Christianity has traditionally taught that the Holy Spirit is the third Person or Hypostasis of the Godhead. Some, however, have taught that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force used by God. Is the Holy Spirit God, or simply a power of God? Let’s examine the biblical teachings.
I. The deity of the Holy Spirit
Summary: Scripture speaks repeatedly of the Holy Spirit, known also as the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Scripture indicates that the Holy Spirit is of the same essence as the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is ascribed with the attributes of God, is equated with God and does work that only God does.
A. Attributes of God
1. Holiness: In more than 90 places, the Bible calls the Spirit of God “the Holy Spirit.” Holiness is a basic characteristic of the Spirit. The Spirit is so holy that blasphemy against the Spirit cannot be forgiven, although blasphemy against Jesus could be (Matthew 12:32). Insulting the Spirit is just as sinful as trampling the Son of God under foot (Hebrews 10:29). This indicates that the Spirit is inherently holy, holy in essence, rather than having an assigned or secondary holiness such as the temple had. The Spirit also has the infinite attributes of God: unlimited in time, space, power and knowledge.
2. Eternality: The Holy Spirit, the Counselor, will be with us “forever” (John 14:16). The Spirit is “eternal” (Hebrews 9:14).
3. Omnipresence: David, praising God’s greatness, asked, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8). God’s Spirit, which David uses as a synonym for the presence of God himself, is in heaven and in sheol (verse 8), in the east and in the west (verse 9). God’s Spirit can be said to be poured out on someone, to fill a person, or to descend — yet without implying that the Spirit has moved away from or vacated some other place. Thomas Oden observes that “such statements are grounded in the premises of omnipresence and eternality — attributes ascribed properly only to God” (Life in the Spirit, p. 18).
4. Omnipotence: The works that God does, such as creation, are also ascribed to the Holy Spirit (Job 33:4; Psalm 104:30). Miracles of Jesus Christ were done “by the Spirit” (Matthew 12:28). In Paul’s ministry, the work that “Christ has accomplished” was done “through the power of the Spirit” (Romans 15:18-19).
5. Omniscience: “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God,” Paul said (1 Corinthians 2:10). The Spirit of God “knows the thoughts of God” (verse 11). The Spirit therefore knows all things, and is able to teach all things (John 14:26).
Holiness, eternality, omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience are attributes of God’s essence, that is, characteristic of the nature of divine existence. The Holy Spirit has the basic attributes of God.
B. Equated with God
1. Triadic formulas: Several passages discuss the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as equals. In a discussion of spiritual gifts, Paul puts the Spirit, the Lord, and God in grammatically parallel constructions (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). Paul closes a letter with a three-part prayer: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). Peter begins a letter with this three-part formula: “who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood” (1 Peter 1:2).
The triadic formulas used in these and other scriptures do not prove equality (for example, Ephesians 4:5 puts unequal elements in parallel construction), but they do support it. The baptismal formula has a stronger implication of unity — “in the name [singular] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). The Father, Son, and Spirit share a common name, indicating common essence and equality. This verse indicates both plurality and unity. Three names are given, but all three share one name.
2. Word interchanges. Acts 5:3 says that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit; verse 4 says that Ananias lied to God. This indicates that “the Holy Spirit” and “God” are interchangeable and thus that the Holy Spirit is God. Some people try to explain this by saying that Ananias lied to God only indirectly, simply because the Holy Spirit represented God. This interpretation might be grammatically possible, but it would still imply that the Holy Spirit is personal, for one does not “lie” to an impersonal power. Moreover, Peter told Ananias that he lied not to humans, but to God. The force of the passage is that Ananias has lied not merely to God’s representatives, but to God himself, and the Holy Spirit is God to whom Ananias lied.
Another word interchange can be seen in 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19. Christians are not only temples of God, they are also temples of the Holy Spirit; the two expressions mean the same thing. A temple is a habitation for a deity, not a habitation for an impersonal power. When Paul writes “temple of the Holy Spirit,” he implies that the Holy Spirit is God.
