The Holy Spirit as “Restrainer” in 2 Thessalonians 2?

(In this post I had to go into the weeds a bit. My goal is to have trimmed them to a level the reader can see the path I made—to allow the reader to see the forest beyond the weeds. I hope I’ve achieved it.)

Quite a few issues hinder identifying “the restrainer” in 2 Thessalonians 2:6 and 2:7. A fair number of theologians argue for the Holy Spirit in these two verses. And some of these do so based on a questionable pronoun argument. From this shaky foundation the Holy Spirit is imported into the context. This then is used by some as support for the pre-tribulation “Rapture” doctrine.

One shaky foundation upon another.

The Dubious Pronoun Argument

I’ve touched on this dubious pronoun argument elsewhere (Misgendering the Spirit, which has a basis in Another Paraclete?). To briefly identify the issue:

The Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma, which is neuter in grammatical gender. Because the term is neuter, a literal English translation of the pronouns substituted for pneuma would be “it” or “which” (instead of the personal “whom”). For example, in Acts 5:32, we would translate “we are His witnesses of these words, and so is the Holy Spirit (pneuma), which God gave to those obeying Him [Jesus].” And some deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit simply because pneuma is neuter. But this erroneously imposes English grammar notions upon the Greek.

Some, accepting this error, attempt to counter it by construing (erroneously) a different way to promote the personhood of the Spirit. In John 14:16—16:15 the Holy Spirit is also called another “paraclete” (paraklētos), which is masculine in grammatical gender. In addition, there are a number of masculine pronouns throughout this section. Consequently, some have mistakenly assumed that at least some of these masculine pronouns refer back to pneuma instead of “paraclete”, thus (also erroneously) implying personhood. But it is context that establishes personhood—not pronouns. Moreover, these masculine pronouns all refer back to “paraclete” or to a masculine pronoun substituting for “paraclete”.

An analogy will illustrate the problem with this argument. The term logos, “word”, is a grammatically masculine noun. If we impose English grammar rules upon the Greek here, then every occurrence of logos, would be translated “he” or “him”. This works fine for “the Word” as the pre-incarnate Jesus in John 1:1-14. But it doesn’t work in Mark 4:16, which would be “…whenever they hear the word (ho logos) they immediately receive him (autos) with joy.” This context is about the Gospel message, which should more properly be “it” (not “him”) in English.

The 1977 movie The Car provides a different angle. While the noun “car” in English is “it”—a thing—The Car as portrayed in the movie is a sentient, willful being. So, does The Car have personhood? The Car, which self-drives, certainly has a mind of its own—even mockingly ‘laughing’ via the car horn.1 Or should we instead say, ‘The Car, who self-drives, certainly has a mind of his own’? ‘A mind of her own’? Do pronouns—whichever we apply—affect the consciousness, the volition of The Car in the movie?

Also consider the many ships named after humans (Queen Elizabeth II; Edmund Fitzgerald). Though we may call them individually “she” or “he” according to name, each is still “it” in English. Unless fictionally personalized as in The Car, none are sentient beings.

Grammar Limits Importing the Holy Spirit into 2 Thessalonians

Those relying on the pronoun argument for 2 Thessalonians 2 do so because there are two different grammatical genders used for “the restrainer”. One is neuter (2:6: to katechon), the other masculine (2:7: ho katechōn). To account for this, Robert L. Thomas argues:

To one familiar with Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse, as Paul undoubtedly was, fluctuation between neuter and masculine recalls how the Holy Spirit is referred to. Either gender is appropriate, depending on whether the speaker (or writer) thinks of natural agreement (masculine because of the Spirit’s personality [Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13—14; cf. Robertson, Grammar of the New Testament, 708-9]) or grammatical (neuter because of the noun pneuma…). This identification of the restainer…is most appealing.2

To support his stance, Thomas sources Robertson’s respected grammar. We will critique Robertson’s argument—and by extension Thomas’—with respect to the verses in John after first defining and analyzing “natural [gender] agreement” elsewhere.

“Natural gender” is such that a word’s grammatical gender correlates to the sex/gender inherent in the person the word is referencing. For example, “he” is masculine in grammatical gender, correlating to a male. “Stewardess” implies a woman. Etc.

Below we will challenge the above claim that the Holy Spirit’s “natural” gender is “masculine because of the Spirit’s personality” (personhood).

Defining “Natural [Gender] Agreement”

“Natural [gender] agreement” occurs when a word’s gender correlates to the biological sex/gender of the person it directly refers to (“natural gender”) in distinction from the grammatical gender of its antecedent (preceding reference)—the word it refers back to. Stated another way, instead of agreeing in grammatical gender with its previous reference, the word agrees with the biological sex/gender of the person (“natural gender”) referred to.

An analogy from English should clarify:

A1: Though the player grew weary, the athlete was spurred on by the crowd.
B1: Though the player grew weary, she was spurred on by the crowd.

The antecedent (preceding reference) in each sentence is the player. In A1 the athlete is unspecified as to gender, just like its antecedent. For the sake of this example, we’ll call both neuter in grammatical gender.  In A1 there is the usual grammatical gender agreement (the playerthe athlete). In B1 the natural gender of the person (feminine, she) to whom the word refers is used instead of one matching the grammatical gender (neuter) of its antecedent. In Greek, this dissimilarity would be a case of applying natural gender agreement in place of grammatical gender agreement—a grammatical mismatch.

This sort of thing is also called “construction according to sense”, or constructio ad sensum.

