Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost? A Spirited Comparison

Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost? A Spirited Comparison
by Pastor Walter Snyder

A: The differences are more linguistic than theological. Past versus present usage and the various languages which went into modern English create much of the muddle. English speakers now rarely use the traditional "Holy Ghost" which we learned from the Authorized (or "King James") Version of the Bible. The AV used "Spirit" in a few places, but these were rare. "Ghost" came.from the Old English ~gast~, related to the German ~geist~. ~Gast~ sneaks into modern English in "Aghast" (be shocked, terrified, rendered breathless) and "flabbergast.” The German ~Zeitgeist~directly entered English; it means "The spirit of the times.”

With recent Scripture translations, "Spirit" replaces "Ghost" in most instances. Some of this came about because words don't always hold their meanings. In the days of 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 paranormal apparition.

Slowly, language changed. 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.

When comparing, "ghost" and "spirit" normally translate only one word from Hebrew and another from Greek. Throughout the Old Testament, the word ~ruach~ (pronounced ROO-ach) could mean wind, breath, spirit, mind. The basic sense of the ancient Hebrew word is "Air in motion.” It could be a positive or negative (see Jeremiah 5:13) term. In intensity, ~ruach~ was anything from a gentle breeze to cyclonic winds. Old Testament picture language used ~ruach~ for snorting through the nostrils, a sign of aggressiveness or anger by God, man, or beast.

The Greek word ~pneuma~ (pronounce p-NOO-ma or p-NOI-ma) finds its roots in moving air, whether "Wind" or "Breath.” Similarly, ~pneumon~ is a "lung.” These origins entered our language in words such as ~pneumatic~ (air-powered), ~pneumonia~ (lung disease), and ~pneumatology~ (study of spiritual or paranormal beings or activities).

Our next complication is Latin, the primary language of Western civilization for most of the past two thousand years. Latin gave us ~spiritus~ (breath) from ~spirare~ (blow or breathe). Imagine the possible translation headaches; consider the words based upon these and all their shadings of meaning. Spirit (both as noun and verb), respiration, inspiration, and spirited (verb or adjective) only begin the list. Sometimes root hides a bit, as in "expire"; literally, meaning "Breathe out," we normally use it to say "terminate" or "die.” All of this intersects when considering Matthew 27:50 and John 19:30. Most modern translations say Jesus gave or yielded up "his spirit" while the AV says "The ghost.” Either means that He breathed His last and that His life's essence departed Him.

The bottom line: Both "Holy Ghost" and "Holy Spirit" refer to the Third Person of the Trinity. We see the dynamics and evolution of English, discovering in a seemingly simple case the complexity of translating into our language.

As mentioned earlier, "ghost" and "spirit" switched meanings. However, changes continue. Some of my colleagues argue that we should return to "Holy Ghost" because of the muddled concept of "spirit" and "spiritual" in modern English. I think they make a good case that it might be easier to reclaim "ghost" than "spirit" for our theological vocabulary. Many "spiritual" people have

"spiritual" thoughts and live "spiritual" lives without any relationship to the Holy Spirit.

But whichever we use, we remember that this Holy Ghost is God's active breath, blowing where He wishes, creating faith through water and Word. The conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 wonderfully intertwines the varied interpretations of spirit, breath, and wind as Jesus shows the Spirit's work on earth to effect our salvation.”

Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost? A Spirited Comparison
by Pastor Walter Snyder

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