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Definition by Etymology or Root Meaning: Bad Arguments against the Personhood of the Holy Spirit #4

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Definition by Etymology or Root Meaning: Bad Arguments against the Personhood of the Holy Spirit #4

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

One of the many popular anti-Trinitarian arguments against the personhood of the Holy Spirit has to do with the Greek word pneuma, translated “Spirit” or “spirit” depending on context. (A similar argument is used with regards to the Hebrew word ruach, but we’ll focus here on the New Testament.) Anti-Trinitarians often appeal to the etymology, or word origin, for pneuma, pointing out that it originates from a Greek verb meaning “to blow,” which doesn’t sound like a promising derivation for the name of a person.1 Or in a related argument, they will argue that the “root,” “basic,” or “literal” meaning of the word pneuma is “breath” or “wind,”2 or that pneuma is synonymous with “breath” or “wind,” and from there conclude that the Holy Spirit is merely an impersonal force that issues from God.3

Both the argument from etymology and the argument from a word’s supposedly “basic” meaning are exegetically fallacious forms of reasoning. Biblical scholars have been warning against these “word-study” fallacies for years,4 but most Bible readers, whether anti-Trinitarian or Trinitarian, have not gotten the memo, so the former keep using the arguments and the latter keep being flummoxed by them. As has often been pointed out, the English word nice derives etymologically from the Latin word nescio, which meant “ignorant,” but this tells us nothing about the meaning of the word nice! The Hebrew word el apparently has “might” as its etymological root, but this cannot be taken to mean that God is an impersonal force of “might” into which human beings can tap. The relevance of this second example to the debate over the meaning of pneuma ought to be obvious.

Words have their meanings in the contexts of their uses, and these meanings can vary from one place to another. To get a sense for how a word is typically (not always) used, one must survey all of the occurrences of that word, at least in a large enough body of literature and with enough occurrences to warrant viewing the selection as representative.

The word pneuma occurs 379 times in the Greek New Testament. Of these, approximately 258 occurrences are used in reference to the Holy Spirit. (Exact numbers are debatable because in a handful of texts there can be reasonable differences in how the text is understood, but the broad picture remains the same.) In one text God the Father is described as pneuma (“God is pneuma,” John 4:24) and in one text the risen Christ is (“became a life-giving pneuma,” 1 Cor. 15:45). Obviously, God the Father and Jesus Christ are both persons, not impersonal forces or abstract attributes.  About 61 occurrences refer to demons or angels or other unspecified supernatural beings, including 22 references specifically to “unclean spirits” alone.5 Most readers of the Bible understand that in the biblical worldview these demons, unclean spirits, and angels were viewed as personal beings, not impersonal forces. About 40 texts use the word in an anthropological context, i.e., referring to the inner person or invisible aspect of human beings (“my spirit,” “spirit and body,” etc.). These include two likely references to the spirits of departed human beings awaiting the final resurrection (Heb. 12:9, 23). The remaining 18 or so texts use the word “spirit” in reference to the attitude or disposition of individuals or groups of people.

The foregoing survey of New Testament usage of pneuma reveals just how shallow the anti-Trinitarian argument is. In actual usage the notions of breath or wind have receded to the background of the word pneuma; in fact, the word can never be translated “breath” or “wind” except where the word is used in symbolic imagery in reference to demons or deity (John 3:8a; 2 Thess. 2:8; Rev. 13:15). Nor does pneuma ever have the meaning of an impersonal force or energy or of the abstract attribute of power. Instead we find that pneuma is used in reference to the following:

  • God
  • Christ
  • the Holy Spirit
  • demonic and unclean spirits
  • angels and other generic spirits
  • departed human spirits
  • the inner aspect or person of human beings

In actual New Testament usage, then, it frequently, and arguably most often, refers to persons, not to impersonal forces or abstractions. Of course, anti-Trinitarians can still try to mount arguments from specific uses in context that the Holy Spirit is not a person. However, the word-study arguments that appeal to the etymology or basic meaning of pneuma fail. They are bad arguments and honest anti-Trinitarians should simply abandon them.



1. “Spirit,” in Insight on the Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1988), 2:1017.

2. Patrick Navas, Divine Truth or Human Tradition? A Reconsideration of the Roman Catholic-Protestant Doctrine of the Trinity in Light of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, rev. ed. (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2011), 503-504.

3. 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), 597.

4. See, for example, J. P. Louw, Semantics of New Testament Greek, SBL Semeia Studies (Philadelphia: Fortress Press; Chico, CA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1982), 23-38; Moises Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meanings: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 35-51; D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 26-32; Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. and expanded ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 84-89. Such references could be multiplied. For a recent discussion aimed at a popular readership see Richard L. Schultz, Out of Context: How to Avoid Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 63-65.

5. On angels and demons as personal beings, see Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Sense and Nonsense about Angels and Demons (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 38-41.