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.

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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.

The Other Texts

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EACH OF THE WORLD’S major religions have sacred texts that form the cornerstone of their belief. These tomes typically instill laws, morals, character, and spirituality in its followers. As with the Bible, a religious text might be considered the inerrant Word of God. Texts can be literal, metaphorical, or both. Christianity has combined the Jewish Old Testament with the New Testament, which Christians refer to collectively as the Holy Scriptures. These words are regarded by Christians as sacred.

SACRED TEXTS OF THE FIVE MAJOR RELIGIONS

  • Christianity. The Holy Bible.
  • Judaism. The Talmud, Tanach, Mishnah, and Midrash.
  • Islam. The Qur’an and the Hadith.
  • Buddhism. The Sutras.
  • Hinduism. The Vedas.

THE CANONIZED JUDEO-CHRISTIAN TEXTS

The Old Testament

Old Testament Scroll

The Old Testament was fixed by a synod of rabbis held at Yavneh, Palestine about 90 A.D. The “other” semi-sacred texts were labeled the Apocrypha (“hidden away”). There are, however, many non-canonical texts relative to Christianity. Where no religious body has provided sanction or authorization, sacred writings have had to stand on their own authority. This is the case with Islam. Muslims believe the Qur’an does this easily. The Qur’an is said to authenticate itself by its internal self-evidencing power—just what that means I have no idea. Muslims base this claim on their contention that the Qur’an is composed of the very words of Allah communicated to Muhammad and recited by him without addition or subtraction.

Biblical accuracy has repeatedly been confirmed by subsequent physical findings to be razor-sharp. The first two chapters of Genesis contain the divine record of how the universe and life began. Though it was written as 66 separate books over thirty-five centuries ago, there is not a syllable in the biblical account of creation that is at variance with any demonstrable fact of science. Here is something interesting to contemplate. The Genesis account affirms that all creation activity was concluded by the end of the sixth day (2:1-3). On this issue, science agrees. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, nothing new is being created today. Additionally, Genesis 1 affirms that biological organisms replicate “after [their] kind.” It is noteworthy that modern pseudo-science (i.e., the theory of evolution) is dependent upon the notion that in the past organisms have reproduced after their non-kind. The biblical account, however, is in perfect harmony with the known laws of genetics.

The New Testament

The New Testament Cover Page

There are several ways we can demonstrate the reliability of the New Testament and the four Gospels. First, we can look at the number of manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts available around the globe for comparison. Second, we can examine existing manuscripts and fragments to see if they stand the test of time. Evaluation would include looking for serious contradictions, omissions, additions, errors, and the like. Third, we can compare original or older copies of manuscripts and fragments with copies we have today to determine if there have been recent archeological findings that challenge or change what has been told in the New Testament.

COMPARISON OF CHRISTIAN AND OTHER ANCIENT MANUSCRIPTS

Regarding the New Testament, we literally have thousands of complete manuscripts and multiple thousands more fragments of manuscripts available for comparison. More than 5,000 copies of the entire New Testament or extensive portions exist today. We also have several thousand more fragments or smaller portions of the New Testament. If these numbers don’t impress, consider this: Compared to other works of ancient history, the manuscript evidence and copies for the New Testament far outweigh that of any other ancient works. For instance, there are less than 700 copies of Homer’s Iliad and only a handful of copies of any one work of Aristotle.

As a comparison, let’s visualize how the number of available classic manuscripts and biblical manuscripts stack up against a New York City icon:

  1. Average Classic Writing. 4 feet.
  2. One World Trade Center. 1,776 feet.
  3. New Testament Copies and Fragments. 1 mile.
  4. Old Testament Copies and Fragments. 1.5 miles.
  5. The Bible. 2.5 miles.

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CHRISTIANITY AND HISTORY

In addition, Christianity and history get along well. McDowell and McDowell (2017), in Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth For a Skeptical World, note that the facts backing Christianity are not part of a special “religious truth.” They are the cognitive, informational facts upon which all historical, legal, and ordinary decisions are based. Luke, the Bible’s first-century historian, demonstrates the historical nature of Christianity in his introduction:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainly concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, ESV).

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a bona fide historical event. Luke says the resurrection was validated by Jesus Himself through “many proofs” over a forty-day period before numerous documented witnesses (see Acts 1:3). Certainly, the Book of Acts records much church history as well. New Testament scholar Craig Keener says, “Acts is history, probably apologetic history in the form of a historical discourse, with a narrow focus on the expansion of the Gospel message from Jerusalem to Rome. Luke’s approach focuses on primary characters and their words and deeds, as was common in the history of his day.

