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2 SHEKINAH, Second Anniversary Edition
|Saturday, April 10, 1982||Los Angeles Times|
‘New’ Concepts in Christianity
Revive Ancient Ideas
Is Holy Spirit Best Seen as Female?
By JOHN DART, Times Religion Writer
A dozen years ago, some Christian feminists began half-seriously referring to God as "she"
while struggling with the heavily masculine images of the Creator.
Eventually, it was widely agreed that the biblical God embraces both genders.
But that left the problem of the pronoun unresolved. In an era when women religious leaders
have challenged church-as-usual, how could the feminine dimension of the Deity be expressed?
A new response is taking shape quietly in Christian theological circles: Recognize the Holy
Spirit as female.
The Holy Spirit – or God's Spirit – plays varied roles in Judeo-Christian traditions – acting in
Creation, imparting wisdom and inspiring Old Testament prophets. The Holy Spirit of the New
Testament is the presence of God in the world and a power in the birth and life of Jesus.
Holy Spirit Well-Established
The Holy Spirit, rendered the "Holy Ghost" in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, was
well-established as a partner in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit after doctrinal
controversies of the late 4th Century. Churches today speak of "gifts of the Spirit" (especially
tongues-speaking Pentecostalists) and of guidance from the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit is not called "it," despite the fact that the New Testament, written in Greek, uses a
neuter noun, pneuma. Church doctrine regards the Holy Spirit as a person, not a force like
magnetism. "He" is used to match the pronoun for God.
Referring to the Holy Spirit as 'she' draws some linguistic justification from the Hebrew
word for "spirit"– ruach, a noun of the feminine gender.
So far, the voices advocating a feminine Holy Spirit are scattered and subtle.
But for them, it is a view theologic- ally defensible and accompanied by psychological and
"in effect makes us
deprived children of a one-parent family." He said people tend to project onto God the concept of
a human father who gives support on condition of performance.
"At that stage, we do not really expect justification by faith," he said, "we're still trying to
Drawing on certain biblical
The academic study of Christian roots is often spurred in new directions by manuscript
discoveries or contemporary movements. It sometimes develops ideas seemingly heretical at first
blush to the church-goer. For that reason, and because of the scholarly jargon and unfinished
nature of most theological debates, most churches do not keep members posted–in spite of the
potential impact on central beliefs.
These reports look at two concepts in their early stages: a major thesis on the earliest Christian
beliefs about the Resurrection and a developing debate on the appropriate gender for the Holy
German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, a well-known thinker in mainline Protestantism, says
"monotheism is monarchism." He says a traditional idea of God's absolute power "generally
provides the justification for earthly domination" from the emperors and despots of history to
20th Century dictators.
Moltmann argues for a new appreciation of the "persons" of the Trinity and the community or
family model it presents for human relations.
A Moltmann lecture in Pennsylvania about the feminine aspects of the Holy Spirit prompted
Neill Q. Hamilton, professor of New Testament at Drew University School of Theology, to
develop the idea further in his own writings, which are aimed at church people rather than
Emphasis on God as a father figure, Hamilton said in an interview,
pictures of the Spirit, notably in the Gospel of John, Christians
will find that "the Holy Spirit begins to perform a mothering role for us that is unconditional
acceptance, love and caring," Hamilton said. "God then begins to parent us in father and mother
A Catholic scholar, Franz Mayr, a philosophy professor at the University of Portland in
Oregon, also favors the recognition of the Holy Spirit as feminine. He contends that the
traditional unity of God would not have to be watered down as a result.
Mayr, who studied under theologian Karl Rahner, said he came to his view during his study of
the writings of St. Augustine (AD 354-430). That influential church father decried the lingering
beliefs of some Christians that the Holy Spirit was "mother of the Son of God and wife of the
Father," saying that was a
SHEKINAH, Second Anniversary Edition 3
But Mayr contends that Augustine "skipped over the social and maternal aspect of God,"
which Mayr thinks is best seen in the Holy Spirit.
