Thursday, 18 June 2009

So what, if we call the Spirit 'She'?

What does it mean if we call the Spirit ‘She’, as some are now suggesting?

One argument seems to be that it doesn’t mean anything —that since God is ‘beyond gender’ we might as well call the Spirit ‘She’ as ‘He’, so long as we don’t call the Spirit ‘It’ because this sounds ‘impersonal’.

There are, however, problems with this. Specifically, if God is beyond gender, then it does not matter, either, if we call God ‘She’. Similarly, within the godhead, although we may traditionally refer to the First Person of the Trinity as ‘the Father’, and the Second as ‘the Son’, it would not matter if we used the more neutral ‘Parent’ and ‘Child’, and, given the theological understanding we are expressing by calling the Spirit ‘She’, it would be entirely appropriate to call them, at least on occasion ‘Mother’ and ‘Daughter’.

Some would dismiss this suggestion as mischievous. However, we must ask ourselves on what grounds we might resist it if God is truly ‘beyond gender’ and our language for God must avoid mis-statements about God’s nature.

It might be argued that the language for the First and Second persons of the Trinity is ‘fixed’ by the biblical use of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’. But if we can remain with this terminology without distorting our understanding of the godhead, why can we not similarly remain with the Scriptural (Jn 16:13) and traditional (credal) use of ‘He’ for the Spirit?

If the response is that we must, somehow, ‘balance’ our language by the use of ‘She’, however, we are back to our first objection, namely that at least with regard to God considered per se, we can (and perhaps must) use ‘She’ of God as well as God’s Spirit.

If, on the other hand, the response is that the language we use for the Third Person of the Trinity can differ from that which we use for the First and Second Persons, we must ask whether we are expressing thereby a difference in the being of the Spirit. Is the Spirit ‘She’ in a way that the Son is not ‘She’ and the Father is not ‘She’? If the answer is ‘no’, then we are back to the second objection, that we can just as appropriately call Father and Son ‘Mother’ and ‘Daughter’ without doing an injustice to the qualities of God. If the answer is ‘yes’, however, then we have to consider in what sense is the Spirit ‘She’ in a way that differs from Father and Son.

My own suggestion is that the whole use of ‘She’, as currently proposed and loosely practised is incoherent, dangerous and potentially heretical.

The test must be in our liturgy. Can we (and should we, as some are advocating) call on God as our Mother? More specifically in this instance, could we, without qualms, change the Nicene Creed to say of the Spirit, “She has spoken through the prophets”? Is the only resistance to this our prejudice and inconsistency? Would this be liberating, or would it be disastrous?

If, however, we should not do this, then we should not suggest that is does not matter whether we call the Spirit, or the godhead ‘He’ or ‘She’. If it matters, it truly matters.

Revd John P Richardson
18 June 2009

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  1. Hi John
    What I find very dangerous about your post, and a whole string of comments on your previous post is the complete lack of empathetic understanding for what an absolute use of male pronouns re talk of God may do for half of humanity, e.g. by reinforcing any sense that the feminine has no proper place in our understanding and talk of God; or that the feminine is not wholly made in the image of God but derivative from the masculine because that is the primary expression of the image of God.

    Apparently, though, what is dangerous is the rapid descent into heresy into which we would slide, even if occasionally orthodox teachers of our church use 'she', and then, at that, in respect of the one person in the Godhead (i.e. the Spirit) for which there is something of an argument for doing so.

    My challenge to you and to commenters here is to consider other angles on this matter than purely exegetical ones. (They are important (of course, we (I guess) are evangelicals); and nothing is easy about how to appropriately speak of God in tension with the language of Scripture and the reality of 21st century society - you beautifully capture all the difficulties inherent in the matter.

    But I cannot help thinking that there is an element of straining at the gnats here and missing the human implications of our talk of God.

    Women are made in the image of God and our language of God should be able to reflect that fundamental truth of Scripture about human nature in relation to the divine without incurring charges of heresy!

