The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, coequal with the Father and the Son, sharing in the divine essence of God.
The study of the Holy Spirit is called “pneumatology,” pneuma being the Greek word for “spirit” or “breath.” Both the Greek word and the Hebrew word ruach connotes “wind” or “breath,” the life-giving spirit that animates all of life.
When we speak of the Holy Spirit as being a person, we are emphasizing that the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force or an “it.” The Spirit is just as personal as the Father and the Son and has a specific mission in the history of salvation and in the world. Though the Holy Spirit is active in all the work associated with the other two persons of the Trinity, we can speak of specific qualities or operations given to the Holy Spirit. For example, though the Father and the Son are involved completely in saving us, the Holy Spirit has the role of convicting us of our sin, convincing us of our need for a new life and cleansing our hearts for sanctification.
It is also true that within the Trinity the distant transcendent nature of God is often a trait describing the Father while the immediate and perceptible experience of God is thought to be given to us by the Spirit. In the Apostles’ Creed, belief in the Holy Spirit is followed by numerous examples: the experience of the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, forgiveness of sins, as well as the future hope of bodily resurrection and eternal life. We often invoke the person of the Holy Spirit to come upon us in our worship that we might individually and corporately experience the awesome presence of God.
However, this close, personal experience of the Holy Spirit can collapse into a purely subjective and psychologically based narcissism. The Holy Spirit and the human spirit are closely related, but the Holy Spirit remains God and must not be exploited and controlled by us.
It is the Holy Spirit within us that prays for us when our own spirit is unable to express what we need (Romans 8:26). We are encouraged to discern the spirits so that we can tell the activity of God’s spirit in our lives from that of our fleshly existence (Romans 12:2). The Holy Spirit as a personal comforter and counselor helps direct our decisions in an ambiguous and changing world.
One way to ensure that our engagement with the Holy Spirit does not spiral into obsession and impersonal mysticism is to reflect on the way the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. As the Father sent the Son, the Son sends the Spirit (John 15:26). The procession of the Spirit is an eternal relationship; as the Son is eternally begotten, the Spirit eternally proceeds. The history of this “procession” has been long and controversial, often symbolizing the schism between Eastern and Western forms of Christianity.
If we say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone (Eastern Christianity), we may be placing an unwanted emphasis on the ability to know God separately from Christ, opening up two distinct means of salvation.
If we say that the Spirit proceeds from the “Father and the Son” (Western Christianity), we might be tying the Holy Spirit too closely to the historical Jesus as the incarnate Word. This can lead to what some call a “Christomonism” — that the Spirit is bound by the revelation of Christ in a particular history. This impasse has led some to envision a cooperation between the two persons. Irenaeus (second century; prior to classic Trinitarian debates) wrote of the Son and the Holy Spirit as the two hands of God.
Just as the Son, the incarnate Word, cooperates with the Holy Spirit, so also do the biblical Word and the Spirit. The “Word” and the “Breath” are both needed as we speak God’s message to the world. Alone, the Word can become mere law, but the Spirit gives it freedom and life. Alone, the Spirit can become untethered and without form, but with the Word gives it order and meaning. Even as we read the Bible, whose writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit, we interpret through that same Spirit for our lives today.
There are many subtopics under the study of the Holy Spirit, including the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit and the charismatic gifts. But we come to know the Holy Spirit as the One that dwells within us, enabling us to live as Jesus called us to live. Even as we see the Spirit at work in the church, we have come to know that the Spirit is also at work outside the church and in places that we have yet to acknowledge.
Out of past neglect, pneumatology has emerged as one of the most exciting areas of Christian thought today. The study of the Holy Spirit should inform our Christian life in both its individual and social dimensions. It deals specifically with how we experience God at work within us (theological anthropology), and among us as fellow believers (ecclesiology), and in God’s mission in human history (missiology), including the hope of the future (eschatology). We are always in need of renewal and new life in our Christian life. Even so, “Come, Holy Spirit!”
Rich Eckley is an ordained Wesleyan minister and emeritus professor of theology at Houghton University, Houghton, New York.
Questions for reflection and conversation
- What are some of the specific qualities or operations of the Holy Spirit?
- How have these specific operations of the Holy Spirit been demonstrated in your own life, even if, you did not realize it at the time?
- Can you identify instances when you were able to readily perceive the work of the Holy Spirit in your life? Describe your experience.
- Can you identify instances when you were able to readily perceive the work of the Holy Spirit in your church family or kingdom work? Describe your experiences.
- As believers in Christ, it is imperative that we live in the light of the Holy Spirit. What are some practical ways you can daily be mindful of and rely upon the Holy Spirit?