A Biblical Unitarian View of the Holy Spirit 

Sean Finnegan     

       Trying to nail down a biblical definition for the word “spirit” is like trying to give a cat a shower
It can be done, but only with great difficulty and one is never sure
when he has thoroughly completed the task.

It is my intention to put forth a scriptural definition of the holy spirit in an unbiased manner. I realize that avoiding one’s own doctrinal blind spots is extraordinarily difficult so I welcome criticism.[1]

A Change in View

My previous background in the holy spirit was from a charismatic non-trinitarian perspective. I considered the holy spirit to be an “it” which was given by God to the new convert for use on a daily basis. It was as if God had a large thing called spirit from which he broke off equal size pieces and implanted into each new believer upon confessing Jesus as Lord. I had thought of the spirit as an empowerment, like a battery pack which could be utilized by the saint at will. I no longer believe that to be an accurate understanding of the spirit of God.

I have never believed the spirit to be a person although I have always considered God’s essential nature to be comprised of spirit. Through the past few years, I have been searching for a better understanding of the holy spirit. It is my intention to present a biblical definition of the holy spirit. First, the OT will be examined, followed by the Synoptics, the Gospel of John, and then the rest of the NT. Lastly I will express the reasons why I still do not believe the spirit is a person.

The Challenge

Pneumatology is a frontier of inquiry to the unitarian community. There is much work to be done in defining the holy spirit apart from the historical straight jacket imposed upon it by the Cappadocians[2] who in AD 381 declared that the spirit was “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son, he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets…”[3] It is remarkable that nearly 300 years had to pass before the personality of the spirit was dogmatized in the Constantinopolitan Creed. The Apostles’ Creed did not mention the spirit and the Nicene Creed mentioned it almost as an afterthought in the phrase: “and in the holy spirit.” Thus, it is likely that the formula worked out by these Greek thinking Christians of the 4th century was a development rather than apostolic in origin. Therefore, I will proceed as if we were living in a time before belief in the holy spirit as a person had been chiseled into stone. We shall limit our inquiry to the biblical documents themselves.

The Spirit in the Old Testament

In order to begin our inquiry into the Biblical data we shall initially restrict ourselves to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew word most commonly translated as “spirit” is ruach. Below is a table enumerating the different ways in which ruach is translated in the NASB.

courage ………..1
spirit…………….. 3

Ruach is a fairly flexible word encompassing the meanings: spirit, wind, breath, and even matters of the mind (emotions etc.). All of these words denote something unseen and unexplained. “When used of living beings, ruach refers to the essence of the life and vitality in both human beings and animals that is manifested through movement and breathing (Genesis 2.7; 6.17; 7.15; Numbers 16.22; Ezekiel 10.17). Just as “spirit” was considered the essence of human life, so analogously the term “spirit” was used of the presence, activity and power of God, that is, characteristics that demonstrate that God is truly a “living God” (Deuteronomy 5.26; Joshua 3.10; 1 Samuel 7.26; Isaiah 37.4; Daniel 6.20; Matthew 16.16; Revelation 7.2).”[4] Another Bible dictionary says of the spirit: “At its heart is the experience of a mysterious, awesome power—the mighty invisible force of the wind, the mystery of vitality, the otherly power that transforms—all ruach, all manifestations of divine energy.”[5] The spirit is a manifestation of God’s “living” energy.[6] A noted biblical scholar sees OT spirit as follows: “There can be little doubt that from the earliest stages of pre-Christian Judaism ‘spirit’ (ruach) denoted power—the aweful, mysterious force of the wind (ruach), of the breath (ruach) of life, of ecstatic inspiration (induced by divine ruach)…In other words, on this understanding, Spirit of God is in no sense distinct from God, but is simply the power of God, God himself acting powerfully in nature and upon men.”[7] Consider the following usages of ruach found in the Hebrew Bible:

The spirit of God may be taken from one and distributed to others (Numbers 11.17), cause the one it rests upon to prophesy (Numbers 11.25, 29; 24.2-3; 1 Samuel 10.6, 10; 1 Chronicles 12.18; 2 Chronicles 15.1; 20.14; 24.20), provide the means by which God speaks to people (2 Samuel 23.2), lead someone to a different location (1 Kings 18.12), transport people from one location to another (2 Kings 2.16), be defined parallel with the anointing of Yahweh (Isaiah 61.1 cp. Acts 10.38), be how God speaks through the prophets (Nehemiah 9.30; Zechariah 7.12), empower leaders to judge/rule the people (Judges 3.10), impart warlike energy/confidence (Judges 6.34; 11.29; 14.6, 19), supply supernatural strength (Judges 15.14), cause righteous anger (1 Samuel 11.6-7), impart regeneration and peace (Isaiah 32.15), give the Messiah wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, the fear of Yahweh, and ability to judge justly (Isaiah 11.2; 41.2), endow artisans with skill (Exodus 31.3; 35.31); and be defined parallel with the presence of God (Psalm 139.7).[8]

Each of these listed functions of the spirit refers to the action of the one God, Yahweh. The spirit of God is one of the primary ways of talking about God’s involvement in His creation. Most scholars agree as James Dunn has already noted that the Hebrew Bible does not teach a literal distinction between God and His spirit. Often times the writers of the Hebrew Bible would employ literary metaphors when speaking of Yahweh’s deeds (particularly when poetic style is in use). For example, one may say “the word of Yahweh came to me” or “the spirit of God came upon him” or “the world was established by His wisdom.” These are ways of referring to the almighty, transcendent God in His mode of acting within creation. In effect, it was God who spoke to the prophets, God who empowered the heroes of old, and God who created the world. However, these literary devices are able to preserve the “otherness” of the greatest conceivable being and yet make plenty of room for His imminence in our world without raising any complicated questions.