  2. Somewhat tangential, but brought to mind by Peter's comment, is a story told by Peter Hinchliff who was my tutor at Balliol. Peter said that what prompted him to change his mind was reading, at the suggestion of a Roman Catholic friend, the list of those who were not fit matter for the sacrament of orders. At the end of a long-listing of men with disabilities was the single word "Women." It immediatelt dawned on Peter that on the list a woman was seen as a defective man.

    I am not a great fan of tinkering with liturgical language, but I think we have to find ways in preaching and teaching to convey clearly that women are made in the image of God.

  3. I had pointed out in a post that with the declining influence of human fatherhood, along with the negative aspects of "dead beat" dads, "wayward husbands," easy divorces, and serial monogomy that children are currently raised to expect from males, that people are naturally confused by our worship of God the Father.

    For once I agree with Fr. Weir (I think) in that there is more of a challenge in how to discuss Our heavenly Father these days.

  4. As I pointed out in my post on this subject, there is a logical fallacy in the suggestion that (supposedly proposed) femaleness of one person of the Trinity somehow conflicts with the (debatable) maleness of other persons. This makes about as much sense as claiming that because one member of a married couple who are "one flesh" is male, then the other one cannot be female! And in case anyone misunderstands that as a statement in favour of gay marriage, it is intended to be an argument by reductio ad absurdum.

  5. Hi Peter,

    What I find similarly difficult about the approach you outline is that it sets human sensitivities at the centre of doing theology, when the centre should (of course!) be God.

    It is an axiom of Christian theology that a true knowledge of God comes through revelation —from God reaching out to us; not reflection— through us reaching in to God. In fact, as Calvin observes, the latter leads us into idolatry, beginning in the mind but ending in the ‘form’ we give to God in the world.

    Thus if our methodology starts with ‘empathetic understanding’ of the feelings of (sinful, fallen) humanity, we will wind up with a ‘god’ who conforms to the shape of those feelings. This will doubtless be deeply satisfying, but will equally be wide of the mark.

    The Christian approach, by contrast, accepts what God has revealed and reflects on that.

    There is also, I think, a difficulty in the conception here of the ‘image of God’ in relation to God. The biblical notion of image means, on the one hand, that the fullness of God can inhabit a bodily form (Col 2:9). It thus gives the highest possible status to the body. Yet on the other hand, insofar as the bodily form is an image, not the actuality, the biblical notion of God means that God is ‘other’ than a body. The body is only an image, never the ding an zich —the ‘thing in itself’.

    A woman need not, therefore, think of herself as ‘less than’ fully involved in God’s image-making —especially when Scripture tells us ‘male and female he made them’. To say, in effect, that unless we speak of God as 'She' (or some such) women are not fully included is to deny what God has said and to centre theology in our own physicality.

    There is, however, a disconnection between my body, with its qualities, and God. To put it simply, I must never make the mistake of thinking that because my body is the image of God, God is like my body.

    We do have to accept, however (and then grapple to understand), that God has imaged himself as male and female, but at the same time revealed himself in a ‘masculine’ aspect towards his own, human, image. This culminates in him taking the bodily form of a human male, but the encounters between God and Israel in the Old Testament are preparatory for this.

    To say, “I no longer care for that, I will call God what I will,” is, unfortunately, a significant step towards disobedience, idolatry and disaster.

  6. Hi John

    I think it's non-contradictory to say that I agree pretty much with everything you say and yet would still make the plea for an 'empathetic understanding for what an absolute use of male pronouns re talk of God may do for half of humanity'!

    Perhaps the room for negotiation (so to speak) on this arises from the small point of disagreement I would have: when you say 'at the same time revealed himself in a ‘masculine’ aspect towards his own, human, image' I suggest that is not true. There are feminine aspects to the revelation of God towards us (mother hen imagery etc) which mean, I suggest, that occasional, reverent use of 'she' is not, in fact, 'a significant step towards disobedience, idolatry and disaster'.

  7. While God is beyond gender, we correctly refer to God as "He" because clearly God chose to reveal himself in these terms; and to reject them or subvert them is to take us outside true Christianity into the world of "things are what I say they are", "I decide what is true", "God is made in my image" "I am the judge of what is and what will be accepted", in fact, what on my website I call Oughtism.

