04—The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit

Among Christians, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (“pneumatology”) does not usually actually receive a great deal of direct attention.  However, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit by necessity relates closely to theological convictions concerning God (theology proper) and Jesus Christ (christology).  When we include theology and christology along with pneumatology, we move into a bigger arena than simply pneumatology.

We cannot reflect on pneumatology without reflecting on the doctrine of the Trinity.  Many Christians see this doctrine, above all others, as the key theological boundary marker.  As one Mennonite theologian wrote several years ago, the doctrine of the Trinity is not simply a human idea, it corresponds to Reality.[1]  To disagree, it would seem, is to put oneself outside the pale.

I believe that we encounter an important principle here.  How literally should we take our language about God?  Does our theology transcend our humanness?  Can any human idea about God be more than a metaphor, more than saying “God is like this”?  Can we say, definitively, that God is anything?  I think not. 

No theological language can ever be more than metaphorical.  I believe that trinitarian thinking, identifying three aspects of God—Creator, Son, and Spirit—is helpful.  However, as a biblical Christian, I also insist that I believe in one God.  God as seen in creation, God as seen in Jesus, and God as seen in the Holy Spirit, is one God with one will—not a “Triune” God but simply God.  The danger with Trinitarian language is that it too easily lends itself to making distinctions within God, as if God as “Father” is one way (judgmental, harshly holy, punitive) while God in Jesus is different.

Our pneumatology should not be simply a sub-point in our trinitarian doctrine.  As we reflect on the Holy Spirit theologically and recognize that all our theology should emerge in light of Jesus, we will not focus mainly on how the Holy Spirit functions as a distinct member of the trinity.  Rather, pneumatology in light of Jesus asks this: How does identifying God’s-Presence-as-Spirit as the Spirit of Jesus help us live faithfully?

In reflecting on the Holy Spirit biblically, I want to bring together two points.  The first point is that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, is the Spirit of life.  Wherever there is life, the Spirit is present.  The second point is that wherever the Spirit is present, then Jesus is also present.  That is, Jesus’ hierarchy of what is most important (love the Lord your God with your entire being and love your neighbor as yourself) is reflected in all life.  Life is holy.  Each person is holy.  All life (each life) is to be valued and revered.

The Spirit of life and creation

Genesis chapter one and Genesis chapter two have become central for my understanding of the Holy Spirit.  First, we read:  “The Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.”  Genesis 1:1-2 gives us the picture of God bringing order out of chaos.  Many translations have rendered the Hebrew word ruach as “wind”—as if God blew a mighty wind to bring order to the universe.  However, ruach may also be translated, “spirit” (or, “Spirit” if we understand ruach here to refer to the direct involvement of God).  The sense then becomes one of God as Spirit participating in creation.  God as Spirit brings order out of chaos, brings peace (shalom, wholeness) out of randomness. 

If we read Genesis 1:1-2 as referring to the Holy Spirit, we way see here a clear portrayal of God’s immediate presence throughout the cosmos.  Such a portrayal supports the belief that all of creation in some sense then links with the Spirit of God. 

Western civilization has a lot to answer to the universe for, not least our exploitation of creation. One key move toward the profound alienation that has characterized our culture in relation to creation came when the world became mere matter and lost its spirit.  Ironically, it was human beings who created impersonal machines.  Such entities never occur in nature.  As we relied more and more on these machines, we found ourselves more and more alienated from creation.  Then the fatal step—human beings projected from our own creation (impersonal machines) on to nature and claimed that nature is impersonal, that nature is merely matter.  As Richard Tarnas writes, “This is the ultimate anthropomorphic projection: a [human]-made machine, something not in fact ever found in nature.  From this perspective, it is the modern world’s own impersonal soullessness that has been projected from within onto the world.”[2]

With the world understood as impersonal and soulless, we then exploit what we believe is inert matter.  We extract fossil fuel and poison the earth both in the extracting and in the burning of this fuel.  We treat the soil and the seas and the forests as mere instruments from which we extract what we then use for our utterly unsustainable “modern way of life.”

One way to see this problem is to say that by separating the Spirit of God from the material universe, we have planted the seeds of our own destruction—spiritual and physical. 

So Genesis one is crucial for our doctrine of the Spirit—though its teaching is reinforced throughout the Bible.  It is Godself who infuses the universe as it is shaped from disorder into its goodness and beauty.  The Spirit of God is the Spirit of creation.

In the book of Psalms we find another direct reference to the role of God’s Spirit (ruach) in the creation of life: “When you send forth your Spirit[3] [all beings] are created; and you renew the face of the ground.

The description of creation beginning in Genesis 2, verse 4, focuses on the human beings.  A key point is made right away.  “There was no one to till the ground”—a caregiver is needed.  So, God forms out of the “dust of the ground” the first human being.  This dust becomes human when God “breathes into the human’s nostrils the Spirit of life; and the human became a living being” (2:7).  We are being told here, I believe, that the Spirit of God itself enters the dust of the earth and enlivens it, makes it live, makes it human.

