The Holy Ghost vs. The Holy Spirit


\"bob\"” . . . the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings”. Gerard Manley Hopkins

“Your soul is the ship, the Holy Spirit is the wind; he blows into your will and your soul goes forward . . . ” Fr. Francis Libermann, cofounder of the order C.S.Sp (Congregation of the Holy Spirit–Spiritans*)

“Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.” John 16:13 (KJV)

“Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.” Psalm 51 (KJV)

“Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” John 14:26 (KJV)

“And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life . . . “ Nicene Creed, Anglican Usage Liturgy

Last week I attended my grandson’s graduation from Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Philadelphia. It was a happy and inspiring occasion; he received athletic and academic honors (a grandfather is allowed to brag), and the graduation talks were well delivered, moving, and spirit-filled (unlike many I’ve attended as recipient or in an academic audience).**

As ever when I’ve come across the term “Holy Ghost”—in the school name or in Anglican Usage liturgy—I’ve wondered why “Holy Ghost” rather than “Holy Spirit”. Does the answer lie in a shunning of the Old Testament? (See my earlier post “Should we shun the God of the Old Testament? ” and Paul Sumner’s Hebrew Streams.) Or do the two terms actually mean the same, if one does the etymology? So, let’s do a dry, academic-type inquiry into Biblical language.

Going first to the original languages, Hebrew and New Testament Greek, we find the following. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is ruach, which also can mean breath or wind. In the Hebrew Old Testament it occurs a number of times, e.g Gen 1:2, “ruach Elohim (breath of the Lord or wind of the Lord) hovering over the waters” and in Isaiah 44:3, “I will pour out my ruach (spirit, wind, breath) on thy seed.” It is found in Psalm 104:30, “Thou sendest forth thy ruach, they are created and Thou renewest the face of the earth.” In conjunction with the modifier kodesh (holy, as from God) the phrase occurs in Psalm 51:11, ”  . . . take not thy ruach kodesh (Holy Spirit) from me.” It is found twice in Isaiah 63.

Note in the quotation from the King James Version, at the beginning, that “holy spirit” is not capitalized. In the Septuagint, the demotic Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Hebrew ruach is universally translated as the Greek pneuma (breath, wind, spirit).

In the Greek New Testament, only the term pneuma (in its various grammatical forms) is used for “Spirit”. The King James Version uses “Holy Ghost” where it is clear that the Third Person of the Trinity is meant, e.g. Matthew 1:18, “ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου” (found [with child] of the Holy Ghost, KJV). In other contexts, pneuma is translated as Spirit, as in Matthew 10:20, “ἀλλὰ τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ πατρὸς”, which means “(For it is not you who speak) but the Spirit of your Father (KJV). In some places where spirit, but not the spirit of God or the Holy Spirit is meant, pneuma is translated as spirit (not capitalized). See Thayer’s Greek Lexicon.

In the Latin Vulgate “Holy Spirit” is translated as “Spiritus Sanctus”. In French “the Holy Spirit” is “le Saint-Esprit” and in German “der Heilige Geist.” The last is the clue to the origins of “Holy Ghost.” The King James Version was not the first English Scripture translation to use the term “Holy Ghost” for the Third Person of the Trinity, although it was the first to distinguish various contexts of “spirit” by capitalization. In the Wycliffe translation (1395) there is “sche was founde hauynge of the holy goost in the wombe” (Matt 1:18, The Bible Corner). Note the lack of capitalization of holy goost.

Certainly “ghost” in the scriptural context does not mean a phantasm, the spirit or appearance of a dead person. My conjecture is that ghost (or goost) came from an Anglo-Saxon form for “spirit” related to the German “Geist.” The translators were looking for a way to distinguish the Third Person of the Trinity, from the manifestation of God—his breath, his will—given in the Old Testament. I don’t see a rejection of the Old Testament in the attempt to make that distinction.

