Tag Archives: the Holy Spirit

Does the ESV Honour the Holy Spirit?

This past Sunday morning, I preached on John 1:29-34.  As I was working on the text, I noticed a potential problem with the ESV translation of verse 32:

And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”

Do you see the problem?  If not, compare the ESV with the NIV and NKJV on the same verse:

NIV:  Then John gave this testimony:  “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.”

NKJV:  And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.”

If you haven’t caught on yet, the problem is with the “it” in the ESV.  The other translations avoid this issue, either through by-passing the use of the pronoun or using the third-person masculine pronoun.  This is what I said about this verse in my sermon:

I need to say one more thing about verse 32.  Look at it with me.  Our Bible translation says that “it remained on him.”  That could give the impression that the Holy Spirit is an “it.”  I want to be charitable.  I think the ESV translators meant to say that the image of the dove remained on Jesus.  “It” then refers to the image, not the Holy Spirit himself.  After all, elsewhere the ESV is careful to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he.”  To be fair, even the old King James Version used “it” here.  The NKJV has “he,” and that is better at removing the danger that we might think and speak wrongly about the Holy Spirit.  What we need to remember is that the Holy Spirit is not an “it.”  We dishonour the third person of the Trinity when we refer to him as “it.”  We always need to speak of he, him, his, when we’re speaking of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force or power – that’s what the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach. No, he is a person, which means that he is a someone.  Scripture teaches that he is a someone whom you can grieve (Eph. 4:32), he is someone to whom you can lie (Acts 5:3) and so on.  Brothers and sisters, I urge you to be careful in your speaking about the Holy Spirit.  Be careful, don’t ever say “it.” Why?  Because this is a matter of honouring God.

So, in John 1:32, while I still wish it would be clearer, I’m willing to cut the ESV translators some slack.  I’m less inclined to do that for another problematic text referring to the Holy Spirit, Numbers 11:25.

ESV:  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.

NKJV:  Then the LORD came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and placed the same upon the seventy elders;

NIV (1984):  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders.

This is a more challenging case, because there is no image or symbol of the Holy Spirit involved.  There is apparently no excuse for the ESV’s approach in Numbers 11:25.  However, there may be an explanation.  I suspect it has to do with the pedigree of the ESV in the RSV and KJV.  Compare:

KJV:  And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders:

RSV:  Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders;

Notice how both the KJV and RSV translate/interpret the Hebrew word ruach as “spirit” with a lower-case ‘s.’  The Hebrew alphabet doesn’t have capital letters like English does, so it can be difficult sometimes to gauge whether a word like ruach is referring to the spirit of a man or to the Holy Spirit.  The KJV and RSV chose for the former and then used the appropriate pronoun for their choice, “it.”  The problem with the ESV is that it capitalizes “Spirit,” normally meaning a reference to the Holy Spirit, and then — inconsistent with that choice — uses “it.”  That seems to be a carry-over from the earlier translations, a mistake that was somehow overlooked.

One of the good things about the ESV is that it is still being periodically revised and updated.  There is a possibility that future editions of the ESV will include better translations of John 1:32 and Numbers 11:25.  I find it hard to believe that the ESV translators deliberately set out to speak of the Holy Spirit as “it.”  Rather, I reckon this betrays a problem common amongst so many Christians:  we don’t take the Holy Spirit seriously enough as a person of the Trinity.  He often has a background role and, as a result, our thinking and speaking about him can often be less than precise.  Bible translators are no less afflicted with this than the rest of us.  However common it may be, it should not be acceptable.  We should aim for giving full honour to the Spirit and his personhood in our speaking — and we should also insist that a faithful Bible translation do the same.

Abraham Scultetus on Baptism with the Spirit

The other day I attended a reception to commemorate the retirement of Dr. N. H. Gootjes, my seminary dogmatics professor.  In honour of this occasion, one of his colleagues from the seminary presented a copy of a collection of writings of Dr. Gootjes, Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics.  I hope to soon have a review of this book posted here.  So far, it’s excellent.

