Modern Bible translations are in the news these days, sometimes for controversial reasons. But one universal benefit of them is that the Holy Spirit is no longer referred to as “it.” Curiously a chief culprit here is the much-loved King James Version (for example, Romans 8:26: “the Spirit itself”).
In fact, pneuma (the Greek word for “spirit” or “wind”) is a neuter gender noun and therefore attracted a neuter pronoun, “it.” Still, John 14:26 and 15:26, which refer to the Spirit by the masculine pronoun “he” (ekeinos), left older Bible readers in no doubt about his personal nature: “he” not “it.” Whatever it means for human spirits, created as the image of God to be personal is rooted in the very being of their Creator. God is a personal being in a unified, uncreated, eternal, tri-personal manner—we in a created mono-personal manner. We are the tiny reflection; He is the great and glorious original. But what does Scripture mean when it speaks of God as Father, Son, and Spirit?
The Old Testament word for spirit, ruach, is onomatopoetic. That is, its meaning is echoed in its sound: wind in motion, sometimes storm-wind.
It lies on the surface of the Bible that the Holy Spirit is both divine and personal, as Acts 5:3–4 indicates. The Spirit can be lied to (a personal characteristic); to do so involves lying to God Himself (He is fully divine).
Yet there is something about this name (“Spirit”) that suggests the mysterious and elusive. Jesus Himself said that the pneuma blows where it wills, but we cannot tell where it comes from or goes to, and so it is with the pneuma of God (John 3:8). Are we not, therefore, treading on dangerous ground if we enquire further about the identity of the Spirit, especially when our Lord stressed that the Spirit does not glorify Himself (John 16:13–14)?
We cannot truly worship One we do not know, or experience “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14) if He remains faceless. But how can we know Him when even His name lacks the personal atmosphere of either “Father” or “Son”?
Meditation on two aspects of the Bible’s teaching helps us here. Firstly, the Scriptures use a series of descriptions to identify the Spirit. He is the Spirit of glory, truth, holiness, sonship—and much more (Rom. 1:4; Rom. 8:15; 1 Peter 4:14; 1 John 4:6).
We should notice particularly how our Lord Jesus introduces the Spirit in Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John 13–17. In essence, Jesus tells His disciples that the Spirit will be to them everything that He Himself has been during the course of His ministry. For while the Son and the Spirit are personally distinct, they are economically entwined. Jesus is Teacher, Guide, and Counselor; Jesus goes to prepare a home for His disciples (John 14:2). The Spirit is another like Jesus (John 14:15); He teaches, guides, counsels, and brings orphans into the home and heart of God. Moreover, because He is Spirit, He can do this by a personal indwelling.
This is part of what theologians call the “economic” ministry of the Spirit in which He effects our salvation. Behind that lies the “ontological,” eternal fellowship of the Spirit with the Father and the Son. Is this a dark secret that is never to be known? No! For God’s revelation is a true self-exegesis (John 1:18). He is not different from who He reveals Himself to be.
Secondly, the Scriptures teach us about the in-being and inner-trinitarian life of the Spirit. Here we can only briefly glance at a few things. The Spirit knows God the Father and God the Son exhaustively; for He searches “the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10). Between the Spirit and the Father, between the Spirit and the Son, there is total mutual understanding and knowledge. Nothing is hidden. More than that, all that is in each of the persons of Father and Son is embraced and received by the Spirit, as though He drank eternally and infinitely of the love and glory of the divine attributes expressed in a distinctively paternal (Father) and filial (Son) manner.
Furthermore, everything about the mutual relationship of the Father and the Son is known by the Spirit. Their mutual devotion, the outpouring of all of their personal attributes towards each other in perfect love, is fully absorbed and enjoyed by the Spirit. So the Spirit experiences not only who the Father and Son are individually, as it were, but also in terms of what each one is to the other.
When Jesus promised that He would ask the Father to “send” the Spirit (John 14:16; Acts 2:33), He described Him as the One who “proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26). The “sending” (future tense) from the Father is economic and looks forward to and is fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). But the “proceeding” (present tense) is continuous, not bound by the past or the future.
Many New Testament scholars today ignore the significance of this change of verb tense, regarding the two statements (sending from the Father, proceeding from the Father) as synonymous parallels. But the change of tense in the verbs expresses an actual difference. The procession is an ongoing, not merely a historical, relationship.
The implication here, as Augustine recognized, is that the Spirit always “goes out from” the Father, radiating from Him all the fullness that is in Him. But, as we have seen, the Spirit simultaneously searches and experiences the deep riches that lie in the Father’s relationship with His Son and vice-versa. From this glorious fellowship, the Spirit “proceeds”—“from the Father and from the Son” (filioque), as the church in the West has long confessed. Furthermore, while in the “sending” (economic) the Spirit sweetly yields to the revelatory will of the Father and the Son, in the “proceeding” (ontological) He voluntarily displays the glory of the ineffable relationship in which He shares. It is in terms of an expression of His possession of full deity that He reveals the fullness of fellowship of the Trinity to us!
We are stretching our intellects to the limit here. But as our minds stand on tiptoe, exploring the horizons of divine revelation, we are not distressed by our limitations. Rather, we are gazing on the endless beauty and wonder of God’s ineffable being, lost in wonder, love, and praise. The Spirit shines on the face of Christ; the Son leads us to the Father. Thus we begin to realize who He is who has brought us to know God. With the Apostle John, we say “Surely, Blessed Spirit, You have brought us into the fellowship of the Father and his Son Jesus Christ!” (1 John 1:3). And so we learn to sing with the saints through the ages:
Teach us to know the Father, Son
And Thee of both, to be but One,
That through the ages all along
This may be our endless song,
Praise to Thine eternal merit
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.