From Mark’s Gospel, Robertson finds an example of natural gender agreement over the grammatical:

In Mk. 5:41 αὐτῇ [autē̦, her] follows the natural gender of παιδίον [paidion, child] rather than the grammatical.3

The applicable portion of the verse is “Taking the child (paidion, neuter) by the hand, He said to her (autē̦, feminine)…” Alternatively, Mark could have chosen the neuter form of the pronoun (autō̦4) for grammatical gender agreement between the two words. By choosing “her” (autē̦), he followed “natural gender” instead. Mark went from the general “child” (paidion, neuter) to the more specific “her” (autē̦, feminine)—a grammatical mismatch.

Let’s look more closely at this. In the larger context, Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter. The feminine thygatēr, “daughter”, is used for her in 5:35. Thus, we already knew the child is female rather than male. But the intervening references, up to and including 5:41 (39, 40, 41), all use the more general neuter paidion, “child” as a synonym. Here is the chain of referents:

thygatēr (5:35) > paidion (5:39) > paidion, paidion (5:40) > paidion (5:41) > autē (5:41)
daughter (5:35) > child (5:39) > child, child (5:40) > child (5:41) > her (5:41)

Thus, while 5:41 clearly is an instance of “natural [gender] agreement” over grammatical agreement, the natural gender is determinable by the larger context by a preceding reference.5

An Evil Pneuma Has Masculine “Natural Gender”?

For our purposes here, Mark 9:20 provides a more fitting example. Its context contains “spirit”, pneuma. Robertson opines that this is another example of natural gender usage:

“…surely this is…treating πνεῦμα [pneuma] as masculine (natural gender).”6

But what makes a malevolent spirit inherently masculine in “natural gender”? Is a spirit male?7 Let’s scrutinize.

In the larger context beginning at Mark 9:17, a particular pneuma possesses a man’s son, preventing him from speaking. In 9:18 a neuter pronoun appropriately correlates to pneuma, its antecedent: “…I asked your disciples to cast it (auto) out…”. Correspondingly, in 9:28 the disciples asked Jesus, “Why weren’t we able to cast it (auto) out?”

Yet 9:20 causes a bit of confusion. It contains four different uses of the masculine ‘personal’ pronoun (auton, “him”). Related to this is a grammatical anomaly: the masculine pronoun encoded in the participle “saw” (he). This will take a bit to sort out:

ēnegkan auton pros auton. kai idōn auton to pneuma euthys synesparaxen auton
They-brought him to Him. And [when] he-saw Him, the spirit immediately convulsed him…
They-brought the son to Jesus. And when he-saw Jesus, the spirit promptly convulsed the son…

The proper correspondent for the masculine “he-saw” in this sentence would be “the spirit” (to pneuma). But, of course, pneuma is neuter instead of masculine.8 The late Rodney Decker explains: “As an adverbial participle idōn [he-saw] should agree [in gender] with the subject of the main verb (pneuma), but this is constructio ad sensum.”9 Decker then refers to Ezra Gould, whom I’ll quote in larger context:

[S]ince the action of the verb [convulsed] belongs to the spirit, and is occasioned by the action denoted by the participle [saw], it would be the spirit which is described as having seen Jesus. But [the spirit] does this with the eyes of [the son], and hence the masculine form of the participle.

In all these stories [exorcisms], the man and the evil spirit get mixed up in this way. The outward acts belong to the man, but the informing spirit is sometimes that of the man, and sometimes the evil spirit.10

In other words, though there is a grammatical gender mismatch, Gould thinks this is due to the mixing of the spirit (neuter) and the boy (masculine). Since the spirit (pneuma, neuter) acts through the son (huios, masculine), a masculine-gendered participle represents the son as the spirit’s ocular vehicle here. The possessing spirit sees through the eyes of the possessed son.

Sometimes the person acts apart from the demon. Sometimes the demon acts through the person. From the evidence thus far, one could consider this a case of “natural gender” agreement (constructio ad sensum) correlated to the son (son/spirit), not the spirit.

Mark 1:23-26 provides a good comparison. The translation below is as ‘literal’ (formally equivalent) as possible. Subscripted brackets identify grammatical number (singular[sg] or plural[pl]) and gender (masculine[ms] or neuter[nt]) where necessary for analysis:

1:23 Suddenly, in their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit! He cried-out, 24 saying[ms sg], “What is it between You and us[pl], Jesus the Nazarene? Have You come to ruin us[pl]? I-know[sg] who You are: The Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him/it[ms/nt sg] [autō̦], saying, “You[sg] be-quiet and you[sg] come-out of-him [autou]!” 26 And the unclean spirit, [it-]violently-convulsing[nt sg] him and [it-]shouting[nt sg] with a loud voice, came-out of-him [autou].

Like 9:20 above, the possessing pneuma acts through its chosen vessel. This is grammatically shown by Mark’s use of the masculine singular “he”, instead of the neuter in 1:23/24. Note that the spirit self-references with the plural “us” once each in the two questions posed. Yet when the unclean spirit reveals that it knows Jesus’ identity, it reverts back to the singular (I-know)!11 In 1:25 Jesus addresses the pneuma either (a) through the man [him, ms], or (b) directly [it, nt], in commanding exorcism. The better of the two would be (b), for it makes the most sense in this context (see next paragraph). In this way, the pronoun refers to the spirit in distinction from its host.12 And finally, in 1:26 the unclean spirit (nt sg) comes out of the man (autou), freeing him.13

Though there are a number of interpretive options, we should reject any notions that the plural indicates more than one spirit possessing the man.14 Jesus specifically exorcised only one demon. In view of the grammatical evidence of 9:20, at minimum we should harmonize the plural (1:24) with the masculine singular “he”, such that we construe the plural “us” to include the possessed man along with the unclean spirit.15 Thus, the “I” in 1:24 comes from the spirit, which Jesus rebukes in 1:25. Surely the possessing spirit is concerned Jesus has come to exorcise him it from his its chosen host.16 And Jesus promptly does.