Some Feminists Object
Ironically men, not women, are raising the possibility of a maternal Spirit. The concept strikes
some feminists as unfair.
"It's two against one" in a reconceived Trinity of Father, Mother and Son, one woman scholar
A suggestion to describe the Holy Spirit as feminine was made in 1979 by Joan Chamberlain
Engelsman of Drew University in "The Feminine Dimension of the Divine."
"The Holy Spirit is the least sexually defined member of the Trinity and ... it is often
symbolized by femine images-by fire and the dove," she wrote.
(The Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the form of a dove in the New Testament stories of
Jesus' baptism. Historians of religion note that the dove was often associated with female deities
in the ancient Near East.)
But Engelsman named two other choices feminist theology might make: (1) Add a fourth
member to the godhead in the person of the Virgin Mary or (2) develop the feminine aspects of
each member of the Trinity.
Asked recently by telephone which alternative she prefers, Engelsman named the latter.
The only woman apparently pushing the idea of the feminine Spirit actively is Lois Roden of
Waco, Tex., a fundamentalist- oriented sect leader who began her effort after a personal
revelation. The 65-year-old widow has traveled to Jesus rallies and the recent National Religious
Broadcasters convention to try to catch the unsympathetic ears of conservative evangelicals.
Regardless of how naturally the mental picture of a "divine family" occurs in church upon the
mention of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Christianity has historically labeled it an apostate idea
typical of ancient religions.
That may not have been the case at all times and places in the church's history, however.
A 14th Century fresco in a small
Catholic church southeast of Munich depicts a female Spirit
as part of the Holy Trinity, according to Leonard Swider of Temple University. The woman and
two bearded figures flanking her appear to be wrapped in a single cloak and joined in their lower
halves, Swider wrote in "Biblical Affirmation of Women."
And, most significantly, manuscript discoveries of recent decades have demonstrated that
more early Christians than previously thought regarded the Holy Spirit as the Mother of Jesus.
St. Jerome, a contemporary of Augustine's, and two church fathers of an earlier period,
Clement of Alexandria and Origen, quoted from "The Gospel of the Hebrews," which depicted
the Holy Spirit as a mother figure.
The gospel tells of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism.
She says, "My son,
in all the prophets was I waiting for you that you should come and I might rest in you …" In the
same gospel, Jesus says, "Even so did my mother, the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs
and carry me away to the great mountain Tabor." (Mt. Tabor is in Galilee.)
'Mother of all Creation'
The 3rd century "Acts of Thomas," a legendary account of the apostle Thomas' travels to
India, contains prayers invoking the Holy Spirit as "the Mother of all creation" and
"compassionate mother," among other titles.
These two sources were belittled by theology Professor Paul K. Jewett of Fuller Theological
Seminary in Pasadena.
"Both of these apocryphal works are late 2nd or 3rd–Century documents, belonging to the rubric of
A 14th-Century fresco, left, in small Catholic church southeast of Munich, West Germany,
depicts a female Spirit as part of Holy Trinity
4 SHEKINAH, Second Anniversary Edition
DEBATE: Is Holy Spirit Feminine?
romance rather than history. . ." Jewett wrote in a book published last year. Current
suggestions to think of the Holy Spirit as feminine have historical precedent only among
"obscure and heretical sects on the periphery of the Christian church," Jewett said.
However, Jewett relied on research that had neglected the discovery in 1945 of the Nag
Hammadi Library, some 50 texts buried in a jar in upper Egypt by monks in about AD 400. The
subsequent translations and studies of the texts brought to light not only the views of Gnostic
Christians attacked as heretics from the 2nd Century onward, but also traces of early Christian
The best-known find was "The Gospel of Thomas," a collection of 114 sayings attributed to
Jesus. One of its principal American analysts, Harvard's Helmut Koester, believes that it was
composed about the same time as the biblical gospels in the 1st Century.
