Re: Gender of TO PNEUMA

From: Steven Craig Miller (
Date: Fri Nov 19 1999 - 12:03:29 EST

<x-flowed>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)

"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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