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This article refers to the concept of the nonmaterial ego. Please see Holy Spirit for the article on the third person of the Trinity.

SPIRIT (Hebrew rûach, breath, spirit, Greek pneuma, wind, spirit). One of the biblical nouns denoting the nonmaterial ego in special relationships. The self is generally called “spirit” in contexts where its bodily, emotional, and intellectual aspects are not prominent, but where the direct relationship of the individual to God is the point of emphasis.


Nearly 400 times the Old Testament uses the word רוּחַ, H8120, which derives from a verb meaning “breathe” or “blow.” The noun may be translated “breath” (e.g. Ps 18:15) or “wind” (e.g., Gen 8:1) or “spirit.”

The Greek word πνευ̂μα, G4460, (connected with the verb πνέω, G4463, meaning “blow” or “breathe”) is used just as frequently as רוּחַ, H8120. It may mean “breath” (e.g. 2 Thess 2:8) or “wind” (e.g., John 3:8), but most frequently “spirit,” associated with God or man or other spiritual beings.

As Wind, Breath

Used primarily in the Old Testament and New Testament of the wind, as in Ge 8:1; Nu 11:31; Am 4:13 ("createth the wind"); Heb 1:7 (angels, "spirits" or "winds" in margin); often used of the breath, as in Job 12:10; 15:30, and in 2Th 2:8 (wicked consumed by "the breath of his mouth").

As Anger or Fury

In a figurative sense it was used as indicating anger or fury, and as such applied even to God, who destroys by the "breath of his nostrils" (Job 4:9; Ex 15:8; 2Sa 22:16; see 2Th 2:8).

As Mental and Moral Qualities in Man

Applied to man—as being the seat of emotion in desire or trouble, and thus gradually of mental and moral qualities in general (Ex 28:3, "the spirit of wisdom"; Eze 11:19, "a new spirit" etc.). Where man is deeply stirred by the Divine Spirit, as among the prophets, we have a somewhat similar use of the word, in such expressions as: "The Spirit of the Lord came .... upon him" (1Sa 10:10).

Spirit as incorporeal, intelligent being

A definition of πνευ̂μα, G4460, in the New Testament (which is true also of רוּחַ, H8120, in the Old Testament) that covers a wide range of its meanings is that it speaks of “an incorporeal, sentient, intelligent being, or the element by virtue of which a being is sentient, intelligent, etc.”E. de W. Burton, ICC on Galatians, p. 490. Spirit involves life, but is not necessarily associated with material form, and thus the Bible often describes as “spirit” some incorporeal nature or being which has direction and purpose and power.

God as spirit

It is the New Testament which makes the specific statement that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). It is the New Testament which has the developed doctrine of the Holy Spirit; but the Old Testament, in spite of its rich anthropomorphisms in speaking of God, implies frequently that God is spirit, and speaks of the Spirit of God as manifest in activity in nature and in the lives of men in a variety of ways.

Other spiritual beings

The disembodied spirit of man

A few Biblical passages speak of the spirit of man as separate from the body at death; for example, Hebrews 12:23 speaks of “the spirits of just men made perfect,” and 1 Peter 3:19 of “the spirits in prison.” Such references are not contrary to the ultimate hope, expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, that beyond this life man will not be naked spirit, but clothed with a heavenly body.

The life principle of man

Many uses of “spirit” in both Old Testament and New Testament indicate that it is the life principle or life energy of man (just occasionally of beasts, e.g. Eccl 3:21). God gives this life spirit to man (Isa 42:5; Zech 12:1), and He sustains it (Job 10:12). In life, and at death when the spirit departs from the body, man can only commit his spirit into God’s hands (Ps 31:5; Eccl 12:7; Luke 23:46).

This significance of “spirit” leads appropriately to the consideration of the contrast between flesh and spirit found both in Old Testament and New Testament. Body and spirit, or flesh and spirit, can be said to make up the whole man. Both body and spirit can be defiled (2 Cor 7:1); both can be holy (1 Cor 7:34). Spirit is the life principle, the real person, the inner self, and the body is the outward personality. The body without the spirit is dead (James 2:26). The flesh can be destroyed and the spirit saved (1 Cor 5:5). A person can be absent in body but present in spirit (Col 2:5). In such passages as John 3:5-8; Romans 8:3-14; and Galatians 4:21-5:26 the distinction between flesh and spirit is between the will and power of man apart from God doing what he chooses, and the life and will and power given by the Spirit of God enabling man to do what God chooses.

There is also the contrast in Scripture between “the letter” and “the spirit,” outward obedience to the written code of God’s law over against its observance with understanding of its purpose and with love, from the heart (e.g., Rom 2:27, 28 and 2 Cor 3:6ff.).

Distinction Between Soul and Spirit

Man’s essential being

In this sense the spirit of one person can influence or even possess another. It is possible for others to have the spirit of Moses (Num 11:17, 25) or of Elijah (2 Kings 2:9, 15; Luke 1:17). Similarly also the influence of the spirit of the world (1 Cor 2:12), or of false prophets (Ezek 13:3) can be described.

A man’s dominant disposition

As we have seen, many things can be said to describe the action of man’s spirit as his functioning in his essential being. From this kind of description it is a small step to the use of “spirit” to describe some dominant disposition or attitude. Man may possess a lowly or haughty spirit (Prov 16:18, 19), a spirit of jealousy (Num 5:14), a spirit of slavery (Rom 8:15), a spirit of stupor (Rom 11:8) or a spirit of wisdom (Deut 34:9). It is noteworthy in this connection that Hebrew frequently used the noun for the adjective in such a way as to make “a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1) equivalent in Hebrew thought to “a gentle spirit” (1 Peter 3:4).

Finally, in connection with this usage it must be said that there are times when it is difficult to be sure whether what is being described is a disposition or the spirit of evil which produces that disposition of evil, or the Spirit of God that makes it possible if good. When Romans 8:15 speaks of “the spirit of sonship,” and Ephesians 1:17 of a “spirit of wisdom and of revelation,” it is difficult to be dogmatic as to how spirit is used. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in man’s spirit, and gives him “a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7).

Human and Divine Spirit

The Human as Related with the Divine

Operations of the Divine Spirit as Third Person of the Trinity

Various Interpretations


  • E. de W. Burton, Galatians, ICC (1921), 486-495.

  • H. W. Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man, 3rd ed. (1926).

  • N. H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (1944), 143-153.

  • E. Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, English Translation (1958), 161-166.

  • A. Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (1958).

  • G. A. F. Knight, A Christian Theology of the Old Testament (1959).

  • A. R. Johnson, The Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel, 2nd ed. (1964).
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