Ministry Resources

The Spirit as a Divine Person

Author: Dr. Craig Keener

Christians honor God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet we may not always recognize the biblical foundations for what we believe.

That the Father is God goes without saying. That Jesus is divine in the New Testament would be equally obvious to its first readers, and would be to everyone today if we recognized ancient literary devices. For example, New Testament letters open with blessings from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, even though ancient blessings invoked deities. Old Testament descriptions of God are often applied to Jesus (e.g., Phil 2:6, 10-11; Rev 7:16-17). Even his title “Lord” would often imply his deity no less than the title “God,” especially in passages like 1 Cor 8:5-6, which evokes Deut 6:4 (one God, one Lord). Many passages are even more explicit, such as John 1:1; 8:58; and 20:28, framing the heart of John’s Gospel.

Jewish Understanding of the Spirit

But what about the Spirit? This is more explicit in some passages (treated below) than in some others. In contrast to Jesus’s deity, the Spirit as a divine person was not a primary issue of contention with the earliest church’s contemporaries, so it received less attention at first. Jewish people recognized the Spirit as divine, although not as a person within God distinct from the Father. In the Old Testament, God was more concerned about defining himself as Israel’s one God as opposed to the false gods worshiped by other nations. At best there are possible hints that the Spirit could be distinguished from the one whom Christians call God the Father (cf. perhaps Isa 48:16). God was schooling his people in monotheism, but the term for God’s oneness is also the term for the oneness of husband and wife (Gen 2:24). That is, the necessary emphasis on God’s oneness does not exclude the later revelation of different persons sharing the nature of the one God.

Various passages in the New Testament provide much fuller hints, connecting the Spirit with the Father and the Son in special ways that presuppose their deity (1 Cor 12:4-6; 2 Cor 13:14; Eph 4:4-6; most explicitly, Matt 28:19). Sometimes in Acts the Spirit also acts in personal ways.

Recognizing the Spirit’s Personhood

That the Spirit acts as a person becomes most clear in Jesus’s final discourse to his disciples in John 14—16. This is not so much because Jesus uses a masculine pronoun for the Spirit here; the masculine pronoun fits the gender of the Greek word paraklêtos (“counselor,” “advocate,” “comforter”) used in this context. That use no more makes the Spirit male than the feminine and neuter pronouns for the Spirit associated with the feminine Hebrew (ruach) and neuter Greek (pneuma) terms for “spirit” make the Spirit female or neuter.

The reason we recognize the Spirit as personal in these passages is that he carries forward Jesus’s mission after his ascension, working as “another advocate” (John 14:16-17, 26; 16:7-15). The Spirit convicts the world concerning sin and judgment (John 16:8-9, 11) just as Jesus does (John 3:19-20; 8:46; 12:31); he acts in Jesus’ place after Jesus’s exaltation (John 14:16; 16:10). He comes and speaks to the disciples whatever he hears (John 16:13), just as Jesus did (John 15:15). It is not surprising, then, that once Christians began considering these questions they recognized the Spirit as a divine person like the Father and the Son.

Christians today sometimes treat the Spirit—or even the Father and the Son—as an impersonal force. But God comes to us in a personal way, a way that invites us into a personal relationship with him. As we worship God together, let us remember and embrace that invitation.

This post is adapted from my article for the A.M.E. Zion Missionary Seer; more details are in my book Gift & Giver and in my two-volume commentary on John, both with Baker.

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