Is the Holy Spirit a Person?

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.

On the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit has not been a main focus over the course of this blog; although the Spirit has been spoken of as part of the Trinity, and in relation to the Father and the Son, the focus of most of the posts has been on christology and theology proper, with only marginal attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I now wish to treat the subject at some length.

In the period of church history with which I am the most familiar, the patristic era, especially the ante-nicene and nicene eras, there was quite a wide variety of views on the Holy Spirit expressed by various authors at various times. In the latter half of the fourth century, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit became a new focus for the church, which previously had regarded the doctrine of the Spirit as something somewhat mysterious. Origen could write of the doctrine:

“the apostles related that the Holy Spirit was associated in honour and dignity with the Father and the Son. But in His case it is not clearly distinguished whether He is to be regarded as born or innate, or also as a Son of God or not: for these are points which have to be inquired into out of sacred Scripture according to the best of our ability, and which demand careful investigation. And that this Spirit inspired each one of the saints, whether prophets or apostles; and that there was not one Spirit in the men of the old dispensation, and another in those who were inspired at the advent of Christ, is most clearly taught throughout the Churches.” (De Princippiis, Preface)

This summary is well-representative of the testimony of the ante-nicene fathers on the subject. The Spirit’s ontology is an area of doctrine that has very little settled substance, and which seems more to be a mystery than a dogma, about which the church has no clear settled tradition from the apostles, except for the economic role of the Spirit in the giving of divine revelation and in the life of believers, and the Spirit’s close association with the Father and the Son.

In the Nicene era, the doctrine received surprisingly little attention upon the outbreak of the arian controversy. The nicene creed is so vague on the Holy Spirit that nearly any view can subscribe to the article. In the debates of the following decade, christology continued to be the main focus, with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit seemingly only being included as a marginal consideration in the context of the wider debate.

The Creed composed by the homoousians at the western council of Serdica in 343 includes this confusing statement on the Holy Spirit:

“We believe in and we receive the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, whom the Lord both promised and sent. We believe in it as sent.

It was not the Holy Ghost who suffered, but the manhood with which He clothed Himself; which he took from the Virgin Mary, which being man was capable of suffering; for man is mortal, whereas God is immortal.”

In 351 the council that met to deal with the heresy of Photinius included in their canons a more exact statement of the Spirit’s ontology than can seemingly be found in the decision of any council prior. As this council had the support of both the eastern and western churches, the statements are especially notable as seemingly expressing the general consensus at the time:

“XVIII. If any man says that the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are one Person: let him be anathema.

XIX. If any man speaking of the Holy Ghost the Paraclete says that He is the Unborn God: let him be anathema.

XX. If any man denies that, as the Lord has taught us, the Paraclete is different from the Son; for He said, And the Father shall send you another Comforter, whom I shall ask John 14:16: let him be anathema.

XXI. If any man says that the Holy Spirit is a part of the Father or of the Son: let him be anathema.

XXII. If any man says that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are three Gods: let him be anathema.”

These statements are mostly negative in nature: declaring what the Spirit ontologically is not, rather than what the Spirit actually is. The most noteworthy thrust of these decrees is that the Spirit is not in any way to be understood as part of God, or of His Son, but as a truly distinct individual. This seems to go a step beyond the ante-nicene fathers, such as Origen, who treated the matter of whether the Spirit was “born of innate” as an open question.

This apparently recent consensus that the Spirit was a distinct individual from both the Father and the Son laid the groundwork for the debates over the Holy Spirit that would rage in the following decades.

Among the major figures of the arian controversy we can already see the opposing positions that would, by the time of the council of Constantinople in 381, constitute the two major positions within the church on the Holy Spirit. In Athanasius’s writings, we have a defense of the Holy Spirit’s essential divinity, which he wrote in response to some he had heard about who thought that the Holy Spirit was a creature.

