God – He, She or It?
I heard someone refer to the Holy Spirit as “She” recently – it caused quite a ripple round the room which is why I recently put a poll in the field to see what others think.
Anyhow after this all happened, someone asked me over lunch what I thought.
The line they ran was this – in the Old Testament, the noun used for the Holy Spirit is feminine – the Hebrew word ruach. Since women as well as men are made in God’s image, why shouldn’t we use the “She” preposition as well as “He”?
And what about when Jesus says that He brooded over Jerusalem like a “mother hen”? (Matt 23:37, Luke 13:34)
Now I’m a pretty simply kind of guy. I’ve always gone with “He” because to me it seemed obvious. But I promised to do my research and get back to the enquirer. I wasn’t concerned in which direction that took me – my only desire was to honour God as best I could by getting to the truth.
Well, the research and thinking are done and my conclusion is that referring to any Person of the Godhead as “She” is an error that falls short of the truth and of what God wants for us and from us.
It’s not because I think that women are second class citizens of the Kingdom of God. They aren’t!
And it’s not because I don’t think that the nature of women is drawn directly from the nature of God. It clearly is – since women are made in God’s image, just as men are. (Gen 1:26,27)
So – what led me to this conclusion? Well, here it is:
1. God is Spirit: First and foremost, let’s be clear – God is neither a man nor a woman. He is not human and physical as we are, He is Spirit – John 4:24. So the discussion is not about His gender – it’s about His name and how He chooses sovereignly to reveal Himself to us. And that’s no trifling matter because as we’ll see, God’s name is very important to Him.
2. Noun Gender: It is true that in the Hebrew language, the word pneuma – which literally means a breath of wind and which is used frequently throughout the Old Testament to refer to the Holy Spirit – is a feminine noun. Hebrew as it turns out has no neuter gender, only masculine and feminine and so even an inaniminate object such as a breath of wind, must use either a masculine or feminine noun to represent itself in language. Not surprisingly then, in Hebrew (as in some other languages) the grammatical gender of a noun does not necessarily denote the gender of the object to which it refers. In German for instance, my nose is a feminine noun, my mouth is a masculine noun and my ear is a neuter noun. That does not mean (I hope!) that I have a female nose, a male mouth and a neuter set of ears. It’s just the way the language works. Would I then – in translating a German book that refers to my nose call it “she” in English? No, because the fact that German happens to have a different approach to grammar, is not meant to change the gender of the object to which a noun refers. (Incidentally the wind is represented by a masculine noun in German). And this same principle holds true in translating Hebrew into English, because it too is a language that has countless instances of nouns with a gender that doesn’t correspond to the gender of the person or object which they represent.
3. God’s Revelation: God reveals Himself and His nature principally through the masculine – as a Father, as a Son (who did for a brief period in history take on a human body and did therefore for that time have a gender) and of course God also reveals Himself through the Person of the Holy Spirit – for Whom there is no direct, human equivalent. The one thing that He does not do in Scripture is to reveal Himself through a feminine Person in the Trinity (remembering that as well as the feminine noun in the Old Testament, in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is referred to variously as the Comforter/Advocate who is just like Jesus – the masculine noun parakletos – and further through the representation of moving air or rushing wind – the neuter noun pneuma John 14:16, 17, 26). Some would argue that this revelation of God as Father, Son and Spirit came through a patriarchal culture and therefore is informed and indeed constrained by culture. That’s no doubt true … and yet God is sovereign over all things – including culture. Had God wanted to reveal Himself differently, He could readily have chosen a different time and place to do so. Of course, He did not. Are there feminine images used of God in the Bible? Yes there is a relatively small number of them – Deut 32:18, Psalm 22:10, Psalm 131:2, Is 42:14, Is 49: 15, Is 66:13 and Luke 15:8-10 to name the most commonly cited – there are others. But my hunch is that these serve no more to reveal Him as She, than the image of God as having wings (Psalm 36:7 and elsewhere) reveals Him to be a Bird.
4. God’s Actions: Some of the references above compare God’s actions and emotions to those of a woman. I think that’s fantastic, because it reminds us that the inherent nature of women can be used understand God as well, not just the inherent nature of men. And this not by remaking Him in our image, but by tracing back through our human understandings of male and female, who were made in His image. I really encourage this line of thinking in trying to understand the amazing love of God – the compassion, the forgiveness, the tenderness that we see in Him which many would argue are attributes more readily found in women than in men. J.B. Phillips once wrote a book called “Your God is Too Small”. I truly think that our view of God is all too often all too small. Thinking through the relatively few feminine metaphors used for some of God’s actions gives us a much deeper understanding of His nature. But it doesn’t give us the licence to go against His overwhelmingly pervasive revelation through the masculine gender – a revelation given clearly and by His sovereign choice.
5. God’s Name: My desire is to think as broadly and widely and deeply about God’s nature as I possibly can. So what causes me to conclude that referring to God through the feminine preposition “She” is an error that falls short of God’s truth? Quite simply this. God takes His name very, very, very seriously. A simple search on “my name” throughout the Bible makes that abundantly clear. God’s name and God are inseparable. Now – my name (Berni’s that is) is much less important in the scheme of things than God’s, I’m sure you’ll agree. And yet if you chose for whatever reason, to start referring to me as “she” or “it” rather than “he”, you’ll imagine that I might be just slightly peeved with you. God’s name is awesome and mighty and above all other things. He is the Lord our God who commands us not to misuse His name and in fact tells us that He will punish those who do (Exodus 20:7). How then can we then come to the conclusion, having availed ourselves of His chosen revelation of Himself in His Word, that to call God “She” – for whatever reason we may have in an ever changing cultural context – is the right thing to do; that it somehow honours God?
For me, going with what God has revealed about Himself in no way diminishes the role or the status of women. Nor need it constrain our understanding of this unfathomable God in Whose image we have been created.
It is quite simply a matter of seeking out the truth and honouring His name.