According to Trinitarian theology, the Holy Trinity consists of three persons (τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις), the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who share the same essence/nature (ὁμοούσιος). What is the biblical basis for the personhood of the Holy Spirit (i.e., that the Holy Spirit is a "person")?
Here are four common defenses of this doctrine:
- The masculine pronoun in Greek is applied to the Holy Spirit even when not required by Greek grammar
- The Holy Spirit is shown to be in a coordinating relationship with other persons, such as the Father and Son, as well as humans, suggesting that he also is a Person
- The Holy Spirit has personal attributes and performs personal activities
- Biblical distinctions between the Holy Spirit and the "power of God"
Masculine pronoun applied to the Holy Spirit
There are several places in the Gospel of John where the masculine pronoun he (Greek ekeinos) is apparently applied to the Holy Spirit, despite the Greek word for spirit being neuter (pneuma). Many modern scholars have taught that such examples are evidence for the personhood of the Holy Spirit.1 For example, John 14:26:
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 have said to you. (ESV, emphasis added)
Other examples of this are John 15:26 and especially 16:13–14. However, some trinitarian scholars reject this argument as specious, saying that the rules of Greek grammar are not controverted in these verses: the masculine pronoun, they argue, can legitimately refer to the masculine noun Helper, not Spirit, even though (particularly in John 16) they are not in close proximity.2
Relationships with other persons
A number of passages indicate that the Holy Spirit is in a coordinate relationship with the Father and Son. Thus, if they are Persons, then so is the Holy Spirit. For example, Matthew 28:19:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (ESV)
The Spirit is also presented in parallel with human persons (the Apostles) in Acts 15:28:
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements (ESV)
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper (John 14:16, ESV)
The word "another" in this verse, plus the application of the same Greek word for Helper (parakletos) to Jesus in 1 John 2:1, further establishes the personhood of the Holy Spirit by indicating that the Holy Spirit's role mirrors that of Jesus in this significant respect.
Personal attributes and activities
The Holy Spirit is seen having attributes and performing activities commonly attributed to persons. For example, he is called the Helper or Counselor and performs the activity of bearing witness in John 15:26:
But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (ESV)
Other personal activities performed by the Holy Spirit include:
- Teaching (Luke 12:12)
- Interceding (Romans 8:26–27)
- Having a mind of his own: (Romans 8:27)
- Searching the depths of God (1 Cor 2:10)
- Knowing the thoughts of God (1 Cor 2:11)
- Distributing gifts (1 Cor 12:11)
- Forbidding activities (Acts 16:6–7)
- Speaking (Acts 8:29, 10:19-20, 13:2)
- Evaluating actions (Acts 15:28)
- Being grieved (Isa 63:10, Eph 4:30)
Not simply the power of God
Finally, it is widely argued that the Holy Spirit being merely the "power of God" doesn't make sense in light of verses like Luke 4:14:
And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee (ESV)
If the Holy Spirit is the power of God, then this would read, "And Jesus returned in the power of the power of God to Galilee," and the first "power" would be redundant. Other examples of this include Acts 10:38, Rom 15:13, and 1 Cor 2:4.
The first of these four arguments is certainly the weakest, though some scholars who interact with the counterargument still maintain it with respect to at least John 16:13–14. Nonetheless, defenses of the personhood of the Spirit most safely rest on the biblical evidence of the Holy Spirit's relationship with other persons, his personal attributes and activities, and indications that he is not merely the "power of God."
This presentation is largely an expansion of Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology, 1.1.8. Other helpful resources include Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, chapter 14 and Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology, 18.104.22.168.
- A huge number of scholars have made this argument, including Berkhof, Hodge, and Grudem in the sections mentioned above. An extensive list is also contained in the paper referenced below, beginning on page 67.
- Naselli and Gons, "Prooftexting the Personality of the Holy Spirit," DBSJ 16 (2011). The analysis of the common argument begins on page 79. A list of adherents to the counterargument begins on page 83. An example of a theologian interacting with the counterargument and rejecting it is found on page 87.
- The quote is from Berkhof, 1.1.8.
I agree with Nathaniel is Protesting. Here is a little more material about the personhood of the Holy Spirit.
The passages in John 15:26 – 16:14 repeatedly talk about the Holy Spirit as a separate person from either the Father or Jesus.
1 Cor 2:10, 11 (see also Isa 40:13, 14) also identifies the Holy Spirit as a separate person because of His teaching and instructing function. See also Rom 15:19 and Ps 104:30.
In Matt 12:31, 32, Mark 3:28, 29, and Luke 12:8-10 the unforgivable sin is defined as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This is an expansion of Isa 63:10-14 where people grieved the Holy Spirit. Such a sin would not be even possible if the Holy Spirit were not both a person and divine. Note further, that these passages make a clear distinction between sinning against the Son or Father as opposed to the Holy Spirit, again, showing that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person.
In 1 Cor 12:11 it is the Holy Spirit who decides about spiritual gifts and their distribution. This passage attributes volition and sentience to the person of the Holy Spirit.
In Acts 7:51, 1 Thess 5:19, Eph 4:30 we have various people resisting or spurning the Holy Spirit and in Acts 15:28 the Holy Spirit’s opinion is consulted. Possibly the best verses to demonstrate the individuality and personhood of the Holy Spirit is found in Rom 8:26, 27, which says –
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit and the Unforgivable Sin
The NT makes an interesting claim about the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Matt 12:31, 32, Mark 3:28, 29, and Luke 12:8-10. This sin, it appears, cannot be forgiven.
And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Matt 12:31, 32.
The question naturally arises: How is it possible that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven but blasphemy against Jesus can be forgiven? Does the Holy Spirit have some especially exalted status?
The problem here is not a matter of status but function of the Holy Spirit. Before dealing with this let us establish what blasphemy actually is. Generally, it means (BDAG), “to speak in a disrespectful way that demeans, denigrates and maligns”. However, the NT provides a more precise meaning when God is involved.
In Matt 9:3, 26:65, Mark 2:7, 14:64, Luke 5:21, John 10:33-36, blasphemy means to claim to be God, or presume the prerogatives and function of God, that is to usurp the place of God (including the Holy Spirit), for example by presuming to forgive sins, Mark 2:7. Thus, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would be usurping His place by presuming to have the function of the Holy Spirit (see above), namely, producing the fruit of the Spirit, trying to reform the life, acting as conscience for others, forgiving sins, trying to confer supernatural abilities on others, etc; all of which are the exclusive job of the Holy Spirit.
Now, if one is usurping the place of the Holy Spirit, then that effectively shuts out the essential work and influence of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life, thus excluding that person from spiritual perception or even the felt need to confess sin. Without the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to be a Christian (Rom 8:9). Such a person is beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit’s miraculous work. The person then shuts himself away from heaven’s work and feels no need of salvation and becomes spiritually self-delusional. No wonder that forgiveness is excluded, not by God but by the actions and decisions of the person.