question and response

Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

Are there any references to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament?

The particular understanding of the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity comes out of thought around the revelation of Jesus Christ. Thinking about the relationships between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not something that originate out of the Old Testament, but were formed by Christians thinking about God as most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ and what this might mean. However, there are certainly places in the Old Testament in which the spirit of God is referenced. One prominent example of this is in Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Genesis 1:1-2, TNIV.

The reference to the Spirit of God in this passage has clear resonance with reference to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. One can translate spirit in English from the Hebrew ruah, Greek pneuma or Latin spiritus.

Is the Holy Spirit directly referenced in the Old Testament? There is none of which I am aware. Is the Spirit of God referenced in the Old Testament? Absolutely.

This question came out of a young adult small group taster last Sunday morning in which I taught about the question “What is the Trinity?”

By Andrew Conard

Christian, husband, son, brother, homeowner

2 replies on “Holy Spirit in the Old Testament”

I’m a Ph.D. student in Old Testament, and I just wanted to throw in my thoughts on this matter. I think the question of whether or not an author or editor of a OT writing intended to talk about the “Holy Spirit” (as we understand as Christians) really cannot limit whether or not such references exist IF we believe, as Christians, that these texts originate both from humanity and from God. (I say this knowing that my colleagues at my school and in the general academy would squirm, but I think this is a valid point if we claim to be Christians). If we believe there is some divine origin to the texts at all, then certainly it seems like the texts can reference things beyond human capability. And so, does the OT reference the Holy Spirit? Not in a theological formulation. But, like you said, it does reference God’s Spirit, and as Christians, I do think it is appropriate to ask productively how “God’s Spirit” is related to the “Holy Spirit,” and not just stop short (as so many Christian scholars and thus pastors who learn from them have done for too long) with the relation between “God’s Spirit” and “Holy Spirit” from an anthropological perspective. How are the two THEOLOGICALLY related?

The way I approach the theological question is by looking at what types of things God’s Spirit is doing in the OT, and what the Holy Spirit is doing in the NT. I haven’t done looked at this for a long time, but based upon my memory and running through texts in both testaments in my mind at the moment, there are a lot of similarities – miracles, wisdom, faithfulness to Yahweh, being “caught up in the Spirit” and taken to new places (like Ezekiel and that guy in Acts – Peter? – after he led a man to Christ with Isaiah 53 and baptized him) etc. There are also differences. I think the differences can be divided into two categories (but remember I’m doing this off the top of my head).

One, in the OT, God’s Spirit rests upon particular people, often at particular times, whereas in the NT, particularly following Pentecost, the Spirit is received by the multitude of Christ’s followers as opposed to just a few leaders, and thus empowers Christians generally to do God’s work. I think this difference can be theologically understood from the perspective of the history of salvation – something really new happened historically in the relationship between God and humanity with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and this new form of the outpouring of God’s spirit is a consequence of that new thing.

Two, I think a category of differences exist on the level of certain activities, like I can’t think of a NT equivalent to all of Samson’s exploits, nor a NT equivalent to Saul’s “prophetic frenzy” (although I’m not sure the meaning of that is completely clear). But at the same time, I think the OT writers were often trying to say something like “this person was doing something we can explain in no other way than a divine spirit came upon them.” Which is actually still really similar to what I think the NT writers were trying to describe. I think it is reasonable to consider that God’s spirit leads to different particular activities in different times and places.

A further thing to consider when thinking about this question is that the NT authors were not speaking in a vacuum, nor were the Church Fathers (the ones who came to called “orthodox”) only looking at the NT when they formulated the doctrine of the Trinity – they were also drawing upon OT languages and images. Acts interprets and explains the events of Pentecost through the lens of Joel – so is it appropriate to say that “my Spirit” in Joel is different than the Holy Spirit we received at Pentecost?

I don’t mean to suggest that there should be a total theological leveling between the OT and the NT on the issue. The fact that our canon does DIVIDE them into two (imagine – Matthew could have been logically placed after Nehemiah in terms of genre) says that something fundamentally NEW did happen with Jesus and that human understanding of Yahweh would have to be radically reinterpreted in light of this new thing. But I am concerned that the academy has spent so much time over the past century learning to celebrate the DIFFERENCES, from an anthropological perspective, that I think we have lost a healthy balance with regard to theological similarities.

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