Is the Holy Spirit to be referred to as “she”?
Posted by Nick Gowers, 30 Nov 2017
Nick Gowers discusses the linguistic considerations in using the feminine gender for the Holy Spirit
The third person of the Trinity, gender language and translation
I attended an event recently during which we sung a number of songs - as Christians do. What made it particularly interesting this time was the gender language. These songs made many mentions of “God”, little (or no) mention of the Father and the Son, and, in two instances, addressed the Holy Spirit as “she.”
I was somewhat surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t be. The gender issues in culture are affecting language (see here). In the church they are seeping into our theology and hymnody. The next step, as suggested by the Church of Sweden, will be our liturgy. A subtle but significant shift seems to be happening. What do we make of it?
Instead of just going with my gut response, I thought it better to go back to Scripture. At which point it gets complicated.
Let’s start with Hebrew.
Hebrew is a gendered language. It has nouns that are masculine and feminine. That doesn’t necessarily mean the objects themselves have masculine or feminine identities. For example “cattle”, “year”, “hand”, “covenant”, “door”, “remnant”, “truth” and “sin” are all feminine in Hebrew. Also, in Hebrew the verbs attached to those nouns take on the gender of the noun with which they are connected.
So, the Hebrew for Spirit is ruach which is a feminine noun. In Genesis 1:2, the verb for hovered takes on the feminine of the noun. So, Genesis 1:2 could be legitimately translated, “the Spirit of God she was hovering over the face of the waters…”
We could. So why don’t we?
Well, perhaps it is because we have a male bias. We need to be prepared to admit that we might.
But we also need to jump to Genesis 41:8. There the spirit (feminine) was troubled (feminine verb). But this is the spirit of Pharaoh - a man. Similarly in Genesis 45:27 Jacob’s spirit (feminine) revived (feminine).
The point is clear: the Hebrew noun might be grammatically feminine but that doesn’t mean the thing itself is feminine or indeed necessarily has feminine characteristics. (The BBC article referenced above quotes “grammatical gender is very different from biological sex.” This is perhaps too strong. There is an overlap.) So, we cannot argue ruach is feminine therefore we ought to translate it “she”. Instead we need to ask whose spirit is being referred to?
On the one hand we do need to accept that the Holy Spirit has chosen to use a feminine-form noun to talk about himself in Genesis 1:2. But also in Genesis 1:2 the Spirit is the Spirit of God and “God” there is a masculine plural noun. How much we read into the gender and number of those nouns is a rather moot point. At the very least we must take a consistent approach.
That brings us nicely to the issues of translating from a gendered language into a less-gendered language.
Let me demonstrate with the Greek.
Here are four key things about the “gendered-ness” of the Greek in our New Testament:
a) The Greek uses three types of grammatically gendered nouns and pronouns: masculine, feminine and neuter (Hebrew just has the first two);
b) As in Hebrew, the grammatical gender of the noun does not necessarily imply physical gender. Indeed, it usually doesn’t. For example “gold” and “frankincense” are both masculine and “myrrh” is feminine;
c) In the NT Greek, masculine grammatical nouns can stand collectively for male and female gender people. An obvious example is the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-10. The “theirs/they” of the second half of each beatitude is masculine but clearly refers to all people;
d) As in Hebrew, grammatically masculine nouns are used of physically male people and grammatically feminine nouns are used of physically female people.
Now let’s compare those four statements with English. In modern English:
a) We don’t have grammatically gendered nouns and pronouns.; “Man” and “woman” are gendered in what they refer to, but they are not grammatically gendered;
b) In English a noun or pronoun that carries connotations of physical gender usually correlates to the gender of the object;
c) Having said that, we used to use masculine-referent nouns and pronouns collectively, for example “mankind”;
d) And so (d) is true in the sense that “man” and “woman” are gendered in what they refer to.
Those first three and fundamental differences immediately gives us a number of implications.
First, in Greek and Hebrew the grammatical masculine or feminine carries a much wider range of meaning than in English, from having no indication of physical gender to being gender specific.
Therefore, second, in English the gender of a noun carries much more significance than in Greek or Hebrew. For instance for the Hebrew to say “she” of the Holy Spirit may be as significant as saying “she” of a door or indeed “she” of sin. By contrast in English “she” is a much more pregnant term, if you will excuse the pun!
That means in English we are in danger of importing too much into the gender language for God in the Bible. That goes for whatever theological persuasion we might be. It is a problem of our language.
But there is a further problem. In English, the only alternative to “he” or “she” is “it” and “it” usually implies an impersonal object (babies sometimes being an exception). As a member of my congregation rightly pointed out, the Holy Spirit is most definitely a person and not an “it.”
Which leads us to the Spirit in the New Testament. Pneuma (translated “spirit”) is a neuter word in the Greek. But “it” has many wrong connotations in English, especially as we believe, rightly so, that the Holy Spirit is a divine person.
So perhaps, like the Hebrew ruach, there is a case for asking whose spirit is being referred to? For instance in Mark 2:8 “Jesus knew in his pneuma”. Pneuma is of course neuter. Whether that is the Holy Spirit or Jesus’ human spirit is not my point here, so much as pointing out that the gender of the greek word pneuma has no indication of the gender-identification of the person whose spirit is being referred to. That said, it does raise an important question of whether our human spirit is gendered to match our physical gender.
But back to the Holy Spirit, what do we do with it/him/her? Perhaps we go to John 16:13 and 14. There the Holy Spirit is referred to as “he.” On the one hand the masculine pronoun “he” could be referring to pneuma which is neuter. If that is the case then there is a strong argument for using “he” of the Spirit. If the divine Son uses “he”, so should we. But we can also argue that the masculine pronoun is actually referring back to “the helper” in 16:7 (paraclete in Greek) which is a masculine noun. In which case we are back to square one. Just because helper is a masculine word it doesn’t mean the helper has masculine gender.
What then do we do in English? Acts 16:7 may help here. There the Holy Spirit is identified as the Spirit of Jesus. In the Western church, we rightly (in my view) believe in the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son. So perhaps “he” is correct, but recognising that in English “he” implies far more than “he” in greek or Hebrew.
We also cannot avoid the fact that Jesus describes his Father as “the Father” and himself as “the Son.” These are not just randomly chosen names as if he could have chosen mother and daughter if he so liked. Rather, Jesus’ words and actions in time and space reveal the eternal relationships of the Trinity. The persons of the Trinity are distinguished by the fact that they are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The first two names are unavoidably masculine. When God has unambiguously used masculine language to reveal himself who are we to change God’s self-identification?! (See Lee Gatiss’ article: Is God a She?)
So, my discomfort with our songs at the conference is, it seems, a fair one. We shouldn’t be removing God’s chosen gender language to talk about God.
But we must continue with two careful qualifications. First, in English the masculine and feminine pronouns carry more biological or physical weight than they do in the Greek and Hebrew. Second, we also have to remember that God uses human language by analogy. Although Jesus in his humanity is male in the way that men are, God in his divine being does not have male DNA and male body parts.
In a strange twist of irony, as our culture leaves the binary gender goal posts and heads onto the vast muddy gender-fluidity playing field it might actually help us with translation. “He” and “she” may lose some of their biological gender significance in English. We might once again be able to rejoice in the unchanging truths that the Father is truly the Father of the Son and that the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of the Father and Son, can be referred to, in English, as “he”.
Nick Gowers is the vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Old Hill, a Church Society parish.
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