The Biblical Doctrine of the Holy Spirit and Present Religious Life

By Professor Irving F. Wood. Ph.D.

Northampton, Mass.


The doctrine of the Holy Spirit has suffered much from vagueness. Popularly it has been used freely in connection with certain forms of emotional religion which have not appealed strongly to the most thoughtful people. Classic theology has not been much more definite than popular religious thought. The doctrine has not received the critical discussion which has brought clear definition to so many other doctrines.

Two elements seem usually to enter into the present conception of the Holy Spirit:

a) General. The Spirit is God acting in the heart of man. It is a name for "God himself, in vital contact and communication with the spirits of men whom he has made."1 The Spirit is "the immanent life of God in man."2 In popular use this reference is extended beyond the Christian life, and made to include all such providential guidance of all men as leads them toward a higher ethical and religious life.

b) Special. The Spirit is regarded as the divine originator of special graces, of a higher Christian life," of a peculiar richness of devotional feeling, of particular powers of Christian activity. This is less the case in the formal writings of theological teachers than in the popular literature of religious life, which, however, exercises much more influence in the general religious world than do the formal works on theology.

Each of these two forms is based on biblical representations of the work of the Spirit. The first conception is Pauline. It marks the final stage of biblical thought regarding the Spirit. Paul came to consider, not merely particular experiences, but all the Christian life, as under the guidance of the Spirit. The logical order of his thoughts seems to be this: All experiences which make for the advancement of the messianic kingdom are the result of the work of the Spirit. But the Christian life is a unity. Its experiences cannot be divided and set over against each other, some religious and some non-religious. "All things, whatsoever ye do" make for the growth of the messianic kingdom. All the life, then, must be under the control of the Spirit.3

The conception of the Spirit as the author of special experiences which betoken the peculiar presence of God is what may properly be called the primitive conception of the Spirit. It is found in the earliest traces of the idea, in the stories of the judges and of the early kings.4 It is true that in these writings not merely is the idea of the Spirit primitive, but the conception of the way in which the Spirit becomes manifest is crude. His presence is known by physical results. Gradually this conception becomes spiritualized. Religious emotions as well as physical effects count as evidences of the possession of the Spirit. Wisdom as well as strength marks it. But all the time the elemental conception remains the same; the Spirit is the power of God working in man on special occasions for particular gifts.

This idea comes down into the New Testament period. It is the idea found in Christ's teachings as recorded in the Synoptics, in the records of Acts and in the Pauline writings by the side of the perfected Pauline idea itself. It underlies the conception of the Spirit in prophecy, in such experiences as the "gift of tongues," in the working of miracles, and in all the particular "gifts." Translated into the terms of modern Christianity, it furnishes a sufficiently solid basis for the popular preacher and writer of the semi-mystical type who urges men to be filled with the Spirit, that they may possess a divine power which is beyond human possibility of attainment. However imperfect in conception, vague in expression, or censorious in estimate of others those emphasizing this idea of the Spirit's activity have sometimes been, it must be acknowledged that they have a biblical basis for their interpretation.

But it is not sufficient for Christian thought to find a biblical basis, especially in any subject upon which there was variety and growth of conception during the biblical period. The judgment must exercise a natural selection upon biblical thought. The problem is to find what is the highest and most advanced of the various biblical presentations of a subject, and to build upon that rather than upon what belongs to cruder and earlier stages of thought. We exercise this selective process consciously and without hesitation regarding such subjects as the doctrines of immortality, of the person of Christ, of sin and holiness. It is reasonable that we should do the same regarding the conception of the Spirit. The Christian idea of the Spirit should not be based upon the primitive biblical conception of temporary gifts, but upon the Pauline idea of the Spirit as the basis of an abiding character. The fact that the primitive conception is most prominent and is found in the greater part of the literature is not determinative. It is in essence the thought of the early Hebrew people and comes down into the New Testament period without criticism. It is built upon the common crude early dualistic idea of the relation of God to the world. The Pauline idea is more logical, and fits into the growing Christian conception of the relation of God and the world much better. One does not see that advancing thought can outgrow it. It seems to be, so far as its fundamental conception is concerned, the final form of the doctrine. Can there be any doubt which of these two ideas ought to be the basis of the Christian doctrine of the Spirit?

Let us try to express the Pauline idea of the Spirit in terms of modern life. To Paul it was, not merely the power of God, but God himself in the life of the Christian, molding and guiding it. This was no figure of speech to him, but an actual divine indwelling. It was his answer to current dualism, his way of bringing God to earth. To be properly understood, it ought to be placed in connection with the Gnostic and neo-Platonic conceptions of God. This was its philosophic aspect. It showed how God and man could come into actual relations.

