1. Grammatical Gender and God
I was searching for articles about God and gender today and saw this suggestion offered by Google at the top of page 1 of my search. (See screenshot above.) This excerpt mentions that “God is spirit and is neither male nor female”, but then adds that the pronouns for God in Scripture are “consistently male”, and that this is how “God has communicated through Scripture” to us about himself. I used the feedback facility to tell Google that this information is misleading.
In almost all English translations it is true that the pronouns that refer to all members of the Trinity are male (or masculine), but this is not true in the Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Old and New Testaments.
For example, the Greek word for “Spirit” (pneuma) is grammatically neuter, and so, for purely grammatical reasons, Greek neuter pronouns (as well as neuter articles, adjectives, and participles) are used in relation to the Holy Spirit to grammatically “agree” with the word pneuma. These neuter pronouns are then translated into masculine pronouns in English translations, mainly because the English neuter pronoun “it” is too impersonal.
The Hebrew (and Aramaic) word for “Spirit” is grammatically feminine, so any words used in relation to the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible will be feminine. The Syriac Church used feminine pronouns (corresponding to “she”) when speaking and writing about the Holy Spirit until about 400 AD. (Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic.)
Masculine pronouns have often been used in English in a generic way. So it is reasonable, yet not entirely satisfactory, to use masculine pronouns for God in English translations of the Bible. But, just to be clear, God is not male, nor is he consistently spoken of in masculine language in the original languages of the Scriptures. Yet we tend to use masculine pronouns when speaking about him in English.
I usually use masculine pronouns when referring to God, and I don’t plan on changing this custom. I have chosen to be content with the limitations of language on this issue. However, I do not like using masculine pronouns such as “he” when speaking generally about people, which brings me to a second, somewhat related issue.
2. Grammatical Gender of Groups and Individuals
In the Bible, masculine pronouns are also used when referring generically to a person. This is true for both the original languages, as well as for English translations, even when the person being written about, or addressed, could be either a man or a woman. (The “default” grammatical gender when speaking about people in general in Hebrew and Greek is masculine.) The inclusiveness of women is usually (but not always) understood by people who are familiar with the grammar of Hebrew and Greek, and who understand the nuances in the texts. But the possible or actual presence, or inclusiveness, of women is obscured in many English translations of certain verses when masculine pronouns are used and understood literally by the reader.
The famous verse John 3:16 contains a phrase with three grammatically masculine words in the Greek: πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων. Thankfully, every English version that I have seen translates this phrase in a gender non-specific way such as “everyone who believes” (NRSV). The translators have recognised that, despite the masculine grammatical gender, this verse applies to all people, both men and women, and they have translated this intent clearly. But in other Bible passages, this gender inclusivity has not been made clear by English translators who have chosen to use masculine pronouns.
For instance, in Romans 12:6-8 there are 9 masculine pronouns in the NASB, 6 in the KJV, and 8 in the NIV 1984 edition. Yet many of the phrases in Romans 12:6-8 that are translated with the masculine pronouns have a similar grammatical construction as that of John 3:16 (i.e. the singular nominative masculine article and participle). Newer translations such as the NRSV and the NIV 2011 edition have translated Romans 12:6-8 without any masculine pronouns, thus conveying a more faithful and inclusive meaning as intended by Paul, the original author.
In some Bible verses, however, it is not possible to avoid pronouns altogether. So how can we use pronouns that do not convey a gender bias?
3. Gender Inclusivity and Plural Pronouns
In modern English, it is becoming less acceptable to refer generically to a person (who could be either male or female) as a “he”. But, unfortunately, English does not have a singular third-person pronoun that can refer to both a man or a woman; we only have “he”, “she”, or “it”. One way English speakers and writers get around referring to a person, without specifying gender, is by using plural pronouns such as “they” or “their” or “them” even when referring to one generic or representative person.
Using inclusive plural pronouns, rather than “he” or “his”, is important when we are speaking about people, both men and women, in the church, otherwise it can sound as if women are being left out. And some English translations of the Bible are adopting plural pronouns to avoid conveying a false gender bias in verses where there is none (e.g., NRSV, CEB, and NIV).
