Speaking of Personal Pronouns:
Is the Holy Spirit an “It” or a “He”?
By J.R. Ensey
I recently ran across an interesting take on anti-Trinitarianism and the KJV Bible. Dr. Emery Bancroft (1877-1944) in his book Christian Theology suggested the possibility the Socianism, a strongly anti-Trinity movement founded by Italians Laelius Socinus and his nephew Faustus Socinus during the Reformation, may have played a role in the KJV text. Laelius was definitely a reformer, yet his views seldom crystalized into solid doctrines that aligned totally with the major reformers. His nephew Faustus, however, constructed an anti-Trinitarian doctrine that evoked the name “Unitarians,” or merely Socinians. They believed in one God, that Jesus was not of divine origin, and that the Holy Spirit was more of an “influencer” or an expression of power of the one God. Socinianism became rooted in Poland among the Polish Brethren Movement and a university was established near Kraków.
The movement was later the victim of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and Polish believers were forced into exile in other European countries, including England. There the Socinians influenced John Biddle, later called the father of English Unitarianism. He vehemently attacked the doctrine of the Trinity, elevating the Father and considering the other two as fulfilling the role of subordinates. He held that Christ was fully human, divine only by office and not by nature. The Holy Spirit was not a co-equal divine person with the Father. Biddle was belittled, imprisoned, and fined for his doctrines, but through it all many Englishmen agreed, some of whom came to America aboard some of the earliest ships carrying Pilgrims and settlers.
When the KJV text was determined by the translators, among them was perhaps one or more whose mind was bent somewhat in the Unitarian direction. Bancroft seems convinced that Unitarian or Socinian influence was in play in perhaps four renderings. He says, “This circle of people had a well-defined doctrine to teach. The great mass of Christians refused to accept the doctrine, but nevertheless passed unconsciously under its chilling influence, and almost the whole church came to think of the Spirit of God as an influence, if not to speak of Him as such. In the Authorized Version, the personal pronoun which refers to the Holy Spirit is translated by the neuter ‘it’ [John 1:32; Romans 8:16, 26; I Peter 1:11] as an index of the trend of thought among Christians at that time. Men prayed of the Spirit as of ‘it,’ an energy, proving that the Socinian teaching had chilled the zeal and enthusiasm of Christian doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit.” (Emphasis his)
These references to the Holy Spirit as “it” present no cause for concern for Oneness believers since we firmly hold that the essence of the singular God is Spirit: “God is Spirit” (John 4:24; the indirect article a is absent in the Greek text of this verse), and that there is only one Spirit who is God (Ephesians 4:4-6), not three. We do not view the Holy Spirit as a separate divine Person from the Father, but rather an expression of His activity in the work of transforming believers through Christ (John 1:33), establishing His authority over all things through mighty miracles and spiritual manifestations. The addition of “it,” which is not in the Greek text of John 1:32, Romans 8, or I John 1 at all, neither sets off linguistic alarms nor muddies theological waters. Many other contemporary translations also use “it” in some of these verses (ESV, AMPC, CEB, ISV, JUB, MEV, NCB, NET, NRSV, et al), while others substitute “Himself” or employ a syntax that uses neither—a better choice.
The Holy Spirit is the one true God of the Old Testament and the same one who came to earth manifested as Christ the Redeemer, bearing the name of Yeshua (Hebrew), or Iesous (Greek) or Jesus (future English). Those exercising faith in Christ and obedience to His commands (John 3:36 ESV) are promised the gift of the Holy Spirit which is God Himself being dispensed via the ministry of Christ (Acts 2:33,38; John 1:33). He is not a third “person” in a compartmentalized Godhead divided into three individual, eternal Persons. No scripture in the Bible confirms that view.
Therefore, to view references to the Holy Spirit as the influencing actions of the one and only God (I Timothy 1:17 ESV) is within bounds scripturally. This influence and work of the Spirit will apparently be removed from among men generally with the departure of the church to meet Christ in the air (I Thessalonians 4:16,17; 2:7).
The concept of the Spirit’s work among men as demanding a Trinitarian view of God has its roots in the early church councils, particularly those in Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381. The Christians of the Roman Empire were fighting to end the horrible nightmare of bloody persecution, brought on in part by their rejection of the mythical families of Gods that were part and parcel of the Empire’s official pagan religion. The doctrine of the Trinity was developed during this period and contributed to the partial relief they experienced under Emperor Constantine following his “conversion” in 312.
Socinianism may or may not have contributed to any reading in the KJV regarding the nature of the Holy Spirit, but Bancroft’s thoughts provide us with another interesting vignette of how the greatest Book ever written was put together by the greatest Author who ever lived.