The phrase “spirit world” does not appear in the Greek New Testament. Spirits, both good and evil, however, abound in the New Testament (NT). Their place of origin is usually not stated, but occasionally we see that spirits come “from heaven” (1 Pet 1.12), are “from God” (1 John 4.2), are “in prison” (1 Pet 3.19) or are “in Hades” (Luke 16.23). In the conclusion of an article for The Bible Translator , I suggested that τὸ πνεῦμα might translate as “the spirit world” whenever it appears as a source from which spirits arrive.
The question that most concerned me at the time, however, was the following: Is “the Holy Spirit” of trinitarian thinking the same “holy spirit” expressed by first-century writers of the Greek New Testament? I answered that trinitarian readings were not sensitive to certain nuances of the Greek text such as the anarthrous form πνεῦμα ἅγιον to mean “a holy spirit” and the categorical function of τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ to mean a multiplicity of spirits from God. Furthermore, in the light of a greater sensitivity to the historical situation of the spirit beliefs of the earliest Christians, I concluded that the doctrine of the deity of the Holy Spirit is an imposition of a later theological system onto the biblical text.
I suggested that what NRSV renders as “the Spirit,” “the Spirit of God,” and “the Holy Spirit,” we might translate instead as “the spirit world,” “God’s spirits,” “the spirit world of God,” or “the holy spirit world.” But I neither gave any justification for translating τὸ πνεῦμα as “the spirit world”—the word “world” [κόσμος] does not appear in the Greek text—nor did I suggest in which verses of the NT might τὸ πνεῦμα be translated as “the spirit world.” I also did not name the verses in which the singular πνεῦμα might denote the plural “spirits.”
In this article then I will argue the following: 1) the translation of τὸ πνεῦμα as “the spirit world” is more historically accurate than trinitarian-inspired translations; and 2) the singular forms τὸ πνεῦμα and πνεῦμα are sometimes generic singulars for a plurality of spirits.
II. What About “the Holy Spirit” of the Trinity?
At first glance, trinitarian-inspired translations are appealing because they maintain the translation of the Greek phrases τὸ πνεῦμα, τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ, and τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον without any added words that do not appear in the Greek text such as κόσμος, “world.” Trinitarian-inspired translations also have the backing of 1600 years of history, church imprimatur, and familiarity among laity.
Biblical scholars who work in the original biblical languages, however, are aware of the necessity of sometimes adding words in translation in order to render, as fully as possible, the meaning of the Greek text. They are also aware of the hermeneutical problem between what a text meant and what a text means: to whom is the translator responsible, the author of a biblical text or the reader of that text?
Trinitarian-inspired translations, reflected in the capitalization of “the Holy Spirit,” do not reflect the intent of the original authors of the NT documents. These translations derive from a long, gradual, and often complicated movement in patristic exegesis (and debate) beginning around the third century with Tertullian and Origen, and continuing into the fourth century with Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus). Each church father contributed in their own way to what we now know as the doctrine of the deity of the Holy Spirit, which is a subset of the much larger trinitarian theology that involve both God and Christ.
In the third century, there emerged technical terminology for the Godhead in the writings of Tertullian (ca. 160-225) (Against Praxaes) and Origen (185-ca. 251) (On First Principles), such as hypostasis, subsistentia, ousia, natura, and prosopon, though not yet fixed in meaning at that time, would later comprise the vocabulary of fourth-century trinitarian theology. This terminology is not used in the NT for the ontological categories of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as persons. Tertullian, however, provides unity for the three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the term he coins trinitas, “trinity,” which comes from two Latin words, trias, “three,” and unitas, “united” (On Modesty 21.16; Against Praxaes 8). He gives the spiritus sanctus the titles deus, “God,” and dominus, “Lord” (Against Praxaes 1.2, 13) and provides vocabulary for subsequent trinitarian theology (three persons and one substance).
