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Instrumental En and Personal Agency

In the Nick of Time

Scholars dispute whether Greek nouns have five cases or eight cases. They certainly display five forms, and those who hold the five-case system see a one-to-one correspondence between case and form: vocative, nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. Those who hold the eight-case system insist that the same forms are sometimes used for different cases. They see a genitive case and an ablative case sharing the same form, with the dative, locative, and instrumental cases sharing another.

Whichever system one chooses, a certain amount of ambiguity follows. Even if dative, locative, and instrumental are not separate cases, they remain distinguishable uses of the dative case. And, as students of Greek syntax know, each also has a variety of sub-uses.

Sometimes the uses or sub-uses overlap between cases. For example, possession is normally indicated by the use of the genitive case. In Acts 1:13 James’s brother Jude is simply called “Jude of James” The expression of James is a genitive of possession. But the dative can also be used to express possession. John 1:6 states that a man came to be, sent from God, whose name was John. John’s possession of his name is indicated by the dative: “the name to him: John.”

Occasionally different cases perform functions that appear to be similar but are actually distinct. Something like this can be observed by comparing the instrumental with the genitive after the certain prepositions. The instrumental expresses what is done by means of or with a thing—as in being justified by faith. In this expression, faith is not doing the justifying; it is the mechanism through which justification is administered. On the other hand, when the genitive follows the preposition dia or sometimes hupo, it expresses personal agency. So John 1:3, speaking of the Logos, says that “all things were made through [dia] Him,” and according to Matthew 3:6, those who came to John “were baptized by [hupo] him in the River Jordan.”

The distinction between personal agency and impersonal instrumentality is not one that English readers often think about, but it is real enough in Greek. When a person does something, she or he is the agent doing it, and constructions appropriate to agency must be used. When an object is being used as a means of getting something done (i.e., when it is being used as an instrument), then constructions appropriate to instrumentality must be used.

Usually, that is. Because sometimes, on unusual occasions, the dative (or instrumental) form can also be used to express agency. In fact, Classical Greek (as opposed to Koine Greek) actually preferred the dative case to express agency after perfect and pluperfect passives. By the Koine period, this usage was less common, but it does occur in the New Testament. Sometimes it is indicated by the preposition en with a personal object in the dative case. Here are some examples:

  • Matthew 22:43, “How then did David by the Spirit call Him Lord?”
  • Luke 2:27, “And [Simeon] came by the Spirit into the temple.”
  • Romans 9:1, “My conscience testifies in me by the Holy Spirit.”
  • 1 Corinthians 6:2, “If the world is judged by you.”
  • Ephesians 4:30, “By whom [the Holy Spirit] you were sealed.”
  • Colossians 1:16, “By Him [Christ] were all things created.”

These uses of en with the dative form produce an even more complicated picture. The reason is that en is often used with the same form to indicate position or location, whether physical or metaphorical. This locative use (or case) can indicate the place where a thing is done, sphere within which it is done, the time at which it is done, or the rule according to which it is done. So the “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:1) are those who experience poverty in the realm of spirit, i.e., inwardly. The very same words (en pneumati) used to indicate agency in Matthew 22:43 are also used to indicate location in Matthew 5:1.

All of this complexity comes to bear on 1 Corinthians 12:13, which says that “we all” have been baptized either in or by one Spirit. The words are the very same that are used in Matthew 22:43 and in Matthew 5:1: en pneumati. The question is whether all church saints are baptized in one Spirit or by one Spirit.

That the Holy Spirit is in view, and not merely the realm of spirit, is contextually guaranteed. The first twelve verses of 1 Corinthians 12 include multiple occurrences of the word pneuma. Every other time that it is used in the singular it refers to the Holy Spirit. That Paul would suddenly alter his usage in verse 13 is nearly inconceivable.

But are believers baptized in or by the Holy Spirit? In favor of the former is the fact that the use of en with the dative (locative, instrumental) form to mean agency is fairly rare. It seems especially rare—perhaps unheard of—when referring to baptisms. The agent doing the baptizing is nearly always indicated by the use of hupo or dia with the genitive form. This is true both in biblical and secular Greek, with reference to both Christian and other forms of baptisms. Exceptions are rare.

In favor of by the Spirit is the fact that en with the dative form can and sometimes does indicate agency, particularly when the preposition takes a personal object (which the Holy Spirit certainly is). Furthermore, the combination en pneumati occurs four other times in the immediately preceding context: twice in verse 3 and twice in verse 9. In each of these instances the phrase almost certainly presents the Holy Spirit as the agent of what He is doing. This is particularly obvious in verse 9, where the preposition en stands parallel both to dia with the genitive and kata with the accusative in verse 8. It is as if Paul is ransacking the world of Greek prepositions, even stretching meanings in order to indicate the active involvement of the Holy Spirit. This parallel suggests with a high degree of probability that en pneumati is being used to indicate agency.

If so, then 1 Corinthians 12:13 is saying that the Holy Spirit has immersed (baptized) all church saints (Paul, the Corinthians, Sosthenes, and all worshippers of Jesus Christ everywhere, see 1 Cor. 1:1-2) into one body. The body is the medium and the Holy Spirit is the agent of this baptism. So thoroughly does Holy Spirit baptism submerge believers into the body, and so thoroughly is the body identified as Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:27), that those who have experienced this baptism can be collectively identified as Christ (1 Cor. 12:12).

The matter is important. 1 Corinthians 12:13 is a key text for understanding the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, it is a key text for understanding the body of Christ. That makes it a key text for understanding the unity of the Church which is Christ’s body. Given the above considerations, a fair conclusion is that the Church (not the local assembly, but the Church that consists of all believers during the present age) is constituted by the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit.


This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.


Whence Do Our Mournful Thoughts Arise?
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

Whence do our mournful thoughts arise?
And where’s our courage fled?
Have restless sin and raging hell
Struck all our comforts dead?

Have we forgot th’ almighty name
That formed the earth and sea?
And can an all-creating arm
Grow weary or decay?

Treasures of everlasting might
In our Jehovah dwell;
He gives the conquest to the weak
And treads their foes to hell.

Mere mortal power shall fade and die,
And youthful vigor cease:
But we that wait upon the Lord
Shall feel our strength increase.

The saints shall mount on eagles’ wings,
And taste the promised bliss,
Till their unwearied feet arrive
Where perfect pleasure is.

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.