Going Deeper: Holy Spirit or Human Spirit?


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Holy Spirit or Human Spirit?

When the word spirit appears in the English Bible, translators use an upper-case “S” to indicate if the Holy Spirit is the referent. Making this decision can be challenging because there was no mechanism like that in the Greek language. The reality that translation includes interpretation is pronounced in these situations.

In the Christian Standard Bible, the word “spirit” is spelled with an upper-case “S,” in Ephesians 1:17, indicating that the Holy Spirit is in view. The verse is translated in this way: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. The text includes a footnote indicating that it could also be translated with a lower case “s,” which helps readers know that there is a translation issue here. Other well-known translations, like the English Standard Version and the New International Version, render the text in the same way.

However, some other popular translations, like the King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New Living Translation, understand the referent to be spirit with a lower case “s.”

So, whether we are trying to make sense of the footnote in the Christian Standard Bible or comparing our reading with other translations that render the verse in a different way, the question of whether the Holy Spirit or a spirit is in view is somewhat important. So which is it? As one commentator notes, “Able students of the Scriptures have been on both sides of the issue” (Hoehner, 256). Regardless of the option that we choose, we should remember that the differences in Bible translations don’t reflect a lesser or greater degree of faithfulness. Instead, the differences represent careful investigation of two valid options.

The Argument for the Holy Spirit

Although I didn’t provide an explanation for the way that I understand the phrase in the sermon on this text, I followed the CSB’s rendering of the word as a reference to the Holy Spirit. But I wasn’t convinced that the CSB was correct during my initial study of the text. In fact, in my own translation of the text, I used the lower-case option, understanding the word to refer to a spirit or disposition.

The sentence structure is very similar to other texts where a human spirit or disposition is clearly in view, such as in Romans 8:15 where Paul uses the phrase “spirit of slavery” or in 2 Timothy 1:7 where Paul uses the phrase “spirit of fear.” Both of these phases are similar to the phrase “spirit of wisdom and revelation” found in Ephesians 1:17. Understood this way, the phrase simply refers to “the attitude or spiritual disposition toward insight and the openness to revelation” (Hoehner, 257).

However, as I investigated the text more and read the arguments of commentators who believe the Holy Spirit is the referent, I eventually changed my mind. One commentator, Harold Hoehner, lists seven reasons to render the phrase as a reference to the Holy Spirit (Hoehner, 257-258).

First, understanding the spirit as the Holy Spirit makes the best sense of the phrase a “spirit of revelation.” The word for revelation references a disclosure of something that is hidden rather than an understanding of what has already been revealed. The Holy Spirit, not the human spirit, works to disclose information. Therefore, the Holy Spirit is likely in view.

Second, Paul points out that the revelation of the mystery of the gospel was made known to him and to the other apostles by the Spirit in Ephesians 3:3 and 3:5. In this case, the referent is clearly to the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we should understand “revealing” as one of the operations of the Holy Spirit. This recognition strengthens Hoehner’s first point: revelation is a work of the Holy Spirit, not of the human spirit.

Third, Hoehner points to the work of one scholar, Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, who demonstrates that whenever the Greek word or spirit, πνευμα, refers either to a demonic or divine spirit whenever it is the predicate of the verb “to give.” I personally am not convinced on this point because there are other texts where the language of “giving” is connected to spirit, where it is almost universally understood as a human spirit or disposition. For example, in 2 Timothy 1:7, nearly every translation renders the phrase, “God has not given us a spirit of fear” to refer to a human disposition rather than a demonic or divine spirit.  This reason, though interesting, was not convincing for me.

Fourth, even those who understand the spirit in Ephesians 1:17 as a reference to a human spirit or disposition understand this disposition as generated by the Holy Spirit. In other words, even though a human disposition might be in view, that disposition is present by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Fifth, other expressions in the New Testament where the word “spirit” is followed by “of _______” the Holy Spirit is often in view. For example, the “Spirit of truth” in John 15:26, the “Spirit of his Son” in Galatians 4:6, and the “Spirit of God” in Matthew 12:28 all refer to the Holy Spirit. By itself, this reason does not provide an airtight argument, but it does show the frequent usage of this grammatical construction where the Holy Spirit is unambiguously in view.

Sixth, Ephesians 1:17 corresponds to Ephesians 1:8, where God is the one who gives insight and understanding. Paul builds on this idea to show that God gives this insight and understanding through the Holy Spirit. In addition to Hoehner’s connection of Ephesians 1:17 to 1:8 is the connection to 1:13 that connects the Holy Spirit to the reception of the word of truth, the gospel of salvation.

Seventh, Hoehner points out that Ephesians 1:17 is very similar to 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, where Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit reveals the mysteries of God. In 1 Corinthians 2:10, Paul states clearly, “Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, since the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” The clarity of 1 Corinthians 2 and the thematic connections with Ephesians 1 was one of the most convincing arguments that the spirit in Ephesians 1:17 refers to the Holy Spirit. Hoehner concludes,

In the present context, the believer is to come to know him intimately, and as a result, the believer will become acquainted with God’s actions described in the following verses. Hence, it is not facts about God that are most important but knowing him personally and intimately. . . . Thus, one acquires this knowledge of God not only by facts from the Bible but by the Holy Spirit’s giving insight and disclosure in the knowledge of God himself. In the end, philosophy says, ‘Know yourself,’ whereas Christianity says, ‘Know your God, through the Holy Spirit.’ One final thing that needs to be said is that this knowledge of God is available to all Christians and not just to the apostles, prophets, or a select group within the community (Hoehner, 259).

Paul’s prayer is that the Holy Spirit would impart knowledge of God to every believer in a way that would make clear the hope of God’s calling, the wealth of God’s inheritance, and the greatness of God’s power. This knowledge is not reserved for a special class of Christians but is available to all through the Holy Spirit.

One other interesting note is that Ephesians 1:17 may have a connection to the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 11, as noted by several commentators, including S. M. Baugh. Isaiah writes, “Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—a Spirit of wisdom and understanding, a Spirit of counsel and strength, a Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.”

In Isaiah, the Spirit is fairly clearly a reference to the Holy Spirit resting on the Messiah, who we now know to be Jesus Christ. This close connection between the Spirit and the Messiah is continued in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where Paul connects the greatness of God’s power to Jesus Christ, who is the head of the Church. Christians come to know God truly through the revealing of the Holy Spirit. But the revealing work of the Holy Spirit happens in connection with the revealing work of Jesus Christ, who makes the invisible God visible and who draws the Church into organic connection to himself as his body.

Ephesians 1:17 should be read as a Trinitarian text, bringing together the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to make a people for God’s own possession. So we conclude with Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:15-19:

15 This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength.


S. M. Baugh, Ephesians, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids; Baker Academic, 2002.

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