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The Doctrine of Christ
The Holy Spirit Misunderstood


The Holy Spirit Misunderstood

"When he [the truth-giving Spirit] comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak his own message—on his own authority—but he will tell whatever he hears [from the Father] . . . He will honor and glorify me, because he will draw upon what is mine and will reveal it to you." (John 16:13, 14, KJV and Amp.)

OF the three components of the Trinity doctrine, the so-called holy Ghost (or Spirit) is certainly the least understood. The holy Spirit is assigned equality in relationship with the Father and the Son and is spoken of as "God the Holy Spirit." As such, it is necessary to conceive of this entity as a distinct person—the Third Person in the Trinity equation—with attendant powers and capabilities to distinguish it from the others. Yet such a concept is impossible to prove from the Scriptures and certainly was not held by early Christian believers for three hundred years after the death of Christ.

Jeremy Taylor has written: "That the Holy Ghost (Spirit) is God is nowhere said in Scripture; that Holy Ghost (Spirit) is to be invocated is nowhere commanded, nor any example of its being done recorded."1 Well spoken. Who has a right to say what is not stated in Scripture? One clearly stated Scripture verse would have more weight than a mountain of theology. Until such a verse can be produced, Trinitarians have an impossible burden. An incantation of words and never-ending theology is no substitute for a weighty Bible text or a "thus saith the Lord."

Biblical Designations of the Spirit

In the Bible, there are various titles and definitions that are applied to the holy Spirit. As these are carefully studied, it becomes evident that all of them describe characteristics that stem from God and Christ and do not necessitate an additional personality. Many are also reflected in the life of the Church. Note these examples.

  • "The Spirit of God" (Matt. 3:16)
  • "The Spirit of Christ" (1 Pet. 1:11)
  • "The Spirit of Holiness" (Rom. 1:4)
  • "The Spirit of Truth" (John 14:17)
  • "The Spirit of a Sound Mind" (2 Tim. 1:7)
  • "The Holy Spirit of Promise" (Eph. 1:13)
  • "The Spirit of Meekness" (Gal. 6:1)
  • "The Spirit of Understanding" (Isa. 11:2)
  • "The Spirit of Wisdom" (Eph. 1:17)
  • "The Spirit of Glory" (1 Pet. 4:14)
  • "The Spirit of Counsel" (Isa. 11:2)
  • "The Spirit of Grace" (Heb. 10:29)
  • "The Spirit of Adoption" (Rom. 8:15)
  • "The Spirit of Prophecy" (Rev. 19:10)

Even the most avid Trinitarian would find it necessary to define "Spirit" in most usages as an influence or power. Personhood of the Trinity just does not fit into these descriptions. So the Trinitarian must use two definitions when referring to "Spirit" in the Bible: one meaning the Third Person of the Trinity and the other as an influence or power. Unless the meaning is continually defined in each verse, the reader is left uncertain as to what is meant.

There is another side to this matter which is very revealing. There is also an "unholy spirit" that is referred to frequently in the Scriptures. This spirit is described in opposite terms to that of the holy Spirit. Note the following:

  • "The Spirit of Fear" (2 Tim. 1:7)
  • "The Spirit of Divination" (Acts 16:16)
  • "The Spirit of Bondage" (Rom. 8:15)
  • "The Spirit of Antichrist" (1 John 4:3)
  • "The Spirit of the World" (1 Cor. 2:12)
  • "The Spirit of Slumber" (Rom. 11:8)
  • "The Spirit of Error" (1 John 4:6)

Would anyone propose to add personhood to these spirits or to suppose that these various designations, unitedly considered, prove there is another evil being apart from Satan, the adversary of God? Not very likely, because it is commonly recognized that these terms, which generally signify the wrong spirit, all have their chief exemplification in Satan. A separate personality is not required, nor are a host of personal spirits needed to justify the listings. We submit that for consistency a similar conclusion should be drawn in regard to the various references to the holy Spirit as well.

A Variety of Operations

In Scriptural usage, various actions and operations of the holy Spirit are illustrated. Some were manifested from earliest times, such as in creation; others became evident in succeeding ages as God’s plan of salvation unfolded. Yet all of them can be shown to emanate from God Himself or from His Son Christ Jesus and do not require an additional personality.