In a sense, this picture repeats what we are told in a different way in Genesis one.  There, the completion of creation is God creating human beings (male and female) in God’s own image.  And they are immediately given the task of caring for the rest of creation. 

What I would like to suggest here is that the very essence of life, the mystery of what differentiates living organisms from the dust of the earth is the Spirit of God.  Where there is life, the Spirit is present.  In fact, the Spirit is what makes it life.  Now, I want to make this claim for all forms of life, but I also want to emphasize the idea that there is indeed something special about human life.  We manifest the Spirit of God in an especially profound way.

The special way we manifest the Spirit of God is in our potential (and our responsibility) to care for the rest of creation.  When we deny the Spirit of God’s presence in our physical world by treating it as an object to exploit, we deface the Spirit of God’s presence in our own being.  It is the same Spirit of God that infuses the cosmos and infuses all life of whatever form and that infuses human beings created in God’s image.  This oneness of the Spirit, part of the oneness of God, requires of human beings an acknowledgment of the sacredness of all life and, actually, the sacredness of the inanimate elements of creation as well.

As a consequence of this confession of the oneness of God and the unity of creation, the “specialness” of human beings clearly has to do with our responsibility to God for caring respectfully for all of God’s creation.  Such care should stem from our pneumatology, our understanding that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life in relation to all creation.

So, from Genesis one and two, we get a clear sense of the Spirit as part of the entire created order and, in a special way, as part of each human life.  We violate the Spirit when we separate Spirit from matter and alienate ourselves from creation.  Perhaps even more, we violate the Spirit when we think of some human beings as less than fully infused with God’s Spirit. 

The basic danger we face in either case is the same—dividing that which God means to be unified.  When we do so, we resist the presence of God’s Spirit in all the places that it actually is present.  This is why the story of creation in Genesis 1–2 is so important.  It helps us see that God and creation go together through the agency of God’s creative Spirit of life.  As creator, God’s Spirit infuses the entire cosmos.

The Genesis 1–2 creation story also helps us see that the human role in the creative processes involves both our spiritual (infused with the Spirit of God) and material (made from the dust of the earth) realities—in harmony as part of God’s good creation.

In the Genesis account, we early on come to the key moment in the alienation of human beings from the Spirit of God.  The very first act of blaspheming the Holy Spirit comes in Genesis four.  Cain murders his brother Abel.  The universal underlying basis for doing violence to other human beings is denying their full, Spirit-infused humanity.  When we deny the full, Spirit-infused humanity of someone else violence in one form or another is almost sure to follow.

The Holy Spirit and community sustenance

God’s Spirit works throughout the biblical story of the people Israel.  At a particularly crucial moment in the story, we read of the direct involvement of the Spirit is sustaining the community that had gone astray.  The prophets told of Israel’s departure from the message of Torah, culminating in the destruction of their nation state and temple.  However, God did not abandon God’s people, as we read in Isaiah 42:  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit[4] upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations….Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and Spirit to those who walk in it.”

This remarkable passage speaks of God’s Spirit sustaining the life of God’s people in their vocation of bringing healing to all the earth, of being “a light to the nations.”  God’s mercy outlasts the brokenness that resulted from the people’s disregard for their covenant with God.  This merciful God continues to give the people of the promise the vocation of blessing all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3).

The God who sustains this covenant through the presence of the Holy Spirit is the same God who created the heavens and earth.  This God gave “breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it.”  The healing justice that God’s servant people are still called to expressed in this broken world takes the form of opening eyes that are blind and releasing prisoners from dungeons.  The Spirit of life brings healing amidst the brokenness of life.

The Holy Spirit and Jesus

When we jump ahead in the biblical story to Jesus, we find these points profoundly reinforced.  Remembering our confession of Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Jesus, we will notice the close connection between the presence of the Spirit and key moments in the story of Jesus.

We first read of Jesus when his mother Mary is informed of her pregnancy.  The presence of the Spirit plays a crucial role in conveying the significance of what the angel Gabriel tells Mary:  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1).  God’s Spirit enters human existence through the giving of new life to this young woman, Mary.  The power of the Spirit is ultimately the power of life.  The transformation the Spirit brings to human existence happens through the agency of this young woman’s acceptance of her vocation (echoing the vocation given in Genesis one and the vocation given the Servant in Isaiah 42). 

Then, years later, when Jesus’ time of preparation comes to end, he submits to the baptism of John.  As this happened, Luke writes, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). 

The Holy Spirit is present in Mary’s faithfulness to her vocation and her conception in a powerful way.  This presence is then reiterated in Jesus’ own step of faithfulness in accepting John’s baptism as an act of commissioning.  The identity of Jesus as God’s Son finds its validation when the Spirit descends on Jesus and God’s voice emphasizes his pleasure with Jesus’ action.

