Are the personifications of the Holy Spirit literal?

Some unorthodox sects of Christianity (notably, Jehovah's Witnesses) maintain that the Holy Spirit is not a person, but is instead the “power” (or “active force”) of God. One common challenge to this is comes from verses like the following:

John 14:16-26 -- “I [Jesus] will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you...the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you...
Jehovah's Witnesses respond, however, that it is easy enough to interpret this as figurative language. As noted in their official Reasoning from the Scriptures handbook, “The Bible also personifies wisdom, sin, death, water, and blood.”1 Wisdom in particular gets personified multiple times in scripture, both in a multiply attested quote from Jesus (Mt 11, Lk 7) and all of Proverbs 8.

Wisdom:
Mt 11:19 --But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.
Lk 7:35 -- But wisdom is proved right by all her children.
Prov 8:1-36 -- Does not wisdom call, And understanding lift up her voice? ...At the entrance of the doors, she cries out: “To you, O men, I call,...” ... “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence,
Death / Life
Rom 5:14-21 -- death reigned from Adam until Moses... as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Water and Blood
1 Jn 5:8 -- For there are three that testify:the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

By way of response, however, one hardly needs to cite scriptural examples to demonstrate that an author can personify something impersonal. What matters is whether we have sufficient reason to think the attributes of personhood attributed to the Holy Spirit are merely metaphorical. There are two reasons which, taken together, constitute an extraordinarily strong reason to answer “no.”

If the Greek word translated “Spirit” (pneuma, πνεῦμα) frequently and naturally refers personal agents, then only a truly inept author would attribute personhood to a pneuma without being clear that personhood was not meant to be literally attributed. This is relevant because pneuma does frequently and naturally refer to personal agents, which sharply distinguishes it from the examples given by Jehovah's Witnesses (wisdom, death water). For example:

Acts 19:15 -- the evil spirit answered and said to them, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?”
1 Tim 4:1 -- But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons,
Whereas we only see wisom personalized 3 times at best (out of at least 211 instances), the indications of personhood attributed to the Holy Spirit number well over 30 times just in the New Testament, and specifically just subsequent to Christ's introduction of Him as described in Jn 14. These ubiquitous indications of personhood flow from multiple authors/speakers:

He speaks
Acts 8:29 -- “Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot.”
Acts 10:19 -- “the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are looking for you”
Acts 20:21 -- “the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me.”
Acts 11:12 -- “The Spirit told me to go with them”
1 Cor 12:11 -- “And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, "Write, '…!'" "Yes," says the Spirit, "so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.”
1 Tim 4:1 -- “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons
Heb 3:7 -- “So, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you hear…’
Heb10:15-17 -- the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,“This is the covenant that I will make with them…” He then says,…
Rev 2:7 -- “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says…
Rev 2:17 -- “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says…
Rev 2:29 -- “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says…
Rev 3:22 -- “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says…

In fact, the Holy Spirit also occasionally speaks through people (cf. 2 Pet 1:21):
Mk 13:11 -- “do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 1:16 -- “the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David”
Acts 2:4 -- “the Spirit was giving them utterance.”
Acts 21:10-11 -- “As we were staying there for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”
Acts 28:25-27 -- “The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, saying…”
Acts 4:25 -- “who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage,And the peoples devise futile things?”
1 Pet 1:11 -- the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.
He can be lied to.
Acts 5:3-4 -- “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit… you have not lied to men but to God.
He has His own initiative
John 16:13 -- “He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.
He can be offended and spoke against
Hebrews 10:29 -- “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled... and insulted the Spirit…
Matthew 12:31-32 -- “a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven…
He intercedes for us and bears witness

Romans 8:27 -- “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit

He can be grieved

Ephesians 4:30 -- “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit.”

His name can be baptized in to (see details of this argument)

Matthew 28:19 -- “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”.

He can fellowship with believers

2 Cor 13:14 --“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”

He works as He wills

Revelation 14:13 -- “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.

He assigns duties for reasons

Acts 20:28, “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God

And even a few more!

Conclusion

It is the combination of both (a) The truly inept authors” point above, with (b) the ubiquitous and diverse indications of personhood from multiple authors, which ostensibly shuts down the possibility of the personalization being non-literal. Truly, we have more indications of personhood for the Holy Spirit than we do for most prominent Biblical characters! Of course, as compelling as the case is for the personhood of the Holy Spirit, perhaps there are even stronger reasons for thinking the authors believe the Holy Spirit is not a person?

 

  1. Reasoning from the Scriptures (), 407.
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