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Personhood of the Holy Spirit
response to Jehovah’s Witnesses
I am indebted to Brian Nicks and Jack Littlefield for their classes on Pneumatology at the Bridge Bible Institute
I have incorporated much of their material in this article
The personhood of the Holy Spirit has been a point of contention between Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses ever since the founder of the Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell, denied that the Holy Spirit was a personal being. Instead, Russell claimed the Biblical evidence demonstrates that ‘holy spirit’ is the means by which God interacts with His creation – a force or power, like electricity. Witnesses point to passages that seem to portray the Holy Spirit as impersonal, such a where He is said to ‘fill‘ the apostles, to be ‘poured out’ on them, or to be baptized with Him. They explain passages that appear to portray Him as a person as mere ‘personifications.’ Further, they use these arguments as evidence against the Trinity, which they call a “doctrine of demons.”
So, the argument boils down to this: Is it more reasonable that the Bible personifies an inanimate force or the Bible makes a person seem inanimate1?
I’d like to examine this teaching in light of what the Bible really says.
Take a look at how the official Watchtower (WT) website2 portrays this issue. It immediately poisons the well: “An honest Bible reader cannot help but conclude that the holy spirit differs from official church descriptions of it as a person.” It baldly asserts that the reader is “dishonest” if he reads anything differing with the view of the WT. Dishonesty may also be imputed to “official church descriptions.” Dishonesty is defined as a “deceiving act or statement; fraud3.” No matter the numerous descriptions that the Watchtower admits appear to portray the Holy Spirit as a person, the church knows that the Holy Spirit is not a person, but teaches it anyway.
In order to establish whether the Holy Spirit is a person or not, we must have a clear idea of what constitutes a “person.” Here are three definitions that will help guide us:
· A self-conscious or rational being (Oxford English Dictionary)
· The composite of characteristics that make up an individual personality (American Heritage Dictionary)
· a living self-conscious being as distinguished from an animal or thing (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary)
The characteristics of being a person are sometimes said to be intellect (or mind), emotion, and will.
If the Holy Spirit can be shown in the Bible to be directly linked to terms descriptive of a person, and can be shown to act as a person, and can be shown to be a separate, identifiable person in relation to other persons, and can be shown to possess feelings, then we must conclude that He is a person, and not a force.
It is first important to note that the Holy Spirit is not just any person! He is a spirit person, and spirits do not always conform to our ideas about how other persons act or behave. If He is a person, we should expect to find Him represented in Scripture metaphorically, at times. Secondly, He is God, a co-equal and co-eternal member of the Trinity. He is, quite simply, beyond our ability to comprehend. Again, we should not expect Him to be described in ways we are familiar with. Thirdly, He has been described as the “shy member of the Trinity.” He performs a miraculous work in our hearts when He awakens us to new life in Christ, but His role is to point all men to Jesus, not to Himself. He works “behind the scenes,” as it were, convicting the world of sin and our need for a Savior. We should not expect to see His work manifested overtly in Scripture.
In demonstrating that the Holy Spirit is, indeed, a person, I will first respond to WT arguments and then move on to positive data as presented in Scripture (and there is a lot of it!). If the Holy Spirit can be proved to be a person, then the next question is: Who is He?
Continuing with the official WT website:
When Mary, the mother of Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth, the Bible says that the unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped, “and Elizabeth was filled with holy spirit.” (Luke 1:41) Is it reasonable that a person would be “filled” with another person?
But the WT teaches that Satan is a person, and he is said to have “filled” Ananias’ heart:
But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? (Acts 5:3 NASB)
As the great Greek grammarian, A.T. Robertson, points out, this is the very same word that is used of the Holy Spirit earlier in that same book:
And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:31 NASB)
The New World Translation obscures this fact by rendering
the Greek eplērōsen as
“emboldened” in Acts 5:3, but “filled” in Acts 4:31.
The same word is
used of God in Ephesians 3:19:
and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:19 NASB)
True, “filled” is usually used of liquids or emotions in the Bible; but a spirit can fill a person, too.
In any case, we have Biblical precedent for one personal being “filled with” another.
Here’s a verse to consider what “being filled” really means:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18 NASB)
Here it is clear that “being filled” (plērousthe – same root as the word translated “filled,” above) is a metaphor for “being controlled by.” Paul contrasts it with being intoxicated. “Don’t be drunk with wine,” Paul writes, “instead be drunk with [the] Spirit.”
