Neuter Pneuma and Neuter Pronouns Mean Not a Person: Bad Arguments against the Personhood of the Holy Spirit #1
Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, and many other anti-Trinitarians raise a number of fallacious objections against the orthodox Christian belief that the Holy Spirit is a person distinct from both the Father and the Son. One such objection is that the Bible uses neuter pronouns in reference to the Holy Spirit. One can see this sometimes in English translations such as the KJV, for example in Paul’s statement, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:16 KJV). Here the English neuter pronoun “itself” translates the Greek neuter pronoun auto. The masculine pronoun “himself” would be autos, not auto. Such neuter pronouns are commonly used in New Testament references to the Holy Spirit. Many anti-Trinitarians view this usage as indicating that the Holy Spirit is impersonal, perhaps a force or energy that comes from God, or perhaps God’s immanent mode of communication and manifestation.1
The objection may be properly answered in several ways, but here I simply wish to focus directly on the crucial premise of the objection, which is that the use of neuter pronouns signals an impersonal object or abstraction as the pronoun’s referent. The claim is simply and unequivocally false. For the sake of those with little or no knowledge of the biblical languages, I will explain the matter as simply and completely as possible. Fortunately, it’s really not complicated.
The New Testament was written in ancient Greek, not in contemporary English. Greek uses a system of three “genders” in its nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and other words that modify or refer grammatically to nouns. The three genders are labeled in the modern study of ancient Greek as masculine, feminine, and neuter. These genders are typically marked by distinctly patterns of spellings of the words, especially the endings of the words. When we transliterate these Greek words (write them out using English letters instead of Greek letters), we can see these differing spellings corresponding to the three genders. So, for instance, the pronoun autos, usually translated “he,” is masculine in form, like the Greek nouns ophthalmos (“eye”) and adelphos (“brother”). Notice that they all have the same ending, -os (when used as the subject or to describe the subject; the endings change in other grammatical positions in a sentence). Not all masculine subject nouns have this ending, but it is the most common. The pronoun autē, usually translated “she,” is feminine in form, like the Greek nouns zōē (“life”) and adelphē (“sister”). Again, one can see a common ending, though as with the masculine other endings occur with other words having a feminine gender. The pronoun auto (found in Romans 8:16), usually translated “it,” is neuter in form, like the Greek nouns onoma (“name”) and paidion (“child”). Here one can see two of the most common ending forms for neuter nouns in the subject form: –ma (pneuma, onoma, sperma, etc.) and –on (paidion, euangelion, xulon, etc.).
Now, you may already have noticed something rather important and relevant to our topic. All three grammatical genders can be used in reference to persons and to non-persons. So, for example, the nouns adelphos, adelphē, and paidion all normally and literally refer to persons (brother, sister, child), while the nouns ophthalmos, zōē, and onoma all normally and literally refer to non-persons, whether things or abstractions (eye, life, and name). This information leads to the following conclusion: grammatical gender does not indicate personhood or non-personhood; it doesn’t equate to biological gender even though it often coincides with it. A noun’s grammatical gender may coincide with the biological gender of the object to which the noun refers, but it need not do so and often does not do so. Nor does the grammatical gender of a noun indicate whether the object to which the noun refers is a person or not. It is the meaning of the noun itself especially as used in context—not its grammatical gender—that informs the reader as to whether it is referring to a person or to something impersonal. Thus, the fact that the noun for “Spirit” in Greek, pneuma, is grammatically neuter does not indicate or imply that the Spirit is impersonal, contrary to the uninformed claims of some critics of the doctrine of the Trinity. The authors of the anti-Trinitarian book One God, One Lord inconsistently appeal to the neuter gender of the noun pneuma and then immediately dismiss the evidence of the masculine noun paraklētos (“Comforter”) on the grounds that “languages that assign a gender to nouns do so in a rather arbitrary manner.”2 Quite so—and the masculine form of paraklētos is not proof that the Holy Spirit is a person. By the same token, then, the neuter form of pneuma is not proof that the Holy Spirit is not a person.
An easy and noncontroversial example of a neuter noun that normally and literally refers to a person is the Greek noun paidion, “child.” The noun occurs 52 times in the Greek New Testament (and 168 times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament). The fact that it is neuter has absolutely nothing to do with whether it refers to a person. One can in no way infer that a child is not a person, or even that it might not be a person, from the fact that the Greek noun paidion happens to be neuter. Jesus is called a paidion eleven times in the New Testament (Matt. 2:8, 9, 11, 13 [2x], 14, 20 [2x]; Luke 2:17, 27, 40), all in reference to the period of several years after his birth.
Likewise, pronouns that are neuter and that refer back to neuter nouns like paidion do not imply that their referent is impersonal. The pronoun normally is grammatically neuter to agree in grammatical form with the noun that is its antecedent (a fancy term for the word to which it refers). From the fact that a neuter pronoun is used in reference to a neuter noun one can conclude only that the writer was following normal grammatical protocol. It has nothing to do with the metaphysical status of the object to which the noun and pronoun refer. So, for example, Matthew uses the masculine pronoun auto (the same pronoun we saw in Romans 8:16) in reference to “the child” Jesus: “Rise, take the child [paidion] and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Matt. 2:13 ESV). Here the ESV uses “him” to translate the Greek pronoun auto (as does the KJV also). Luke uses the same pronoun auto in reference to Jesus as paidion twice (Luke 2:28, 40).
Thus, in Romans 8:16, and in other such texts, the use of the neuter pronoun auto to refer to the Spirit tells the reader absolutely nothing about whether the Spirit is a person, a force, or an abstraction. That isn’t the pronoun’s job. The pronoun is simply agreeing grammatically with the grammatical gender of the noun pneuma, which happens to be grammatically neuter. As we have seen, grammatical gender also tells us nothing about the personal status of the object to which the noun refers. So the objection from neuter pronouns against the personhood of the Holy Spirit fails. It is a bad argument because it misunderstands something very basic about the Greek language—something any first-semester student of Greek should know.
1. Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound (Lanham, MD: International Scholars Publications, 1998), 225; Mark H. Graeser, John A. Lynn, and John W. Schoenheit, One God, One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, 2000), 595-96.
2. Graeser, Lynn, and Schoenheit, One God, One Lord, 595-96.