Another type of verbal equation between God and the Holy Spirit is seen in Acts 13:2: “The Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Here, the Holy Spirit speaks on behalf of God, as God. In the same way, Hebrews 3:7-11 tells us that the Holy Spirit says the Israelites “tested and tried me”; the Holy Spirit says that “I was angry…. They shall never enter my rest.” The Holy Spirit is equated with the God of the Israelites. Hebrews 10:15-17 also equates the Spirit and the Lord who makes the new covenant. The Spirit who inspired the prophets is God. This is the work of God the Holy Spirit.
C. Divine work
1. Creating: The Holy Spirit does work that only God can do, such as creating (Genesis 1:2; Job 33:4; Psalm 104:30) and expelling demons (Matthew 12:28).
2. Begetting: The Spirit begot the Son of God (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:35), and the full divinity of the Son (Colossians 1:19) implies the full divinity of the Begetter. The Spirit begets believers, too — they are born of God (John 1:12) and equally born of the Spirit (John 3:5). “The Spirit gives [eternal] life” (John 6:63).
3. Indwelling: The Holy Spirit is the way God lives in his children (Ephesians 2:22; 1 John 3:24; 4:13). The Holy Spirit “lives” in us (Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 3:16) — and because the Spirit lives in us, we are able to say that God lives in us. We can say that God lives in us only because the Holy Spirit is in some way God. The Spirit is not a representative or a power that lives in us — God himself lives in us. Geoffrey Bromiley gives a concise conclusion: “to have dealings with the Spirit, no less than with the Father and the Son, is to have dealings with God” (“The New Holy Spirit,” in The New Life, edited by Millard Erickson, p. 23).
4. Sanctifying: The Holy Spirit makes people holy (Romans 15:16; 1 Peter 1:2). The Spirit enables people to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5). We are saved “through the sanctifying work of the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
In all these things, the works of the Spirit are the works of God. Whatever the Spirit says or does, God is saying or doing; the Spirit is fully representative of God.
II. Personality of the Holy Spirit
Summary: Scripture describes the Holy Spirit as having personal characteristics: The Spirit has mind and will, speaks and can be spoken to, and acts and intercedes for us. All these indicate personality in the theological sense: The Holy Spirit is a Person or Hypostasis in the same sense that the Father and Son are. Our relationship with God, which is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, is a personal relationship.
A. Life and intelligence
1. Life: The Holy Spirit “lives” (Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 3:16).
2. Intelligence: The Spirit “knows” (1 Corinthians 2:11). Romans 8:27 refers to “the mind of the Spirit.” This mind is able to make judgments — a decision “seemed good” to the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). These verses imply a distinct intelligence.
3. Will: 1 Corinthians 12:11 says that the Spirit “determines” decisions, showing that the Spirit has a will. The Greek word means “he or it determines.” Although the Greek word does not specify the subject of the verb, the most likely subject in the context is the Spirit. To find a different subject, one would have to backtrack through five verses and six mentions of the Spirit. But this grammatical leapfrogging is not necessary. Since we know from other verses that the Spirit has mind and knowledge and judgment, there is no reason to reject the conclusion in 1 Corinthians 12:11 that the Spirit also has will.
1. Speaking: Numerous verses say that the Holy Spirit spoke (Acts 8:29; 10:19; 11:12; 21:11; 1 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 3:7; etc.). Oden observes that “the Spirit speaks in the first person as ‘I’; ‘It was I who sent them’ (Acts 10:20)…. ‘I have called them’ (Acts 13:2). None but a person can say ‘I’” (The Living God, p. 200).
2. Interaction: The Spirit may be lied to (Acts 5:3), which indicates that the Spirit may be spoken to. The Spirit may be tested (Acts 5:9), insulted (Hebrews 10:29) or blasphemed (Matthew 12:31), which implies personal status. Oden gathers additional evidence: “The apostolic testimony applied intensely personal analogies: guiding (Romans 8:14), convicting (John 16:8), interceding (Romans 8:26), calling (Acts 13:2), commissioning (Acts 20:28)…. Only a person can be vexed (Isaiah 63:10) or grieved (Ephesians 4:30)” (Life in the Spirit, p. 19).
