Holy Spirit, breath of God (1)

Whenever we begin to reflect on the Holy Spirit there is a strong temptation to rush at once into a discussion of what he does, without pausing to consider, first of all, who he is.  Yet the Spirit is one of the Blessed Trinity, and as such to be worshipped and glorified equally with the Father and the Son; and as Augustine pointed out long since, we cannot worship what we do not know.  ‘Who,’ he asked, ‘calls upon you when he does not know you?’  (Confessions, I:1).  Nor should we seek shelter behind the principle that the Spirit never draws attention to himself but sees it as his mission to point the world to Christ.  He certainly does glorify the Son, but the Scriptures are also rich in teaching about the Spirit himself (much of it, indeed, from the lips of Christ).  It goes without saying that we must listen to all that the Spirit has to say about the Son, but we must also listen to all that Scripture has to say about the Spirit of the Son. 

For the moment, however, we must content ourselves with a mere road-map.


A person

The most striking thing about the Spirit as revealed in Scripture is that he is a person.  Granted, the Bible never uses the word ‘person’, and offers us no definition of a person, but ‘person’ is the highest category known to us, and ever since the second century the church has used it both to describe both the one living God on the one hand, and the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit on the other.  The word ‘person’ distinguishes humans from inanimate objects, animals and mere ideas, and this distinction was known to the Bible itself, which ridicules the idea that the God whose image we bear could be represented by a block of gold or stone or by images of birds, animals and reptiles (Rom. 1:23).  Behind such rhetoric lies the assumption that God cannot be a lesser being than his creature, man; and what sets man apart is that he or she is a person, by which we mean that humans not only live and breathe and eat and feel like animals, but also think, plan, choose, speak and, above all, love.  These are the attributes that underlie our notion of ‘persons’.

Few would deny that the Father and the Son are persons in this sense, but on the fringes of Christianity there have always been some who denied the personality of the Holy Spirit.  For example, the New World Translation of the Bible (used by Jehovah’s Witnesses) consistently refers to the Spirit as ‘it’.  The Bible, however, nowhere draws such a sharp distinction between the Father and the Son on the one hand and the Holy Spirit on the other.  What they are, he is: a person in exactly the same sense.  For example, he thinks.  He has a mind which knows the thoughts of God and searches the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10-11); and a mind, besides, which is known to God himself (Rom. 8:27).  Similarly, the Spirit makes decisions, exercising his own freedom of choice.  This is why there is such a rich diversity of gifts in the church: the Spirit distributes the charismata at his own discretion (1 Cor. 12:11).  We find, too, that the Spirit directs.  It was he who personally directed the church at Antioch to commission Paul and Barnabas for their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2); it was he who later forbade Paul and his companions to preach in Asia (Acts 16:6) and refused them permission to enter Bithynia (Acts 16:7); and it was he who appointed the overseers of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:28).  These all point to the Spirit giving personal directions to the church.

But not only is the Spirit proactive: he is also re-active, deeply affected by human actions and attitudes.  He can be lied to, for example (Acts 5:3).  He can be the victim of blasphemy, just like Christ, except that to speak evil of his work is an even more serious sin than blasphemy against Christ (Mt. 12:31).  And, most remarkably of all, the Spirit can be grieved (Eph. 4:30.  The same point is made in Isaiah 63:10, ‘Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit.’)  He is the Spirit of holiness, sensitive to sin wherever he sees it, but saddened above all by sin in those whom he has sealed as his own.

It is true, of course, that in both Hebrew and Greek the word for ‘spirit’ is also the word for ‘wind’: ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek.  Following on from this, the effect of the Spirit’s presence is sometimes compared in Scripture to that of the wind, the mightiest force in nature.  In his discussion with Nicodemus, for example, Jesus moves easily from speaking about the Spirit to speaking about the wind: ‘The wind (pneuma) blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ (Jn. 3:8).  The point of the comparison, however, is not to make a statement about the nature of the Spirit, but to highlight his sovereign freedom in connection with the new birth. 

Similarly, in Acts 2:2 the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost is accompanied by a sound like the blowing of a violent wind.  Jesus had promised his disciples power (Acts 1:8), and when the Spirit comes, he comes like a gale-force wind, sweeping through the church and transforming it into the most energised body on earth.  But here at Pentecost, wind is not all.  The Spirit’s presence is also signalised by what look like tongues of fire.  This is what John the Baptist had promised: ‘He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ (Mt. 3:11).  God comes as he came in the Burning Bush of Horeb and in the fire of Sinai: a God whose holiness the church must never forget, but who has now come to turn the gospel she preaches into an inextinguishable blaze, setting the world on fire.

