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Date Posted:16/04/2008 11:24 AMCopy HTML

[this lightly revised essay first appeared at, circa 2003]

The Holy Spirit: Person or Power

There are several reasons why the study of the Holy Spirit is of special significance for us. One is that the Holy Spirit is the point at which the Trinity becomes personal to the believer. We generally think of the Father as transcendent and far off in heaven; similarly, the Son seems far removed in history and thus also relatively unknowable. But the Holy Spirit is active within the lives of believers; he is resident within us. He is the particular person of the Trinity through whom the entire triune Godhead currently works in us. Dr Millard J. Erickson


When considering the published belief statements of the various Revivalist groups, and in conversations held with members of these groups, I'm left with the distinct impression that the position of the Holy Spirit in the spiritual order isn't all that clear. It's been my experience that many Revivalists aren't certain whether God's Holy Spirit is a person or simply a spiritual power.1 Whilst some might commit to a implied acceptance of the Spirit's personhood in theory, in practice, the force of such acceptance in one's theological understanding is usually very minor. For this reason I believe that Trinitarian truth, the uniquely Christian revelation of the nature of God2, isn't held to be a particularly important belief in the Revivalist conception of theology. To the average Revivalist the Holy Spirit seems to be equated with little more than 'tongues'.

The aim of this essay is to stimulate further individual study by Revivalists on the biblical teaching concerning the Holy Spirit, by focussing clearly on establishing his personality over and against abstract notions of impersonality. I offer that Unitarian, Binitarian or abstract Trinitarian conceptions of God, which must include the Holy Spirit, neither accurately, nor honestly, reflect the revelation of him that we find in Scripture. 
The Old Testament

In the Former (or 'Old') Testament, God's Spirit is generally presented as an expression of his power, as something of an extension of himself in the activation of his will. The general impression that a small number of passages present is of the Spirit operating as simply a mode through which God's activity is outwardly expressed.3 However, by far the larger body of references in the Hebrew Bible identifies the function of God's Spirit with the spirit of prophecy. In other words, the Holy Spirit is portrayed as inspirational - as revealing the will of the Lord to his people. Hosea 9:7, for example, literally describes prophets as 'men of the Spirit'.4
It's interesting to learn that the phrase 'Holy Spirit' appears in context only twice in the entire Old Testament (Psalm 51:11 and Isaiah 63:10-11). Important to this study is that neither of these accounts refers to the Holy Spirit being personified, which is the way that we discover him to be represented in the New Testament. In both Psalm 51 and Isaiah 63, the grammatical referent is God himself.

The overwhelming evidence demonstrates that in the entire Hebrew Bible not a single passage presents the Spirit of God as a person in his own right. Consequently, if we had nothing but the Old Testament to guide us, the position that we should be required to adopt would be very much like that promoted by the Jehovah's Witnesses: the 'holy spirit' equals 'God's powerful force'. In some respects, the same position might be true of many Revivalists as well.

But we need to pause. The fact remains that the Old Testament isn't the sum total of our revelation on this, or on any spiritual subject. Our understanding of what the Old Testament teaches must be informed by Jesus' own teaching.
The New Testament

The New Testament's teaching on the Holy Spirit is firmly grounded in the Old Testament concept of the Spirit of God being jointly the manifestation of his power, and the Spirit of Prophecy. Jesus' teaching built upon this confirmed basis, but went further in that he clothed God's Spirit with personhood. We perceive this disclosure to be markedly, although not exclusively, recorded within John's Gospel.5 We also discover the Holy Spirit being identified with the spirit of Jesus (see Acts 16:7), as the very person who directed the missionary activities of the early Church (see Acts 9:31; 13:2; 15:28; 16:6-7). And, ultimately, it is the Apostle Paul in Romans 8, who very clearly identifies the Spirit, the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ with the Holy Spirit, the four expressions being synonymous terms according to his purposes.6 Paul's writings, by and large, reflect a remarkably deep understanding of the personality, role and authority of the Spirit of God, and so form an excellent starting point for a detailed study of the place of God's Holy Spirit within Christian theology.
The Deity of the Holy Spirit