Thus, when the Bible describes the Holy Spirit “filling” someone, it is describing that person (or group of people) being controlled by the Spirit, using figurative language.
The WT continues:
When John the Baptizer spoke to his disciples about Jesus as the one who would succeed him, John said: “I, for my part, baptize you with water . . . , but the one coming after me is stronger than I am, whose sandals I am not fit to take off. That one will baptize you people with holy spirit.” (Matthew 3:11). John could hardly have been referring to the holy spirit as a person when he spoke of baptizing people with it.
Let’s take a look at another verse:
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3:27 NASB)
There are two metaphors at work in this verse: “Baptized into Christ,” and “clothed yourselves with Christ” (or as the NWT renders it, “put on Christ,”) as if Christ were an article of clothing. Again, this is figurative language for “being controlled by,” and such language can certainly be applied to a person, as it is with baptizing with (or to4) the Holy Spirit.
The WT continues:
While visiting a Roman army officer and his family, the apostle Peter spoke of Jesus as having been anointed by God “with holy spirit and power.” (Acts 10:38)
There is a clue, here, that the language is meant to be taken figuratively: Jesus was not literally “anointed” with power. He did not have power actually poured on Him. Neither was He literally anointed with the Holy Spirit. This verse means that Jesus received power through the activity of the Holy Spirit during His earthly ministry.
The WT continues:
Shortly afterward, “the holy spirit fell upon” the army officer’s household.
But there is a Biblical precedent for one person ‘falling upon’ another:
But Paul went down and fell upon him, and after embracing him, he said, "Do not be troubled, for his life is in him." (Acts 20:10 NASB)
If Paul can be said to “fall upon” the young man who was killed falling out a window while listening to Paul’s sermon, the Holy Spirit can certainly empower those who believe in Jesus by “falling upon” them. This is the same word in the Greek (epipiptō)5.
The WT continues:
The account says that many were amazed “because the free gift of the holy spirit was being poured out also upon people of the nations.” (Acts 10:44-45) Here again, the terms used are inconsistent with the idea of the holy spirit being a person.
There is a similar passage in 2 Timothy:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come (2 Timothy 4:6 NASB; cf., Philippians 2:17).
It is true that different Greek words are used for the Holy
Spirit being “poured out” (ekcheō) and Paul being “poured out” (spendō).
But both words are synonymous6.
Further, in English, we have a simile (“as” or “like,” depending
on the translation), but in Greek it is metaphoric7.
The point is that if Paul can say of himself that he is being “poured
out” or “offered as a libation,” metaphoric language can obviously be used
in the Bible of persons. Furthermore,
the metaphoric use of “pour out” in reference to the Holy Spirit is made
more certain because ekcheō is
already used as a metaphor (spirit is not literally a liquid that may be
This passage is
meant to convey that the power of the Spirit was being bestowed or distributed
to the Gentiles (they were being controlled by the Holy Spirit), which amazed
the Jewish witnesses of this event. The
hearts of the Gentiles were deeply cut, they repented, and they accepted the
truth that Jesus was the promised Messiah and their only Master and Lord (Jude
Let’s turn to the
positive evidence that the Holy Spirit is a person.
1. The Holy Spirit leads people:
Matthew 4:1 (also Mark 1:12; Luke 4:11) - He led Jesus into the wilderness.
John 16:13 - He will guide us "into all the truth."
Acts 8:39 - He "caught Phillip away."
Romans 8:14 - He leads the children of God (cf. Gal 5:18).
2. The Holy Spirit speaks:
Mark 13:11 - "it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit" (also Matthew 10:19,20).
Acts 4:25 - He spoke "by the mouth of David."
Acts 8:29 - He speaks to Phillip.
Acts 11:12 - He told Peter to go with Cornelius' men.
1 John 4:2 - "Spirit of God" known by His confessing that "Christ has come in the flesh."
Revelation 2:7,11,7,29; 3:6,13,22 - "... let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
Revelation 22:17 - "The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’"
See also: John 16:13-14; Acts 13:2; 1 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 3:7; Revelation 14:13; 22:17.
3. The Holy Spirit testifies / bears witness:
John 15:26 – “He will testify about Me.” - Jesus
Acts 20:23 – “the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me.” - Paul
Romans 8:16 – “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit.”
1 John 5:7,8 – The Spirit testifies with water and blood.
4. The Holy Spirit teaches:
Exodus 31:2-4 – The Holy Spirit fills Bezalel with understanding, knowledge, and craftsmanship.