Perhaps unknown to Athanasius, one of his major opponents in the debates of the fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea, held exactly this view, at least towards the end of his life. In his work On Ecclesiastical Theology, in which Eusebius argued for an essentially nicene christology over and against the doctrines of Marcellus of Ancyra, Eusebius wrote thus of the Holy Spirit:

“But the Counseling Spirit would be neither God nor Son, since he himself has not also received his generation from the Father as the Son has, but is one of those things brought into existence through the Son, because “all things were made through him, and without him not one thing was made.” (Book 3, Chapter 6)

Others took a more cautious approach to the subject, and confessed a decided agnosticism on the nature of the Holy Spirit, regarding it as something not revealed in the scriptures, such as Cyril of Jerusalem:

“And it is enough for us to know these things; but inquire not curiously into His nature or substance : for had it been written, we would have spoken of it; what is not written, let us not venture on; it is sufficient for our salvation to know, that there is Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost.” (Lecture 16, On the Holy Spirit)

Despite these views existing in this era, there does not appear to have been widespread debate on the subject, nor did everyone seem to agree amongst the various parties that had formed- for instance, Hilary of Poitiers, a staunch homoousian, could write in such a way in De Synodis as to seem to imply that nearly no one would consider that the Holy Spirit was co-essential with the Father and the Son:

“This assembly of the saints wished to strike a blow at that impiety which by a mere counting of names evades the truth as to the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost; which represents that there is no personal cause for each name, and by a false use of these names makes the triple nomenclature imply only one Person, so that the Father alone could be also called both Holy Ghost and Son. Consequently they declared there were three substances, meaning three subsistent Persons, and not thereby introducing any dissimilarity of essence to separate the substance of Father and Son. For the words to teach us that they are three in substance, but in agreement one, are free from objection, because as the Spirit is also named, and He is the Paraclete, it is more fitting that a unity of agreement should be asserted than a unity of essence based on likeness of substance.”

Shortly after Eusebius of Caesarea’s death, a large portion of eastern bishops, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, became known to those who held to the position of Athanasius as ‘Pneumatachi’- contenders against the Holy Spirit. Debates raged about the Holy Spirit’s nature leading up the the council of Constantinople in 381. Among the important contributions to these debates was the work of Basil ‘the Great’ On the Holy Spirit. In this, Basil argued, like Athanasius, that the scriptures treat the Holy Spirit as divine, and that He must be understood as a third co-essential person, together with the Father and the Son.

This view proved the dominant view among the homoousians, who in 381 won a great victory when emperor Theodosius decided to make the empire homoousian. ‘Arian’ homoian bishops were ejected from their pulpits and replaced with homoousians ahead of the council of Constantinople in 381. A delegation of a great many Pneumatachi were barred from attending the proceedings of the council, and, to no one’s surprise, the council decided in favor of the changes the emperor had already enacted, and against the Pneumatachi. The clause on the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed was expanded upon to speak of the Holy Spirit as an object of worship together with the Father and the Son, and the official doctrine of the church was henceforward that the Holy Spirit was a third distinct consubstantial person.

Now, having covered the history of this doctrine a bit, I will, if I may be so bold, propose a theory of my own, which circumvents both the Homoousians and the Pneumatachi, by suggesting that the basic assumption both parties built upon- that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person from the Father and the Son- is unwarranted by the scriptures.

The theory I propose is this- that the Holy Spirit is not a distinct individual besides the Father, but rather, as being the Spirit of the one God, the Father, is a part of the Father. Or said another way, the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father is better summed up as the relation of a part to the whole, than that of one individual to another. There is no text of scripture I am ware of that would disprove this theory.

Such a view is based on the parallel drawn, in scripture, between the relationship of a man’s spirit to a man:

“But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 11 For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor 2:10-11 NKJV)

A man’s spirit, is of course part of a man, yet, a part is certainly distinguishable from the whole. We may speak of a man’s spirit distinctly from the man, although not as another person.

Just as the relationship of the Son to the Father being described as generation secures in our mind the understanding that the Son is a distinct individual from the Father, so the description of the Spirit as the Spirit of God, as paralleling how the spirit of a man relates to that man, seems to imply to us that the Spirit is not a distinct individual from the Father, but is rather a part of Him.

Further, among men, our spirits are not impersonal forces, but according to scripture can seemingly think, will, communicate, and know. For example, Samuel’s spirit, when summoned to Saul, obviously spoke, thought, possessed knowledge etc. Thus such a theory can account for the things usually used to argue that the Spirit is a person rather than an impersonal force. Certainly, that the Spirit wills, knows, acts, etc, shows that it is not impersonal. Yet it is not obvious that the Spirit must be a distinct person from God in order to exhibit these traits, as even a human spirit may exhibit such traits without being a distinct person from the man.

Another merit of this theory is that it can account for both the fact that the Spirit is presented as divine, and yet, at the same time is never given distinct worship in the scriptures. There are many places where the Father and Son are both distinctly worshipped, yet the Spirit is never worshipped personally. Why?

