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He and She: the Spirit of Truth and the Holy Spirit

Christopher Buck | Jul 28, 2018

PART 40 IN SERIES Figuring Out Prophecy

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Christopher Buck | Jul 28, 2018

PART 40 IN SERIES Figuring Out Prophecy

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

The spiritual world is not physical—yet it is described by physical descriptors used metaphorically and symbolically.

Prophecies are also symbolic, because they portray spiritual realities and events. The same holds true for Jesus’s spiritual term of art, the “Spirit of Truth.”

I grew up as a Christian. The “Spirit of Truth” obviously was the Holy Spirit (or “Holy Ghost”). Here’s the Biblical proof:

But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. – John 14:17.

Here, the phrase, “which is the Holy Ghost,” is likely a “gloss” (parenthetical explanation) by John the evangelist. Otherwise, in all other relevant passages in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus consistently refers to the “Spirit of Truth” — but without reference to the Holy Spirit.  

So imagine my surprise when I first encountered the Baha’i Faith. I soon learned that Baha’u’llah proclaimed himself to be the “Spirit of Truth”:

“He it is,” referring to Himself He further proclaims, “Who in the Old Testament hath been named Jehovah, Who in the Gospel hath been designated as the Spirit of Truth, and in the Qur’an acclaimed as the Great Announcement.” – Baha’u’llah, quoted and translated by Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 104.

So right then and there, I knew the Baha’i Faith must be “wrong,” because, as a Christian, I knew that the “Spirit of Truth” was the Holy Spirit. No guess, just fact. Case closed.

But the fact of the matter was that my own mind was closed, resistant to alternative explanations.

For instance, I did not consider this question: Why is it that Jesus, in all other relevant passages in the four Gospels, refers to the Holy Spirit only and exclusively as the “Holy Spirit” — but not as the “Spirit of Truth”? Here’s one example:

And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples. …

If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him? – Luke 11:1, 13.

Here, after first revealing the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2–4), Jesus assures his disciples that the Holy Spirit will be given to whoever prays for the gift of spiritual guidance. The Holy Spirit was already bestowed upon Jesus when he was baptized by John the Baptist at the River Jordan (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22; John 1:29–34). As with most other promises, the term “shall” appears to be conditional upon the request coming first, rather than something that will be granted only in the future.

So why is it then that, in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus uses an altogether different term, the “Spirit of Truth”? Is this a new term for the Holy Spirit? Or is this a term for a new prophet like Jesus—another “Comforter”?

When I began to look into these questions, something happened that started to open my mind. To my further surprise, when I started reading Baha’u’llah’s writings, I began to discern, with my spiritual eyes and ears, the voice of divine authority. I felt as though I were reading sacred verses that must have come from God.

So, as I began to entertain the very real possibility that the Baha’i sacred scriptures were new revelations from God, I decided that I had better reconsider what I previously thought I “knew” to be true. I soon realized that all I thought was true were merely my assumptions masquerading as the absolute truth!

To assert is not to prove. Dogma is not proof. I realized it was time to question my assumptions, and to open myself up to new ways of looking at the world. Firmly-held beliefs should withstand scrutiny, after all.

In order to acquire new information, I needed to become open-minded. So I ended up seriously considering Baha’u’llah’s claim to be the Christ-promised “Spirit of Truth.”

In a previous article in this series (“Baha’u’llah as the Spirit of Truth”), recall that the Spirit of Truth had the following “prophetic” functions: (1) Divine Messenger; (2) One who glorifies Jesus; (3) Teacher; (4) Witness; (5) Predictor; (6) One who is rejected; and (7) The Abiding Spirit. The prior article provided a brief commentary, demonstrating how Baha’u’llah arguably satisfies each of these prophetic functions of the Spirit of Truth, in accordance with the prophecies of Jesus, as recounted in Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.”  

These prophetic functions notwithstanding, it could be argued that the Holy Spirit itself fulfills each and every one of these purposes, as outlined by Jesus in the Farewell Discourse. The consensus of New Testament scholarship, after all, is that Jesus designated the Holy Spirit to be his successor.

The question before us now is whether or not the “Spirit of Truth” may refer to something (or someone) other than the Holy Spirit, particularly as regards the return of Jesus (or someone like Jesus), which is the primary focus of Jesus’s prophecies in the Farewell Discourse (John 13–17).

So let’s look at the Farewell Discourse briefly, with an open mind. Let’s start with the question of gender.

Did you know that the “Spirit of Truth” is a “He”— and the Holy Spirit is a “She”?

In other words, the Spirit of Truth, as described in the Gospel of John, is masculine, whereas the Holy Spirit, throughout the Bible, is described as feminine. Is this difference of gender significant? If so, what are the implications of this distinction for today?

Jesus foretold the coming of the Spirit of Truth. If the Spirit of Truth is masculine, then that’s an important clue to the identity of the Spirit of Truth, traditionally understood within Christianity as referring to the Holy Spirit. A Baha’i interpretation does not need to rule out the traditional Christian understanding that the “Spirit of Truth” refers to the Holy Spirit. Both interpretations can be true, in their own ways.

In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus speaks of the “Spirit as Truth” as “he” in these three passages: (1) John 14:16–18; (2) John 15:26; (3) John 16:12–14. This difference in gender provides our first clue to solving the conundrum.

There’s overwhelming evidence that the Holy Spirit was considered feminine in nature, in several ways. The evidence is conveniently surveyed in a 2016 academic journal article by Johannes van Oort, “The Holy Spirit as feminine: Early Christian testimonies and their interpretation.” Van Oort concludes:  

[W]e are dealing with metaphorical language. Religious language is inherently metaphorical, that is, bound to images and similes. By its very nature it cannot define God’s essence. All ancients were aware of the fact that this essence of the Divine remains a holy mystery and is by nature ineffable.

Nevertheless, the very first Christians, all of whom were Jews by birth, used to speak of the Holy Spirit as feminine. … One may also bring to mind that, according to Matthew, Jesus compared himself to a mother bird (Mt. 23:37). Moreover, when believers are born anew from the Spirit (e.g. Jn 3), they are ’children of the Spirit’, who is their ‘Mother’. …

This does not mean that in this way we have ‘defined’ God; it just means that in this way we attain a better appreciation of the fullness of the Divine. – Ibid.

By contrast, Jesus portrays the Spirit of Truth as masculine. Moreover, there is persuasive evidence that Jesus’s prophecies regarding the Spirit of Truth pointed to the future advent of another prophet.

In the next article, we will look at Baha’u’llah’s claim to be the “Comforter” referred to in Jesus’s Farewell Discourse.

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  • Oct 18, 2018
    That was a very enlightening article! As Jesus said that God would send "another", that implies that Jesus himself is "one". In any way, if God is the Truth, the one who transmits His message is the Spirit of Truth (and not the Truth in essence,), then Jesus is the Spirit of Truth and also Moses/Abraham/Muhammad... etc. It makes a lot of sense to point that the Spirit of Truth is the measure by which the wrong and right is differed and which has to be remembered (" to bring all things to your remembrance"). In other words, every ...time humanity keep itself apart from God's laws and virtues, there will be a new Spirit of Truth, a new Holy Spirit into a person (a Son of Man) "a Messiah"/a Christ ?
  • Galen Zinn
    Jul 29, 2018
    You have written these words in a manner that makes them seem important to me, but I don't feel capable of keeping track of all of these details. I'm now past 80 and became a Baha'i in 2013. I wish my background in Methodism and Episcopalianism (words?) had spoken to me much louder during all those years. I love being a Baha'i.
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