The gender of the Holy Spirit


The purpose of this piece is primarily to summarise and explain, for people not very familiar with Greek and/or linguistics, the arguments of this article by Daniel B. Wallace. Basically, various people have made arguments that the Holy Spirit is a person (and not some sort of impersonal force or power), and specifically a male person, on the basis of grammatical arguments concerning the Greek text of the New Testament. Wallace argues that these arguments do not hold up. (There are other much stronger arguments from the Bible for regarding the Holy Spirit as a person, which do not rely on Greek grammar, but I don't intend to discuss any of these here.)

Please note before we get started that, although I know quite a lot about linguistics, I have only a little knowledge of Greek myself and cannot be considered an expert in that language. I will try to avoid making mistakes but it is possible some have crept in.

Background: some Greek grammar

Ancient Greek, like many other European languages (e.g. French, German, Spanish, Latin ...) has something called grammatical gender. Every noun is associated with one of three genders: The thing about grammatical gender is that it has only limited correspondence to biological sex. Thus the Greek word for "ice", krustallos, is masculine even though ice is not male; the word for "bridge", gephura, is feminine even though bridges are not female, and so forth. The usual Greek word for "Spirit", pneuma, is neuter: this does not, by itself, mean that the Spirit is not male or female. (Compare the Hebrew word for "spirit", ruach, which is feminine.)

Whilst gender is an inherent feature of nouns, it is also represented on other words associated with those nouns (this is called "agreement"). For example, it is marked on pronouns – this is perhaps relatively easy for English speakers to grasp because we do something similar. Thus, when we say –

I know a man; he is called John.
– we use he to refer back to man, because the word man is masculine. To refer to female or inanimate things, however, we use different words:
I know a woman; she is called Mary.
I know a place; it is called Jerusalem.

But because inanimate things in Greek can be any gender, sometimes Greek would use a word meaning him when we would use it (with masculine nouns that are not biologically male), and likewise sometimes her in place of other instances of it (with feminine nouns that aren't biologically female). So you might say, for example, the equivalent of:

Be careful of the ice [masculine]; he might make you slip.
Go over the bridge [feminine]; she will get you across the river more quickly.

Greek also shows gender on adjectives. If an adjective refers to a masculine noun, it takes masculine endings; if it refers to a feminine noun, it takes feminine endings; if it refers to a neuter noun, it takes neuter endings. Thus in the phrase to pneuma to agion "the spirit the holy = the Holy Spirit", agion "holy" is in its neuter form (the equivalent masculine form would be agios and the feminine agia).

(A sort of equivalent to this might be found in some varieties of written English, where we might write a blond man but a blonde woman. The -e on the end of the adjective in the second case – borrowed from the French feminine adjective ending -e – indicates that woman is a feminine noun. But lots of people don't follow this rule.)

As well as grammatical gender, Greek also has limited natural gender, where a male or female person may be referred to by masculine or feminine forms, respectively, even if the noun used to describe it is grammatically of another gender. This is the crucial part of the "grammatical" argument for the Holy Spirit being personal, which I shall now turn to.

Claim: the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to by "unexpected" masculine forms

As I noted above, the Greek word for "Spirit" is pneuma, which is neuter. (pneuma also means "wind" or "breath" and is a root in our words pneumatic and pneumonia.) But some people have argued that sometimes the writers of the New Testament refer back to pneuma using masculine forms. For example, John 15:26 says:
When the Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth, who/which from the Father proceeds – he will testify about me.

Note the form he (masculine), not it (neuter). This isn't just an artefact of translation – though it usually is translated this way – but reflects the masculine pronoun used in the Greek text as well.

This is not what we expect if (a) the word translated he really does refer back to pneuma and (b) the Spirit is not a male person. But if we assume (a) to be true (i.e. he refers to pneuma) and (b) to be false (i.e. the Spirit is a male person), we have an explanation: the (masculine) natural gender of the Spirit is overriding the (neuter) grammatical gender of the word used to describe him.

(Note that immediately beforehand this doesn't happen: the Spirit is referred to by the form I've translated who/which, which is in fact neuter in the Greek.)

Parallel arguments to this one are also made on the basis of John 14:26 ("but [as regards] the Comforter, the Holy Spirit [neuter], who/which [neuter] the Father will send in my name: he [masculine] will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you") and John 16:13-14 ("but when he comes, the Spirit of truth, ... he will glorify me ...").

Another argument comes from Ephesians 1:13-14. In some manuscripts, this reads literally:

in whom also you, having heard the message of the truth, the good news of your salvation, in whom also (having believed) you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who [masculine] is a pledge of our inheritence until the redemption of the possession, to the praise of his glory.

Here, again, a masculine form appears to refer to the Spirit.

A final argument is from 1 John 5:7-8:

There are three who testify – the Spirit, the water and the blood – and these three are in agreement.

The form translated "who testify" here is a single word in Greek, literally something like testifying, which acts a bit like an adjective and (in this instance) takes masculine agreement. But none of the words "Spirit", "water" or "blood" is grammatically masculine, so why is this? The argument is that the agreement in this instance refers to the masculine gender of the Spirit.

Counterclaim: there are other explanations for these forms

Wallace deals with each of these arguments in turn. Firstly, recall John 15:26:

When the Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth, who/which from the Father proceeds – he will testify about me.

Wallace argues that the word translated he here refers back not to Spirit but to Comforter. The word translated Comforter is ordinarily masculine, so this is what we expect without resorting to arguments about natural gender.

Why does he refer to Comforter not Spirit? Well, the phrase containing Spirit (pneuma) is used here "in apposition". This is a bit like the following sentence in English:

Frank the milkman came to visit.
the milkman here is in apposition; it can easily be left out and main thing the sentence is about is still Frank. Another way to think about it is to think of "the Spirit of truth, who/which from the Father proceeds" as being "in brackets" – an extra bit of information added to the sentence without really affecting its overall structure.

The same argument applies to John 14:26 – the Holy Spirit is "in brackets" and he refers back to the Comforter. What about John 16:13-14? The same argument applies again in fact – the Holy Spirit is "in brackets" – we just have to look a little bit further back to find the phrase that he is actually referring to: namely, the use of the Comforter (also translated the Counsellor, the Advocate, the Encourager) in verse 7, to whom Jesus has already referred to with he several times.

As regards Ephesians 1:13-14 ("... the promised Holy Spirit, who is a pledge ..."), the simplest argument may simply be that some scribes got it wrong: several manuscripts use a neuter form here as expected. Another is that the who form is agreeing with the following noun meaning pledge (which is masculine) – an accepted thing to do in Ancient Greek. In any case, it is far from clear that Paul is deliberately using the masculine form to convey the message that the Spirit is masculine.

Finally, what about 1 John 5:7-8? Admittedly, this is where I think Wallace's argument is weakest. Here, the form translated who testifies is masculine, arguably because it relates to the Spirit. But this may not be the case: the same word in verse 6, also referring to the Spirit, is used in the neuter. Wallace suggests that the masculine is used in verse 8 because the three witnesses recall the multiple witnesses required in a trial by the Old Testament law, and this association leads to them being personified.

Conclusion

To conclude, Wallace argues that there are other (largely convincing) explanations for the use of masculine forms in the environment of pneuma which do not rely on deliberate personification of the Spirit by the New Testament writers. This doesn't, of course, mean that the Holy Spirit isn't a person. But it does mean that we need other, non-linguistic, arguments to back that claim up.