By Jon Zens

Let me give a little perspective concerning what you are about to read. “Holy Spirit vs. Holy Ghost” is certainly not a “10” on a list of matters most pressing in the church today, especially in terms of the linguistic points that are highlighted. On the other hand, it may be tremendously important that we do a reality check concerning our use of religious language in and outside of the church. We should be concerned about our responsibility to communicate what is true about our Lord.

In the movie “Idiocracy” an Army “hibernation” experiment goes awry and Joe Bauer and Lisa end up being thrust 500 years into the future. The America of 2505 is dumbed down to the point where all use of water has been replaced with “Brawndo” (except in the toilet). Joe observes with amazement, “they’re watering plants with a sports drink,” and as a result the plants are dying.

Having been appointed as Secretary of the Interior, Joe meets with his cabinet regarding this crisis, and the following interchange takes place:

Joe: “I’m pretty sure what’s killing the crops is this Brawndo stuff.”
Male cabinet member: “But Brawndo’s got what plants crave. It’s got electrolytes.”
Female cabinet member: “So what you’re saying is that you want us to put water on the crops.”
Joe: “Yes.”
Male cabinet member: “But Brawndo’s got what plants crave.”
Female cabinet member: “It’s got electrolytes.”
Joe: “Now I’m no botanist, but I do know that if you put water on plants, they grow . . . . So why don’t we just try it, okay, and not worry about what plants crave?”
Female cabinet member: “Brawndo’s got what plants crave.”
Child cabinet member: “Yeah, it’s got electrolytes.”
Joe: “What are electrolytes? Do you even know?”
Male cabinet member: “It’s what they use to make Brawndo.”
Joe: “Yeah, but why do they use them to make Brawndo?”
Another male cabinet member: “ ’Cause Brawndo’s got electrolytes.”

Obviously, these people were just parroting the propaganda doled out to them by the higher-ups. It makes for great comedy and it's easy to laugh at when we see it on the screen. But would it be funny if Christians were guilty of the same practice, maybe with a different slant? Consider that, within the confines of what is called “church,” we learn certain religious words and phrases. In fact, we're often encouraged to keep these memorized and internalized as a sort of spiritual amulet against the forces of this world. Yet, in doing so, many get in the habit of spouting out such language in an unhealthy way, without even considering if such usage is correct, proper, necessary or appropriate. Do we speak out of realities in our life, or are we just repeating certain religious slogans to fill a void?

With this background, I would like to ponder the use of the phrase “Holy Ghost” in Christendom, and along the way touch on a few related issues that flow from this.

First, as a foundational matter we need to note that the Hebrew word for “Spirit” is ruach, and the Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma. These words can also be translated in a number of other ways such as “breath” and “wind.” In Old English forms of the word “ghost” were also used. The Anglo-Saxon gospel referred to the demonic possession mentioned in Matthew 12:43 as “se unclaena gast.”

Many may not realize that our habit of using the phrase “Holy Ghost” is embedded in the oft-sung “Doxology,” published in 1674 by Thomas Ken.

Praise him above, ye heavenly host:
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Even though in history “Ghost” came before the more current “Spirit” usage, I would like to suggest salient reasons why we should now strongly consider to cease using the word “Ghost” in connection with God’s Spirit.

Throughout human history, language changes are endemic and unstoppable; most of us would think that Old English or even Middle English sounds more like German if we chanced to hear it spoken aloud, it's that far removed from Modern English! But this also means that word usage shifts significantly over time, too. For example, the King James phrase, “superfluity of naughtiness” (James 1:21), might have meant something in 1611, but for people in the 21st century it would evoke blank looks or, at the least, require a dictionary to comprehend fully. It is the same with the word “ghost.”

The word “ghost” dates from antiquity and probably originates from what current linguistic theory likes to call “Proto-Indo-European” or some of the very first records of spoken languages from the Indus Valley and Anatolian Plateau regions going back as far as 5000 years or more. It has, during those millennia, had a variety of culturally specific meanings ranging from the supernatural to the horrific. In terms of the oldest English renditions of the Bible, “Holy Ghost” pre-dates “Holy Spirit.” “Holy Spirit” first appeared around 1300AD in this form, “hali spirite.” “Holy Ghost” dates back to around 900AD as “halgan gastes,” and also in other contexts as “halga gast,” “halig gast,” “holi gost,” “haligastes,” “ali gast,” “haly gast,” and “holigost.” It should be noted that very nearly all references to Holy Ghost from 900AD onward are associated with religious documents and usage.

