God’s Gift of holy spirit—a “He” or an “It”?

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[This article was taken from our book “The Gift of Holy Spirit: The Power to be like Christ.”]

One of the major reasons that holy spirit has not been recognized by Christians to be a gift from God is that personal and masculine pronouns such as “he” or “whom” have been used with pneuma hagion. If we are to be confident that holy spirit is indeed a gift, and not a person, then the question about the pronouns associated with it has to be answered. The pronouns associated with the gift of holy spirit can, and should, be translated as pronouns such as “it,” “which,” and “that.” [1]

We saw in Chapter 2, “The Giver and the Gift,” that pneuma hagion often refers to the gift of God, the divine nature born inside us. This divine nature is a “thing,” not a person. Thus it should be referred to with pronouns such as “it,” “that,” or “which,” and not “who,” or “whom.” For example, Ephesians 1:14 is referring to the gift of holy spirit that is sealed inside us, so the verse should not be translated, “[the promised holy spirit] who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance….” Instead, the translation should read as the KJV has, “[the holy spirit] Which is the earnest of our inheritance…” [2]

There are three primary reasons why people think pneuma hagion is a person. First, it is translated “the Holy Spirit” instead of “holy spirit” even when the Greek text has no article “the.” Second, the “H” and “S” get capitalized, indicating a proper noun, even when there is no reason in the Greek text or context of the verse to capitalize them. Third, personal pronouns such as “he,” or “who,” are used with it. [3] We have covered the addition of “the” to pneuma hagion even when there is no “the” in the Greek texts, and we have also shown that when the gift of God is being referred to, holy spirit, and not “Holy Spirit,” is proper. Now we need to examine how pronouns in languages such as Greek need to be translated.

Unlike English, but like many languages, including Spanish, French, German, Latin, and Hebrew, the Greek language assigns a gender to all nouns. This gender assignment happened in ancient antiquity, and often there seems to be no reason why a particular noun has a particular gender assigned to it. When a language such as Greek, which assigns genders to nouns, is spoken or written, proper grammar dictates that the gender of any pronoun relating to that noun must agree with the gender of the noun.

In French, for example, a table is feminine, la table, while a desk is masculine, le bureau. Thus a literal translation of a French novel might contain the line, “I like the table, sheis just right for the room, but I do not like the desk, he is too big.” In translating from French to English, however, we would never translate “the table, she,” or “the desk, he.” Not only is it improper English, it misses the point. Even the French people do not think of tables and desks as being masculine or feminine. It is simply a part of the language that has come down to them. And just as we would not say, “the desk, he,” we would never insist that a table or desk was somehow a person just because it had a masculine or feminine pronoun. Furthermore, good English translators recognize that even though a noun is assigned a gender in another language and the pronoun follows the noun, their job is to bring the meaning of the original into English, not introduce confusion as they translate. Hence, someone translating from French to English would use the English designation “it” for the table and the desk, in spite of the fact that in the original language the table and desk have a masculine or feminine gender.

What is true in the examples from the French language is true in any language that assigns a gender to nouns. In Spanish, a car is masculine, el carro, while a bicycle is feminine,la bicicleta. Again, no English translator would translate “the car, he,” or “the bicycle, she.” People translating Spanish into English use the word “it” when referring to a car or bicycle.

Let’s examine some examples in the Bible. The Greek word for “lamp” is luchnos, a masculine noun, and therefore proper grammar dictates that any pronoun associated with it is masculine. Thus, if the Greek text of Matthew 5:15 were translated literally, it would read, “Nor do they light a lamp and place him under the bushel.…” However, every version we checked said, “it” and not “him,” as proper English dictates. The Greek word for wine is oinos, a masculine noun, so it takes a masculine pronoun. Christ taught that no one puts new wine in old wineskins, because the wineskins would burst and the wine, “he will be poured out.” Of course, English versions say “it” will be poured out.

The same grammatical rule, that the pronoun must agree with the noun, is followed when the noun is feminine. According to the literal Greek text, Christ told his disciples that when they entered into a “city” (polin; feminine) or “village” (kome; feminine), to “…find out who in her is worthy…” (Matt. 10:11; literal). The English versions correctly read, “it” instead of “her.” Similarly, the Greek word for fig tree is suke, a feminine noun. When Jesus was entering Jerusalem, he saw a fig tree, but when he came to “her” he found nothing but leaves (Mark 11:13). Again, all the English versions say “it,” not “her.” [4] When translating from another language into English, we have to use the English language properly. Students of Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, German, etc., quickly discover that one of the difficult things about learning the language is memorizing the gender of each noun—something we do not have in the English language.

