“Spirit” (pneu=ma) in the Pauline Letters
Here I will survey the occurrences of the word pneu=ma in the Pauline letters, beginning with the undisputed letters (including Colossians and 2 Thessalonians), then addressing the letters where Pauline authorship is most often disputed (Ephesians and the Pastorals), as well as the related adjective pneumatiko/$ and adverb pneumatikw/$. The subject is enormous, as Paul refers to the Spirit more than a hundred times in the undisputed letters, and gives to the term a rich development which reflects his unique theological approach. On the other hand, he is very much in keeping with the early Christian view of the Spirit, of which we have seen signs in the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
To begin with, occasionally Paul uses pneu=ma to refer to an individual human person—i.e. his/her soul, mind or “presence” (e.g., 1 Thess 5:23; 1 Cor 2:11-12; 5:3-5; Rom 1:9, etc). There are also instances where the word is used in an abstract sense, in expressions such as “spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21), “spirit of trust” (2 Cor 4:3), etc. However, in the vast majority of occurrences, Paul is referring specifically to the Spirit—that is, the Spirit of God (and/or Christ). From a trinitarian point of view, it must be admitted that there is little evidence to indicate that Paul thinks of the Spirit as a distinct person, separate from either God the Father or Jesus. As in the Gospel of John, Paul can refer to the Spirit as being of God or of Jesus, without any obvious distinction, though specific references to the latter are far less common.
Here I summarize the Pauline evidence according to the most prominent expressions and concepts:
- Believers being “in the Spirit”—Rom 2:29; 8:9-11; 14:17; 15:13; 1 Cor 12:3; 14:2; Gal 3:3; 5:5; Phil 1:27; Col 1:8
- The Spirit dwells in the believer—Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; 1 Thess 5:19
also believers have/hold the Spirit—1 Cor 7:40
dwells in the believer’s “heart”—Rom 5:5; 1 Cor 1:22
- Believers receive the Spirit, i.e. it is given to us (by God)—Rom 5:5; 1 Cor 2:12; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; 11:4; Gal 3:2, 5, 14; 4:6; 1 Thess 1:5-6; 4:8
and the Spirit is received through trust in Jesus—Gal 3:14
- Manifestation of the Spirit (its power, etc) among believers—1 Cor 2:4; 12:7-11; Phil 1:19 (“Spirit of Jesus Christ”)
also the Spirit “works” in/among believers—1 Cor 12:11; 2 Cor 3:8
- Living and acting through (the power of) the Spirit—Rom 5:5; 15:13; 1 Cor 2:4
speaking/worshiping in the Spirit—1 Cor 12:3ff; Phil 3:3
- “Walking” and being “led” by/in the Spirit—Rom 8:4-6, 13-14; 2 Cor 12:18; Gal 5:5, 16-18, 25
- The Spirit representing (new) Life through Jesus (resurrection, etc)—Rom 7:6; 1 Cor 15:45; 2 Cor 3:6
experience of new “birth” through the Spirit—Gal 4:29
- Believers made holy (i.e. sanctified) through the (Holy) Spirit—Rom 15:16; 1 Cor 6:11; 2 Thess 2:13 (cf. also Rom 1:4; 2 Cor 6:6)
- The experience of love through the Spirit—Rom 15:30
- The Spirit reveals hidden/divine truth to believers—1 Cor 2:10; Col 1:8
- “Spirit of adoption”, i.e. believers made children of God through the Spirit—Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6 (“the Spirit of His Son”)
- The unity with God and other believers in the Spirit (i.e. “one Spirit”)—1 Cor 6:17; 12:13; 2 Cor 12:18; Phil 1:27
also the community/communion of the Spirit—2 Cor 13:13; Phil 2:1
- Association of the Spirit with the symbol/ritual of Baptism (water symbolism: dunking, drinking, etc)—1 Cor 12:13
- Contrast between the Spirit and the Law (“Letter”)—Rom 2:29; 7:6; 8:2ff; 2 Cor 3:3ff; Gal 3:2; 5:18; 6:1
- Contrast between the Spirit and the “Flesh”—Rom 7:6; 8:5-6; Gal 3:3; 4:29; 5:17; 6:8
Other significant ideas and expressions:
- The witness of the Spirit in/with our human spirit—Rom 8:16
- The Gospel as manifestation of the Spirit—1 Thess 1:5-6
- The teaching of the Spirit—1 Cor 2:13-14
- The aid and help given to believers by the Spirit—Rom 8:26-27; 9:1
- The “firstfruits” of the Spirit—Rom 8:23
- The “fruit of the Spirit”—Gal 5:22ff (cf. also 6:8)
- The “things of the Spirit” (cf. on the adjective pneumatiko/$ below)—1 Cor 2:14
- Believers as the temple/shrine/house of the Spirit—1 Cor 6:19
- The Spirit as a “deposit”, i.e. of the resurrection and the future/divine Life—2 Cor 1:22; 5:5
- “Written” by the Spirit—2 Cor 3:3
- Association of the Spirit with the (new) Covenant—2 Cor 3:6ff
- Idea of “quenching” the Spirit—1 Thess 5:19
Especially worth noting are passages which identify God (and/or Jesus) as Spirit:
It is interesting that Paul rarely, if ever, uses pneu=ma to refer to an unclean/evil “spirit” (i.e. a daimon or “demon”)—implied in 1 Cor 12:10, and cf. also 2 Cor 11:4; 2 Thess 2:2, and the expression “spirit of the world” in 1 Cor 2:12. Only in 1 Timothy 4:1 do we read specifically of “spirits” more or less identified with daimons/demons.
