Monday, November 29, 2010

The Holy Spirit - Breath of God

I approach this subject with a bit more caution than some of my posts, because I know it's going to be particularly sensitive to some readers...enough so, in fact, that a couple caveats are necessary at the outset.  First and foremost, while in the next couple posts I'm going to challenge a number of commonly-held teachings about the Holy Spirit, I am NOT denying either (1) that the Holy Spirit is real, or (2) that the Holy Spirit comes from God the Father.  I acknowledge Jesus' warning in Matt. 12:31, paralleled in Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10, that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable; however, the context in Matthew and Mark makes it clear that what Jesus was talking about here was an accusation that the work he was doing through the Spirit of God, was actually of the devil.  This is not what I am saying, nor should it so be taken.

With the caveats properly stated, though, I will come to the first point.  Christian doctrine has held since the very early days, that the Holy Spirit is a "hypostasis" or "person" of a triune godhead.  I have previously suggested that the notion of the Trinity doesn't square well with the way Jesus represented himself and his relationship to the Father; now here I will add that the Spirit of God as described in the Gospels and Acts, also doesn't lend itself well to the Trinitarian definition.  I just took a look at every occurrence of the word in all four Gospels plus Acts, and while the Spirit is heavily in evidence throughout all five accounts, the sense of the word seems to me far more like an amorphous presence than a distinct entity, and nowhere in all five books is there any claim that God's Spirit (which is clearly bestowed upon others from time to time, and which clearly influences events) is actually a form or being of God himself (though it unquestionably comes from God).

The word in Greek which is translated "Spirit" as in "Holy Spirit" is nothing more than the word πνεῦμα (pneuma).  This same word is also translated as "ghost," "breath," and "wind" in various places and by various translators.  Sometimes it's linked to the word "holy," and other times it stands by itself.  But by separating the concept of "breath/wind" from the concept of "spirit," English Bible translators have created a divided concept which fits well with standard creeds, but masks a much less clear-cut concept in the actual text.  Perhaps the most intriguing passage I found to illustrate this point was John 3:8, which says:
"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Both the word "wind" in the beginning of the verse, and "Spirit" at the end, are the exact same word in Greek.  We may think "the Spirit blows where it wishes" or "everyone born of the wind" make no sense, but that has more to do with the doctrines we've built around the Holy Spirit than it does with solid translation.  If we were to allow the original language to speak for itself, the metaphor of the "breath of God" actually pervades the Bible all the way from Genesis on.  In the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures done about 200 years before Jesus, the spirit of God moving over the face of the waters is a form of the same Greek word (the wind of God moving over the waters...think about it), and even more beautifully, when in Genesis 2, God breaths into man the breath of life, it's also the same word--actually the Greek synonym πνοὴν (pnoe). 

This latter parallels spectacularly with Jesus' breathing on the disciples and saying "receive the Holy Spirit (breath)" in John 20:22.  Just as the breath of God is what made man "a living soul" in Genesis 2, so the breath of Jesus made man a living soul in the New Creation of the resurrected Christ.

So why am I saying this?  Do I really care whether we use the term "Holy Spirit" or the maybe more-poetic term "Breath of God" to refer to the influencing presence God sometimes bestows on his people?  Well yes, I do, but not as a matter of semantics.  I'll get into how the coming of the Holy Breath is actually described in scripture, next time.  But for now, I care because the doctrinal statements to which Evangelicals are often expected to subscribe, include assent to an explicit and detailed doctrine of the Trinity.  Nothing new here...the old creeds have been demanding as much since at least the third or fourth century, though interestingly, the Apostles' Creed only states "I believe in the Holy Spirit," without any details of just what that belief must entail.  Nevertheless, I'm afraid this is another area where our Christian authorities' obsession with lists of things one must think in order not to be damned, has overtaken the simple message of the Gospel.  The expectation of the church is that we think and speak and teach a certain way.  The expectation of Jesus was, and is, that we live a certain way, influenced by the wind of his Father blowing through us.


Stephen said...

God's peace and blessings to you, brother. It's such a delight to see the 'breath of God' still 'breathing' on people to clear away all the cobwebs, dust, and dirt that have accumulated over the years in our 'theology'.

I believe you are seeing important truth on the subject of the "Holy Spirit" and related matters of the (supposed) "Trinity"; and I'll look forward to reading your future posts about this subject, by God's permission.

Dan Martin said...

Peace also to you, Stephen! Thanks for your encouraging the matter of the Trinity I anticipate more of the other sort!

Blessings, and thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Makes me think of when Aslan breathes on someone in Narnia, giving them strength for the journey. I can't remember which characters, so maybe it was more than once. I always so loved that part of the story.

Quite interesting...I will be reading the rest of your series.

Dan Martin said...

Lewis clearly had this sense of God's breath in mind...Aslan's breath at various times imparts life, healing, and strenghth to various characters. I think you correctly represent Lewis' intent...