If we understand the grammatical anomaly of 9:20 through the contextual lens of the grammar in 1:23-26, Gould’s above comments fall right into line.

In the account of “Legion” in Mark 5 we find a similar thing. Once the man with an unclean spirit is introduced (5:2), there seems to be no differentiation between the acts of the man and the acts of the possessing spirit. These verses, again, appear to reflect the spirit’s actions through the man:

5:6 Seeing[ms sg] Jesus from afar, he-ran and bowed down to-him. 7 In a loud voice he-was-crying-out, saying[ms sg], “What is between me and You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore you by God: Don’t torment me!” 8 For [Jesus]-had-said to-him/it[ms/nt sg], “You-come-out[sg] of the man unclean spirit!” 9 And [Jesus]-had-asked him[ms sg], “What is your name?” He-replied[sg] to-Him[Jesus], “Legion is my[sg] name[sg], for we-are[pl] many.” 10 Then he/it-began-begging[sg] Him further that [Jesus] would not send them[nt pl] out of the region.

11 Nearby, on the hillside, was a large herd of pigs grazing. 12 So they-began-begging[pl] Him, saying[ms pl], “Send[pl] us[pl] into the pigs so that we-may-enter[pl] them!” 13 And [Jesus]-permitted them[nt pl]. So, after coming-out[nt pl], the unclean spirits entered[pl] into the pigs; and, the herd of pigs—about two-thousand—rushed down the steep bank into the lake. And they were drowned in the lake.

Though the actor in 5:6 is the man, in reality it is the possessing spirit acting through the man, as evidenced by its words in 5:7. In 5:8 where Jesus starts exorcising the spirit through the possessed man, the Gospel writer uses a pronoun (autō̦) that could be either masculine or neuter. We might expect neuter in order to grammatically agree with pneuma, as found at the end of this verse.17 This would concur with the usage in 1:25-26. And this seems the best understanding here.

In 5:9 Mark records Jesus having asked his (auton, ms) name—apparently to the spirit through the man—and the unclean spirit replied, “My name is ’Legion’, for we are many.” This plurality of unclean spirits then (5:10) implores Jesus to not send them (auta, nt pl) away.18 At first blush the masculine singular at the beginning of 5:10 appears to contradict the analysis above; however, the narrator is describing the singular possessed man’s actions spoken by the one spirit representing them all. It is paralleled with 5:9 in that the narrator records a singular spirit (through the man) explaining its collective existence in the man (“Legion”).

Next, in 5:12 Mark records things from the plurality of spirit’s perspective (“They began begging”). Once again the Gospel writer prefaces their statement with a masculine participle (“saying”), but this time he uses the plural to signify the plurality of demons speaking through the man.19 Evidence to support this position finds itself in the next verse: “Jesus permits them” (nt pl). Further, we can deduce that when the spirit is self-referencing, the neuter should be understood (“me” and “I” in 5:7; “my” and “we” in 5:9; “us” and “we” in 5:12). This also assists in confirming the analysis above that the sequence “us”, “us”, “I” in 1:24 refers to the pneuma/possessed man in the “us” as compared to the pneuma only in the “I”.

When prefacing direct speech—except before words commanding exorcism—Mark uses the masculine to indicate pneuma/possessed person. By contrast, in narration describing the scene the Gospel writer uses, or implies, the neuter (5:10, 12, 13), to distinguish the spirit(s) from the possessed man.

Therefore, all the above best explains the example in 9:20 above. In narration, acts of the pneuma independent of the possessed person are expressed by the neuter. And the neuter is used when the spirit is referenced by another in distinction from the possessed person (9:18, 28). Therefore, it could well be argued that grammatical gender and “natural gender” are the same for pneumaneuter. Or, perhaps better, that a pneuma does not have “natural gender” at all. To add strength to this position, we’ll look at one final account of demon possession.

The possessed slave-girl in Acts 16:16-18 provides a great comparison and contrast.20 Luke records the girl as speaking what are obviously words coming from the possessing spirit (16:17).21 The gender of both the pronoun (hautē, “This one” [slave-girl]) and the participle preceding the speech (legousa, “[she]-was-saying”) is feminine, but the words certainly originate from the pneuma. In other words, the feminine grammatical gender is apparently due to the biological sex/gender of the spirit’s mouthpiece—its verbalizing vehicle.

Thus, harmonizing these accounts with respect to gender—and applying a bit of Occam’s razor—one can make a strong argument that none of these accounts of spirits/demons contain examples of “natural gender” as pertaining to pneuma. That is, pneuma remains neuter. When a masculine or feminine referent is seemingly used for pneuma this merely indicates the biological sex of the possessed person. These examples also cast doubt on any notions of “natural gender” for spirit beings generally. I think we must be very careful not to impose human gender ideas upon spirit beings.

The Holy Spirit Has Masculine “Natural Gender”?

Finally, we shall directly engage Robertson’s argument that the Holy Spirit has implied masculine “natural gender”. He asserts, “Two passages in John call for remark, inasmuch as they bear on the personality of the Holy Spirit.”22 The first part refers to 14:26, the second 16:13. In the following we shall see that English grammar notions inform part of his argument on the Greek, which is then contended to indicate the Spirit’s personhood (“personality”).

