I cringed as I sat there listening to the preacher. He based his sermon on John 14:17: “…the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”
The preacher declared, “The Spirit is a ‘him’, and ‘he’ lives in you.” And on account of this he boldly proclaimed to the congregation, “The Holy Spirit is a ‘he,’ not an ‘it.’ Therefore the Holy Spirit is personal.”
The preacher was both right and wrong.
The Spirit is not “he.” Looking at your English Bible, you might think so. But you would be mistaken.
In fact, in the Old Testament, “Spirit” (Hebrew=ruach) is a feminine noun. As a result, historically the Syrian Christian tradition spoke of the Holy Spirit as “she.” And they were biblically justified in doing so.
When we come to the New Testament, though, “Spirit” (Greek=pneuma) is a neuter noun. And in Greek the Bible explicitly refers to the Spirit as “it” (John 14:17). Therefore, in some places the King James Version of the English Bible refers to the Spirit as “it” (for example, Romans 8:16).
Of course, in language grammatical gender doesn’t determine physical gender or sex. So, for example, the word “house” in Greek (oikos) is masculine, but a house is no more male than female. Similarly, the word “church” (ecclesia) is feminine in Greek, even though the church includes both males and females.
How did we end up with “he”?
In the fourth century a monk by the name of Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. This became the translation of choice in the Western Roman empire. And in Latin, the word for “Spirit” (spiritus) is a masculine noun. This is one of the big reasons that the Western Church (which includes the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions) ended up speaking of the Spirit as “he.”
In addition, in a few places the Bible refers to the Spirit as “he,” namely when Jesus calls the Spirit the “Paraclete.” This word is a masculine Greek noun (John 15:26). But, again, grammatical gender doesn’t really refer to sex.
What Really Matters
The Holy Spirit is not a he, she, it. The Spirit does not have a physical body, and therefore has no sex.
Biblically, we are justified to speak of the Spirit as it, he, or she. Nevertheless, it is a problem if we only think of the Spirit as a “he.” Some theologians have even suggested that to think of God only as a “he” is a form of idolatry (creating a human image of God).
While many English speakers aren’t comfortable with referring to the Spirit as “she,” the Bible does describe the Spirit as giving “birth” to us (John 3:5-6). And that’s not something that a “he” can do.
At the end of the day, what matters most is that we recognize that the Holy Spirit is indeed personal. The Spirit “teaches” us (John 14:26) and “intercedes” for us (Romans 8:26). And you can “grieve” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). So the Spirit is not just a divine force or power, but personal. And you can have a relationship with the Holy Spirit.
On account of this theological conclusion, historically most theologians have preferred not to speak of the Spirit as “it” since that would seem to imply that the Spirit is impersonal. And theologically, that implication would be incorrect.
(In case you are wondering, in this post I answered two questions: “Why do we refer to the Spirit as ‘he’?” and “How can we show others that he’s personal and not just God’s active force in the world?”)
Question: Are you comfortable with referring to the Holy Spirit as ‘she’? Why or why not? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
You might also be interested in my blog series called “The Holy Spirit in Life” (#HSLife).