Once we clearly understand the gender of a pronoun is determined by the gender of the noun, we can see why one cannot build a doctrine on the gender of a noun and its agreeing pronouns. Only confusion would result from that kind of erroneous exegesis. For example, the noun pneuma (spirit) is neuter in gender and thus is naturally translated “it.” However, referring to the exact same reality, the parakletos, (John 14:16, etc., “Counselor” [5]), is masculine. Theologians agree that the counselor is “the Holy Spirit” (or to us, holy spirit), which was to come. Since parakletos is masculine, and spirit (pneuma) is neuter, are we to believe the gender of holy spirit changes somehow? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. Worse, since “spirit” in Greek is neuter, but “spirit” in Hebrew, also a biblical language, is feminine, are we to believe the sex of the holy spirit changed after the time of Jesus when the believers started to speak and write in Greek? Of course not.

Here is another good example of how confusing a theology would be if one tried to build it from the gender of nouns. Sometimes the Greek word logos is used to refer to the Word of God (Luke 5:1), and logos is a masculine noun. Sometimes the Greek word rhema is used of the Word of God (Matt. 4:4), and rhema is a neuter noun. Are we to believe that, first, the Word of God even has gender, and second, that it somehow changes gender? Of course not.

Our point is this: no translator should ever use the gender of the nouns in a language to build a theology. Only error could result from that kind of exegesis. The way to properly translate the Scripture from a language that assigns gender to nouns is to study the subject matter and understand the subject being discussed, and then translate accordingly. Doespneuma hagion have a gender? We know people come in two genders, masculine and feminine, so references to people should be either “he,” or “she.” Animals also have a gender. Rocks do not, and should be “it” (by the way, in Greek, “rock” is feminine while in Hebrew it is masculine). In the case of pneuma hagion, when it is used as a name for God, and refers to God, it is proper to use the pronoun “He,” or other personal pronouns such as “Who.” [6] When it is referring to God’s gift, it is proper to use pronouns such as “it,” “which,” “that,” etc. [7]

Once the above information is understood, it becomes clear why some versions of the Bible use personal pronouns such as “who” or “whom” when referring to pneuma hagion. If the translators believe pneuma hagion refers to the third person of the Trinity, they will believe that it is proper to use masculine pronouns and personal pronouns. Thus, their versions read “the Counselor…he” in the gospel of John, and “he,” “who,” or “whom” in other places in the New Testament. However, we believe pneuma hagion refers to the gift of God, it must be used with pronouns such as “it,” “which,” and “that.”

One point should be certain from all the above discussion. No one can build a case for the “person” or “non-person” of pneuma hagion simply because an English version of the Bible reads “he,” or “who” in association with holy spirit, or because the noun “Counselor” is masculine. One must study the context to see how the pronouns should be translated.

Having discussed nouns and their associated pronouns, we should now say something about verbs. Every Bible student should be aware that Greek verbs have no gender, and that the gender associated with any given verb is ascertained from the context. It is vital to understand this because there are quite a few verses referring to spirit in which a masculine personal pronoun has been added because of the theology of the translator, although there is no definitive reason for it in the Greek text. This unwarranted addition of the personal pronoun naturally leads people to conclude that “the Holy Spirit” must be a person.

One such verse is John 16:13a: “But when he [referring to the “helper” in verse 7 and following through the context], the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth….” The phrase, “he will guide,” is the Greek verb hodegeo. It is a third person singular verb, and, as we said, Greek verbs have no gender. Since Trinitarians believe the context of John 16 is the “Person,” “the Holy Spirit” they translate hodegeo as “he will guide.” But since the verb has no gender, it could just as easily be translated “it will guide” or “she will guide,” whichever is best supported by the context. When we understand this, then we will scrutinize the context to see whether the subject being referred to is a “he,” “she,” or “it.” In this case, we believe that the context is God’s gift of holy spirit, which is not a person, and that the verse should be properly translated, “it will guide.”

Greek verbs do not have a gender, so any assigned to it is the interpretation of the translator. This comes up in many areas besides holy spirit. For example, Luke 11:24 speaks of demons, and some versions say that when an unclean spirit comes out of a man, “he goes” through arid places. But are we sure the demon is a “he”? The Greek verb is genderless, and can be masculine, feminine, or neuter. Thus there are versions that say “he” (cp. KJV; RSV) and versions that say “it” (cp. NASB; NRSV), but because of mainstream theology, none say “she,” although biblically that is a possibility. [8]

Another example regarding “spirit” is in the gospel of John. In this verse, Jesus is talking with his disciples about the spirit of truth, and he says, “…but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you” (John 14:17b-NASB). The words “He abides” are an interpretation of the Greek, which is simply, “abides” in the third person singular, and thus could be “he abides,” “she abides,” or “it abides.” In this case, because Jesus is speaking of God’s gift of holy spirit, which is a “thing” and not a “Person,” it is proper to say, “it abides.”

