The Holy Spirit has over Christian theological history, had many different understandings and interpretations.
Some believe it’s some kind of nameless angel or sentient being, others believe it is “force” or “power” of God, and many of whom subscribe to the Trinitarian stance believe it is the third person of the Trinity and will attest it is another form of God. Whilst these are all intriguing ideas, I am going to be examining the claims of its personage and attempt to explain my own views on just what I feel is the Holy Spirit.
The first mention of the Holy Spirt is at Genesis 1:2; “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”.
So as we see, our first mention doesn’t really give us that much of an explanation of exactly “what” the Holy Spirit is, other than it acts on behalf of or is from God. It is described to be “hovering over the waters” of the Earth in the beginning when it was formless and without life. Some translations may also render this as “relaxing” over the waters for the word “hovering” is translated from the word “rachaph” which can mean “to grow soft” or “to relax”. Relaxing, growing soft, or hovering, of course can refer to a great deal of things, both inanimate and animate, sentient and non-sentient. A person can relax or go limp, soft, but so can piece of fruit when it ages. A person may “hover about” as in to “spend time” around something or someone, a fly or humming bird may literally hover in midair. In order to detirmine exactly what is meant we need to explore more verses of the activities of the Holy Spirit in scripture and any further descriptions.
It is worth noting that the spirit was said to be hovering over the waters of the Earth, in that we have to consider what is being achieved and in “what form” it was hovering. Was the spirit hovering as a being over a single spot on the Earth like a helicopter over somewhere in the Atlantic? Or was this spirit “all over” the oceans of the Earth at once? Implying it was more of an “aura”, or “cloud”, or “force” which enveloped the entire Earth? The account of Genesis doesn’t tell us in detail, but it does describe the creation of the Earth at the hands of Yehovah and his Master Worker, his Son, Jesus Christ (Genesis 1:26, Proverbs 8:22-31, Colossians 1:15-16). Thus we may get an inclination here that the Holy Spirit was involved in the creation of the Earth as either a tool, or servant of God and his Son. But we still need to look further into the scriptures for references to the Holy Spirit.
A few examples can shown from scripture that the Holy Spirit always appears to be present or active when something practical is being achived. Be it during the creative works, providing God’s people with powers, knowledge, granting visions or during miracles.
- Ezekiel 11:24: “The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God. Then the vision I had seen went up from me”.
- Exodus 15:10: “But you blew with your breath/spirit, and the sea covered them. They sank like lead in the mighty waters”.
- Acts 2:4: “And they all became filled with Holy Spirit and started to speak in different languages, just as the Spirit enabled them to speak“.
Of course this still doesn’t exactly tell us “what” it is. The word used for Holy Spirit in both Hebrew and Greek (“ruach” and “pneuma”) can mean not only spirit, but also “breath” or “wind”. Hence, the word is also used to refer to “God’s breath”, but this alone does not tell us if the Holy Spirit is a force or person, for the same word is also used for other spirit beings in the Bible, such as angels and demons. Thus, we need to find Biblical references which either refer to it as a person, or as a “thing”.
In support of it not being a person, we could refer to the multitude of scriptures which appear to describe and catergorise it as non-sentient thing.
The scriptures show that a person can be “full of Holy Spirit” (including multiple people at once):
- Luke 4:1: “Then Jesus, full of Holy Spirit, turned away from the Jordan, and he was led about by the spirit in the wilderness”.
- Acts 2:4: “And they all became filled with Holy Spirit and started to speak in different languages, just as the spirit enabled them to speak”.
- Acts 6:5, 8: “What they said was pleasing to the whole multitude, and they selected Stephen, a man full of faith and Holy Spirit… Now Stephen, full of divine favour and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people”.
- Acts 7:55: “But he, being full of Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and caught sight of God’s glory and of Jesus standing at God’s right hand”.
The Holy Spirit is said to be “poured out” like water:
- Titus 3:6: “He poured this Spirit out richly on us through Jesus Christ our Savior”
- Mark 1:8: “I baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with Holy Spirit”
- Isaiah 44:3: “For I will pour out water on the thirsty one, And flowing streams on the dry ground. I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, And my blessing on your descendants.”