Considered Historically Valuable
Koester and a number of other New Testament scholars term the "Gospel of Thomas" and a
few other apocryphal works as historically valuable.
In one "Gospel of Thomas" saying, Jesus declares that his disciples must hate their earthly
parents (as in Luke 14:26) but love the Father and Mother as he does "for my mother (gave me
falsehood), but (my) true (Mother) gave me life."
In another Nag Hammadi discovery, "The Secret Book of James," Jesus refers to himself as
"the son of the Holy Spirit."
These two sayings do not identify the Holy Spirit as mother of Jesus, but more than one
scholar has interpreted them to mean that the maternal Holy Spirit is intended.
"The Gospel of Philip," a clearly Gnostic Christian text recovered at Nag Hammadi, refers
repeatedly to the Holy Spirit as a mother figure--for both believers and Jesus.
Traditions in Error
The tradition that Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit is in error, asserts "The Gospel of
Philip." "They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a
woman?" the gospel author asked.
The feminine Holy Spirit appeared to linger longest in favor among Syrian Christians in
Edessa. That is the site where the gospels of Thomas and Philip and "The Acts of Thomas" may have been composed or finally edited. A 4th-Century orthodox Christian,
Aphraates, wrote in a homily, "A man who is yet unmarried loves and honors God his father and the Holy Spirit his mother."
Elaine Pagels, one of the Nag Hammadi editors, contends in "The Gnostic Gospels" that
female imagery for God was lost to the church because of a political-ideological battle between
freewheeling, Gnostic-oriented Christians and victorious-minded orthodoxy.
Pagels' contributions to discussions on the female aspects of the Deity have been as a
historian, however, not as a theologian recommending beliefs.
The numbers of women studying religion in Universities and seminaries is increasing, but few
are writing theology.
"A genuine feminist reconstruction of systematic theology is yet to be written," declared
Catholic scholar Rosemary R. Ruether in a recent review of women's religious studies.
Women tend to go in one of three directions, Ruether said.
The evangelical feminists hope to "clean up sexism" in the Scriptures through better analysis,
she said. Others are abandoning the Judeo-Christian framework to celebrate womanhood through
an evolving Goddess religion.
Ruether prefers a third alternative that she calls "liberationist." In it, she said "Biblical sexism
is not denied, but it loses its authority."
Religious feminists loyal to the churches, for all their daring in eliminating unnecessary
masculine wording in worship services and religious literature, have seldom reached into the
apocrophyl Christian writings for feminine imagery.
Many may be unfamiliar with the material and its historical context. Others may be resigned
to the church's usual rejection of writings once deemed heretical.
Fuller Seminary's Paul Jewett said as a conservative, he looks to the New Testament sources
as the only authoritative ones-"not simply as an accident of history but rather due to the divine
leading of God's Spirit in the early church."
Another evangelical scholar, Donald G. Bloesch, recently conceded that the Holy Spirit could
be portrayed as feminine "as the indwelling presence of God within the church, nurturing and
bringing to birth souls for the kingdom." But, Bloesch added in recently published "Is the Bible
Sexist?," the Spirit who acts on humanity with transforming power "is properly designated as
In gauging the appeal of the concept, or lack of it, the key might be in watching the grammar
of theologians and biblical scholars.
All but the careful reader would have missed the "she" referring to the Holy Spirit in a
Christian Century article by biblical authority James A. Sanders..
It was not a typographical error, said Sanders, a professor at the School of Theology at
Claremont and president of the Ancient Bible Manuscript Center for Preservation and Research.
Mentioning the impossibility of alluding to God as "he/she" to recognize the Deity's nature,
Sanders said his use of the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit "is just a choice I have made."
Articles and letters printed in SHEKINAH do not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of the Staff. The SHEKINAH is simply a sounding-board and explores all sides and all angles, leaving the reader to choose, with the aid of the Spirit, that which is truth.