Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Holy Spirit As "It"?

In some of my writings I refer to the Holy Spirit as "It," rather than as "He," though in the future I'll probably defer to the common practice of using "He/Him/His" rather than "It/It/Its."

Before explaining why, I want to make it clear that I do not regard the Holy Spirit as an "impersonal force." Nor am I denying the orthodox Christian understanding and expression of the Trinity.

My reasons for at times referring to the Holy Spirit as "It" are basically the following:
  1. The most-developed Biblical concept of the Holy Spirit is found in the New Testament, and the Greek word pneuma (πνευμα) is a neuter noun.1 Thus, referring to the Holy Spirit as "It" is kind of an artificial conformity to its "gender" in the New Testament. (I realize that the genders of Greek nouns don't necessarily correspond to or indicate the "sex" of the noun.)
  2. The New Testament passages that commonly translate the Holy Spirit as "He" - i.e., Jesus's statements in the Gospel According to John 14-162 - mislead many readers to think or assume that Jesus is deliberately breaking Greek grammar rules (i.e., a pronoun must agree with the gender of its antecedent) to emphasize the Holy Spirit's personhood by using masculine pronouns for a neuter word (and I've heard preachers and teachers say this very thing). But it can be shown that the word that is translated as "He" in those passages - i.e., the "far" (or "distant") demonstrative pronoun ekeinos (εκεινος) - has as its antecedent the masculine noun paraklêtos (παρακλητος) and not the neuter noun pneuma (πνευμα). In fact, it would be perfectly acceptable, and possibly more proper, to translate ekeinos (εκεινος) in these instances as "that one," since a "paraclete" (i.e., an advocate or someone called alongside to one's aid) need not necessarily be a male.
Actually, a case could probably be made for referring to the Holy Spirit as "She," since in the early church the Holy Spirit was at times equated with the "Wisdom" of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, and both the Greek word for wisdom (sophia - σοφια) and the Hebrew word for "Spirit" (ruach - רוח) are feminine. But for me to refer to the Holy Spirit as "She" would be in my mind even more problematic and lead to greater misunderstanding than using "It."


1 In the Hebrew Old Testament, the corresponding word, ruach (רוח), is feminine, but Hebrew has no neuter gender. English, of course, has no genders for nouns at all.

2 Here are the relevant verses in the Gospel According to John 14-16. I've marked in bold all the instances of paraklêtos (παρακλητος) and ekeinos (εκεινος), as well as any masculine pronouns that refer to paraklêtos (παρακλητος). I've also indicated where the New American Standard Bible used here translates verbs where the pronoun subject is included in the verb ending with "He" and neuter pronouns referring to the (neuter) Spirit with "Him" or "who(m)."

John 14
16 καγω ερωτησω τον πατερα και αλλον παρακλητον δωσει υμιν ινα μεθ υμων εις τον αιωνα η, 17 το πνευμα της αληθειας, ο ο κοσμος ου δυναται λαβειν, οτι ου θεωρει αυτο ουδε γινωσκει: υμεις γινωσκετε αυτο, οτι παρ υμιν μενει και εν υμιν εσται.... 26 ο δε παρακλητος, το πνευμα το αγιον ο πεμψει ο πατηρ εν τω ονοματι μου, εκεινος υμας διδαξει παντα και υπομνησει υμας παντα α ειπον υμιν [εγω].
16 "I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; 17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.... 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you."

John 15
26 οταν ελθη ο παρακλητος ον εγω πεμψω υμιν παρα του πατρος, το πνευμα της αληθειας ο παρα του πατρος εκπορευεται, εκεινος μαρτυρησει περι εμου:
26 "When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me,"

John 16
7 αλλ εγω την αληθειαν λεγω υμιν, συμφερει υμιν ινα εγω απελθω. εαν γαρ μη απελθω, ο παρακλητος ουκ ελευσεται προς υμας: εαν δε πορευθω, πεμψω αυτον προς υμας. 8 και ελθων εκεινος ελεγξει τον κοσμον περι αμαρτιας και περι δικαιοσυνης και περι κρισεως:... 13 οταν δε ελθη εκεινος, το πνευμα της αληθειας, οδηγησει υμας εν τη αληθεια παση: ου γαρ λαλησει αφ εαυτου, αλλ οσα ακουσει λαλησει, και τα ερχομενα αναγγελει υμιν. 14 εκεινος εμε δοξασει, οτι εκ του εμου λημψεται και αναγγελει υμιν.
7 "But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. 8 And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment;... 13 But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative ("from Himself"), but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you."

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