Chapter 6 deals with “The Baptism with the Holy Spirit and the Meaning of Pentecost.”  Gootjes discusses the history of how various figures have interpreted “baptism with the Spirit.”  One of the figures he mentions is Abraham Scultetus.  Scultetus was a professor at the Reformed academy in Heidelberg.  He was one of the representatives of the Palatinate at the Synod of Dort, 1618-19.  Here’s what Gootjes has to say about him:

In the period that followed [Calvin], this view that the baptism with the Spirit is in fact the essence of the baptism of John and of Christian baptism was very influential.  A noteworthy exception is A. Scultetus (1566-1625), a theologian of great influence at the Synod of Dort, 1618-19.  He mentioned that the general understanding is that John the Baptist distinguished the external baptism and the administration by himself and other ministers from the internal administration of Christ.  However, Scultetus cannot agree with this.  In his opinion, Luke 3:16 mentions two baptisms: a baptism with water and a baptism with fire.  The baptism with water has people submerged in water and pulled from it as a testimony to the Holy Spirit’s work of putting to death and raising to life.  The baptism with fire takes place when the fiery gifts of the Holy Spirit are poured out in people in a miraculous way.  This latter baptism refers to the special gifts of Pentecost, which have been repeated several times since.  Only Christ can give this baptism, and he ceases when the authority of the gospel is sufficiently confirmed.  Scultetus does admit that his opinion is different from that of the majority.

Gootjes has a footnote here indicating that he drew this from the compilation of Balduinus Walaeus, Novi testamenti libri historici: Gr. et Lat. perpetuo commentario (1653): 574-575 as a commentary on Luke 3:16.  Unfortunately, that source is apparently not (yet) available online.

The Efficacy of Baptism

I’ve quite enjoyed Sinclair Ferguson’s The Holy Spirit.  A colleague recently recommended it to me and I’m glad that I followed the recommendation.  It’s a wonderful, detailed, biblical-theological study of the Holy Spirit.  In chapter 9, Ferguson discusses the relationship between the Spirit and the sacraments.  I found what he wrote here on baptism to be especially helpful.

He noted that “baptism is first and foremost a sign and seal of grace, of divine activity in Christ, and of the riches of his provision for us.  It is not faith that is signified and sealed.  It is Christ.” (198).  In baptism, “the Spirit bears witness to Christ, takes from what belongs to him and shows him to his people, clothed in the garments of his messianic ministry” (199).

The covenant of grace is here in this explanation of baptism.  It’s mentioned a bit earlier where Ferguson notes that the Holy Spirit is the one who glues God’s people into covenant relationship with himself (196).  Ferguson would no doubt agree that baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.  However, as Ferguson works it out here, it is more in the background, and what receives more attention in this discussion is the way in which the Holy Spirit uses baptism in the lives of believers.  I suppose that makes sense in a book about the Holy Spirit.

I found these two paragraphs to be particularly thought-provoking:

Martin Luther…would say to himself when hard pressed with temptation, ‘I am a baptised man’; thus recalling the grace and resources of Christ which the Spirit illumines through baptism, he responded with a confession of faith.  In this way, baptism realizes what it signifies, just as God’s word accomplishes that for which he sends it.

An understanding of the way in which the Spirit uses baptism (as well as the Supper) preserves us from the twin errors common in sacramental theology:  1) the error of so subjectivizing the symbolism of the rite that our use of it throws us back upon our own actions, decisions and experiences, and thus distorts the function of faith, which is to turn away from the resources and actions of the believer to the grace that is his or hers in Jesus Christ; and 2) so objectifying the effectiveness of the blessing of the symbol that we identify the reception of the sign with the reception of what it signifies, and give no place to the faith which finds Christ himself unveiled in the sign, or to the ongoing ministry of the Spirit.  The efficacy of baptism and the Lord’s Supper can no more be separated from the ministry of the Spirit than from the efficacy of the reading and hearing of the Scriptures. (199)

If I understand Ferguson correctly, he is saying that the promises of baptism are real for each and every person who is baptized.  There is an objective promise signed and sealed.  Nevertheless, that promise calls for faith in every person who is baptized so that they may receive what is promised.  If you think my reading is off, I trust you’ll let me know…