Martin Luther once asked, “Of what help is it to you that God is God, if he is not God to you?” (Migliore 232) At the heart of this and most other theological questions sits these two: ‘Who am I to God?’ and ‘Who is God to me?’ Many of us are compelled by these thoughts to seek within and outside of ourselves for answers that provide clarity and vision for our life and future. In Genesis 1:27 (NAB) it says, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Bible 19) Both sexes were created by God in God’s image and yet the female is rarely represented in the triune God when we look within the walls of the church. Mary Daly once said, “if God is male, then the male is God,” (Johnson 99) and while our behavior as an overall faith community reflects this, we need to ask ourselves if this is truth. Women of faith are asked to find themselves in the Bible through the women in it’s narrative, yet men are not only dominantly represented within the stories recorded in the Bible, they see themselves reflected in the very persons of our Triune God. This pneumalogical paper will explore how history shaped our understanding of who the holy Spirit is, identify several key characteristics for who the Bible says the holy Spirit is and reveal how women who were systemically excluded from representation within the Godhead can come to recognize themselves within the holy Spirit.
The importance of the Holy Spirit cannot be overstated. Jesus himself emphasized the tremendous value that such a Helper would have to humanity in John 14:26 (NAB): “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name-he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Bible 1610) Although Jesus asserted the value of the Holy Spirit, it’s uncontrollable nature made it a challenge to the hierarchy the church eventually formed itself into: often the Spirit was treated more as a problem to solve or a question to answer than an opportunity for deeper relationship with God. In fact, the holy Spirit wasn’t always understood as a person. “It was the Cappadocian Fathers in the fifth century who fortified the notion of the Holy Spirit as a person. Basil the Great became known as the ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit,’ thanks mostly to a desire to establish the tri-unity of God against attempts at tritheism…” (Clouzet 15) There ought to be a point of clarification around the term person, particularly as we consider the individualistic lens through which Western civilization operates. The personhood of the Spirit does not negate the truth of God as one. “…both mimetic theory and modern psychology teach us is that the “person” is not autonomous — we are in fact interdividuals rather than individuals… non-consciously interconnected far more than we consciously realize. And so, if we are going to even attempt to label the Trinity as three “persons,” we need to acknowledge that the person is a person only because s/he is in relationship with an ‘other.’” (Distefano) Thus, as the Church sought to understand the Godhead, or the triune God, it necessitates that it is not as individual persons but as persons in relation to one another.
This is, in part, the very thing which challenged the inclusion of the person of the Holy Spirit into the Godhead. One major contention was the origin of the Spirit. In fact, the controversy over its origin lead to a division in the Church that is considered by many to be the greatest disagreement in the Church’s history: “…the Eastern Church discovered the now famous filioque clause in 1014. To the Nicene Creed had been added the word filioque-Latin for ‘and the Son’-now stating that the Holy Spirit proceeded ‘from the Father and the Son.’…leading to the permanent rift between the Eastern and Western Church: the Great Schism of 1054.” (Clouzet 16)
While the holy Spirit was eventually understood by many, through doctrine, as both a person and component of the triune God, the very nature of the Spirit ran against the grain of the rising influence of rationalism. Industrialization further hindered our ability to embrace the unknown that is the Spirit. The world was usually understood to be more like a machine than a wonder, ruled entirely by laws and able to be understood through cause and effect. This left little room for the Spirit to operate in through the 18th and 19th century. “Protestant scholasticism with its ‘rechte Lehre’ (correct doctrine), produced ‘a more mechanical view of the role of Scriptures,’ and ‘as a result the witness of the Spirit tended to be bypassed.’ The Word alone, without the Spirit, was regarded as the basis for authority.” (Clouzet 16-17) Those who did focus on the doctrine of the Spirit tended to focus on the work rather than the nature of the holy Spirit’s person.