The Spirit can be traded by touch:
- John 20:22: “After saying this he blew on them and said to them: ‘Receive holy spirit”.
- Acts 19:26: “And when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began speaking in foreign languages and prophesying”.
And what’s even more interesting is that the Holy Spirit is also seemingly catergorised into a list alongside other impersonal or non-sentient things:
- 2 Corinthians 6:6: “By purity, by knowledge, by patience, by kindness, by Holy Spirit, by love free from hypocrisy.”
Nowhere in the above list is a sentient being mentioned, such as Jesus or God, but instead “qualities” of something which “originate” in something sentient. For example love can be expressed by a person, but love in itself is not a person. In the same way, perhaps Holy Spirit is described in this list because that too may be “expressed” by God, but is not in itself God or another person. This idea in fact could be said to be expressed word for word at 1 Corinthians 2:11: “For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” Are we to understand that we all have a seperate spirit entity which knows our own thoughts which can be projected outside of us as a seperate being? Or is it rather saying that the manifested Holy Spirit is the “expression” or “projection” of God’s thoughts or will? Just as “our spirit” is expressed when we take physical action, or speak our minds?
Another thing to consider is that the Holy Spirit is never given a name. Which is in itself quite odd, seeing that all other sentient spirits of importance in the Bible are typically given names, such as Michael, Gabriel, even Legion and of course, Satan himself.
Thus, are we to conclude that the Holy Spirit is seemingly just “too holy” to have a name, when even God himself has a personal name, and his Son? Can the Holy Spirit as a “person” be omnipresent and in multiple things, places or people at once? Can a spirit or seperate person outside of God know God’s thoughts? Is a person ever described to be something that can be poured? Or flowing like water? Would a person be randomly grouped in a list of impersonal objects or qualities? Thus this all may be strong evidence to prove that the Holy Spirit is not a person or being.
On the other hand some scriptures would seem to describe the Holy Spirit is something that can “intercede” or “plead”, that it can be “grieved”, and in a couple of verses it is even described as a “he” in some translations of the New Testament rather than “it” (as it is in all other texts).
- Romans 8:26-27: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself/itself(?) intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”
- Ephesians 4:30: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption”.
- John 14:26: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He/it(?) will teach you all things and will bring to your remembrance all things that I have said to you”.
The above scriptures on surface reading appear to support the notion of the Holy Spirit being a sentient spirit, such as some kind of angel. However, it is worth noting that some Bible translations omit “he” in place of “what” or “it” in such scriptures. But we have to ask the question of why that is.
In the original manuscripts, the phrase used in John 14:26 is “ekeinos”, which in many Bibles has been translated as “he”. The same again in Romans 8:26, where the word “autos” is used and has been translated as “himself”. However, according to translation lexicons and condordances, these words can mean and usually do mean “what”, “that” or “it”, whilst the word “houtus” strictly means “he”. The terms “ekeinos” and “autos” are a masculine prounouns, and thus the way it is translated is dependant on its preceeding word.
“Definition: that one (or neut. that thing), often intensified by the article preceding
Usage: that, that one there, yonder.
Often intensified by the article preceding“. – Strong’s Concordance
“he, it, the other, that very. From ekei; that one (or (neuter) thing); often intensified by the article prefixed — he, it, the other (same), selfsame, that (same, very), X their, X them, they, this, those. See also houtos“. – Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance
According to the rules of Greek grammar based on the concordances, we are told that “ekeinos” in this specific scripture becomes “houtos”, that is “he”, not because it is the word John may have purposely used to describe the Spirit, but because of a prefixed article which forces the expression of the word’s “masculinity”. That is because the word “helper” (paraklētos) in Greek is a masculine noun, and thus forces the transformation of the pronoun of “ekeninos” in Greek language to be read as “he” instead of “it”, even though the actual word John used can be and is in fact often used as “it”. Likewise for “autos”, that word can just as easily be translated as “it” or “he”, depending on context and grammatical rules.
