A survey examining Americans' views on Christian theology revealed that, among even self-identified Christians, there is confusion or disagreement about the Holy Spirit. Is the spirit a force or a personal being? Is the spirit present in only Pentecostal Christians, or in all believers? According to one theologian, the spirit is both a force and a being — and is present in everyone, not just Christians.
The overall findings of the survey, conducted by LifeWay Research and commissioned by Ligonier Ministries, might not be that earth-shattering to some — because, well, Christians and Americans in general believe differently about the Bible on many points. But what "The State of Theology" survey reveals about Evangelical Christians' beliefs about the historical doctrine of the Trinity might be surprising.
While 71 percent of Americans believe in the Trinity, the concept that God exists as three persons (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), 64 percent of them think the Holy Spirit is a force. Among those identified as Evangelical: 59 percent of them say the Holy Spirit is a force; 31 percent say the Holy Spirit is a person; and 10 percent just aren't sure either way (LifeWay).
Jack Levison, the William Joseph Ambrose Power professor of Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament Interpretation at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has written extensively in the area of pneumatology. He was actually encouraged by the survey's findings.
"As I read the survey, I think it's a silver lining. Because if we had the spirit either as a force or as a person or something else, we'd be misunderstanding the spirit. The spirit is all of that," Levison said during a CP Newsroom discussion. "So I think the uncertainty is a positive thing, because we can begin to move from the uncertainty into the mystery of the spirit, which is more than one and all of those things."
Levison makes the case in Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith, Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life, and other spirit-focused titles, that everyone is born with the spirit of God in them. He points readers to the "beginning of the Bible," in this case the book of Genesis.
"If you just start with the book of Genesis, the very first book in the Bible. In chapter 41, you have the story of Joseph, and the pharaoh notices there's something about Joseph, his abilities, his ability to interpret dreams. And he says, 'One in whom is the spirit of God, or a spirit of God," explained Levison.
He went on to list other examples, and commented on the Hebrew use of the term "ruach."
"In the book of Isaiah, it talks about God gives breath, spirit to all people. In English, we tend to distinguish between 'breath' and 'spirit.' But in Hebrew, you can't. It can be the same word, 'ruach,'" said Levison.
He added, "If you start in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, you very much have a theology that begins with the spirit of God in all people."
But is the spirit of God really in all people, including atheists like Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist who authored the best-selling book, The God Delusion?
"If we look at it this way: God's spirit is God's breath, right? We can all agree with that. God breathes the spirit into people," Levison responded. "Well, if God breathes life into human beings, is that some sort of profane, secular life that God breathes into them? And what God breathes into Christians is some sacred, spiritual thing? I don't think you can draw that kind of a dichotomy …"
Watch the CP Newsroom video below to hear more of Levison's comments on the Holy Spirit, including how the spirit is viewed in the New Testament and in modern Pentecostal movements. He also offers suggestions for how new Christians can begin exploring the third person of the Trinity.