Regardless, there has been what some might term a revival. “Nowadays, it will not do to speak about the Holy Spirit as the theos agraptos- the God about whom no one writes-as did Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century.” (Clouzet 11) As this revival has occurred though, many tend to focus on what the holy Spirit can do for us rather than who the holy Spirit is to us. The danger of this approach is perceiving the Spirit less as a person who is the triune God and a bearer of wisdom and truth and more as a genie who grants wishes if we ask the right way. Furthermore, “…the doctrine of the Spirit became the concern of individual and corporate praxis, or experience, rather than dogma, or theology.” (Clouzet 17)
Although the nature of the Spirit may seem elusive in the Bible due to the biblical focus on its works, that does not mean we are incapable of discerning its nature through what is given to us. It is as Paul writes in Romans 14:4 (NAB) “For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Bible 1709) We can be assured of three things regarding the Spirit: first, that it is understood to be part of the Godhead. A few examples of how we know this include 2 Corinthians 13:13 (NAB) which frames them together: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with all of you.” (Bible 1765) I Peter 1:2 (NAB) also blesses through the triune God, “…in the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctification by the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ: may grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (Bible 1903)
Second, that the holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son, not a lesser component. Jesus makes this known at the Last Supper, recorded in John 14:15-17 (NAB): “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept…But you will know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” (Bible 1610) Jesus referred to parakletos, (often translated as the Advocate or the Helper) as another parakletos. This means that Jesus, already acting as an advocate for us, would ask the Father to send another like him to us in his absence. He promises not to leave them as orphans. “Just a few minutes earlier Christ had referred to Himself and His Father as equals (vv. 9,10). If the Comforter is equal-or parallel-to the Son, and the Son is equal-or one-with the Father, the Comforter, or Holy Spirit, is equal with the Father.” (Clouzet 20)
Lastly, we know that the holy Spirit is in possession of attributes unique to God. I Corinthians 2:10-11 (NAB) speaks to the intimate relationship and knowledge shared between the Father and the Spirit: “…this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within? Similarly, no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God.” (Bible 1721) The Spirit is not merely a messenger sent by God but one that scrutinizes the depths of God and all God’s creation.
What, though, do we know about God when it comes to gender? It is a popular framing, particularly within modern churches built on the foundations of an androcentric patriarchy spanning back millennia, to understand the relationship of the Godhead as primarily that of the Father, the Son and the Spirit (the Spirit being an it or a he). God as a Father serves as the primary means of understanding Elohim or Adonai (or any of the other various other names for God) in churches, most notably because Jesus referred to Elohim as a Father so often (hardly a surprise if one is trying to establish one’s divine origin). The ascribing of exclusive gender to Elohim based upon the words used by Christ rather than the entirety of the Bible is outside the scope of this paper but worth noting, as it indicates a bias towards the masculine. Additionally, I recognize that Jesus was certainly born a man. However, the assertion of the Spirit as a neutral person (it) or a male (he) is highly questionable.
This masculine assumption does not accurately depict the historical language of the books in the Bible and therefore creates the opportunity for a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s nature: it associates power with an entirely masculine God rather than a Godhead whose power manifests in both the feminine and the masculine. This is a problem not only because it is inaccurate, but it leads to a flawed living-out of the gospel. Rosemary Radford Ruether once wrote, “Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is appraised as non-redemptive;…what does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy, it does reflect true relation to the divine, the authentic message of redemption and the mission of redemptive community.” (Johnson 94) Feminist theology isn’t about displacing or minimizing the value of men or the role they play; men are also created in the image of God and the masculine images used to depict the Godhead are accurate and invaluable for providing insight into the character of God. However, equally important is restoring women to the role that that Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit called women into. It works to reveal the places where we lack alignment as a Christ-center community with the will of God. “Sallie McFague summarizes the feminist critique of patriarchy and its legitimating theology by contending that the heart of our most pressing issues today is the misuse of power…exploitation of the natural environment, or of political, economic, racial, cultural, and gender oppressions…the fundamental problem is ‘the question of power; who wields it and what sort it is… Is power always domination?’” (Migliore 68)
This leaves many wondering if the feminine can be found within the Godhead. In most modern translations, the holy Spirit is predominantly referenced in either masculine or neutral terms. But why? When we look back into the grammar of the early languages used, we can see an implied relationship between the rise of the church patriarchy and the disappearance of the feminine holy Spirit. “Although the New Testament was written in Greek, Christianity was born in a Semitic milieu and Jesus himself will have spoken Aramaic (of which Syriac is a dialect).” (Brock) This means that the New Testament was not written in the spoken language of Christ but translated from Aramaic (also the language common to many of the early communities) to Greek. “…when these communities spoke of the Holy Spirit they naturally used the standard Aramaic word for ‘spirit’, ruha (also ‘wind’ as pneuma), which, like Hebrew ruah, is grammatically feminine.” (Brock)
A pronoun in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac languages are necessarily either feminine or masculine, and thus, up until around 400 AD, it was always treated as feminine grammatically. However, in Greek translations a word like pneuma becomes, through its translation, neuter (still not masculine). “From the early fifth century onwards…in defiance of the grammatical rules of the language, they treated the word ruha as masculine whenever it referred to the Holy Spirit.” (Brock) This mattered, because early on it was understood that something truly revolutionary was being taught by God: “an ancient, unassailable truth with new clarity: God loves women and passionately desires their flourishing. When violence is done to women, to their bodies or their spirits, it is an insult to the divine glory.” (Johnson 96) Yet this idea was subversive to all dominant cultures at the time. Some hypothesize that shift from feminine to masculine is the influence of the Greek language but others, particularly considering the Greek translation is still not masculine, hypothesize that it is the disapproval of the Spirit as feminine that causes the shift. By the 6th century, that practice becomes normalized although occasional outliers can be found in poems or liturgical texts.
