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Which pronoun is used for the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost) in Christian theology? Is there a rule that says we must use certain pronoun for the Spirit? And is it a common gender noun?

The controversy pertains to the evolution of English Bible translations, started using "He" for the Holy Spirit. I know in Greek, the word for spirit 'pneuma' is neuter. The underlying assumption given by the modern as well as the old English translators is that in order to maintain the personhood of the Spirit, we must change the neuter pronoun to masculine.

I am under the impression that Spirit or Ghost is always a person or personal. My spirit is not a separate person than myself, however it is not an inanimate power. If my ghost leaves my body, I should use "it" to describe it, not "he".

I want to know the basis of this popular assumption among the translators that in English, a personal noun has to have a gendered pronoun. Is their assumption linguistically accurate? Do we have historical references of pronouns used for the Spirit or Ghost?


For reference, I know of the common gender nouns which have the neuter pronoun, and Spirit or Ghost should count under it. Formal gender is the linguistic gender which has nothing to do with biological gender. English tends to follow natural gender, and has no formal gender.

Examples of personal common gender are – baby, doctor, player, neighbor, friend, parent, anchor, pupil, teacher, cousin, reporter, etc.

Some definitions:

  • Grammatical (formal gender) vs. natural gender The natural gender of a noun, pronoun or noun phrase is a gender to which it would be expected to belong based on relevant attributes of its referent. Although grammatical gender can coincide with natural gender, it need not.

  • common gender: (linguistics) A grammatical gender in some languages, formed by the historical merging of masculine and feminine genders. (grammar) In some languages (e.g. Latin, Lithuanian), a gender applied to a noun that can be either masculine or feminine.

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    All the words in your list are people, so they are he or she depending on the gender of that particular individual. Jul 18 at 13:07
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    Why shouldn't this question be asked on Biblical Hermeneutics instead of here?
    – tchrist
    Jul 18 at 13:35
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    Babies and animals can be referred to as 'it' in certain circumstances, but I wouldn't say they were 'neuter in English'. Jul 18 at 15:10
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    I’m voting to close this question because I believe it is more appropriately asked on Christianity.SE. Jul 18 at 15:26
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    I’m voting to close this question because I believe it is more appropriately asked on Christianity.SE. / The Holy Spirit is always addressed using a personal pronoun, and the Bible never uses a feminine one. When 'spirit' is used in the spirit / soul / body sense (there are others), it is a difficult call, as if your spirit leaves your body, your body is a dead body: your essence has 'gone elsewhere' (metaphorically ... not to Timbuktu, say). I've heard that anarthrous 'Holy Spirit' is perhaps best translated as 'the power of the Holy Spirit'. Jul 18 at 15:33
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A distinction must be made here.

When we refer to the Holy Spirit as one Person (or Hypostasis, as the Greek theologians call it) of the Holy Trinity, then the English language uses the gendered personal pronoun HE:

KJVJohn 14:17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.

However, the spirit of God can mean the grace/energy/power of God, in which case the pronoun used is IT:

KJVNumbers 11:17 And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them.
or
KJVJohn 1:32 And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.

As for the spirit of a human being, it is said to be a part of the soul, although it is defined sometimes as synonymous of soul:

the non-physical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul.

  • We seek a harmony between body and spirit. (OxfordL)

(Wikipedia) explains that

Some Christians espouse a trichotomic view of humans, which characterizes humans as consisting of a body (soma), soul (psyche), and spirit (pneuma). However, the majority of modern Bible scholars point out how the concepts of "spirit" and of "soul" are used interchangeably in many biblical passages, and so hold to dichotomy: the view that each human comprises a body and a soul.


As part of the human soul, spirit is not the synonym of person, and so it is normally replaced by the pronoun IT.

As for the gender of the Holy Spirit, Wikipedia says

The grammatical gender of the word for "spirit" is feminine in Hebrew (רוּחַ, rūaḥ), neuter in Greek (πνεῦμα, pneûma) and masculine in Latin (spiritus). The neuter Greek πνεῦμα is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew רוּחַ. The pronouns used to address the Holy Spirit, however, are masculine.

