Gender of TO PNEUMA

Steven Craig Miller scmiller at
Fri Nov 19 12:03:29 EST 1999

To: Andrew Brand,

<< Why do English translations use 'he' for the pronoun referring to the 
Holy Spirit, rather than 'it'? >>

The simplest reason one might give is that most English versions are 
translated by Trinitarians who believe that the Holy Spirit is the third 
person of the Trinity. In fact, the United Bible Societies "Greek-English 
Lexicon of the NT based on Semantic Domains" edited by Louw and Nida boldly 
claims that PNEUMA refers to "the third person of the Trinity" (12.18). 
This is obviously anachronistic since in the late first century and early 
second century, when the NT was being written, the doctrine of the Trinity 
had yet to be invented.

Furthermore, it is not even clear that the earliest Trinitarians believed 
that the Holy Spirit was a "person" in our modern understanding of that 
term. In fact, the reason the statement "one God yet three persons" appears 
to be mental gymnastics to many people is in part on account of a confusion 
of terminology. The 5th century Christians did not use the term 'person' in 
its modern sense. The statement does not mean 'one God yet three divine 
people.' The Latin 'persona' means 'mask' (e.g., a 'mask' for actors on a 
stage). So god is one actor (i.e., the one who acts) who wears three masks 
('personae'). Whereas the Latin speaking  Trinitarian Fathers spoke of god 
being one 'substantia' and three 'personae'; the Greek speaking Trinitarian 
Fathers spoke of god being one 'ousia' and three 'hypostaseis.'  Thus the 
5th century Fathers viewed god as an indivisible reality (an 'ousia' or 
'substantia'), of which the 'hypostaseis' or 'personae' were eternally and 
simultaneously existing modes of being or forms of objective presentation. 
(This is not the same as Modalism which suggests that the "Father," "Son," 
and "Holy Spirit" are temporary modes.) The doctrine of the Trinity 
suggests that the three 'personae' are eternally and simultaneously 
existing modes of being.

Now my point is this, the modern Trinitarian notion that the Holy Spirit is 
a "person" is derived from the Latin term "persona," but the Greek 
Trinitarian term equivalent to the Latin "persona" is "hypostasis" and this 
Greek term does not mean anything close to "person"! Rather this Greek term 
"hypostasis" means "sediment, foundation, substructure, substance."

Unfortunately, most Christians seem to naively believe that their modern 
theological notions were always present in their biblical texts. It is 
almost as if it is assumed that God had downloaded his theological library 
into the minds of the NT authors, so that these authors cleverly hid 
theological truths throughout their writings for later equally clever 
theologians to discover.

Now, having said all this, I don't mean to suggest that one can 
automatically assume that every NT author thought of the Holy Spirit as an 
impersonal force. The issue is complex. And just because many Trinitarians 
have anachronistically interpreted scripture, so that even the author of 
Genesis has been assume to have written with Trinitarian notions in mind, 
that does not justify a knee-jerk reaction assuming that the Holy Spirit 
was deemed to be an impersonal force. The problem, IMO, is rooted in the 
fact that the term PNEUMA (like many of our religious terms) is a metaphor. 
As a metaphor it has a literal referent (e.g., "breath" or "wind"), but it 
also has a metaphoric referent, and this is IMO left in scripture as ambiguous.

There is obviously no grammatical reason why one could not translate a 
neuter pronoun referring to PNEUMA as "it." Another related issue is 
whether (TO) PNEUMA (TO) hAGION should be translated as "Holy Spirit," 
"holy Spirit," or as "holy spirit." One should note that the latter is 
incorrect according to English rules of capitalization unless it is 
preceded by the indefinite article "a." For in English, even "things" and 
"abstract entities" are capitalized when used with individualizing 
significance. (For example, in the sentence "but Mother went to the store," 
the term "mother" should be capitalized, whereas in the sentence "but your 
mother went to the store," the term "mother" should not be capitalized.)

Another question one might ask is why "he"? Why not "she"? If one assumes 
that an author of  scripture held that the holy Spirit is not merely an 
impersonal force, and so that it would be incorrect to translate a pronoun 
referring to this Spirit as "it," why not use the pronoun "she"?

-Steven Craig Miller
Alton, Illinois (USA)
scmiller at

"The truth is, mathematics is against any scholar who thinks that an 
accumulation of data on a specific subject will necessarily spell 
conviction" (Frederick W. Danker, "A Century of Greco-Roman Philology," 161).

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