Ichthys Acronym Image

Home             Site Links

The personality of the Holy Spirit

Word RTF

Question #1:  I want to ask you about an article that Dr. Dan Wallace published in the Inst. for Bible Research, back in 2003, I think it was, titled, "Greek Grammar and the Personality of the Holy Spirit."  Basically, Wallace, ( who has written a Greek grammar book entitled, "Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics") says in his article, that personal gender pronouns used of the Holy Spirit cannot be used to prove the Holy Spirit's personality, and then proceeds to give his reasons why. He covers the Upper Room discourse, in John 14-16, and says why each time the Holy Spirit has a personal gender pronoun used of Him, such as ekeinos, it really doesn't go to Pneuma, but to another masculine gender noun, such as Paraklete, which may even be more than six or seven verses removed. In John 15:26, and  16:6-14. He basically says that the "He's" used here go back to the Helper, and not the "Spirit" because the "Spirit of truth" is an appositional phrase, which, when taken out of the sentence, does not change the meaning of the sentence, and therefore, must hark back to agreement with Helper. I find his arguments a bit strained.

I have never tried to use grammar to prove that the HS is a person, as I know that there is some complicated Greek grammar rules involved. I think, personally, that it is the weakest argument. Instead, I have used what is said about the HS, that He has all the attributes of a person:  He shows emotion, has intellect and a mind, can be blasphemed, has an active will, since it is He who decides who gets what spiritual gift, etc. But Wallace even makes light of these proofs, as he says here, in the article, though he doesn't go into much detail: 

"Apart from the grammatical arguments that have been addressed in this paper, the NT speaks of the Holy Spirit in personal terms, especially as the subject and object of personal verbs (e.g. teaching, grieving, blaspheming, etc.). Many theologians and exegetes appeal to such texts as though they demonstrate the personality of the Spirit without showing how similar phenomena in Jewish literature do not demonstrate this. For example, Sirach  39:28, PNEUMATA (which, in this context, means "winds") is personified with the masculine pronoun AUTOUS following." 

Could you please comment on all this and on the parallel Wallace adduces, Sirach 39:28?

Response #1:  One point that I would like to make immediately is that Greek grammar is more of a flexible thing than many people who are not experts are prone to realize.  Language is always in flux, and what grammar means is determined by how language is actually used.  For example, by the standard rules of English grammar as practiced and laid down in centuries past, I should not be able to say "I want to introduce you to my friend WHO I think you will really like" - I ought to say WHOM.  However, people often say "WHO" and there are a long list of traditional grammatical rules in English that are beginning to become the exception rather than the rule even in printed material (even in highly edited printed material).  To take another example, when we Cslassicists say something like "this is the rule in traditional Latin grammar", what we are really saying is "this is how Cicero would have said it most of the time".  Go farther back or farther ahead, and you will find differences.  That is not to say that there are no limits in grammar - who would say, even today, "this is my friend WHICH ...".  But my point here is that there is more flexibility in the actual use of language - any language - than is apparent from grammatical tomes.  This is perhaps even more true of 1st century Greek than of 5th century Classical Greek, because of the mixing of the classical tradition, plus many local traditions, plus the phenomenon of Greek becoming a worldwide lingua franca, especially throughout the eastern Mediterranean.  All of the other cultures and languages for whom Greek was not original injected a certain amount of their own vernacular and idiom into the way they spoke Greek in the same way that students who are learning German or French or what have you want to convert English idioms into these languages - one can say "that's not right" or "that doesn't work", but if enough people do it, it is a fact to be dealt with and understood. 

