The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity who actualizes in believers what God the Father promised for His children in God the Son. The profound reality is that since the Holy Spirit dwells in followers of Christ, they can personally encounter the transcendent God in a very intimate manner. However, by failing to recognize the progressive nature of revelation and the Holy Spirit's humble role of glorifying the Father and the Son but not Himself, many have developed unbiblical beliefs regarding the deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit — throughout history, and even today.
In the early church era, Arius denied the full deity of the Holy Spirit. Sabellius denied that the Holy Spirit is a divine person distinct from the Father and the Son, although admitting the deity of the Holy Spirit. Today, Mormons present the Spirit as a divine being separate, not distinct, from the Father and the Son in the Trinity. Jehovah's Witnesses see the Holy Spirit as a powerful force, not a person, and do not accept His full deity. There are also two problematic, if not heretical, perspectives on the Holy Spirit that can be found in some contemporary churches: pneumatomania (unbiblical obsession with the Holy Spirit as a divine power while not denying His personhood) and pnuematophobia (fear of any discussion of the Holy Spirit). Biblical Christians should avoid both.
The Holy Spirit left the divine revelation of Himself in the Bible. Therefore, it is imperative for Christians to know, believe, and practice the biblical teachings of the deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit.
The Deity of the Holy Spirit
The Bible uses the words "Holy Spirit" and "God" interchangeably. When Ananias pretended he had given to the church all the money that he earned by selling his property, Peter rebuked him for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). Interestingly, the next verse (v. 4) reveals that Ananias' sin was particularly serious since he lied to "God," not to "men." Peter affirmed the full deity of the Spirit by pointing out that Ananias lied to the Spirit as God. Paul also calls Christians both "the temple of God" (1 Corinthians 3:16, NIV) and the "temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19, NIV). The Spirit is the owner of the temple because He is God and fully worthy of worship.
The Bible ascribes the same divine attributes to the Holy Spirit that belong to the Father and the Son. The Spirit is omniscient. The Spirit knows the thoughts of God (1 Corinthians 2:10-11). Who can know the mind of God except God Himself? How can a finite creature penetrate the thoughts of the infinite God? The Spirit's knowledge of the thoughts of God demonstrates that the Spirit is the omniscient God. The Spirit is also omnipresent. Neither heaven nor Sheol can provide a hiding place for a human to escape the presence of God because His Spirit is the almighty Lord of space and time (Psalm 139:7). Hebrews 9:14 speaks of the eternal Spirit through whom Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice without blemish. Eternality is a divine attribute of God related to the Father in the Old Testament (Psalm 90:1-2) and in the New Testament related to the Son (Hebrews 1:10-12). The Spirit is sovereign in executing His ministry. John reminds his readers of the independent will of the Spirit in regeneration by comparing Him to "the wind" that blows "where it pleases" (John 3:8). The Spirit is also sovereign in His distribution of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:11).
The Bible confirms the deity of the Holy Spirit through His divine works. The Holy Spirit does what only God can do. Genesis 1:2 introduces the Spirit of God (ruach elohim) as the divine agent of creation. Some theologians do not read ruach elohim as a reference to the Holy Spirit in terms of a personal member of the Trinity. They suggest that the Hebrew phrase must be translated as "a mighty wind," for ruach also means wind or breath, and elohim could be used as a superlative. However, ruach elohim is always rendered as the Spirit of God elsewhere in the Old Testament.1 In addition, the mighty wind of God is related to the divine judgment rather than to creation in the Old Testament. Psalm 104:30 describes the Spirit of God as the Creator of the world. Luke identifies the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity who descended upon Christians at Pentecost, as the Spirit of God promised in Joel 2:28 (Acts 2:17). Therefore, Christians can read the Spirit in Genesis 1:2 as the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament, the Spirit as the Creator is revealed in His provision of life, in the virginal conception and resurrection of Christ (Matthew 1; Luke 1:35; Romans 1:4; 8:11), and the rebirth of sinners (John 3:5-8).