Perhaps the most striking biblical evidence in support of the personality of the Holy Spirit, however, is to be found in the numerous references that place him in a coordinate relationship with God, the Father; and with God, the Son.7 These same references also clearly indicate to us his intrinsic deity.8 Grammatically, the gender of the Greek word pneuma ('spirit') is neuter.9 It's remarkably striking then, to discover that the biblical authors purposefully disregarded the Rule of Concord, by applying the masculine pronoun ekeinos ('he') directly to the Holy Spirit.10 We should've expected them to use the relevant neuter form, ekeino ('it'). Further, Scripture frequently describes the Holy Spirit engaging in activities such as teaching (John 14:26), bearing witness (John 15:26; Romans 8:16), praying on behalf of others (Romans 8:26-27), and forbidding or preventing certain activities (Acts 16:6-7). He also spoke (Acts 8:29, 13:2), and sadly, was grieved by sin in the lives of Christians (Ephesians 4:30). Again, grammatically, we observe the Spirit functions as the grammatical subject in the above passages. Should we be expected to understand him to be an impersonal force, then the Spirit would have functioned as the object in the clauses. This feature serves to reinforce that the authors understood God's Spirit to be a person.

Christian Scripture, the combined testimony of the Old and New Covenants, records the progressive revelation of God's will and purpose for the lives of his people. It is for this reason that we find God revealing more of himself to humanity throughout the progress of the ages, culminating in the testimony of Jesus Christ and his Apostles.
In the Old Covenant, to blaspheme the name of God was met with immediate judgment and death.11 In the New Covenant, however, we discover Jesus teaching that forgiveness is possible for this grievous sin. Further, Jesus places himself in a coordinate relationship with the Father, by indicating that forgiveness would extend to blaspheming him as well.12 However, should the blasphemy be directed towards the Holy Spirit, there remains no possibility for redemption. Why? The answer, we offer, is simple: there remains no further person in the Godhead to intervene on behalf of the sinner as an Advocate, to effect and secure expiation of this severest of sins. One might choose to reject God, and one might also reject Jesus. But should one ultimately reject the Holy Spirit, then who is left?
I must stress that I don't wish to imply that de-personalising the Spirit of God is necessarily to blaspheme him. However, to depersonalise God's Spirit is certainly to denigrate the majesty of his being, and to treat him as being much less than who he is, fully God. The Holy Spirit isn't an abstract, third person 'it'. Consequently, we shouldn't ever become so lazy, or so spiritually dull as to fall into the error/habit of equating him with an impersonal spiritual force.
I believe it's a shared ignorance of Christian history, borne from a misplaced arrogance concerning its perceived lack of value, which has led to the incorrect and immature understanding of the Holy Spirit held by the 'Acts 2:38' communions. My fervent prayer is that further investigation and study will lead to further understanding of the truth contained in God's Word, with a correspondingly closer relationship with him in his totality.


1. Note, especially, the statement 'What is the Holy Spirit' at the Revival Fellowship website

2. As Karl Barth once said: "Trinity is the Christian name for God."

3. Certainly in the 'earlier' books of the Hebrew canon at least

4. 'ish haaruach in Hebrew - translated by the NIV as "...the inspired man"

5. Note John 14:16, 26; 15:26-27; 16:5, 13

6. Note Romans 8:9, 14, 15-16, 23, 27. Cf 1 Peter 1:10-12; Ephesians 2:18; 1 Corinthians 12:13; and Galatians 4:6. For an extremely detailed, exegetical study of the theme of the Spirit in Paul's letters, I would recommend Dr Gordon Fee's, God's Empowering Presence, Hendrickson, 1993. This is a massive (almost 1,000 pages) and learned, technical theology on the Holy Spirit, one written by a world-renowned biblical scholar, and a Christian who comes from a Pentecostal church background. The same author has prepared a much briefer, far less technical work, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God, Hendrickson, 1996; which many would no doubt find somewhat less intimidating, and consequently more useful. 

7. Trinitarian theology can be, almost literally, 'wrung-out' of the New Testament canon. Although never explicit, as such, the Trinitarian position is implicit and foundational to all three divisions of the New Testament: historical books, letters and the Revelation

8. See Matthew 28:19; Acts 5:1-4; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2

9. The corresponding Hebrew word, ruach, is masculine

10. See, as representative, John 14:26, 15:26, 16:13-14

11. See Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11 in light of Leviticus 24:15-16

12. See Matthew 12:31-32

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