Movement toward synthesizing the doctrine of the deity of the Holy Spirit accelerated during a twenty-one year period from 360 to the Council of Constantinople in 381 in the contributions of Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers. During this period the move to demarcate the Spirit from the rest of the angels and spirits of creation became even more explicit and pressing. The uniqueness of the Holy Spirit within the Godhead became the subject of a synod for the first time in 362 in Alexandria, on the return of Athanasius from his third exile. In his Epistles to Serapion, Athanasius summarizes the status that the Holy Spirit would come to have in the doctrine of the Trinity: “It is obvious that the Spirit is not one being of the many nor an angel, but one unique being, or rather, he belongs to the Logos who is one, and to God who is one, and is also of the same substance.”
Debate over the deity of the Holy Spirit was not easily settled during the twenty years before the Council of Constantinople in 381. Two observations of the Spirit, however, were sometimes used that were meant to help explain its divinity: 1) the attributes of the Spirit in the NT; and 2) 1 Cor 2.10-12 where it is written that the Spirit is ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ, “from God.” The attributes of the Spirit such as the Spirit “of God,” “of grace,” “of the Lord,” and “of Christ” served as signs for the Spirit’s divinity. The Spirit is also never called ἄγγελος, “an angel,” which is a type of spiritual creature in the NT. As a part of the “unoriginated Triad” (ἀγενήτῳ Τριάδι) the Spirit has a unique relation to the Father and the Son apart from the creaturely angels.
Patristic readings of 1 Cor 2.10-12 were meant to show that the Spirit must be like God. The Spirit is “from God,” who is an Uncreated Being, so the Spirit’s nature is likewise uncreated and eternal. Therefore, there is only one such Spirit. These readings also contributed to the notion that the Spirit was a particular hypostasis, “individual personal existence,” not unlike the other two hypostases, the Father and the Son, who exist together apart from the created order.
The attributes of the Spirit may have been exaggerated in order to conclude that the Spirit is divine. Angels have many of the same attributes as the Spirit in the NT. The attributes of the Spirit never suggest that the Spirit is God but that the Spirit “belongs to” and “comes from” God (genitive of belonging). Moses actually has a much stronger claim to divinity than does the Holy Spirit. Unlike the Holy Spirit in the NT, Moses is called θεός, “God” (LXX Exod 4.16). The Holy Spirit is never called “God” in the NT.
Fourth-century church fathers were privy to a spirit world populated with many good spirits whom they called “angels.” The phrase τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ in 1 Cor 2.12 is read by Cyril, Athanasius, Basil, and Ambrose (see n. 12) to indicate the uniqueness and uncreated nature of the Spirit “from God” apart from these angels. But this reading is misleading, for the identical grammatical construction in 1 John 4.2 denotes a plurality of spirits “from God,” πᾶν πνεῦμα . . . ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἔστιν. A plurality of spirits from God casts doubt upon the theological notion that the Spirit is unique and uncreated because it is “from God.”
III. The Impact of Fourth-Century Patristic Pneumatology on Modern Studies of the Spirit World in the NT
The patristic doctrine of the Holy Spirit created a pneumatological divide that continues to this day: the Holy Spirit > all other spirits, angels, good or evil. We see this pneumatological divide in modern works that study the “principalities,” “angels,” and “powers” in the NT. The Greek phrases πνεῦμα ἅγιον and πνεῦμα θεοῦ are treated as a spiritual reality that is removed from the rest of the “minor” spirit beings such as angels, demons, and powers.
Theological treatments of the spirit world tend to discuss spirit within two separate categories: (1) “spirit” as angels and demons; and (2) “spirit” as “the Holy Spirit.” Such a distinction has created two categories for “spirit” in Christian doctrine: Pneumatology—God the Holy Spirit; and Angelology—holy angels and evil angels.
