Thursday, June 24

Nature of the Holy Spirit in Scripture and History

Sometimes referred to as the "Holy Ghost" or "Holy Spirit," this figure has at times been seen as enigmatic within the Christian tradition. Who is the Holy Spirit?  What role does the Spirit play throughout the sacred Scriptures? How has the Holy Spirit been viewed through Christian history - from the Nicene Creed to the recent Pentecostal movement? These are some of the questions we will seek to address. In the Trinitarian perspective, the Holy Spirit is one of the three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now, the term "trinity" did not arise until the time of Tertullian around AD 200, but the Trinitarian nature of the divine appears much early than this. Thus, from a Trinitarian perspective, the Holy Spirit appears as the "Spirit of God" hovering over the primordial waters of creation in Genesis 1:2. But there is much more to this Holy Spirit than it first appears. 

The Holy Spirit in the Scriptures
The role of the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible may appear minor, but it is still crucial in understanding the Christian perspective. The Holy Spirit came upon the anti-hero Samson when he took out the Philistines, overshadowed King David, Elijah, and others. Later, in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we read, "Suddenly a sound like the blowing of violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. [The disciples] saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [languages] as the Spirit enabled them." 

Imagery-wise, the Holy Spirit is often depicted as a dove. One example is found in John 1:32-34 says, "Then John gave his testimony: 'I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. I have seen and I testify that this is God's Chosen One" (many manuscripts says, "that this is the Son of God"). This image of the Spirit hovering is reminiscent of Genesis 1:2, and similar to Deuteronomy 32:11, which describes God as being "like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft." The later non-canonical Gospel of the Ebionites (AD 100-160) also says, "When he came up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, descending and entering him" (emphasis mine). In Dr. Luke's gospel, the archangel Gabriel says that the Holy Spirit would "overshadow" Mary, and she would become pregnant with Jesus. Perhaps the "overshadowing" has similar connotations to this descent, or hovering, seen consistently throughout Scripture.

In his De Trinitate, St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) - keeping in line with the notion of descent and its association with the Holy Spirit as a dove - speculated that just as the Holy Spirit appeared 50 days after the lamb (Jesus) was slain, and descended in tongues of fire at Pentecost, likewise, at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19, here it was the Spirit who descended in fire. He further noted that just as the theophany (appearance of God) of the burning bush has associations with fire, so too do the incidents at Mt. Sinai as well as at Pentecost, implying something deeper and passionate about the divine nature. Hence, this motif was later picked up by St. John of the Cross in his poem "Living Flame of Love".

On another note, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament seem to strongly infer (from a Christian perspective) that the Holy Spirit - also called "the Spirit of the LORD," "my Spirit," "his Spirit," "the Spirit of his Son," "the Spirit of Christ" and "the Spirit of God" all throughout the Bible - is God. Again, this Trinitarian perspective is often where the Holy Spirit comes into a higher regard, as opposed to non-Trinitarian traditions. Later legend has St. Patrick illustrating this unity with a three-leaf clover, which of course has three leaves, yet is connected by one stem.

In Acts 8:9, the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of Christ,” showing that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one. At the same time, the Father called the Spirit “my Spirit” several times in the Hebrew Bible, and in John 10:30, we find that Jesus and the Father are one. This heavily implies a Trinitarian nature. 2nd Corinthians 3:17-18 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is also omnipresent (Psalm 139:7-8), and is called eternal in Hebrews 9:14. Again, we may infer from these passages and their later interpretations that the Holy Spirit is to be viewed as God, or the Spirit of God. 

Historical Perspectives on the Holy Spirit
Early Christianity and the Holy Spirit have an interesting relationship. In fact, in the original creed at the council of Nicaea in AD 325 (not the later creed from the Council of Constantinople that came to be known as the Nicene Creed), the Holy Spirit was given one line - “and in the Holy Spirit,” and that was it. When these early Christians did finally say more about the Holy Spirit, they sparked the filioque controversy that created a division between the East and the West that remains a point of contention even to this day. This controversy centered around whether or not the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, or proceeded from the Father alone. Now, notably, the Spirit was given more attention in the later Athanasian Creed (sixth century). Nevertheless, aside from a handful of Christians through the centuries - from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Julian of Norwich or St. John of the Cross, the Spirit has mainly been relegated to Christian mystical writings.