Nehemiah 9:20 – “You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them.”
Luke 12:12 – “The Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what to say.”
See also: John 14:26; 1 Corinthians 2:13.
5. The Holy Spirit helps us in many ways:
John 14:16,17,26; 16:7 - He dwells with us, teaches us, and comes to us.
Romans 8:26 - He "helps in our weaknesses" and "makes intercession for us."
Titus 3:5 - He renews us.
6. The Holy Spirit sanctifies us:
Romans 15:16 – Paul was sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 6:11 – The Holy Spirit washes, sanctifies, and justifies believers.
1 Peter 1:2 – “According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ by the sprinkling of His blood….” This verse is particularly significant in that two persons (the Father and Jesus) are mentioned alongside the Holy Spirit; it would be ridiculous to coordinate a force with two persons in this way (cf., Matthew 28:19).
7. The Holy Spirit has a mind and can reason:
Acts 15:28 - "it seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit.…" Notice how the mind of the Holy Spirit is linked to the minds of the Jerusalem elders.
Romans 8:27 - He has a mind. Compare to Romans 8:7 which has the same Greek word applied to the mind of man.
1 Corinthians 2:11 - He knows God's thoughts.
See also: Nehemiah 9:20; John 14:26, 16:13.
8. The Holy Spirit reveals things to us:
Luke 2:26 - He revealed to Simeon he would see the Christ.
John 16:13 - He will disclose to the apostles "things to come."
1 Corinthians 2:10 - God reveals things through the Holy Spirit "for the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God."
Ephesians 3:5 - He reveals the mystery of Christ.
1 Peter 1:11 - "Spirit of Christ" in the prophets "testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow."
9. The Holy Spirit performs works:
John 16:8-11 - He convicts.
Acts 2:4 - He gave the Apostles "utterance."
Acts 13:4 - He "sent out" Barnabas and Saul (cf. v.2).
Acts 16:6,7 - He forbids Paul and his companions to go to Asia.
Acts 20:28 - The Holy Spirit "has made you overseers."
1 Corinthians 12:8,9,11 - Gifts given through, by, and "as He wills."
1 Corinthians 12:11 - "the same Spirit works all these things."
1 Corinthians 12:13 - He baptizes us into Christ.
2 Corinthians 3:6 - "the Spirit gives life."
2 Corinthians 3:8 - Paul speaks of "the ministry of the Spirit."
Ephesians 3:16 - God strengthens us through His Spirit.
1 Timothy 3:16 - Christ "Justified in [by] the Spirit."
2 Timothy 1:14 - He helps us guard our faith.
1 Peter 3:18 - He makes us alive.
2 Peter 1:21 - He guided men to write Scripture/speak from God.
He has emotions:
Love: Romans 15:30
Grief: Ephesians 4:30
11. Other indications of the Spirit’s personhood:
Genesis 1:2 - He "was hovering over the face of the waters" (compare Deut 32:11).
Genesis 6:3 - He strives with sinners.
Psalms 51:11; 139:7 - Indicate His personality (in their contexts).
Isaiah 48:13 - He can be informed, as by a counselor.
Matthew 1:18, 28 - Jesus was conceived by the Spirit (also Luke 1:35).
Matthew 12:31-32 - He can be blasphemed (also Luke 12:18).
Luke 2:25-27 - Simeon "came by the Spirit into the temple."
John 3:5,6,8 - People are "born of the Spirit."
Acts 5:3 - He can be lied to.8
Acts 7:51 - He can be resisted.
Acts 13:2 - He uses the first-person pronouns "Me" and "I."
Acts 21:4 - Disciples speak to Paul "through the Spirit."
Romans 8:26 – He prays.
2 Corinthians 13:14 - "Communion (or fellowship) of the Holy Spirit" (also Phil 2:1).
Ephesians 4:39 - He can be grieved (also Isaiah 63:19).
Hebrews 9:8 - "the Holy Spirit is indicating this."
I have purposely given these verses in list format to show how overwhelming the evidence is for the personhood of the Holy Spirit. There are simply too many of these verses to explain away as “personifications.” By comparison, the number of times the Bible attributes the characteristics of inanimate objects to the Spirit (when you remove the times a person is said to perform the exact same action, as pointed out, above) is relatively few.
According to the WT website: “the holy spirit is not a person simply because in some instances it is personified.” Some instances?
