Zelophehad’s Daughters

Why Do We Need the Holy Ghost?

Posted by Lynnette

The study of the Holy Spirit (sometimes called pneumatology) is an under-developed area of Christian theology.  While volumes of ink have been dedicated to explicating the precise relationship between the Father and the Son, the third Person of the Trinity remains much more elusive, sometimes showing up only as a kind of afterthought.  This is not to say, of course, that matters of pneumatology remain entirely unaddressed.  For example, the Holy Spirit is often discussed in terms of the relationship of the Father and the Son, as that which binds them together—and also binds us into the trinitarian life which they share. Some theologians grappling with questions of pluralism talk about Christ and the Holy Ghost as a way to balance particularity and universality, as Christ comes in a particular time and place, where the Holy Ghost is sent throughout the world.  One twentieth century theologian (Wolfhart Pannenberg) even attempts to bring the Holy Ghost into the dialogue between science and religion, and proposes that it might be understood as a kind of cosmic force field.  But compared to  many other areas of theology, there isn’t all that much work on the subject.

Mormonism similarly exhibits theological gaps when it comes to the third member of the Godhead.  An LDS framework, of course, brings some unique questions to any discussion of pneumatology.  Latter-day Saints conceptualize the Holy Ghost as an individual center of consciousness, a distinct person.   The classic matters for speculation in an LDS context therefore include such conundrums as, Who is this mysterious person?  Where did he come from?  Are we even absolutely sure that he is male?   Will he ever get a body?  But rather than tackle these questions, I would like to ask something somewhat more basic: in the context of the LDS understanding of God, why is the Holy Ghost necessary?  What unique function does he serve?

The primary role played by the Holy Ghost seems to be a communicative one.  He bears witness of truth, inspires us to do good, brings answers to prayers, and so forth.  But this raises the question of why the Father can’t talk to us directly.  This is not, after all, a God who is Wholly Other, for whom communication with mortal, finite beings might pose a dilemma; LDS theology posits him as an exalted being not entirely unlike us. Why, then, does he need a intermediary to facilitate conversations with his children? The Holy Ghost is also traditionally understood as playing a role in sanctification.  But again, assuming that that this is accomplished through the power of the atonement, it does not seem entirely clear what unique and necessary role the Holy Ghost plays in this process.

Perhaps the most intriguing comment about the Holy Ghost in LDS scripture is found in D&C 130:22, which establishes that the Holy Ghost is a “personage of Spirit,” and goes on to make the observation, “were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.”  This hints that there are limits to what a corporeal God can do.  Might the doctrine of a spirit-body-only Holy Ghost be a way of maintaining something like the traditional notion of divine omnipresence (God is everywhere), while holding on to the idea that the Father has body of flesh and bones and thus presumably exists at one particular location in space?  Though given that the Holy Ghost is understood as a personage rather than an impersonal, diffuse force of some kind, maybe not.  What are the advantages, exactly, of not having a physical body?  And if there are abilities which spiritual beings possess that exalted ones do not, what are the implications for our notion of exaltation?

22 Responses to “Why Do We Need the Holy Ghost?”

  1. 1.

    Lynnette, great post.
    Like all of them, this one goes over my head as well.
    My favorite question, though not the one you focused on, is this

    “Are we even absolutely sure that he is male?”

    I’d love to see more information on this subject ;)

    More to the point, however, I’ve never thought about the difference between a spirit personage and a “diffuse force.” The way I’d imagined a spirit personage is more like an actual person: it can only be in one place at one time, but it is just made up of something different than physical matter. (or something like that)
    So, with that understanding, it’s hard for me to imagine how the Holy Ghost could “be” in anyone, let alone millions or billions of people at the same time.
    Very puzzling. I admire your work in theology more every time I read one of your posts. :)

  2. 2.

    I actually see one of His primary roles as being a vehicle for the Atonement. Our sins are literally purged from us through the Spirit’s cleansing power. Since the Savior cannot come and literally minister to us physically, the Spirit becomes a vehicle for His healing, changing, and cleansing power. And this is essential for our exaltation.

