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|Should we still speak of "the Holy Ghost"?|
|Written by Peter Toon|
|Tuesday, 13 March 2001 18:39|
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
I want to make the extraordinary claim [to modern ears] that to do justice to the identity of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity in Christian discourse, especially in Bible translation, public Liturgy, hymnody and theology, we need to use both "the Holy Ghost" and "the [holy] Spirit."
Of course I am much aware that since the 1960s there has been a determined move on virtually all fronts - Roman Catholic and Protestant, Liturgical and Devotional - to eliminate the use of the Name, "the Holy Ghost" from all Christian discourse. Thus "the Holy Spirit" and "the Spirit" and "the Spirit of God" are the only expressions currently used to translate Pneuma hagion and sanctus Spiritus or to speak of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. It is worth noting, I think, that this movement has occurred at the same time as the change from "Thee/Thou" to "You" with reference to God in theology, public Liturgy, hymnody, and Bible translation has also been accomplished.
The basic reason why a Latinized word, "Spirit," has been preferred exclusively, and that an old English word "Ghost" (cf. "halig gast" in Saxon & "Geist" and "Der heilige Geist" in German) has been dropped is reasonably clear. Dominant ecclesiastical persons in both Rome and in popular Evangelicalism in the 1960s judged that "ghost" was a word that was not suitable to use of the Deity. Apparently they believed that it was too much associated in popular speech with strange and weird apparitions of dead persons (cf. the ever popular phenomenon of "ghost stories" and "haunted houses").
This sentiment is still with us. Recently a correspondent wrote: "As a former student of linguistics (if amateur) I learnt the fundamental truth that language is what people say, not what they ought to say. And in general the experience of people using English (not Latin, or French, or German, but English) is that ghosts are past and spirits future; ghosts are vague and spirits bring energy or life. I am attracted by inspiration, and not much moved by ghostly presence. So I am happy to keep to Spirit, except where some venerable text (and its scansion) suggests that we keep the older word ('Come Holy Ghost, Creator, come')."
Against such a claim, I offer the following thoughts. Whatever bad associations the word "ghost" may have in popular culture, it is nevertheless a word that invariably has reference to a real person (even if he/she is dead!). In contrast, the word "spirit" does not always carry with it a definite personal reference. In fact "spirit" has all kinds of associations both good and bad (evil spirits, spiritualism etc.) and only a few of these are distinctly personal in tone. Therefore, if the Church wishes to make clear that the Pneuma or Spiritus is a divine Person (in the same way as are the Father and the Son) she is truly obliged to use the word "Ghost" and speak of "the Holy Ghost." On the other hand, if the Church wishes merely to convey the idea that the Pneuma is only the power/spirit of God in the world then "Spirit" will do the job for this word does not, as has been observed, necessarily carry with it the concept of personhood.
There is no doubt but that the preferred and proper Name for the Third Person of the Holy Trinity in the traditional English language/dialect of prayer and of theology is "the Holy Ghost." He is also called "the Spirit of God" and "the Spirit" but only infrequently [until modern times] "the Holy Spirit." The exclusive use of the expression "the Holy Spirit" in Bible translation and in Liturgies since the 1960s is therefore an innovation.
In The Book of Common Prayer (1549 and later editions) which is a genuinely English (rather than a Latinized English) text, "the Holy Ghost," ( itself a definitely English expression) is normally used of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity when he is referred to specifically in His own right. However, when He is considered in relation to the Father then the normal usage is "thy Holy Spirit" and "his Holy Spirit."
It would appear that in terms of what theologians call the immanent Trinity (that is, God as Three in One and One in Three in His own infinity and eternity) the ancient English tradition of prayer and of theology is to speak of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The word "Spirit" is reserved for the action of "the Holy Ghost" as the Spirit sent by the Father [and the Son] and working in creation and especially in and with man. So it appears that the word "Spirit" is used of the Third Person when He is active within what theologians call "the economic Trinity" (God in the economy of salvation in His relation to humanity).
In the English Authorized Version of the Bible (1611, the King James Version) this long standing English tradition of calling the Third Person of the Holy Trinity " the Holy Ghost" continues. The expressions "the Spirit of the Lord" and "the Spirit of God' and "the Spirit" are used many times to speak of the action of Yahweh or the Father within His creation or within the people of God. Nowhere does the expression "the Holy Spirit" as the Name of he Third Person occur. However, the expression, "the holy Spirit," as the gift of the Father to the faithful child of God occurs once (Luke 11:13).
In The Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, we see (a) "the Holy Ghost" is virtually always used of the Third Person properly speaking and (b) "thy Holy Spirit" or "the Spirit" or "the Spirit of God" is used when the primary reference is to the will and the action of the Father in the created order through the Ruach/Pneuma. Here there is not only the exercise of the long-standing English tradition of religious language, but also there is a theological distinction being made between the hagion Pneuma as the Third Person in the Unity of the Blessed Holy Trinity [the immanent Trinity] and as the Spirit sent by the Father and as active in space and time on behalf of the Father and of the Son [the economic Trinity].
As with most things, the exception usually proves the rule. There are always variations in an idiomatic form, since human beings are not automata. In the Collect for Quinquagesima in the BCP the general rule is apparently set aside for we pray, "O Lord, who has taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts the most excellent gift of charityâ€¦."
The reason for the breaking of the general rule in this Collect to speak of "thy Holy Ghost" is probably for the sake of clarity, since present phrasing makes clear that the Holy Ghost is a Person, and not merely the mystical symbol of the "most excellent gift of charity" that follows. We recall that there have been continuing problems with the Personal Divinity of the Holy Ghost in the Church, back to the Macedonians.
Then there are several places where we find in the BCP (1928) the use of "the Holy Spirit" where we would normally expect "the Holy Ghost." These are in the Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent, the Third Collect for Good Friday, the Collect after the Exhortation in the Public Baptism of Infants, the Collect after the Lord's Prayer in the Private Baptism of Infants, the Collect after the Lord's Prayer in the Public Baptism of such as are of riper years, the Third Colect after the Lord's Prayer in the Marriage Service, the Absolution in the Visitation of the Sick and the final line of the Veni Creator Spiritus in the Ordinal. Some of these occurrences are in Collects revised or written for the 1662 BCP or for the 1928 BCP and perhaps they reflect a tendency even at that early date of a move from "Holy Ghost" to "Holy Spirit." Other occurrences seem to be stylistic to match a previous reference in the Collect to "thy Holy Spirit" or to be required by metrical considerations.
We may also observe that when translating Latin into English a natural tendency at work from the sixteenth century is to render "Spiritus" as "Spirit" unless one is carefully considering whether the reference is to the immanent Trinity or to the economic Trinity.
To summarize the general point. An important sophistication of use by our forbears is lost by us when it is decided to adopt a Latin-based word, "spirit" (from spiritus), as the sole and only word to translate the New testament Greek word. Pnuema.
With this lack of sophistication comes the danger of heresy. Where "the Holy Ghost" is truly known as a divine Person then the danger of such heresies as modalism is minimal. Modalism, which is common today, is the doctrine that there is one Person who is God and that this One Person reveals himself as Father, Son and Spirit, that is as three Modes of Being (not as Three Persons).
As we seek to be relevant in today's world, we need not try to be wiser than were our forbears. To do justice to the rich variety of meaning conveyed by the biblical use of both Ruach (Hebrew) and Pneuma (Greek) in relation to Yahweh/ the Father we need to make use of both "the Spirit of God/the Lord" and "the Holy Ghost."