Wednesday, March 19, 2014

It, the Holy Spirit

Why do most of the English Bible versions change “It” to “Him”?

καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς• λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον
John 20:221

We recently discussed the topic of the Trinity at our home church, because I’d been listening to a lot of James White’s The Dividing Line broadcasts on You Tube. James White puts a great deal of emphasis on the Doctrine of the Trinity and seeing as he's a Reformed Baptist and an avowed Calvinist, his view of this Doctrine is very strict and classical. He has fully articulated this view in a book called The Forgotten Trinity2 (you can get a taste of it by reading his vintage Trinity article on the Alpha & Omega Ministries website). So, because I’ve never shared White’s particular take on the Trinity, I wanted to bring it to our fellowship and see what the others thought about it.

Now, I’m not going to review our whole six-hour discussion here—I prefer to keep my posts short (honest!)—but I do want to mention the main difference between my view of the Trinity and the classic position held by folks like James White. Then I want to re-ask the question I posed in the subtitle of this post.

Basically, I have never been able to believe that the Holy Spirit is a divine Person, co-equal with the Father and the Son. I have never been able to hear a Person being spoken of when the Old and New Testaments talk about the Holy Spirit. Even the primary metaphor used to describe It isn’t one denoting personhood: a father is a person; a son is a person; but a spirit—a wind or breath—is not a person! Why didn’t Scripture use a male family member metaphor for the Spirit? Why not the Holy Uncle or the Holy Brother?

Of course, the classic Trinitarian will say that the language of the Bible treats the Holy Spirit like a person in that it describes It as having agency, but this is an unsatisfactory argument. After all, the Scriptures anthropomorphize storms (Mark 4:37-41) and fevers (Luke 4:39), but no one seriously thinks of these as persons.

They would also say that the Spirit is treated like a male person throughout the New Testament by the use of masculine pronouns like he and him. Since the Greek word for spirit, pneuma (πνεῦμα), is grammatically neuter, the writers would've used the neuter pronoun “it”, rather than “he”, if the Holy Spirit wasn’t a person. But this use of the masculine pronoun was surely just a way for the writers to honour the One from whom the the Holy Spirit emanates, much in the same way we venerate Him in English through capitalisation. As our breath carries our voice, the Holy Breath carries the Voice of God. It is He, God, who is speaking whenever the Spirit is heard, therefore, to illustrate this relationship, the writers of the books of the NT sometimes used masculine pronouns when referring to the Holy Spirit.

Ah, yes, I did say sometimes! It turns out that only in some cases did the writers of the NT use masculine pronouns in reference to the Holy Spirit. For instance, in John 14:17, the Greek text uses a neuter pronoun for the Holy Spirit. Three times.
τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας, ὁ κόσμος οὐ δύναται λαβεῖν, ὅτι οὐ θεωρεῖ αὐτὸ οὐδὲ γινώσκει• ὑμεῖς γινώσκετε αὐτό, ὅτι παρ’ ὑμῖν μένει καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν ἔσται.
The word highlighted in red, ho, the word translated “whom” in English, is a relative pronoun. In Greek, unlike English, the relative pronoun carries grammatical gender, meaning it has different forms depending on whether the noun it refers to is masculine, feminine or neuter. This form is the neuter, accusative form. The masculine accusative form of the relative pronoun is hos. So, the actual meaning of this “whom” in the Greek is “It whom”, as opposed to “He whom”.

The word highlighted in yellow is auto, the neuter, accusative form of the 3rd person singular pronoun and should be translated “It”. The masculine accusative form of this pronoun is auton, which would be translated “Him”.

This brings us to my question: Why does every English translation on Bible Gateway—the KJV, ASV, AMP, CEB, CJB, CEV, DARBY, DRA, ERV, ESV, ESVUK, EXB, GNV, GW, GNT, HCSB, PHILLIPS, JUB, KJV, AKJV, LEB, TLB, MSG, MOUNCE, NOG, NASB, NCV, NET, NIRV, NIV, NIVUK, NKJV, NLV, NLT, NRSV, NRSVA, NRSVACE, NRSVCE, OJB, RSV, RSVCE, VOICE, WEB, WE, WYC, YLT—read “Him” in this passage and not “It”?

Yes, yes, the critical apparatus of NA28 does give us a textual variant3 here that reads auton, but the NA28 text reads auto, just as the text of the Stephanus 1550 Greek NT does—and the Westcott & Hort text, and the 1894 Scrivener text, and the SBL text, and both the Blue Letter Bibles’ TR and GNT Morphological texts. All of which means that the preponderance of the manuscript evidence favours the auto reading, the “It” reading.

So, again, why do all the English versions change “It” to “Him”?

Eisegesis anyone…?


1. Unless otherwise indicated, all English Scripture text is taken from the ESV2011 (the English Standard Version, 2011). Greek text is from NA28 (28th Edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece).

2. I haven’t read White’s book as of 06/04/14, but it is on order from The Nile online bookshop and should be here within the next few days. Lord willing, I’ll post a book review when I’m finished reading it.

3. It must be stated that this textual variant is found in an extremely significant witness, P66, a circa 200, fragmentary papyrus manuscript of the Gospel of John. Since this variant suits the Trinitarianism of the English version translators, it is no doubt the justification for their use of “him”. However, in the same venerable witness, the relative pronoun in the verse is neuter. Isn’t it convenient for them that the English relative pronoun doesn’t show gender?


  1. Hi Jim, Alan Collins here. Have you considered that the Holy Spirit is a person but that the Holy Spirit is not his proper name is the same way as God the Son and God the Father? This would explain the apparent lack of personifying language surround the word pneuma. Much in the same way there is a lack of personification around the term Christ, i.e. it is a title as opposed to a name. I am not acquainted enough to argue with you at a biblical scholarship level but I do see some major theological implications for denying the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Myk Habets of Carey Baptist College has actually researched this very topic and I am sure you will enjoy reading his articles or dialoguing with him directly if you get the opportunity.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation re:Myk Habets. I've just started a serious exploration of this issue and look forward to learning what Myk has to say. (btw, I actually started Mike Habets' "Introduction to Christian Theology" paper at Carey back in 2006, but for a couple of good reasons--and one bad one--I didn't finish) So far I've read books by James White (are you familiar with him? He's deeply into Muslim evangelism right now. You might like his book "What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur'an"), R.C. Sproul & D. A. Carson (who Sandy and I will be seeing at a conference in Auckland next month), as well as a host of online stuff and find I'm still not able to get on board. I have no problem with the Father & the Son being persons, just don't see the Spirit as one.

    Not sure I get exactly what you mean by "the Holy Spirit not being his proper name". "Father" is a title for a person; "Son" is a title for a person; even "Christ" is a title for a person; "Holy Spirit" is not; it is a description of an attribute of a person. If this is not "his proper name", what is? Where is he to be found? As well, all those other titles are descriptions of the relationship one has to the other, why isn't the "Holy Breath"?

    So, at present, it looks like my disagreement with classic Trinitarianism is simply a matter of semantics. I have no problem with the following words from the Belgic Confession of 1581: The Father is the cause, origin, and beginning of all things visible and invisible; the Son is the word, wisdom, and image of the Father; the Holy Spirit is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son.

    No problem; sign me up. I just can't call "the eternal power & might" that "proceeds from the Father & Son" a person...yet?

    Thanks again and God bless,