A major indicator that these changes were made based on the issues around gender roles is found in the Peshitta, a revision of the Syriac New Testament made in the early fifth century. “Rather surprisingly there are only two places in the Gospels where the revisers who produced the Peshitta chose to alter the feminine of the Old Syriac to the masculine; it so happens that both are passages where the Holy Spirit ‘teaches’ (Luke 12.12 and John 14.26).” (Brock) The fact that the feminine was maintained in other parts of the text speaks to their belief that the gender of the holy Spirit was originally only an issue in spaces when the holy Spirit served in a role that was culturally only acceptable for men; She could no longer be a she.
This same shift is visible in the treatment of Logos and mellta and compels us to push beyond the assumption that the gender change was only due to the role the holy Spirit was serving. If the femininity of the holy Spirit were not an issue for the Church what reason would it have had to alter the texts that serve as the foundation and support for their faith? The collective community would be unlikely to systemically shift the holy Spirit from feminine to masculine unless the femininity was considered a problem and/or the shift to masculinity was an opportunity.
“In Syriac Logos, ‘Word’, is translated by another feminine noun, mellta. Accordingly in the Prologue of the Gospel of John the Old Syriac treats Mellta, the Logos, as feminine, and this usage is reflected, not only in the fourth-century writer Ephrem (which is to be expected); but also very occasionally in texts of the fifth, or even later centuries, even though in the Peshitta revision the gender had already been altered to masculine.” (Brock)
When we contrast this change to words we find in verses like Galatians 3:28 (NAB), where an equal, mutual love is held up as the goal, we can see an incongruity begin to reveal itself. The early Church was a body of people who were all one in Christ Jesus, who saw themselves equal in their relationship to the Godhead. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Bible 1776) Yet this aspired-to state has a relatively short-lived existence over the lifetime of the Church. “…despite the irreplaceable participation of women in the founding and spreading of the church, women were marginalized once the community became somewhat established…Banned from the pulpit and altar, their wisdom has not been permitted to interpret the word of the gospel nor their spirituality to lead the church assembled in prayer.” (Johnson 91-92)
Rather than maintaining the roles originally given to them, a shift began in the male body of the church on their view of woman. Thinkers of the time began to focus on the female body as a gateway to the enemy rather than a person made in the image of God. Instead of operating as ‘one in Christ,’ women were reframed as temptresses of men and came to represent the reason that men fell from favor with God. “In the third century Tertullian viewed women as a second Eve…and because of their sin the Son of God had to die. Augustine, while affirming that woman is equal to men in her spiritual capacity, taught that in view of her body and social role, ‘she is not the image of God,’ but can be considered so only when taken together with man who is her head.” (Johnson 92) While Augustine could see the image of God in man alone, the feminine was only redeemable through her relationship with the masculine. Thus, man was independent while woman became interdependent: her access to the divine could only be found through the opposite sex, thereby becoming the secondary, less desirable gender not only in church but in society; ironically, this suppression of women was propelled by the very faith that once lifted women beyond the stature of chattel to equal standing with men in relationship with Christ.
To understand the true obstacles faced by Jesus in transforming the world, consider the account in Luke 13:12-16 (NAB) of Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath: note the response that religious men in power have for a woman crippled for 18 years and the way that Christ responds not only to her, but to that man:
When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant that Jesus had cured on the sabbath, said to the crowd in reply, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.” The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering? This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?”
The man in power showed no compassion for the woman, nor did he celebrate the miracle that was her healing. Instead, he focused on the violation of the Law. Jesus points out the man’s hypocrisy and elevates the status of the woman. Unlike the religious man who saw her as a broken Law, Jesus described her as a daughter of Abraham: Jesus’ treatment of her wasn’t because of her actions as an individual but rather because of her general identity as a woman of God’s chosen people. Indeed, the men Jesus addressed had greater compassion for a thirsty ox or ass than they did for a woman crippled for nearly two decades. Jesus asks, “…ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage?” Jesus takes issue with her bondage and desires freedom, something that honors God more than honoring the Sabbath. There is a tremendous lack of alignment in values between the men and Jesus, particularly regarding the value of women.