We find it easy to translate this phase of the doctrine into modern life. It is a section of the conception of the immanence of God. The problem of transcendence—real transcendence, not the imitation to which the word is often applied-does not trouble us now. The transcendent God of the ancient world was absolutely apart from the world. To us, God is, by his very nature as God, in contact with the world. Now God in contact with the world of Christian men may properly be called the Holy Spirit. That is the Pauline meaning of the term. The Holy Spirit is the Divine life living itself out in the life of the believer. It is God considered pragmatically with regard to man.

One has but to state such a conception to perceive its great value for the present or for any other time. It depends upon no single conception of God's relation to the rest of the world. It depends upon no philosophical school but is harmonious with many schools. It becomes not only a philosophic concept, but a living experience. It is a great thing for a man to believe that the living God is in him. It is the greatest belief to which he can come. It lifts his life into a dignity and a sanctity which removes it from the realms of commonplace. It makes his own heart the most sacred place he can enter, his own work the most holy sacrament in which he can ever take part.

Two questions arise out of the modern interpretation of this doctrine. One is, How shall it be limited in application? The other is, How can it be verified in experience?

The Pauline doctrine was strictly limited. Only those who are helping forward the messianic kingdom are guided by the Spirit. Paul seems to have thought of this as limited, in his own generation, to the Christian church. In the past the Spirit had been in the hearts of Jews, but now that the Messiah had come, only those who believed in him were given this divine indwelling. As to the Gentile world, that lay always beyond the action of the Spirit. Whether or not he thought of God as providentially guiding the course of Gentile history, he certainly did not conceive of the Holy Spirit as dwelling in the hearts of Gentiles. The reason is plain. They were not advancing the kingdom of God.

Right or wrong, the present conception of the religious value of the world of extra-Christian history is radically different from the Pauline. To us, it has been advancing, however indirectly and with however great errors, the kingdom of God. In fact, as we look back over Christian history, certain elements of it seem to us to be farther removed from the kingdom of God than many things in the pagan world. If we look at individuals, too, we often discover clear purposes of right, great desire to serve the living God, in those who are outside the Christian faith. Remember that I am not striking averages, but speaking of individuals. No thoughtful person who has lived in a pagan community would say that the average of righteous purpose and accomplishment is anywhere near as high there as in the Christian church. But the fact remains that we at present affirm without hesitation that God may be in the hearts of many men outside the Christian church, and even beyond the knowledge of Christianity. Shall we call God in their hearts the Holy Spirit? It would seem that, consistently with our own thought, we must; for we hold, as Paul did not, that they also have advanced the kingdom of God; and God in the hearts of men, advancing his kingdom, is the Spirit. Let us recognize, however, that it is an expansion of the Pauline doctrine. Let us see clearly why we are led to it; that we keep the Pauline definition of the Spirit, but, expanding his premises of the Spirit's working, must necessarily expand his conclusion.

I need not say how this lifts the whole non-Christian world in dignity and sacredness, and makes a unity out of the seemingly heterogeneous elements of history. Nor is it necessary to say that this does not minimize the tragedy of the enmity to right and the hindrances to the development of God's kingdom with which the pagan world is filled. Rather it makes the tragedy greater, for they are no longer thought of as in a part of the world which by right belongs to the devil, but rather which might have been filled with men in whom the Spirit of God might abide, even if the story of Christ were unknown to them. It ought to be added that the biblical writers themselves had glimpses of this enlarged view of the realm of God's action, though never giving to it the name of the Spirit. Such infrequent passages as Rom. 1:19, " That which may be known of God is manifest in them;" Acts 14: 17, "He left not himself without witness;" John 1:9, " The true light which lighteth every man coming into the world " (if "coming" modifies "every man ") only find their logical conclusion in a widened doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

Shall the doctrine be expanded still further? May we properly speak of the Spirit of God in the external world? Is the Spirit of God immanent in the world of nature, as well as in the world of man?

This is a question of definition. To the modern Christian thinker of any school, God is in the world of nature in some very real way. May we, with proper deference to the historical and logical use of terms, name this presence of God in nature the Spirit of God? At one stage in the Hebrew history of the term it was undoubtedly so used. In a few post-exilic passages written at a time when the Spirit was no longer used to explain the experiences of living men, it is applied to God's action in nature outside of man. This was the more easily done because life, whether in man or beast, was then conceived to be the result of the Spirit of God (Ps. 104: 30). From living things to the orderly cosmos was not a great step and for a time Hebrew thought was not unwilling to use the Spirit as meaning God acting in inanimate nature (see Job 26: 13; Gen. 1: 2). But the use was an aberration and had already disappeared before the New Testament time. The main line of historic biblical usage keeps the Spirit for a name of God when acting on the hearts of men, for that personal relation where

Spirit with spirit shall meet.

