Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Feminine Aspect of the Trinity


Unusual depiction of a feminine Holy Spirit, flanked by Father and Son,
in a medieval church fresco.

Crosspost from:
http://notmyplans.blogspot.com/

"I recently ran across an interesting piece by a Baptist about his research and work with Biblical languages and his startling conclusions about who the Holy Spirit is revealed to be in Scripture. I think it is particularly interesting because of the conservative theological bent of Southern Baptists. It seems to echo some of the same things that Dr. Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister and now Roman Catholic theologian has been saying.Here are some thoughts from R.P. Nettelhorst of the Quartz Hill School of Theology associated with the American Southern Baptist Convention. He asks on his site http://www.theology.edu/journal/volume3/spirit.htm :

Is There a Question About the Gender of the Holy Spirit?

In my graduate Semitics program at UCLA, one of the languages I had to study was Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic written with rounded letters reminiscent of modern Arabic. Syriac was the language of people living in northern Mesopotamia, from at least 300 BC until the time Arabic became dominant in the region, around 1000 AD. Most of the Syriac documents available today were produced by a Monophysite branch of Christianity, today known as the Syrian Orthodox Church (monophysitism is the belief that Christ had but one nature). One striking puzzlement of the texts, at least to me, was the constant reference to the Holy Spirit as "she". I was aware, of course, that in Aramaic (and hence in the dialect known as Syriac) the natural gender of the word "spirit" was feminine; however, I was surprised to discover that this accident of grammar had resulted in a whole theology constructed around the femininity of the third person of the Godhead.
An example of Syriac theology is found in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas; it is usually assumed that this particular work was influenced by speculative gnostic Judaism because it contains the notion, that associated with God was a wisdom, or creative power - a spirit - which was feminine. In an invocation accompanying baptism, Thomas calls for the Holy Spirit:

Come, holy name of Christ that is above every name;
Come, power of the Most High and perfect compassion;
Come, thou highest gift;
Come, compassionate mother;
Come, fellowship of the male;
Come, thou (f.) that dost reveal the hidden mysteries;
Come, mother of seven houses, that thy rest may be in the eighth house.
(Acts of Thomas 2:27)

Come, silence that dost reveal the great deeds of the whole greatness;
Come thou that dost show forth the hidden things
And make the ineffable manifest;
Holy Dove that bearest the twin young;
Come, hidden Mother;
Come, thou that art manifest in thy deeds
and dost furnish joy and rest for all that are joined with thee;
Come and partake with us in this Eucharist
Which we celebrate in thy name,
and in the love-feast in which we are gathered together at thy call.
(Acts of Thomas 5:50)

After reading such materials I decided that Syrian Orthodox Christianity was somewhat heretical (though perhaps only through an accident of grammar), and so I wanted nothing to do with Syriac literature. I would find something else on which to do my dissertation. Then came the Spring of 1986. I was teaching advanced Hebrew, and I had decided to take the class through the book of Judges. As we read along, I noticed something odd about Judges 3:10: The Spirit of Yahweh came upon Caleb's younger brother...
In English, this passage from Judges doesn't appear startling, but in Hebrew something strange leapt out at me: "came upon" was a third person FEMININE verb, indicating it's subject "Spirit" was being understood as a feminine noun. Hebrew is not like Aramaic in its use of the word "spirit". While the word is exclusively feminine in Aramaic, in Hebrew it is sometimes masculine. Therefore, the question that came to mind was why had the author of Judges chosen here to make the Spirit of Yahweh feminine, when he could just as easily have made it masculine? Oh well.
I just shrugged my shoulders and went on, not overly concerned. Occasionally, I thought, one finds something inexplicable in the Bible: no big deal. But then came Judges 6:34. Again, "Spirit of Yahweh" was feminine.
At this point I decided to consult the concordance. Much to my surprise, every occurrence of "Spirit of Yahweh" in Judges is feminine. As I pondered that, I recalled Genesis 1:2, the first occurrence of "Spirit of God" in the Bible, and realized to my shock that it too is feminine.
Back to the concordance. Out of 84 OT uses of the word "spirit", in contexts traditionally assumed to be references to the Holy Spirit, 75 times it is either explicitly feminine or indeterminable (due to lack of a verb or adjective). Only nine times can "spirit" be construed as masculine, and in those cases it is unclear that it is a reference to God's Holy Spirit anyway. (Please see Appendix 3 for a complete list and detailed discussion of the usages.)
The New Testament references to the Holy Spirit are not helpful for conclusively deciding on the gender of the Holy Spirit, since "spirit" in Greek is neuter, and so is referred to as "it" by the New Testament writers.
The conclusion of all this is that our traditional assumption of a masculine Spirit is questionable; in fact, the evidence seems overwhelming that the Spirit should be viewed as "She", which does seem to make sense, since the other two members of the Godhead are labeled "Father" and "Son".
What are the theological implications of a feminine Holy Spirit? There are four:
A feminine Holy Spirit clarifies how women can also be said to be created in the "image of God". It has long been recognized that he Godhead must include some feminine aspects, since Genesis 1:26-27 explicitly states that both men and women were created in God's image.

