Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Holy Spirit: He is a She, Or Not

[It has been some time since I wrote on this blog. This seems a good time to return to Jackie Speaks in order to address an issue that has recently arisen. I place it here for those who seek it out rather than on FB where everything seems thrown into the face of the masses. My desire to offer light and not heat, personal opinion without being confrontational.]

On occasion I refer to the Holy Spirit with feminine pronouns. I do this for differing reasons. Sometimes I just want to see if people are listening. At other times, I’m just having fun. Most often, I am using a pedagogical tool to provoke students to thought and hopefully some research. In all cases in which I refer to the Spirit as feminine I do so with complete confidence the Spirit is neither male nor female, but that grammatically speaking the Scriptures lean heavily toward a feminine identification for the Spirit.

In the Old Testament there are two Hebrew words that are translated into the English word “spirit:” ruach and neshamah. Both words are feminine in the Hebrew language. In the New Testament the Greek word for the Spirit, pneuma, is neuter, neither masculine nor feminine. Thus, the prevailing grammatical references to the Spirit in the Bible are as a “she” and certainly not as a "he." Although, it should be noted that in John’s Gospel Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, a masculine noun.

The critical issue for early Christianity was to understand that the Spirit is not an “it;” the Spirit is a person, a person within a triune Godhead. For the first several centuries of the Christian church the personhood of the Spirit was predominantly thought of in feminine terms and with feminine images. To this day the Eastern Church continues to use feminine images for the Holy Spirit.

In the West, the feminine images of the Spirit were replaced with masculine ones primarily for two reasons. First, Latin became the dominant language of Christianity and in Latin (and other Germanic languages) the word for “spirit” is masculine. However, the reason the shift was so thorough in the West appears to have been a reaction against heretical teachings of some groups. One such false teaching was that the Spirit was God the Mother and that Jesus was the product of the sexual union of God the Father and the Spirit. In order to combat this type of heresy the Western Church (Roman Catholicism) came to insist that only masculine terms and images be used in reference to the Spirit. [See Augustine’s work On the Trinity.]

Augustine also opened the door for what would emerge as the Roman Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception of Elizabeth, a necessary doctrine to preserve the doctrine of a sinless state for Mary. It seems less than coincidental that as Mary was being exalted as a female, holy being, the Holy Spirit was being made more masculine. Could it be there is only room for one holy mother?

In truth, the Holy Spirit is neither male nor female. He is not offended to be addressed as "She," or vice versa. Her personal identity transcends the limits of human language. It is Biblically sound to refer to the Spirit with feminine or masculine terms and images. Further, I am convinced it is a grave doctrinal error to insist that only masculine terms and images be used in reference to the Spirit. To force the Spirit into the limitations of maleness is to cut ourselves off from the rich feminine imagery for God contained in the Bible. In so doing we make God less glorious and less nurturing and less powerful than the Word of God demands. (In my opinion there are some types of strength, or power, that women tend to possess in greater amounts than men, e.g., consider childbirth.)

The Spirit is God; may we never limit God to our finite imaginations. By all means, let us never superimpose on God our prejudices about who is and who is not worthy to bear His image. In Christ there is neither male nor female; In Heaven there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage. Why? It is because the image of God fully encompasses Adam and Eve, the masculine and the feminine. “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).