Holy Spirit is a name

Since my previous post on the depersonalization of the Holy Spirit, I found someone who supports my claim that we have depersonalized the Holy Spirit. Theologian Thomas C. Oden says: “The depersonalization of God the Spirit has occurred in the period of philosophical idealism.” He points out that: Hegel reduced the Spirit to a logic of history ; Tillich reduced the Spirit to an existential category of being itself, e.g., “dimension of depth”; Karl Barth used the expression: “mode of being”. Process theology reduced the Spirit to creative energy. Much liberation theology reduced the Spirit to political praxis. “Scriptural exegetes are therefore ill advised to consistently address the Spirit as it with the avowed intent of pointing to the Spirit’s self-effacing presence for it is precisely the free personal God who is becoming self-effacing, and the cause is not well served by calling the Spirit it,” says Oden (1). Have we have mistakenly reduced the person of the Holy Spirit to an impersonal analogy because we want the convenience of applying the Holy Spirit to our theology in order to give it more credibility? If we do not use personal language, God the Spirit will inevitably be reduced to some symbolic generalization.

I have also found other ancient sources that deal with the name of the Holy Spirit. An ancient creed used by the early church called Faith of Damasus (or Fides Damasi) states: “The proper name for Father is Father, and the proper name for the Son is Son, and the proper name for the Holy Spirit is Holy Spirit.” Basil of Caesarea (329-379 CE) stated that the titles for the Holy Spirit are called “Spirit of God,” “Spirit of truth which proceeds from the Father,” “right Spirit,” “a leading Spirit.” Its proper and peculiar title is “Holy Spirit” (De Spiritu Sancto, Ch.9). Basil also said that the Holy Spirit is not merely a quality or attribute or emanation of God but is a distinct person within the Godhead. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross loved and adored Holy Spirit and addressed the Holy Spirit as Holy Spirit. Augustine in Summa Theologica also also dealt with this issue of the Holy Spirit’s name. As a proper name of the Holy Spirit, the Vatican also states: “Holy Spirit is the proper name of the one whom we adore and glorify with the Father and the Son. The Church has received this name from the Lord and professes it in the Baptism of her new children” (Profession of Faith, 691).

When we address other people we use human names because they are very personal to the person. It helps make a connection with the person when we call them by their name. How do we expect to make a connection with the Holy Spirit if we address him as “it” like as if he was an object, an impersonal being? Is this why our churches sometimes do not seem to treat the Holy Spirit as a real person in our worship?

See also: We have depersonalized the person of Holy Spirit

1. Thomas C. Oden, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2: The Word of Life, p.20.

16 thoughts on “Holy Spirit is a name

  1. Holy Spirit = new life, a defintion from an old dictionary.

    The Spirit of God hovered over the water as He hovers over those who love Him, there is no Church without Him.

    thanks for the article.


  2. Joanie, I’ll have to try to find the book sometime. Thanks for the info. The theology of Christ and Holy Spirit has changed over time since the beginning of the early church (300 C.E.). There are so many variations in the theology that it boggles the mind. I haven’t even touch the surface in my own study on it so I’ll have to do more learning in this area.


  3. Hi Kevin. You said, “To me, this says that the Son was God and was with God even before the beginning of time.” Yes, correct. The Son was God and was with God always. But all the Persons of God–Father, Son, Holy Spirit–were and are Spirit. The second Person of God, the Son, incarnated as Jesus. We worship Jesus as God…the Son of God incarnate. I think the book “Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ”
    by Robert Bowman and J. Ed Komoszewski (from Reclaiming the Mind Ministries and the Parchment and Pen blog) makes this clear.

    Thanks for your response!

    Joanie D.


  4. Joanie, in John 1:1-3, it says: “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” To me, this says that the Son was God and was with God even before the beginning of time.

    Why do you say that the Son was spirit before becoming the second person of the Holy Trinity?


  5. Hi Kevin. You said, “God the Father and God the Son is male.” You may have not meant it to sound that way, but the Father and Son are not neither male nor female. They are spirit. When the Son incarnated as Jesus, he became a male human but the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, is still a spirit. “Eternally begotten from the Father, God from God, light from light,” and all that.