Furthermore, the New Testament witnesses that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are equal agents in baptism (Matthew 28:19-20), a benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14), the distribution of the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-6), and salvation (Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:18).
The Holy Spirit as a Person
The personhood of the Spirit can be attested linguistically. In Greek, a pronoun must agree with its antecedent noun in gender, number, and person. In Greek, "Spirit" (pneuma) is a neuter noun. Therefore, one naturally expects to have a neuter pronoun for the neuter noun, if it is grammatically necessary within a clause. However, John 16:13-14 does not follow the normal pattern here. Instead, John calls the Spirit "He" by using the demonstrative masculine pronoun (ekeinos), not the neuter pronoun (ekeino meaning "it"). No evangelical Christian who believes in the inspiration of Scripture by the Spirit would contend that John simply made a grammatical error. If it is not an error, then John intentionally used the masculine pronoun for the Spirit in order to indicate the personhood of the Spirit. In addition, Jesus called the Spirit "another (allos) comforter (paracletos)" in John 14:16. Allos means "another of the same kind." As Jesus is a divine person who comforts and helps His disciples, so also is the Spirit. However, Jehovah's Witnesses challenge that John 14:17 uses the personal neuter pronoun (auto meaning "it"), not the masculine pronoun (autos meaning "He") in order to clarify the impersonal nature of the Spirit. This is untenable. The same Greek word auto is used in Matthew 2:13 to refer to the infant Jesus Herod tried to kill. That the neuter pronoun auto is used to correspond to a grammatically neuter antecedent noun does not always demand translation as the impersonal pronoun "it," particularly when the antecedent noun refers to a person like "child" (see also Mark 9:36).
The personhood of the Spirit can be attested through His psychological and moral characteristics. The Spirit is intelligent. He taught the apostles everything that Jesus said (John 14:26). Paul speaks of the mind of the Spirit (Romans 8:27). Free will is another psychological characteristic of the Holy Spirit as a person. According to His own will, the Spirit grants His gifts to believers (1 Corinthians 12:11). He has feelings and affections. Therefore, He is grieved when the people of God disobey Him (Isaiah 63:10; Ephesians 4:30). If the Spirit is an impersonal power, how can "it" be offended by sin, that is, personal and moral rebellion against the personal God?
The personhood of the Spirit can be attested through His personal actions. The Spirit convicts sinners of sin (John 16:8) and glorifies Jesus (John 16:14). The same Spirit judged that which was good for early Christians (Acts 15:28) and guided apostles into all truth (John 16:13). The Spirit directed and ordered where Paul's mission team should go (Acts 16:6-7). Sometimes, the Spirit spoke to the people of God in order to lead them to accomplish the will of God in their ministry (Acts 8:29; Revelation 2:7). He also speaks truth through believers (Matt 10:20; Romans 8:16). Jehovah's Witnesses present the Spirit as if He were like an electronic wave that simply carries the message of God.2 In contrast, the Spirit portrayed in the Bible expresses Himself as a personal agent of speech. When Peter pondered the vision of unclean animals at the house of Simon, the Spirit said to him, "But get up, go down stairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I (ego) have sent them Myself" (Acts 10:19-20, NASB). How can an impersonal force create an interpersonal relationship with human beings?