This is the first part of the grammarian’s argument (Greek replaced with English transliteration):

In 14:26…ho de paraklētos, to pneuma to hagion, ho pempsei ho patēr en tō̧ onomati mou, ekeinos hymas didaxei, the relative [pronoun] ho follows the grammatical gender of pneuma. Ekeinos (“That One”), however, skips over pneuma and reverts to the gender of paraklētos.23

Essentially, he is correct, which I will unpack below. First, here’s biblical context for his argument:

14:26 But the paraklētos[ms]—the Holy Spirit[nt], Which[nt] the Father will send in My name—That One[ms] will teach you all things, and remind you of everything I told you.

Robertson is right: “That One” skips over “the Holy Spirit” to agree in gender with paraklētos (advocate, counselor, helper, comforter). This is precisely why I prefer to separate the middle clause by em dashes (—). The neuter relative pronoun “Which” (hos) correlates to “Spirit” (pneuma), while the masculine demonstrative pronoun (ekeinos) “That One” refers to paraklētos. This is grammatical agreement. There is no reason to press this further. However, Robertson uses this as background for the second part of his argument:

In 16:13 a more striking example occurs, hotan de elthȩ̄ ekeinos, to pneuma tēs alētheias. Here one has to go back six lines to ekeinos again and seven to paraklētos. It is more evident therefore in this passage that John is insisting on the personality [personhood] of the Holy Spirit, when the grammatical gender so easily called for ekeino[nt] [ED: nt instead of ms].24

With respect to the gargantuan effort evident in Robertson’s mammoth grammar, his conclusion “when the grammatical gender so easily called for ekeino [nt]” is a non sequitur. The chain of referents follows:

paraklētos (16:7) > ekeinos (16:8) > ekeinos (16:13)
paraklētos (16:7) > That One (16:8) > That One (16:13)

After providing a brief synopsis of things to come (16:1-6), Jesus again mentions the paraklētos in this discourse (16:7). “That One” in 16:8 directly refers to paraklētos. The verses following this pronoun (16:9, 10, 11) detail functions of paraklētos; so, the same subject is assumed. 16:12 provides a transition to the next thought. There are neither intervening occurrences of pneuma nor intervening neuter pronouns. Thus, there is no basis to assume a neuter would have been “so easily called for” in place of “That One” in 16:13. In fact, the grammar is against it. Consequently, “That One” in 16:13 directly refers to “That One” in 16:8, which in turn directly refers to paraklētos. Therefore, this is not an implied instance of “natural gender” usage, which would somehow go towards supporting “the personality [personhood] of the Holy Spirit”.

Note that Thomas extends his argument a bit further (“Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13—14”). We’ll engage the last reference first, since it is a direct extension of Robertson’s with respect to 16:13. Here’s the text in English:

16:13 But when That One comes—the Spirit of truthHe/It-will-guide you into all truth, for He/It will not speak on His/Its own[ms/nt], but He/It-will-speak only what He/Ithears. And He/It-will disclose to you things yet to come. 14 That One[ms] will bring glory to Me[ms/nt], because He/Itwill receive from Me and disclose it to you.

Since Thomas does not develop his argument—in all fairness, his commentary is part of a larger volume, so was necessarily limited—I can only speculate. Thus, I don’t think it very profitable to ‘read his mind’, so to speak. However, to reduce this down to its simplest, there is ambiguity as to whether the verbiage after “the Spirit of truth” pertains to “the Spirit of truth” or, alternatively, to “That One” (paraklētos). If the former is assumed, then the second em dash should be placed at the end of 16:13. But this doesn’t seem to do justice to the context. In any case, with the presence of “That One” (ms) at the beginning of 16:14, it is clear this pronoun is intended to agree with “That One” in 16:13.

But surely if this were integral to Robinson’s argument above, the grammarian would have included it.

Thomas’ final reference is John 15:26. But this is much like 14:26 in which there is a split between paraklētos and “That One”. Thus, Thomas may include it as a parallel reference with Robertson’s 14:26. But I fail to perceive how this helps the cause:

5:26 “When the paraklētos[ms] comes, Whom[ms] I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth[nt], the One Which[nt] comes forth from the Father—That One[ms] will testify about Me.”

Daniel B. Wallace, in his grammar, engages this kind of argument.25 After refuting it, he concludes (Greek transliterated):

Although one might argue that the Spirit’s personality [personhood] is in view in these passages, the view must be based on the nature of a paraklētos and the things said about the Comforter, not on any supposed grammatical subtleties. Indeed, it is difficult to find any text in which pneuma is grammatically referred to with the masculine gender.26

In a related footnote, Wallace makes a brief comment about 2 Thessalonians 2:6 and 2:7, noting that “Holy Spirit” is absent from the surrounding context.27 Nevertheless, he does think the Spirit is a possible referent for these two verses, though any argument for this cannot rely on the erroneous claim that masculine is the “natural gender” of pneuma.28

Concluding Thoughts

Pneuma is neuter, whether in reference to the Holy Spirit or an unclean spirit.

Yet, isn’t each individual pneuma in the Mark and Acts accounts above in actual fact a sentient, conscious being? Yes, of course. Though each demon (pneuma) uses its chosen vessel as its actor, each pneuma has its own thoughts and will in distinction from its possessed victim. Each is cast out against its will. And doesn’t such sentience necessarily indicate personhood? And shouldn’t this be somewhat analogous to the Holy Spirit? That is, if an unclean spirit is a person in and of itself, how much more should we consider the Holy Spirit to be a ‘Person’ in and of Itself/Himself, regardless of pronoun usage?