Case in point is the whole issue of gender.  This is one the areas where my Latin students who have grown up in a world where grammar is a mystery have quite a large amount of trouble.  The notion that a table can be feminine in gender so that it is possible to refer to it with feminine pronouns even though everyone understands it is a "thing" devoid of any sexuality is a tough concept for many of them to grasp.  However, in Latin, and even more so in Greek, it is not uncommon for an author to shift to the neuter in such cases, since the main idea of the object is indeed neuter.  Now what we have in the case of the Holy Spirit is exactly the opposite, and this is really the critical point   in the discussion about which you ask.  The only compelling reason to shift from the neuter (which has been used to agree with a neuter noun) to the masculine is if the main idea of the object in question is masculine (i.e., if, in the author's mind, the Spirit is a Person in essence, and a "thing" only by grammar and not by nature; cf. 1Jn.1:1, "that which was").   The appeal to an original grammatical object far removed might, in Plato or another classical stylist, have some merit, but only if that original noun was dominant in meaning.  Clearly, since the Spirit is well-known to all readers of the Bible from the first verses of Genesis forward, and well-established earlier within the Gospel of John, the idea of the Paraclete is a new, explanatory appellation rather than the main or dominant original idea.   Rather than arguing against the personality of the Spirit, the shift to masculine definitely does act in this case as a proof of said personality, because for someone writing or reading or hearing this language as basic, intelligible speech, referring to Him at this point in the masculine would be an unmistakably clear signal that He is really a "He" and not an "it".   The apostle Paul does a precisely analogous thing in 2nd Thessalonians where in verse six of chapter two he refers to the Spirit as to katechon "the thing which restrains" (leaving us to wonder what "it" is), then shifts in verse seven to "the One who restrains" (leaving us in no doubt that the "it" was to agree with the grammatically neuter pneuma, and the "He" is the Spirit considered now independently in His status as a Person). 

The "Wisdom of Sirach" is an apocryphal book also known as "Ecclesiasticus".   The passage cited, 39:28, is, to say the least, a strange one to use to support this argument.  Apart from the fact that the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literatures are no more valid as stylistic parallels for the Gospel of John than any other Greek literature, this verse seems to me to support what you and I have been saying.  After referring to the winds with the neuter relative pronoun just as one would expect, the author then switches to the masculine in the final part of the verse "and they will abate the wrath of Him who made THEM (masc.)", a device which, as you suspect, personifies the winds (classical students, and perhaps the author too, think of the Greek-Latin winds who are often personified).  Now this is, also as you suspect, a poetic feature.  We "know" that winds are inanimate, but by referring to them with a masculine pronoun we give them a "personality" so to speak.    

The case of the Spirit is different, because even in the context of the upper room discourse alone, the Person-hood of the Spirit has already been established in great detail (and the context is in no way poetic).  Clearly, the shift to masculine is important in both cases, and in both cases attributes personality.   The difference is that in Sirach we are surprised as readers and understand immediately that it is a device (without any elaborate grammatical explanations), whereas in John we are not surprised at all, since we have been given to understand from the beginning of the chapter, and from the beginning of the book, and from the beginning of the Bible that the Spirit is a Person.  I would venture to say that if the object here were something other than the Spirit, even some object for which we had no expectations, after the shift to masculine we would be saying to ourselves, "so, this 'thing' is somehow animate".  But given that the object is the Spirit, no one is surprised.  If one takes this verse as actual language, and reads it in Greek as if it were something meant to be understood, the natural and obvious conclusion is Spirit=Person, without even a second thought. 

I have spent quite a lot of time studying Greek grammar, and it is certainly valuable and important for those who want to "get to the bottom of things", but it is very important to understand that grammatical studies inform careful reading rather than dictating what the text may or may not mean in an absolute sense.  In this case, I find nothing un-grammatical about what John has done, but I do find an attempt to go back to the Paraclete a difficult argument to make (very "strained" as you say), especially since the obvious solution has no difficulties attached to it.   

Nor do I find the argument of pronouns referring to Jesus far removed from the last mention of His Name a convincing parallel at all.  Every unbeliever knows that if he picks up the Bible and reads "he" there is at least a good chance that the reference is to Jesus or God the Father, whereas many believers would be stumped if you were to ask them who or what the Paraclete is.  One has to use common sense in interpretation, understanding that these things were written by real people to real people communicating an understandable message.  We do need to exercise care as we circle ever closer in on the particulars of that message, but good judgment, proportionality, and scale in what is or is not possible or likely is something that eludes many interpreters, even those whose degrees and intellect may be beyond question. 

In short, I understand what Wallace is saying.  I would give it about a 5% chance of being true prima facie (based upon grammatical usage), but even that small probability dissolves under close inspection, so that in my mind the issue is beyond any doubt.   

Keep on fighting the good fight of faith. 

In our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, 

Bob L.

Question #2: 

Dear Dr. Luginbill, 

Here is how one person responded to Wallace's challenge:

"I do not think the case for the personhood of the Holy Spirit requires a purely grammatical component, such as those critiqued by Wallace in his article. However, I believe I have found an instance of constructio ad sensum with reference to the Holy Spirit--in Acts, no less.  Here it is: 

'The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers, saying (LEGWN)...' (Acts 28:25-26a). 

