License for a pneumatology in feminine terms

"A woman’s hand" Source:
Rubén Bernal Pavón, Spain

1. Introduction

The proposal I address here is not very deep. It is only focused in dealing with the request about whether it is permissible or not to employ terms that come from femininity in our pneumatologic thinking. Such task supposes quite a challenge to some Christian contexts, for they consider it disrespectful in advance. In many religious forums of the social networks, to answer affirmatively to the statement I propose here is a transgressive attitude, heretical and which leads to apostasy. This point would not deserve my attention if it were not a generalized idea that enjoys greater circulation than academic precisions. If, having arrived to this point, we see that important organisms anathematize the theological reflection about gender –as the Southern Baptist Convention of the United States just did, through a manifestation regarding the matter–, my contribution, as elementary as it may be, happens to be timely.1

Theology concerns ultimately to the Church, and, it is as a consequence of the negative connotations that feminine anthropomorphisms awake in its core that I consider it necessary that a pneumatologic response be also assumed. There is also a lack of an extensive bibliographical variety in the Spanish language that addresses this aspect of the Spirit’s feminine language; and some of the works that address this topic are not very accessible.

2. The Holy Spirit as a Mother

The image of the Holy Spirit as a Mother was very usual in the primitive Christianity of Syria, though it disappeared as a consequence of the influence of the patriarchal worldview of the Roman Empire.2 It was back then in this Syrian communities that as believers were born again through the Spirit, this Spirit should be considered to be the Mother of God’s children.3 Moltmann mentions some references of apocryphal texts that anthropomorphize the Spirit as a mother, and points out that in Macarius’ homilies4 the Spirit was referred to, unifying, on the one hand, the idea of the Advocate (Comforter) of John 14,26 together with, on the other hand, the text of Trito-Isaiah which says “as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66,13 NIV). The profile of the Spirit as a comforting mother was in such manner laid, resulting in a feminine anthropomorphism of reasonable acceptance.5

A similar idea seems to have been triggered many centuries after that, with a more controverted result, through the work of Zinzendorf.6 In 1741, he regarded in a positive way the ideas of August Hermann Francke over the “maternal ministry of the Holy Spirit.”7 When he founded a community of Brothers at Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), they ended up taking this maternal affirmation over the Spirit as a doctrine.

What is curious here is that the Trinity was represented according to the image of a family: Father, Mother, and Son (which allows for intra-Trinitarian relations to be shaped). Overall, it was not a new idea because it had been developed already in Christian Gnosticism.8 The problem with this Trinitarian scheme are thefamily roles, according to what the patriarchal view might provoke.9 But while this illustration of the status of the Spirit in the Trinitarian scheme moves away from ideas which establish subordinations, it reinforces the new path taken by the filioque controversy at present (with a Son commissioned by the Father and the Spirit). Nevertheless, we cannot lose sight of the fact that a bad usage of one of these terms can transform the Trinitarian doctrine into a tritheistic pantheon of gods and goddesses, as it has happened before and to which I will refer below.

The apologetic conservative Hank Hanegraaff was invited to the Third International Convention of the Word of Faith at a New Pentecostal Church in Mexico (Redimidos Hermosillo) to debate with a group of believers. This group absolutized (understood literally) the anthropomorphisms of gender from the Bible and positioned the Spirit in the role of a woman and of a mother, while to them God-Father was in fact a spiritual male God, thus transforming the Trinitarian persons into idols with a sexual gender. In this way, the Transcendent Divinity was reduced to the level of creatures. Such thinking resembles the idea from Mormonism in which, according to this sect, Jesus and “his brother” Satan were sons of a god-father and a god-mother. It is convenient, therefore, to adopt pastoral sensitivity when employing gender metaphors to refer to the Divinity in any of its hypostases.

In spite of this, from the view of what we call the economical Trinity (since the Trinitarian implication in the History of Salvation of the human being), the maternal metaphor to refer to the Spirit –in accordance to the Fathers of the Syrian Church and Zinzendorf– is, according to Moltmann, quite valid and strengthens its support through believers.10 In fact he expresses:

The employment of masculine and feminine metaphors for these experiences of the Divine Spirit open diverse pathways to human life. The imposition of linguistic norms with respect to them impoverishes the theological language.11

Moreover, in relation with the text of John 3,5 “…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (NIV), Moltmann expresses:

And if, being born “of water” is not reduced to a purely external and occasional sign of internal rebirth, then the baptismal water not only has a relation to the water that springs, but also to the amniotic fluid of which the newborn child comes out. The symbolism of the ancient baptismal fonts manifests the maternity of the exhilarating Spirit.12

According to Jutta Burggraf, “God is not a Mother, but he has maternal dimensions that are revealed, in a very particular way, by the Holy Spirit”13, therefore, such Spirit clarifies the maternal aspects of God; it takes care of us, feeds us, protects us, and educates us.14 I would like to point out that we think of such actions as “maternal” according to the gender roles that our –patriarchal– systems confer to the mother/woman. Given that gender roles are cultural and social constructs projected into such genders, it would be convenient to point out that the said acts (to take care, to feed, to protect and to educate) are not natural characteristics of a particular gender.15 However, the understanding and experimentation of the Spirit within our culture and through every believer gives us the freedom to express the experience with open terms, therefore, we should not think of this maternal perception as being negative.16 What is more, if as Esperanza Bautista points out, women themselves experience and feel God in a different way than males (specifically from the subordinating position that History has given to them), the pneumatologic experiences will be for them experiences of freedom in which God would not represent the androcentric submission that oppresses them; which is the reason why the masculine conceptualizations about the Deity turn out to be defficient.17