Even in the same language, a difference may arise relating to what word is chosen to describe the Holy Spirit. In Greek the word pneuma is grammatically neuter and so, in that language, the pronoun referring to the Holy Spirit under that name is also grammatically neuter. However, when the Holy Spirit is referred to by the grammatically masculine word Parakletos "counselor/comforter", the pronoun is masculine (since the pronoun refers to Parakletos rather than pneuma), as in John 16:7-8.

Most English translations of the New Testament refer to the Holy Spirit as masculine in a number of places where the masculine Greek word "Paraclete" occurs, for "Comforter", most clearly in the Gospel of John, chapters 14 to 16. These texts were particularly significant when Christians were debating whether the New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit is a fully divine hypostasis, as opposed to a created force.


One very important note, however, is that the pronoun of neuter gender in Greek does not deny the noun it replaces the possibility of being a human person, whereas in English the disparity between the uses of it as referring to non-human entities and human ones is much greater.

Wikipedia notes

Whereas "he" and "she" are used for entities treated as people (including any entities that are being anthropomorphized), the pronoun "it" is normally used for entities not regarded as persons, though the use of "he" or "she" is optional for non-human animals of known sex (and obligatory for animals referred to by a proper name). Quirk et al. give the following example, illustrating use of both "it" and "her" to refer to a bird:

  • The robin builds its nest in a well-chosen position ... and, after the eggs have hatched, the mother bird feeds her young there for several weeks.

The pronoun "it" can also be used of children in some circumstances, for instance when the sex is indefinite or when the writer has no emotional connection to the child, as in a scientific context. Quirk et al. give the following example:

  • A child learns to speak the language of its environment.

However, when not referring specifically to children, "it" is not generally applied to people, even in cases where their gender is unknown.

[Therefore, all your examples except child: doctor, player, neighbor, friend, parent, anchor, pupil, teacher, cousin, reporter will not be repalced by IT.]

Also

It is considered to be neuter or impersonal/non-personal in gender. In Old English, (h)it was the neuter nominative and accusative form of . But by the 17th century, the old gender system, which marked gender on common nouns and adjectives, as well as pronouns, had disappeared, leaving only pronoun marking. At the same time, a new relative pronoun system was developing that eventually split between personal relative who and impersonal relative which (1048). As a result some scholars consider it to belong to the impersonal gender, along with relative which and interrogative what. (Wikipedia)

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  • While the dichotomic view of the human does accord with certain scriptures (as does the unity model), as with the wave / particle nature of light, it breaks down completely when adopted as the correct model. Many animals have intelligence, rudimentary emotions, an apparent 'guilt chip', compliance/defiance (ie will). This is soul-life. They don't interact volitionally with God (spiritual activity). The trichotomic view is needed in these analyses (other models will be needed for other considerations). Jul 18 at 15:25
  • Perfect answer, amazing sources showing the evolution of English that it requires a "he" rather than "it" but it still sounds absurd and unnatural to me. After that to my surprise I found out Matt 12:43-45 of unclean spirit where many modern versions use "it" for the spirit, without any shame.
    – Michael16
    Jul 18 at 16:40
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    "It" is also used for dehumanizing a being: When a character is referred to as "it" in fiction, it may indicate that the being is too inhuman to empathize with, despite its intelligence. Source. So it is not excluded that modern English translations may have tried to distance "evil spirits" from any human resemblance by using the pronoun"it".
    – fev
    Jul 18 at 16:55
  • Don't you think they should consistent in translating "he" for other spirits who clearly show personal characteristics. The old Bibles rendered "he" consistently, except YTL and many others and most mainstream modern versions use "it" for the unclean spirit. This is what bias is. I can accept HE in English, but the problem gets big when other languages that req feminine declension for spirit uses "he",copying the English ones. biblehub.com/parallel/matthew/12-43.htm I need to do a survey asking how many languages wrongly turn the spirit into masculine in following the English versions
    – Michael16
    Jul 18 at 17:07
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    Yes, your query is greater than what this site can provide. I have not researched the way bibles were translated into different languages, it would be interesting to know. I think the use of "he" or "it" says a lot about the beliefs of the translator on personhood.
    – fev
    Jul 18 at 17:14
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Romans 8:16 KJV The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God

I found an excellent article that gives a good perspective with references. As we know that the English Bible translations have been done by the best of the best, and have even shaped the language; the defenders of King James Bible have written well to defend its usage of "it" for the spirit. The key references are Romans 8:16 and 26, because in John 14 and 16 the "he" is referred to the Comforter, advocate, for which the Greek uses the masculine pronoun, so it is fine to translate it as "he" in those chapters. [I repeat that this is strictly about English language, while the subject is Biblical. There is no rule that forbid us the Bible as the subject. These kind of questions are often closed by the insecure pharisees on Christianity and Bible Hermeneutics Stackexchange, due to their dogmatic bias.] If you search for "itself" on the link of Rom 8:16 and 26 you will find a couple of new versions also rendering "itself", including the NTE translation by reputed scholar N. T. Wright.

