The personhood of the Holy Spirit is something many Christians assume. Because we are well used to the idea of the Trinity being a group of three persons, many people come to the texts of scripture with an a priori assumption that the Holy Spirit is person, and that wherever the Spirit of God is mentioned, that is understood to refer to a distinct person from the Father and the Son.

Others, on the other hand, have questioned this doctrine. Rather than approaching scripture with an assumption about the Spirit’s personhood, some have come to the scriptures viewing it as an open question, and have chosen to articulate what they understand of the scriptural data differently. Rather than seeing the Holy Spirit as a distinct person they suggest that the Holy Spirit is better understood as God’s active presence or power. They note that God is spirit, and therefore the mere etymology of “Holy Spirit” can fairly be taken as applicable to the one God, the Father. Also, the fact that the Spirit is never given distinct worship along with the Father and the Son, and that often in New Testament epistles simply a couplet of persons is mentioned (For example “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Cor 1:3 NKJV) are both pointed to supporting the idea that the Spirit is not a distinct person at all.

It must be admitted that the absence of distinct worship for the Holy Spirit and some of the other things these people point to do not seem to be what we would expect if the scriptures taught a co-equal Trinity of three persons, of which the Spirit is one.

There is, however, good scriptural reason to believe that the Holy Spirit is a person- such strong evidence, in fact, that while the point is never explicitly stated, it can be considered a necessary conclusion from what we are told in scripture. I would ask those who question the personhood of the Spirit to weigh these scriptural arguments objectively and ask themselves if there is really any room left for doubting that the Holy Spirit is a third distinct person in light of the following propositions:

Firstly, the Holy Spirit being sent by the Son indicates that the Son has authority over the Holy Spirit. This means that the Holy Spirit cannot be the Father, for if the Holy Spirit were the Father, or some aspect of His action, or some part of Him, then the Son could not have any authority over the Spirit, since “God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3). But if the Spirit were the Father, that statement would be untrue. Since the Father is the head of Christ, and is His God (Rev 3:12), Christ is under the authority and Godhood of the Father, not the other way around. If even part or some aspect of God were under the authority of the Son, statements such as that ‘God is the head of Christ’ would be untrue because in fact only part of God would be the head of Christ, while part would be under His headship, which is obviously absurd.

For the Spirit then to be under the authority of Christ would require that the Spirit is a distinct individual from the Father; and for the Spirit to be sent by the Son, is to show the Spirit to be under the authority of the Son, just as the Son being sent by the Father shows His own subordination to the Father. That the Spirit is sent by the Son (and thus under the headship of the Son) is seen clearly in two passages of scripture:

“But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.” (John 15:26 NKJV)

“Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7) NKJV)

Thus the Spirit must be understood as a distinct person from the Father, since He is under the authority of the Son, while the Father is not, but is rather the God of His Son.

Secondly, along similar lines, the Spirit is also sent by the Father. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:26 NKJV). This language shows that the Spirit is not merely the presence or activity of the Father, or a part of Him, since one does not “send” themself. That the Spirit is sent by God, and by His Son, shows that the Spirit is a distinct individual from the Father and the Son, Who is under the authority of both.

Thirdly, the Holy Spirit is said to intercede for believers:

“Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. 27 Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27 NKJV)

Here we must consider what ‘interceding’ is. In the Greek, the term actually indicates praying for another. To intercede for someone is to make requests for them to another. Being an intercessor involves taking on an intermediary role between two parties, which requires being distinct from those two parties- one by definition cannot intercede for themself. The Spirit’s intercessions are between us and God, as the Spirit assists us in praying to God. This then shows that the Spirit is not merely an aspect or part of God, or God’s active presence, but is a really distinct individual from the one God, the Father.

All in all, these arguments require us to understand the Spirit as being a person. A person by definition is a rational individual. That the Spirit is under the authority of both God and His Son demonstrates that the Spirit is a distinct individual, as does His intercession on our behalf. That the Spirit is rational is clear from His knowing, speaking, and interceding throughout scripture. It is then an important and scripturally inescapable conclusion that the Holy Spirit is a person, distinct from both the persons of God and His Son.

4 comments

  1. We are told that the Holy Spirit is from the Father and proceeds from the Father, so I’m not sure why we cannot view the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of YHWH at work in the world. In the old Testament we see frequent reference to the Spirit or “breath” of YHWH doing things in the world and coming over people in order to empower them or direct them in certain ways. I assume that you see the Spirit of YHWH in the Old Testament as being equivalent to the Holy Spirit described in the New Testament, but if you don’t, could you explain the difference you see?

    With regards to “sending” as it relates to authority, I don’t know that you can point to this verse and claim that Jesus is indicating that he has “authority” over the Holy Spirit. If a small child tells you they will send their father to come and help you, do you immediately assume that the child has authority over the father? Probably not. You would instead assume that the child will go to his father and ask that the father come and help you. The father accedes to the request because of his love for the child.

    Similarly Jesus asks the Father to send his Spirit to come and help is friends after he leaves. Both Jesus and the Father can be understood to be sending the Spirit of YHWH. The Father sends his Spirit (incidentally the same Spirit that resides in Jesus) and the Spirit is sent at the request of Jesus. So Jesus can also be understood to be sending the Spirit since it is sent at his request. Furthermore, Scripture tells use that Jesus was “led” by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. If Jesus has authority over the Spirit in the way you suggest, then why is it that the Spirit is said to lead Jesus?