This seems like something that must be a glaring question for those who hold the Spirit to be a distinct homoousias person. If the Spirit is a distinct individual, and is of the same essence as the Father and the Son, then it certainly follows that the Spirit should receive His own distinct worship and prayers. Yet we have neither example of such, nor command to do so, in the scriptures. This argument was probably one of the strongest arguments in the arsenal of the Pneumatachi.

If the Spirit, on the other hand, is a part of God, then the Spirit does indeed receive worship, but not as a distinct person, but rather together with God, as His Spirit. For when God is praised, He is praised in whole, not in part; when He is worshipped, He is worshipped in totality, not in part. So then, if the Spirit is a part of God, then the Spirit is surely honored when God is honored. This would then explain the absence of distinct personal worship of the Spirit in the scriptures.

Yet the Spirit is treated as divine frequently- to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit is to be indwelt by God, Whose Spirit the Holy Spirit is. The saving work of the Spirit in us is presented as the work of God in us. All of this fits very well with a model of the Spirit’s relationship to the Father being that of a part to the whole. For if that is so, then the Spirit is God, not in nature, nor in having dominion as a distinct person, but as being part of the person of the one God, the Father. And just as the spirit of a man is that man, so the Spirit of God is God. Yet the spirit of a man is not synonymous with the man, but is distinguished from Him as a part from the whole. So the same model seems to account for the biblical data well in respect to the Holy Spirit.

This theory also accounts for passages that otherwise do not appear to make sense to either Pneumatachi nor homoousians- such as Mark 13:32:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father..” (NKJV)

Here the Son says that no one knows when He will return except the Father- not only any man, but also not any angel, and not even the Son Himself- but only the Father. Here we run into a quite baffling apparent contradiction with 1 Cor 2:10-11, however, if we say that the Spirit is a distinct person. For the Spirit knows the mind of God- which must certainly include the date of Christ’s return. Yet the Lord is emphatic that no other person knows the date except the Father. The absence of the Holy Spirit in this passage stands out as very strange, unless the Holy Spirit is understood to be included in the Father as His Spirit, and to not constitute a distinct individual.

Having laid out the basics of what I propose, not as a certainty, but as a theory which to me seems much more likely, and much more able to account for the scriptural data, than the theory that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person from the Father and the Son, I now want to address a couple of foreseeable objections to what I have just proposed.

Firstly, I anticipate the objection that such language of the Spirit being the “Spirit of God” in a way parallel to how the spirit of man is the spirit of a man, and a part of him, is merely anthropomorphic language. Surely, such an argument can be made with some validity; God is different than we are, and the relation of the Spirit to the Father would not exactly parallel how our spirits relate to us. Yet we may also note that the language of sonship and generation is also anthropomorphic, and we do not for that reason deny that the Son is truly Son, or that He was really generated before creation.

Yet someone may point out that while we have bodies which our spirits are distinguished from, God does not have a body. In fact, “God is spirit” (John 4:24), we are told, and, according to Christ, “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39 NKJV). Thus the analogy falls apart, one may argue.

Firstly let us note in response to this, that the analogy, and the parallel, of the spirit of a man relating to a man as the Spirit of God relates to God, is taken from scripture itself. Whatever supposed deficiencies it has, this should be kept in mind. But secondly we may note that man is composite of more than merely a spirit and a body- according to the scriptures we have a soul as well, as a distinct part of us:

“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess 5:23 NKJV)

“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12 NKJV)

So we see that even in men, our spirits are in some way (seemingly not revealed to us in the scriptures) distinguishable from our incorporeal souls.

So likewise, with God, although God is spirit, that is, incorporeal, having neither flesh nor bone, yet this does not rule out that His Spirit can be distinguished from Him as a part of Him. Arguably, this is exactly what scripture does repeatedly when it identifies the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of God.

The second objection I wish to anticipate, related to the first, is that God is simple, and uncomposed, having no parts, and thus, any distinction between God’s Spirit and God Himself, as a part from a whole, is invalid.

This objection is easily responded to, that nowhere in scripture is any such doctrine about God taught, and thus it cannot be argued from as an assumption, nor can it properly be made a point of dogma. This idea of divine simplicity stems from the conjecture of the heathen philosophers prior to the time of Christ, which idea was absorbed by many of the more philosophically-minded fathers of the church. This can quite likely be taken as the cause for the fathers beginning to think of the Spirit as a distinct person in the first place, as the idea of simplicity would have banished from their minds any consideration of the theory I know propose. Thus they introduced as a point of dogma that the Spirit was a distinct person from the Father and the Son, thus setting themselves sup for the inevitable debates of the fourth century over the matter.

