Pentecost is, for many of us and our congregations, the Sunday (or season) in which we turn our attention to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The reality, however, for many of the people in our pews, is that the Spirit is often conceived of as more like the Force from Star Wars than a distinct divine person. In fact, a recent survey found that only 32 percent of American evangelicals either “strongly” or “somewhat” disagreed with the statement that “the Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.” To make matters worse, many popular arguments made in favor of the personhood of the Spirit do not hold up under the weight of critical examination.
This year Pentecost will be unlike any in recent memory, as social distancing requirements continue to disrupt normal church activities. And yet these circumstances, difficult and painful as they are, may provide a unique opportunity for us and our people to engage with the person and work of the Holy Spirit in a fresh way.
In this brief article, then, I will deconstruct some popular but misguided attempts to defend the personhood of the Spirit, identify a more sound basis for explaining this essential doctrine, and consider the invitation of the Spirit for this moment in history.
Exegetical Fallacies (Holy Spirit Edition)
Common “biblical” arguments for the distinct divine personhood of the Holy Spirit, though well-intentioned, fail to hold up under careful scrutiny. In preaching or teaching on the Holy Spirit this Pentecost, watch out for these two popular exegetical fallacies:
The Argument from Personal Characteristics
It’s often argued that because the Bible indicates that the Spirit can be grieved, lied to, speak to us, and otherwise possess characteristics or abilities that we would consider marks of personhood, then the Spirit is a person. The authors of the above-mentioned survey, in their defense of theological orthodoxy on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, make precisely this argument, claiming that the Spirit’s personal characteristics (e.g., Acts 5:3; Eph 4:30; Heb 3:7-11) mean that the Spirit must therefore be a person. Unfortunately, this theological reasoning is deficient: beyond the inherent problems of the proof-texting approach, this argument conveniently leaves aside passages that portray the Spirit in impersonal terms (e.g., 1 Thess 4:8; 2 Cor 1:22; Rom 5:5) and does not take seriously the common biblical literary device of anthropomorphism, which assigns something personal traits without it actually being a person (e.g., Ps 98:8; Isa 55:12).
The Argument from Greek Grammar
Among those inclined to appeal to the Greek of the New Testament, another popular argument for the Spirit’s personhood, found even in many biblical commentaries, points to a curious feature of Greek grammar concerning the Spirit. In several passages in which the Spirit (which is grammatically neuter) is the subject, subsequent pronouns or participles are masculine rather than neuter. Without wading into all the technical minutiae, expert Greek grammarian Dr. Daniel B. Wallace has demonstrated that there are other reasons that can explain these shifts in gender, and therefore this argument contributes nothing to our understanding of the personhood of the Holy Spirit.
Having found holes in these two popular “biblical” cases for the Holy Spirit, are we therefore at a loss for helping our people understand this crucial doctrine? Are the creeds and classic formulations of trinitarian theology somehow divorced from the biblical text? Thankfully, the lectionary for Pentecost Sunday points us to precisely where the early church also went to get a better understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
John’s Gospel and the Paraclete
Unique among the Four Gospels, the Gospel of John presents the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete (14:16-17, 14:26, 15:26-27, 16:7-11, 16:13-15), a complex designation combining aspects of a legal advocate, counselor, teacher, and broker of patronage. The Gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday, John 14:8-17, has Jesus telling his disciples that the Father will, at his request, send this Paraclete, the “Spirit of truth,” to abide with his disciples. This Paraclete, Jesus says elsewhere in his farewell discourse, will teach the disciples in his absence, testifying on Jesus’ behalf and leading them into all truth.
As I argue in my new book, How the Spirit Became God, the early Christians of the first four centuries returned time and again to this picture of the Holy Spirit as Paraclete as the basis for their claims that the Spirit is a distinct divine person. While I will leave the fullness of that story for those interested in historical theology, the important thing to emphasize in our preaching on this passage is that there is a sense in which the Spirit as Paraclete conveys a more personal understanding of the Spirit than do other common biblical images of the Spirit, such as wind, fire, a cloud, or a dove. But why?
