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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Who is the Holy Spirit?

Over the millennia, Christians have confessed the Holy Spirit as fully God, distinct from the Father and the Son as the third person of the Trinity. The Nicene Creed calls Him “the Lord, the giver of life”. As a member of the Godhead, it is essential for Christians to understand who the Holy Spirit is and how He is at work in the lives of believers. While, as with the other persons, developing a theological language for the Holy Spirit has been controversial, the Scriptural witness provides a detailed account of His work alongside the Father and the Son in salvation history.

The Holy Spirit is present at the beginning of the biblical story: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. While some translators and scholars prefer the “wind of God” and are hesitant to read the Nicene formula of the Trinity into this verse, Colin Gunton argues that no matter the translation, this verse refers to “the power of God in action over against that which is not God”. The New Testament identifies the power of God with the work of the Holy Spirit. In light of this later language, Gunton argues that it is not unreasonable to discern this verse as referring to the Holy Spirit. In a similar way, Psalm 33 implies God the Father created by the Holy Spirit. Not only is the Holy Spirit present at creation, but He continues to be active within it. It is through the Spirit that creation has life, hence the Nicene moniker “the giver of life”. “The Spirit as the perfecting cause of the creation is the one who enables things to become what they are created to be; to fulfill their created purpose of giving glory to God in their perfecting”.

The Holy Spirit’s rare appearances in the Old Testament are instances of empowering specific individuals for specific tasks. He empowers the leaders of Israel to fulfill their tasks in overseeing the people of Israel and freeing them from foreign oppression. He spoke to the people of Israel through the prophets. He empowered the craftspersons who fashioned the Tabernacle. Finally, He was credited for leading Old Testament believers in living lives of holiness. The Book of Common Prayer summarizes His work as “the giver of life, the one who spoke through the prophets”.

The Holy Spirit is seen as performing a similar function with Jesus, the Son of God incarnate in human nature. The Holy Spirit is credited with Mary’s virgin conception of Jesus. The Holy Spirit appears at His baptism, drives Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, and is with Him when He leaves the wilderness to begin His public ministry. Jesus declares His mission with the words from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”, highlighting the Son of God and the Holy Spirit’s collaboration in Jesus’ incarnate ministry. The New Testament author, Luke, in his record of Jesus’ time on earth and the apostles’ early ministry, favors the phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit”. Historian Justo González writes, “Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not an interior condition but is rather a spiritual reality that overflows outwardly….So being full of the Holy Spirit involved the whole person, and is manifested outwardly in attitudes of goodness, wisdom, and joy”. A life filled with the Spirit is particularly seen in how Jesus lives out His incarnate life.

The Holy Spirit is then poured out on all believers in Acts 2 at the feast of Pentecost. Jesus had previously promised the Holy Spirit to the disciples to abide with them, teach them, remind them of Jesus’ teaching, comfort them, empower them to testify about Jesus, convict the world of sin and righteousness, and glorify Christ. That promise is fulfilled after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. Yet not only is the Holy Spirit bestowed on Jewish believers at Pentecost, but He extends Himself to the Samaritans, God-fearing Gentiles, and finally, to Gentiles generally. Through these events, the prophecy of Joel is fulfilled: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh”. Throughout the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit empowers the apostles’ to spread the Gospel of Jesus throughout the Roman Empire.

The Apostle Paul, in his epistles, develops an early theology of the Holy Spirit’s activity, which he had experienced. He always refers to the Spirit as a singular person and calls Him the “Spirit of God”. In Paul’s thought, “the Spirit represents God as present among his people-in Paul often in connection with inspired speech (particularly proclaiming the gospel, but also prophecy, encouragement, exhortation, teaching) and with miracles”. Paul distinguishes the Spirit from the Father and the Son in trinitarian formulas and in describing God’s action of sending the Spirit. It is the Spirit who reveals the wisdom of God as seen in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to human beings. The Spirit actualizes the power of God in the lives of the apostles through both their preaching and through miracles. He empowers all believers to live a life pleasing to God. The Spirit unites believers and creates the church, the body of Christ in the world. He provides various Christians with specific gifts to strengthen the Church in its mission to the world. The Book of Common Prayer summarizes His revelation in the New Testament as the one “who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ”. Through the Spirit, “the cleansing and sacrifice of Christ” are sealed in believers. “The Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself”.

