Saturday, March 13, 2010

The mundane Holy Spirit

I wanted to give air to an idea that has captured my thoughts from time to time. Today people talk blithely of the Holy Spirit and ascribe to it this wonder and that duty, but there is a decided lack of appreciation for its effect on early Christianity.

We live in a faith tradition where the Holy Spirit is a commonplace article. We are familiar with it as one of the many gifts of God. What we don't take into account is that the people of God did not always have it. We read our New Testaments as though they were textbooks describing this or that function of the Spirit without fully realizing how profound of a change the advent of the Spirit was to the earliest Christians.

For centuries prior to Christ, the "Spirit of God" was said to have been silent. The idea of being "in the Spirit" referred to occasional divine revelation or provocation to do or say something. Christ refers to David speaking while "in the Spirit" in Matthew 22:43. Other examples are presented in Luke 2:27 and Acts 19:21. It was exceptionally rare both in terms of possessing people very rarely and in terms of only possessing people for a limited amount of time.

It had to be shocking, utterly shocking, then for early Christians to find out that, in the new covenant, EVERYONE could have the Spirit ALL THE TIME. I don't think we really appreciate how significant a change this was to their views on God's providence. I further believe that the more we realize this, the more we can find in the Bible indication that the sending of the Spirit was considered the gift obtained by Christ's work.

Christ refers to it as "what was promised," and that term "promise" is used several times in Acts to refer to the Spirit. The term "gift" is practically synonymous with Holy Spirit throughout the teachings of the apostles in Acts. John's account has Jesus saying that the Spirit's advent was contingent on his death. Once your eyes are open to it, these types of allusions show up all over the place.


dave said...

I just got your book and am really enjoying it, will post a review soon. Great to find your blog, too.
I'm sorry if you have addressed this elsewhere, but can help me get why you reference Holy Spirit as "it." Is it because you don;t see Scripture presenting the Spirit as personal.a Person?

Keep up the good work

David Rudel said...

Hi Dave,

Thanks for the comment, and for reading the book. How did you come across it?

Anyways, first I should say that my book is meant to address soteriology, so however I refer to the Holy Spirit [in terms of what pronouns are used] is not intended to make some point. I think the very few times I use "it" to refer to the Holy Spirit is when I happen to be using it as the direct object of the verb "give." It seems odd to speak of "giving Him to people." While the H.S. may be pictured as a person being sent by God in, e.g., John 14:26 and John 15:26, to the community of Christians at seems odd to me to think of the H.S. as a person when given to individuals separately. More specifically, writing "The apostles give him to people through baptism" just sounds weird...which is probably why I typed it that way without even realizing that I might cause any controversy.

(continued on next comment)

David Rudel said...

The "person-ness" of the Spirit is an odd thing; at least to me it is. The NT writers appear to suggest that (sometimes, at least) they do not think of the Spirit as a person, and there are four reasons why I say this.

1. The idea of "the Spirit of God" is a Jewish notion that referred to someone being "in ecstasy," overcome by the spirit. They may have conceived of the H.S. as an abstract, separate entity [known as "wisdom" in some intertestamental literature and Proverbs 3 and 8], but probably not as a "person." Of course, this is a leaky argument because they ended up seeing the Torah in the same way...and Jesus is seen as the (true) Torah the Spirit could be "wisdom" personified.

2. The writers do not use pronouns of common gender when writing about the Spirit, and when using "The Spirit" as a proper noun, they do not change it to masculine/feminine [c.f. when Jesus names Peter, the feminine "petra" is turned into a masculine for the name]. The words used to refer to the Spirit in the N.T. are:
Paracleate: Male
Spirit: neuter
Gift: feminine
Promise: feminine
[Note, some Greek scholars would say that Greeks never ascribed neuter terms to people, so the fact that "spirit" was used as the basic term for the entity to which we refer means the writers did not have a person in mind.]

3. If you don't buy the argument in brackets, it is very hard to find decent texts where the pronouns are of any use because normally pronouns have to agree with their antecedent in gender. Thus, for example, all the times when the Greek word for "it" or "which" (rather than "who") is used to refer to the Spirit, one could chalk it up to grammatical requirements.

However, there are a few places where a bald pronoun is used, a pronoun where there is no antecedent. One example I found is Acts 2:33, where "this" refers to that which has been poured out [the spirit], but it is in neuter form. However, it is not semantically linked in a way to require this grammatically, so I think we can take that particular use of touto as suggesting a non-personal view of the H.S. There might be other examples of this, but it's nearly 6 AM, so I'm not going to go fishing. It's pretty rare for there to be a bald demonstrative like that.

4. Perhaps most interesting...and enigmatic...very often the writers don't actually write "the holy spirit" but rather write "a holy spirit." This gets translated as "the Holy Spirit" in our Bibles.
I don't rightly know the best way to reconcile the two divergent forms, but I can say that the Greek seen in Acts 8:15, 10:38, 19:2; Luke 2:25; Luke 11:13; John 20:22 is not what we would expect if writing about a person. The Greek in these places is "a holy spirit," but it is clearly (in a few places) referring to what we would normally think of as "the holy spirit."

Note: in many cases the article can be assumed (it is optional). This occurs in prepositional phrases and can also exist in verbals and when "holy spirit" is used in the dative or genitive case. I have not counted those cases in my list above. I only picked the ones where the article really was needed.

So, while there may be some places where "The Holy Spirit" is seen as a person, it appears that in many places the N.T. writers did not see the Spirit in this way. This might be a mystery we will only understand on the other side.

dave said...

Thanks David, for taking the time, and a hugely helpful respose.

I am an OOZE Viral Blogger, and got a review copy...I am a pastor and teach Bible adjunct at two colleges...I am looking forward to integrating your book into my teaching.

I am learning to grow and stretch, detoxing from some of my evangelical training.

I do hang onto the personality/personhood of Holy Spirit in light of scriptures like "The Holy Spirit spoke, and said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.'" Acts 28...
Only a person speaks and references self as 'I'.
But obviously the phrase/topic is much bigger than that.

Just yesterday on facebook I saw Holy Spirit listed a a "product" on fan pages!

Thanks so much.

Will post my review soon.
I am reading it at the same time as Farley's "Naked Gospel," which is good, but could have been greatly strengthened by insights from your book. I am also sharing your book w/a Messianic rabbi friend..he is thrilled what he has heard so far.

David Rudel said...

Thanks, Dave.

Yes, if I were to look into this topic at a later date, Acts 13:4 would be a good place to start if there is something to be unraveled. But there well may be nothing that can be least nothing clearly portrayed.

Thanks for sharing the book!

Might I ask that you cross-post your review on Amazon?

Hope to hear more from you here on the blog.

Mike Gantt said...

Well said. We have undervalued our inheritance: the Holy Spirit.

Jeff said...


I read through your book quickly, and see many valid points. Am considering re-reading it, but one thing that keeps making me trip is your calling the Holy Spirit an "it."

The "Force" in the fictional movie series Star Wars may be an "it," but God's living Spirit is fully a person, and thus "He" is the correct way to refer to Him.

Do you think the Holy Spirit is a Person or not?

Most writers have made these points abundantly clear, and made the point that the Spirit is NOT to be called "it," but "He," or "Him," etc.

Can you tell me why you depersonalize God's Spirit into an "it?"