The use of such terms does not imply, however, that the Holy Spirit is merely a wind or a fire or merely an eruption of the divine power and energy.  After all, God is also called a rock, but this cannot mean that he is made of granite, any more than the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove (Mk. 1:10) means that he is a bird.  Such terms are, surely, metaphorical.  The Holy Spirit is awesome as fire, powerful as the wind and gentle as a dove, but he is neither a mere fire, a force of nature or a sacramental sign.  The metaphors fix on our minds the effects of his presence and ministry.  But the metaphors are not what he is.

It is also true that pneuma, the Greek word for spirit, is neuter, and on the face of things this seems to justify the New World Translation’s practice of consistently referring to him as ‘it’.  However, unlike English, Greek and many other languages do not use natural gender, according to which the neuter is limited to inanimate objects, the masculine to males and the feminine to females.  In French, for example, a table is feminine and a railway station is masculine, but that does not entitle them to be referred to as ‘she’ or ‘he’.  On the other hand, the two Greek words for a child (teknon and paidion) are neuter, but this doesn’t mean that babies are inanimate objects (they do, after all, cry at 4 o’clock in the morning).

It would be premature, then to infer from the fact that the word pneuma is neuter that the Holy Spirit is a mere ‘it’ or a mere ‘thing’, and the gravity of referring to him in such language should not be underestimated.  If for example, someone points to a semi-conscious drunken woman and says, ‘Get that thing out of here!’ the language is profoundly contemptuous of someone who, even in her degradation, still bears the image of God.  How much more serious, then, to speak of the Spirit of God as a ‘thing’! 

But this is not all that may be said here.  There is another fascinating grammatical detail.  Even though the word pneuma is neuter, it is frequently followed by the masculine personal pronoun, ekeinos; and not only is ekeinos a masculine pronoun, it is an emphatic one.  Jesus uses it in John 15:26: ‘When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit (pneuma)of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.’  We find it again in John 16:8, where Jesus once more speaks of sending the Counsellor and adds, ‘when he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement’.  Exactly the same usage occurs in verses 13 and 14 of this same chapter.  By contrast, the neuter form of the pronoun (ekeinon) is never used of the Spirit.

 The grammatical argument tells, then, not against the personality of the Spirit, but in support of it.


Is the Spirit a distinct person?

But while, according to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is a thinking, living, loving and sensitive free agent who exercises his own discretion, is he also a person in his own right, distinct from the Father and the Son?  This was denied in the third century by Sabellius, who argued that the terms Father, Son and Spirit were merely three names for one and the same deity, denoting differing modes or phases of his being.  As Creator, he was the Father, as Redeemer he was the Son, as Sanctifier he was the Spirit.  The names denoted only successive emanations of the single ruler of the universe. 

This heresy (sometimes referred to as ‘Modalism’) was one of several early forms of Unitarianism.  There were no three persons, and no Trinity.  The Father, the Son and the Spirit were one and the same person.  We should bear in mind that at this point we are at the very beginning of post-biblical Christian reflection, and as the church wrestled with the implications of the coming of God in the person of Jesus it was inevitable that theories would emerge which would not stand the test of time.  Theologically, the ‘Fathers’ were but children.  In the case of Sabellius, the underlying concern was for the unity of God: a truth which was at a premium in the ancient world of polytheistic paganism, with its ‘gods many and lords many’ (1 Cor. 8:5), and which is, of course, a truth of fundamental importance still.  Indeed, the key Christian confession is the one we share with Judaism, ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one’ (Deut. 6:4).  In line with this, orthodox Christianity has always insisted that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not three gods.  There is one Creator, one Lord, one Preserver and Governor of the universe, one Judge of all. 

It took centuries to impress this truth on ancient Israel, which lapsed time and again into the idolatry it saw in the surrounding nations.  Only in the bitterness of exile did they learn once and for all that one God, the LORD (Yahweh), was the maker of heaven and earth, and Lord of all nations, everywhere; and only after his people had taken this lesson to heart did God reveal that though he alone was God, yet he was not a lonely God, surrounded by nothing he could love or speak with.  In and with the coming of Messiah it became plain that God had a Son and a Spirit, and that in the depths of his own being the one LORD was an eternal fellowship of love.  God was love, and it was not merely self-love.  The Father loved the Son, the Son loved the Father, the Spirit loved them both, and they both loved him.  Each was eternally Other to the Others.