Early in Genesis, this Spirit was evidenced in God’s creative power, as He brought into existence the earth, the oceans teeming with life (Gen. 1:2), plants and animals, and finally man himself. In later times, the operation of God’s Spirit expanded in various ways, especially as it was directed toward the Church. Believers in Christ were begotten of the Spirit as they entered their new consecrated life and were privileged to become the sons of God (John 3:3, 7; 1 John 5:4, 18). Other manifestations of the Spirit are seen in its thought-creating power (2 Pet. 1:21), its life-giving or quickening power (Rom. 8:11) and its transforming influence (1 Cor. 6:11). In none of these instances is a separate personality required to carry out these functions.

Other usages of the Spirit in Scripture are equally revealing. Joel 2:28 reads, "I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh." This is a wonderful reference to that future day when God’s Kingdom is fully established on earth and all mankind will have the opportunity of growing in the knowledge of God and His ways of righteousness. Does this mean that a person is to be poured out? If the Trinity is inseparable as an entity, does this mean that God and Christ and the holy Spirit are to be poured out on all flesh? Surely not! Such a usage helps us to grasp the correct meaning of the holy Spirit as the power or influence of God.

The believer is also admonished to be "filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18). This is certainly commendable, and all of us should desire to have more and more of the Spirit that we may be drawn into a closer relationship with our Lord. But how could we be filled with another person? One might be filled with such qualities as wisdom and faith, but hardly with the Spirit if it were an actual person. Note how the Scriptures treat all of these as qualities (not persons) and relate them to each other: "Look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost [Spirit] and wisdom. . . . and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost [Spirit]" (Acts 6:3, 5). Joy is another quality with which the believer is to be filled, and it likewise is linked with the filling of the Spirit (Acts 13:52). To insist on the personality of the holy Spirit in these examples merely produces one paradox after another, all of which are wholly unreasonable and unnecessary in the light of Biblical truth.

We could also say that it is entirely proper to pray for the holy Spirit to operate in our lives (Luke 11:13), but not to pray to it! Never once in Scripture is an example given of someone praying to the holy Spirit, and never once is anyone urged to do so. Jesus taught clearly that prayer was to be directed to the Father in heaven, and he provided a model of such prayer for his disciples to follow. (See Luke 11:1-4.)

A Missing Factor in the Equation

The efforts of Trinitarians to give personality to the holy Spirit has proved to be an extravagant and futile exercise. Most of their writings expend nearly all their energy in trying to prove that certain Bible texts equate God and Jesus. Very little can be found to defend the holy Spirit directly in their Trinity concept because it is nearly impossible to do.

By far, the one text most alluded to and thought to be a "Trinity fortress" was 1 John 5:7. However, even the most ardent Trinitarians must concede that the words "The Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one" are not truly the Word of God but are spurious—merely an interpolation. The Revised Version and all modern translations omit the verse, since it is not contained in any Greek manuscript prior to the fifth century and is not quoted by any of the early Church fathers. Evidently it was added by an over-zealous scribe who thought the Trinity concept needed a substantial boost in the Scriptural record; but surely this attempt merely betrays the weakness of the argument.

Unless Trinity can be Scripturally established with all three persons in one entity—including the holy Spirit—the case simply sinks beneath the waves.

Use of the Personal Pronoun

It is noted by some that there are abundant references in Scripture where the holy Spirit is referred to using the personal pronoun "he." Even our Lord Jesus, in alluding to the work of the holy Spirit, according to the King James Version, used these words: "I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever. . . . But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost [Spirit], whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things" (John 14:16, 26, italics supplied by us). Does this not prove that the holy Spirit is a person? A study of the Greek text in this and other instances shows this not to be the case. Here the word for Comforter is parakletos, which in the Greek language is masculine in gender and, therefore, needs to be placed with a masculine pronoun for grammatical purposes only.

