is rarely used. However, we find John using the masculine pronoun when he refers to the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete because this title is masculine (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13, 14).19
So, which pronoun should be used in a discussion of the Holy Spirit? Practically, theologians have felt free to use any of these pronouns according to their theological preferences. This article will adopt the masculine pronoun.
In the past quarter century, a number of theologians have revisited the study of the Holy Spirit with a focus on His Personhood. This indicates both the importance of the question and the challenges that still lie in the church’s need for a clear understanding of the nature of the Holy Spirit. It seems that the Personhood of the Holy Spirit shows itself to be a relevant subject of study for Christians in every generation. Each is called upon to present it in a way that people of that generation will be able to grasp.
The Linguistic Argument
A careful study of the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, presents a very helpful linguistic argument for the Personhood of the Holy Spirit. Linguistically, the Bible seems to teach that the Holy Spirit is a person. In the fourth Gospel, John intentionally uses the Greek language freely to present the Holy Spirit as a Person. In Greek, a pronoun must agree with its antecedent noun in gender, number, and person; otherwise, the sentence is not grammatically correct. In John 16:13 and 14, John used the word Spirit, which in Greek is a neuter noun, but did not follow this pattern. Instead of the neuter pronoun ekeino, meaning “it,” he employed the demonstrative masculine pronoun (ekeinos). This uncommon way of using the Greek can be explained only by the fact that John wanted to avoid the impression that the Holy Spirit is impersonal. In this discussion, using the masculine pronoun ekeinos meaning “He” for the Holy Spirit seems a better choice. For that reason, throughout this article, the masculine pronoun will be used to continue John’s preference as he applied it to the Paraclete or Teacher. Traditionally, the Western church has used the masculine pronoun, having been influenced by the Latin, because Spirit in Latin is masculine.
At least four times in the Gospel of John, Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, which translates as “Helper,” “Comforter,” “Counselor,” “Advocate,” “Teacher,” etc. (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). He did not refer to the Holy Spirit merely as “help,” “comfort,” “advocacy,” or “teaching,” but as a personal being. In connection to that, in John 14:16 Jesus called the Holy Spirit “‘another Helper’” [allos parakletos] (NKJV). The Greek allos means “another of the same kind.” By saying that God the Father would send another Helper to the apostles, Jesus simply meant that through the Holy Spirit, the apostles would receive “another helping presence” in His own bodily absence.20 This suggests that as Jesus is a divine Person who comforts and helps His disciples, so also is the Holy Spirit. As a personal member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit works together with the other members of the Trinity to bring about the salvation of those who believe and are baptized (Matt. 28:19).
The Intellectual-Moral Argument
The intellectual-moral argument presents the Holy Spirit as an intelligent Being who has moral characteristics. An impersonal force or influence cannot have intelligence and cannot display moral characteristics. Several biblical passages, especially in the New Testament, present the Holy Spirit as an intelligent and moral being. As the Paraclete or Teacher, the Holy Spirit hears, speaks, and foretells to the apostles the things to come (John 16:13, 14), and reminds them of everything Jesus had said to them (14:26). Only an intelligent being can have the capacity to teach people and remind them of things they had been taught previously. As an intelligent personal Being, the Spirit has a mindset or intention that He gives to believers, so that when they pray, God discerns the Spirit’s intention and attitude in them and grants those prayers accordingly (Rom. 8:27). If the Holy Spirit were a mere impersonal force or an influence, how could He help the believers in their weaknesses and make intercession for them with groanings which cannot be uttered? (vs. 26). This could be done only by an intelligent personal Being.
A word must also be said here about His moral characteristics. First of all, the Bible teaches that God as a moral Being is offended by sinful behaviors (Prov. 6:16–19; Rom. 8:8). This characteristic of God the Father is paralleled by that of the Holy Spirit. As God the Father is offended by sin, so is the Holy Spirit. The Bible also teaches that the Holy Spirit can be grieved (Eph. 4:30), He can be lied to (Acts 5:3), and He can be blasphemed against (Mark 3:29). All these are characteristics of a personal Being. How could an impersonal force or power be offended by anything like sin or be grieved by the disobedience of human beings?
The Collaboration Argument
The collaboration argument presents the three Persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as collaborators in the plan of salvation. The Word of God, which serves as the source of the good news of salvation, reveals that the success of the project of saving human beings involves all three members of the Trinity. As a Trinitarian community, the three Persons collaborate in Their work of making disciples of all nations and assuring their baptism, so that baptism is complete only when done in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). They also work in collaboration to ensure that human beings understand the good news and respond to it. The Son speaks to His disciples, and the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the name of the Son to teach them all things and remind them of what the Son said to them previously (John 14:25, 26). As a community of divine Persons, members of the Trinity collaborate in displaying grace, love, and fellowship as qualities that are needed by Christians to create harmonious communities of love and unity (2 Cor. 13:14).
