4 Ways We Go Wrong in Thinking about the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the easiest person of the Godhead to depersonalize—and not only because of cultural forces.

We know what a Father-Son relation is in human terms, but where does the Spirit fit? Mary has sometimes been given something close to the status of the third person in popular Roman Catholic piety. Some recent theologians have even referred to the Spirit as Mother to make the triad more resonant with our familial experience. However, this move lacks exegetical foundation. Even if the Spirit is likened to a mother or a hen in a few verses, this is in the Spirit’s relation to creation, not within the immanent Godhead. We simply do not have many passages about the Spirit’s role in the immanent Trinity.

 

Many of us still remember the “Holy Ghost” from the old King James Version. For most modern people, a ghost is associated more with All Hallows’ Eve (a.k.a. Halloween) than with Pentecost Sunday. Especially in our age, the Holy Spirit is regarded (when taken seriously at all) as the “spooky” member of the Trinity. If you’re into that sort of thing—the paranormal and sensational—then the Holy Spirit is for you.

Who exactly is the mysterious third person of the Trinity? Why does he seem to possess less reality than the Father and the Son? Perhaps we think of the Holy Spirit as a divine force or energy that we can “plug into” for spiritual power. Or as the kinder and gentler—more intimate—side of God. But a person—in fact, a distinct person of the Godhead?

I want to challenge this association of the Spirit merely with the extraordinary.

This is unfortunate all around, because it distinguishes his work too sharply from that of the Father and the Son and also because it distracts us from the vast range of his activity in our world and in our lives. On both sides of the Pentecostal divide, we too easily treat the Holy Spirit as a placeholder for the “extra” things in Christianity. Sure, we have the Father and the Son, but we also need the Holy Spirit. You may be redeemed, but have you been baptized in the Spirit? The Word is vital, but we must not forget the Spirit. Doctrine is important, but there is also experience.

Consequently, the Spirit becomes typecast into predictable roles—mostly cameo appearances, especially from the book of Acts—that provoke debates over whether we should expect the same signs and wonders today. We think of him when we are talking about regeneration and sanctification and when we are arguing about his more controversial gifts. Otherwise, he is out of sight and out of mind.

The Holy Spirit is the easiest person of the Godhead to depersonalize—and not only because of cultural forces. One might even say that, for the Spirit, being somewhat forgotten is an occupational hazard. Some of our confusion about the Holy Spirit arises from a distortion of genuinely biblical truths.  Here are four ways in which we can go wrong.

First, we must remember that God is an incomprehensible mystery. He has revealed enough about himself for us to apprehend him in faith, but we do not know his inner essence. Even the term “person” in Trinitarian discussions is used analogically and anthropomorphically. The subsistences of the Godhead are not persons in the way that three human beings are persons, with separate centers of consciousness, wills, and so forth. Scripture provides us with sufficient revelation of the Spirit’s identity and mission, but it is often difficult for us to remain within these bounds.

Second, even when we embrace the incomprehensible revelation of God as Trinity, it is not easy to connect the Holy Spirit to our experience.

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