I am defending the old Bible versions (until ASV and some new revisions of it like WEB, NHEB) using "it" for the Spirit in Rom 8:16; and "it" when the spirit descended as a dove; "it" is for the dove. But I was confused as to why those old versions use "he" for the unclean Spirit in Matt 12:43-45 and Luke 11:24-26, it seemed inconsistent but then I noticed the mention of demon in Luke 11:19-20, which means the later pronoun "he" is for the demon, not the spirit. The demon is the direct object. The new mainstream versions (like ESV NASB NET NIV) use "it" for this demon or unclean spirit, which means the whole arguments by them to translate agents or persons as "he" was not sincere, but a made up excuse. The religious establishment has changed the English grammar to suit their agenda.

The whole issue arises because it seems unnatural to use a masculine pronoun for the Spirit; and the problem gets more dangerous when other languages (like the Indian languages) follow the English translation and go against their own language which requires a feminine gender for the spirit, because they think there is a religious dogma that defines the spirit as masculine, so we must disregard our grammar rule. I am afraid the English sources we find stating the spirit cannot be neuter, may be driven by a religious bias which may have been originated to counter the Unitarians who reject the Trinity.

From the article: IS THE KING JAMES BIBLE IN ERROR TO REFER TO THE HOLY SPIRIT AS "IT"? By Will Kinney

The purpose of this article, is to do just that - address this matter. Mr. Kutilek's objections to the use of "it" or "itself" in referring to the Holy Ghost are both hypocritical and ignorant. Hypocritical because there are many versions, including the modern ones, that use "itself" in either the very same verses or in the same manner. And ignorant because apparently Mr. Kutilek does not know the proper use of his own English language.

There are four verses in the KJB that he criticizes. John 1:32; Romans 8:16, 26 and I Peter 1:11. We will examine these verses with other translations and then look at examples in the nkjv, niv and nas versions.

However, first, we shall look at how our English dictionaries define the use of the words "it" and "itself". The Random House Webster's College Dictionary of 1999 lists under the second definition of "itself" - "used to represent a PERSON or animal understood, previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context." Examples given are: "Who is it? It is John. " "Did you see the baby? Yes, isn't it cute." " the cat likes to sun itself in the window." The Websters 1967 Collegiate Dictionary defines "it" as "a PERSON or animal whose gender is unknown or disregarded." The Father and the Son are clearly masculine, but the Spirit is sometimes refered to as masculine and sometimes as neuter, not because He is neuter, but rather because the gender is disregarded or not taken into account in that particular context.

The first verse is John 1:32 . And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending like a dove, and IT abode upon him."

Other Bible versions that agree with the KJB in their use of "it" are Tyndales first edition, the Geneva Bible of 1599 and 1602 ( I have copies of these), the Bishop's Bible, Darby, the ASV of 1901, the Douay of 1950, Henry Alford's translation, Youngs, the English Revised Version of 1881, the 21st Century KJB, Williams New Testament 1937, Lamsa Translation 1933, Daniel Websters Bible translation 1833, the 20 th Century New Testament, Weymouth translation, the RSV and the NRSV of 1989. So you can see the KJB is not alone in its proper understanding of the English language. It is Mr. Kutilek that is in error.

The second verse is Romans 8:16 "The Spirit ITSELF beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God."

Versions that agree with the KJB are the 21st Century KJB, Alford's, Bishop's Bible, Darby, Websters and the NRSV.

The third verse is Romans 8:26 "But the Spirit ITSELF maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."

Again the 21st Century KJB, Alford's translation, The Bishop's Bible, Darby, Websters and the Geneva Bible of 1599 and 1602 agree with the KJB.