In many New Testament passages, the three Persons of the Trinity are tied together as collaborators, not only in the business of saving the lost, but also in strengthening and maturing them in the faith. For example, the apostle Paul linked the three divine Persons when he wrote, “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, . . . that He would grant you, . . . to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:14–17, NKJV). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together in divine collaboration to ensure the well-being of Christians. This collaborative endeavor between the Holy Spirit on the one hand and the Father and the Son on the other indicates that the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force or energy, but a divine Person just like the Father and the Son. The reciprocal, mutual dependence on one another among the three Persons of the Trinity makes these divine collaborations possible.
The Personal Actions Argument
The actions performed by the Spirit in both the Old and the New Testaments give the most comprehensible and tangible evidence for His Personhood. These actions could be carried out only by a personal Being and never by an impersonal force, because they require intelligence and rationality. Just as in the intellectual-moral argument, the Spirit can perform those actions because He is intelligent and can know, think, understand, predict, and even teach human beings (John 16:13, 14). Considering His actions in this light, we see that the Holy Spirit must be a Person to take part in the process of creating the earth just like the Father and the Son (Gen. 1:2; 1:1; John 1:1–3); to appoint overseers to shepherd the church of God (Acts 20:28); and to convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment (Rom. 16:8). If the Holy Spirit were a mere impersonal force or energy, He would not be able to command the apostle Peter to arise and meet Cornelius the centurion (Acts 10:19) or forbid Paul and his companions to preach the word in Asia (Acts 16:6). This argument seems most conclusively to prove the Personhood of the Holy Spirit, because an impersonal force cannot perform any of these actions. For the Holy Spirit to perform such actions, He must be a divine Person, as indeed the Bible teaches.
The Holy Spirit as a member of the Trinity is a divine Person, as opposed to an impersonal force. It is clear that throughout the history of the Christian Church, there have been two major views regarding the Personhood of the Holy Spirit: that the Holy Spirit is a Person just like the Father and the Son, and that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force or influence.
A careful study of the Bible gives at least four reasons to conclude that the Holy Spirit cannot be anything but a personal member of the Trinity. Although each of the four arguments for the Personhood of the Holy Spirit makes a convincing case, together they make an even stronger case. To ignore all these biblical attestations for the Personhood of the Holy Spirit leaves a person with very little reason to believe in the Holy Spirit, and the entire doctrine of the Trinity loses significance.
The plan of salvation makes sense only when the Holy Spirit is seen as a personal and equal member of the Trinity with the Father and the Son. The three Persons of the Trinity stand together and work together as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Any attempt to separate them theologically or deny one of them divine Personhood like the other two works only to destroy their harmonious divine community of Trinity.
Christopher R. Mwashinga is a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. De princ., Pref. 4, quoted in Donald G. Dawe, “The Divinity of the Holy Spirit,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 33:1 (1979): 19–31.
2. Ibid., 20.
3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologie: A Concise Translation. trans. Timothy Mc Dermott (Chicago, Ill.: Christian Classics, 1991), 87.
4. Luther’s Works, Robert H. Fischerm ed. (Philadelphia, Pa.: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), 365, 366.
5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, trans. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989), I.13.17. For the entire exposition of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, see I.13.1-19. Calvin is referred to as the Theologian of the Holy Spirit. See Eifian Evans, “Theologian of the Holy Spirit,” A Quarterly Journal for Church Leadership 10:4 (Fall 2001): 83–104.
6. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1979), 10:82. Also quoted in Rob L. Staples, “John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 21:1/2 (Spring‒Fall 1986): 91–115. Wesley’s pneumatology is categorized as the experiential tendency in Protestant pneumatology. See T. David Beck, The Holy Spirit and the Renewal of All Things: Pneumatology in Paul and Jurgen Moltmann (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications, 2007), 7–14.
7. Richard Schleiermacher, Glaubenslehre. Quoted by Hendrikus Berkhof, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1964), 114.
8. Charles H. Spurgeon, Twelve Sermons on the Holy Spirit (Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2014).
9. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1952), 524–527.
10. Hendrikus Berkhof, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1964), 116.
11. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936), II.1:275.
12. __________, Church Dogmatics, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, eds. (Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1975), III/1:56.
13. Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, Margaret Kohl, trans. (Munich: Christian Kaizer Verlag, 1992), 268.
14. Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1996), 35.
15. Millard J. Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000), 58.
16. Charles Webb Carter, The Person and Ministry of the Holy Spirit: A Wesleyan Perspective (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker House, 1974), 18.
17. Pinnock, Flame of Love, 15.
20. Andreas J. Kostenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004), 473, 474.