Diving into biblical accounts like these and recognizing what they reveal about the society in which Jesus walked, demonstrates how necessary discernment is in recognizing what is of man and what is of God. This discernment given to us by the holy Spirit, who not only scrutinizes everything but also reveals truth to us, can lead us down a path of deep relationship and greater reconciliation between each other and God. This is critical; in fact, the Kingdom of God is not even available to us if the Spirit isn’t with us. It says in John 2:5-8 (NAB)
Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Bible 1588)
This kind of relationship with the holy Spirit can sound weird, but the ramifications are profound. Cath Livesey is a leader within what she calls a prophetic church, which means (in its simplest terms) that they listen to God for each other. Prophecy in this context is understood as something given by the Holy Spirit that points towards Christ. While most churches like hers understand the holy Spirit as a he or an it, the notable difference of a church operating in relationship with the Spirit is a shift of power. The Church is not threatened by their inability to control the Spirit but celebrate operating in its fullness; the gender of the follower being moved by the Spirit is of no consequence. “…prophecy is about hearing God for other people. When we look at the Bible we see that prophecy involves the process by which the thoughts and intentions of God are communicated to his people via a human vessel. It origins are… divine revelation.” (Livesey 35) They see the power given by the Spirit as the primary means by which they can bring freedom and transformation to the church and the community, not as means for domination. This is certainly progress, but it still does not take us to a place where the feminine is inherently recognized in the Godhead. Do communities like this demonstrate that the gender of God doesn’t matter if you operate in the Spirit?
“While language reflects our world, it also shapes the way we construct our experience of the world. As hallowed by tradition and currently used, all-male images of God are hierarchal images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men, and they function to maintain this arrangement…Instead of evoking the reality of God, they block it.” (Johnson 96) We still aren’t knowing God as fully as we could because we limit how God can be understood. And while language and power are neither good nor evil the way those two things are applied and used by humans can be alter our trajectory greatly. When we look at how power is used by what is a vastly androcentric world, we discover a systemic marginalization of women:
While women make up one-half of the world’s population, they work three-fourths of the world’s work hours, receive one tenth of the world’s salary, own one one-hundredth of the planet’s land, and constitute two-thirds of the worlds illiterate adults. Together with their dependent children, they comprise 75 percent of the worlds starving people and 80 percent of homeless refugees… they are also raped, prostituted, trafficked, and murdered by men to a degree that is not mutual. (Johnson 91)
This same imbalance of power exists within many religious organizations. Within the Catholic Church, only men can serve as priests, and only men have authority over many of the rites Catholics understand as being critical to their entry into the kingdom of God. “Exercising public authority in the church, men assume the right to speak of God; their own privileged position then served as the chief model for the divine. As a result, verbal depictions of God in liturgy, preaching, and catechesis, along with visual representations in art, have forged a strong link in the popular mind between divinity and maleness.” (Johnson 98) Human history teaches us that when one group holds all the power, it effectively subjugates or oppresses those that are not of that group (examples include apartheid, ethnic minorities in Europe during WWII, the current crisis in Syria, etc.). While some might consider such comparisons to be dramatic, the point is to emphasize the disparity of power and the inevitable lack of freedom it creates. In effect, the patriarchy becomes a barrier to people better knowing God.
In summary, what the current Church perspective creates is a decision point for women. The first option is to receive relationship with God only through male bodies; that they are her intercessor, her priest, her path to Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit. The second is that, “As Carol Christ astutely observed, a woman may see herself as created in the image of God only by abstracting herself from her concrete bodiliness. But she can never experience that which is freely available to every man and boy in her culture of having her full sexual identity affirmed as being in the image and likeness of God.” (Johnson 99) The risk of these two options is that our community continues moving forward with God as a male icon, resulting in a failure to reconcile relationships between women and God, women and men, and God and men. The Church also continues to limit the triune God: “…it reduces the living God to an idol. Exclusively male language leads us to forget the incomprehensibility of holy mystery and instead reduces the living God to the fantasy of an infinitely ruling man.” (Johnson 98) By embracing the holy Spirit in her feminine identity as she was spoken of by Jesus, by remembering that she is equal to the persons who form the Godhead and by walking in the truth that not only does she possesses the attributes of God but that women are made in her image, we gain a richer and deeper answer for the questions we seek as individuals as well as a fulfillment to our calling as the Church. For the Church, “…to call for justice in the world the church must itself first be just. If church structure is in service of mission, then without just internal structures the church’s mission in the world will not be credible.” (Hines 167) Ultimately the femininity of the Spirit expands who God is to us, who we are to God and who we are to one another, thereby transforming the Church.
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Distefano, Matthew. “The Holy Spirit is not a Male, Conservative Evangelical.” 25 April 2016. Patheos. Blog. 25 April 2017.
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Johnson, Elizabeth A. Quest for a Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. United States of America: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014. Book.
Livesey, Cath. My Sheep Have Ears: Exploring Prophecy with Discipleship and Mission. United Kingdom: 3DM Publishing, 2015. Book.
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