Because of these activities of the Spirit and because of the qualities of the Spirit in enacting these actions, the early Church affirmed that the Holy Spirit must be divine. A mere creature could not renew and create within other creatures. “The Holy Spirit was God because he did what only God could do”. In addition, because baptism occurs in the name of the Holy Spirit alongside that of the Father and the Son, He must be divine as they are. Thus, the church could conclude: “The Holy Spirit is God”.

The Church has long affirmed that the Holy Spirit is the third divine person of the Trinity, united with the Father and the Son. He creates new life and sustains all creation on behalf of the Father. He unites believers to the work of Christ and empowers them to live holy lives, purified by His death and resurrection. The presence of God in contemporary life is specifically enacted through the work of the Holy Spirit. “There is a faith in man, so far as this man freely and actively participates in the work of God. That this actually takes place, is the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of God on earth, which has its analogue in that hidden work of God, the outgoing of the Spirit from the Father and the Son”. The Holy Spirit is the life of God, present with His Church.

[1] The Book Of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church : Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1979, p. 359.

[2] Genesis 1:2 NIV

[3] As in the NRSV.

[4] Gunton, Colin E. 2002. “The Spirit Moved over the Face of the Waters: The Holy Spirit and Created Order.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 4 (2), p. 191.

[5] “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6 NRSV).

[6] See Psalm 104:29-30; Genesis 2:7; Ezekiel 37:9, 12.

[7] Gunton, p. 203.

[8] Numbers 27:18; Judges 3:10; 6:34; 13:25; 14:6; 1 Samuel 10:9-10.

[9] 2 Samuel 23:2; Ezekiel 2:2.

[10] Exodus 31:3.

[11] Psalm 143:10; Kaiser, Walter C, Jr. 2010. “The Indwelling Presence of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.” The Evangelical Quarterly 82 (4): 308–15.

[12] The Book Of Common Prayer, p. 852.

[13] Luke 1:35.

[14] Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22.

[15] Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1.

[16] Luke 4:14.

[17] Luke 4:18.

[18] Acts 2:4; 4:8; 6:3, 5; 7:55; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9.

[19] González, Justo L. The Story Luke Tells: Luke's Unique Witness to the Gospel. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015, p. 115.

[20] John 14:15-16:15.

[21] Acts 2.

[22] Acts 8.

[23] Acts 10.

[24] Acts 19; Sproul, R. C. “Undervaluing Pentecost.” Grace to You, October 16, 2013.

[25] Joel 2:28; Quoted by Peter at Pentecost: Acts 2:17.

[26] Paige, T. “Holy Spirit.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, 404–13. Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press, 1993, p. 405.

[27] 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 5:5; 13:13; Gal. 4:6; Romans 5:5.

[28] 1 Cor. 2:10-16; 1 Cor. 1:23-24; 2:2, 6-12; Paige, p. 406.

[29] 1 Thess. 1:4-6; 1 Cor. 2:4-5; Roman. 15:18-19; Gal. 3:2; Paige, p. 406.

[30] Romans 8:1-4, 14; 12:1; 1 Thess. 4:1; 2 Cor. 5:9; Eph. 5:10; Gal. 5:16, 25; Paige, p. 409.

[31] 1 Cor. 12:4-31; 2 Cor. 13:13; Paige, pp. 410-411.

[32] 1 Cor. 12-14; Paige, p. 412.

[33] Book of Common Prayer, p. 852.

[34] Calvin, John, John T. McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, III.1.1.

[35] Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Vol. 1, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007. p. 215-216.

[36] Matthew 28:19.

[37] Pelikan, p. 217.

[38] “Athanasian Creed.” In Our Faith: Ecumenical Creeds, Reformed Confessions, and Other Resources, 17–21. Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2013, p. 18.

[39] Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1959, p. 137.

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