Hard on the heels of the controversy which I helped to fuel with my post The Word: he, she or it? there has arisen another rather similar controversy, although apparently from a very different direction. It was prompted by a piece from Graham Kings, Bishop-Elect of Sherborne, in which he wrote, introducing a Pentecost Prose Poem:
It seems to me that the Holy Spirit may appropriately be called ‘He’ or ‘She’, but not ‘It’, for the Spirit is profoundly personal not a simple force. For a change, let’s try ‘She’.
Fellow Anglican clergyman John Richardson, the Ugley Vicar, objects to this, writing:
Personally, if he did this in a service while I was there, I’d walk out.
He seems to modify his position a little in agreeing with Tim Goodbody’s comment:
The person of the Trinity we refer to as the Spirit does not have a gender identity as Jesus did – and so should not be anthropomorphised as man or woman, as the Spirit is not human, but we have to use a pronoun of some sort.
But John doesn’t explain why he would walk out of a service in which the Spirit is anthropomorphised as “She” but presumably not one where (as in every regular Anglican liturgy) the Spirit is anthropomorphised as “He”. The best he can come up with is the logically fallacious argument that if the Spirit is called “She” then
might we not then use ‘She’ instead of ‘He’ for the whole godhead?
No one is suggesting this, John, so let’s drop the straw man approach and get back to the real issues.
So, what are the issues? I agree with John that
we cannot settle this decisively by grammatical analysis
but it is worth rehearsing the results of this analysis.
As is well known, the Greek word pneuma for “spirit”, and the Holy Spirit, is grammatically neuter, and the Hebrew word ruach is grammatically feminine. On the basis of this Hebrew usage some have tried to claim that the Holy Spirit is female and should be called “She”, but that is just as poor an argument as the one which I demolished that the Word in John 1 is male and must be called “He”.
Various different Hebrew and Greek words are used in the Bible to refer to the Holy Spirit, with all three grammatical genders. Among them is the Greek masculine noun parakletos (“Paraclete”, usually translated “comforter”, “counsellor” or “advocate”), used of the Holy Spirit only in John 14:16,26, 15:26 and 16:7. I have sometimes heard the argument that the Holy Spirit is animate, and presumably male, because the masculine (not neuter) pronoun ekeinos is used to refer to him in 14:26, 15:26 and 16:8. But it seems clear from the Greek text and the rules of Greek grammar that ekeinos is masculine because it refers back to the masculine noun parakletos. That implies that this tells us nothing about the Spirit being male, or animate.
There are good arguments from elsewhere in the Bible for the Holy Spirit being an animate and intelligent person. For example, it is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and grief is not an action or attitude of which an inanimate force can be the subject. Therefore it is inappropriate, in English, to refer to the Holy Spirit as “it”, a pronoun reserved for inanimate beings, and sometimes for animals, but never used for intelligent persons.
So, we conclude that the Holy Spirit is an animate and intelligent person who is neither male nor female. What pronoun should we use to refer to such a person? I note first that this is an issue only in English, at least of all the several languages I know. Every other language either has proper grammatical gender, and so (as in Greek and Hebrew) the pronoun has the same grammatical gender as the noun used for the Holy Spirit, with no implication of real-world gender or sex; or else the language has no gender at all, neither in nouns nor in pronouns, and so the single pronoun meaning he/she/it is used for the Holy Spirit.
The problem in English is that the gender of a pronoun, i.e. whether “he” or “she” is used, is determined not by grammatical gender (English lost its grammatical gender distinctions during the Middle Ages) but by the real-world gender or sex of the referent. This leads to a problem when this real-world gender is unknown or undefined.
One solution to this problem which has been widely used in English for many centuries, but is not acceptable to some prescriptive grammarians, is the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. Another solution, to use “he” with a gender generic sense, is now also unacceptable to many English speakers, especially but not only women. It is hardly surprising that people who have rejected the use of gender generic “he” in indefinite situations, e.g. referring back to “anyone”, are also beginning to reject its use to refer to the ungendered person the Holy Spirit.
Yet there are also very good grounds for rejecting the Bishop-Elect’s solution, to use “She” for the Holy Spirit. This is simply to replace one error by an equal and opposite one. This may be seen as an attempt to produce a balance, but is more likely to cause confusion.
In a further comment on his same post John Richardson writes:
if we speak about the Holy Spirit as She, it establishes a fundamentally different relationship. Furthermore, it is based on our own selection of the terms.
Yes, in a world in which patriarchal thinking is not dead it does make a difference whether we call the Holy Spirit “He” or “She”. But the traditional use of “He” is also “based on our own selection of the terms”, or at least on the selection of those who first translated the Bible and the church’s liturgy into English (perhaps complicated by the rapid changes in English at that period). These translators left for us English speakers a tradition of understanding the Holy Spirit as male which has distorted our theology ever since. It is time to repent of our own “selection of terms” and follow true biblical understanding.
Perhaps, if I put my tongue in my cheek a little, the best solution is to call the Holy Spirit “they”. For some this will be understood as a singular “they”. But, to those who might object to the singular “they” or insist that it carries nuances of plurality, I point out the ancient Christian tradition of the sevenfold Spirit, based on Isaiah 11:2 and repeated references in Revelation (1:4, 3:1, 4:5, 5:6) to the seven Spirits of God. So there should be no objection to using an apparently plural pronoun to refer to them.