What Is Pneumatology?

Pneumatology is the study of the Holy Spirit. 

What Is the History of Studying Pneumatology?

The early church fathers. Since the beginning of the Church Age, the subject of the Holy Spirit caused much controversy. Conflict on this matter arose mainly in understanding the triune nature of God as revealed in Scripture. Early church fathers such as Clement of Rome and Tertullian held to the full deity of the Holy Spirit, while others did not. Irenaeus called the Spirit an attribute of God. Origen believed the Holy Spirit was a supreme being created by the Son and Father.

In the early centuries, a debate surfaced from a heretical view known today as modalism. This belief rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and instead teaches the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different modes in which God manifests Himself. Early forms of this concept came in the name of Modalistic Monarchianism and Sabellianism. As a natural progression, pneumatology associated with and developed from Christology as the early fathers studied the Person of the Holy Spirit. During the initial stages of understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, the Church focused primarily on the divinity of Jesus Christ in relation to the Father. During the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Church affirmed its belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, being coequal to the Father. It wouldn’t be until the Council of Constantinople in 381, the work of the Cappadocian fathers would lay the foundation of our modern articulation of the Holy Spirit as part of the Trinity.

The Reformation. Much of the church’s doctrine today stems from Reformed TheologyOne of the giants of reformed theology, John Calvin, put a lot of work into understanding the Spirit. A person does not have to be a Calvinist to acknowledge the Church’s benefit from John Calvin’s extensive studies on the Holy Spirit during the 16th century. B. B. Warfield described Calvin as “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” One of Calvin’s popular teachings on the work of the Holy Spirit comes from a concept known as total depravity. Calvin taught sinners are incapable of coming to saving faith on their own. It is only through the work of the Holy Spirit the sinner becomes enlightened to understand their fallen state before God, and in turn, gain the ability to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior.

The Great Awakening. In the 17th century, the Puritan doctrine on the conviction of sin fell in the same vein of Calvinistic teaching. Puritans taught the Holy Spirit convicts the sinner of their sin. This necessary work begins the processes of repentance and conversion since the nonbeliever is incapable of experiencing godly grief over their sin by their own efforts. Although this teaching presented itself in Puritan communities, it was not a central focus. Eventually, the people fell into a spiritual lull as the American colonies began to prosper. This set the stage for the Great Awakening, headed by Jonathan Edwards, and the Puritan doctrine of conviction played a significant role in this movement. In general, the sermons of the Puritan preachers were more intellectual in their nature. They sought, for the most part, to inform the minds of their congregations and rarely sought to stir the hearts of the listeners. In contrast, Edward’s sermons revolved around implementing the convicting work of the Spirit within his audience. He wanted the listeners to understand their depraved state and realize their dependence on and need of God. The works of Jonathan Edwards are considered part of the founding roots of the evangelical movement.

Modern Pentecostals/Charismatics. The most recent events in pneumatology history stem from Pentecostal and Charismatic activity. In many cases, these movements seek to recreate and mimic the activity of the Holy Spirit as recorded in the book of Acts. There is special interest in demonstrating the work of the Holy Spirit through things such as speaking in tongues, healings, and being slain in the spirit. The roots of these movements can be traced back to a man named Charles Parham. On New Year’s Day 1901, a group of four Bible school students had gathered to receive what they understood to be the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In their minds, the baptism of the Spirit meant one would inevitably speak in tongues just as the Apostles did on the Day of Pentecost. Influenced by the teachings of Parham, the students prayed for hours until Parham laid his hands on one of the members and she began speaking Chinese. This marked the beginning of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements which continue to spread.

What Does the Bible Say about the Holy Spirit?

The Spirit’s role in the Trinity. God is three Persons, one Being. This is one of the most puzzling and mysterious truths Scripture teaches about God. The Apostle John tells us God is love (1 John 4:7). The Trinity helps make sense of this statement. God did not need creation before He could love because He has eternally existed in a communion of a loving relationship within the Godhead. Each person of the Trinity is fully God; however, The Persons of the Trinity are unique in the way each relates to each other and to creation. This is sometimes referred to as the Economy of God.

