The Holy Spirit and Gender

Suzanne is presenting an excellent series on the use of gender when applied the holy Spirit of God (here and here). She makes the point:

It appears that in the 19th century there was a trend to change the pronoun usage for the spirit, away from the neuter, which had agreement with the grammatical gender of the Greek, and assign a masculine personal pronoun to the spirit. The difficulty is that two doctrines are affected by this decision. First, the holy spirit is treated as a distinct person, and second, the spirit is designated as a masculine person.

And the point is well received. (Suzanne is to be commended for her lack of concerning on influencing people on their viewpoint of the Trinity; I, unfortunately, see most things in doctrinal terms, even if I don’t always say so.) We must remember that the doctrine of the deity and Person(ality) of the holy Spirit was only starting to develop nearing the end of the Fourth Century.

Theophilus wrote concerning the Spirit in a non-gendered, non-personal, manner,

…if I say He is Spirit, I speak of His breath…For as the pomegranate, with the rind containing it, has within it many cells and compartments which are separated by tissues, and has also many seeds dwelling in it, so the whole creation is contained by the spirit of God, and the containing spirit is along with the creation contained by the hand of God (Theophilus of Antioch. To Autolycus, Book 1, Chapters III,V. Translated by Marcus Dods, A.M. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).

Ignatius, as well, saw the Spirit as an impersonal force,

appointed by the mind of Jesus Christ, whom he, in accordance with his own will securely established by his Holy Spirit…the Spirit is not deceived as it is from God (Ignatius. Letter to the Philadelphians. 0:1,7:1, pp.177,181).

Athenagoras wrote c. 170:

The Holy Spirit…which operates in the prophets, we assert to be an effluence of God, flowing from Him, and returning back again like a beam of the sun…Who, then, would not be astonished to hear men who speak of God the Father, and of God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and who declare both their power in union and their distinction in order, called atheists? (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians, Chapter X. Translated by B.P. Pratten. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).

It is my opinion, that Gregory of Nazianzus (and the other Cappadocians as well) was the major contributing factor in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity’s Third Person. (see also here). Even as late as 380, Gregory Nazianzus said,

“Of the wise among us, some consider the Holy Ghost an influence, others a creature, others God himself, (τῶν καθ ̓ ἡμᾶς σοφῶν οἱ μὲν ἐνέργειαν τοῦτο [τὸ πνεῦμα ἅγιον] ὑπέλαβον, οἱ δὲ κτίσμα, οἱ δὲ Θεόν) and again others know not which way to decide, from reverence, as they say, for the Holy Scripture, which declares nothing exact in the case. For this reason they waver between worshipping and not worshipping the Holy Ghost, and strike a middle course, which is in fact, however, a bad one.”

Scholars generally recognize that the Spirit was not a part of the controversies of the 4th century (and reading the early creeds, you will note a remarkable absence of thoughts on the holy Spirit.)

245 The apostolic faith concerning the Spirit was announced by the second ecumenical council at Constantinople (381) (Catechism of the Catholic Church. Imprimatur Potest +Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Doubleday, NY 1995, p. 72).

The language of the New Testament permits the Holy Spirit to be understood as an impersonal force or influence more readily than it does the Son…The attempt to develop an understanding of the Holy Spirit consistent with the trinitarian passages…came to fruition at Constantinople in 381. There were a number of reasons why the personhood of the Holy Spirit took longer to acknowledge than the Son: (1) the term pneuma, breath, is neuter in general and impersonal in ordinary meaning; (2) the distinctive work of the Holy Spirit, influencing the believer, does not necessarily seem as personal as that of the Father…in addition, those who saw the Holy Spirit as a Person, were often heretical, for example, the Montanists; (3) many of the early theologians attributed to the Logos or Word, the revelatory activity later theologians saw as the special, personal work of the Holy Spirit (Brown HOJ. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody (MA), 1988, p. 140).

One Orthodox scholar wrote:

“Since the Council of Constantinople (381), which condemned the Pneumatomachians (“fighters against the Spirit”), no one in the Orthodox East has ever denied that the Spirit is not only a “gift” but also the giver–i.e., that he is the third Person of the holy Trinity” (Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raska and Prizren. Basic Doctrines: Holy Spirit)

In regards to translation for this subject, I have previously stated this:

The Greek, unlike some bible translations, does not assign a gender to the Spirit in Hebrews 10.15 (and the words ‘again he says’ are added to the text), nor a pronoun. The Greek in Hebrews 10.15 is literally ‘the Spirit, the Holy (to pneuma to hagion)’ – both pronouns of God. It was not uncommon in Second Temple Judaism and early Apostolic writings to attribute the witness of the Scriptures to the Spirit. The writer of Hebrews had done this in 3.7; 9.8. In 3.7, the writer is attributing the Psalm of David (95) to the the Spirit, which is not uncommon.

Irenaeus, in his work, On Apostolic Preaching (the originals do not survive), writes,

Since then the Word establishes, that is to say, gives body and grants the reality of being, and the Spirit gives order and form to the diversity of the powers; rightly and fittingly is the Word called the Son, and the Spirit the Wisdom of God…

I cannot separate the issues of doctrine, which is for me the view and interaction with God, from translation, and vice versa. Suzanne is providing me a very interesting interaction between translation and doctrine – although I fully recognize this may not be her intent. I look forward to her continued posting on this subject.

Post By Joel Watts (10,110 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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5 thoughts on “The Holy Spirit and Gender

  1. I am delighted with all the passages that you have brought to bear on this, especially Gregory of N. I might have read some of this before, but now, after examining the NT text and Wisdom of S. carefully, I am able to read these early writings with more openness.
    I think, if someone just says, “oh, I think the holy spirit is just an impersonal force” – one tends to react against that. But if we understand that this is one possible interpretation of the text, then perhaps it is easier to be accepting of doctrinal diversity.
    I’ll link to your post now.

  2. Thanks, Suzanne. I ‘discovered’ Wisdom (of S.) a few years ago, and it (and to some smaller degree, Sirach) has developed my own understanding of, primarily, Christology, but also Pneumatology. I admit, I lack a great deal of study in the latter, but Irenaeus connects Wisdom and the Spirit – and with your connection between Counselor and Comforter, I am wondering if he wasn’t closer to the ideal situation that many that surround us today?

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