It is not acceptable to use language that gives the false sense that women are not included in certain Bible passages, or that they are not included in church discussions and sermon illustrations, etc. It is not acceptable to imply or assert that Christianity has a masculine feel. It doesn’t! (See, for example, Galatians 3:28 and Acts 2:17-18.) The gospel is equally applicable to men and women, to both our sons and our daughters. So we must be careful that we don’t insert a gender bias where there is none in the original text.
In this short, entertaining video, Tom Scott explains why we need to use gender-inclusive plural pronouns so that we do not imply a gender bias when none is intended.
 The Greek word for “voice” (phōnē) is grammatically feminine. This word is used of God’s voice in Matthew 3:17, 17:5, Mark 1:11, 9:7, Luke 3:22, 9:35-36, and John 12:28. Plus, a feminine participle that means “saying” (legousa) is used in three of these verses, grammatically agreeing with the feminine phōnē: Matthew 3:17, 17:5, Luke 3:35. There is no implication, however, despite the feminine words, that God spoke with a feminine voice. God’s voice sounded like thunder according to one account (John 12:29; cf. 2 Sam. 22:14; Job 37:7; Psa. 81:7; Isa. 30:30; Joel 2:11; etc). “Thunder” (brontē) is a feminine word too.
Similarly, the Greek word for “arm” (cheir) is grammatically feminine. It is used for God’s arm(s) and Jesus’ arm(s) (e.g., Matt. 3:12; Luke 24:50). But that doesn’t mean Jesus’ arms had feminine musculature. God doesn’t have any arms at all because he is spirit.
The same applies to other feminine words used in reference to God. In John 12:27, Jesus speaks about his soul, or life-force (psychē), which is a feminine word.
With all these words, feminine articles, participles and adjectives, when they are used, are feminine.
© Margaret Mowczko 2014
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Postscript: November 18, 2020
Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390 CE) was the archbishop of Constantinople and a famous theologian. He was a native Greek speaker and much admired for his superb abilities in rhetoric. In a discussion on the relationship between God the Father and Son, he poses rhetorical questions intended to show the absurdity of linking grammatical gender in Greek with the actual gender of God. (The answer to these rhetorical questions is “no.”)
Here is my mostly literal translation.
“One must not … suppose that it is necessary to transfer the whole meaning of nouns used below [on earth], including those of family relations, to the divine sphere. Or would you readily suppose, according to this reasoning, that our God is indeed male because he is called ‘God,’ and also ‘father’? And that ‘the Godhead’ is female on the basis of it being a feminine noun? And that the ‘Spirit’ is neither [male or female, but neuter] because it is sterile?”
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31.7; PG 36, 140-141.
Note that the Greek words theos (“God”) and patēr (“father”) are grammatically masculine nouns used of God; theotētos (“godhead, deity”) is grammatically feminine (cf. Col. 2:9); pneuma (“spirit”) is grammatically neuter.
Here is the translation on New Advent.
“For it does not follow that … it would also be necessary to think that all the names of this lower world and of our kindred should be transferred to the Godhead. Or maybe you would consider our God to be a male, according to the same arguments, because he is called God and Father, and that Deity is feminine, from the gender of the word, and Spirit neuter, because It has nothing to do with generation.”
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31.7. Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. (Online Source: New Advent)
The following translation is in William J. Abraham’s book, Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume III: Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 51.
“Do you take it, by the same token, that our God is a male because of the masculine nouns ‘God’ and ‘Father’? Is the Godhead a female, because in Greek the word is feminine? Is the word ‘Spirit’ neuter in Greek, because the Spirit is sterile?”
Oration 31.7 (Online Source: Google Books)
Conversations on “brothers and sisters” (adelphoi) in Paul’s Letters
Is God Male or Masculine?
The Holy Spirit and Eve as “Helpers”
Which Bible translation is best?
The Feminization of the Church
Towards Equality – My Story
Ben Witherington explains the issues surrounding gender-inclusive language and plural pronouns in the NIV here.
Here is a short article from Oxford Dictionaries that explains the use of the singular they/ them/ their, and that its use “is historically long established. It goes back at least to the 16th century, and writers such as Shakespeare, Sidney, Byron, and Ruskin.”