The Holy Spirit: Impersonal Force or Person?

I finished Robert Grant’s Gods and the One God.  In this post, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Grant says on page 149 regarding the Holy Spirit:

“Some of the biblical texts treat ‘spirit’ not as personal but as a force, or even an experience, not clearly definable…The category of personal divine being shared by the Father and the Son is not quite the same as that shared with the Spirit, and this is one reason why Eastern theology speaks of the Spirit as ‘proceeding from the Father’ and in the West we hear of ‘proceeding from the Father and the Son’… [But] we should not try to reduce doctrines to their presumed origins and assume that the nature of the Spirit must be limited to force or experience.”

For better or for worse, Armstrongism has had an impact on how I study religion.  It’s not that I assume that Armstrongism is the end-all-be-all of what the Bible means—-far from it, for I neither associate with that movement anymore, nor do I follow many of its beliefs and practices.  But my background in Armstrongism does account for some of the questions that I ask, or some of the things that I notice when I am reading a scholarly book on religion.  Such questions include: “What did early Christianity believe was the proper relationship between Gentiles and the Torah?”, and “Did the Hebrew Bible regard the Holy Spirit to be a person or an impersonal force—-as in God’s power.”

On the latter question, Armstrongism maintained that the Holy Spirit was God’s power, not a person.  What that means is that Armstrongism does not believe in the Trinity, and that is a big reason that it has been treated as an unorthodox cult by many conservative Christians.  Many may ask why it even matters—-why should Armstrongites be so insistent that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force rather than a person, and why should the “orthodox” boldly contend that the Holy Spirit is a person and not an impersonal force?  I mean, how many poor people does this debate feed?  Personally, I can understand why a person could look at this debate and consider it to be a non-issue.  I think that many of the doctrinal hang-ups of Armstrongism were rooted in a desire among people to feel as if they had more insight than others.  I myself tend to harp on these issues for a variety of reasons—-my rebellion against what I was told was the only legitimate way to see things, or my curiosity about the extent to which Armstrongism is right or wrong.  For me personally, though, the debate does not matter a great deal, but I do find it interesting—-and one of my goals as a budding scholar of religion is to find something interesting about which I can write.

So what is my stance about whether or not the Holy Spirit is a person?  I think that, from the outset, it’s important for me to clarify something: I do not believe that the entire Bible is a thoroughly consistent document that teaches one position on certain doctrinal issues.  Rather, my impression is that the Bible is a diverse document and contains a variety of perspectives.  You can do with that what you wish.  Personally, I’ve not found a way to uphold the Bible as divinely-inspired while maintaining that view, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way.  But I’m saying this because it’s what sets me apart from Armstrongites and many of their conservative Christian detractors: both sides assume that the Bible is one consistent document from beginning to end, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

So what about the Holy Spirit?  I’ll just lay out what I currently think, but I will not rigorously defend it, at least not in this post.  I believe that, within the Hebrew Bible, the Holy Spirit is God’s power.  That view could have carried over into Jesus’ perspective during his ministry, since Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the finger of God (Luke 11:20).  But, at some point within the New Testament, the Holy Spirit was held to be a person.  When Jesus in Matthew 28 talks about being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that sounds rather Trinitarian to me.  And when Paul says in Romans 8 that the Spirit intercedes for believers who pray, he seems to be doing more than personifying an impersonal force: rather, he appears to be describing a person who intercedes.  James Dunn argues that Proverbs 8 personifies wisdom, which was deemed to be impersonal, and Dunn says this because (according to him) the Hebrew Bible was rather monotheistic; but elements of the New Testament go a step further and say that wisdom was a personal being, Jesus Christ.  I think that something similar is going on with the Holy Spirit—-what was once considered to be an impersonal force becomes a person.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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