The distinction is valuable theologically. We should remember that it took some time for the Patristic Fathers to work out that the Trinity was Three Persons, but one God. The Old Testament foretold the Messiah, but did not name him explicitly as Jesus. The Old Testament saw the Holy Spirit as a manifestation of God, but did not see Him as a separate person of the one Godhead.

Should we then reject the Old Testament as incomplete? Of course not. As Pope Benedict XVI said: “Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ, as a voyage to Truth through continuing Revelation.”

I go back to the catechesis given by a priest when I was learning about Catholicism: “There is God the Father, God above us; God the Son, God beside us; and God the Holy Spirit, God within us.” So, the Holy Spirit is at the same time clearly evident and a mystery–God within us. The Holy Spirit enters our mind, which is also a mystery.


*The Congregation of the Holy Spirit (known as the Spiritans) was founded in 1703 by Claude des Places, and revitalized after the French Revolution in 1848 by Fr. Francis Liberman, a Jewish convert who sought to serve black slaves in the West Indies. See the Wikipedia article about the Holy Ghost Fathers, the Spiritan web-site, and the articles about des Places and Liberman.

**It brought joy to my heart to see students, not nerdy types, talk with humor and eloquence about their education, their classmates (their \”brothers\”) and their teachers. There was respect, affection and insight in this. It brought me back to an earlier time when student wore coats and ties, and strove for learning and moral insight.

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36 thoughts on “The Holy Ghost vs. The Holy Spirit”

  1. Pingback: Holy Ghost versus Holy Spirit, Redux; Thoughts on Anglican Usage Liturgy : Catholic Stand

  2. Pingback: The Fleet Sources – 13 May 2018 – Seventh Sunday of Easter – 24-B | The CatholicNavigator

    1. The reason Holy Ghost is a more proper term in referring to God is because the Holy Ghost is a spirit but it has no body so when it speaks through others it’s presence seems like that of a ghost. One you cannot pinpoint. It is the creator, the Spirit of God, and is everywhere throughout the universe. It is the only thing like itself and the only thing that could turn a nebula into a sun and will into existence everything.

  3. I am not sure where the idea of rejecting the Old Testament idea came from, because certainly that was not the case with English translators (such as those of the Douay Rheims Bible), which is the the distinction under discussion. This notion seems to have been conjured up as a “whacking stick” against a traditional (archaic) language use.

    Rather, the real issue is the wonderful propensity of the English language which is not limited to merely one form (or nuance) of expression as many other languages are. Thus our Shakespearean tongue can often have up to 10 different expressions for merely one or two words in available in another – and all with their own differing nuance; simply a magnificent language!

    Thus (as author states above) “Ghost” was used to refer to the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, while “Spirit” referred to the presence of the Lord. It’s an important distinction that was observed in traditional English translations of liturgical texts, as famously seen in the Sequence of Pentecost, “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” as well as in the Vespers hymn, “Veni, Creator Spiritus”.

    And in my opinion, this linguistic distinction ought to be retained – at the very least, to avoid confusing what is being referred to: the Holy Ghost, or the Spirit of the Lord.

    1. The problem is Organized Religion in whole, I think we should say what we want and feel or what naturally comes out. Our intentions are what it will stand for and that will be what is the correct one to use.

  4. Those with “eyes to see” notice the devastating effects that modern practices have had on the Catholic faith. We need a return to traditional practices such as: placing tabernacles in the center of the altar, receiving the Eucharist kneeling and on the tongue, traditional Latin liturgy, proper liturgical music (Gregorian Chant), dressing our BEST for Mass, women veiled in Church, and yes, even saying Holy Ghost. I was born in 1977 so these practices are not what I grew up with, however, by the grace of God I see now how necessary it is to live my faith this way and raise my children accordingly. I can not begin to tell you how revolting these traditional practices are to those who are hell bent on seeing the Church become modernized, Protestantized, pro-choice, pro-homosexual, accept female priests, and the many other assaults hurled upon Christ’s Holy Church. I don’t need proof…but if I did just seeing the anger and vile reactions from those opposed to the traditional practices I mentioned are enough proof to show me I am on the right side. I wish we could all agree on this but there are those who knowingly or unknowingly advance the agenda of the evil one…sometimes even in the name of Christ and His Church.