In other places in the NT, a neuter participle is used in this kind of context (Acts 20:23, LEGON; Gal. 4:6, KRAZON). Here, though, the masculine participle LEGWN is used." 

What do you think of that argument? I still don't see why the masculine pronouns couldn't refer to Spirit, even if the latter is in an appositional phrase, if it's the nearest contextual referent. I understand what you meant, but the main force noun in any sentence. And the examples that Wallace gives, in the upper room discourse, all have the Holy Spirit as the main subject of the discourse, not "Paraclete" which is, as you noticed, a new idea introduced into the discourse. So the "He" should refer to Spirit, and not Paraclete. Is that correct?

Response #2:  

This is essentially what I was saying re: 2nd Thessalonians 2:6-7, where "the thing that restrains" = grammatical pneuma (neuter article and participle) becomes in the very next verse "the One who restrains" = the Spirit as a Person (masculine article and participle) - although these participles have the definite articles too. 

Really, in a sense there is not much to argue about here.  Consider: even if the masculine article is due to the preceding noun "Paraclete", the Paraclete is 1) referred to and described as a Person, and 2) is clearly the same thing/Person as the Spirit (i.e., it is only an alternative, descriptive name).   So while we may argue about the grammar, either way the Spirit has to be a Person since the Paraclete is a Person who is the same Person as the Spirit.   

That's what I mean when I say that any first century reader of this in Greek would be very confused about our confusion.  There is not the slightest bit of doubt that the Gospel of John (and all other scripture too, I would argue) presents the Spirit as a Person rather than a thing (despite the fact that in Greek, the word for wind/spirit is neuter).  The only place where those who are using Wallace even have a chance of being correct on the issue about which you asked is the question of whether the masculine pronouns in context are there 1) because the Spirit is a Person, or 2) because they refer to a masculine noun much earlier.  In terms of sense and in terms of interpretation, the context proves the Person-hood of the Spirit in any case because even if the masculines are being generated by the noun parakletos, the Paraclete is clearly described as a Person, behaves as a Person, and is also synonymous with the Spirit (which would make Him a Person).  This part of Wallace's article does not, for this reason, mean anything for any discussion about who or what the Holy Spirit is, since even if one takes the grammar Wallace's way, one is still forced to the same conclusion about the Spirit's personality because the Paraclete has personality and is identical with the Spirit. 

Incidentally, in Hebrew the word for wind/spirit, ruach, is feminine.  It would be just as wrong to assume femininity for the Spirit on this basis as it is to assume neutrality based upon the gender of pneuma in Greek.  Furthermore, the fact that pneuma and ruach are beyond all argument exact counterparts in Greek and Hebrew respectively makes any non-Person argument based upon the neuter gender of pneuma all that much more specious (since it ignores the fact that in Hebrew the gender is feminine). 

Yours in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, 

Bob L.

Question #3: 

Hi Dr. Luginbill, 

That should just about do it. I do want to make sure about something, judging from what you have written in your letters to me.  You do still think that the use of personal gender pronouns DOES help to show the HS's personality, and THAT, coupled with what Jesus says about the Paraclete, does indeed show that the HS is a person, and not some force. Is that correct? And that a first century Greek speaker, reading the verses from John 14-16, wouldn't be confused at all, but would see the Holy Spirit's personality right away, from the use of pronouns and also, from what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit? I just want to be sure about that.

Response #3:  

Yes, your narrative sums up my position very well.  Even if Wallace were correct in his assumption that the masculine pronouns in John are due to the noun parakletos rather than reflecting the Spirit's Person, we still have (even apart from all the other evidence of personality) 1) the fact that there are other grammatical examples of gender changing to masculine which cannot be explained by preceding masculine nouns (e.g., 2Thes.2:7-8), and 2) even if the Wallace argument were correct in John, then those who want to exclude personality are caught in the "catch-22" of having to say that the masculine comes from parakletos, for, since the Paraclete is a Person in sense and behavior and is identical with the Spirit, they are still left with a powerful proof of personality.


For more about the Spirit, please see the following link:


Bible Basics 1:  Theology: the Study of God: "The Persons of God: the Trinity" 


In our Lord, 

Bob L.

Ichthys Home