We might say “Sally discerned an evil spirt at that meeting” but we understand that it was the Holy Spirit working through her. The difference, of course, is that a Holy Spirit indwelt Christian is not possessed. While an unclean spirit imposes its own will upon its victim, the Holy Spirit allows the indwelt believer a choice. The believer retains complete control yet can allow the Spirit to work through by submitting to His/Its leading. A Holy Spirit indwelt person can choose either to be led by the flesh or led by the Spirit (Galatians 5:13-26).

Too many times it seems theological motives override grammar and context in a misguided effort to bolster a particular position. Sometimes it is needless, for the doctrine in question is secured by other means elsewhere in Scripture. I’m inclined to believe these are motivated by good intentions. I might call these ‘over-interpretations’ and ‘over-apologetics’.

There are other ways to argue for the Holy Spirit as “the restrainer” in 2 Thessalonians 2. From my own research thus far, however, I don’t find them persuasive. If the Holy Spirit is deemed not to be “the restrainer”, how might that impact the pre-tribulation “Rapture” doctrine? And how might that impact your day to day life?

__________________________

1 Trivia: the horn blast sequence is the same each time, which is intended to indicate “X” in Morse code: dash-dot-dot-dash. (Technically, the second “dash” is too long—should be the same length as the first—and the space between the first “dash” and the “dots” is a bit too long.)
2 Robert L. Thomas, 2 Thessalonians, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, Ephesians ~ Philemon; Rev. Ed., D. Garland & T. Longman, Gen. Eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), pp 470-71; underscore added. (A typographical error in the page number references to Robertson’s Grammar [“208-9”] was corrected.) The bracketed portion was moved from the second set of parentheses to the first, given that it seems to be more accurately apply there (“masculine because of the Spirit’s personality”), which becomes evident below when Robertson is critiqued on this.
3 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1934), p 684.
4 But, then again, since the neuter is the same as the masculine in the dative (and genitive), this could possibly have caused confusion!
5 The original reference to the girl comes in 5:23, in which she is introduced by thygatrion (little daughter)—the diminutive form of thygatēr—and this term is neuter though clearly referencing a little girl by its definition. This illustrates that even when the very definition of a term indicates the sex/gender of the person described by the term this does not necessarily mean it will also correlate to the person’s “natural gender”.
6 Robertson, Grammar, p 436.
7 Bear in mind that Robertson’s work was written in the early 1900s, well before any modern ideas of gender.
8 On the surface, this is a grammatical error. A rough equivalent in English would be, “When the boy saw Jesus, the woman…” in which ‘the woman’ is the same person as ‘the boy’ at the beginning. But I think Mark was quite purposeful here. In light of his previous accounts (1:23-26; 5:2-13)—which we’ll investigate below—the Gospel writer intended to more sharply show the distinction between the possessing spirt and its host.
9 Rodney J. Decker, Mark 9—16, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2014), p 17 (Greek transliterated). I very much respect the late Decker, recalling his words from the Introduction in the BHGNT here explaining his selection of commentaries sourced for his two-part volume: “My choice to engage these writers beginning with the old ICC volume by Gould (1896)…is an attempt to give writers their due. Sometimes more recent commentators are simply a collection of snippets from older works, with or without credit” (p xxiv).
10 Ezra P. Gould, The Gospel According to St. Mark, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary; ed. Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles A. Briggs; Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1896), paragraph 5185 (at 9:20). Craig A. Evans, in his WBC (Mark 8:27—16:20, Word Biblical Commentary [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001]), disappointingly, at best merely indirectly addresses the grammatical issue, if at all: “The spirit is said to have seen Jesus, and it is the spirit that is said to have convulsed the boy. The symptoms may have been those usually associated with epilepsy, but the Markan evangelist makes it clear that it was an evil spirit, something distinct from the boy himself, that caused the illness” (p 52, emphasis added). But even this is better than the others consulted which didn’t mention the grammatical issue in any manner.
11 Gender is not specifically expressed here, but neuter is implied from its use in both participles in 1:26.
12 Interestingly, in my software the NA28 is tagged neuter, while the GNT is tagged masculine. There is no textual variant here.
13 Though autou is ms/nt in both 1:25 and 1:26, these obviously refer to the man as distinct from the unclean spirit.
14 Such a faulty notion can come from the plural “the unclean spirits” (to pneuma to akathartos) in 1:28, but this is unnecessary. An exclamation in the plural for one singular surprising action is not uncommon in English: Upon discovering your seemingly non-mechanically-inclined neighbor had replaced the brake pads on his car you respond, “I didn’t know you worked on cars!”
15 Contra, e.g., Robert H. Stein (Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the Greek New Testament {BECNT} [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008]), who specifically asserts, “The ‘us’ refers not to the man and the unclean spirit, but to unclean spirits as a group” (p 87). Couldn’t it be both/and? See next note.
16 This comports with the local context here. Thus, the verb “destroy” (apollumi)—rendered “ruin” here—in 1:24 is likely intended polysemy. On one level the possessing spirit is concerned Jesus will separate it from its host. This is reflected in the second entry in Frederick W. Danker’s The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 2009): “’experience disconnection or separation’—a. lose with focus on what one has or possesses” (p 47). Though Danker specifically places Mk 1:24 in his first entry (“’cause severe damage’—a. by making ineffective or incapable of functioning destroy”, p 47), I think both apply. More specifically, the latter (destroy) applies both singly to the possessing spirit here and collectively for all demons in the new eschatological age Jesus inaugurated. See Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1—8:26, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1989), pp 58-60.
17 Gould, St. Mark, states: “Only the man had been mentioned before, which would lead us to refer this [ambiguous ms/nt pronoun] to him. But the command is evidently addressed to the demon. This confusion is due to the identification of the two” (para 4631 [at 5:8]; emphasis added).
18 The Textus Receptus has the masculine plural pronoun rather than the neuter. Gould thinks this is original (para 4640 [at 5:10]). In view of overall context (to include 9:20), I’m inclined to disagree with Gould, though the manuscript evidence is far from definitive—from what little I know, admittedly. Yet it’s curious that neither Metzger nor Comfort (New Testament Text and Translation Commentary) make note of this variant, for there seems legitimate cause to question the proper text. The NA28 (Holger Strutwolf, ed., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th, Accordance electronic ed. [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012], p 119) lists the following in the apparatus:

αυτους αποστειλη D ƒ13 28. 565. 700. 1424. (ƒ1 2542) 𝔐 ¦ αποστειλη αυτους A 579. 1241. ℓ 2211 it ¦ αυτον αποστειλη ℵ L (⸉ K W 892) lat syp bo ¦ txt B C Δ (⸉ Θ).

It may not matter much in translation, but it might be worth discussion by specialists.
19 The opinion of Gould, Mark, is nuanced somewhat differently, “Here the subject changes from the man speaking for the demons to the demons speaking through the man” (para 4646).
20 See I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008), pp 285—87.
21 F. F. Bruce (The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary; 3rd rev. ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990]) sources Plutarch’s De defectu oraculorum (9.414E) which “calls such soothsayers…ventriloquists who uttered words not only apparently, but really, beyond their own control” (p 360). Cf. Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the Greek New Testament [BECNT] (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), pp 535 note 2, 535—37.
22 Robertson, Grammar, pp 708-709. Here is the complete quote in its context, with transliterations in parentheses after the Greek: “Two passages in John call for remark, inasmuch as they bear on the personality of the Holy Spirit. In 14:26, ὁ δὲ παράκλητος, τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον ὃ πέμψει ὁ πατὴρ ἐν τῷ ὀνόματί μου, ἐκεῖνος ὑμᾶς διδάξει (ho de paraklētos, to pneuma to hagion, ho pempsei ho patēr en tō̧ onomati mou, ekeinos hymas didaxei), the relative ὅ (ho) follows the grammatical gender of πνεῦμα (pneuma). Ἐκεῖνος (ekeinos), however, skips over πνεῦμα (pneuma) and reverts to the gender of παράκλητος (paraklētos). In 16:13 a more striking example occurs, ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃἐκεῖνος, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας (hotan de elthȩ̄ ekeinos, to pneuma tēs alētheias). Here one has to go back six lines to ἐκεῖνος (ekeinos) again and seven to παράκλητος (paraklētos). It is more evident therefore in this passage that John is insisting on the personality of the Holy Spirit, when the grammatical gender so easily called for ἐκεῖνο (ekeino) [ED: neuter (instead of masculine)].”
23 Robertson, Grammar, pp 708-709.
24 Robertson, Grammar, p 709.
25 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), pp 331, 332,
26 Wallace, Grammar, p 332; cf. p 338.
27 Wallace, Grammar, p 332, ftnt 44.
28 Wallace, Grammar, p 332. Wallace does not, however, advance any sort of argument.

Misgendering the Spirit

Language learners should master the concept of grammatical gender. This is especially true for native English speakers. I’ve found many Christians, even some in scholarly circles, who are confused on this issue. As a consequence, the Holy Spirit is sometimes ‘misgendered’.

The problem is birthed from confusion between (and conflation of) grammatical gender and biological sex, as in male and female. From this confusion, faulty ideas arise as to what constitutes personhood.

To state simply: grammatical gender does not necessarily indicate biological sex. Most times there is no correlation whatsoever.

Grammatical Gender en Español

Since Greek has three grammatical genders, it may be helpful to first illustrate from a language with only two. Below are some examples in Spanish, the world’s fourth-most spoken language (after English, Mandarin Chinese, and Hindi).

the cat = el gato
the dog = el perro
the table = la mesa
the bank = el banco
the store = la tienda

Notice how “the” is spelled two different ways in Spanish. The words for “cat”, “dog”, and “bank” have el before them. These words (gato, perro, banco) are masculine in grammatical gender, so the corresponding word for “the” is also masculine (el). Comparatively, the Spanish words for “table” and “store” have la preceding them. These words (mesa, tienda) are feminine in grammatical gender and therefore have la to match.

This use of el in front of grammatically masculine nouns and la in front of grammatically feminine nouns must be maintained. You should never see ‘la gato’ or ‘el mesa’—these are grammatical mismatches, errors.

Now, we would hardly think any table or store is female. Nor would we think any bank is male. And, of course, we would hardly think all cats and all dogs are male.

In Spanish, there is a simple way for designating female cats and female dogs. An extra word is added to el perro and el gato to specify a male:

the female dog = la perra
the female cat = la gata
the male dog = el perro macho
the male cat = el gato macho

The astute student can readily see that the last letter of both perro and gato is changed from “o” to “a” to make it feminine in grammatical gender. This way, the grammatical gender also indicates the female sex of the dog and the cat. But since perro and gato mean “dog” or “cat” generically (without regard to biological sex), adding macho to the end indicates that the dog or the cat is male. In these examples grammatical gender correlates to biological sex.