Such issues are resolved from the point of view of the negative theology by stripping the Deity of gender clothing. But to make use of feminine symbols and language –as long as these are not absolutized (as the masculine anthropomorphisms were in the past)–, turns out to be totally legitimate from the experience of God and the “humanly” way in which we can talk about it.

On the whole, Trinidad León warns that feminists’ theologies are not willing to accept the feminization of the Spirit as long as the remaining two Trinitarian persons continue to keep their masculine identification, because, in this way, the idea of God as having a sexual gender is strengthened.18

The Holy Spirit is really the best image, not of God’s femininity, but of the marginalization of the feminine, which reaches also our idea of God. Therefore, to identify the Holy Spirit with the feminine aspect of God is an unacceptable license for the feminist theology that whishes to see in God Trinity the model for the entire humanity, which is that of distinction in equality.19

3. The Spirit as personified Wisdom

The ancient testamentary intuitions of the Holy Spirit –I say intuitions because pneumatology was not developed in those times and was far from being developed due to the Christian view of the Trinity– can also help us in our investigation of the request for the usage of feminine terms for the Spirit. Such pneumatologic intuitions are represented by concepts that speak of God’s action (rûah, dabar, shekina y hôkmah). The rûah –as Trinidad León affirms– sketches a completely feminine image20, and the same could be said –and has been said– about the shekina. Yet, Wisdom (hôkmah in Hebrew and sophia in Greek) deserves a special attention. Congar expresses:

The wisdom literature of Hellenistic Judaism contains a noteworthy reflection about wisdom, placing it close to the Spirit, up to the point that it would seem to identify both realities, at least if we consider their respective actions.21

The main references to the Wisdom can be found in the canonic book of Proverbs, as well as in the deuterocanonical books of Sirach (Ecclesiastes or Ben Sira) and Wisdom.22 Regarding the Proverbs, the author “needs to give the chance to speak to the Woman-Wisdom, through which God shows itself as a friend/wife to the wise…”23 This is a concept that takes into account the exhilarating sphere of Yahvé’s rûah. It is an exhilarating force, but its purpose is to guide and order at the same time. The aspect that differences it from the rûah is that Wisdom leads us to live according to the order of God, which has been conceived since creation and in which life thrives. The hôkmah can be specified prudently as the Wisdom of God, which is made known from transcendence, revealing the gift of a healthy life in a relation of proximity to the world. As we said, this representation is given through a marked emphasis in the feminine. Pikaza, in reference to this, acknowledges, “…God’s Wisdom (a sign of its Law and of its People, its Creative word and its Presence) receives forms of an ideal woman and “wife” to God, as we see in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Ben Sira) and Wisdom.”24 Acknowledging the value in it, Karen Jo Torjesen affirms that: “We have one of the most fascinating expressions of the feminine face of God in the figure of Sophia, Wisdom, whose multiple appearances we can track from the Jewish theology to the Christian theology.”25

4. Conclusion

The distinction of the “maternal face of God” (or feminine face as employed by Torjesen in the last paragraph), popularized by Leonardo Boff26, even when apparently makes a good claim, presents, in my opinion, the problem of making others understand that God has a feminine dimension, as it also had a masculine one. Although men and women are the image and likeness of God –which helps us to discern him through this duality– it is convenient to avoid easy formulations that could make the Divinity a dichotomic being with a sexual gender, despite that our theological language and conceptualizations allow us to employ this type of language as a valid and capable form of expressing correct ideas about God (as Moltmann said in one of the quoted texts). It seems legitimate to me to present and formulate a pneumatology in feminine terms as long as we take into account that every metaphor that describes the divine reality so as to make it understandable is limited (and in a way inappropriate), although we need it to explain such knowledge about God.27

This article was translated by Nicolás Manfredi and reviewed by Alfredo Francis, under the grant “God's Evolution” awarded to the Science and Faith Centre (Spain) by the BioLogos Foundation (USA)