Thomas A. Noble argues that any attempt to articulate a “theology of the spirit world” must “begin from the central Christian doctrines affirmed in the creeds.” Noble is committed to trinitarianism as a guide for outlining Christian doctrine on the spirit world. This approach maintains the pneumatological divide that we find in Atahanasius and the Cappadocians.
IV. The Spirit is Not a Deity in the NT
Since the pneumatological divide is not explicit in the NT, but only made clear later, most scholars admit that there is no explicit doctrine of the deity of the Holy Spirit in the NT. Those who agree with this position, claim that the NT is, nevertheless, the seedbed from which sprang later trinitarian theology. Thomas F. Torrance, commenting on the “triadic formulations” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the NT (e.g., Matt 28.19), is representative of this view: “While these formulations do not give us an explicit doctrine of the Holy Spirit, they do more than pave the way for it.” This is a correct observation. A doctrine of the Holy Spirit is not in the NT, yet so-called triadic formulae did pave the way for fourth-century doctrine of the deity of the Holy Spirit. Gregory of Nazianzus, however, claims that the deity of the Holy Spirit was already expressed in Scripture, and that the Spirit simply needed to reveal it for us in the later, more mature Church Age, i.e., the deity of the Spirit is not extra-biblical.
As for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the NT, many scholars note the difference between the first century and later developments. Christopher Stead noted that Paul’s language “gives us no reason to suppose that there was any stable convention in the Church of his time for grouping together Father, Son and Spirit as a triad; indeed, there are scattered references to a quite different triad of Father, Son and the angels (Mark 13:32, Luke 9:26, cf. 1 Tim 5:21).”
The historical limits of the NT require us to agree with Udo Schnelle that Paul (and other authors of the NT documents) “is doubtless no advocate of a trinitarian doctrine later fixed in ontological categories and expressed in the concept of persons.” This observation alone should suffice for us to explore translations of πνεῦμα language in the historical context of the first century without recourse to later patristic interpretations.
V. The Spirit and the Spirits
Christian theology of the Spirit has always proven difficult in the light of a plurality of spirits from God. Some scholars observe the “one Spirit” and “spirits” contrast in 1 Cor 12.11 and 1 Cor 14.12 as a theological aberration. Roy A. Harrisville believes that Paul’s use of “spirits” in 1 Cor 14.12 is odd because “it reflects a notion of Spirit as multiple.” James D. G. Dunn states that the use of the plural “spirits” in 1 Cor 14.12, 32 “have caused some perplexity.”
Other biblical scholars of the past have made similar observations, but they were not compelled by fourth-century pneumatology. Hermann Gunkel, for instance, wondered whether in the NT age the Spirit of God was “separated” into various spirits since 1 Cor 14.12 shows a variety of “spirits” from which various spiritual gifts are derived.
Writing on the spirit of God in the Old Testament and early Judaism, Paul Volz admits the difficulty of maintaining the view that the spirit of God is “similar yet different and apart” from other spirits. The spirit of God may perform an office that is usually relegated to that of an angelic being. In early Jewish texts there appear spirits of truth as well as other good spirits that make up the heavenly realm. Their relationship to God is not always clear.
The spirit of God has been thought to express a plurality of spirits. Otto Everling quoted an intriguing statement from Georg Ludwig Hahn’s Theologie des Neuen Testament: “The Spirit of God referred to a multiplicity of spirits.” Likewise, Adolf Schlatter believed that the “one spirit” (1 Cor 12.11) was a rubric for multiple good spirits who functioned as a group under God.
In a more recent study, Guy Williams notes that most NT scholars make the familiar distinction between the Holy Spirit and other (lesser) spirits. Williams wonders, however, if such a distinction is compatible with the NT. He asks, “How could an ancient person like Paul persistently refer to something called ‘the Spirit’ and not suppose that it had anything to do with spirits more generally? What could give rise to such an interpretation?” Williams answers these questions in the following manner:
The main factor here is Christian theology, of which biblical studies mostly remains a sub—department. This theology is Trinitarian and so it is axiomatic that the NT upholds a doctrine of the Holy Spirit (with capital letters assigned by English translators). This Spirit is regarded as a different order of being from other spirits; it is divine, but they are merely supernatural. In historical—critical terms, this finds expression in the argument that the attributes of the Spirit set it apart. Its apparent supernatural effects and power are only a secondary aspect, subordinate to its unique theological meaning as a part of God.
