Holy spirit

Like the Holy Spirit? A New Blog Series (Part 1)

Image by Jyoti Sahi

Is the Holy Spirit a “He”? Is the Spirit of God masculine?

I get these kind of questions from students or friends from time to time. It’s a good question because it forces us to go back to the scriptures to see what’s there. Therefore, this blog series will take these questions seriously and help provide a “detailed description” of how Scripture characterizes the Holy Spirit.

First, the problem, what pronouns should we use for the Holy Spirit in English translations of the Bible? Against the use of the “Id”, this language depersonalizes the Spirit. According to the New Testament, the Spirit speaks, exercises a will, and sometimes interacts in a personal way. Against the use of “He”, the Spirit is not identified as male or masculine. If and when we refer to the Spirit as “he,” we begin to limit the unique nature of God’s Spirit. According to the biblical tradition, the Spirit is not a creature classified according to sex or gender. Humans have these traits: lineage and ancestry, flesh, birth, and the ability to have children and offspring (in theory). These things are true of Jesus Christ; thus, because of the incarnation, Jesus is a “he”. Corn we cannot say the same of the Holy Spirit. There is a classification of beings that the NT calls “spirit/spirits,” and none of these are assigned to sex, gender, flesh, ancestry, or offspring. Some of them have names, like Legion (Mark 5), but there is no clear indication that this makes the spirit or spirits a “he”.

What does the Greek say?

The Greek word pneumatic is neutral. That in itself doesn’t tell us much. Words have grammatical gender, but more often than not it means nothing ontologically about the referent. There are a few interesting things to say about this. First, the Spirit is sometimes referred to using a title, such as “The Comforter” (John 15:26). In this case, the descriptor is masculine, but again this does not “gender” the referent. It is a “generic” masculine, a grammatical category where no masculinity is implied. Sometimes even though pneumatic is neuter, a masculine pronoun is used; it is exceptionally rare (see ekionos in John 16:13). Again, that doesn’t “gender” the word. It is a generic use of the masculine. Word ekionos doesn’t really mean “that man”, it means “this one” and points to the referent who was presumably identified at some point. The pronoun will match the referent in grammatical gender, and remember that grammatical gender is almost always arbitrary (or disconnected from “masculinity” or “femininity”).

If you don’t know Greek, believe me, looking up pronouns in your English Bible won’t help you, and the same goes for the Greek text.

In the next blog post in this series, we’ll talk about the “spirit” category (pneumatic) and what it might tell us about this unique species (are “spirits” their own “species”? See how hard that is!). This further complicates the matter, but we will need to consider all of this to best describe the Holy Spirit in pronouns and accurate descriptions.

Until next time…