Monday, June 22, 2009

The Intrusive Pronoun 2: the spirit itself

I am not claiming to be a theologian. I would simply like to discuss some of the changes from bibles of the Reformation to today, and ask how these changes came about. In the introduction to my last series, I noted that the early English bibles have a neuter pronoun in John 1:3, which would normally be appropriate to refer to an inanimate object, the "word."

In this post, I want to signal the use of the neuter pronoun for the spirit in passages like Romans 8:26. As far as I can see, most Bibles used "the spirit itself" in this verse - Coverdale, Geneva, KJV, Mace, Wesley, Darby, Rotherham, and so on. The Tyndale, Bishop's and NRSV avoid the use of a gendered pronoun altogether. It wasn't until the English Revised Version, 1881, that the spirit was gendered in English.

Of course, in John's gospel, the spirit is often referred to as the "comforter" and, as this is a word with masculine grammatical gender, the pronoun which agrees with "comforter" is always masculine. However, for the early translators, this was no reason to assign the spirit masculine gender in passages where the Greek clearly used the neuter.

It appears that in the 19th century there was a trend to change the pronoun usage for the spirit, away from the neuter, which had agreement with the grammatical gender of the Greek, and assign a masculine personal pronoun to the spirit. The difficulty is that two doctrines are affected by this decision. First, the holy spirit is treated as a distinct person, and second, the spirit is designated as a masculine person.

The question is not whether this is true, but whether the text says the spirit is masculine or not. Or maybe this is a speculative interpretation. I suggest the latter. On the one hand, the comforter is masculine. On the other hand, spirit is a feminine word in Hebrew and Aramaic. It is almost certain that when Jesus spoke of his spirit, he used the feminine gender. More on that later.

I would simply like to bring to your attention the surpisingly late date for the introduction of a masculine pronoun for the spirit in Greek.

The Tyndale, Bishop's and NRSV avoid the use of a gendered pronoun.


J. L. Watts said...

Suzanne, you are indeed correct on this. I think it was gendered as a means to protect the Trinity.

We must remember that in the early Church, the Spirit was not assigned a personality, nor deity, until the late 4th, early 5th century. Until then, it was considered an impersonal force, or power.

I will attempt to find it, but I believe that in the 2nd/3rd centuries, Wisdom for time became confused with Pneuma in the writings of the early Church.

Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks for confirming what I am finding.

Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

I remember long-ago discussions on this in some theology class. The general tone of the discussion was that we should not -- I mean it was actually wrongrefer to the Holy Spirit as "it" since the Spirit clearly was a person, as was the Father and the Son. No one, certainly not me, said anything to the contrary, and it was only as I changed from a traditionalist to an egalitarian that I thought of this again. Maybe this is because I do tend to think of the Holy Spirit as female (and found the fresco of the trinity pictured with the HS as a woman) though I don't broadcast that to everybody. :-) In my circles, it would just make me seem even more odd and radical than they already think I am. Why can't we refer to the Holy Spirit as "it" since God in neither male nor female? I've pondered this off and on for some time, and have (mostly) stopped referring to the Holy Spirit as "he." But I did not really think through the implications of Bible translation. And I also did not know what Joel is saying, that it was not until the 4th-5th century that the Spirit was assigned a personality. Hmmmmm. Thanks for this post. Food for thought and study.

believer333 said...

Isn't it a shame that the stigma of 'femaleness' is so great that to just contemplate whether the HS could be more feminine in nature than masculine is viewed as wrong.

Ideally, we shouldn't really care. God is not a respecter of persons.

believer333 said...

Isn't it a shame that the stigma of 'femaleness' is so great that to just contemplate whether the HS could be more feminine in nature than masculine is viewed as wrong.

Ideally, we shouldn't really care. God is not a respecter of persons.

J. L. Watts said...

I have no problem, I think, in acknowledging either Wisdom or Pneuma as feminine. I think it is important, first, to realize that the same people who declared a personality, or hypostasis, for the Spirit, are those that assigned the it the masculine.

If we strip away theology added by Tradition, we might arrive at a very real picture of a God who operated through, the masculine (Logos) and the feminine (Wisdom/Pneuma), equally.

Maybe instead of heading being the uniquely 4th century Trinity, we can approach God biblically.

Oh the horror.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

This is a very nice thought! At the moment I still have a firm sense that God is beyond gender, and no doubt your share that with me, but we are contemplating the role of gender in how we perceive God.

I have a few more posts on this yet, and I do appreciate how you make the early church writings come alive.

J. L. Watts said...

Thanks, Suzanne, I appreciate the kind words.

I look forward to you future posts.

LegendsOfBatman said...

I find it disturbing that people become irrational and even hostile to even consider that the Holy Spirit may be female.
People try to say the Bible calls the Spirit "he" and "him", failing to realize that is in English, not Hebrew or Greek.
Then others will try to counter that use of gender in Hebrew is non-sequitor, because all nouns are masculine or feminine. The problem with this is, it ignores the fact that while inanimate objects may be genderless and yet genderized for linguistic purposes, animate objects are in fact genderized because they are gendered. Ie, I am a he, not because of linguistics, but rather because I am bilogically masculine.
Then people who are more versed in Greek, try to demonstrate that Spirit is neuter, as opposed to gendered. The problem I have with this is, Greek was the "Johnny come lately" language, when it comes to teachings related to the Holy Spirit; not to mention the constraints of the language. When dealing with languages, and imposing things unknown to a language, we are confined by the restraints of the language. Therefore, it seems more reasonable to look to the more original language when referring to the already established doctrines. In this case, the Holy Spirit.
The uniqueness of the Hebrew word "ruach" is that it is one of the few Hebrew words that can be used with the masculine or feminine endings.
The fact then, that the Holy Spirit gave the writers the words, and knowing there would be confusion, it is interesting to see that the Holy Spirit chose not to use the masculine forms when giving the writers the words.
When your gender is in question, do you not clarify? I know I do. Why wouldn't God do the same?
Then there are those who demand that Spirit is a genderless entity. I have a problem with this as well. Why do we have a problem assigning a female gender to God, but have no issues with assigning a masculine gender to God? If we say a spirit is genderless, WHY do we refer to God as he? Perhaps the Greeks were correct to apply a neuter. Oops, that can't be right. Because "God is a spirit and those that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth". And Jesus refers to God as "The Father" the most masculine positive termonology there is. Why not refer to him in a less masculine manner; such as the Indian's do? Perhaps, "The Great Spirit"? But, he refers to him as the Father.
Now, when Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit, is it not interesting that he refers to the Spirit in more feminine like qualities, eg., the Comforter, and similar feminine characteristics?
Then, finally, there is Genesis, where it states "God created them male and female in his own image. In his image, created he them male and female". I submit those who say we are assigning human aspects to God, have it twisted. God is not genderless, but gendered. Spirits have shape and form. One need look no further than Elisha and his servant to see that when Elisha prayed his servant's eyes were opened and he saw the spirits that were already surrounding them. Just because we cannot see spirits with our eyes, does not mean they do not have form and shape. It means we cannot see their form or shape unless our spiritual eyes are opened. To say we are assigning human characteristics to God by assigning gender, is backwards. We were created in God's image, male and female, not God was created in our image male and female. The image is God has a gender, two of the persons are masculine, one appears to be female. We were then created in that image, having been given genders.