Pneumatological Terminology: 18 Common Terms for the Holy Spirit

Image showing some common words used in relation to the Holy Spirit in Greek, Hebrew, and English

Pneumatology is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of this article is to offer some terms and concepts associated with the Holy Spirit, which will help in constructing a biblical pneumatology. This article is not complete or exhaustive but will provide an essential basis for what the church believes about the Holy Spirit.

The importance of having a handle on what one believes about the Holy Spirit cannot be overstated. Within Protestant circles, our beliefs about the Holy Spirit are often understated. The Spirit of God is not just the Third Person of the Trinity as the Christian church has come to believe. The Holy Spirit is often treated like a “member” (of a larger whole) or mystical force instead of a divine person. He is even forgotten and made nonessential in the Christian Godhead. But the abiding presence of the Spirit is what keeps the church alive in Christ.

In Revelation, it states that both the Spirit and the Bride beckon the Lord Jesus to come (Rev 22:17). The seal and mark of the Spirit is what believers have until the day of redemption. The Spirit prays among us and with us when we do not know what we should pray for. And among blasphemies, blasphemy of the Spirit is the only unforgivable sin discussed in the New Testament.

The Holy Spirit is God! We should honor the Spirit as such. It will be helpful to look at several of the terms and concepts associated with how we understand the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Examining our pneumatology is key to living out our walk in Christ.

Names for the Holy Spirit

It is important to note that there are several ways within the corpus of Scripture to refer to the Holy Spirit. This can often be confusing to some devotees in that people may assume different names indicate different spirits. For example, my tradition favors using the King James Bible, which may use “Holy Spirit” in one chapter (e.g., Luke 11:13 KJV) and “Holy Ghost” in another (e.g., Luke 12:10 KJV). This can cause confusion. I recall a churchgoer debating with a preacher who insisted that these two designations referred to two different beings—otherwise, why use different names?

1. Pneuma

The term pneuma is the most commonly used word for “spirit” within the New Testament and in the Greek Septuagint. It can refer to God’s Spirit, God as spirit, non-human spirits (demons), or the spirit within humanity. It may also refer to one’s life force or vigor in some instances (Gen 45:27).

2. The Holy Spirit

This name for the Third Person of the Trinity is used quite often as the unambiguous indicator that one is speaking of God’s Spirit. The formal name is rarely used in the Old Testament. One instance appears in Psalm 51:11: “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.” In this case, it says, “thy/your,” which may make it seem like the writer is discussing merely a holy spirit, not the Holy Spirit. But this is unlikely. The Holy Spirit is being discussed here.

The Gospels teach that Jesus shares the Holy Spirit. He will spread the Holy Spirit’s presence as a fulfillment of the covenantal promise of God. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all testify that John the Baptist prophesied that the Messiah would come with the ability to pour out the presence of the Holy Spirit. This was part of the covenantal blessing of the coming age (Joel 2:28–32). The Holy Spirit was present prior to Jesus’ coming. The Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets and filled John the Baptist from birth. But now the through Jesus the Holy Spirit would be available for all who believed in Jesus Christ. This was a promised blessing God gave to his people.

3. The Spirit

This term is also often used in the New Testament and never in the Old without any other indicating terms to refer to the Third Person of the Trinity. In the titular form, to differentiate the Holy Spirit from other spirits, this name is used with the definite article. You will never see “Spirit” as one might see “God.” But each time “the Spirit” appears without any other modifying term, as we will discuss below, it is in reference to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity (Eph 4:4–6).

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4. The Spirit of (person)

The Holy Spirit is often described as the Spirit of a divine person in the Bible. In the Old Testament and in the New, the Holy Spirit is often called “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of the Lord” (Gen 1:2; 1 Sam 16:14; Isa 11:2). God can also speak of “my” Spirit (Gen 6:2). The New Testament continues and adds to these designations. Jesus speaks of the Spirit of God. But Jesus is also able to say the “Spirit of your Father” (Matt 10:20). Luke relays the “Spirit of Jesus” in Acts (16:7). Paul speaks diversely of the “Spirit of [Jesus] Christ” (Phil 1:19; Rom 8:9) and the “Spirit of his Son” (Gal 4:6) in reference to the Holy Spirit. In each case, we can be sure whether we ares speaking of the Spirit of the Father or the Son, we are speaking of the Holy Spirit.