The “Disputed” Pauline Letters (Ephesians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus)
There are 21 occurrences of the word pneu=ma in these letters (14 in Ephesians, and 7 in the Pastorals). For the most part, the usage and semantic range corresponds with what we see in the “undisputed” letters (cf. above). The human “spirit” (mind/soul/person) is intended in Eph 4:23 and 2 Tim 4:22; while a “spirit” of sin/wickedness is referenced in 2:2, perhaps (but not necessarily) the same point of reference as the personal “spirits” in 1 Tim 4:1. Elsewhere, the word is used of the Spirit of God (and/or Jesus), in a manner similar to the Pauline references cited above:
- Believers are “in the Spirit”—Eph 2:22; 3:5; 4:3, 30; 6:18
- The Spirit dwells in believers—2 Tim 1:14
- New life comes through the Spirit (resurrection/rebirth motifs)—Titus 3:5, cf. also Eph 3:16
- The Spirit as a promise of future Life—Eph 1:13
- Unity/community through the Spirit (“one Spirit”)—Eph 2:18ff; 4:3-4
with a special emphasis in Ephesians 1-2 on the unity of Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Christ
- An association between the Spirit and Baptism (washing/cleansing motif)—Titus 3:5
- The Spirit reveals truth to believers—Eph 3:5; 1 Tim 4:1
- Believers are led by the Spirit—Eph 2:18
- Believers as the Temple/shrine (“house of God”) of the Spirit—Eph 2:22
Certain ideas and expression are unique to these letters:
- Believers are sealed with the Spirit—Eph 1:13; 4:30 (cf. 2 Tim 2:19), but note also 2 Cor 1:22
- The Spirit is experienced in the “inner” person—Eph 3:16 (cf. also 2 Cor 4:16; Rom 2:29)
- Believers are “filled with the Spirit”—Eph 5:18 (cf. Rom 15:13)
- The specific idea of “praying in the Spirit”—Eph 6:18, though implied elsewhere (cf. 1 Cor 11:4ff and 14:14ff)
- The expression “sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17), where the Spirit is specifically identified as the (living) Word of God
One ambiguous occurrence of the word is in 1 Tim 3:16, which appears to be part of an early Christian credal formula or hymn. There are two ways of reading the words e)dikaiw/qh e)n pneu/mati:
- “he was made/declared just in the spirit/Spirit”
- “he was given justice [i.e. vindicated] by the Spirit”
The second option is to be preferred, and would certainly refer to the work done (on Jesus’ behalf) by the Spirit. However, if one opts for the first reading, it is not entirely clear whether pneu=ma refers to the human “spirit” (parallel to the earlier “flesh”) or God’s Spirit. The poetic character of the verse allows for a dual-meaning, both of the word pneu=ma as well as the preposition e)n (“in”).
The adjective pneumatiko/$ (“spiritual, of the Spirit”) is a popular term for Paul—of the 26 occurrences in the New Testament, all but 2 (in 1 Pet 2:5) are found in the Pauline letters. Quite often it is used in the plural, as a substantive—i.e. “spiritual (thing)s” or, perhaps, “(thing)s of the Spirit”: Romans 1:11; 15:27; 1 Cor 2:13; 9:11; 12:1; 14:1. The word is especially prominent in the first Letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul gives instruction to congregations which are clearly quite “charismatic” in character—experiencing (and expecting to experience) the regular manifestation of the Spirit in the corporate meetings and life of the congregation, through various means and ‘gifts’ (1 Cor 12:1ff). The word xa/risma (“favor [granted], gift”) appears in vv. 4, 9, 28, 30-31 of chapter 12, though the specific expression “spiritual gift” is found only in Rom 1:11. These are things “of the Spirit”, meaning they come from the Spirit of God (and Christ), but they can also be communicated to others by gifted believers.
Believers themselves can be called “spiritual (one)s” or “(ones/those) of the Spirit”, using the same plural substantive (1 Cor 2:15; 3:1; 14:37; Gal 6:1). In these passages, the adjective “spiritual” is meant to reflect a level of spiritual maturity for believers in Christ. In Eph 6:12, pneumatiko/$ refers to things (and/or beings) of spiritual wickedness (i.e. the opposite of things of the Spirit).