God’s holy spirit is a most amazing and valuable gift, and it behooves us as Christians, especially those who translate the Bible, to understand it. Bible students who are not familiar with the original languages can only do this when the Greek and Hebrew texts are properly translated. If the translation is not accurate, then we do not have the Word of God, we have the words of men. Translating Scripture is one of the most important and spiritual of all responsibilities, because millions of people who do not read the original languages trust the translation to accurately represent the original. When it comes to the subject of God’s gift of holy spirit, countless Christians have been misled or confused by the improper use of the pronoun “he,” or other personal pronouns. When the pronouns associated with pneuma, spirit, are translated correctly, it is much easier to see the love and mercy of God expressed to us by His giving to us the wonderful gift of holy spirit.


Endnotes:

1. A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun so that the noun does not need to be repeated; “he,” “she,” “it,” “that,” “those,” etc. are all pronouns. Back to top

2. Even more proper English grammar today would be, “[the holy spirit] that is the earnest of our inheritance.” Back to top

3. Personal pronouns such as “he,” “she,” “who,” and “whom” indicate that a person is being referred to, while relative pronouns such as “it,” “which,” or “that” are not usually or properly used in regard to people. Back to top

4. An interesting cultural observation is that generally in English, if a landscaper, gardener, or plant lover refers to a special tree or bush in an intimate way, masculine pronouns are used. “Oh my little fern, he isn’t doing so well, but this guy over here, my aloe vera, he is doing great.” Back to top

5. The Greek word parakletos can mean counselor, helper, comforter, etc., and so the translations differ as to how this word should be translated. Back to top

6. There has been much scholarly discussion in recent years about the gender of God, and this is not the place for a long discussion about it. Although we believe that God has no actual gender, in Scripture He presents Himself as masculine. He presented himself as a man to Abraham (Gen. 18:1 and 2), and to many others (Exod. 24:10 and Dan. 7:9 are good examples). Back to top

7. Trinitarians, of course, see things differently. They view “the Holy Spirit” as the third person of the Trinity, so even though pneuma, spirit, is a neuter noun, they use masculine personal pronouns with it. Note the gender of the Greek nouns and pronouns in [brackets] in contrast with the gender that appears in the translation.

John 14:17 (NASB)
“that is the Spirit [neuter] of truth, whom [autos, neuter, not masculine] the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him [autos, neuter, not masculine] or know Him [not in Greek], but you know Him [autos, neuter, not masculine] because He abides [verb with no gender] with you, and will be in you.”

In spite of the neuter noun and pronouns in Greek, almost every English version uses the personal pronoun “whom” and masculine personal pronouns “him” and “he,” as the NASB does. This shows that Trinitarian scholars do not use the gender of the pronoun, but the subject being discussed, to determine how the English should read. This reveals an inconsistency in one of the standard arguments for the existence of the Trinity. Many Trinitarians say that the use of masculine pronouns shows that “the Holy Spirit” is the third person of the Trinity. A case in point is the Greek word parakletos (helper, “comforter,” counselor), which is masculine. It is good Greek grammar to use the masculine pronoun ekeinos to describe the “Helper,” parakletos, which is masculine (John 14:26), but Trinitarians have said that the use of ekeinos is evidence that “the Holy Spirit” is masculine (Cp. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1960), Vol. 5, p. 252 and 253). However, when neuter pronouns appear in the Greek text, they simply change them to masculine in their translations. One cannot have it both ways. If the gender of the pronoun is evidence for the actual gender of the noun, then the “helper” is masculine, but the “holy spirit” is neuter—certainly not a person. The proper way to think about the pronoun, as we have seen, is that its gender should never be used as “evidence” for the gender of its related noun. Back to top

8. Although we usually think of angels and demons as masculine, there are both female good spirits (Zech. 5:9) and female evil spirits. The Hebrew word “lilith” (Isa. 34:14) is the name of a female demon. “Lilith” gets translated many ways in the English versions, including “night monster” (ASV, NASB, AMP), “night hag” (RSV), “night spectre” (Rohterham) and by her name, “Lilith” (NAB; Tanakh; The Message). Some translators apparently miss the point that Isaiah is referring to a demon at all, and have “screech owl” (KJV) or “night creature” (NIV). Lilith is “a malevolent supernatural being” (Bromiley, op. cit., Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, p. 536). Unless the context tells us the gender of a demon, using “it” in Luke 11:24 is our best choice because it allows for either male or female gender. Back to top