The Holy Spirit – Breath of God

I approach this subject with a bit more caution than some of my posts, because I know it’s going to be particularly sensitive to some readers…enough so, in fact, that a couple caveats are necessary at the outset.  First and foremost, while in the next couple posts I’m going to challenge a number of commonly-held teachings about the Holy Spirit, I am NOT denying either (1) that the Holy Spirit is real, or (2) that the Holy Spirit comes from God the Father.  I acknowledge Jesus’ warning in Matt. 12:31, paralleled in Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10, that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable; however, the context in Matthew and Mark makes it clear that what Jesus was talking about here was an accusation that the work he was doing through the Spirit of God, was actually of the devil.  This is not what I am saying, nor should it so be taken.

With the caveats properly stated, though, I will come to the first point.  Christian doctrine has held since the very early days, that the Holy Spirit is a “hypostasis” or “person” of a triune godhead.  I have previously suggested that the notion of the Trinity doesn’t square well with the way Jesus represented himself and his relationship to the Father; now here I will add that the Spirit of God as described in the Gospels and Acts, also doesn’t lend itself well to the Trinitarian definition.  I just took a look at every occurrence of the word in all four Gospels plus Acts, and while the Spirit is heavily in evidence throughout all five accounts, the sense of the word seems to me far more like an amorphous presence than a distinct entity, and nowhere in all five books is there any claim that God’s Spirit (which is clearly bestowed upon others from time to time, and which clearly influences events) is actually a form or being of God himself (though it unquestionably comes from God).

The word in Greek which is translated “Spirit” as in “Holy Spirit” is nothing more than the word πνεῦμα (pneuma).  This same word is also translated as “ghost,” “breath,” and “wind” in various places and by various translators.  Sometimes it’s linked to the word “holy,” and other times it stands by itself.  But by separating the concept of “breath/wind” from the concept of “spirit,” English Bible translators have created a divided concept which fits well with standard creeds, but masks a much less clear-cut concept in the actual text.  Perhaps the most intriguing passage I found to illustrate this point was John 3:8, which says:

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Both the word “wind” in the beginning of the verse, and “Spirit” at the end, are the exact same word in Greek.  We may think “the Spirit blows where it wishes” or “everyone born of the wind” make no sense, but that has more to do with the doctrines we’ve built around the Holy Spirit than it does with solid translation.  If we were to allow the original language to speak for itself, the metaphor of the “breath of God” actually pervades the Bible all the way from Genesis on.  In the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures done about 200 years before Jesus, the spirit of God moving over the face of the waters is a form of the same Greek word (the wind of God moving over the waters…think about it), and even more beautifully, when in Genesis 2, God breaths into man the breath of life, it’s also the same word–actually the Greek synonym πνοὴν (pnoe). 

This latter parallels spectacularly with Jesus’ breathing on the disciples and saying “receive the Holy Spirit (breath)” in John 20:22.  Just as the breath of God is what made man “a living soul” in Genesis 2, so the breath of Jesus made man a living soul in the New Creation of the resurrected Christ.

So why am I saying this?  Do I really care whether we use the term “Holy Spirit” or the maybe more-poetic term “Breath of God” to refer to the influencing presence God sometimes bestows on his people?  Well yes, I do, but not as a matter of semantics.  I’ll get into how the coming of the Holy Breath is actually described in scripture, next time.  But for now, I care because the doctrinal statements to which Evangelicals are often expected to subscribe, include assent to an explicit and detailed doctrine of the Trinity.  Nothing new here…the old creeds have been demanding as much since at least the third or fourth century, though interestingly, the Apostles’ Creed only states “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” without any details of just what that belief must entail.  Nevertheless, I’m afraid this is another area where our Christian authorities’ obsession with lists of things one must think in order not to be damned, has overtaken the simple message of the Gospel.  The expectation of the church is that we think and speak and teach a certain way.  The expectation of Jesus was, and is, that we live a certain way, influenced by the wind of his Father blowing through us.

12 thoughts on “The Holy Spirit – Breath of God”

  1. Stephen

    God's peace and blessings to you, brother. It's such a delight to see the 'breath of God' still 'breathing' on people to clear away all the cobwebs, dust, and dirt that have accumulated over the years in our 'theology'.

    I believe you are seeing important truth on the subject of the "Holy Spirit" and related matters of the (supposed) "Trinity"; and I'll look forward to reading your future posts about this subject, by God's permission.

  2. Dan Martin

    Peace also to you, Stephen! Thanks for your encouraging words…in the matter of the Trinity I anticipate more of the other sort!

    Blessings, and thanks for stopping by!

  3. betweenleafandsky

    Makes me think of when Aslan breathes on someone in Narnia, giving them strength for the journey. I can't remember which characters, so maybe it was more than once. I always so loved that part of the story.

    Quite interesting…I will be reading the rest of your series.

  4. Dan Martin

    Lewis clearly had this sense of God's breath in mind…Aslan's breath at various times imparts life, healing, and strenghth to various characters. I think you correctly represent Lewis' intent…

  5. paula blake

    As a former Episcopalian, I could never figure out who was the holy ghost? Was it a spirit of God that entered my soul? If so, then I just have to believe that God was within me. But call it a ghost? There were times I asked folks, as a child, who is the holy ghost??? I could never get a straight answer, and I never knew if they were talking about Jesus or God, and could never understand why there were two representatives of “one” God?

