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Sean Finnegan

An Unitarian View

of the Holy Spirit



Originally Presented at the 2006 One God Seminar[1]
By Sean Finnegan (



Trying to pin 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 if he has thoroughly completed the task.  It is my intention to put forth a scriptural definition of the holy spirit.  I will build a cumulative understanding beginning with the Old Testament (OT).  Then, I will add to that provisional definition the new insights presented in the New Testament (NT).  In order to keep organized, I will divide up the NT into the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Gospel of John, and the rest of the NT (mostly Paul’s epistles).  Lastly, I will explain the biblical reasons why I do not believe the spirit is a person in a Trinitarian sense.  Before beginning this survey, I will say a word or two about the unique opportunity biblical unitarians have to investigate the doctrine of the holy spirit (pneumatology).

Pneumatology is a frontier of inquiry for 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 fourth century Cappadocian theologians[2] who declared that the spirit was “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.”  They went on to declare, “With the Father and the Son, he is worshiped and glorified.  He has spoken through the prophets….”[3] Remarkably, nearly three hundred years passed before the personality of the spirit was dogmatized in an official creed.  The second century Apostles’ Creed did not mention the spirit, and the early fourth century Nicene Creed mentioned it almost as an afterthought in the phrase, “and in the holy spirit.”  It follows then that the holy spirit’s personhood was not original to the apostles but was worked out later by zealous though errant post-biblical Christians.  For the purposes of this survey, I will not engage with the rather sophisticated philosophical and theological constructs of later Christian tradition but instead will limit this study to the biblical documents themselves.

The Spirit in the Old Testament

To start this survey, we will begin by focusing on the Hebrew Scriptures (the OT).  The Hebrew word most commonly translated “spirit” is ruach.  Below is a table enumerating the different English words ruach is translated along with their number of occurrences in the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

air 2 heart 1 strength 1
anger 1 inspired 1 temper 2
blast 2 mind 3 thoughts 1
breath 31 motives 1 trustworthy 1
breathless 1 points 1 wind 98
cool 1 side 4 winds 7
courage 1 sides 2 windy 2
despondency 1 Spirit 76 wrath 1
exposed 1 spirit 127    
grief 1 spirits 3    


Ruach is a fairly flexible word encompassing the meanings: spirit, wind, breath, and even matters of the mind and emotions.  All of these words denote something unseen and unexplained.  Here is how the holy spirit is defined in two standard Bible dictionaries and by one prominent biblical scholar:

Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period
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]  

New Bible Dictionary
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]  

James Dunn on the Holy Spirit
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.[6]  

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), inspire prophecy (Numbers 11:25, 29; 24:2-3; 1 Samuel 10:6, 10; 1 Chronicles 12:18; 2 Chronicles 15:1; 20:14; 24:20; Nehemiah 9:30; Zechariah 7:12), be a way God speaks to people (2 Samuel 23:2), lead someone to a different location (1 Kings 18:12), transport someone from one location to another (2 Kings 2:16), be defined parallel with the anointing of Yahweh (Isaiah 61:1 cp. Acts 10:38), 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/peace (Isaiah 32:15), give the Messiah wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, the fear of Yahweh, and the ability to judge justly (Isaiah 11:2; 41:2), endow artisans with skill (Exodus 31:3; 35:31); and be defined parallel to the presence of God (Psalm 139:7).[7]  

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[1] To download the audio version of this paper or access other One God Seminar presentations log onto

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

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


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