    Of course, I don’t fully understand how this all works, but I sure wouldn’t want to have to wait until I’m ‘good enough’ to actually receive a personal visit from the Savior before I could enjoy blessings from His atonement, and that is how I see the option if we didn’t have the Holy Ghost.

  3. 3.

    I always think of the Holy Ghost in the terms of the current Catholic Profession of Faith:

    We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life
    I love the phrase “Giver of life.” It has many possible dimensions – human life? Spiritual life? The life of the Body of Christ?

    who proceeds from the Father and the Son

  4. 4.

    Stupid submit button…

    Who proceeds from the Father and the Son
    I understand this as the Holy Ghost emanating from the will of the Father and the Son.

    With the Father and the Son He is worshiped and glorified.
    Interesting use of the passive voice here. Especially with the word “glorified,” this may be referring to an attribute of the Holy Ghost, rather than something we do to him.

    He has spoken through the prophets.
    This is one of the most significant parts of the Profession to me…a clear description of how God interacts with humans. Through the Holy Ghost. Full stop.

    I know that doesn’t jive well with LDS understanding of the nature of God, but really, we don’t have many records of visions of the Father and the Son in restoration times other than Joseph Smith’s. I find it clarifies the role and importance of the Holy Ghost to think of him as the voice of the will of God.

  5. 5.

    All good questions Lynnette. I have asked some of the same questions in various posts over the years. I initially thought I’d come up with good answers. I am not so confident of finding those answers any more (at least I am not all that confident good coherent answers are possible without some truly radical shifting of assumptions).

  6. 6.

    Geoff, I am not so confident of finding those answers any more (at least I am not all that confident good coherent answers are possible without some truly radical shifting of assumptions). is an important insight.

    There are those who think the Holy Ghost is female, others who consider the Holy Ghost to be an office, filled by different people at different times, and a number of other ways to look at the Holy Ghost.

    What we really know about the Spirit is that we experience it (and that many, many writers feel very comfortable using a neutral pro-noun “it” instead of “him” or “her” when talking of the Spirit and its influence).

    It is fascinating how little we know of the Holy Ghost outside of the way it is experienced.

  7. 7.

    We have been given sufficient knowledge regarding the Holy Ghost to experience this member of the Godhead. When we’re baptized and confirmed we’re commanded to receive the Holy Ghost. The how of receiving the Holy Ghost is what the Book of Mormon is about.

    As members of the church we have the right to ask for and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. The Savior taught that those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” will be filled with the Holy Ghost (3 Nephi 12:6).

    The terms hunger and thirst describe the intensity that we need to show forth in seeking; if we’re to be “filled” with the Holy Ghost.

    Nephi says that we need to diligently seek God and if we do then we will receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (1 Nephi 10:17).

    The key to experiencing the Holy Ghost is not in knowledge, but in seeking–then knowledge will follow.

  8. 8.

    It is fascinating how little we know of the Holy Ghost outside of the way it is experienced.

    Lots of questions, to be sure.

  9. 9.

    I know the HG quite well, although not nearly as well as I’d like. I just don’t know all that much about the HG.

  10. 10.

    I don’t think I’ve even begun to earn my ignorance on this subject.

  11. 11.

    “But this raises the question of why the Father can’t talk to us directly. This is not, after all, a God who is Wholly Other, for whom communication with mortal, finite beings might pose a dilemma; LDS theology posits him as an exalted being not entirely unlike us. Why, then, does he need a intermediary to facilitate conversations with his children?”

    I think this phrase has the relationship backwards. God doesn’t need the Holy Ghost to communicate for him, thus identifying a limition with God; I believe God gave us the Holy Ghost so we could hear God. It is based on our limition not His.

  12. 12.

    Once upon a time a could spell: limitation not limition. I apologize.

  13. 13.

    The Holy Ghost is also traditionally understood as playing a role in sanctification. But again, assuming that that this is accomplished through the power of the atonement, it does not seem entirely clear what unique and necessary role the Holy Ghost plays in this process.

    Well, now, i feel like an idiot for missing that. Sorry.

    I do think that there is something about Him being able to dwell in us that allows for changes us. I have no idea how that comes about, but it sort of makes sense to me that since the Savior can’t physically be with all of us, that there be a vehicle of the blessings of the Atonement.