Williams notes the effects of patristic pneumatology on English translations of πνεῦμα terminology in the Greek NT. These translations “confidently distinguish between ‘the Spirit’ and ‘spirits’ . . . doing so by supplying capital letters and definite articles which are lacking in the Greek MSS.” Williams also observes that biblical scholarship, so familiar with the Holy Spirit as expressive of Christian doctrine, neglects the fact that Paul made no effort to distinguish between spirits from God and the Spirit of God. Williams further notes that τὰ ἑπτὰ πνεύματα τοῦ θεοῦ, “the seven spirits of God,” in Rev 5.6 shows that God’s Spirit in not necessarily one.
VI. If the Spirit is Not a Deity in the NT, then What is It?
By observing the historical boundaries of the NT, Schnelle can say that τὸ πνεῦμα “does not appear in Paul as an independent person but is still thought of in personal terms.” Schnelle is speaking only for Paul here, but we can safely include all first-century authors of the NT documents. If τὸ πνεῦμα does not appear as an independent person in Paul, i.e., during the first century, yet is thought of in personal terms, then what might τὸ πνεῦμα have meant at that time? One clue is found in 1 John 4:2, “In this way you know the spirit of God (τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ): every spirit (πᾶν πνεῦμα) that confesses (ὁμολογεῖ) Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” The phrase τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ functions as a grammatical rubric for an indefinite number of spirits from God, πᾶν πνεῦμα. The spirit/s of God ὁμολογεῖ, “confesses,” that is, performs the task of a sentient being (this fits Schnelle’s observation above). The articular-singular τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ then conveys an indefinite number of spirits. Among the English versions, CEB affirms this usage of τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ in 1 John 4:2 and translates as “This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit . . .”
VII. “The Spirit” and “His Spirit” are Sometimes Generic Singulars for Multiple Spirits
Hahn’s claim that “the Spirit of God referred to a multiplicity of spirits” reflects the function of the articular reference to denote multiplicity which is not an uncommon grammatical feature in the NT. Stanley E. Porter explains that when the article is used the substantive may sometimes represent a category of items. He lists the following as examples of the categorical use of the article: ὁ ἐργάτης, “the worker” (Luke 10.7); ὁ ἀγαθός ἄνθρωπος, “the good person,” and ὁ πονηρὸς ἄνθρωπος, “the evil person” (Matt 12.35); ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός, “the good shepherd” (John 10.1); τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, “the husband,” and ἡ ὕπανδρος γυνή, “the married woman” (Rom 7.1); and τὸν ἐπίσκοπον, “the overseer” (1 Tim 3.2). In 1 John 2.22 we read ὁ ἀντίχριστος, “the antichrist,” is “he who denies the Father and the Son.” Yet, in 1 John 2.18 we see that there are ἀντίχριστοι πολλοὶ “many antichrists.” Likewise, we read in 1 John 4.2 of τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ, “the spirit of God,” yet we see that there are multiple such spirits: πᾶν πνεῦμα, “every spirit.”
Wayne A. Grudem made an insightful observation that corresponds to what we are talking about here: the singular πνεῦμα can express a plurality of spirits. Grudem says that Paul does this in his use of πνεῦμα for the human spirit, “When Paul speaks of human spirits, he can also show unusual variation in the use of singular and plural, using the singular for a multiplicity of spirits in Gal 6.18.”