As a side-note, the heretical movements and other non-canonical Christian writings refer to the Holy Spirit on a number of occasions.The Gospel of the Hebrews (AD 80-150) actually refers to the Holy Spirit in the feminine form, where Jesus says, "Just now my mother, the Holy Spirit, took me by one of my hairs and carried me up to the great mountain, Tabor." This is similar to the ancient concept of Sophia (wisdom) found in early biblical literature.The Gnostic Gospel of Philip 16 also portrays the Holy Spirit as female, and asks, "Some say Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. They err. They do not know what they say. When did a woman become pregnant by a woman?" Aside from associating the Holy Spirit as the divine feminine, a handful of other writings seem to associate the archangel Gabriel with the Holy Spirit. This association is later picked up in the early Islamic tradition, where it is Gabriel who speaks with and "overshadows" Mary. Now, some of these views may appear very odd and abnormal to many Christians today, but we must bear in mind that some of these fringe groups were seeking to claim the Holy Spirit in a certain light. A number of other early orthodox writings refer to the Holy Spirit when referring to the virgin birth, the acts of St. Paul or St. Peter, and others. So while the Gnostics, Ebionites, Nazarenes and others groups had a lot to say about the Holy Spirit, the main capacity that these early Christians seemed to mention the Holy Spirit in was often by paraphrasing or quoting parts of Scripture.

Nevertheless, the aforementioned problem of neglect for the Spirit came up again during the Reformation, not in Catholic circles but in Protestant circles. Martin Luther responded to a man named Thomas Muntzer, who claimed to receive divine revelation from the Holy Spirit apart from Scripture, saying that he would believe the man if “he had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all.” Yet after this early Anabaptist movement arose, Luther saw Muntzer and the others as promoting social violence and as a result, he became much more adamant against such views of the Holy Spirit, and declared that the only valid vessel of revelation was God’s Word and the sacraments approved by it. Thus, the element of experience and its relation to the Holy Spirit was neglected. During the 1700s, however, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral was introduced, which describes Theology as being comprised of Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason. As the Holy Spirit is often associated with spiritual experiences, we may say that the Quadrilateral in some ways bridged the gap between Luther's view and a Wesleyan perspective.

Now, in his "Experience of Theology" from the The Routledge Companion to the Practice of Christian Theology. Garret Green discusses the 20th century perspectives on the Holy Spirit. Early on, thanks to the 1906 Azusa Street revival and the Holiness movement, Pentecostalism spread rapidly. The central message placed an emphasis on the Holy Spirit - one that has been lacking early in Christianity. Despite an initial and in some ways ongoing impasse between Pentecostals and others who focus more on the doctrinal and theological, there have been encouraging signs of dialogue. Indeed, there are some Pentecostal writers who have been slowly engaging with the Christian traditions on the Holy Spirit, such as David K. Bernard.

According to Dr. Simeon Zahl, professor of Theology from St. John's College in Oxford, at the heart of the Azusa Street developments, we find that experience and self-deception were central. Christians have had to find a harmony between criticizing Pentecostals for over-enthusiasm, emotionalism and self-deception, while at the same time not cutting off their spiritual roots and guidance by the Holy Spirit. This has been held in tension since the beginnings of Christianity - early Christians dealt with Montanists, the Reformation had Anabaptists, the Awakening in America had to deal with revivalism and hypocritical enthusiasm, and today we deal with similar views.

Also in the 1900s, the Jehovah's Witness movement, a non-Trinitarian group, has viewed the Holy Spirit as God's "active force." In fact, in their New World Translation of the Bible, they do not translate Genesis 1:2 as "the Spirit of God" hovering over the waters, but rather, "God's active force was moving about over the surface of the waters." A literal rendering of the verse would phrase it as the "spirit or breath [ruah] of God" (cf. Genesis 8:1), which is tied into the ancient association of spirit and breath. On a theological level, we may say that the Spirit of God is as close and intimate to as us our breath. However, the Jehovah's Witnesses appear to treat the Holy Spirit as more of an impersonal force, on the level of the Eastern notion of the Tao.

The nature of the Holy Spirit as a personal being vs an impersonal force will likely continue, but encouraging signs of dialogue among different traditions within Christianity continue. Christians continue to study the Scriptures, the traditions within the history, the creedal and confessional formulations, and attempt to discern the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives. But Green also cautions that in this understanding, we do not limit the Holy Spirit to what is in Scripture, as every utterance is not found in Scripture - but it must be in conformity with Scripture. Theologian Karl Barth once said that theology must always show itself in praxis. We must also be open to the Holy Spirit’s direction - for just as Jesus said, the Spirit blows as it wills. We are again reminded that the Spirit or "breath" should be close and intimate, so in the spirit of love, of dialogue and of kinship, we take a moment to appreciate the Holy Spirit, whom the Nicene Creed calls the "giver of life."

Troy Hillman


  1. For those who read this further, here is an interesting analogy that may aid in understanding the Trinity: The Trinity is one God, yet three personalities: The Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Think of the Trinity as a pyramid: it is one structure, yet there are three sides.

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