  14. 14.

    In the ancient Syriac language, and also,, I believe, in Hebrew, the Holy Ghost was clearly female.

  15. 15.

    For the past few years I’ve been thinking and pondering this idea of the Holy Ghost being a woman. It certainly makes more sense to have a Father, Mother and Son working together for the salvation of mankind than a Father, Son and random unknown male.

    I also find it interesting that men have a role model for eternal progression while women don’t have any clear indication of a role model. Men understand that while using their priesthood power through leadership, ministering, governing and counseling they are in fact refining skills they will need as they move down the path toward exaltation.

    When I think about how the Holy Ghost functions in our lives, it’s a wonder to me that men and women haven’t made the connection that the very skills women refine in this life are ones used by the Holy Ghost. For example:
    –Comforting
    –Guiding
    –illuminating truth
    –giving us feelings of love, safety and peace
    –testifying of the truth
    –teaching us to discern truth
    –helping us with our “internal dialogue”
    –strengthening and supporting the “father” role in children’s lives

    the list goes on and on…… the more one thinks about it, the more the idea of some random male taking on these private, personal and intimate roles sounds illogical. Our Mother seems more likely to have both the capacity and the desire to fulfill this task.

    The question I ask myself is- If I knew the Holy Ghost was a role I was training for in my road towards exaltation, how would this knowledge change me? Would my mothering take on a new dimension? Would I have a better relationship with my husband? How would my own spiritual strivings change?

    How would it effect my relationship with the Holy Ghost??? I can only assume it would deepen and become more personal.

    Also, if MEN believed the Holy Ghost was a woman, how would this change THEIR relationships with the women in their lives? How would this change the way women were viewed and treated in the church? I believe it would could be the very thing that restored the dysfunctional relationship that exists between men and women’s roles in the church today.

    The sad thing is, although I am very respected in my ward and teach Gospel Doctrine every week, I would be committing social suicide if I ever brought any of these ideas up. I would be looked at as a total lunatic……sad, but true. Thank heavens for blogs!

  16. 16.

    All good questions, and thanks for teaching me the word pnematology. I don’t have much to add, except I wanted to mention that the interesting sentence you highlighted from D&C 130:22 appears to be bogus, so you shouldn’t base any theological musings on it. The part about “were it not so the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us” was an addition by a redactor of the D&C and contradicts the actual statement made by Joseph Smith on the occasion recorded as D&C 130:22. Here is a short write up of how that happened.

  17. 17.

    #16 Jacob J

    A comment on your comment.

    1. We are taught that the Holy Ghost does not dwell in us.
    2. We are taught that the Holy Ghost can only be in one place at a time.
    3. We are taught that the Holy Ghost utilizes the “the light of Christ” to fulfill His purpose.
    4.The apostles and prophets declare doctrine:

    Then the scriptures say that “the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones,” as do the Father and the Son, “but is a personage of Spirit.” To this is added the somewhat enigmatic statement: “Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.” (D&C 130:22.)

    Knowing as we do that the Holy Ghost is the Minister of the Father and the Son—appointed by them, because he is a spirit, to perform a specialized service for men—the meaning of these passages becomes clear. No member of the Godhead dwells in us in the literal sense of the word, but all of them dwell in us figuratively to the extent that we are like them. If we have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), which we receive by the power of the Holy Ghost, then Christ dwells in us. If the love of God abides in our souls, which love is a gift of God that comes by the power of the Holy Ghost, then God dwells in us. In some way beyond our comprehension, all of this is possible by the power of the Holy Ghost.

    New Witness for the Articles of Faith, P. 271
    ——————————————————————————–
    As a Spirit personage the Holy Ghost has size and dimensions. He does not fill the immensity of space, and cannot be everywhere present in person at the same time.
    Doctrines of Salvation Vol 1, P. 31.

  18. 18.

    SCB,

    While I can understand why one might go in the direction that you have gone, it seems wholly inconsistent with our doctrine, because women, as men, are destined for resurrection and, we would hope, exaltation. Both require a body, which the Holy Ghost does not have.

