Dorothy Sayers, the famed English novelist, tells a story of a conversation with someone new to the faith. Reportedly, this person remarked, “God the Father, I understand. Jesus the Son, I understand. But for the life of me I can’t understand the Holy Bird.” The Holy Spirit is an enigma to many. At times, the Holy Spirit is treated more as a doctrine to believe in rather than a person to interact with.
The identity of the Holy Spirit is wrapped up in the complex reality of the Trinity. God is three-in-one. This means that when we speak of the Holy Spirit, we speak of God. The attributes of the Holy Spirit are the attributes of God the Father, and God the Son.
Yet, at the same time, we speak of the Holy Spirit as a separate and unique person within God’s nature. Just as we have a faithful relationship with Jesus our Lord, we are called to have a relationship with the Holy Spirit. We are to be open to the Spirit’s movement and voice.
How does all this work? What do we mean when we describe the Holy Spirit as a “person”?
The Definition of Person
We equate personhood with individuality. To be a person is to be a separate and distinct individual. Each person possesses a unique set of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and desires. These qualities define someone’s “personality”--or the essence of their personhood. Ted the mailman is a different person than Gloria the judge.
This sense of individuality in thoughts, feelings, and desires is not what we mean when we describe the Holy Spirit as a “person.” Early Christian writings used the Greek word hypostasis when describing this.
Hypostasis is often translated as “person”; it literally means “understanding” (hypo: under plus stasis: standing). God exists in three understandings, or three persons. Importantly, these understandings exist at the same time. God is, always, equally, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Having three “persons”, however, does not mean that there are three personalities. God is one. Christians do not believe in three separate divine beings. Again, early Christian writers employed a complex word to describe the unity of the Trinity.
Homoousios means “of the same substance.” God has one substance — one distinct way of thoughts, feelings, emotion, mission, and desire. This means that God the Father is of the same reality and essence as Jesus the Son. Jesus the Son is of the same essence as the Holy Spirit. Hence, we refer to Jesus as the incarnation of God the Father, or the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ.
The persons of the Trinity are not merely roles that God adopts. God is not the Father in one moment, and the Son, in the next. The persons in the Trinity are not divine hats that God puts on and off. Each person within the divine Trinity stands in distinction from one-another. Thus, it is completely legitimate to ask: “Who is the Holy Spirit?”
Who Is the Holy Spirit?
The Bible is filled with passages describing the Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful. The Holy Spirit inspires our worship (1 Corinthians 12:3), empowers our Christian witness (Acts 2:4), provides guidance (John 16:13), and prays for us when we cannot muster the words (Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit is an indispensable part of our Christian lives. Scripturally speaking, we cannot live the Christian life without the interaction of the Holy Spirit.
The Old Testament also speaks of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is best illustrated in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. In this vision, it is the Holy Spirit that provides life to the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:14).
The Spirit is the breath of life. In Ezekiel’s vision, there is a clear differentiation between the Sovereign Lord, who leads Ezekiel through the vision, and the breathed-out Spirit. Ezekiel is even commanded to speak directly to the Spirit.
Fundamentally, the Holy Spirit is the indwelling presence of God in us. This indwelling presence guarantees our participation in God’s kingdom. Paul writes that the Holy Spirit is “our inheritance toward redemption” (Ephesians 1:13-14).
The Holy Spirit bestows the promise of everlasting love and grace. Furthermore, the Spirit is the way we know that we live in an interactive relationship with God. The Holy Spirit testifies with our own inward spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16).
The Spirit Points Beyond Itself
As much as we may talk about the person of the Holy Spirit, we must remember that the Holy Spirit never stands alone. The Holy Spirit always points to God the Father and God the Son. We see this throughout the New Testament.
Gabriel’s testimony to the young Mary is that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, so the child to be born will be called holy” (Luke 1:35 – my emphasis).
The Holy Spirit links the power of God the Father to the incarnation of God the Son. Jesus’ baptism also displays this fundamental link. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as a voice from heaven declares his divine sonship.
Lastly, Jesus himself refers to the connection between all persons in the Trinity, highlighting specifically the role of the Holy Spirit. In preparing his followers for his eventual death and resurrection, Jesus affirms that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). Again, the Holy Spirit links the persons of the Trinity together.
Putting it All Together
If all this is a bit head-scratching, don’t worry; you are in good company. Christians from every time and place have struggled to understand the subtle nuances of the Trinity and how the Holy Spirit fits in.
Analogies only get us so far and will inevitably break down in the end. Ultimately, Christians are called to hold the truth of God’s “oneness” in constant tension with the truth of God’s “three-ness.” God is one being in three persons.
One of the great articulations of the eternal relationship of the divine persons is known as “The Creed of Saint Athanasius.” The document is dated from the sixth century and it was written to make clear what Christians believe. The Creed begins:
“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal… So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity, none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal.”
So, to the original question, yes, the Holy Spirit is a person. Yet you can never know the Holy Spirit outside of an abiding faith in God the Father, through a relationship with Jesus Christ. You can’t skip the other persons of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit will always lead you into a deeper connection with Jesus.
The good news is that Jesus has promised us the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is because the Holy Spirit is a person that you can pray to the Holy Spirit and ask for more of the Holy Spirit in your life.
You can ask for guidance, and help, and healing, and a manifestation of the Spirit’s power. The Holy Spirit may be hard to understand at times, but that does not mean that the Spirit is not constantly available to us. Thus, if you want to know more of the Holy Spirit in your life, all you need to do is ask.
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The Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada. He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.com, ibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others. He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca. He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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