The Holy Spirit as a Divine Person Distinct from the Father and the Son
Although the Spirit is one with the Father and the Son in deity, the Bible describes the Spirit as a person distinct from the Father and the Son. When Jesus came out of the water, the Spirit descended like a dove, and the Father announced His love toward His Son (Matthew 3:16-17). After His baptism, Christ was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested (Matthew 4:1). Again, the Greek word allos introduces the Spirit as another helper distinctive from Christ (John 14:16). Nonetheless, some argue for the personal identification between the resurrected Christ and the Holy Spirit by appealing to 1 Corinthians 15:45 (The first Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit) and 2 Corinthians 3:17 (Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom). No matter how one identifies "a life-giving Spirit" and "the Lord," one should not interpret these two verses in a way that violates the personal distinction between Christ and the Spirit within the Bible. Here, Paul simply indicates the inseparable relationship between Christ and the Spirit in a Christian's spiritual life. As Garrett states, "The Holy Spirit came, therefore, to take the place of Jesus as the incarnate Word or Son of God, but the Spirit did not come to replace or displace Jesus as exalted."3
The Holy Spirit is fully divine as the Father and the Son are fully divine. Therefore, the Spirit is to be the subject of worship and prayer. One should reject the argument that the Holy Spirit is not to be worshipped as God since the Bible does not call Him God. This is a naïve view that ignores the whole message of the Bible. Remember the Lord's command in Matthew 28 to baptize followers in the name (singular) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, identifying Him fully as God. Neither should the Spirit's functional subordination to Christ be a contention for the former's inferiority to the latter in deity. As the Son voluntarily obeyed the Father in His mission here on earth, so the Spirit voluntarily accepted His role in His free and sovereign will.
Jehovah's Witnesses wrongly argue that the Spirit is one with the Father and the Son only in purpose and function, not in the Godhead. How can the Spirit comprehend and perform exactly what God the Father alone can plan and do? The functional oneness between the Spirit and the Father could be possible only when They are one in deity. Unlike Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons call the Spirit a God, but they still hold that the Spirit is inferior to the Father in deity. According to Mormonism, the Father is the father of all spirits and is the only object of worship. Mormons honor the Spirit but do not worship Him in the sense of adoration.4 In the Bible, however, there is no qualitative difference in deity between the Spirit and God. Therefore, Christians should praise and worship the Spirit with the Father and the Son.
In addition, the Holy Spirit is not only God but also a true person. He has the same personal attributes that the Father and the Son possess: intelligence, will, and affection. The Spirit is not merely the divine power by which Christians offer true worship or prayer to God. Christians' worship and prayer to the Spirit must be based on their obedient relationship with Him, for He is as personal as the Father and the Son. Christians have to obey the leadership and guidance of the Spirit in finding and judging what the will of God is. The biblical description of the Spirit as "He" must be preserved.
Some feminists challenge the use of the masculine pronouns in reference to the Holy Spirit, arguing that the apostles were influenced by the views of their ancient patriarchal society. Some feminists also emphasize that the Spirit was called "wisdom," which is Sophia, a feminine noun, in Greek. However, the male pronouns referring to the Spirit are given as an aspect of the divine revelation, not because God is a human male, but because God reveals Himself to us in this way. To honor the Spirit as He is revealed is to worship Him as He wishes.
Finally, the distinction in person between Christ and the Spirit must be also preserved. The human incapability of explaining how the Spirit and Christ can be cognitively distinguished in one spiritual experience should not lead one to deny the revelation of the personal distinction between the Spirit and the Son.
It is certain that grasping the complexities associated with a biblically balanced perspective of the Holy Spirit — especially in relation to the triune nature of one God — is beyond the capacity of our finite and fallen minds. But that is good, for a God who could be so comprehended would be a truly diminished God, unworthy of our worship and devotion. Let us avoid the extreme tendencies of some to compensate for our limitations by either overemphasizing or avoiding the topic of the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. Instead, let us ascribe to Him the worship and awe our God deserves.
1 Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 111-12.
2 Jehovah's Witnesses Official Web site, The Holy Spirit-God's Active Force; accessed 29 March 2009; available from http://www.watchtower.org/e/ti/article_07.htm; Internet.
3 James Leo Garrett Jr., Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, vol. 2 (North Richland Hills, TX: Bibla, 2001), 170.
4 Bruce McConkie, "Our Relationship with the Lord," Provo, Utah, on 2 March 1982.
Dongsun Cho is associate pastor of Hanuri Baptist Church in Carrollton, Texas, and is assistant professor of Historical Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.