“If one combs through standard Bible dictionaries, it is obvious that ninety-eight percent of the biblical data is satisfied if we define the Spirit as God in effective action, God in communication, His power and personality extending their influence to touch the creation in a variety of ways…Is the Spirit really anything other than God’s energy, inspiring human beings to perform extraordinary feats of valor, endowing them with special artistic skill or miraculous powers, and especially communicating divine truth?”[9]

God’s spirit is not just an impersonal power

Can we conclude that the spirit is a mere impersonal power? A sort of empowerment given to the creatures He favors like a battery pack? Certainly not. Is it a mere communication device, like a radio transceiver which can send and receive messages from God? Certainly not. The spirit of God is a way of referring to Yahweh in action. Thus, to criticize His spirit is to criticize God Himself. It would be like saying that written communications are impersonal. The letter caries the message, intention, and emotions of the author to the reader. Of course, the mail is not a person but it is the very expression of the person. One experiences the distant person as near through the letter. God is so holy that if we were to see His face we would immediately expire (Exodus 33.20). Until the resurrection, we are unable to be in His immediate presence. Even so, He longs to communicate with us and have a relationship with us. He interacts with us through His spirit, His word, His empowerment, His wisdom, etc. Yet still, even at the close of the Hebrew Cannon, there is no indication of individuality regarding the spirit of God. “But of the Spirit as an entity in any sense independent of God, of Spirit as a divine hypostasis, there is nothing.”[10] Thus, we conclude (in regards to OT pneumatology) that God’s spirit is not a person though it is very personal—it is the self-expression of Yahweh.

The Spirit in the Synoptics

When one flips the page entitled, “The New Testament” and enter the territory of Matthew chapter one the definitions gained from the OT do not suddenly disappear. The NT does reveal, expand upon, and clarify many great truths conveyed previously but that does not mean we should throw out what the first portion of Scripture had to say. Remarkably we find that in the Gospels, the spirit of God (or holy spirit) is used very consistently with what has already been defined—God in action.

The holy spirit caused the generation of life in the virgin Mary (Matthew 1.18, 20; Luke 1.35), it is spoken of in parallel to water as something one can be immersed in (Matthew 3.11; Mark 1.8; Luke 3.16), it descended upon Christ at his baptism (Matthew 3.16; Mark 1.10; Luke 3.22), it drove Jesus to go into the wilderness (Matthew 4.1; Mark 1.12; Luke 4.1), it gives the disciples words to speak when on trial (Matthew 10.20; Mark 13.11; Luke 12.12), it enables Christ to proclaim justice (Matthew 12.18), it empowered the Messiah to cast out demons (Matthew 12.28), it is the source of David’s inspiration (Matthew 22.43; Mark 12.36), it causes prophetic utterances (Luke 1.41, 67), it was upon Simeon (Luke 2.25), it reveals truth about the future (Luke 2.26), it empowered Jesus (Luke 4.14), and it is given by the Father to those who ask (Luke 11.13).

The spirit of God is His influence, presence, and power to accomplish His will in the universe in general and in His people. This empowerment made possible the miracles recorded throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in the Gospels.  Jesus confessed that his power to drive out demons was a result of the holy spirit In order to demonstrate this compare theses two verses:

“But if I cast out demons by the spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12.28)

“But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11.20)


[1] Please send all kind-hearted criticism to sean@kingdomready.org (everything else can be sent to my press agent disgruntled@yourunorthodoxbeliefs.com).

[2] Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

[3] The Constantinopolitan Creed.

[4] Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green editors, Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period ©1996, Hendrickson Publishers, page 298.

[5] JDG Douglas, New Bible Dictionary (second edition) ©1962, ed. By JD Douglas, FF Bruce, JI Packer, N Hillyer, D Guthrie, AR Millard, DJ Wiseman, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., pages 1137.

[6] One’s spirit is also his/her current state of mind (1 Corinthians 2.11) which is often expressed through words (Proverbs 1.23; John 6.63).

[7] James DG Dunn, Christology in the Making (second edition) ©1989, Eerdmans Publishing Co., page 133.

[8] For a more exhaustive list see The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon pages 924-6.

[9 Anthony Buzzard, The Doctrine of the Trinity ©1998, International Scholars Publications, page 226.

[10] James DG Dunn, Christology in the Making (second edition) ©1989, Eerdmans Publishing Co., page 136.