  8. Hi John
    I take back what I said on Peter's blog, as you obviously feel strongly about it, but would add to this thread what I said on Gentle Wisdom, that perhaps if we all spend a bit more time calling the Spirit "you", these things wouldn't matter quite so much.
    Surely you are not seriously worried that the experimental poetry of a sufragan bishop is going to alter the doctrine or traditions of the Church of England.
    And do I understand you to be saying that you think Tom Wright regards the Spirit as feminine? All the time, or just in reflective experimental thought, as these two are very different.

  9. My previous comment here got lost, and I am reposting at John's request. This is more or less what I said: the argument that the maleness of the Son or of the Father implies the maleness, or non-femaleness, of the Holy Spirit makes about as much sense as the argument that because one member of a "one flesh" married couple is male the other partner is not female! And I noted that this was not supposed to be support for same-sex marriage, but a reductio ad absurdum argument.

    I also linked to my post on this subject, which Tim referred to above.

  10. John,

    It is such a pleasure to read and participate in this discussion.

    You are right that theology must center of the God's revelation, but that need not mean that there is no room for reflection on the reality of ourselves as particular persons in particular contexts.

    I think there are two reasons that theology to be contextual. The first is so that theology not become irrelevant and esoteric. Theology, after all, is in service of the Church which is God's instrument for mission in the world. To disconnect theology from the world makes it, to use a term that Walter Wink applied to biblical scholarship, bankrupt, in the very precise sense, not of havng no value, but of being unable to accomplish that for which exists. As is true about the US auto industry which failed to produce the kind of cars that Americans needed,discoonnected theology will not provide what the Church needs.

    The second reason is that there is a real danger that attempts to ignore context will fail and that theology will be shaped by the unacknowledged and unexamined contexts of theologians. If the various liberation theologies have taught us nothing else they have made the point that context always influences theology. Thinking that we can transcend our contexts as we work on theology is wishful and even dangerous thinking. I need to recognize how my own context influences how I think about God and work honestly to avoid the distortions that arise from my context. I cannot avoid them entirely, but my acknowledging of some of the ways that my context influences my thinking invites others to point out distortions that I have not seen.


  11. Peter Kirk, regarding your comment that "the argument that the maleness of the Son or of the Father implies the maleness, or non-femaleness, of the Holy Spirit", this is not what I am arguing. I have replied in some length on your own blog to try to clarify what I am saying and why.

  12. The problem is biblical authority. The Bible clearly lays out a patriarchal situation for the family, society, and the church. Reading contemporary/modern social values back into the Bible denies that the Bible is God's revelation to man and binding in all matters of faith and practice. It is dishonest to us gender neutral language where the original languages use masculine and feminine pronouns, etc. If we are to be faithful to Scripture then we must use translations which are faithful to the original languages and texts.

    Furthermore, if we are to be consistent with biblical language and the plain meaning of the text, then we ought to apply that same principle to the 1662 BCP and the 39 Articles and the Ordinals. Clearly the English Reformation did not approve of ordaining women or of the Tractarian/Anglo-Catholic departures from the Protestant faith.

    The catholic faith is Protestant and patriarchal.


  13. Indeed, Charlie,
    Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Teresa Avila, Catherine de Siena were glad they got their ministries over and done with before the Protestant and patriarchal era of the catholic faith began.
    It was a bit tough on Elizabeth 1, however, as she was conscious of suffering from only being Protestant and matriarchal.

  14. In Jesus's last few hours with His disciples (John 14: 16:17) he refers to the Holy Spirit in the masculine no less than four times. The "Counsellor" is referred to by Jesus as male and never female.

    I understand the argument that applying gender specifics to an entity such as the Godhead is a somewhat meaniningless task as the complete nature of God is unknowable. But the point must surely be is how God has *chosen" to reveal Himself relationally to humans. That is really all we have to go on.

    He reveals Himself as Jesus (male) the Holy Spirit (male) and the import of the relational image in language, is strongly male. It is not female. The gospel is after all, about the 'Revelation of Jesus Christ' and all that He said and did and more importantly what is *revealed" about God to us.