5. The Spirit of (concept)

We should also be aware of the fact that the Holy Spirit is often described using a conceptual modifier. Not just the Spirit of God or Jesus, but also the Spirit of a concept or attribute of God. John’s Gospel tells us Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth (14:17; 15:26; 16:13; cf. 1 John 4:6). Paul can speak of the “Spirit of life” (Rom 8:2). The Old Testament (Exod 28:3; Deut 34:9; Isa 11:2) can speak of the “Spirit of wisdom,” as did Paul (Eph 1:17). Paul also speaks of the Spirit as “Spirit of meekness” (Gal 6:1). In another instance, Paul refers to the “spirit of meekness,” which may refer to an attitude or disposition (1 Cor 4:21). Finally, Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of adoption,” by which the people of God are brought into the faith. We should note in many cases, “spirit” might be metaphorical in use and not suggest the Holy Spirit, but instead a demonic spirit or humanity’s spiritual aspects (e.g., Num 5:14; Isa 29:10; 57:15; 61:3).

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Images for the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit manifests or is metaphorically referenced prominently in the following images:

6. Dove

When Jesus baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, the Gospels describe the Holy Spirit coming upon him as a dove.

7. Wind

The Hebrew word ruach, often translated as “spirit,” can also be translated as “wind.” Similar to the creation narrative (Gen 1:2), God made the “wind” (ruach) pass over the earth. When Ezekiel was tasked to prophesy to the “wind,” the term used was ruach (Ezek 37:9). The word pneuma is translated as “wind” in John 3:8 in the same verse where Jesus speaks of “the Spirit.” There is no disjunction between the theology of the two Testaments. The Holy Spirit is associated with and often is revealed as “wind.” Such is the case on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4).

8. Water

Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as water in his discourse with Nicodemus. Jesus argues the one who is born of “water and spirit” enters the kingdom of God. This is not meant to suggest two separate mechanisms, as becomes clear in John 3:8. In John 7:38–39, Jesus further clarifies that the Spirit can be characterized as water. Paul argues that all of the people of God have been both “baptized” by the one Spirit and have also been made to “drink” of that same Spirit (1 Cor 12:13).

9. Fire

Matthew and Luke record that Jesus would baptize people with the “Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11; Luke 3:16). This could mean something separate: some will be baptized in the Spirit, others in the fire: some people are to receive good things and others are condemned. The more likely significance is that fire speaks of the Spirit the same way water did. The Holy Spirit is a cleansing agent, which is indicated by both water and fire.

10. Paraclete/Advocate/Counselor

This way of referring to the Holy Spirit is unique to John’s Gospel (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). Jesus says the Holy Spirit is the “Advocate” (parakletos). The meaning is “one who comes alongside” someone. The Holy Spirit’s role in this way is to “comfort” or “walk with” the people of God as one who reminds them of the teachings of Jesus, strengthening them to overcome crises.

11. Power

Luke tells us Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as power and is associated with power. When Jesus is preparing to ascend into heaven, Jesus commands the disciples to wait in Jerusalem where they will be given power (Luke 24:49). Acts 1:8 tells us Jesus commanded his disciples to wait in Jerusalem where they will be given power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The close connection suggests that not only does the Spirit give power, as Paul describes the Spirit’s ability (1 Cor 2:4), but that the Spirit is power.

Terms of the Spirit’s presence

12. Baptism of the Spirit

Jesus’ coming also brought a different baptism. Jesus brought the baptism of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (Matt 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; Acts 1:5; 2:38). Similar hopes were held in Qumran that the Spirit would be poured upon the people (4Q504 1:15). Baptism is maybe the word used to suggest that people have been fully inundated in the Holy Spirit. It signifies that the people of God were to be fully immersed in the Holy Spirit. This is a status afforded to all believers when they confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Evidentiary signs were part of this endowment in Acts 2:1–11. But the covenantal purposes suggest the essential evidence of the Holy Spirit’s baptism was obedience to the will of God (Ezek 36:25–27).

Related article: “What It Means to ‘Worship in Spirit and Truth’: Exploring the Depths” by JoAnna Hoyt

13. Filled with the Spirit

There is no difference between the baptism of the Spirit, receiving the Spirit (Acts 2:38), and being “filled” with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4). For Israel’s promises to be fulfilled, God filled believers with the Spirit, the Spirit fell/came upon them, and they received the Spirit. Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit dwelling within the people of God (1 Cor 3:16; Rom 8:9). But Paul also argues that believers still can “be filled” (Eph 5:18) and “walk in the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 25). That is, the initial immersion in the life in the Spirit is insufficient for the believer who hopes to grow. The believer is obligated to pursue the Holy Spirit through growth and dedication in the gospel.

