Although spirituality is an attribute of God, for “God is spirit,” it is misleading to assume that the Holy Spirit can be reduced to a characteristic of God alongside other divine attributes like eternity and omniscience. That would be to deny to the Spirit that personhood which scripture attests. Rather the Spirit is a distinct divine person who possesses these characteristics and qualities ascribed as divine attributes. The Holy Spirit is not merely a quality or attribute or emanation of God, but rather a distinct person within the Godhead.
The Spirit acts personally engaged in Gospel Ministry. Not impersonal but personal pronouns are regularly used to refer to the Spirit—Jesus told his disciples, “I will send him to you” (John 16:7). This personalization was taken for granted when the council at Jerusalem declared, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) that a particular action was to be taken, as if to say that Peter and James and John and others were there, and the Holy Spirit was also there in the conversation, personally sharing with them, dwelling with them as an incomparable partner in their effort. 1
The characteristic properties of a person are those that are continually attributed to that person. The properties regularly attributed by scripture to the Holy Spirit are teaching, comforting, guiding, giving, calling, and sending into services of ministry.
“Thus it is said that [the Holy Spirit] teaches, comforts and guides us in all truth, that he distributes gifts as he will; that he calls and sends apostles” 2
God the Spirit is actively leading as persons lead. The apostolic testimony applied intensely personal analogies: guiding (Rom. 8:14), convicting (John 16:8), interceding (Rom. 8:26), calling (Acts 13:2), commissioning (Acts 20:28).
Like a person, the Spirit can be resisted (Acts 7:51), avoided, or responsively answered (Acts 10:19–21). Only a person can be vexed (Isa. 63:10) or grieve (Eph. 4:30). Only one with intelligence and the capacity for communication can speak from heart to heart. These are qualities of personhood. Only a person can teach, talk, reveal his will to other persons, or feel anger (Isa. 63:10). As persons speak and communicate, so does the Holy Spirit speak in scripture to the faithful (Mark 13:11; Acts 8:29; 21:11; 1 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 2:7) to disclose his will and listen responsively to creatures.
Only a person can be lied to—no one can lie to a stone or vegetable. Ananias was condemned not for lying to Peter but for lying to the Holy Spirit. Those who lie to the Holy Spirit, lie to God (Acts 5:3–90)
The Spirit is found actively directing the mission of the apostles. The Spirit set aside Paul and Barnabas for their specific work (Acts 13:2); selecting overseers for the flock (Acts 20:28); bearing witness (Acts 5:32; Rom. 8:16), distributing gifts freely as he chooses (1 Cor. 12:11); leading into all truth as Jesus noted to his followers (John 16:13).
These functions imply intelligence, will, feeling, purpose—all characteristic of personhood, which God possesses in incomparable measure. The Spirit searches our hearts (1 Cor. 2:10–11), teaching human persons individually and within the church community (Rom. 8:12–27).
If “the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?” (2 Cor. 3:7, 8). If he speaks, forbids, appoints, witnesses, is lied to, and resisted, the Spirit must be personal and free, for only a person can do these things. So the Spirit is not merely a metaphor of Jesus himself, but as much a living person (prosōpon, personal face) as Jesus himself. The Spirit in scripture is God himself. The Christian community confesses its belief not merely about but in God the Spirit. “Belief in” is directed to a person; “belief about” is directed to things. 3
The Interpersonal Mystery God works person to person, within human wills and consciousness, in the heart, through language. God the Spirit relates interpersonally to apostles on an intimate basis, while maintaining His own distinctive pre-temporal relation to God the Father and God the Son in the eternal mystery of the communion of the triune God.
God must be a speaking person via the Holy Spirit. If it is through our own personal spirit that we breathe out words, God the Spirit is experienced as a person is experienced, endowed with free volition, energy, communicative language proceeding from the Father and residing now in the Word/the Bible (Luke 1:70; John 16:15; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:11, 21; Acts 1:16)
The Spirit is God’s own quiet coming to execute the Father’s plan, to attest to the Son’s saving work, to enlighten, counsel, strengthen, and enable life until the Son’s return.
The Depersonalization of the Spirit. Although the work of the Spirit may be spoken of in the neuter tense, God the Spirit is not properly addressed as “it” or “object” or “impersonal being” or “force” by any expression that suggests that God the Spirit has no proper name as a person. “Holy Spirit” is that proper name, which by analogy to human proper names is best spoken of either as he or she. To persistently think of God the Spirit as “it” (not as Thou) is to apply a mistaken analogy.
The depersonalization of God the Spirit has occurred in the period of philosophical idealism. Hegel reduced the Spirit to a logistic of history. Tillich reduced the Spirit to an existential category of being itself. Process theology reduced the Spirit to creative energy. Theosophy and its philosophical twin, the Law of Attraction reduced the Holy Spirit to a destiny-achieving force. Each reduction is tempted by an unconstrained application of a mistaken impersonal analogy to the person of the Spirit.
God the Spirit soon becomes reduced to a symbolic generalized dimension of our own view. As Karl Barth noted: Nor does it stand as an improvement to replace the term person with an alternative expression like “mode of being”. 4
1 Calvin, Comm. XIX, pp. 77–80; cf. Luther, Answer to Emser, LW 39, pp. 175–78, 197–99.
2 Ursinus, Comm. Heid. Catech., p. 272.
3 Oden, T. C. (1992). Life in the Spirit: systematic theology, vol. III (pp. 19–21). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
4 Barth, Dogmatics I/1, p. 407