A feminine Holy Spirit explains the identity of the personified wisdom in Proverbs 8:12-31:

I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence;
I possess knowledge and discretion.
To fear Yahweh is to hate evil;
I hate pride and arrogance,
evil behavior and perverse speech.
Counsel and sound judgment are mine;
I have understanding and power.
By me kings reignand rulers make laws that are just;
by me princes govern,
and all nobles who rule on earth.
I love those who love me,
and those who seek me find me.
With me are riches and honor,
enduring wealth and prosperity.
My fruit is better than fine gold;
what I yield surpasses choice silver.
I walk in the way of righteousness,
along the paths of justice,
bestowing wealth on those who love me
and making their treasuries full.
Yahweh possessed me at the beginning of his work,
before his deeds of old;
I was appointed from eternity,
from the beginning,
before the world began.
Where there were no oceans, I was given birth,
when there were no springs abounding with water;
before the hills, I was given birth,
before he made the earth or its fields
or any of the dust of the world.
I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon
on the face of the deep,
when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
when he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
Then I was the craftsman at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind....

Some commentators have tried to tie this personification of wisdom to the idea of Christ as divine "Word" [Gk. logos]. Unfortunately for this theory, the genders of the words in question get in the way. The gender of the word "wisdom" is feminine, and is therefore personified as a woman. This makes a direct identification of "wisdom" with "Christ" virtually impossible.
Other commentators have pictured "wisdom" as a created being, like an angel; better have been those who argue that the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8 is simply a literary device, without objective reality.
However, if the Holy Spirit is feminine, then the identification is relatively easy: Genesis 1:2 pictures the Spirit of God hovering over the deep, active in creating the world, just as Proverbs describes. Both the Old and New Testament connect the idea of teaching and imparting wisdom with the function of the Holy Spirit (Ex. 31:3; 35:31; Acts 6:3; Ephesians 1:17; Luke 12:12; and John 14:25-26).
The third benefit of recognizing the femininity of the Holy Spirit is that it explains the subservient role that the Spirit plays. The Bible seems to indicate that the Spirit does not speak for itself or about itself; rather the Spirit only speaks what it hears. The Spirit is said to have come into the world to glorify Christ (See John 16:13-14 and Acts 13:2). In contrast, it should be noted that the Scripture represents both the Father and Son speaking from and of themselves.
Finally, a feminine Holy Spirit, with a Father and Son as the rest of the Trinity, may help explain why the family is the basic unit of human society."

In Hinduism, the Trinity is formed by Shri Shiva (Father), Shri Shakti (Mother) and Shri Ganesha (Son). ShivaShakti is described as a completely integrated whole - the word "subservient" implies a separation.

1 comment:

Morning Angel said...

Amazing what a bit of knowledge will do, eh?