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Monday, March 19, 2007

Every nuance of meaning

Forgive me for this. It is just one of those little things. I have never seen a treatment of this issue. However, since people do continue to complain about the loss of the masculine generic 'he' in English as a translation for autos in Greek, let me ask this.

Why is the Spirit, which is a neuter noun in Greek, referred to as 'he' in English. Is the neuter not a nuance of the original? No, probably not, since the Spirit was feminine in Hebrew.

But, I am wondering what the rationale is for maintaining a grammatical gender in one case, and not in another. Maybe it doesn't hit everyone at first glance because it is one of those pesky vowel-stem verbs, but in this verse, there is definitely a neuter participle, διαιροῡν - who apportions, in the Greek. It should be followed by a neuter pronoun - it, as it wills.

    All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. 1 Cor. 12:11
Here are excerpts from the TNIV and the Gender Neutral Bible Controversy.

    Some adherents of gender-neutral language seem not to understand a basic principle which Poythress and Grudem clearly recognize — that nuances of meaning are of tremendous importance in translation (as indeed they are in any act of communication). Linguists are in agreement that any change in grammar or wording, no matter how slight, always changes meaning.

    Meditation is appropriate to Scripture, because every detail, every word, every nuance of meaning comes to us from God himself, and nothing is to be missed. Of course, included among these details are nuances and aspects of meaning related to gender—the special concern of this book.
Well I shall seem very nit-picky myself. But it is a terrible character trait, that if you love detail, as some of us do, oddly enough, you love detail for the sake of detail. Bear with me - I can be very tedious.


At Mon Mar 19, 04:36:00 PM, Blogger Damian said...


I don't think you're being "nit-picky." BUT, one cannot directly transfer grammatical genders in one language to another.

I'm thinking here of mädchen (little girl)in German. We always translate the neuter pronouns which follow into "she" in English.

It's a similar case with spirit. When spirit in Greek is understood to mean Spirit as a personal entity/being/person of the Godhead, then we use a personal pronoun. This has standardly been "he."

Similarly, when we read a neuter form such as paidion (little child) in Greek, we follow it with a personal pronoun, he or she, in English. We do not follow with "it."

At Mon Mar 19, 06:41:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


I am not actually worried about how this is translated. I just noticed it in passing.

However, I think that the book by Grudem and Puythress makes a great deal too much fuss about grammatical gender. And, of course, who would care but Grudem initiated the statement of concern against the TNIV and never loses a chance to preach against it.

But I personally know the editor of the ESV and some of the principal translators of the TNIV, and I think it is a scandal within the evangelical church that the Statement of concern, signed by the translators of the ESV against the TNIV, is allowed to stand without reproach.

At Mon Mar 19, 06:53:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

It is certainly the case that there is an ideological inconsistency here. Masculine pronouns are used for the Holy Spirit in NT translation presumably because in English you generally can't (politely) use neuter pronouns to refer to a Person (you can in Greek in certain cases; for instance if the antecedent is brephos or some similar neuter term), so this translation is thought correct insofar as the Holy Spirit is thought to be a person (though perhaps this is allowing theological tradition to influence our translation a bit much). However, if this is justified, then if it is acknowledged that English no longer has (or never did have) inclusive masuline terms, and Greek does in certain cases, then it should follow that it is equally valid to eliminate masculine language where the sense of the original is inclusive.

If people are going to derive meaning from every nuance of the text, they'd better learn the original languages.

At Tue Mar 20, 04:26:00 AM, Blogger Tom said...

John 16:13-14 uses the masculine demonstrative pronoun to refer to the neuter "pneuma."

At Tue Mar 20, 07:31:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Damian wrote: "one cannot directly transfer grammatical genders in one language to another."

Surely this was Suzanne's point, against Grudem and Poythress. It is they who are trying to insist that masculine gender is transferred from Greek to English. But if they are to be consistent, they should insist on the same for feminine and neuter genders, and should reject "he" for the Holy Spirit as an "inaccuracy" just as much as they similarly reject wordings to avoid a generic "he" when the Greek is masculine.

The real issue, which Grudem and Poythress do not seem to recognise, is that in Greek, as in German and most gender-based languages, pronouns agree with the grammatical gender of their referents, which does not always coincide with their natural gender; whereas in English, which has no grammatical gender, pronouns agree with the natural gender of their referents.

Kenny, it is clear from the New Testament text, and not just from later theology, that the Holy Spirit is animate, and so should not be referred to in English as "it". With rather few exceptions, only animate beings can take the semantic role of agent, and the Holy Spirit clearly does this in 1 Corinthians 12:11, as quoted, and in a number of other verses.

Tom, I have heard before your argument about John 16:13-14. But in fact this cannot be used to show that masculine pronouns are used for the Holy Spirit, and still less to prove that he is animate (although I believe he is). A literal translation of verse 13 starts "But when that one, the Spirit of truth, comes, (he) will guide you ...", and in 14 the pronoun ekeinos "that one", which is explicitly masculine, is repeated, and that is the only explicitly masculine pronoun in these verses (heautou "of himself" can be masculine or neuter). But the first occurrence of ekeinos comes before "the Spirit of truth", and so should clearly be understood as referring back to the masculine noun parakletos "counsellor, comforter" in verse 7, who is referred to as ekeinos in verse 8. In verse 13 "the Spirit of truth" is added as an explanation, but still in verse 14 the referent is the parakletos. Nevertheless, the verses you cite do prove that the Holy Spirit is not "it", for only an animate being can guide, declare and glorify.

At Tue Mar 20, 07:51:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

Peter - that's a good argument; hand't seen it before. However, you surely don't actually mean animate, which means "ensouled". It would be a very curious thing if the Holy Spirit were ensouled. However, your argument does show that the Holy Spirit is treated as personal in the NT.

At Tue Mar 20, 10:02:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Kenny. But I do mean "animate", in the sense used in linguistics, which does not mean "ensouled", i.e. neither "endowed with a soul" nor "placed, received, or cherished in the soul", see this definition. The meaning of a word is not defined by its etymology. For what "animate" really means in English, see here, where there is no mention of "soul" except in the etymology line. The sense of "animate" I was using was "Possessing life; living", also in terms of grammatical categorisation "Belonging to the class of nouns that stand for living things".


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