Is the Holy Spirit a Ghost?

 

 

Is the Holy Spirit a “Ghost”?

Richard Hollerman

The title above must be somewhat of a shock to our readers. Why should we talk about a “ghost” in matters of theology? However, when we think about the implications of this question, we can see why it is needed.

The term “Holy Ghost” continues to be used by (1) traditional Catholics, (2) Charismatics and Pentecostals (e.g., Holy Ghost revival), (3) King James Only Baptists and other fundamentalists, (4) Anglicans, and (5) Mormons.[1]  But what is the background for this term and its usage?

“Holy Ghost” was used in the Douay-Rheims Bible and the King James Version, Catholic and Anglican respectively.  The former uses Holy Ghost 95 times and Holy Spirit only eight times.  These translations used “Ghost” to render the Latin “spiritus” which was translated from the Greek, pneuma.[2]

As for the King James Version, “’Holy Ghost’ occurs 90 times—only in its New Testament portion. . . . The phrase ‘Holy Spirit’ occurs four times in the NT. But in the original Greek there is no difference between ‘Holy Ghost’ and ‘Holy Spirit.’”[3] In the KJV Old Testament, “Holy Spirit” is found only three times (Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10, 11).[4]

What more can we say about the KJV use of Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit?

The term “Holy Spirit” occurs 7 times in the KJV. There is no clear reason as to why the KJV translators used Ghost in most places and then Spirit in a few. The exact same Greek and Hebrew words are translated “ghost” and “spirit” in the KJV in different occurrences of the words. By “ghost,” the KJV translators did not intend to communicate the idea of “the spirit of a deceased person.” In 1611, when the KJV was originally translated, the word “ghost” primarily referred to “an immaterial being.”[5]

When most of us see the term “Ghost,” we think of something other than God.  The first definition that The American Heritage College Dictionary gives for the word reflects the following: “The spirit of a dead person, esp. one believed to appear to living persons or to haunt former habitats.” It continues in its definitions: “the center of spiritual life; the soul” and “a demon or spirit.”  None of this reflects the Biblical use of the term in “Holy Ghost.”

The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary has a similar definition: “1. The soul of a dead person, a disembodied spirit imagined as wandering, often in vague or evanescent form, among the living and sometimes haunting them; wraith. 2. A mere shadow or semblance.”

Language does change over time. In the case of the terms we are discussing, “Ghost” has changed its meaning. One writer explains:

With recent Scripture translations, “Spirit” has replaced “Ghost” in most instances. Some of this came about because words don’t always hold their meanings. In the days or Shakespeare or King James, ghost meant the living essence of a person. Looking back, we see that “breath” or “soul” were often used as synonyms of “ghost.”

During these times, spirit normally meant the essence of a departed person or a demonic or parnormal apparition. As language evolved, people started saying “ghost” when speaking of the vision of a dead person while “spirit” became the standard term for life or living essence, often also for “soul.” With slight exceptions, “ghost” and “spirit” changed places over some 300 years.[6]

Is this the meaning that we wish to convey to others when we use the term “Ghost”? How can the great, powerful, majestic, and eternal Holy Spirit be characterized by a term that generally means the spirit of a dead person? One writer explains, “Ghost derives from the Old English word gast which refers to personal immaterial being—a soul, an angel, or even a demon. It is directly related to the German geist. Today, ‘ghost’ conjures up images of haunted houses. It is a shame that this is the case.”[7] We think it would be disrespectful to call the Holy Spirit (who is God in His essence) a “ghost” because of the way the term is used in modern parlance.

We know that some traditional Catholics may be wedded to the old Douay-Rheims translation, and some traditional Protestants may insist on using the old King James Version, but there is no reason to continue to use the archaic term, “Holy Ghost.” As we have seen, the Greek terms clearly convey the idea found in Holy Spirit and not Holy Ghost. The term simply doesn’t mean what it meant 400 years ago when the KJV was first published (1611). In fact, probably to most people who don’t have a religious background or who have never used the King James language, they must be quite confused about what Holy Ghost means and why it might be found in the Bible. They could entirely misunderstand what the Holy Spirit was seeking to say through the Holy Scriptures. Further, they might be led to either minimize the deity of the Holy Spirit or consider Him to be an outdated concept. What a shame!

Because of these weighty reasons, we would urge Catholics, Anglicans, Mormons, and KJ Only Fundamentalists to abandon the use of Holy Ghost and begin to use the more accurate and more understandable term, Holy Spirit. Since the Bible is verbally inspired of the Holy Spirit, we need to insist on using the most accurate terms that are in harmony with the original Greek language in which the 27 New Testament books were written.

 

 


[1] taylormarshall.com/2012/05/should- we-say-holy-ghost-or-holy- spirit.html, religionfacts.com/christianity/ beliefs/holy_spirit.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] hebrew-streams.org/works/spirit/ spirit-to-ghost.html; gotquestions.org/Holy- Spirit-Ghost.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] gotquestions.org/Holy- Spirit-Ghost.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] Taylormarshall.com.

 

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