    With regards to intercession, I think the message Paul is trying to get across is that our prayers should be in accordance with YHWH’s will. The only way for our prayers to truly be in accordance with YHWH’s will is to have YHWH direct our prayers through his Spirit. So it is YHWH himself, though his Spirit, that is interceding for us on our behalf. How do you think Jesus knew what to prayer for and what YHWH’s will was? Likely through the intercession of YHWH’s Spirit. Remember, Jesus was anointed with the Spirit at his baptism. The same anointing we receive as believers. And likely, now that Jesus is no longer physically with us, he too acts through the Spirit to empower and strength the church/body of believers YHWH has given him.

    Just because the Spirit is anthropomorphized, does not mean it is some separate “person” apart from YHWH. It may very well be, but I don’t think you have proven so through the logic you employ towards a few verses.

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    1. Andrew,

      Thanks for your response. My apologies that it’s taken so long to get back to you; it’s been a busy few days for me.

      //We are told that the Holy Spirit is from the Father and proceeds from the Father, so I’m not sure why we cannot view the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of YHWH at work in the world. In the old Testament we see frequent reference to the Spirit or “breath” of YHWH doing things in the world and coming over people in order to empower them or direct them in certain ways. I assume that you see the Spirit of YHWH in the Old Testament as being equivalent to the Holy Spirit described in the New Testament, but if you don’t, could you explain the difference you see?//

      I don’t think that God literally has breath in the sense that we do, as I think God is an incorporeal being, without lungs and any need for literal respiration (I’m guessing we might agree here). But I do think that sometimes ‘the spirit of God’ in the OT can just refer to the Father, the one God, Who is ‘spirit’/’a spirit’, as Jesus says in Jn 4:24. Other times I see this as reference to another person besides God, a spiritual being, that is set apart (holy) in some special way to God’s service – hence the title ‘Holy Spirit’. I see that as connecting with the Holy Spirit spoken of in the New Testament.

      Regarding your comments on the Spirit being sent by Jesus, I think you make a fair point that the bare language of ‘sending’ is vague enough to allow for the sort of interpretation you suggest. However, I think that we see more elaboration upon this sending in John that indicates to us that Jesus sends the Spirit as an authority over the Spirit, not merely by way of request. For instance, in Jn 16:12 we read “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” (NASB). This sort of language mirrors Christ’s frequent claims throughout the book that the things he teaches he does not speak on his own initiative, but has received those things from the Father (Jn 8:28, Jn 14:10). So in like manner, the Spirit will not speak on his own initiative, but what the Son has given the Spirit to speak (which the Son only has from the Father originally). This seems to lay out a pattern of revelation, that God gave His words to Christ, and Christ gives his words to the Spirit; the Spirit only speaks what Christ gives him, and the Son only speaks what the Father gives him. So, just as when we look at this relationship between the Father and Son we can understand from this that they are distinct persons, with the Son subordinated to the Father, I’d suggest we can use the same reasoning here to see that the Spirit also appears to be a distinct person, subordinate to the Son. The authority part comes into play with the fact that the Spirit is limited by Christ, to only speak as Christ commands. Of course, we know that’s not true of the Father, Who is supreme over all, is always free to speak on His own initiative, and is in fact so far from receiving what He says from the Son as that He is the very one giving the Son the things he says.

      As for the Spirit leading Jesus to temptation, good question! I think an answer would be that prior to being exalted to the right hand of God and there enthroned over angelic and spiritual authorities, Jesus may simply not have had authority over the Holy Spirit, or, at least, have not yet been exercising the authority which he had a right to as Messiah; just as, as Messiah, Christ technically had authority over everyone in the world, as the King of kings, who has been given all authority in heaven and earth; yet, prior to his ascension to the right hand of God, in his humility (Phil 2), he didn’t exercise that authority, but submitted to earthly authorities and sp gave us an example. We could see him as doing the same sort of thing with the Holy Spirit, where he is, in his humility, not yet exercising his power, and is instead giving us the perfect example of submission. Another, perhaps easier answer, is that the Spirit’s role there could in leading Jesus to temptation could be viewed in the capacity of assisting/helping Jesus do what he was setting out to do, more in the role of a helper than an authority over Jesus.

      //So it is YHWH himself, though his Spirit, that is interceding for us on our behalf.//

      I think this understanding is problematic because by definition, intercession on behalf of someone is made to someone else, by a third party. This is a very useful truth when talking with trinitarians and showing that Jesus and God are distinct, as we can argue from the fact that Jesus is the one Mediator between the one God and the rest of mankind, that Jesus is not the one God, based on the very nature of mediation/intercession, and the fact that it’s definitional to such mediation that the mediator cannot be one of the two parties between which there is mediation, but must be a third party- thus proving that Jesus and the one God are not one and the same. But applying that same logic here to the Holy Spirit, we seem to be forced to the same sort of conclusion- the intercessor must be a third party by definition, and therefore, can’t be the one God to Whom intercession is being made. Or, all that to say, by definition I think an intercessor, like a mediator, has to be a third party, and therefore, God cannot be intercessor to Himself.

      I hope this helps better explain where I’m coming from in suggesting the Spirit is a distinct person. This dialogue is making me think it might be worth significantly updating the article to better qualify and explain some of these points, as I imagine your questions and thoughts would likely be shared by others as well.

      In Christ,

      Andrew

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