    Joanie D.


  6. Joanie, yes, scripture does use “the Spirit” because it is technically correct to do so. However, this may lead us to refer to Holy Spirit as an “it,” which I think is wrong. If Holy Spirit is holy, then why do we not reverence God more rather than downplaying God’s holiness in referring to God as merely an “it”?

    Referring to Holy Spirit using the male gender “he” is another issue. It is so easy for us to assume that Holy Spirit (or the Holy Spirit) as a “he” because God the Father and God the Son is male. However, we should really be using a gender-neutral pronoun, which is not available in English.

    Some people really are against the TNIV’s use of gender-inclusivity but they are not alright with the NLT, the Message, or other translations using it. It’s probably because the NIV is seen almost reverently as the KJV that any changes to it seems like a corruption of God’s word.


  7. Although the Holy Spirit is part of the Trinity and therefore could be prayed TO according to how we understand God, it seems that scripture talks about the Holy Spirit actually praying FOR us and through us, such as in:

    Romans 8:26 TNIV
    In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

    Romans 8:27 TNIV
    And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

    In these passages and others, it seems the scriptures are referring to Holy Spirit as THE Holy Spirit or THE Spirit. I think either way is fine, really. I do think we tend to depersonalize the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit of Jesus and as such, it IS Jesus living and breathing through us and is therefore God living and breathing through us.

    In regard to calling Holy Spirit “him” or “it”…it’s hard to know how to do this. Holy Spirit is not male. Jesus tells us that God is a spirit. Spirit does not have consist of being male or female. So even though Jesus refers to God as “Father” this can be misleading to some because Father is a spirit as well and therefore is neither male nor female. Only Jesus was male and he was the incarnation of the Son of God which again was a spirit. So all of God is spirit except for the incarnation as a male human being.

    This was my first time looking at the TNIV translations and I don’t have any problem with them taking words like “man” and making it say “people” and stuff like that.

    Joanie D.


  8. It is done today by some people. Is it proper? I think we need to do some research on this.

    Gary & John, I found someone who says that it’s proper to pray to the Holy Spirit just like we do to the Father and the Son.
    Who do we pray to, the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit?

    But you can take it with a grain of salt. It seems very subjective in my opinion. I don’t really know. I’ve heard arguments for and against it.


  9. we’re just using such pronouns because God is a person, and not because of any idea that God is “male”.

    My personal view on this has sure changed and I have accepted that it may be just a human construct…but with reservations. I am trying to keep an open mind about this. From a biological viewpoint, we know that angels don’t need male and female to procreate; they are neutered of gender. God sure doesn’t need it. Procreation using male-female anatomy is present only in humans, animals, and plants but is absent in some biological species such as amoeba…I think. Our early biblical writers likely felt it was natural and easy to apply the linguistic rules of gender when they were inspired by the Spirt to write Scripture. Thus, we have ended up with male & female & neuter in our bibles. Some cultures and languages do not use male/female distinctions. They seem to be free of this problem of having to apply gender rules.

    I think you are right about the NT not ever having someone address the Spirit directly. However, the OT does have quite a few passages where it does happen, and also where the Spirit of the Lord speaks in the first person:
    Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Ps.51:11
    I will pour out my Spirit Joel 2:28-29
    Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. Zech. 4:6


  10. Interesting post, John!

    I don’t think God has a gender, in the way we think of it. When He revealed Himself He called Himself our “Father”. His attributes generally fit the masculine more than the feminine. In fact, it has been said that He is “perfectly masculine”.

    He came as the “Son”. Obviously male.

    I think it’s logical to refer to the “Spirit of Christ” (one of His titles) as masculine. But I think it’s really more a matter of language than of gender.

    I think you have a good point, John, about the lack of praying to the Holy Spirit in the Bible. It is done today by some people. Is it proper? I think we need to do some research on this.


  11. But what do you think about using “he,” as in other translations?

    That is what I would advocate, what the NRSV does elsewhere, and what every other translation I checked out did. That’s why I looked at the passage closely to see if there was some other way of understanding the reference: I couldn’t see one.