It seems well to keep to this usage. Certainly nothing else will satisfy the New Testament sense of the word. It is fitting, also, that some specific term should be set apart for that personal relation, that intimate fellowship of like with like which, so far as we know, is possible in this universe only between persons—it is fitting that such a term should be set apart for use only concerning God in fellowship with man. That fellowship is so unique that it calls for a unique term to express it. Considerations of history and of fitness, then, both demand that the Spirit should not be used of God's action outside of man himself. Careful writers usually observe this usage, as in the definitions of the Spirit quoted above.

How can the presence of the Spirit of God be verified in experience? It will clarify our thought if we ask the synonymous question, How can the presence of God in the life be verified by experience?

Speaking broadly, the ancient world and the modern world answer this question differently. The answer of the ancient world lay in the realm of emotion and its visible results. The ecstasy of the Bacchic initiate, the vision of the prophet, the wild frenzy of the medicine man, were in the various religions prime proof of the presence of God in man. To the man himself, the emotion was sufficient. To the spectator, an objective appeal was made in the word from God, the oracle or prediction which seemed beyond the power of man to produce, the state of trance, the seemingly miraculous deed. Most religions offer these proofs of the possession of man by a god. In Israel, these feelings and experiences were the basis of the Hebrew idea of the Spirit of God.

In general, the modern Christian world, except when still under the influence of the ancient Hebrew idea, verifies the presence of God in a different way. It refuses to give the dominant influence in the answer to emotion, especially to emotion of the stormy, ecstatic variety. It rests primarily upon faith. God has said that he would be with those who "put their trust in him." God accepts the gift of a soul. He who has willed to give himself to God may then believe that God is present with him. To the man who rests in this faith in God's presence there will ordinarily come a confidence and security, a sense of deep and abiding peace, as the natural and normal result. Still, while normal, this calm emotion is not universal, and its lack is no proof of the absence of God. Lastly, and of least importance, great and tempestuous emotions, with or without mental and physical issues, sometimes sweep through the soul which have, or, what is the same thing to the person experiencing them, seem to have their basis in the sense of the presence of God. This is the exact correlative of the ancient experience which was regarded as proof of the divine presence; only the modern world, instead of making it first of all, makes it last of all. But great emotions are so commanding in life that it is no wonder persons who have experienced them often regard them as the most important proofs of the presence of God. Especially is this liable to be so when the emotion issues in some more objective experience like a trance, a vision, or heightened physical powers which seem to be more than human. Under those circumstances it is not uncommon for the subject of the experience, however modern his usual point of view, to slip back, without question or hesitation, to the religious standpoint of the ancient world.5

What has been said above will apply with equal force to the proof of the presence of the Spirit of God, for that is only another name for the presence of God himself. The ancient sense has so dominated the meaning of the Spirit, so committed it to the notion of the unusual and abnormal in experience, that we can deal more easily with the term " God in man" than with the synonymous term, the "Spirit of God." The presence of the Spirit is not verified by emotion nor by any unusual experiences. It is, to the person himself, an inference from his faith in God. A strong faith calls for no verification. To others, the verification stands, where it stood for Paul, upon the "fruits of the Spirit "—the life of helpful holiness. Any emotion which accompanies the experience is secondary and incidental.

The question is often asked, Do we have the experiences which the Hebrews and the early church ascribed to the Spirit? What was said above implies that experiences at least kindred are not unknown. The same great emotions, the same sense of being borne out of one's self, the same ecstatic uplift, which was in ancient life, is known in life today. As we read the records of early religions we find nothing of this kind totally unintelligible to us. One may suspect that examples of this experience are less common now than then. Modern civilization tends to repress emotion. Modern soldiers, for example, do not weep as easily as the warriors of the Iliad. But, after all, even in the ancient world, as in the less restrained portions of the world today, such emotions were perhaps less common than we suppose. They were always so uncommon that they seemed superhuman. Taking into account the tendency of our civilization to repression, the physical and mental occurrences which the Hebrew and early Christian world ascribed to the Spirit are relatively common. Only, we explain them differently. The trance, the ecstatic vision, the sudden healing, the emotional uncontrolled utterance which the early church called "'speaking with tongues" (compare the "power" in revivals of the last century), none of these lie wholly outside our experience. Instead of assigning them to the immediate action of the Spirit, however, we call in the physician and the psychologist, and demand an explanation; and, in the main, we get it. Does this mark us as less religious? No, but as more scientific. Whether we are less religious or not depends, not upon whether we ascribe fewer events to the direct action of God, but upon whether we strive less earnestly to fulfil his will as we understand it. Undoubtedly the range of particular events which can be ascribed to the Spirit of God has been narrowed by scientific thought. The Spirit is God acting directly upon the heart of man, and some of the events formerly ascribed to the Spirit seem to be the result of God's indirect action upon nature. In the exact use of terms, we cannot longer assign them to the Spirit. But that does not secularize them and remove them from the range of God's activity. It is only taking from one pocket to put into another, denying to God under one definition what is given to him under another.

