googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Is the Holy Spirit an “It”?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Is the Holy Spirit an “It”?

English follows what is called “natural gender.” Practically speaking, English nouns are genderless. However, there are a very few English nouns that change according to gender: “Duke” refers only to males while “Duchess” refers only to females. Ordinarily, though the use of gender applies almost exclusively to singular, 3rd person pronouns. Men are referred to as “he/him” and women are “she/her.” Everything else is an “it.” Because English uses natural gender, the appearance of a pronoun clearly identifies the sex or "person-ness" of the antecedent.

In many other languages, the use of gender is more of a grammatical designation. In Spanish, for example, all nouns are either masculine or feminine. Whether a Spanish noun is masculine or feminine is not as intuitive as it is in English. The word for dress (el vestido) is masculine while the word for necktie (la corbata) is feminine. Therefore, the pronoun for “dress” would be masculine and the pronoun for “necktie” would be feminine.

Greek is similar to Spanish in that all nouns have a gender. Greek, however, uses three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Since English uses these three genders among its pronouns, we are prone to project our understanding of gender onto the Greek usage. Because of this confusion, problems sometimes arise when people try to use the gender of a Greek noun to make a doctrinal point. This has been especially true concerning the Holy Spirit. The Greek word for Spirit (pneuma) is neuter. Since English uses the neuter pronoun "it" for inanimate objects, some people mistakenly argue that the Holy Spirit isn't really a Person but rather is a thing. Look at the following quote (source):
But "Holy Spirit" in the original Greek is neuter and therefore the neuter pronouns "it," "itself" are used with it in the original NT Greek! Any strictly literal Bible translation would have to use "it" for the holy spirit (since it is really not a person, but God's active force, a literal translation would be helpful in this case).
This is an extremely amateurish argument. It demonstrates how a little knowledge can be dangerous. Most people who use this argument really can't read Greek. Instead, they have heard once that the Greek word for “Spirit” is neuter so, because of their understanding of English, they buy into the argument that the Spirit is an “it.” Of course, there are some people who indeed understand Greek's grammatical use of gender but still repeat the argument with the intention of preying on the audience's ignorance of the subject.

This is also a blatant example of special pleading because the same people who raise this argument, don't apply this same standard everywhere. In Matthew 2:11, the Bible says the wise men, “saw the young child with Mary his mother.” The Greek word for child here (paidion) is neuter so, to be consistent, they should translate this verse as “they saw the young child with Mary its mother.” Of course they don't do that. Neither do they refer to “church” as “her” or “word” as “he” or correctly render the hundred other instances where Greek gender does not agree with English gender.

There's another subtle flaw in the above quote that might escape notice. The author seems unaware of the flaw and cites a source that commits the same mistake. See if you can spot it in this quote:
The Greek word for 'spirit' is neuter, and while we use personal pronouns in English ('he,' 'his,' 'him'), most Greek manuscripts employ 'it.' [bold in original]
Did you catch it? If not, don't feel bad because it's sort of a technicality and some might accuse me of splitting hairs. However, I feel it's an important consideration. This quote says, “most Greek manuscripts employ 'it.'” The reality is that NO Greek manuscript contains the word, “it!” The word “it” is an English word which conveys a certain meaning in English. It is more precise to say that the Greek manuscripts use the neuter pronoun (auton) whenever the antecedent is a neuter noun. The original authors were not thinking “it” whenever they wrote "auton."

A language is more than its vocabulary; each language also has its own grammar as well as its own idioms. The goal of any translation is to express the same meaning in the target language that is conveyed in the original language. A good translation should obey the rules of the target language – not slavishly render a hyper-literal, word for word exchange of the original language. The pronouns used in our translations should follow the rules of English not the Greek! If the antecedent is an object, the English pronoun should be “it.” If the antecedent is a person, the English pronoun should be “he” or “she.”
If anyone wants to deny the Personhood of the Holy Spirit, he must make his case using Scripture. A weak appeal to the gender of a Greek word – especially an appeal made by someone who can't even read Greek – isn't even close.

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