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Part Six: The Holy Spirit in John and Acts—Person or Personification?

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Part Six: The Holy Spirit in John and Acts—Person or Personification?

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

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

Those who deny that the Holy Spirit is to be understood as a divine person in the New Testament often argue that “personal” language for the Holy Spirit is personification, a form of figurative language in which an impersonal object or abstraction is spoken of as if it were a person. They frequently cite the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 1-9 as precedent. However, this argument ignores the genres and contexts of the different passages. Proverbs 1-9 is a highly poetic section of a book in the genre of “wisdom literature,” in which wisdom is portrayed in colorful, indisputably metaphorical terms. Thus, wisdom is a lady crying out in the streets and at the city gates (1:20-21; 8:1-3). Lady Wisdom has built a house with seven pillars, and she throws a party at her house with food, wine, and young women and invites men to come to her party rather than that of her rival, Madame Foolishness (9:1-13)! This is not historical narrative, as is the Book of Acts. Nor is Solomon presenting wisdom as a figure that will literally be part of the young man’s own real-life story.

By contrast, the Holy Spirit in John is a real person, similar in many ways to Jesus the Son, whom Jesus promises to send from heaven after he returns there to the Father. In Acts, the Holy Spirit comes from heaven as Jesus promised and is an active participant and major witness of the events in Luke’s historical narrative. The “personification” explanation simply does not work. That the Holy Spirit is deity is plain enough from the divine functions he performs and from the close parallels between the Spirit and Jesus the divine Son. That he is a person distinct from the Father and the Son is made plain by the teaching in both John and Book of Acts that the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father and the Son after the Son’s return in glory to the Father (John 14:16-17, 26-27; 15:26; 16:7, 13-14; Acts 1:4-5; 2:33).

While one may freely grant that John and Acts do not lay out a systematic theological formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, the basis for a Trinitarian view of the Holy Spirit is clear enough. As C. K. Barrett observed with regard to John 14-16, “It is true that even in these no doctrine of the Trinity is formulated; but the materials are present out of which the doctrine eventually grew.”1


1. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 91. See also Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), esp. 135-47.