As reprehensible as the views of the Pneumatachi are, one can hardly be surprised that the idea became a very popular one among the bishops of the church, when the Holy Spirit is never given distinct worship together with the Father and the Son, and is often not even mentioned together with Them in the scriptures. Yet this error would never have arisen, if only it had been understood that the Spirit was no distinct person at all, but is rather the Spirit of the one God Himself, and a part of Him. Thus the Spirit’s identification with God and His works is explained, while the absence of any mention of the Spirit as a distinct person, and of the things we would expect to accompany such a doctrine in the scriptures, are both explained.

Again, by way of disclaimer, this is a rough theory. In my opinion this explanation seems to better account for the biblical data, and model the relationship of the Spirit to God in a better way than understanding the Spirit as a distinct person. By no means do I propose that it offers a comprehensive understanding of the Holy Spirit. Likely much of what philosophers would like to know about the Spirit remains a mystery to us if we are honest, given the limits of the scriptural data we have to go off of, and due to the fact that such scriptural revelation is our only normative basis for knowledge in matters of doctrine. It is the part of faithful Christians to be content to affirm and embrace what God has revealed to us in the scriptures, and not pry into things that God has left mysteries to us. Much of the division throughout church history can be argued to stem from people being too dogmatic on what is ultimately conjecture about the ontology of the Holy Spirit.

[Update 6-25-2018]

The theory I propose in this article is proven false, by at least two scriptural arguments.

A person is defined as a rational individual. That the Spirit is personal and rational was never in question, but that He is an individual, was. One of the principle reasons for suspecting that the Spirit were God’s innate Spirit, rather than a distinct person, is the frequent way that the Spirit is styled “the Spirit of God”, and the way that this is paralleled with the relationship of a man’s spirit to that man. Therefore it was reasoned that the Spirit’s metaphysical relation to God may parallel the metaphysical relation of a man’s spirit to that man- as a part to the whole.

This argument is overthrown by the fact that the Spirit is also frequently styled “the Spirit of Christ”, and yet is manifestly revealed by scripture to be “another” besides Christ, when the Son refers to the Spirit He would send as “another Comforter”. The Spirit cannot be “another Comforter” if He is part of Christ. The possible connection then between the Spirit being “the Spirit of God” meaning that He is a part of God and not a distinct individual then is shown invalid, as a parallel is made between the Spirit being the Spirit of Christ and being the Spirit of God. If it holds true that He may be the Spirit of Christ and yet be a distinct individual from Him, or “another”, then the same holds true for the Father, the one God, and it cannot therefore be said to be implied by this title “the Spirit of God”, that the Spirit is not a distinct individual.

The two positive arguments from scripture which demonstrate that the Spirit is a distinct individual are, firstly, that the Spirit is sent by Christ, and secondly, that the Spirit intercedes for us to God.

The first, that the Spirit is sent by Christ, goes as follows: on general principle, to be sent by another is to be under the headship of another. To be sent, and to go, is an act of submission. The Spirit, we are told, was sent by the Son after His ascension to the right hand of God. The Spirit then is under the headship of the Son. If, however, the Spirit were merely a part of the Father, then this would necessarily mean that a part of the Father was under the headship of His Son, which is to invert the whole order of the relationship between God and His Son revealed through the whole of scripture, in which the Son is always under the headship, authority, dominion, and Godhood of the Father, while the Father, the one God, is under the dominion and Godhood of none, but is Himself supreme over all, the Lord God “Pantokrator”, Universal Ruler over all.

The Father, then, in whole and not in part, is Supreme over all, having authority over all things absolutely, and Himself is under the authority of none. It would be impossible then that a part of the Father could be under the headship and authority of His Son. It is therefore shown that the Spirit cannot merely be a part of the one God as His innate Spirit, but must necessarily be understood as a third individual together with the Father and the Son, Who is under the authority of each.

The second argument, is that since the Spirit intercedes for believers to God, and actually prays to God on our behalf, according to the scriptures, it is made manifest by this that the Spirit has not only consciousness and personality as a mere part of God, but as a distinct individual, Who is able to interact with God as one individual interacts with another.

So much then, for that theory, and praise God for His word given to us in the holy scriptures, which is a light to our way, from which we gain a sure and true knowledge of what is true, and are guarded from erroneous opinions.