If there were only a handful of personifications of the Spirit in the Bible, we might be persuaded by the WT arguments. But this is far from the case. There are, in fact, over 100 places in the Bible that personal characteristics are ascribed to the Holy Spirit. By contrast, Wisdom is personified in about a dozen places. Most occur in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, where we would expect to find poetic language like personification (the exceptions are Matthew 11: 19 and Luke 7:35 where Jesus refers to Wisdom as female). Love is personified about the same number of times in 1 Corinthians 13.
I want to draw attention to this point: The Bible contains over nine times as many references to the Holy Spirit as a person as the next closest rival.
We have, I believe, satisfied our criteria for the Holy Spirit being a person: He has a mind, a will, and emotions; He is self-aware, rational, and reacts to and is distinguished from others.
A key text in understanding that the Holy Spirit is a person is John 14:16, where Jesus promises to send "another Advocate (or Comforter)" to His disciples. The word translated "Advocate" (paraklētos), means: "one called alongside to help." The only time it refers to someone other than the Holy Spirit in Scripture is in 1 John 2:1, where it refers to Jesus Christ.
This brings up a good question: What kind of a replacement for Jesus would an inanimate force be, particularly in light of John 14:26-28:
"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful. You heard that I said to you, 'I go away, and I will come to you.' If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.9
So, to return to the question I asked earlier: If the Holy Spirit is a person, who is He?
(1(1) The technical term is “Chremamorphism” which means to apply the attributes of an inanimate object to a person. In the Bible, there are numerous occasions where chremamorphisms are used of God and Jesus (or Messiah): A rock (Deuteronomy 32:4, 15; 2 Samuel 22:2, 3, 32, 23:2; Psalms 18:2, 32, 46, 19:14, Isaiah 26:4; Habakkuk 1:12; Romans 9:33; 1 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Peter 2:8; etc.); a shield (Genesis 15:1; Deuteronomy 33:29; 2 Samuel 22:3, 31; Psalms 3:3, 18:2, 30, 28:7, 119:114, 144:2; etc.), a horn, a strong tower, a refuge, a mighty fortress, etc. If you add these texts up, they would perhaps exceed the number of texts cited by the WT to indicate that the Holy Spirit is merely an inanimate force.
(2(2) http://www.watchtower.org (Quotes from the article "Is the Holy Spirit a Person," accessed 11/16/11, since removed.)
(3(3) From Dictionary.com
(4(4) See Young’s Literal translation
(5(5) According to RWP, Acts 10:44: “Second aorist active indicative of epipiptō, old verb to fall upon, to recline, to come upon.” And Acts 20:10: “Second aorist active indicative of epipiptō with dative case as Elijah did (1 Kings 17:21) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:34).”
(6(6) Thayer defines ekcheō as:
1) to pour out, shed forth
2) metaphorically to bestow or distribute largely
1) to pour out as a drink offering, make a libation
2) in the NT to be offered as a libation
3) fig. used of one whose blood is poured out in a violent death for the cause of God
Notice that both can be used figuratively.
(7(7) The distinction between a metaphor and a simile is that the latter is a comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as,’ and the former is a comparison lacking those terms.
(8(8) Some witness apologists suggest that this verse does not provide proof that the Spirit is a person, citing James 3:14 as a counter text (e.g., see here). But though the word translated “lie” is the same in both verses, the Greek cases are not. In Acts, the terms “Holy Spirit” both are in the accusative case (pseusasthai se to pneuma to hagion), and are articular. About this construction, Robertson writes: “Infinitive (aorist middle) of purpose with accusative of general reference (se) and the accusative of the person.” This is properly rendered, “lie to the Holy Spirit.” This nuance is brought out in all major English Bibles, even the WT’s own New World Translation. In James, we have pseudesthe kata tēs alētheias, of which Robertson says: “Present middle imperative of pseudomai … to play false.” The word “against” (kata + genitive) is significant for the proper understanding of this verse. In this chapter, James is writing about teachers; and in the immediate context, he is contrasting wisdom from above with demonic wisdom from below, and the latter will go so far as to deny the truth, to lie against it, to oppose it. As Robertson says: “Lying against the truth is futile. By your conduct do not belie the truth which you teach; a solemn and needed lesson.” This is not lying to someone, it is misrepresenting something that you know to be true. This is clearly a different meaning than Acts 5:3.
(9(9) See here for an answer to this favorite verse of anti-Trinitarians.