    Of course, there is the question of whether it’s appropriate to use a masculine pronoun to refer to the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit isn’t male. In the case of the other Persons of the Trinity, a good case can be made for doing so, as the terms “Father” and “Son” are masculine, so we’re just doing what Scripture itself does, and of course Jesus was (and presumably still is) a male human being. The fact that the Greek word for “spirit” is neuter and the Hebrew feminine is irrelevant, as we should never confuse grammatical gender with sex (i.e. whether a being is male or female). (Unfortunately the situation has become confused as many people now regularly refer to a person’s “gender”, as the word “sex” is now used to refer to sexual intercourse.) I used to think that John’s use of masculine forms to refer to the Spirit in a few passages was relevant, until it was pointed out that the pronoun’s referent there is probably a masculine noun applied to him.

    So while I still think that “he” is acceptable, we should still remember that we’re just using such pronouns because God is a person, and not because of any idea that God is “male”.

    I have to admit that I’ve never been tempted to use “it” to refer to the Spirit, so I’m surprised to find that others do. For me, the problem with using “Holy Spirit” as a name (i.e. without “the”) would be that “Holy Spirit” sounds like a substance (like “holy water”), and of course we don’t do the same with “Father”, except in direct address. Indeed, when I come to think about it, I can’t recall anywhere in the NT where the Spirit is directly addressed (e.g. where prayer is addressed to him), so perhaps we shouldn’t even do that.


  12. John Radcliffe, thanks for bringing up the 1 Pet. 1:10-11 example. That was a good example of how we have depersonalized Holy Spirit in the scriptures. It’s unfortunate that the NRSV translators translated the passage using “it” in v.11.

    I have tried but failed to find any other workable antecedent for “it” other than “the Spirit of Christ”

    Yes, “the Spirit of Christ” doesn’t leave room for ambivalence. But what do you think about using “he,” as in other translations (TNIV, NASB)?


  13. Gary, it seems that when we write or speak, we prefer the convenience of using a shorter form to refer to “the” Holy Spirit to avoid repetitive speech. To use either “it” or “he” seems easier without having to repeat ourselves. It’s the way we’ve been trained to speak. For example, if we take John Radcliffe’s example above of 1 Pet. 1:10-11 and change it a little:

    inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated, when Spirit of Christ testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory.

    See, it does start to sound repetitious.

    When we refer to the Holy Spirit, it’s natural in English to then refer to “the” Holy Spirit as “it”.

    I think you are absolutely right on.
    If we all try to begin referring to Holy Spirit as Holy Spirit, it will subconsciously help us to normalize the way we we refer to Holy Spirit–as a real person as opposed to an object, or at least prevent us from referring to him as an “it” but it takes work.


  14. Here’s the TNIV…fortunately:

    10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.

    (emphasis mine – GZ)


  15. While I agree, I don’t think the problem is that we refer to “the Spirit” by his title; we do the same with “the Father”, and in human terms with (for example) “the President”, yet we don’t hear people referring to either of them as “it”. Unfortunately this depersonalisation even seems to have crept into at least one translation:

    “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated, when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory.” (1 Peter 1:10-11, NRSV, my emphasis)

    I have tried but failed to find any other workable antecedent for “it” other than “the Spirit of Christ” and, as this cannot here be a reference to his human spirit, it must be to the Holy Spirit himself.


  16. Kevin, I agree with you and Dr. Oden. The article was very good.

    It seems to me it’s a problem of our English language, or possible how we use it. When we refer to the Holy Spirit, it’s natural in English to then refer to the Holy Spirit as “it”. If we use Holy Spirit as his name, then it’s more natural to refer to him as a person.

    I don’t think we intentionally depersonalize Holy Spirit, but I believe it is necessary, in the light of this, for Christians to intentionally personalize him. We need to make it normal to call him Holy Spirit, because as normal as it is in English to call him “the” Holy Spirit, theologians have depersonalized him intentionally, in at least some cases. It is necessary that we do what we can to counteract that.


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