    I converted to Islam 10 years ago, and in one question to the Imam, as I had asked to each and every minister or priest I encountered prior to that, “Who is the Holy Ghost.” And in one very clear statement, the Imam replied: the holy ghost is Gibreel (Gabriel) who is the angel of God and has spoken with all of the prophets from Adam through Muhammad. (Moses was the only prophet who God spoke to directly through the burning bush.) That answer brought such clarity to my soul. I realized the holy ghost is the messenger of God, and that having God or Jesus or both in you was just the feeling of being blessed within. The true holy ghost who has worked so hard for God, is Gabriel representing himself as a man to Abraham and to Lot and to Mary. Thanks for letting me put in my two cents on your very nice site.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I’m afraid I have to disagree with you Biblically, Paula. Whatever the Holy Spirit–the Breath of God–is or is not, the messenger Gabriel is someone else entirely. I’m sorry you got such a run-around in the church on that question though. As my series (I hope) makes clear, I don’t think most Christians have gotten the answer to your question correct either.

      Grace & peace!

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      What about them, Mark? Eph. 1:13 says those to whom Paul was writing (the Ephesians) were “sealed” with the HS when they believed. It does not say all believers were, and could just as well be describing Acts 2-like happenings which seem to have been common during that period, but which I, at least, have never witnessed.

      1 Cor. 6:19 is talking about how we ought to treat our bodies, which are “the temple of the HS” or perhaps “the temple of the Breath of God.” Whether or not that “temple” is always, or sometimes inhabited, and whether or not Paul’s statement was descriptive of the Corinthians but not (necessarily) all believers, are not clear. But more importantly, in context Paul is saying that we should not presume that sacred and (truly) profane behavior coexist well within the same person … trees and fruit and all that … in the context of sexual purity.

      If you believe that either of these texts has something else to say re: the post at hand, I welcome your thoughts.

  6. Draper

    Interesting discussion on the Holy Spirit or the Breath of God. I definitely agree that the Holy Spirit is an extraordinary mystery. However, a part of this mystery is it seem that the Scriptures explode with the idea that the Spirit is indeed a Person.

    I don’t know if you are suggesting this, but by Breath do you only mean that the Spirit is a mere force from God?

    I just can’t see from God’s Word that a force can be “grieved” (Eph. 4:30, literally means to make sad), “lied to”(Acts 5:3, the context of this verse also links God to the Spirit) and that it can “search the deep things of God [the Father] (1 Cor. 2:10). A force cant have a “will” 1 Cor. 12:11, nor can someone have “fellowship” with a force. “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Cor.13:14)

    Furthermore, John (quoting Jesus) uses the Greek Pronoun “he” when describing the great helper (another thing a force cant do!) (John 14:25-26, 16:7-11). On top of this Paul talks about the Spirit being the Lord.. “The Lord is the Spirit”. 2 Cor. 3:17

    With all this said, I agree we cannot fully understand God (He would cease to be God then!), but His Word speaks so much more to this issue and the mystery of His Personhood. I is indeed such a mystery, and love the conversation about the Creator. There is just so much more to dive into regarding the Spirit.

    Blessings and Peace.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I may try to get into further detail later, but a couple brief responses: first, as I hope the tone of this post suggests, I do not rule out he possibility that the Holy Spirit is in some way personal; rather, I refuse to rule out the opposite possibility that it is not (hence my rejection of the common credal formulation).

      To your specifics, anthropomorphic imagery is not uncommon among scriptural authors, for example Lady Wisdom throughout Proverbs, so too the passages you point out in Ephesians and Corinthians do not *necessarily* require a literal person, though they may provide evidence that tilts in that direction–evidence, I would stress, that may be counterbalanced by some of the passages I quote on the OP.

      To your referencing pronouns in John, I believe you need to check your sources. The pronouns used (and sometimes only implied) in the original text are not specific to animate beings, as they would be in English. Grammatically speaking, “it” would be just as legitimate a pronoun as “he” or “she.”

      To be clear … I am not rejecting the possibility of a personal Spirit. I am, however, rejecting a credal insistence upon a personal Spirit as a metric of orthodoxy.

  7. Draper

    Thank you so much for clarifying. I understand what you are trying to suggest, and your tone is inline with it.

    You are correct, many authors do use anthropomorphic imagery. However, I would say the reverse could be true as well, that is, personification or pathetic fallacy. This could be a possibility in John 3 when Jesus is talking with Nicodemus about the pneuma, breath, wind. He very well could be describing what the person of the Spirit is like. Just a thought..

    John is a fascinating book, he always being so thoughtful and careful with his word choice, grammar, and intent of the characters. For instance, he perpetually makes clarifying points throughout the narrative, so that nothing will be misunderstood (see John 1:6-8, 21:23). Which brings us to the chapters I shared in last comment.

    Whats so fascinating about all this is, John purposely uses the masculine pronoun “ἐκεῖνος”, when it would of been grammatically correct to use the neutral form to follow suit with Spirit. One could say he was using bad grammar to make a point. (see John 16:13, where he is not follow suit to the “comforter”, but to “spirit)…This was an interesting website:

    http://www.thearmchairscholar.org/id21.html
    (this was not my sources. I was able to speak with someone who knows Greek, and I want to talk to some of my Greek/NT professors at my University regarding the subject.

    Thanks again for your response and dialogue. Blessings

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I think you may be engaging with a different argument than I am making. I have not suggested that the use of neuter pronouns is evidence for an apersonal spirit. Rather, I am disputing the counter argument that personal pronouns used in English (but not supported by Greek grammar) require personality. As I previously said, I am not arguing that the spirit must be impersonal; merely that credal demands for a personal spirit fail to consider all the evidence and are, in the final analysis, making a conclusive claim that lacks sufficient foundation.

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