Below are the final Spanish examples for our purposes:

the Father = el Padre
the Son = el Hijo
the mother = la madre
the spirit = el espíritu
the Holy Spirit = el Espíritu Santo

The only feminine grammatical gender above is found, appropriately, in “mother”. Similarly, both “Father” and “Son” are masculine. However, when referring to God biological sex is not to be understood, of course.

The word for “spirit” is masculine in grammatical gender. But this doesn’t mean that a spirit has biological sex. To specify “the Holy Spirit”, the word Santo follows el Espíritu. And since the Holy Spirit is part of the Triune God, once again, we don’t construe biological sex.

The Three Genders in the Greek

As noted earlier, Greek has three grammatical genders, adding neuter:

the sun = ho hēlios (masculine)
the earth/land = hē gē (feminine)
the water = to hudōr (neuter)

Like Spanish, the Greek word for “the” must match the grammatical gender of its associated noun. In the examples above, “sun” (hēlios) is masculine, “earth/land” (gē) is feminine, and “water” (hudōr) is neuter. So, correspondingly, the words for “the” are masculine (ho), feminine (hē), and neuter (to), respectively. Of course, none of the words in these examples indicate biological sex.

the world/universe = ho kosmos (masculine)
the land/region = hē chōra (feminine)
the lake = hē limnē (feminine)
the open/deep sea = to pelagos (neuter)
the deep sea = ho bythos (masculine)

In viewing the above, the reader may perceive a seeming randomness to the assignment of grammatical gender. The last three all relate to water, yet each one has a different grammatical gender! In fact, the last two are synonymous.

Once again, none of these can be construed as implying biological sex. And none of these are persons in any sense, of course.

the word/speech = ho logos (masculine)
the word/saying = to rhēma (neuter)

Despite what some Word of Faith (Word/Faith) teachers claim, these two words are essentially synonymous when referring to speech.1 And when referring to speech generally, we do not assume biological sex or personhood, of course.

In the case of ho logos the difference comes in the preexistent Jesus Christ, “the Word” (John 1:1—14). Certainly, we recognize the personalization—the ‘Personhood’2—of “the Word” here. However—and this is an important distinction—the masculine grammatical gender of ho logos does not indicate personhood in and of itself. Nor does it indicate biological sex—God is not intrinsically a sexual Being. It is the flesh (human) aspect of Word-become-flesh (Jesus the Christ) that indicates biological sex. Jesus is a biological male in virtue of His human nature, not His Divine nature. In His pre-earthly existence as “the Word” He was not even a biological being.

the Father = ho Patēr
the Son = ho Huios
the mother = hē mētēr
the spirit = to pneuma
the Holy Spirit = to Pneuma (to) Hagios

Not surprisingly, the first three above parallel the Spanish in terms of grammatical gender. The only feminine occurs, appropriately, in “mother”. Similarly, both “Father” and “Son” are masculine. And again, as in Spanish—or any translation of Scripture—when referring to God biological sex is not to be understood.

But when compared to the Spanish word for “S/spirit” grammatical gender differs. In Greek the word (pneuma) is neuter. Consequently, confusion results among many. To some apparently, the neuter grammatical gender necessarily construes a non-being, a thing. And from there it would follow that non-beings are non-persons. But this conflates distorted notions of grammatical gender with biological sex/gender in the English and imposes them upon the Greek.

Christendom, We Have a Problem

Confusion manifests in two ways, with one mistaken notion following the other. Because the word for “Spirit”, pneuma, is neuter in grammatical gender, some interpreters wrongly assume:

(a) this must mean that the Holy Spirit is not a ‘person’, since the Spirit is neither masculine (misconstrued as “male”?) in grammatical gender nor feminine (misconstrued as “female”?);

(b) however, because one section of Scripture (John 14:15—16:15) uses the grammatically masculine paraklētos (“counselor”, “advocate”, “comforter”) to refer to the Spirit, then this makes the Holy Spirit a person.

Now, to be clear, I absolutely affirm that Scripture declares the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit. But this is not due to the masculine grammatical gender of paraklētos. More on this further below.

Generally, the Got Questions site explains Christian concepts adequately (if a bit simplistically at times). But their page for the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit, Is the Holy Spirit a person?, contains the errors identified in this blog post. To unravel, I will analyze one sentence at a time. First the text, from the second paragraph at the preceding hyperlink:

The Bible provides many ways to help us understand that the Holy Spirit is truly a person—that is, He is a personal being, rather than an impersonal thing. First, every pronoun used in reference to the Spirit is “he” not “it.” The original Greek language of the New Testament is explicit in confirming the person of the Holy Spirit. The word for “Spirit” (pneuma) is neuter and would naturally take neuter pronouns to have grammatical agreement. Yet, in many cases, masculine pronouns are found (e.g., John 15:26; 16:13-14). Grammatically, there is no other way to understand the pronouns of the New Testament related to the Holy Spirit—He is referred to as a “He,” as a person.

Error begets error. Beginning with the first sentence:

The Bible provides many ways to help us understand that the Holy Spirit is truly a person—that is, He is a personal being, rather than an impersonal thing.

This is true.

First, every pronoun used in reference to the Spirit is “he” not “it.”

Though this may be true in English translations, this is absolutely untrue in the Greek New Testament. This will be clarified as we go.

The original Greek language of the New Testament is explicit in confirming the person of the Holy Spirit.