    And as a general comment, the thought I have had more than once is that in the end, I think it’s like the atonement. We don’t know *how* it all works, but we do know it does. Ray said something similar above, and I will say it in my own way here. I don’t know *how* the Holy Ghost works, or who he is, or how his spirit-ness fits into the plan of salvation teachings that we have about the need for a body for eternal progress. But I do know that his power and influence is real, and makes all the difference in my life.

  19. 19.

    Lecture 5 of the Lectures on Faith is worth reading. Here are some of the questions answered at the end of the lecture:

    3. Q. How many personages are there in the Godhead?

    A. Two: the Father and the Son (Lecture 5:1).

    15. Q. Do the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constitute the Godhead?

    A. They do (Lecture 5:2).

    I had assumed that the answers to these questions can be interpreted to mean that the Holy Ghost is not a personage. Of course, this contradicts D&C 130.22 which is a later revelation and canonized.

    The following 2 questions answered in lecture 5 are also interesting:

    13. Q. Do the Father and the Son possess the same mind?

    A. a. They do.

    14. Q. What is this mind?

    A. a. The Holy Spirit.

    The whole lecture seems to suggest that rather than being a personage of exact dimensions the Holy Spirit is the mind of the Father and the Son, a far more abstract concept.

  20. 20.

    Sorry, Lynnette, but this point has already been covered in Gospel Principles. (Page down to “Why is the Holy Ghost Necessary.”) Now we know who hasn’t been going to Sunday School. ;)

    Actually, though, I enjoyed your discussion on the topic — very good analysis, as always. Also, I’m going to find a way to use “pneumatology” in a sentence, next time I teach class.

  21. 21.

    As usual, I’ve been a slacker about responding to comments, but I’ve enjoyed reading them–thanks for the conversation, everyone! I’m glad to hear that several people like the ever-so-exciting term “pneumatology,” which I’m sure will prove immensely useful in everyday conversation (and Kaimi, if you work it into a law class, you’ll have to tell me how! ;) )

    Jacob J, thanks for the info about the “dwell in us” phrase–I didn’t know about that. But that actually makes more sense to me; I’ve always found the idea of a personage somehow dwelling in us to be a bit strange.

    tk said:

    I think this phrase has the relationship backwards. God doesn’t need the Holy Ghost to communicate for him, thus identifying a limition with God; I believe God gave us the Holy Ghost so we could hear God. It is based on our limition not His.

    I’d agree that, generally speaking, our inability to hear God is likely due to our own limitations, rather than his. And yet, if the HG can communicate with us in our limited state in a way that HF can’t–that suggests that the HG has a particular ability (i.e., that of communicating with limited mortals) that HF lacks. That’s what I was trying to get at here.

    Lecture 5 of the Lectures on Faith, that gomez mentions, is definitely interesting. Warning: wild, unsupported speculation to follow! I’ve sometimes wondered–Joseph Smith came out of a Protestant background, and he at least to some extent used traditional trinitarian-sounding language (e.g., AoF 1). But the First Vision was just the Father and the Son, and then there’s this statement from the Lectures on Faith about the Godhead being made up of two (though I realize that Joseph Smith’s role in authoring them isn’t entirely clear). But is it possible that at least to some extent, our notion of the Holy Ghost–and, for that matter, our belief in a Godhead made up of three–is simply a kind of a carryover from traditional Christianity? Kiskilili was reminding me recently that the doctrine of the Holy Ghost was a relatively late development in early Christianity–from an LDS perspective, then, possibly post-Apostasy. Of course, if I were going to go in that direction, I’d still need to deal with D&C 130.

    Another thing that I find striking is that you don’t really hear people talk about developing a personal relationship with the Holy Ghost, the way they do with the other members of the Godhead. You’re encouraged to live worthy of it, of course, and to learn to discern it, but that generally seems to be in the service of developing a relationship with HF and/or Christ. We talk about the Holy Ghost as an individual personage, but do we really treat it like one? Even angels whose role is to convey messages from God get names. (Hmm, I don’t buy the HG=HM idea, but I can see how people come up with it!)

  22. 22.

    I would like to correspond with someone who has an open mind about the HG. Preferably. a feminist. I am looking for a redefinition of the Godhead from an endowed, feminist POV. I am on FaceBook. Please find me.

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