Thus it’s very much possible that the Bible writers may have been writing “it” and not “he”, and is why several Bible translations opt for the word “it” over “he”. https://biblehub.com/parallel/romans/8-26.htm
What’s more interesting is that the Bible refers to the Holy Spirit by using the ‘genderless’ ‘impersonal’ pronoun; “it” in all other places wrote in the scriptures. The writers seemingly have opted for such a genderless and impersonal term at every possible place where the Greek rules of grammar allowed it, as opposed to using any terms that would of described the Holy Spirit as a person or literal gender. It seems writers only ever used a gendered pronoun for the Holy Spirit where the rules of Greek grammar ‘forced them to’, but never in places where they ‘freely could have’. Thus this may lend us a clue in understanding which is the correct interpretation of John 14:26 and Romans 8:26.
This possibly if not likely being the case is actually admitted by some translators who even prefer the word “he” over “it”:
“The Greek word for `Spirit’ is neuter, and while we [trinitarian NAB writers] use personal pronouns in English (`he,’ `his,’ `him’), most Greek MSS [ancient NT Greek Manuscripts] employ ‘it’.” – The New American Catholic Bible, St. Joseph edition 1970
Of course, this does not answer the other descriptive scriptures which say the “Holy Spirit” can be grieved and intercedes or pleads.
What we must consider is whether this is literal, in terms of “grieving a person’s feelings”. And likewise we must look deeper into just what “intercede” or plead can mean.
Grieving (lupeó) is to mean “pain” or “sorrow”, or to “vex” which means to frustrate. Now does this in itself prove the Holy Spirit is a person, or does it merely mean is is some other kind of “force” that can be “pained” or “hurt against”, but not in a sentient format? Well it is interesting to note that it would not be the first time, if such was the case, that something that was non-sentient was described to be in pain or grief in the Bible.
- Genesis 4:10: Yehovah said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground”.
- Hebrews 12:24: “to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel”.
So, we can see that, something doesn’t always have to be sentient to be described with emotives, or feelings, but is sometimes used poetically, often in association with God’s awareness. The surrounding context and description is what further reveals something to be. Thus to grieve the Holy Spirit may or may not refer to literal feelings. It could refer to a person becoming sad, but it also may refer to God’s awareness that we have done something to displease him, in which “grieves the Spirit” which he puts upon his children, that Spirit “crying out to God” in reaction to sin, as Abel’s blood cried out to God, informing of his murder.
But let’s look further into scripture. Can we find times where people grieved or even sinned against the Holy Spirit? Yes, multiple times.
We can look to the examples of the Pharisees and Ananias. If we examine their actions, we can note that it was never recorded that they physically communed with a sentient spirit when they did what they did. The Pharisees were not said sin against some apparition, but all they did was simply oppose Jesus, knowing but denying he was Son of God, and accused his powers of being demonic of origin (Mark 3:22, 28). Neither did Ananias literally “tell a lie to a spirit” but rather it is written that they were lying about their contributions to the congregation, and keeping money for themselves (Acts 5:3-5). We can see that sins against the Holy Spirit in the Bible have never had any anthropomorphised interactions or deeds with any sentient apparition or spirit being ever recorded.
With this consideration, we could make a case that the Holy Spirit is personified (given attribution of human form and characteristics to abstract concepts such as nations, emotions and natural forces like seasons and the weather, ie; “the wind was angry”) but never anthropomorphised (sentient qualities, being a person, speaking with someone) as opposed to all other spirit creatures in the Bible which ‘are’ shown for certainty to be sentient.
But what about the scriptures which state the Spirit is interceding? Is that not an anthropomorphised action? To intercede comes from the word “entugchanó” which means to “encounter”, petition”, “request” or to “intervene” or “interact with”.
“Definition: to chance upon, by implication confer with, entreat
Usage: (a) I meet, encounter, hence: (b) I call (upon), make a petition, make suit, supplication”. – Strong’s Concordance
“1793 entygxánō (from 1722 /en, “in,” which intensifies 5177 /tygxánō, “to obtain by hitting the mark”) – properly, “light upon (meet with), obtain” (LS); “to go and meet a person to converse, consult,” i.e. to intervene (“intersect with”)”. – HELPS Word-studies
Thus, it can mean to literally converse, yet even conversing in itself may not mean “literal conversing” if we are to use the example of Abel’s blood. However, if it is to mean “intervene” or “interact”, then it could be easily applied to something that is not a person. Of course, at the same time we can’t say for sure that it doesn’t mean to literally converse either.
