Gordon Fee on the Holy Spirit

With all the discussion going on about the Holy Spirit these days (HERE for example), I was surprised that no one had yet mentioned Gordon Fee’s book, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, not the least because he devotes an entire chapter to one of the issues most discussed – whether it is the Holy Spirit or a holy spirit. For that reason, I decided that it would probably be helpful to provide a summary of the chapter 2, “Preliminary Observations on Usage.” I’m not going to reproduce all of the references or the Greek discussed. This is from a book, you can go pick it up yourself and read it – this is summary of pages 14-24.

I am also aware that Fee does not answer all the questions being asked out there, but nonetheless, its a very interesting discussion.

The Holy Spirit or A Holy Spirit?

Some of suggested that when Paul’s πνεῦμα usage lacks the article it refers to a spirit, something with divine influence, but not the Spirit of God – more like “a spirit from God.” So lets take a look at the numbers:

A while back, Fee did a study of the use of the article with porper names in working on studying John’s style for text critical matters. The application of a similar study to πνεῦμα is also very revealing:

πνεῦμα in the nominative:

The word occurs 17 times – 15 articular. Interestingly, the two anarthrous occurrences are those that are most clearly references to the Holy Spirit – Romans 8.9 &  Ephesians 4.4.

πνεῦμα in the genitive:

Ignoring prepositional phrase for a moment, πνεῦμα occurs 30 times in the genitive, 28 of those times refer to the Holy Spirit and 18 are articular. The numbers suggest and preference for articular usage, for one. But also, those which are not articular can be easily explained based on other Greek conventions – for example, Paul tends to make either both genitive articular or neither genitives articular (cf. Romans 15.19, or 2 Corinthians 13.13 or Philippians 2.1).

When πνεῦμα occurs in the prepositional phrase we find the same thing. There are 13. Nine of them refer to the Holy Spirit and of them six are articular. “Of the 3 anarthrous instances which refer to the Holy Spirit, two (Rom 5.5; 2 Tim 1.14) are qualified by the additino of “Holy” and a substantival participle, thus making them references to the Holy Spirit; the other (2 Thes 2.2) is an indirect reference (= through a prophetic utterance that comes from the Spirit). Again, articular usage, prevails, and anarthrous usage has other explanation” (20-21).

πνεῦμα in the accusative:

The accusative is similar in usage to the genitive. But we should note that consistently there are good expanations available regarding why Paul did not use the article with the anarthrous instances in every case here. Sometimes its a modifier, sometimes formulaic usage, and a number of other reasons, which you can go read for yourselves.

πνεῦμα in the dative:

This is where most of the difficulties lie – especially since with the dative we have the issue of phrases like ἐν πνεύματι. Here the numbers are flipped. There are 37 instances of the Holy Spirit being directly or indirectly in view (I’m not sure what Fee means by indirectly). 32 of them are anarthrous with only 5 being articular.

What can see say about usage? Paul obviously prefer not to use the article with the formulaic, “ἐν πνεύματι” or even the “πνεύματι.” Instead of explaining why there is no article, now we’re looking at why there is one. In 1 Corinthians 6.11, Paul uses the article in order to maintain a balance pair in phrases. The two in 1 Corinthians 12.9 are, “in a context where it is being argued that the ‘one and the same Spirit’ is responsible for the diversity of gifts; the context calls for this repetition” (23). This is also the case in 12.18. In Ephesians 1.13, the article appears as a result of emphasis – observe the same usage in the accusative later in 4.30.

Overall, 1/3 of the anarthrous occurences are in major discussion of the Spirit and spirituality. They consistly occur surrounded by articular instances, which makes non-Holy Spirit usage extremely unlikely. Also, most other instances have a context that seems to demand Paul meaning “by [the Holy] Spirit” rather than “by a spirit.”

Finally, we are clearly dealing with stereotyped usage. This is especially obvious when you examine other phrases, such as “by the flesh.” In the nominative and accusative. The same pattern appear. Flesh is consistently articular in those cases, but in the dative, with πνεύμα, flesh is consistenly anarthrous.


In seems quite clear that Paul’s lack of article does not mean “a spirit.” Not only that, but the evidence accumulated here should be remembered when one examines the debated passage (Ephesians 5.18, for example). Lastly, we must observe that there is no unambiguous anarthrous occurrence of πνεύμα referring to a human spirit anywhere in the Pauline Corpus.

So there you go, according to Fee, there is no reason that we should trust the occurence of the article with πνεύμα to show whether it refers to a spirit or the Spirit.

7 thoughts on “Gordon Fee on the Holy Spirit

  1. good sum up. Yeah, Paul the Spirit and the People of God is the very condensed version of GEP – but more folks need to read GEP that are willing to.

  2. Mike,
    The omission of articles in fixed phrases involving prepositions was the thing I felt I needed to skip in my post, because it had gone on too long. And because I’m not sure anyone fully understands the details.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a hold of GEP yet. (It make take a week or two.) But to the extent that your summary is accurate, it’s clear that while Fee is using the notions of contrast and markedness, he doesn’t fully understand their implications, or he would recognize that:

    Overall, 1/3 of the anarthrous occurrences are in major discussion of the Spirit and spirituality. They consistly occur surrounded by articular instances, which makes non-Holy Spirit usage extremely unlikely.

    is not an argument, but

    Also, most other instances have a context that seems to demand Paul meaning “by [the Holy] Spirit” rather than “by a spirit.”


    The key points are:

    1) ALL other examples of anarthrous noun phrases understood definitely are relevant but, most crucially, you have to argue for a definite reading independent of English. I.e., in the flesh doesn’t count.

    2) Anarthrous obliques are the unmarked case, even when understood definitely. That doesn’t entail that the occasional appearance of the article says anything about indefinite readings in anarthrous cases, when there is independent evidence of a definite reading (like prior reference, or presence in an activated frame).

    3) What’s at issue is a point of Koine grammar, nothing more, nothing less. When that point is fully understood, then the most you can say about anarthrous instances of πνεῦμα covered by that point is that they bear no evidence on the question.

  3. The non-argument might have been my own fault in summarizing. The exact quote is:

    “Over one-third of the anarthrous instances occur in the three major discussions of the role of the Spirit in Christian life in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Galatians 5, and Romans 8. Since in each case they are surrounded by other reference to the Spirit, mostly articular, it is simply not possible that Paul in these context means other than the holy Spirit when using this formula as well” (23).

    I don’t know if that is more helpful or not…

    The other book I can think of that would probably deal with this issue (though I don’t own it) is by Max Turner (of Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation by Cotterell & Turner fame). He published a book in 98 entitled The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: In the New Testament Church and Today.

    But again, I don’t have it, so I can’t comment on it beyond browsing through it in a library a couple years ago. I do know though that Turner is an excellent scholar, exegete and theologian – I can’t wait for his commentary on Ephesians in the NIGTC to be published.

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