Occasionally the adjective is used with a specific object or in a particular expression, such as:
- “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink”—Paul’s Christological interpretation of Exod 16:15ff and Deut 8:3 in 1 Corinthians 10:3-4; the baptismal and eucharistic associations are quite clear from the context.
- “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44 and 46)—referring to the believer after the resurrection; in verse 45, the resurrected Jesus is said to have become a “life-giving Spirit”.
- “spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1:9)—Paul’s prayer is that believers will be so filled by God (through His Spirit).
- “spiritual chants/songs” (Col 3:16, also Eph 5:19)—to be sung or recited by believers to God (through the Spirit)
- “spiritual blessings” (Eph 1:3)—that is, “(word)s of good account” given/spoken over believers by God (through/by the Spirit)
In Romans 7:14, Paul states that “the Law is spiritual” (or “…is of the Spirit”), using the same adjective. As I have discussed elsewhere, I believe that here (and in other passages) Paul understands the Law [o( no/mo$] in a broader sense, using the specific expression “the Law of God”. It is not strictly equivalent to the written Law of the Old Testament (i.e. Torah), though certainly the latter is included under the former. Since God is Spirit, his Word (or “Law”) is also Spiritual.
The related adverb pneumatikw/$ (“spiritually, [done] by/in the Spirit”) occurs twice in the New Testament, including by Paul in 1 Cor 2:14—where he states that spiritual things can only be understood (and judged) spiritually, i.e. by the Spirit.
“Spirit” in the Remainder of the New Testament
Here I will briefly summarize the occurrences of the word pneu=ma in the rest of the New Testament (not including the Johannine Letters and the book of Revelation). There are 25 such occurrences:
- 1:7, 14—Heavenly Messengers (“Angels”) as ministering spirits (v. 7 cites Psalm 104:4), i.e. ministering specifically to Jesus and the spread of the Gospel (to believers); cf. also 12:9, where God is referred to as the “Father of the spirits”
- 2:4—God manifests himself to believers through the various work of the Holy Spirit
- 3:7—The special inspiration of Scripture (by the Holy Spirit) is indicated (citing Psalm 95:7-11); cf. also in 9:8; 10:15, where the idea of the Spirit witnessing to believers is emphasized
- 4:12—The sharpness of the living Word of God is indicated by its ability even to divide between soul and spirit (i.e. inside a person). On the actual identification of the Word of God with the Spirit, cf. Eph 6:17
- 6:4—Believers are said to have become (together) ones who hold the Holy Spirit
- 9:14—Jesus is said to have offered himself (as a sacrifice) to God “through the (eternal) Spirit”
- 10:29—The one who dishonors Christ’s sacrifice (through sin and disbelief) is said to have “cast insult upon the Spirit of (God’s) favor”
- 12:23—Here the idea is that the righteous (i.e. believers), their “spirits”, come to be among the other spirits (i.e. Angels) in Heaven, as the “firstborn” (i.e. through Jesus)
It should be noted that the usage in Hebrews, especially in the way in which the title “Holy Spirit” is referenced, evinces a level of theological development, beyond what we find in Paul’s letters (cf. above), in the direction of a trinitarian distinction—i.e. the Holy Spirit as a distinct person.
In James 2:26, the human/animal “spirit”—i.e., the life-animating power or “breath” is meant. By contrast, in 4:5, it would seem that the “Scripture” cited (identification remains uncertain) has been interpreted in reference to the Spirit dwelling in the believer. However, as there is no other specific reference to the Spirit of God (or Holy Spirit) in the letter, it is difficult to be certain of the author’s view of the matter.
1 Peter (8)
- 1:2—As a central tenet, believers are “made holy” (i.e. sanctified) through the power and presence of the Spirit (“sanctification of the Spirit”)
- 1:11-12—Three distinct points may discerned here:
- The Spirit (of God) revealed future events to the Prophets whose oracles and visions are recorded in Scripture
- This source of inspiration is actually called “the Spirit of Christ” (v. 11)
- The “Holy Spirit” similarly inspired the apostles and other early Christian witnesses who declared the Gospel (v. 12b)
- 3:18—Jesus is said to have been “made alive in/by (the) Spirit”. Compare with 1 Tim 3:16, where there is a similar ambiguity between the (human) “spirit” of Jesus (compared with “flesh”) and the Spirit of God. Perhaps something akin to Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 15:45 is intended here.
- 3:19—apparently a reference to the tradition of “fallen Angels” (Gen 6:1-4), i.e. Angels as “spirits”, though it is at least conceivable that the spirits of the dead are also meant. For a more symbolic application, cf. 4:6
- 4:6—A parallel statement to 3:18-19, though applied to believers, who are made alive by/through the Spirit
- 4:14—The Spirit of God is said to rest upon believers
The author (indicated as Peter) also uses the adjective pneumatiko/$, twice in 2:5, referring to believers as a “spiritual house” (i.e. Temple or house of God), and as holy priests who offer “spiritual offerings” to God.