Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Is The Holy Spirit a "She"?

Q: I came across a video on YouTube that quickly made my spiritual guard go up. So instead of turning it off as i maybe should have, i prayed for discernment and continued to watch. I did quickly close it however, after i heard "Ruach Ha Kodesh" referred to as a member of the Trinity (which i soon gathered was appropriate as this is the Hebrew term for The Holy Spirit), BUT the gentleman used the pronoun "SHE" in reference to Ruach Kodesh.

I will admit i only briefly attempted to find credibility in this. I was floored by all of the material and sources that share this view. I usually feel well equipped to poke around and strengthen my faith by reading opposing views, but this seemed exceptionally evil. Maybe because of the stern warning from Jesus about blaspheming The Holy Spirit, i don't know. Anyway, I am hopping that this is a topic on which you may have already done the research.

Question: Is there any validity to the belief held by some, that The Holy Spirit is female or both male and female, and therefore the comforting and nurturing member of The Trinity?

Thank you, your time and wisdom is much appreciated.

A: I still remember the last day of my first semester of Greek in seminary when my Professor proudly said to all of us who had completed the course, "Congratulations! You all officially know enough to be dangerous!"

While using humor, his comment was really a warning to us - we had learned enough about this biblical language to make it sound like we knew what we were talking about, but we didn't know enough about the language ourselves to actually know anything yet!

One of the areas that drives me most crazy as a teacher of the Bible is when I see people using tidbits from the original language to try and demonstrate some "secret" or "new teaching" that has been missed or obscured due to translation. Certainly there are some interesting things to learn from a careful study of the original languages, but a fact of the significance that this question is pointing to? Not likely.

Without a link to the particular video, it is impossible for me to evaluate the exact claims of it or the related research that was done which turned up the surprising amount of material and sources that share the view that the Holy Spirit of God is either a female, or both genders. To anyone who is interested, I'm sure you can find your own bunny-trail to travel down through the miracle of Google search!

Instead, let's try and take the whole issue at once - which will hopefully shed light on the errors of all of these sources simultaneously.

Unfortunately, since the answer lies in grammar and syntax, I have to warn you up front that the answer is kind of boring... nothing you can do about that. It won't sell as many books, but it is more accurate!

A description of gender as it is used across a variety of languages suggests that grammatical gender does not primarily denote sex in animate beings and "analogous" features of inanimates. Rather, gender is primarily a matter of syntax. The relevant linguistic arguments are diverse; taken together, they point toward a properly linguistic notion of gender. (Waltke & O'Conner, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 99)

What this means is that "gender" in languages is not the same thing as "gender" in persons and/or objects. Languages that denote gender either denote two (male and female) like Hebrew or three (male, female, and neuter) like Greek. Other languages do not have any classification of gender for nouns, pronouns and verbs (i.e. Chinese), but may make use of other systems of classification for these (i.e. nouns, pronouns and verbs) parts of speech.

This is where we can become "dangerous" - we learn that Hebrew has gender as part of their language system and look at the verbal form of Genesis 1:2 and see that, *gasp*, the "Spirit of God" that is hovering over the water has a feminine verbal form! Perhaps the "Spirit of God" is a woman! In fact, we begin to search for all of the references of the "Spirit" of God in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian "Old Testament") and discover that the majority (though certainly not all) of verbal forms that describe the activity of this spirit take the feminine form.

Without an understanding that the "gender" of nouns, pronouns and verbs is more a product of syntactical relationships between words than it is a commentary on the "gender" of the grammatical objects being described, it is easy to draw faulty conclusions that the text of the Bible is clearly declaring that the third Person in the Trinity is a female. But this conclusion is faulty, none-the-less.

But stop for a moment and consider our own English language. If you were to take a stroll down a pier and speak to some boat owners, you'd find that many of them have named their inanimate floating vehicles feminine names and even refer to "taking her out" ... so, would you draw the conclusion from such feminine nouns and pronouns that these boats are, in fact, females?

Not likely.

This phenomenon is not unique to English and Hebrew.

The error of the idea that gender is attached to an object according to certain perceived qualities is further illustrated by comparing the genders of words in one language with those in another. For example, in the Romance languages 'sun' is masculine and 'moon' feminine, but in German the situation is reversed. Indeed, even for animate nouns the referential feature can be weakened or absent. Thus there are nouns in French that, though feminine in form, refer to men, for example, la sentinelle 'the sentinel,' la vigi 'the night watchman.' In French, most occupational terms are feminine, even if the person referred to by the terms is generally male. On the other hand, some nouns designating professions are masculine (le professeur, le medecin) even when referring to a female; thus, the following sentence is possible in French: Le professeur est enceinte, 'The professor [masculine in form] is pregnant.'

