The Wartburg Project

July 29th, 2022

81. Spirit or spirit in Galatians 5:16-18, 22, 25

How do choose between upper-case "Spirit" and lower-case "spirit"?

In Galatians 5:16-17, why do you translate “What I am saying is this: Walk by the spirit, and you will not carry out what the sinful flesh desires. For the sinful flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit, and the spirit what is contrary to the sinful flesh.” Why don’t you capitalize Spirit? I'm not sure that the case for "spirit" outweighs the use of "Spirit" in these verses. While I understand the desire for a balance of the spirit/flesh dynamic, it only makes things more difficult for the reader and preacher. In the end, you reach the conclusion that the only reason our spirit can wage war against the flesh is because of the Spirit's power. But now that has to be explained when it could have just been printed that way.

Underlying your question are two other issues: the issue of capitalization in the Bible and the nature of exegetical questions.

There is no capitalization in the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. To reproduce the Bible very literally, a translator would have to use no capitalization, but English grammar calls for the capitalization of proper names and titles. In English, capitalization or non-capitalization may also be used to express differences of emphasis. A writer may use “the temple” or “the Temple” to indicate whether he is thinking primarily of the type of building that this structure is, or he is emphasizing that this is the unique Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Other examples are the Antichrist or an antichrist; the Evil One or an evil one; the Church or the church, and the Holy Spirit or our spirit. None of these distinctions are explicitly indicated in the Hebrew and Greek texts, so every act of capitalization in a translation requires an act of interpretation. The work of English translation requires that some explicit decisions be made in matters which are left up the reader to determine from context in Hebrew and Greek.

An exegetical question is a situation in which there are two unquestioned doctrines in Scripture, but it is uncertain which of those two doctrines is in the foreground in this passage. Spiritual life is worked in us by the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit does not live this life for us. He works in us to will and to do according to God’s will. With our new nature we are participants in the battle against sin.

The key statement in this text in Galatians 5 is “The flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit, and the spirit what is contrary to the flesh.” All interpreters agree that in this passage the term flesh does not refer to the muscles and organs of our body but to the sinful nature that we sometimes call the Old Man or the Old Adam. Since the word spirit here is paired with the word flesh, this suggests that the word spirit here is the counterpart to the sinful nature, that is, that it is the new spirit that the Holy Spirit has placed into us. We call this the new nature, the new man, the new person, a new heart.

In this section, it is debatable in several places whether Spirit or spirit is the best choice. Our translation policy states: If it is uncertain whether a text refers to the Spirit or to spirit, put one of the options in the text, the other in a footnote. That is what we have done here. The preceding paragraph explains why we decided spirit was the best choice here in verse 17. Our footnotes on these verses include the following comments: In this section, the term spirit refers to the new nature in contrast with the sinful flesh. The new nature (the spirit) given to Christians by the Holy Spirit leads them to obey God motivated by thanks to Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Colossians 3:17). The footnotes also list the option Spirit.

In most exegetical questions, it will not make much difference to the preacher which option is in the text and which is in the footnote. If the preacher is preaching about the battle of the flesh with our new spirit, he cannot do this without referring to the Holy Spirit who created the new spirit in us through the means of grace. If he is preaching about the battle of our flesh against the Spirit, he cannot do this without referring to the new spirit that is engaged in the battle against the sinful nature. Whatever the preacher’s starting point is, a well-rounded sermon will end up in the same place.

Regardless of which option is placed in the text, and which is placed is the notes, there will be the same need for explanation of the relationship of the two options.

It is true, as you say, that many translations do not even take note of the option spirit. This is all the more reason for us to call attention to that option so that our readers will see the whole picture.