In Tyndale’s New Testament (1526) both Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost were used, as is the case also in the 1611 King James version and the 1881 Revised Version. Bible translations appearing in the second half of the 20th century on in to the 21st century have dropped the word “Ghost” and used “Spirit” uniformly.

Probably because of the lingering use and influence of the KJV and the continued use of traditional creedal liturgies, the phrase “Holy Ghost” continues to live on in some Bible-believing circles. But it is important to note the reality that “Ghost” and “Spirit” cannot simply be used interchangeably in many Biblical texts. “Ghost” works only in certain sentence constructions. Romans 8 illustrates the awkwardness and the potential miscommunication that occurs when "Ghost" is used in place of "Spirit."

. . . . who do not live according to our sinful nature but according to the Ghost . . . . those who live in accordance with the Ghost have their minds set on what the Ghost desires . . . . the mind controlled by the Ghost is life and peace . . . . if the Ghost of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Ghost of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.

As we attempt to faithfully and authentically communicate the Gospel in our generation – both among those in and outside of the faith – it seems best to stop calling God’s Spirit a “Ghost.” In our current culture the word “ghost” is primarily associated with the occult, Halloween and disembodied souls wandering about for no particular purpose. The most common usage is probably reflected in a line from the Indigo Girls’ song “Ghost,” “I’m in love with your ghost.” From a cultural, as well as a translation-language accuracy perspective, there is no good reason to link God’s pneuma with the word “Ghost.”

In reality, there is considerable risk in continuing to use “Ghost” when the popular perceptions of the word are so far removed from anything it might mean inside the church. As is the case both in religious and secular sub-groups, certain words and concepts acquire a life of their own. Richard Damiani speaks about “loading the language” that occurs in groups that abuse their members:

A special language develops within the group that would have little meaning to outsiders. In the church that I was involved with, terms like “self-denial,” “mortification of sin,” “cutting off your right hand and plucking out your right eye,” were loaded with special significance carefully constructed by sermon after sermon on such topics. The term “disaffection” carried a particularly intense meaning. It summarized all that is evil and rebellious in a sinful member who dared question or disagree. To be judged “disaffected” is to be considered worse than a leper (“Spiritual Abuse Within the Church: Its Damage & the Recovery Process,” Searching Together, 29:2-3, 2004, p.22).

Every subculture or definable grouping of human activities tends to give rise to a specialized vocabulary to suit its own needs. When we hear complicated contract sentences created by lawyers it is called "legalese." It is not surprising, then, that there is a similar specialized vocabulary and way of talking within the church which is designated as “Christianese.” Of course, some use of this language is perfectly justified. Yet there may be cause for us to revisit how we throw around that religious jargon and the perceptions likely to result from those viewing us “from the outside.”

For example, many preachers and Bible-teachers have a special way of speaking once they stand behind a pulpit or podium. It’s like a switch is turned on when they begin discoursing from their “sacred desk” and they slip into an affected speech, peppered with specific intonations and emphasized buzzwords. Then, after the sermon is over, the switch is turned off and they talk like regular Joes.

One glaring example of this that many of you are familiar with are the unusually loud preachers who reach a crescendo with, “What we need today is a fresh ahhh-n-o-o-i-n-t-i-n-g of the Whole-lee Ghh-o-o-o—ost.” The way “Holy Ghost” is enunciated is designed to evoke an automatic, predicable, Pavlov-like emotional reaction from the listeners. The manner in which “Holy Ghost” is used to punctuate sermons has nothing to do with Christ being lifted up, and often much to do with crowd manipulation. Indeed, it has more to do with showmanship than the truth within any text. Just as multitudes in Germany were worked up into a frenzy with the loaded language “Heil Hitler,” so religious people can be mindlessly stirred up by the use of in-house religious shibboleths.