    1. Spirits move – ghosts hover. Your dream sheet of bygone years is almost sad
      to behold. Not even middle age and the only parallel I can draw is someone who never went through the depression longing for Prohibition. You must have had a disconcerting Holy Thursday when Pope Francis washed the feet of an unveiled woman and a man practicing a religion whose idiot zealots like to kill Christians. I do, however agree that placing the tabernacle in the center is the right thing to do.

    2. Kloque has not presented any ‘dream sheet’ of bygone years, but rather objectively faced issues in a practical manner from what I can see. Why so many folks think that the Holy Ghost only opts for the new and different is amazing. Methinks the growth in Traditional communities and the actual fruits thereof are a definite sign that the Holy Ghost likes Catholic Tradition despite the inclinations of aging clergy and their seeming insistence against tradition.

    3. I grew up with the old ways. I adapted, even grew to like the new liturgy, About 14 years ago I stumbled into a parish which had a traditional liturgy. I chose to try it and found my faith renewed. If I hadn’t grown up with it, maybe I wouldn’t feel this way, but that’s how it is.

    4. You are so correct! Changing the Holy Ghost to the Holy Spirit after Vatican II was merely a way to diminish his role in the Trinity as a person, since ‘ghost’ is always associated with a person, but ‘spirit’ can be associated with a thought or an attitude (such as “team spirit”). It was the Novus Ordo’s way of keeping things more in line with jewish thought.

    5. Really? Can we all get a grip? It is language. Catholics debating like they want to be right over which one to use seems childish. Who cares about your preference. No wonder the Holy Father is trying to beat us over the heads to share the faith while some of you can’t get past a language change of 50 years ago. Both Spirit and Ghost are perfectly fine. Both uses have and will always be faithful to the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity. And traditional liturgy is a misnomer. While it is beautiful and reverent it is not the oldest christian tradition. If you were a true traditionalist wouldn’t you be at a Maronite Mass? Tradition has only to do with the teachings of the Church not whether we kneel.To be bent on kneeling alone is to go against the Church. Mother Mary was most reverent and she stood at the foot of the cross. You see we Catholics are a balanced people. Some of us stand, some of us kneel and some of us prostrate before the Lord Most High. What matters is that we are humble before God and love Him with all our hearts. Now go and share the joy that you have from being Catholic. God has been good to you!

    6. Actually, the traditional Roman Mass is the most ancient and venerable rite of the Catholic Church – not the Maronite. Cf. Fortescue’s, “The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy” reprinted by Preserving Christian Publications.

      The Eastern Rites might “feel” older in their look, etc., but the Roman Rite is older textually and its essential development (the Canon) ceased by 7th century, while the Eastern Rites continued theirs until the 11th.

    7. Kloque you are on the right track. The Novus Ordo “Church” is a Protestant church of darkness which has eclipsed the Holy Catholic Church. It is a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy to destroy the Catholic Church from within. The only path available to a true Catholic, at this time, is sedevacantism.

  5. Cradle Catholic here, pre-Vatican II, and I was raised at a time when Holy Ghost was the normal term in RC liturgies and prayers. Still prefer it.

    1. Catholic Fast Food Worker

      mpav, I thought pre-Vatican II liturgies were in Latin? Curious: Wouldn’t it be closer to the Latin- Spiritus (Spirit) Sanctus, not Fanstasma (Ghost in Latin-languages) Sanctus? I was born after V2, so I would not know.