  1. To see something about the news of the Southern Baptists’ manifestation, cf.
  2. J.Moltmann; El Espíritu de la vida. Una pneumatología integral (Salamanca: Sígueme, 1998) p. 174.
  3. Ibid. pp. 174-175.
  4. Cf. Ibid. p. 176.
  5. We are talking about the Syrian context where the New Prophecy or Montanism appeared, in which a special value was conferred to the experience of the Spirit (and charismas), and the woman occupied a position of importance within the church.
  6. The feminine imagery when speaking about the Spirit was developed long before Zinzendorf. Hildegarda of Bingen, for example, wrote about visions regarding the Sapientia. Cf. e.g. M. Isabel Flisfich, Las figuras femeninas en la Symphonia de Hildegarda de Bingen: Caritas, Sapientia y Ecclesia, (Revista Chilena de Literatura 62/2003) pp. 127-144.
  7. Published in the work of A.H. Francke Tratado sobre la naturaleza y la gracia.
  8. J. Moltmann; Op. cit. p. 177.
  9. Christianism is prone to patriarchal and hierarchical inclinations in the context of the family. Such concept, transferred to the Trinitarian reflection assumes subordinations. At present, the complementarism (doctrine about the role of men and women) of J. Piper is reinforced by his idea of masculine hegemony at home; in his opinion: “…in our times, little things have deteriorated more than manhood and leadership in relation to women and the families.” J. Piper; Pacto Matrimonial: Perspectiva moral y eterna (Carol Stream: Tyndale Español, 2009) p. 63. Moreover, this American author charges at those who –being like servants– reject masculine supremacy at home in favor of an egalitarian marriage. Ibid. p. 67-68. Of the same opinion is another successful author, John MacArthur, who establishes a “practical” hierarchy at the Christian home. Cf. J. MacArthur; Cómo ser padres cristianos exitosos (Grand Rapids: Portavoz, 2000) pp. 144-145.
  10. Ibid. p. 292. We also have an ancient article by Moltmann about accompaniment and compassion: the Motherly Father: Is Trinitarian Patripassianism replacing Theological Patriarchalism? Concilium 143 (1981). pp. 51-56.
  11. Ibid. p. 294.
  12. Ibid. p. 305.
  13. J.Burggraf; ¿Dios es nuestra Madre? in: El Dios y Padre de nuestro Señor Jesucristo. XX International Symposium on Theology at the University of Navarra, ed. by José Luis ILLANES, Javier SESÉ, Tomás TRIGO, Juan Francisco POZO y José ENÉRIZ, (Pamplona: Publishing Service of the University of Navarra, 2000) p. 149.
  14. Ibid. p. 148.
  15. Even if, in a biological sense women have to take care of others (as it happens, for example, in breastfeeding), this should not dogmatically frame women to the role of a care provider. In the same way, men cannot be dissociated from this role.
  16. Surrounding the words we use to refer to God, cf. A. Serrano; Dimensión Femenina de Dios Padre, Lecture presented at the V Colloquium on Theology “Dios como Padre, Perspectivas para la evangelización”, organized by the Institute of Theological Studies of the Catholic University of Temuco, in October, 1999 (Actas Teológicas, 2000) pp. 23-26. 29ff.
  17. E.Bautista; Dios, in: M. Navarro (Dir.) 10 mujeres escriben teología (Estella: Verbo Divino, 1993) pp. 124-126.
  18. T. León Martín; El Dios relacional. El encuentro y la elusividad de un Dios comunicativo, in: Isabel Gómez-Acebo (Ed.); Así vemos a Dios, (Bilbao: Desclée De Brower, 2001) p. 208. Cf. p. 210.
  19. Ibid. p.210.
  20. Ibid. p.209.
  21. Y. M. - J. Congar; El Espíritu Santo (Barcelona: Herder, 1991) p. 37. The letters in bold are my own addition.
  22. Although these books did not enter neither onto the Hebrew nor the Protestant canon (due to their apparent pantheism), they are important as to understand how the sapiential traditions of the OT were assimilated into the NT. In Solomon’s Wisdom, the hôkmah carries out an important role; in fact, it appears as a mother whose protective presence guides the development of the entire History of Salvation. Cf. K. J. Torjesen; Cuando las mujeres eran sacerdotes (Cordoba: El Almendro, 1996) p. 242.
  23. X. Pikaza; Mujeres de la Biblia Judía (Viladecavalls: CLIE, 2013) p. 340.
  24. X. Pikaza; Op. cit. p. 339.
  25. K. J. Torjesen; Op. cit. p. 241. The author that has further developed this matter is, without any doubt, Elisabeth Johnson. Johnson elaborates her Trinitarian theology beginning with the Holy Spirit, and not with the Father, to then move to the Son, and later to the Father/Mother. Besides, she does this from the coordinates of Sophia, in such a way that the central core of the book bears the following titles: Spirit/Sophia, Jesus-Sophia and Mother/Sophia. Then she extends all this with a chapter called, precisely, “To speak rightly of God” and another one called “Basic linguistic options: God, women, equivalence”. Cf. Elisabeth Johnson; La que es. El misterio de Dios en el discurso feminista (Barcelona: Herder, 2008).
  26. Cf. El rostro materno de Dios (Madrid: San Pablo, 1991).
  27. T. León; Op. cit. p. 171.

Rubén Bernal Pavón pursues a degree in Theology at the Facultad de Teología SEUT (El Escorial, Madrid) with the Instituto Superior de Teología y Ciencias Bíblicas CEIBI (Santa Cruz de Tenerife). He also has a certification in Religion, Genre and Sexuality studies from the UCEL/GEMRIP (Rosario, Argentina). He is member of the Alianza de Escritores y Comunicadores Evangélicos, linked to the Alianza Evangélica Española. He lives en Málaga, Spain.
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