Words carry with them entire packages of implications, emotions, metaphors, and even past experiences . . . . Concepts can be relabeled with emotionally charged words which carry preconceived notions (Luna Flesher, “Thought Reform: Loading the Language,”

This is not to say the bad habit of “Christianese” is limited to those given to preaching sermons or just the clergy running the weekly “show.” This habit seems common among the rank and file of dedicated, bible-believing Christians. That is why it concerns me. It is one thing to talk among ourselves with a degree of this “insider” language. It is quite another to use it among those who have no means for understanding it in its proper context of ekklesia.

Should not an authentic representation of God be one of the primary goals of those who seek to follow Christ? If authenticity is to flourish among ourselves and in our relationships with outsiders, we should communicate those realities rooted in Christ, and not just continue to rehearse religious clichés. One sister tells the story of how she was with a carload of gals going to a Charismatic conference. One woman repeatedly used the word “anointing” in the conversations. As a first-time visitor to this kind of event, the sister did not understand the context in which this word was being used. When she innocently asked her what “anointing” meant, and the lady turned three shades of red and stammered a nearly whispered reply, “I guess I don’t know.” Although this word was coming out of her mouth over and over again with conviction, she really had no clue of its meaning.

Using “Holy Ghost” in our day as a catch-phrase is just one among many examples of how we perpetuate obsolete language that hinders the expression of what is really true. What void are Christians trying to fill by mimicking such engrained slogans? It is the Spirit of Christ who quenches our thirst, not the electrolytes in religious Brawndo.

(The linguistic and etymological research on which this article is based was complied by Obie Ephyhm)


Great, Jon. Well done, and much needed. Please let me know when I can include this in an e-Letter. – Don Atkin, NC
Story submitted by Bonnie Jaeckle, IA:
While walking along the sidewalk in front of his church, our minister heard the intoning of a prayer that nearly made his collar wilt. Apparently, his 5-year-old son and his playmates had found a dead robin. Feeling that proper burial should be performed, they had secured a small box and cotton batting, then dug a hole and made ready for the disposal of the deceased.
The minister's son was chosen to say the appropriate prayers and with sonorous dignity intoned his version of what he thought his father always said: “Glory be unto the Faaather, and unto the Sonnn, and into the hole he goooes.”
Hear, hear!  Good stuff, Jon!  I think you're completely on target. I have a memory from my childhood of singing the Doxology in the Methodist church, but I misunderstood the words.  I thought the last line was “prays father son and holy goes.”  Of course I had no idea what “holy going” meant, but I was more puzzled by the question of where the father and son “holy go” when they “prays.”   After singing it this way for several weeks, I finally asked my mother, who told me it was “Ghost” not “goes.”  Ooooooh!  That was spooky!  The only ghosts I knew anything about were on the Casper cartoons; now they're right here in church.... – Kyle Knapp, NE
**Well stated and needed, Jon. The mindlessness with which we believers latch onto and perpetuate empty, meaningless or worse, confusing or conflicting terminologies is troubling and makes our task of communicating “good news” more difficult. Jesus indicated that our “yes” should be “yes” and our “no,” “no.” While Jesus was there pointing to evil speech, I think His instruction could also be widened to embrace both superfluous and misleading words. As one of my professors drilled into our young minds of mush: “Define your terms.”
**Over 40 years I’ve developed what I call “Austin’s Laws of Ministry.” So far I have a total of two: 1) Words mean things 2) People aren’t stupid.
Words tossed about with little or no thought, or even worse, used by habit with little or no thought are like loaded guns, “emotionally charged” which “carry preconceived notions” – these are the bullets within the chamber of the words we use, and they can injure and kill as surely as will a .357 magnum.
**With reference to your observation, “Then, after the sermon is over, the switch is turned off and they talk like regular Joes” -- I have always wanted to peek into the preacher’s house on a Sunday afternoon, to learn if he says to his wife, “Is dinnerUH readyUH, HalleluhaUH!”
**What does an outside observer understand when he hears us shout, “Plead the Blood, Brother!?”
** David Crabtree went to a home in St. John’s, Newfoundland to pray for a sick lady. He asked the husband, “do you have any anointing oil?” The husband promptly went to the kitchen and produced a can of Crisco. – Greg Austin, WA

We would like to thank Jon Zens for granting us use of this very accurate, as well as highly amusing, article.