In the original Greek language the word for “S/spirit”, pneuma, is neuter, as stated earlier. But this has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not the Holy Spirit is an impersonal thing any more than the masculine kosmos (“world”) indicates that the world is a personal being. It’s not the Greek language that establishes personhood; it’s the contexts describing the Holy Spirit that establish it.

The word for “Spirit” (pneuma) is neuter and would naturally take neuter pronouns to have grammatical agreement.

This is absolutely true. And it absolutely does in the Greek.

Yet, in many cases, masculine pronouns are found (e.g., John 15:26; 16:13-14).

Three masculine (demonstrative) pronouns are used in these cases (and one more each in 14:26 and 16:83) because they refer to the noun paraklētos, which is a masculine noun! Moreover, this is hardly “many cases”, as these are only found in the Farewell Discourse (John 14:16—16:15) when the pronoun refers to paraklētos. The Farewell Discourse is also interspersed with neuter pronouns in the Greek when referring to pneuma. For example, in John 14:17, the neuter relative pronoun hò is used once and the neuter ‘personal’ pronoun auto is used twice as substitutes for to pneuma at the very beginning of the verse—though all three are translated as the masculine “him” in English. This is to indicate personhood in English. To reiterate, these three neuter pronouns are translated as masculine pronouns in English solely to signify personhood for English readers. This is an issue in translation, not in Greek.

Grammatically, there is no other way to understand the pronouns of the New Testament related to the Holy Spirit—He is referred to as a “He,” as a person.

I cannot know if the author is being dishonest or is obtusely conflating issues. As noted just above, the English translations generally use “he” when a pronoun is substituted for the Holy Spirit. But the Greek pronouns here agree in grammatical gender with their antecedents, their referents. And in the Greek New Testament any pronoun which refers to pneuma is also neuter to match in grammatical gender.

So how do we Biblically establish the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit? Murray J. Harris in his exegetical commentary on John’s Gospel provides some helpful introductory apologetics here (the author translates paraklētos “Helper”):

The fact that the pronouns referring to the Spirit…are neuter no more establishes the impersonality of the Spirit than the masculine pronouns ekeinos in 14:26; 15:26; 16:8, 13-14 and auton in 16:7 [ED: referring to paraklētos] prove the personality of the Spirit. In each case the gender of the pronouns is grammatically conditioned…The personality of the Spirit should be established without appeal to the masculine pronouns in the passages cited above. (One can argue, for example, that since Jesus as Helper [implied by allos, “another” in 14:16] is personal, one would assume that the Spirit as “another Helper” is also personal. And the other personal roles attributed to the Spirit, such as teaching and reminding [14:26], testifying [15:26], guiding [16:13], and informing [16:14-15], would certainly be strange if the Spirit were simply an impersonal force).4

In short, it’s not the Greek grammar that argues for the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit. It’s the contexts describing Him. A few other contexts in this regard:

  • The Holy Spirit can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30).
  • The Holy Spirit can be lied to (Acts 5:3), which is tantamount to lying to God (Acts 5:4).
  • The Holy Spirit is sent jointly by the Father (John 14:26) and the Son (John 15:26; 16:7) and is received by believers (1Cor 6:19, etc.), in whom the Spirit performs some of these personal functions.
  • The Spirit’s Deity finds affirmation in the sharing of the one Divine Name with the Father and the Son (Matthew 28:19). If the Father and Son are ‘Persons’, then it most likely follows that the Holy Spirit is, as well. Though equality of ‘Personhood’ cannot definitively be established by this one verse, it’s this verse in concert with other verses that help make the case. As another example of such, Jesus is called paraklētos (1John 2:1), while Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as ‘another paraklētos’ (John 14:16).

No Good Apologies for Bad Apologetics

Using bad apologetics can harm the Christian cause. Anyone who is against Trinitarianism specifically or Christianity generally can use that bad pronoun argument against the Christian faith. Such bad arguments can make us seem like the ignorant and unintelligent (or intellectually dishonest) people that many non-believers accuse Christians of being.

Such faulty arguments used in attempts to bolster a theological position undermine proper Christian apologetics. Let’s endeavor to do better. I know we can!

______________________________________

1 But logos has a more expansive range of meanings. For those unaware, many Word/Faith teachers assert (among other things) the false dichotomy that rhēma denotes the ‘higher’ word from God for believers only while logos indicates the written Scriptures as a whole for everyone, including non-believers. Not only is this reductionistic, it fails to account for the fact that the verbal form (legō) of logos is used quite often preceding speech (so-and-so said [legō], “…”). A good example to refute this dichotomy presents itself in Matthew 12:36: But I say (legō) to you that every idle word (rhēma) that men speak (legō) they will give account/reckoning (logos) for in the day of judgment. Moreover, rhēma is found in only 65 verses in the New Testament as compared to over 300 for logos, while the verbal form legō occurs over 2000 times.

2 I always place single quotes around ‘Person’ when referring to individual hypostases of the Father, Son, or Spirit in order to indicate a distinction between modern ideas of personhood and those of Trinitarianism. The Father, Son, and Spirit should not be reduced to such secular notions.

3 These five occurrences of the masculine demonstrative pronoun (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:8, 13, 14), plus one masculine personal pronoun, are the only stand-alone pronouns in this entire section referring to paraklētos. There are some others implied in verbs (all finite verbs encode person and number, but not gender), though some are ambiguous as to their intended referent (see previous article Another Paraclete?, especially endnote 10). There are also neuter pronouns—specific and implied—referencing either the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of truth in the Farewell Discourse.

4 John, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), p 261 (Greek transliterated). And see note 3 above and my previous article related to this subject.

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