Does the Holy Spirit Resurrect Us?: Romans 8:11 Reconsidered

Romans 8:11 is often cited to prove that the Spirit of God will resurrect believers from the dead. It is common to see this in both popular and scholarly material. What many don’t realize is that a textual variant exists which creates a different reading of this verse. Though the majority of translations opt for the traditional reading I find it interesting that the NIV 2011 chose to go with the variant against the tide of the majority English translations and in opposition to the older NIV reading. The NIV 1984 read “through His Spirit” and the NIV 2011 reads “because of his Spirit.” The difference boils down to this: in some Greek manuscripts the preposition διὰ (dia) is used with the genitive case and is translated “through” or “by”; in other manuscripts the preposition διὰ (dia) is used with the accusative case and is translated “because”. Murray Harris describes the latter reading as “inferior” (Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament, 73). He notes that διὰ + genitive occurs 58% of the time in the NT while διὰ + accusative occurs 42% of the time (72).

Arguing strongly for the alternate reading (“because”) is Gordon Fee in his book God’s Empowering Presence. Fee believes the critics too easily dismiss the external evidence and says the “same combination of text-types exists even more strongly for the alternative reading” (543n.205). On the basis of transcription probability Fee sees the accusative case as the harder reading “since that is not what one expects when διὰ modifies a verb for resurrection (cf. 6:4; 1 Cor. 6:14)—all the more so when agency would make such perfectly good sense” (543n.205). Fee concludes, “For Paul the presence in our lives of the Spirit of God who raises the dead does not imply agency, but rather expresses certainly about our future, predicated on the Risen Christ and by the already present Spirit; that, after all, is quite the point of the repeated ‘who dwells in you,’ and especially in its second instance, ‘because of the Spirit who indwells in you.’” (553) And he states later, “Although there are no inherent theological difficulties with this position, there are considerable exegetical ones. . . the Spirit is not the agent of our resurrection, but its guarantor.” (808) Thomas Schreiner agrees that the textual evidence is “equally strong” but says Fee is “probably incorrect in defending the accusative. (Romans, 417) Both Schreiner and G.K. Beale reference Ezekiel 37:1-14 which Beale says “clearly portrays the Spirit as the agent of the end-time resurrection in its OT context.” (A New Testament Biblical Theology, 259) I’m not sure that Beale is right when he says Fee’s arguments “could just as well be turned on their head in support of the ‘through’ reading.” (258) He continues, “But even if 8:11 does not affirm that the Spirit is the agent of resurrection, the aforementioned texts from Rom. 8 do.” (259) Here again I’m not sure those other passages from Rom. 8, all of which Fee deals with, will sustain that interpretation. Fee’s interpretation can adequately account for Ezek. 37 (see esp. 671-72).

For me, at the end of the day the scales are tipped slightly in favor of Fee. It’s something to think about.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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2 Responses to Does the Holy Spirit Resurrect Us?: Romans 8:11 Reconsidered

  1. Thank you Louis, your post is helpful. I have been uncertain on this point too.

    I notice that the translator’s note in the NET Bible says that “most manuscripts” have the accusative but that “the genitive ‘through his Spirit,’ is supported by [a list of manuscripts] and is slightly preferred.” Just why they prefer it is not stated.

    While lacking the expertise to judge the case on the basis of manuscript evidence or grammar, I have been to understand better how God would raise us “through” his Spirit than I can explain what it would mean for God to raise us “on account of” or “because of” his Spirit. From your citation, I gather that Fee thinks it is because the Spirit indwells us that we can be sure God will raise us. That would parallel Paul’s reference to the Spirit as the “earnest of our inheritance.” That makes sense, and I’m glad that you drew my attention to it. While still agnostic, I feel better to explain the meaning of both alternative translations.

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    • Louis says:

      Terrance,
      You’ve understood Fee correctly and it does seem to cohere with his thoughts elsewhere as you mentioned. The thought was new to me but the more I thought about it the more I found myself siding with Fee. But as I noted, to my thinking, the scales are only “slightly” tipped in Fee’s favor. I’m still thinking it through.

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