In German similar clashes of sex and gender are found. Amused that Rube 'turnip' is feminine, while Madchen 'girl' is neuter, Mark Twain concocted this dialogue in A Tramp Abroad:

Grethchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera. (Syntax, 99-100)

Many more examples could be given ... but these should suffice to demonstrate that "gender" when it comes to language is not the same as "sex" when applied to persons and/or objects. Therefore, no matter how much "evidence" is cited that points to "the Spirit of God" or "The Holy Spirit" taking a feminine verb form demonstrates not that the Holy Spirit is a "she" but instead that the one who is making such claims is not properly understanding the syntactical reality that ruach in Hebrew is a common noun form which takes both masculine and feminine verb, pronoun and noun forms naturally without being a commentary on the sex of the ruach (breath, wind, spirit) itself. In fact, in biblical Hebrew, the syntactical preference of ruach is the feminine form of agreement, although certainly there are exceptions.

As with virtually everything in Scripture, the context is important. Words mean nothing separated from each other - they require context to gain their meaning. Words on their own have a range of meaning, but they take on a specific meaning when arranged with other words in sentences. How these words are appropriately arranged and related together are based on rules of grammar and syntax, and "gender" is more a function of concord or syntax than it is of meaning.

What is more interesting in a study of this type (that is, if a study of grammar and syntax can ever be described as "interesting" outside of the few small circles that find linguistics to be fascinating!), is not the places where the "gender" rules of syntax are followed, but where they are ignored. In these cases, the natural rules of "correct speech" are being ignored for some reason. In these cases, it is more likely that some sort of "commentary" is being made because otherwise the syntactical agreement would have been followed.

For example, Greek has a three gender system instead of the two employed by Hebrew; so Greek has nouns and pronouns that are marked as either masculine, feminine, or neuter. The Greek and Hebrew languages have a virtually interchangeable word that covers the same semantic range of meanings in both languages: Ruach in Hebrew and Pneuma in Greek both can mean: breath, wind, spirit. The major difference is that Hebrew (2 genders) has a common form (meaning ruach can syntactically be related to either gender, but more commonly feminine) while the Greek pneuma is neuter.

As a neuter noun, the appropriate syntactical pronouns would likewise be neuter ('it') but we find examples like this in Romans 8:16 where the syntactical agreement is ignored and 'he' is used (despite the fact that the neuter 'it' is available and natural if the 'sex' of the spirit is tied to the gender of the noun form):

The Spirit himself [not "itself"] testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. (Romans 8:16)

This example from Romans 8:16 is a more powerful argument for the identification of the Holy Spirit as a 'he' than all of the possible examples of the Holy Spirit being a 'she' from other verbal forms, simply because all of those examples follow the rules of syntactical agreement while this one violates it. In order to violate the syntactical arrangement, you would need a good reason to do so - for example, to point to the person-hood of the Holy Spirit (in contrast to the erroneous view that the Spirit is the impersonal force or power of God).

Also noteworthy is that the syntactical disagreement of the type found in Romans 8:16 is never found in the reverse, that is, there are no examples of feminine pronouns being used for the Holy Spirit in the Greek scriptures, which is what we would expect to find if the Holy Spirit were, in fact, a female Person.

In conclusion, we must always remember that context is important. The cultural context of the Hebrew people who received the revelation of God in the Hebrew Scriptures were under no misconception regarding the "sex" of God. They were comfortable with the overwhelmingly masculine language that was used to describe God the Father in their Scriptures, and as a result would have never been swayed into a strange idea like the Holy Spirit of God being a woman by the syntactical agreement of their verb forms when used to describe the activity of God's Spirit - just like you would never be swayed into thinking that your friend's boat is actually a woman simply because he keeps on talking about "taking her out for a spin"! The context of an inanimate object overrules the grammatical and syntactical agreement of "gender" in our discussions, knowing that such talk is not intended to define the "sex" of the object being discussed.

One final note: we must always resist the urge to make God in our image, and instead understand that we were made in His. Included in this is understanding that the "we" who were made in His image are both male and female:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

To separate "comforting" and "nurturing" as elements of human personality and disposition, and then attribute them (primarily) to the female sex, and then to define God according to this separation is a mistake. It may be true that human females are more comforting and nurturing as a general rule, but this does not mean that God would need to be female to be nurturing and comforting! Instead, God made both sexes in His image and it is only when combined together that we see the most complete picture of who God truly is!

While a discussion of grammar and syntax may not be exciting, it is helpful to understand that God's revelation of Himself uses masculine language. However, God is Spirit and as such his "sex" is not like the human sexes.

"So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female..." (Deuteronomy 4:15-16)

The Holy Spirit has been revealed (along with both the Father and the Son) with masculine pronouns and to remove them from Scripture is dangerous. Equally dangerous is to think that God is a "man" just like us ... He's not. Even though He's not like us, we should take His self-revelation seriously and resist the false teaching that attempts to see God as an "it" or a "she" - because this is not how He has chosen to reveal Himself to us.

Thanks for the question! This one took me a little longer than normal ... searching through and studying every reference to the Spirit was time consuming but beneficial to me personally, so thanks for the opportunity! :)