This portion of John’s Gospel does indeed present the Spirit as the subject of many verbs that seem to demand a personal subject. Still, as discussed above, we know that in and of itself this point is not decisive for proving the true personhood of the Spirit. Rather, what seems to be most significant here is how John’s Gospel portrays the oneness of the Spirit and Christ. To take just one example, in the reference to the Spirit as “another” Paraclete (John 14:16), we find Christ directly comparing himself with the Holy Spirit. In drawing this parallel, the personality of the Spirit has been emphasized; it is as if Christ’s personality has been applied to the Spirit.
As my pastor, Kris McDaniel, is fond of putting it, the implication of what Jesus is telling his disciples runs something along the lines of “if you like Jesus, then you should like the Holy Spirit too.” In fact, Jesus actually tells his disciples that it is better that he leave so that he can send the Holy Spirit (John 16:7)! What’s good about Jesus, then, is also good about the Holy Spirit, and personhood, with all of the relational opportunities implicit in that concept, is surely part of that package.
While it would take generations of early Christian theologians time and new theological language to properly distinguish the Spirit from Christ (for which, again, see my book), it is no overstatement to say that the seeds for later orthodox trinitarian theology concerning the person and work of the Holy Spirit were planted in the very Gospel passage selected for Pentecost Sunday. Thanks be to God!
The Invitation of the Spirit
Now that we’ve finished our deep dive into the Bible and theology, we can come back to the more specific challenge of preaching Pentecost in the time of coronavirus. After all, even if we have all of our theological ducks in a row (which is, of course, very important!), we still need to explain to our people how the Spirit is good news for them, even in (or especially in) times like these.
Through the centuries, the experience of the Holy Spirit has been a central feature of the Christian life. While different traditions have at times emphasized different aspects of this experience, the church has always maintained that it is the Spirit who is the “giver of life,” who leads us into becoming ever more like Christ.
The Spirit, though, will not transform us into Christ’s likeness against our will or in a mechanistic fashion; rather, because the Spirit is a person, the Spirit invites us into a relationship with him, a relationship that provides the context by which we can be changed. For the early Christians, cultivating this relationship meant intentionally engaging with spiritual disciplines such as silence and solitude, allowing ourselves to create spaces in which we can hear the still, small voice of the Spirit.
It is in precisely this way that the present crisis, in removing from our lives much of our hurried and frantic patterns of living, provides us with an opportunity to engage with the Holy Spirit through striving after what the great church father Basil of Caesarea calls a “quiet mind”:
“We must strive after a quiet mind. . . . Now solitude is of the greatest use for this purpose, inasmuch as it stills our passions, and gives room for principle to cut them out of our soul. . . . Quiet, then, as I have said, is the first step of our sanctification; the tongue purified from the gossip of the world; the eyes unexcited by fair color or comely shape; the ear not relaxing the tone or mind by voluptuous songs, nor by that special mischief, the talk of light men and jesters. Thus the mind, saved from dissipation from without, and not through the senses thrown upon the world, falls back upon itself, and thereby ascends to the contemplation of God.” (Epistle 2.2, trans. NPNF)
For Basil, and for us, we enjoy the awesome privilege of being invited to know God and to be in relationship with him. The mission for us, then, should we choose to accept it, is to learn to quiet our minds and be filled with the Spirit. As I write in my book:
“It seems to me that the most urgent and most significant task of this generation is to recover, amidst a culture that prizes speed and efficiency, and amidst a world that ceaselessly clamors for our constant attention through new digital technologies, a way of life that allows us to set aside the distractions of this world in order to ascend to God. Surely no other task would be as counter-cultural or as compelling to those who are exhausted from their pursuit of these virtues of the world.” (How the Spirit Became God, p. 138)
What I didn’t know when I wrote those words, of course, was that we were about to enter into a season when we have an unprecedented opportunity to take a break from our addiction to a frenzied existence. This Pentecost, even amidst the suffering, hardship, and grief that we see all around us, let us invite our people––and ourselves––into new rhythms of life with the person of the Holy Spirit.
Kyle Hughes is an ordained deacon in the Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO) and has a Ph.D. in New Testament and Early Christianity. He teaches history and Bible classes at a Christian college-preparatory school in the metro Atlanta area. His latest book, How the Spirit Became God: The Mosaic of Early Christian Pneumatology, will be published in mid-to-late 2020 by Cascade. Visit him at kylerhughes.com.