The non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls provide evidence for the use of second- and third-person forms, both singular and plural, that indicate spirits from God. For instance, the forms “your spirit” and “his spirit” are found among the forms “your [Yhwh’s] spirits” (1QHa 13.8; 1 QH f 33.2) and “his [Yhwh’s] spirits” (1QM 12.9; 19.2).
When modern translators translate “his spirit” in the Old Testament they do not capitalize “spirit.” But in the NT, “his spirit” is capitalized to suggest trinitarianism. This phrase, however, is not exclusive to God. It is used to designate spirits belonging to the devil in the second-century Christian text The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11.3, 4. The evil spirits who belong to the devil are designated collectively as αὐτοῦ πνεύματι, “his spirit.” The singular “his spirit” then neither means that there is a unique Spirit belonging to God nor a unique Spirit belonging to the devil. It is a matter of the singular used in place of the plural.
VIII. Πνεῦμα as “Spirit World” in Translation: An Argument from Grammar
So why make a case for translating τὸ πνεῦμα as “the spirit world”? Shouldn’t the translation “the spirit” be sufficient since that is, in fact, what the phrase says: τό, “the,” πνεῦμα, “spirit”? That is, indeed, what the phrase says, but what does the phrase mean? If the letter “s” in spirit is capitalized as “the Spirit,” then one has already determined the meaning of τὸ πνεῦμα in trinitarian terms.
Since both τὸ πνεῦμα and αὐτοῦ πνεύματι can denote a multiplicity of spirits, what insight might this give us for the translation of τὸ πνεῦμα in the Greek NT? A translation that reflects a multiplicity of spirits is “the spirit world.” The translation of τὸ πνεῦμα as “the spirit world” is effective in three areas of NT grammar: 1) categorical use of τὸ πνεῦμα that functions as a generic singular; 2) anarthrous πνεῦμα ἅγιον, “a holy spirit,” which suggests one of many holy spirits; and 3) the plural “[holy] spirits [of God].”
The translation “the spirit world” for τὸ πνεῦμα is already partly denoted in the adjectival form πνευματικός which can mean “that which belongs to the supernatural order of being.” The adjectival form suggests that the noun from which it is derived, πνεῦμα, can refer to the “supernatural order of being” itself, i.e., the spirit world.
IX. Πνεῦμα as “Spirit World” in Translation: An Argument from First-Century Culture
After a study of the spirit beliefs of early Palestinian Judaism (the time of the first-century Christians), Jules Lebreton observes that “the belief in spirits was at that time much more living than the belief in the Spirit.” Translating τὸ πνεῦμα as “the Spirit” replaces an earlier belief in spirits with a theological premise that created the pneumatological divide during the fourth century.
“The spirit” and “his spirit” as singulars for a plurality of spirits show that early Jews and Christians shared a belief in multiple spirits from God. These spirits must derive from a “spirit world” of God. A Dead Sea Scroll text is enlightening on this point. 4Q403 1 ii.3-4 speaks of the “kingdom of the spirit[s of] his glory.” Williams notes that we “require a label like ‘the spirit world’ . . . for all those beings and agencies whose nature and existence is not fully perceptible to the naked eye.”
The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (ca. second century A.D., early Palestinian Judaism) is representative of early Jewish and Christian thinking on spirits. The NT has exact correspondence to the spirits in the Testaments: “deceitful spirits” (1 Tim 4:1, T. Sim. 3.1); “a spirit of holiness” (Rom 1.4, T. Levi 18.11); “a spirit of God” (Rom 8.9, 1 Cor 12.3, T. Sim. 4.4); and “unclean spirits” (Luke 6.18, T. Ben. 5.2). In T. Iss. 7.7 we see “every spirit of Beliar,” and in 1 John 4.2 we see “every spirit that is from God.” All of these qualifications for πνεῦμα are of early Jewish thinking.