But, after all, these particular experiences and events belong to the primitive conception of the work of the Spirit. The Pauline conception stands untouched. God himself is the foundation of the Christian character, the source of all holiness and purity. This idea is not dependent upon the explanation of trances, visions, and drugless cures. The Pauline conception is the salvation of the doctrine of the Spirit of God in the conditions of modern thought. Without the Pauline conception the doctrine would find a very small application in present life.

There are those who fear that the conception of the Spirit may lose its personal element, and become merely a name for the influence of God. This fear seems groundless. The definitions quoted above, and others which might be given, emphasize personality. The Spirit is only a name for God acting in man. Since God is personal, of course the Spirit of God is personal. But these definitions undoubtedly leave small room for certain metaphysical elements which are at least popularly supposed to be in the older theology. The personality of the Spirit has been commonly supposed to mean not merely that the Spirit possesses personality, but that he possesses a different person (not personality) from God the Father. Now "person" has always been an attenuated term in theology. We recall Augustine's saying that "we say 'three persons,' not that it may be so said, but that we may not keep silence." Nevertheless when it becomes so attenuated that God acting in the external world is called one person, and God acting in the hearts of men another, it would seem that the term is approaching the vanishing point of meaning. The Trinity in historic theology was not a mere economic Trinity, but signified some internal difference in the Godhead, however vaguely conceived. For such internal difference it is hard to discover any ground in the modern trend of thought about the Spirit. The fact is, the classic doctrine of the Trinity grew up in attempts to explain the relation of the historic person of Jesus Christ to God, and the place of the Spirit in the Trinity was an inference from the theories about Christ. It was never thoroughly discussed or subjected to critical examination. " Person" cannot mean quite the same as applied to the Spirit and to Christ. Even in somewhat conservative circles this is recognized. As Professor Denney says of the New Testament usage, "Certainly the Spirit is not so unmistakably thought of as a person as is the Father or the Son."6 To be frank, modern theology often saves its orthodoxy on this subject by retreating into agnosticism, and saying that we know nothing about the internal relations of the Trinity. That is very true; and modern theology has learned not to dogmatize outside of experience. We use old words with modified meanings in theology as we do elsewhere; but we ought frankly and unhesitatingly to recognize that the personality of the Holy Spirit cannot mean today what it is popularly supposed to have meant in older theology.7 That is no reason for the condemnation of the present thought. The religious value of the concept is not changed, only the most recondite phase of its metaphysical significance.

What is its religious value? What does the doctrine of the Holy Spirit mean for Christian life of the present day? It means, in a very real sense, the presence and power of God in the Christian life. It puts man, in the matter of God's relation to him, on a different footing from the rest of nature. It furnishes an inspiration to struggling faith and a promise of victory in the midst of strife; for what can fight against God? It makes a rational substitute for mysticism. It lifts man into a fellowship with God which does not depend upon the extraordinary or the occasional for its proof, but upon a reasoned faith. It does not dispense with mystery; all personality has mystery; and the Spirit is the personality of God acting directly on the personality of man; but its mystery is not unnatural and repulsive to reason. It is a part of the mystery of the immanence of God. Its value, however, lies not in its mystery, but in its power to help. It is the loftiest expression that any religion has yet found of that fellowship with the highest which all religions seek.



1) Clarke, Outline of Christian Theology, p. 372.

2) Brown, Christian Theology in Outline, p. 399. 239

3) For a fuller discussion of the biblical conceptions the writer may be permitted to refer to his The Spirit of God in Biblical Literature, published by Armstrong, 1904.

4) Pentateuchal references to the Spirit all belong to the late writings.

5) James's Varieties of Religious Experience furnishes an interesting museum of curiosities in this class of extreme emotional experiences. The humorist must have had these in mind when he rechristened the book "Wild Religions I Have Known."

6) Art. "Holy Spirit," Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels.

7) I say "is popularly supposed to have meant" because I surmise, from the study I have been able to give to the subject, that it is not always easy to tell what the older theologians did mean by the personality of the Spirit.