John 16:13 is another text which properly engages masculine pronouns to describe the holy Spirit. It reads: "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come" (italics supplied). Again, this gives the impression that the Spirit is a person, designated with "he" and "himself." But this is not the correct thought, for it is simply a follow-up of good Greek grammar matching a masculine subject with equivalent pronouns. In again referring to the "comforter" or "helper" aspect of the Spirit, there was a consistency in using the masculine pronoun "he" rather than the neuter "it." This usage shows adherence to the rules of Greek grammar and provides no proof that the holy Spirit is a person.

On the other hand, when the word "spirit" is from the Greek pneuma, the grammatical application changes, and the neuter pronoun "it" is appropriately used. Whereas this rule is generally hidden by the translators, the Catholic New American Bible says, regarding John 14:17: "The Greek word for ‘Spirit’ is neuter, and while we use personal pronouns in English (‘he,’ ‘his,’ ‘him’), most Greek MSS employ ‘it’" (bold supplied). Note the following Scriptural examples where the Greek pneuma is used and is referred to by the neuter pronoun "it": John 1:32—"John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him." In Rom. 8:26 (if this passage is applied to the holy Spirit)—"Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us."

Thus seen, the attempt to prove the "Spirit" is a person because masculine pronouns sometimes are used in referring to it is neither scholarly, consistent, nor honest.

Possible Personality Traits

Finally, due to the wide-ranging applications of God’s Spirit, there are some Bible texts that at first might be construed as endowing it with personality. The Spirit, for example, is portrayed as "speaking" in Heb. 3:7, and "bearing witness" in Heb. 10:15. Nonetheless, other Scriptures clarify the matter for us. Whereas the Spirit may be described in a loose sense as speaking, in reality it does this through actual persons, such as God or the believer. The warning against provoking God through unbelief, which is ascribed to the holy Spirit in Heb. 3:7, is clearly shown in Ps. 95:6-11 to have been the voice of God originally raised as an expression of God’s anger against the Israelites in their wilderness journey. Likewise, the lovely picture of the establishment of the New Covenant with the house of Israel, which is attributed to the witnessing of the holy Spirit in Heb. 10:15, is really shown to be a consequence of a direct "thus saith the Lord" in Jer. 31:31-33. Hence the holy Spirit has no personal voice of its own and must operate through other personalities, such as God, Christ and the believer.

An approach similar to this can be used in properly harmonizing other texts that in varying degree may appear to endow personhood to the Spirit. For example, compare "tempt the Spirit of the Lord" (Acts 5:9) with the clearer "tempt the Lord thy God" (Matt. 4:7); and again, "filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18) with the more understandable "the Spirit of God dwelleth in you" (1 Cor. 3:16). It is only reasonable to expect that on a matter of such weighty consequence, bearing on the true nature and identity of the holy Spirit, the Scriptures themselves can be relied upon to furnish satisfying truth. And thus we actually perceive examples of God’s Spirit at work, in so arranging the holy Scriptures and granting the needed guidance and help in properly understanding them, for which we are grateful.

Some Notable Admissions

In summing up our case for the holy Spirit as the power or influence of God, we would like to quote from some Catholic authorities:

A Catholic Dictionary: "On the whole, the New Testament, like the Old, speaks of the spirit as a divine energy or power particularly in the heart of man."2

The New Catholic Encyclopedia: "The OT clearly does not envisage God’s spirit as a person . . . God’s spirit is simply God’s power. If it is sometimes represented as being distinct from God, it is because the breath of Yahweh acts exteriorly. . . . The majority of NT texts reveal God’s spirit as something, not someone; this is especially seen in the parallelism between the spirit and the power of God."3

The Catholic Encyclopedia: "Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find any clear indication of a Third Person."4

Catholic theologian Fortman: "The Jews never regarded the spirit as a person; nor is there any solid evidence that any Old Testament writer held this view. . . . The Holy Spirit is usually presented in the Synoptics [Gospels] and in Acts as a divine force or power."5

Placing these comments into the overall context of Catholic belief, we appreciate the sincerity of these admissions, while at the same time recognizing their acceptance of the Trinity doctrine, as based upon church authority and tradition. We quite agree that God’s Spirit is "something, not someone." Our purpose in excerpting these quotations is to point out the candid admissions that are made in respect to the lack of Biblical evidence to support the personhood of the holy Spirit.