Scripture seems to teach the Spirit’s role is to manifest the active presence of God in creation, especially through His church. At the beginning of creation, it’s the Spirit Who is intimately present (Genesis 1:2). On the Day of Pentecost, it’s the Spirit Who is poured out onto the Apostles to initiate the building of God’s church through the proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 2:1-4). The Spirit completes and sustains the work of the Son as directed by the Father.

The Spirit’s role in the Old Testament. It’s normal to think of the Holy Spirit in terms of the New Testament, however, He was also active in the Old Testament. One of the ways the Spirit worked was to empower certain individuals to perform great feats. God granted Bezalel wisdom by filling him with the Spirit so he could make the crafts for the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:2-5). The Spirit came upon Samson to provide supernatural strength (Judges 14:5-6, 15:14). In the Old Testament, the filling of the Spirit is not the same as believers experience nowadays. In the Old Testament, this filling was temporary and selective.

The Spirit’s role in the Church. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost marked the advent of the New Covenant as spoken in the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit dwells within each believer (Ephesians 1:13), and the collective body of believers makes up the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16). Christians have all been called to a Christ-centered life which glorifies God. It is impossible for any of us to fulfill this calling on our own efforts. The Holy Spirit alone provides believers with the means to live effectively for God (Galatians 5:25). It is His sanctifying work that transforms us more and more into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Spirit’s role in the world. All people stand condemned before God because all have sinned (Romans 3:23). A person must become aware of their sin before they can come to faith. The problem is sinners love darkness and will not choose the Light on their own (John 3:20). It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict the sinner of their sin to bring about godly grief which leads to repentance (John 16:8).

The Spirit’s role in revelation. The Holy Spirit had an integral part in forming the Bible. Scripture tells us men were moved by the Holy Spirit to write down God’s special revelation (2 Peter 1:20-21).

The Spirit’s role in Jesus’ earthly ministry. The Holy Spirit anointed Jesus at the beginning of His ministry (Luke 3:22). Scripture reveals the Holy Spirit was present throughout Jesus’ earthly life, from His conception to His resurrection. It was the work of the Spirit to help Jesus fulfill His ministry on earth.

Why Is Pneumatology Important?

Love. The primary reason Christians should study the Holy Spirit is love for God. We should want to know everything we possibly can because we love Him. The more we learn about Him, the more profound our love for Him will become as we increase our understanding of His majesty, glory, and holiness.

Growth. Christians will not be able to live effectively for God if they do not understand how the Holy Spirit operates in their life. It is only through the Spirit a believer is empowered to live for God and produce spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-25). Failure to understand how He operates will lead to a fruitless life where a person depends on their own efforts with no spiritual benefit. God operates through means of grace. Active dependence on the Holy Spirit to bless our efforts is vital for our spiritual growth and sanctification.

Discernment. There is a lot of confusion regarding the Holy Spirit. There are many strange and false teachings about the Spirit which have caused a lot of unbiblical spirituality. Entire movements exist which think a Spirit-filled life means pursuing spiritual feelings or demonstrating fantastical works such as speaking in tongues and faith healings. If Christians do not study the Holy Spirit as revealed in Scripture, they will be more open to deception and can be swept away by false doctrine.

The Spirit is vital to every believer’s life. Without Him, we cannot live the life God has called us to. May we all study Scripture that we might bring glory to God through learning to walk by the Spirit in loving obedience according to His Word.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Okea

Stephen BakerStephen Baker is a graduate of Mount Union University. He is the writer of a special Scripture study/reflection addendum to Someplace to Be Somebody, authored by his wife, Lisa Loraine Baker (End Game Press Spring 2022). 

He attends Faith Fellowship Church in East Rochester, OH where he has given multiple sermons and is discipled by pastor Chet Howes.