    2. Of course you are right about the Latin liturgies, in my haste I misspoke. I really meant to
      speak of the prayers, the Glory Be, the Sign of the Cross, etc. as
      commonly used. The Holy “Spirit” change was quite jarring.

  6. The Holy Ghost,The Holy Spirit, Arch Angel Michael (name means who is like God) are the same person, Father Son and Michael are the trinity. We were created in the image of God therefore we have our own angels.

    1. Heresy. St. Michael is an angel, not God. God is a Trinity of Persons, each distinct, and a Unity of Substance (consubstantial). You need to study your catechism.

    2. Catholic Fast Food Worker

      No, Mart, that is a very dangerous heresy (which will lead you to numerous false heretical cults, like the Jehovah’s “witnesses”). The true Catholic Faith (as revealed through Christ Jesus) has always held the angels (including St. Michael) as created beings (part of the spiritual creation) NOT Creator. Only one God (in three consubstantial Persons- Father, Son & Holy Spirit) is Creator. The Triune God created everything- time, space, Angels, humans, plants, etc. Before these things, there was the Holy Trinity, Not angels. Before time & space, the Holy Trinity always was. St. Michael (“Who is like God?”) is the strong created angel that dispels those created beings who WRONGLY think they are “like God” or even better, like satan, the fallen angel. Also, holy angels do indeed protect & guard us (by God’s command), but we do not “have” angels in the sense of possession. Only God has angels in this sense. Peace & get a copy of The Catechism of the Catholic Church from your local parish, it will explain the nature of angels much better than me.

  7. Taylor Marshall posted a piece about this on his blog several months ago. The gist of it was that “ghost” implies personality vs. “spirit” which can mean a lot of things like an impersonal force. The Holy Ghost is most assuredly a Person and hence, personal. This past Pentecost Sunday, we had a newly ordained transitional deacon in our parish who in his homily kept referring to the Holy Spirit as “it.” LIke, what did they teach him at Mundelein? Ugh.

    1. I think that “Ghost” implies personality (as in “Casper the Ghost”) only if we take the meaning of phantasm, spirit of a dead person. Back when the term started to be used in the English translation of Scripture–“goost” and “spirit” meant the same thing, as in the German “geist”, but the Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) term was used to distinguish the Third Person from a manifestation of God. But possibly back then “goost” (or ghost) also had a meaning of spirit of a dead person. i’m not enough of a linguist to know.

    2. There are several ‘new’ religions that love the use of ‘Holy Spirit’ because then they can claim that God is one, the ‘holy spirit’ is only God’s power or force, otherwise a ‘spirit’ or wind. Look at the Jehovah’s Witnesses for example. Words do have effects.

  8. I like Holy Ghost because the New Agers are happy to say “Spirit” but will run from “The Holy Ghost” like cockroaches from the light.

  9. Thanks Dave and Matt for your comments. Dave, It was nice that I could read the Greek (not the Hebrew alphabet) even 7 years away from my crash course in New Testament Greek. And Matt, I always get the undertone of phantom when I hear “ghost”…that’s why I looked into the etymology. But, I agree, “ghost” is more in the English tradition and has, therefore a nicer ring to it.

  10. William M. Briggs

    I can’t help but love Holy Ghost, as to my ears it is more poetic and personal. “Spirit” sounds dry and impersonal. Probably something to do with age.

    1. Catholic Fast Worker

      Amen, as Catholics we acknowledge the Holy Spirit of God’s active presence & work through the Old Testament events, Hebrew nation, & prophets. But the sound of Holy Ghost does indeed ring more personal & poetic (without denying His role in the Old Testament, of course).

    2. I’ve always felt the exact opposite. I love Spiritus Sanctus, and feel Holy Spirit conveys that much better.

  11. Pingback: Mary’s Extraordinary Encounter with the Holy Spirit - Big Pulpit

  12. Great Bible study Bob! I was blessed by the explanations, and in particular with your use of Greek and Hebrew. You gave us some good clarity on the topic. God bless.

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