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Part One: The Holy Spirit in John and Acts: A Narrative Approach

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Part One: The Holy Spirit in John and Acts: A Narrative Approach

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

(Click here to see the overview of this six-part article.)

In an important yet so far seldom discussed article published in 2003, evangelical New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace warned that common arguments for the personality or personhood1 of the Holy Spirit fail to establish this doctrine on a solid biblical foundation. The most popular argument, the use of masculine pronouns for the Holy Spirit in four verses in the Gospel of John (14:26; 15:26; 16:13, 14), is grammatically fallacious. Other arguments may also be flawed.

Evangelical defenses of various doctrines occasionally are poorly founded. We sometimes claim things to be true because we want them to be true, without doing the exhaustive spadework needed to support our conclusions…. I am not denying the doctrine of the Trinity, of course, but I am arguing that we need to ground our beliefs on a more solid foundation.2

A similar conclusion was expressed in another article published in 2011 in which two other evangelical scholars also argued that the appeal to masculine pronouns in John 14-16 was a fallacious proof of the Holy Spirit’s personhood:

Sometimes well-intentioned people argue for the right thing the wrong way. Their position may be right even though at least one of their arguments is not. This seems to be the case with a popular exegetical and theological argument for the personality of the Holy Spirit. The right position is that the Holy Spirit is a person, and the fallacious argument is that the masculine demonstrative pronoun ekeinos in John 14:26, 15:26, and 16:13-14 proves it.3

Of course, theologians who defend the Trinitarian view of the Holy Spirit are not alone in employing fallacious arguments for their view. The broader situation is that theological treatments of the question of whether the Holy Spirit is a divine person have commonly been limited to a proof-texting approach in which isolated statements in the Bible are cited for or against the Trinitarian view of the Spirit. An approach to the subject is needed that rises above such proof-texting.

This paper will seek to contribute toward a more biblically sound articulation of the Trinitarian doctrine of the Holy Spirit by setting some of the traditional proof-texts for that doctrine—specifically those found in the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts—in the literary and historical contexts in which they appear. The methodological starting point for doing so is a sound hermeneutic in which the texts are understood in light of the genre of the writings in which they appear.

In the case of the Pauline epistles or Hebrews, writings that are overtly didactic in nature, a sound hermeneutic would rightly focus on the way the author develops his position, giving close attention to the arguments the author presents and the way those arguments function in the context of the author’s pastoral or polemical purpose. In the case of the Gospels or the Book of Acts, on the other hand, a sound hermeneutic is complicated by two factors. (1) Didactic materials (sayings, parables, discourses, and speeches) are embedded in historical narratives and must be interpreted as part of those narratives. (2) The books convey teaching not just by such overtly didactic materials but also through the actions and comments of the individuals who are part of those narratives.

Taking these factors into full consideration in interpreting the teaching of John and Acts may be described as a “narrative” approach. However, what is meant by a narrative approach in this context should not be confused with other ideas associated with the term narrative. Specifically, the approach here is not to be confused with narrative theology, a term used for a particular approach to theology that privileges “story” over propositions and systematic theological formulations.4 Nor is this study an exercise in narratology, a literary-critical discipline (heavily indebted to structuralism) that focuses on studying the formal, universal features and processes of narrative.5 While narrative theologians and narratologists have good insights worthy of consideration, this study does not adopt their methods or assumptions. It is best characterized as an exercise in biblical theology that takes full account of the genre and narrative contexts of the relevant statements about the Holy Spirit in John and Acts. By biblical theology is meant here the study of theological concepts and themes as developed by individual authors in the Bible with due attention to the historical contexts in which they wrote. Biblical theology in this sense is practiced in dynamic relation to systematic theology, not as an alternative or replacement for systematic theology.6 This mean that it is perfectly legitimate to pose “systematic theological” questions, such as whether the Holy Spirit is a person, in the study of the theology of specific biblical books such as John and Acts.

Click here for Part Two: The Holy Spirit as Promised Successor in John



1. Theologians often use the term personality in reference to the doctrine that the Holy Spirit is a person distinct from the Father and the Son. While there is nothing wrong with this usage, it is susceptible to being misunderstood to refer to the Holy Spirit as having a distinctive set of emotional or behavioral characteristics. The term personhood is less open to such misunderstanding and thus may be preferable.

2. Daniel B. Wallace, “Greek Grammar and the Personality of the Holy Spirit,” BBR 13, 1 (2003): 122, 125. Abbreviations in the notes conform to The SBL Handbook of Style: For Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Early Christian Studies, ed. Patrick H. Alexander, et. al. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999).

3. Andrew David Naselli and Philip R. Gons, “Prooftexting the Personality of the Holy Spirit: An Analysis of the Masculine Demonstrative Pronouns in John 14:26, 15:26, and 16:13-14,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 16 (2011): 65.

4. As exemplified in Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989); Theology and Narrative, ed. George Hunsinger and William Placher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); see also Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974). Evangelical assessments include Carl F. H. Henry, “Narrative Theology: An Evangelical Appraisal,” TrinJ NS 8 (1987): 3-19 (see also Frei’s response, 20-24); Gabriel Fackre, “Narrative Theology from an Evangelical Perspective,” in Faith and Narrative, ed. Keith Yandell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 188-201; David K. Clark, “Narrative Theology and Apologetics,” JETS 36 (1993): 499-515.

5. On the discipline, see, for example, Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985, 2nd ed. 1997); What Is Narratology? Questions and Answers Regarding the Status of a Theory, ed. Tom Kindt and Hans-Harald Müller (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003). On its application to biblical studies, see D. François Tolmie, Narratology and Biblical Narratives: A Practical Guide (International Scholars Publications, 1999).

6. See Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Kinds of Biblical Theology,” WTJ 70 (2008): 129-42.