3. Paraclete: Jesus called the Holy Spirit the parakletos — the Comforter, Advocate or Counselor. The Paraclete is active, teaching (John 14:26), testifying (15:26), convicting (16:8), guiding (16:13) and making truth known (16:14).
Jesus used the masculine form of parakletos; he did not consider it necessary to make the word neuter or to use neuter pronouns. In John 16:14, masculine pronouns are used even after the neuter pneuma is mentioned. It would have been easy to switch to neuter pronouns, but John did not. In other places, neuter pronouns are used for the Spirit, in accordance with grammatical convention. Scripture is not finicky about the grammatical gender of the Spirit, and we need not be either. We use personal pronouns for the Spirit to acknowledge that he is personal, not to imply that he is male.
1. New life: The Holy Spirit regenerates us, giving us new life (John 3:5). The Spirit sanctifies us (1 Peter 1:2) and leads us in that new life (Romans 8:14). The Spirit gives various gifts to build the Church up (1 Corinthians 12:7-11), and throughout the book of Acts, we see that the Spirit guides the church.
2. Intercession: The most “personal” activity of the Holy Spirit is intercession: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us…. The Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:26-27). Intercession implies not only receiving communication, but also communicating further on. It implies an intelligence, a concern, and a formal role. The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal power, but an intelligent and divine Helper who lives within us. God lives within us, and the Holy Spirit is God.
There are no scriptural examples of worshipping the Holy Spirit. Scripture talks about praying in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18), the fellowship of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14), and baptism in the name of the Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Although baptism, prayer and fellowship are involved in worship, none of these verses shows worship of the Spirit.
As an opposite of worship, however, we note that the Spirit can be blasphemed (Matthew 12:31).
There are no scriptural examples of praying to the Holy Spirit. However, Scripture indicates that a human can talk to the Spirit (Acts 5:3). If this is done in reverence or request, it is, in effect, praying to the Spirit. If Christians are unable to articulate their desires and they want the Spirit to intercede for them (Romans 8:26-27), they are praying, directly or indirectly, to the Holy Spirit. When we understand that the Holy Spirit has intelligence and fully represents God, we may ask the Spirit for help — never thinking that the Spirit is a separate being from God, but recognizing that the Spirit is the Hypostasis of God interceding for us.
Why does Scripture say nothing about praying to the Spirit? Michael Green explains: “The Holy Spirit does not draw attention to himself. He is sent by the Father to glorify Jesus, to show Jesus’ attractiveness, and not to take the centre of the stage” (I Believe in the Holy Spirit, p. 60). Or, as Geoffrey Bromiley puts it, “The Spirit is self-effacing” (p. 21).
Prayer or worship directed specifically to the Holy Spirit is not the scriptural norm, but we nonetheless worship the Spirit. When we worship God, we worship all aspects of God, including the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A fourth-century theologian explained it this way: “The Spirit is jointly worshipped in God, when God is worshipped in the Spirit” (Ambrose, Of the Holy Spirit III.X.82, quoted in Oden, Life in the Spirit, p. 16). Whatever we say to the Spirit we are saying to God, and whatever we say to God we are saying to the Spirit.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 1996 and updated in 2014. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
Scripture indicates that the Holy Spirit has divine attributes and works, and is spoken of in the same way that the Father and Son are. The Holy Spirit is intelligent, and speaks and acts like a divine Person. This is part of the scriptural evidence that led early Christians to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity. Bromiley gives a summary:
Three points that emerge from this survey of the New Testament data are: (1) The Holy Spirit is everywhere regarded as God; (2) He is God in distinction from the Father and the Son; (3) His deity does not infringe upon the divine unity. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune Godhead….
The divine unity cannot be subjected to mathematical ideas of unity. The fourth century learned to speak of three hypostases or persons within the deity, not in the tritheistic sense of three centers of consciousness, but also not in the weaker sense of three economic manifestations. From Nicaea and Constantinople on, the creeds sought to do justice to the essential biblical data along these lines. (pp. 24-25)
Although Scripture does not directly say that “the Holy Spirit is God,” or that God is triune, these conclusions are based on scriptural evidence. Based on biblical evidence, we teach that the Holy Spirit is God in the same way that the Father is God and the Son is God.