Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Gender of the Holy Spirit

Here's one that surprised me...

For years, I've been taught that the Holy Spirit is a person of the Trinity. Not a physical person, but a person in the way that God the Father is a person. The Holy Spirit isn't an inanimate substance. And there's been plenty of evidence given for that, much of it very good - like the fact that we're told not to grieve the Holy Spirit, for instance. I still agree with all of that.

And there have been several consequences spelt out for this - like the fact that we shouldn't say we want more of the Holy Spirit, because we can't have more of a non-physical person. We can get to know them better, we can surrender to them more completely, but we can't have more of them. Also fine, and a helpful corrective to some of the garbage that passes for theology these days.

But one of the big pieces of evidence I've heard cited and one of the big consequences I've heard time after time turns out to be wrong. It's this....

I've been told that the correct pronoun to use for the Holy Spirit is "he". And indeed, it's the pronoun that the NIV uses, that the ESV uses, etc. The problem, as a friend pointed out to me, is that it's not the pronoun that the Greek uses (or the Hebrew, for that matter). Take John 14:17, for instance, which we were looking at at church tonight.

even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
John 14:17, ESV

In Greek, the pronouns are implied most of the time, but there's one pronoun in there where the gender is clear, which is the one translated "whom". In Greek, it's neuter.

Now, I can kind of understand why it was translated "him" in English. Because there are so few impersonal nouns with masculine or feminine genders in English, we tend to think of "he" and "she" as personal and "it" as impersonal. That's not true in Greek - there's no real distinction between personal and impersonal pronouns. And the noun "Spirit" is neuter, so it gets the neuter pronouns. Now I can see why the translator did it - the early ones wanted to make the point that the Spirit was personal not impersonal, and male was the default gender then. I guess the NIV and ESV translators would say they're just following tradition. My Hebrew isn't good enough yet to check, but I'm told in the OT, the word for Spirit is feminine and takes feminine pronouns....

Interestingly, of the supposedly gender-neutral translation, both the NRSV and the TNIV have "him" in John 14:17. Nick King however craftily repeats "Spirit" so as avoiding using any gender-specific pronouns.

Of course, when the Greek word for the Holy Spirit is παρακλητος ("helper" / "comforter"), which is masculine, you get masculine pronouns too like in John 14:26; 15:26 and 16:13-14. But it seems very much that the Holy Spirit does not have a gender which imposes itself on the pronouns used.

Interestingly, Grudem cites those verses as breaking the "rules" of Greek grammar in giving the Spirit a masculine gender (which is what I'd heard happened too). But actually it's just referring to the masculine noun παρακλητος.

I'm fine with the theology here - I just find it surprising that so many people have just taken it on trust that only masculine pronouns should be used...

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