Studying the spirit world in the Pauline letters, Christopher Forbes concludes that although “Paul clearly believes in angels, demons, spirits and Satan, the vocabulary he seems to prefer to use to describe the ‘spiritual world’ is different.’” Paul’s vocabulary for the spirit world is full of terminological variety (authorities, principalities, and powers). The Greek noun πνεῦμα, however, is used exclusively in Paul for a spirit source that originates with God. Reflecting on the use of πνεῦμα and πνεῦματα in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Martin Dibelius said, “It is clear that Paul sees here, as he frequently does, conditions and events that lie . . . within the realm of spirits.”
X. When Can We Translate τὸ πνεῦμα as “the Spirit World” and πνεῦμα as “Spirits”?
The Greek noun πνεῦμα appears three hundred and seventy-nine times in the NT, πνεῦμα ἅγιος ninety times, and πνεῦμα θεοῦ nineteen times. The plural form πνεύματα occurs thirty-four times. Here are my translation suggestions:
τὸ πνεῦμα as “the spirit world [of God]”
Matt 4.1; 12.18; 12.31; 12.32; 28.19; Mark 1.12; 3.29; 13.11; Luke 1.80; 4.14; 12.10; 12.12; John 3.34; 7.39; 14.17; 14.26; 15.26; 16.13 ; Acts 1.8; 2.33; 2.38; 5.3; 5.32; 7.51; 13.4; 15.8; 15.28; 20.23; 20.28; 21.4; Rom 8.2; 8.5; 8.6; 8.11; 8.16; 8.23; 8.26; 8.27; 15.30; 1 Cor 2.4; 2.10; 2.11; 2.14; 3.16; 6.11; 6.19; 12.4; 12.7; 12.8; 12.9; 12.11; 12.13; 2 Cor 13.13; Gal 3.2; 3.5; 3.14; 5.17; 5.22; 6.8; Eph 1.13; 2.18; 3.5; 4.30; 1 Thess 4.8; 5.19; 1 Tim 4.1; Heb 9.8; 10.29; James 4.5; and 1 John 3.24.
πνεῦμα as “[holy] spirits [of God]”
Acts 10.44; 10.45; 11.15; Rom 1.9; 8.9; 2 Cor 11.4; Gal 4.6; 4.29; 5.16; Eph 3.16; Php 3.3; 2 Thess 2.2; and 1 John 4.13.
The eminent British early church historian William H. C. Frend summarized the fourth-century theological position of the Holy Spirit within the Godhead as follows: “It was not sufficient just to confess ‘three persons.’ One had to try to express in human language that reality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sharing the common essence (ousia) of the Godhead yet retaining each their identifying quality or hypostasis. God was Father, the Son ‘was begotten,’ the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded’ but together they equally composed the Godhead.” English translations of τὸ πνεῦμα that follow this theology overlook grammatical, historical, and cultural details studied here.
The advantage of the translations “the spirit world” or “the holy spirit world” is two-fold: 1) they reflect the spirit beliefs of the early Christians as well as the spirit language of early Jewish literature of which the NT is a part; and 2) they circumvent the translation “the Spirit” which evokes fourth-century pneumatology and trinitarianism that do not reflect first-century pneumatology.
Nota Bene: The use of Jacques-Paul Migne’s indispensible Patrologia Graeca (PG) is well known to many biblical and patristic scholars. In my previous article for The Bible Translator (see n. 1 above) I claimed that in his Epistles to Serapion, Athanasius made the distinction between Πνεῦμα and πνεῦμα when distinguishing the Holy Spirit (Π) from other lesser spirits (π). The Greek text in PG 26:537A does show this distinction. But whether Athanasius made this distinction is difficult to tell. He very well could have. But it could also be the case that later copyists and editors of Athanasius’s works introduced this distinction into his writings over a period of time. We do know that no such distinction would have existed in the autographs of the NT Greek texts. For the making of Migne’s multi-volume PG (and Patrologia Latina), see R. Howard Bloch, God’s Plagiarist: Being and Account of the Fabulous Industry and Irregular Commerce of the Abbé Migne (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).