    I think speculatively, it is quite possible that perhaps in a parallel universe, Jesus may have apperaed as a womam and the Spirit as female, or if there are other worlds where there exist fallen creatures then Jesus may have appeared as an alien lifeform and the Spirit in a form in which gender assignations are meaningless, but in our world Jesus and the Holy Spirit have chosen to image themselves as male. That is what has been revealed.

    A further, slightly related point that is worth discussing here, is why Angels in the OT and NT are also always referred to as male. I know of no female angels although I believe some people claim to have encountered them.

    But I think Charlie is right when he implies that calling the Spirit 'she' is really an attempt to read contempary social values back into the Bible. This is what I suspect the Bishop-Elect is really doing.

    Chris Bishop

    Chris Bishop

  15. Chris, if you don't realise how fallacious your argument from grammatical gender in John 14-16 is, read my post. Similarly for angels, referred to with masculine pronouns because the Hebrew and Greek words for "angel" are grammatically masculine.

  16. Peter,

    Can you explain then, why angels are given male names like Michael, Gabriel etc? My understanding is that names in the Bible are also associated with gender.

    Why also are they described as looking like 'men': e.g when the angels visited Lot, the local populace recognised them clearly as male and wanted to have with them. When we get some insight into the genderness or otherwise of angels in a desciptive sense then they are *described* as male and never female so I think you cannot argue exclusively from the grammatical sense.

    I think your assertion that you are prepared to provisonally accept God the Father as 'He' and Jesus as 'He' because he appeared as a male, but not assign a gender specific to the Holy Spirit despite most translations doing so is weak. The whole import of the nature of the Godhaed as *revealed* seems to be overwhemingly male although it's true nature may be quite different.

    While God starts off creating male and female from presumabley a neutral gender He(?) appears to stick to a gender delineation when revealing Him/Her/It/They self/selves (take your pick) that is male, although I think you would argue that this was because of the prevailing patriarchal culture which you seem to disapprove of so much.

    I would argue that God uses gender specific terms because he has created male and female and reveals Himself as such so that we are more able to relate to Him and He identify with us. After all, this was one of the main reasons why God became 'man' wasn't it?

    Inherent in all this is of course, the egalitarian/complementarian/created order chestnut for which I have a feeling these threads are going to head off into sooner or later...

    Chris Bishop

  17. Chris, you may want to turn this into an egalitarian/complementarian chestnut debate by bringing in irrelevant ad hominem points like "the prevailing patriarchal culture which you seem to disapprove of so much". But I am not going to play that game.

    But thanks for clarifying with "despite most translations doing so" (actually that is true only of English translations, I don't know of any other language which is even capable of assigning natural gender with a pronoun) that you take as authoritative not the original Bible text (which does NOT specify the gender of the Holy Spirit) but the majority of English translations. If that is your starting point we will never agree.

    By the way, there is nothing intrinsically masculine about names like Michael and Gabriel. It is only our western tradition which has used these mostly as male names.

  18. Just on the 'gender of angels', linguistically cherubim, seraphim and malak are all masculine nouns - but as we know that does not settle any argument. Given Jesus' comment that the angels in heaven neither marry nor are given in marriage (though I think this was slightly tongue in cheek given his Sadducee audience), the gender debate is, I would venture, less relevant in their case.

  19. Chris Bishop asked me to post this reply to Peter Kirk because he couldn't, but I then stuck it on the wrong thread!


    It is not my intention to make ad-hominem remarks or play any sort of game. I think the debate about woman’s ordination , the authority structures between men and women and the impact they are having on the CofE are serious issues are very far from being a game.

    You have written extensively on the issues of Egalitarianism /Complementarianism on your own blog and on others with your own position very clear. I have followed your writings with interest as you articulate your views so well. My impression is that you do not approve of the complementarian position as put forth by e.g Driscoll et al and organisations like Reform as they are coming from an interpretation that assumes an inherent patriarchy and a divine created order of the genders. Your views are very forthright on this. I have not meant it as a criticism.