As Luke tells the story, two key events that emphasize Jesus’ empowerment by the fullness of the Spirit make clear what his vocation as God’s Son will be, his temptations and his opening proclamation.  Immediately after the baptism, Jesus moves deeper into the wilderness for a time of testing and clarification before beginning to manifest his special vocation.  “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4)

So, what will Jesus do as an expression of his vocation to minister as God’s Son?  That is, given that “Son of God” is a term for “messiah” and “king,” what kind of king will Jesus be?  The tempter offers him several options, including ruling authority over “all the kingdoms of the world” and gaining the acclaim of the leadership of the Jerusalem temple through a miraculous angelic rescue.  The empowerment of the Holy Spirit helps Jesus find clarity to turn down the devil’s temptations.  The kingship Jesus has been called to embody does not rule with top-down power.  The role of the Holy Spirit here is to empower Jesus to hold fast to his true calling, a much more delicate and difficult exercise of “kingly” power through persevering love.

After reinforcing his vocation through the temptations, Jesus returns to his home territory and begins his public ministry.  As he does so, we are told, his is “filled with the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14).  His teachings and deeds lead to his being “praised by everyone” (4:15).  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus asserts.  And what is the Spirit anointing Jesus to do?  We go right back to the affirmation that the Spirit is the Spirit of life and that each human being is infused with God’s Spirit.  Each human being has infinite value.  Each human being deserves all the respect and care and compassion the rest of us can muster.

We see this in how Jesus focuses his description of what his task as the Son of God is to be.  He is to “bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (4:18).  The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed.  These are the very people whose humanity is being denied.  These are the very people who are treated as objects, as non-humans.

Jesus, the supremely Spirit-infused human being, centers his Spirit-directed work on bringing good news, release, recovery, and freedom to those whose human dignity is most at risk.  Jesus announces this work at the very beginning here—and the rest of his life is spent putting these commitments into practice. 

And he suffered a great deal because he did so.  The Spirit-denying forces of human culture fought him tooth and nail.  And killed him.  But the Spirit was not to be denied.  God raised Jesus and confirmed that the Spirit that animated Jesus was indeed the Spirit of God.

The Holy Spirit then plays the essential role of providing for continuity between Jesus and the community that survived him.  The way of Jesus, the Son of God empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out his vocation of kingship as persevering love and proclaim the message of Jubilee, becomes the way of his followers through the empowerment of this same Holy Spirit.  After the transition from God as present in the human Jesus to God as present in the Spirit-guided community, the Holy Spirit becomes understood as the “Spirit of Jesus.”

Luke tells of the transition in his account that begins the sequel to his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles.  In Acts 1, Jesus provides the basic focus and outline of what follows in the book of Acts.  His ministry will continue due to the presence of his Spirit in a new and powerful way among his followers.  The message will be the same, the Jubilee theology of release and new sight and liberation.  The Spirit is one with Jesus.

The fruits of the Spirit

The followers of Jesus self-consciously turned to the Holy Spirit as their guide into the shape of their vocation of continuing Jesus’ ministry of making present God’s kingdom.  The Apostle Paul summarized the characteristics of the follower of Jesus when filled with the Spirit of Jesus:  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5)  The Holy Spirit is where the holiness of God, the holiness of the created world, the holiness of all living creatures, and the holiness of each and every human being come together.  This is all the one Spirit of God.  If we seek truly to be filled with the Spirit, the fruit will not be so much ecstatic experiences.  The fruit will not be a strengthening of our sense of our own uniqueness as “Spirit-filled Christians” in a way that justifies our treating creation as a lifeless object to be exploited or that justifies our treating other human beings as things, or as enemies and objects of our nation’s bombs. 

If we seek truly to be filled with the Spirit, we will pray for the courage and wisdom to follow Jesus’ path.  We will pray for the courage and wisdom to value each and every life—even when doing so may lead to a cross.

Paul, in Romans five, speaks of the connection between the Holy Spirit and love.  “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (5:5).  When we receive the Holy Spirit, what happens is that God’s love is poured into our hearts.  The fruits of the Spirit all come down to one basic affirmation:  God loves.”  When we know to the bottom of our souls, that God loves us the rest follows: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The power of God’s love poured into our hearts heals us of hatred and fearfulness.  This power helps us move from a scarcity world to a world characterized by abundant living.  The fruits of the Spirit are not about freedom from suffering or knowing all the answers or constant happiness.  More so, the fruits of the Spirit have to do with knowing that God loves us, with loving other people, and living with patience, compassion, and openness to learning and growth.

God offers all of us life, abundant life.  God offers us the gift of the Holy Spirit to move us to trust in Christ as our savior, to move us to seek to walk in Christ’s way, to empower us to live according to the Spirit.


1. A. James Reimer wrote in 1987: “A Trinitarian understanding of God and his ways with the world is more than simply an approach; it is in some sense the content of truth itself,” “Response to Glenn Brubacher,” Conrad Grebel Review 5.1 (Winter 1987), 74.

2. Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), 432.

3. I have added the upper case “S” to “spirit” to make the point about God’s direct involvement in the creation of life. 

4. Again, I add an upper case “S” to the NRSV’s “spirit.”

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