The fourth verse is I Peter 1:11 "Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when IT testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ , and the glory that should follow." Versions that have "it" here are Alfords, the Revised Version of 1881, the ASV of 1901, Websters, Berkeley, Basic Bible in English and the NRSV of 1989.

So we see that many Bible versions which both predate and follow the KJB have used it and itself to refer to the Spirit of God. This is perfectly acceptable English. Mr. Kutilek apparently is unaware of this.

The nasb and niv have two interesting and parallel verses in the new testament. Both Matthew 12:45 and Luke 11:26 speak of a "spirit that takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than ITSELF". Here is a case of a spiritual entity that can see, hear, speak and has a personality, yet the gender is disregarded in the nas and niv, and is referred to as "itself". This spirit was not an inanimate object, but rather a spiritual being with a distinct personality. The same thing occurs in the KJB, nkjv, niv and nasb in Luke 8:29 "For he had commanded the unclean SPIRIT to come out of the man. For oftentimes IT had caught him."

Here again is a spirit that talks, reasons, hears and knows that Jesus is the Son of God and that torment awaits him. This is clearly a personality and yet all the above mentioned versions refer to him as an "it". The gender is disregarded, and this is perfectly acceptable English.

All of the modern versions, like the nkjv, niv and nas use "itself" when referring to both animals and groups of people. The nkjv has the donkey itself -Hosea 8:9, the goat itself- Lev. 16:22; Israel itself -Judges 7:2; Numbers 23:9 speaks of "a people dwelling alone, not reckoning itself among the nations, and Zech. 12:12 "the family of the house of David by itself."

All Bible versions at times speak of Jesus Christ as being a thing or something neuter. In Matthew 1:20 the angel of the Lord says to Joseph: "fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for THAT WHICH is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost." Notice the angel does not say "he", but "that which",: it is neuter both in Greek and in English. In Luke 1:35 the angel says to Mary "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also THAT HOLY THING which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." That holy thing is neuter, yet we all know that Jesus Christ is a person, in fact, God manifest in the flesh.

The book of I John opens with a reference to Jesus Christ, yet it refers to Him as a thing. "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life." Yet Christ is not a thing, but a person. In I John 5:4 we are told: "WHATSOEVER is born of God overcometh the world." This is a neuter. Are we to assume that everyone who is born of God is a thing?

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  • I have.a hard time understanding what the simplified conclusions are of both your explanation -and- what the quoted passage. I feel like the Holy Spirit is called either 'he' or 'it' but I am unsure which authority says which one - please edit and give a TL;DR for all this. Also please define some of your terms (in both the question and this answer) - I don't know what the four things personal/common/natural/formal gender are.
    – Mitch
    Jul 21 at 18:24
  • @Mitch formal gender simply means grammatical gender. I added some quotes in the Q. English follows natural gender. In English, it is a bit ambiguous however in the new Bible translations have created a huge confusion by forcing masculine pronoun for the spirit, and other languages change their own language rules to make it masculine; which brought the question.
    – Michael16
    Jul 21 at 18:42
  • What is grammatical gender? English doesn't have that at all (English has gendered 3rd person pronouns but that's not what grammatical gender means, which is every noun has a classification into one of two (or three) 'genders' usually named after which one 'man' and 'woman' fall into. Also, what is natural gender? I think you should simplify considerably and just refer to 'he', 'she', and 'it' and ignore the formal/natural/common/etc/etc gender. Just use the actual pronouns.
    – Mitch
    Jul 21 at 19:49
  • @mitch you edit my answer for the details if you wish. But I read about natural gender en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_in_English Modern English lacks grammatical gender in the sense of all noun classes requiring masculine, feminine, or neuter inflection or agreement; however, it does retain features relating to natural gender with particular nouns and pronouns (such as woman, daughter, husband, uncle, he and she) to refer specifically to persons or animals of one or..
    – Michael16
    Jul 22 at 2:17
  • MIchael16, the concept of natural gender is one that has nothing at all to do with language. It is usually called just 'gender'. The term 'natural gender' is used only to distinguish that real world non-linguistic sex thing (something that would be the case in all languages) from the concept of classifying nouns (and also governing grammatical rules) in a way that is tangentially related to the sex of some of the referents of terms in the respective classes. There are no grammatical rules in English to distinguish woman and daughter from man and son.
    – Mitch
    Jul 22 at 2:40

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