But does Scripture bear this out and make plain that the Spirit is not merely ‘personal’, but is a person in his own right, distinct from the Father and the Son?  The answer is an unequivocal, Yes!  The distinction is already clear in the account of Messiah’s birth, especially in Luke’s record of the Annunciation (Lk. 1:26-35).  Here, the three divine persons appear: the power of the Most High is to overshadow the Virgin, the Holy Spirit is to come upon her, and her child is to be called ‘the Son of God’.  As Matthew records it, the child is conceived from the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:20), but the child is not the Spirit’s Son, nor is the Spirit himself the Son.  The Three are acting together, but each is distinct from the other.

The distinctions are even clearer in the story of Jesus’ baptism, where, once again, we see the three persons together at the same time and in the same place.  The Son, and only the Son, is baptised; the Father speaks from heaven to acknowledge and affirm him; and the Holy Spirit comes down upon him in the shape of a dove (Mk. 1:9-11).  It is impossible to reduce this to a scenario where one and the same person is baptised, addresses himself and descends upon himself.  The Three are clearly united in a common bond and a common commitment, but it is a union between three distinct persons affirming and supporting each other.

The distinction between the Spirit and the Son is no less plain in the account of the temptations in the wilderness.  Although, unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not narrate the three successive temptations, it is he who speaks most dramatically of the relation between the Spirit and Jesus.  The Spirit, he says, ‘drove him out’ (ekballei) into the desert.  And when, later in the gospel narrative (Mt. 12:31-2), Jesus speaks of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit it is absolutely clear that he distinguishes between the Spirit and himself, declaring that deliberate misrepresentation of the Spirit is a more serious sin than even blasphemy against the Son of Man:  a sin, indeed, for which there can be no forgiveness. 

When we move from the Synoptic Gospels to John we see Jesus, not so much asserting, as taking for granted, that he and the Spirit are different persons.  The clearest example of this is verse 16 of Chapter Fourteen: ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever’.  Here the Son asks the Father, the Father gives the Spirit and the Spirit continues the Son’s work as Paraclete.  Yet he is not the Son.  He is ‘another’ Paraclete.  Later, in John 15:24, Jesus again speaks in such a way as makes plain that the Son, the Father and the Spirit are distinct persons: he will ‘send’ the Spirit ‘from’ the Father.  He continues in this same vein in Chapter Sixteen: the Spirit will bring glory to Christ by making him known to the disciples (verse 13).

In none of these passages does Jesus speak as if he were seeking to prove that the Holy Spirit was a distinct person.  This wasn’t denied, or even discussed, in the early church, but simply taken for granted, like the other key elements in the doctrine of the Trinity.  For example, the New Testament contains not the slightest hint of a debate about the deity of Christ in the early church. But then, neither does it reflect any reservations over the distinct personality of the Holy Spirit.  On the contrary, it makes plain time and again that the Spirit is distinct from both the Father and the Son.  Indeed, we hear this note struck in the very first 'Christian' sermon, when Peter, preaching at Pentecost, ascribes the coming of the Spirit to the fact that the exalted Christ has poured him out (Acts 2:33). All the later references assume this same distinction between the persons.  In Romans 8:26, Paul describes the Spirit as interceding for us with God; in 1 Corinthians 1:10 he speaks of him as searching the deep things of God; according to Galatians 4:7 God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts; according to Ephesians 2:18 we have access to the Father through the Spirit; and according to 1 Peter 1:11, when the Spirit spoke through the prophets he was pointing to the sufferings of Christ and to the glories that would follow.

There can be no doubt, then, that according to Scripture the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, but a person distinct from both.  Just as in the most intimate human relations we remain distinct persons so, even in the unique intimacy of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Spirit relate to each other as ‘I’, ‘Thou’ and ‘He’.  They are one in a oneness that we can never fathom, yet it is always a oneness of ‘others’.

But, within this one-ness, is the Holy Spirit in the fullest sense divine, equal in authority and glory with the Father and the Son, and worthy of the same worship and adoration?  Yes, emphatically; but more of that later, God willing.