Our biggest sale! 50% off your PLUS subscription. Use code SUMMER

What Is the Theological Study of Pneumatology?

Pneumatology isn't just a great word for Scrabble. It's an important religious word for understanding how our spiritual life works.

Contributing Writer
Updated May 23, 2023
What Is the Theological Study of Pneumatology?

The word pneumatology comes from the Greek pneuma, meaning breath. This is the same word that the English word pneumonia is from. It refers to the study of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and how he fits into the Trinity and believers’ lives.

There are several schools of thought on how the Spirit works in the world today. Pneumatology seeks to understand these ideas about the Holy Spirit and get to know him better.

How Can Pneumatology Help Us Understand the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit is a person—not a force as some believe him to be.

Studying what the Bible teaches about the Holy Spirit helps us better understand how he works today. For many people, the Holy Spirit is the least understood member of the Trinity. Understanding what Scripture says about him and what theologians throughout history have thought about him will help us better develop our relationship with him. To form a relationship with someone, you need to get to know them, and studying pneumatology is a great way to get the Holy Spirit.

Most theologians still believe that an important part of the Holy Spirit is his mystery. He is the most mysterious member of the Trinity, despite dwelling in each of us. Yet Scripture says that the Holy Spirit is the one who regenerates us and fills us. Granting that we may never fully understand him, not knowing anything about him, or paying attention to him, will have serious implications for our Christian life.

How Has Pneumatology Developed Throughout Church History?

Pneumatology has developed substantially between the earlier creeds and the later creeds. The Apostle’s Creed, for example, doesn’t say much about the doctrine of the Spirit. It simply says, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

In the first 500 years, sometimes known as the patristic era, believers were trying to figure out how the Holy Spirit fit into the Trinity. Some, known as the semi-Arians, believed that the Holy Spirit was not a full-fledged member of the Trinity but came from the relationship between the Father and the Son.

In the medieval period (usually listed as 500 AD-1500 AD), a disagreement between the Eastern and Western Churches emerged. It revolved around a statement known as the filioque, later added to the Constantinople creed.

Found in the Athanasian Creed, the filioque states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The last phrase, “and the Son,” was controversial in the Eastern Church’s eyes and a major factor in the later Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity.

During the Protestant Reformation, the Holy Spirit was primarily seen as the one who regenerates and causes us to believe, less as the one who provides spiritual gifts. This emphasis continued from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, though this doesn’t mean there was no evidence of Christians having the gifts of the Spirit.

The modern Pentecostal view of the Spirit became prominent in the USA in the late 1800s. The period was characterized by a renewed emphasis on the Spirit’s gifts. Of particular importance was speaking in tongues, which the church had not pursued throughout most of its history.

What Scriptures Does Pneumatology Rely On?

Most Scriptural support for the deity of the Holy Spirit is found in John 14 and 16 and the early chapters of Acts. It is also clear that the Holy Spirit was present at creation because Genesis 1:2 says, “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the Waters.”

In John, we get an idea of who the Spirit, or Helper (Greek: paraclete), is. He is the one who will teach the disciples, convict the world of sin, and guide the disciples in all truth. Each of these actions is personal. The early church used John’s Gospel to develop a high Christology. It was later used to develop a robust pneumatology. Studying John will show believers much about the action and personhood of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 5 is one of the strongest affirmations of the Spirit’s divinity and personhood. When Ananias and Sapphira lie to the church about the sale of their property, in verse 3, Peter says, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit.” Later, in verse 4, Peter says, “You have not lied to man, but to God.” Together, these two statements show the Holy Spirit is God and that he can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30).

What Does Pneumatology Teach about the Trinity?

Pneumatology influences our understanding of the Trinity because it shows us that while God didn’t fully reveal the Trinity until New Testament times, it has been there from the beginning.

Pneumatology helps us understand that the Holy Spirit is a person. The Holy Spirit’s personhood is seen in Acts 13:2, where the Holy Spirit says, “. . . I have called them.” Something must be able to say, “I have . . .” to be a person. Therefore, the Spirit must be a person.

The Spirit also intercedes on our behalf, according to Romans 8:26-27. In this way, the Son and the Spirit together advocate on our behalf that the Father should be merciful to us.

The fact that the Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words shows that he knows our innermost being. Taken with Psalm 139, Romans 8:26-27 also show that the Spirit is God because verse 1 implies that only God knows our innermost being and thoughts.

Romans 8 shows that the Spirit also knows our innermost thoughts. This shows the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: the Son intercedes on our behalf to the Father as the Spirit reveals our hearts to the Father.

What Are the Major Schools of Pneumatology?

The biggest debate is between systematic theologians who study pneumatology, specifically on how the Holy Spirit functions today. There are three main schools of thought on this: cessationists, continuationists, and charismatics.

Cessationists believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased today. In this view, the primary power of the Holy Spirit is to regenerate believers, to speak to and convict us of our sin. He still transforms us into the image of Christ and performs miracles in the world today. However, it is outside the power of believers to call these miracles down as the apostles did. In their view, the Spirit continues to work in the world, but the spiritual gifts seen in the New Testament ended shortly after the Scriptures were written.

Continuationists believe that the Holy Spirit continues to give believers the gifts today but that the gifts of prophecy and tongues should be used with more caution. In their view, prophecy can lead to revelation that goes against Scripture. These words from God should be thrown away because they go against the plain teaching of Scripture. Tongues, meanwhile, are used in pioneering missions—for speaking and understanding foreign languages.

Charismatics believe that all gifts should be pursued and experienced by all believers today. A specific subset of Charismatics believes believers enter into a closer relationship with God when they experience spiritual gifts. They refer to this experience as the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

How Does Pneumatology Connect to Other Theological Studies?

Pneumatology is closely connected with Christology and Patriology, the studies of the other members of the Trinity. These three are closely tied together because they show how the Trinity interacts within itself.

Pneumatology also connects with ecclesiology, the study of the church, because the Holy Spirit is the one who builds us up into a dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:22).

Great Books for Studying Pneumatology

The best modern book for learning Pneumatology, and the source for most of this article, was He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit by Graham Cole. Read it for free for two months by signing up here, then follow the link here.

A fascinating book on the development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions by Stanley M. Burgess. Also available for free here with this link.

A great introduction to the Holy Spirit is Forgotten God by Francis Chan.

Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? contains perspectives by Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Robert L. Saucey, C. Samuel Storms, and Douglas A. Oss, providing valuable discussion on the Charismatic, continuationist, and cessationist debate.

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/ipopba 

Ben Reichert works with college students in New Zealand. He graduated from Iowa State in 2019 with degrees in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and agronomy. He is passionate about church history, theology, and having people walk with Jesus. When not working or writing you can find him running or hiking in the beautiful New Zealand Bush.


Christianity / Theology / Holy Spirit / What Is the Theological Study of Pneumatology?