Let’s Go to Theology Class: Personhood of the Holy Spirit

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Grounding your articulation on Grudem’s multiple chapters on the Holy Spirit, but adding scriptural support, as well as information from other sources (e.g., McGrath, Elwell), make a strong case for the personhood of God the Holy Spirit. By “personhood,” it is meant defining the Spirit as more than just a force, ghost, cloud, or some other type of substance; define Him as a person.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

As Grudem demonstrates by the three assigned chapters, there is much to consider relative to the personhood and the functions of the Holy Spirit. Further, Grudem does a fine job of revealing the many areas where denominations and believers tend to disagree. This is especially true regarding cessation of prophesy and other charismatic gifts or “signs.” I have become friends with an online lay minister from New Jersey who holds firm to the cessation school of thought. This came up during a recent conversation with him regarding speaking in tongues. What a great springboard for exploring the personhood of the Holy Spirit.

Grudem explicitly states, “The work of the Holy Spirit is to manifest the active presence of God in the world, and especially in the church.” [1] Turning to the doctrine of God in three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), we understand that each is fully God and that there is only one God. Grudem refers to the Godhead as “an indication of the plurality of persons in God himself.” [2] Scripture provides numerous examples of God as three persons in one. John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). The Spirit of God was present at the time of Creation (Gen. 1:1). The Father and the Son are God, as the Holy Spirit is also God. No one is subordinate to the other, nor did one come “out of” the other.

Grudem notes that the Holy Spirit is essentially the primary manifestation of the Trinity under the New Covenant. It’s worth mentioning that much of the work of the Holy Spirit is akin to the earthly ministry of Christ, and of the various offices within the church under the OT and the NT. The Holy Spirit is unique in that He gives power to the church, but He also ministers to the body through discernment, interpretation, imparting of wisdom, conviction, direction, and unification—calling the church together for fellowship. However, it is perhaps because of these “leadings” that many see the Holy Spirit as a force or enigma. Looking closely, we see several indicators of His personhood. He has the characteristics of a person; He acts like a person; He is treated as a person throughout church history; and, He is the third person of the Godhead. A mere “spirit” does not have a personality, yet we clearly see the Holy Spirit does possess a personality.

Regarding the Holy Spirit as a person, we can confidently trust the accuracy of Scripture. Paul said the Holy Spirit has the capacity to think (1 Cor. 2:10). Romans 8:11 identifies the Holy Spirit as “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead.” According to the transliteration of this verse, the word “he” is expounded upon as meaning “the Spirit of the one having raised from the dead Christ Jesus.” [3] G.A. Cole notes that the personhood of the Holy Spirit is grounded in canonical Scriptures and expounded upon in early creeds. He admits that words can be tricky. For example, the Hebrew word rûah can be translated as “spirit” or “Spirit.” However, Cole says the ancient Hebrew language did not use capital letters as we’re used to seeing in English. [4]

In Psalm 51, David utilizes self-examination regarding the depths of his guilt, and discusses inward renewal in verses 10 through 13. This is arguably not referring to “self” renewal. In verse 10, he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (NRSV). Kidner indicates the words heart and spirit refer to the impact of the “springs of life” (Pro. 4:23). [5] David is referring to his own spirit being renewed by the Spirit of God. Importantly, Romans 8:26-27 says the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness; because we often do not know how to pray (or what to pray for), the Holy Spirit prays for us. As Cole notes, only individuals can pray—disembodied enigmas cannot. Isaiah said it is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit (Isa. 63:10). The Spirit of God spoke to the disciples at various times (Acts 8:29; 11:12; 13:2). The Holy Spirit feels love (Rom. 15:3) and can impart grace (Heb. 10:29). Peter noted in Acts 5:3 that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit. You cannot lie to a disembodied enigma, but you can lie to a person. Stephen accused the Sanhedrin of disobeying the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51)—impersonal entities cannot issue commands.

First Corinthians 12:1-11 tells us that spiritual gifts are endowed by the Holy Spirit, and that He acts in accordance with His will (12:11). He is the searcher of men’s hearts and minds; He is the power behind creation and regeneration. His works indicate possessing intelligence, will, knowledge, self-determination, and the general aspects of personhood. Amazingly, Paul said the Holy Spirit searches all things, even the mind of God (1 Cor. 2:10). This certainly points to the quality of omniscience. Athanasius of Alexandria speaks quite succinctly that one cannot separate the Son from the Father, or the Spirit from either the Son or the Father. [6] Further, he suggests that if two persons of the Godhead are persons, then the Holy Spirit cannot be a non-person. This would be completely alien and incompatible to the rest of the Godhead. Athanasius adds, “That which is from God could not be from something that does not exist.” [7]

I also think the idea that the Holy Spirit is a person aids in addressing the arguments of cessation theorists who believe spiritual gifts, the offices of prophet and apostle, and miracles (especially, but not limited to, healing, resurrection of the dead, and manipulation of the empirical world to further the will of God) are no longer in operation. Given the doctrinal position that God works through the Holy Spirit, it is not theologically or logically possible for the Holy Spirit to cease operating in the world and in the community of believers. Given that He is an equal part of the Godhead with the Father and the Son, who are eternal and cannot change, then neither can the Holy Spirit change. On a very simple but profound tenet, if the Father and the Son are persons, than so too must the Holy Spirit be a person. Accordingly, I strongly believe in the personhood of the Holy Spirit.

***

I want to start encouraging more feedback so we can open a dialog. Presently, in order to leave a comment you need to scroll back to the header and click on LEAVE A COMMENT, but I’m in the process of figuring out how to move the COMMENT bar to the end of each post. Thanks for reading. God bless.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 634.

[2] Grudem, 227.

[3] Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 626.

[4] G.A. Cole, “Holy Spirit,” contained in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 395.

[5] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: Kidner Classical Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 210.

[6] Athanasius of Alexandria, “On The Holy Spirit and the Trinity,” contained in The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed., edited by Alister E. McGrath (Chichester, West Essex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 166.

[7] 166.

I Look Foward to a Dialog on This. Please Comment.

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