LUTHER AND THE WORD OF GOD

Martin Luther sought to make the Word of God the starting point and final authority for his theology. A professor of Scripture, Luther felt the Bible was of paramount importance, and it was there that he found the answer to his anguished quest for righteousness and salvation. (See “Martin Luther and the Righteousness of God.”)

In its primary sense, the Word of God is literally God Himself. We see this in John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (NIV). The Bible declares that, strictly speaking, the Word of God is none other than God the Son, the Second Person in the Holy Trinity, the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us. Accordingly, when God speaks, it is not simply about imparting information; also, and above all, God acts through His very words. This is what is represented in Genesis, where we see the spoken word of God as a creating force: “God said…” and it was so.

THE BIBLE IS ALIVE!

What’s unique to the Bible is that in addition to telling us information we need to know about our religious doctrine, it also creates. This is true in the lives of believers and in all of Creation.

The Word of God is living and active because God is still moving through it today to speak to us, direct us, challenge us, inspire us. The Bible tells us that Jesus, the Word in the Flesh, came to dwell among us. To me, if anyone reads the Bible and somehow does not find Jesus in it, they have not truly encountered the Word of God. This notion of Jesus being the living Word allowed Luther to further counter objections raised by the Catholic church to his proposed doctrinal authority of Scripture above the church. Popes, cardinals, bishops, and priests argued that, since the church herself decided which books should be included in the canon of Scripture, the church had authority over the Bible. Luther said, “No way!” He believed it was neither the church that made the Bible, nor the Bible that made the church; rather, the Gospel—that is, Jesus Christ—made both the Bible and the church.

Hebrews 4:12a says, “For the Word of God is alive and active…” (NIV).

THE “OTHER” BIBLE

The word Bible ( from the Latin biblia) simply means “the books.” It appears to be from the root biblos, which is another word for papyrus or scroll. Because the Scriptures are believed to be inspired by God, the ancient Bible was considered to be a sacred tome. After completion of the Old Testament, and during the first centuries of the Common Era (C.E., also known as A.D., or “in the year of our Lord”), inspired authors continued to write sacred “scriptures.” These texts were written by Jews, Christians, Gnostics, and Pagans. Most are from the third century B.C. to the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.

The Jewish texts are in large part called pseudepigrapha, which includes the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Christian texts are called the Christian apocrypha; the Gnostic scriptures were considered by their orthodox rivals to be heretical. The phrase “The Other Bible” refers to holy texts that were not included in the official version of the Holy Bible. Of course, many people—believers and atheists alike—have wondered why certain Jewish and Christian texts failed to find a place in the Bible. Was it a question of divine authority or doctrine? Who made the decision to exclude these so-called “other” texts? God or man? Some have mistakenly concluded that Constantine simply made the decision of what to include when he commissioned 50 copies of the Bible for churches in his capitol city, Constantinople.

Because Judaism and Christianity canonized or authoritatively affirmed the Scriptures, the first Christians included seven books in the Old Testament that were not in the Jewish canon. The Old Testament and the Jewish scriptures were different until the Protestant Reformation, when reformers revised the Old Testament canon to agree with the Jewish canon. The Catholic Bible now refers to these seven books as deuterocanonical (as noted above, this translates to “belonging to the second canon”), while the Protestant Bible refers to them as apocryphal (or “outside the canon”). Some Protestants do not recognize them as having any kind of canonical status.

The canon wasn’t a quick decision by one man, but the product of centuries of reflection by the Church. 

Here is a listing of “other” texts that did not make it into the canonical text of today:

  • The Apocrypha. These are biblical writings that did not become part of the accepted canon of Scripture. Moreover, they are believed to not be inspired by God and only added by the Church. The apocryphal books include the following: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, I and II Maccabees and sections of Esther and Daniel.
  • Deuterocanonical Apocrypha. These are books which are included in some version of the canonical Bible, but which have been excluded at one time or another, for t0extual or doctrinal issues. These are called Deuterocanonical, which literally means the secondary canon.
  • The Forgotten Books of Eden. This is a collection of Old Testament pseudepigrapha. The list included such books as The First and Second Books of Adam and Eve, The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, The Testament of Joseph, The Odes of Solomon, and others.
  • The Lost Books of the Bible. A collection of New Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha.
  • The Biblical Antiquities of Philo. An alternative pseudepigraphal narrative of the Hebrew Bible from Genesis through 1 Samuel, written in the first century A.D.
  • The Gospel of Thomas. This is reportedly the writings of Thomas, the “doubting apostle.” This text contains a collection of the sayings of Jesus. Thomas was, of course, the twin brother of Jesus.
  • The Didache. A very early Christian apocryphal text.
  • The Sibylline Oracles. The Sibylline books were oracular Roman scrolls; these are the pseudo-Sibylline Oracles. There many similarities to early Christian writings, and they were quoted by the Church Fathers.
  • The Book of Enoch. This is one of the more critical and notable books of the apocrypha. Enoch introduced such concepts as fallen angels, the Messiah, the Resurrection, and others.
  • The Book of Enoch the Prophet. An earlier and very influential 19th century translation of Enoch 1.
  • The Book of Jubilees. A text from the 2nd century B.C. It covers much of the same ground as Genesis, with some interesting additional details. It may have been an intermediate form of Genesis which was incorporated into later versions.
  • The (Slavonic) Life of Adam and Eve. This apocryphal book (also known in its Greek version as the Apocalypse of Moses, is a Jewish apocryphal group of writings. It recounts the lives of Adam and Eve from after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden to their deaths. It provides more detail about the Fall, including Eve’s version of the story. Satan explains that he rebelled when God commanded him to bow down to Adam. After Adam dies, he and all his descendants are promised a resurrection.
  • The Books of Adam and Eve. This is the translation of the Books of Adam and Eve from the Oxford University Press Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.
  • The Book of Jasher. The title of this book translates to The Book of the Upright One. It is included in the Latin Vulgate. It was likely a collection or compilation of ancient Hebrew songs and poems praising the heroes of Israel and their exploits during battle. Interestingly, the Book of Jasher is mentioned in Joshua 10:13: “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.”
  • Excerpts From the Gospel of Mary. This fragment, of disputed authenticity, puts the relationship between Mary Magdalen, Jesus and the Apostles in a radically different perspective than traditional beliefs.

IS THE APOCRYPHA WORTH STUDYING?

Early Christians of the second and third century found the apocryphal books to be helpful resources for studying alongside the books of the Jewish canon. It helped them with articulating their faith and for determining questions of ethics. The general attitude, however, was that these so-called apocryphal books should not be read in public worship as Scripture; rather, they should be “tucked away” for private use only. Jewish scribes did not believe the apocryphal books of the Old Testament were divinely inspired. This was a critical factor in evaluating these extra texts for inclusion in the canon.

According to an article by Don Stewart on blueletterbible.org, the Apocrypha contains different doctrines and practices than the Holy Scriptures. For example, these texts teach the doctrine of salvation through works and purgatory. However, the Bible says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (Hebrews 11:3, NKJV).

The Apocrypha is not a well-defined unit. These books were rejected by a large number of biblical scholars up to the time of the Reformation. Protestants have always rejected the divine authority of the Apocrpyha, citing demonstrable historical errors. This hesitation is sometimes based on the presupposition that the church has weighed these books and found them to be without value, and therefore justifiably discarded and forgotten. This is often based on a belief that the writings included in this collection are full of false teachings that will jeopardize a reader’s grasp of sound truth.

When Martin Luther set about translating the Bible into German, he also translated the books of the Apocrypha. Although he took care to separate them out from the books of the Old Testament and to print them in a separate section—indicating they were not on a level equal to that of canonical Scripture—he still recommended in his preface to the translation that they’re “useful and good for reading.” The degree to which Luther valued these writings is reflected above all in the fact that he took the time and the trouble to produce a German translation of the Apocrypha. 

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Although most Christians agree that only those books included in the original Hebrew canon have “canonical” authority, here’s my takeaway. These books help us understand the Hebrew Bible. They give us insight into how the Old Testament may have been interpreted by first-century readers. These volumes provide many details pertaining to roughly four hundred years of history that transpired from the date when the last book of the Old Testament—the Book of Malachi—was written until the time of Christ. In addition, they help explain the cultural, political, and ideological milieu during the time just before Christ was born, which can only help aid our understanding of the Scriptures and the Christian doctrine.

It is important to note that the Roman Catholic Church has often stood on the deuterocanonical books to support certain doctrinal and theological points, including purgatory and praying for the dead, that are found nowhere in canonical Scripture. In short, during the Reformation, debates over doctrine were integrally tied to debates about which books were authoritative. Not only did the Protestants affirm that Scripture alone is the ultimate authority in faith and practice, but they were zealous to preserve the integrity of the canon, only recognizing the authority of those books affirmed throughout the history of the Christian church.