    I have raised it on this thread as I think that the origins of gender, the development of gendered relationships between the Godhead and how we should view the gender nature of the persons of the Trinity as outlined by JR in his first reflection, must be in some way be relevant to the Egalitarian/Complementarian debate. I would not like to see this thread go off into the a discussion of this ‘chestnut’ as it has been thrashed to death elsewhere, but I would have thought that gender assignations within the Godhead must have a bearing on it. Would you not agree?

    JR- I understand the linguistic arguments that are being made here. My specific point and the one I hoped Peter would respond to, is that in the account in Genesis with the angels and Lot, we see *descriptive* rather that linguistic evidence that angels have a male gender. So much so, that the local populace recognised them as men and desired them . It seem to me that we read of angel genders being described by witnesses, so I think we have a case where you cannot argue exclusively on linguistic grounds for the gender or otherwise of angels.

    Chris Bishop

  20. Chris, thanks for your reply. I am glad that you read what I write about complementarianism, and you summarise this accurately. I accept that part of the reason I have entered this particular debate is because I see John's position, and perhaps yours, on this issue of the gender of the Holy Spirit as being influenced by his, and perhaps your, brand of complementarianism. So, yes, there is a relationship between the issues.

    Indeed I might wonder whether John objects to calling the Holy Spirit "She" because he considers the feminine gender to be lower in status, less godly, less the image of God or something like that, ideas which I see at the root of complementarianism. That suspicion increases as I still fail to see a clear argument for the Holy Spirit being definitely not feminine - except for an appeal to a tradition which took form among (by today's standards) extreme patriarchalists. John's latest post seems to start on a better argument, but I cannot see how he can conclude it in a way which will convince me.

    You make an interesting point about angels appearing to be men. But then you give an argument which actually undermines your position: that the angels were considered sexually attractive by the men of Sodom. Presumably these men were not all exclusively homosexual, because they did procreate, and because Lot thought they would be interested in his daughters. There is in fact nothing explicit about homosexuality in the passage about Sodom - it is only later tradition which has made this link. So I would conclude that these angels had an ambiguous or androgynous appearance such that they were sexually attractive to men.

  21. Peter,

    My own position is that I recognise that I do not know enough to make a proper judgement about these issues. I read blogs like John's and yours to become better informed as they are well written, articulate and tend to stick to the issues. Rachel at vis a vis Reform also carries some interesting and informative stuff.

    I am inclined (although not wholly persuaded) towards the complementarian position, although I can see the very strong arguments for egalitarianism. I think pragmatically, the real argument for the Cof E is how these two positions can co-exist in the same organisation, but that is the substance of another thread.

    Returning to the account of Lot and the Angels then it says in Gen 19 v5 .. "Where are the men who came to you tonight? bring them out to us so that we can have with them" (NIV).

    Are you saying here that this passage is a later tradition and not in the original text? I think it possible that the men of Sodom wanted to engage in a power relationship to assert their authority over the angels and were not homosexual as such, yet the thing is, the text indicates that they did not recognise them as angels but men. I accept that they may have had an ambiguous appearance but this is an inference and not what we are told.

    And then there is the strange case of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32 v22-32. This may have been an angel yet this entity is descibed as a man. Jacob called the place 'Peniel' which I believe in Hebrew means 'face of God' So did this face of God look like a male face? The (English) text implies that it had a male form (at least in the platonic sense). Do you think this cannot be grammatically justified?

    How do you understand this passage?

    Chris Bishop

  22. Chris, thanks for the clarification of your position.

    I accept that in general angels were recognised as men rather than women, perhaps because they wore more masculine clothing or simply because this was the default assumption about strangers in the cultural context. But the story of Sodom, and dare I say it the passage you refer to from Genesis 32, suggest to me that there was something in their appearance which cut across gender distinctions, which was not purely male.

    I think the same is seen in the long Christian tradition of iconography, in which angels tend to look sexually ambiguous, often in masculine clothing but with soft beardless faces which look like a woman's, or a teenage boy's. If this is what the men of Sodom saw, that would explain their attraction in ways which would be less hard to explain if the angels looked like typical men of the time and place.