Is there anything else we can look to to help us see if we can narrow down or better detirmine just what the Holy Spirit is? Well, we can always look to historical or scholarly sources which tell us how people back in those times understood the Holy Spirit and when or if that understanding ever changed over time:
The language of the New Testament permits the Holy Spirit to be understood as an impersonal force or influence more readily than it does the Son … The attempt to develop an understanding of the Holy Spirit consistent with the trinitarian passages … came to fruition at Constantinople in 381. There were a number of reasons why the personhood of the Holy Spirit took longer to acknowledge than the Son: (1) the term pneuma, breath, is neuter in general and impersonal in ordinary meaning; (2) the distinctive work of the Holy Spirit, influencing the believer, does not necessarily seem as personal as that of the Father … in addition, those who saw the Holy Spirit as a Person, were often heretical, for example, the Montanists; (3) many of the early theologians attributed to the Logos or Word, the revelatory activity later theologians saw as the special, personal work of the Holy Spirit – Brown HOJ. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody (MA), 1988
Christian writers have seen in various references to the Spirit of Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures an anticipation of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew word ruaḥ (usually translated “spirit”) is often found in texts referring to the free and unhindered activity of God, either in creating or in revitalizing creation, especially in connection with the prophetic word or messianic expectation. There was, however, no explicit belief in a separate divine person in biblical Judaism. In fact, the New Testament itself is not entirely clear in this regard. – Encylopedia Britannica
It’s very interesting that it is pointed out that for the entire time before the church doctrine of the Trinity was formed into its final and current state, that it was considered “heresy” to think of the Holy Spirit as a person. Addtionally, the Jews themselves also have never seen, and to this day still do not see the Holy Spirit as a person. This all may indicate that it was never once understood to be a person for all that time from the time of the Bible’s authoring (at least 1660CE) until 381AD, which is almost over 2000 years!
Of course we cannot be dogmatic, it’s always possible that the Holy Spirit is a person… but if it is, we would have to try to understand why it’s so often described and compared with impersonal objects, why it doesn’t have a name, and why it seems to have the ability to be upon multiple people at once and in multiple places at once (omnipresent) when no other angelic (or demonic) spirit of the Bible does.
Its omnipresense is in fact why many Trinitarians consider it to be the “third person” of the Trinity. Of course, there are no Biblical statements at all where the Holy Spirit is said to be God, but only that it “knows the mind of God” in the same way “our own spirit” knows our own minds.
In my own humble opinion, I think it could be said to be at best “ambiguous” of exactly what the Holy Spirit is… is it a person, is it a force? Is it “something else” which is neither a person or force but has some of the qualities of both?
The third option I find intriguing to explore. I would say, based on everything we’ve studied thus far, that the Holy Spirit is perhaps “the expressed will” of God, or “his mind in action” or made into manifestation. That it is his innerself expressed into action, or force, that perhaps it carries his essence, or presense, but at the same time is not “God himself” nor a individual. A way to explain it I find ironically is an example of how a Trinitarian once tried to explain the Trinity, by describing the sun. The sun is an object in itself, but it also emits rays, the rays themselves are not “the sun”, but is something projected from it.
Now I don’t feel this is a good explantion for a Trinity, or even Binity, and I firmly subscribe to the doctrine that “God is one” in every sense. Thus I do not see the Holy Spirit as a seperate being with its own sentience which is also God, just as I don’t see Jesus and God as “one”… (more on the topic of Jesus Godship and the Trinity can be found in my other article below):
…but I do think it’s a good allegory for potentially describing the Holy Spirit as being a “power of God” or “expression of God”, or “the mind of God” made physical, which he uses to accomplish his will, in that it’s “of him” but at the same time is not him, nor sentient in itself, but is something he is connected to (or should I say connected to him), which acts his hands, fingers, mouth and eyes upon the physical world in ways we cannot fully understand. I feel this maybe also why the term for “breath” is used in the Bible to explain his spirit, for likewise with ourselves, our own breath is of us, but is not us, it is something we express….