Some challenge this particular reading. Some separate baptism in the Spirit from the confession of salvation, suggesting that not all believers are recipients of the Holy Spirit. Many who argue this point base it on Acts 8:16 and use the language of Luke here to raise questions about whether people who do not speak in tongues have the Spirit. But Paul clarifies that those who do not possess the Holy Spirit are not believers (Rom 8:9). Unless there is a contradiction, the coming of the Holy Spirit is evidence of one’s salvation.

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The work and activity of the Spirit

14. Sanctification

The Spirit’s role in the believer’s life is to sanctify (1 Thess 4:3; 1 Pet 1:2). That is, to make one holy in the sight of God. This is a process in which the Spirit continues to purify the believer and consecrate her for use in the kingdom of God. Through the Holy Spirit, the people of God are identified as “saints” or “holy” (Rom 8:27).

Related article: “What Does the Holy Spirit Do? Exploring His Mighty Works” by Gregg Allison

15. Adoption

The Spirit’s role is to mark out the children of God. For Israel, the covenant is renewed and they are returned to the status of being God’s children through the power of the Holy Spirit. For Gentiles, this act of new creation grafts them into the family of God, making them part of God’s sons and daughters. In both cases, it is the “Spirit of adoption” that cries within us, “Abba, Father” (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). The Holy Spirit makes both Jew and non-Jew into God’s children where we learn to call God our Father.

16. Leadership/teaching

John reports that Jesus promised his disciples that the Spirit would teach them all things and bring things back to their “memory” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit’s role was to give instruction to the people of God about the ways of God (cf. Jer 31:34). The members of the Qumran community held to a similar point of view (CD 2:11–13). It is appropriate then that Paul would argue those who are led by the Spirit (i.e., taught by the Spirit) are the children of God (Rom 8:14).

17. The gifts of the Spirit

Paul identifies several “gifts” of the Holy Spirit. These are not comprehensive. But they show the ways in which the Holy Spirit miraculously manifests through believers. They can be found in 1 Corinthians 12:7–11 (cf. Rom 12:6–17). The ministerial gifts are also a function of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:27–31; cf. Eph 4:11).

The challenge with these gifts in our modern interpretation comes from some sectors in the church who argue some of the gifts have ceased. Based on their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:7–10, when the New Testament was written or when the last apostle died, many believe many of the gifts—such as tongues, interpretation of tongues, healing, prophecy—all ended. This perspective is called cessationism. Those who believe the gifts continue are called continuationists. Neither group denies the visible manifestation of the gifts in the early church, but cessationists doubt their viability today.

18. The fruit of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit in his presence is supposed to yield fruit. Paul lists several in Galatians 5:22–23, which are attributes of God supposed to be evident in the lives of those who follow the Spirit. Prominent among them are virtues like love, joy, and peace, characteristics which are quite frequently used throughout the corpus of Scripture.

Dr. Marcus Jerkins recommends the following books for further study, or you can see other titles here.

Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost

Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost

Regular price: $33.99

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Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (4 vols.)

Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (4 vols.)

Regular price: $269.99

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God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul

God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul

Regular price: $54.99

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Written by
Marcus Jerkins

Dr. Marcus Jerkins is a sought-after pastor, teacher, scholar, and author. He is a native of Atlanta, GA, and holds a BA in Religion from Emory University, an MDiv and ThM from the Candler School of Theology of Emory University, and a PhD in New Testament studies from Baylor University. Marcus serves as the third pastor of Resurrection Baptist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was visiting professor of New Testament at the Howard University School of Divinity, and is currently an adjunct professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Chicago, Illinois. He is also the author of Black Lives Matter to Jesus: The Salvation of Black Life and All life in Luke and Acts, which has been featured and discussed in university, seminary, apologetics, and church forums. Pastor Jerkins is also the author of numerous other works concerning interpretation of the New Testament and issues of race and justice. Marcus is most honored and blessed that he is the husband of Dr. Courtney A. Jerkins and the loving father of three beautiful children: Nathaniel, Naomi, and Joanna.

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Written by Marcus Jerkins