Question: The pastor called the Holy Spirit “she.” What’s up with that?
Language is tricky, translation trickier still, and translating language about God is trickiest of all. Relational terms like Father and Son, describing the First and Second Persons of the Trinity respectively, describe the intimate relationship between parent and child but in ways that can, at times, limit our understanding of the Triune God. Trickier still is how we understand the Third Person, the Holy Spirit, and what pronouns to use.
Short Answer: While human language is limited and translations complicate the matter, there are linguistic reasons to refer to the Holy Spirit using feminine pronouns, and the practice was common in parts of the early Church.
Long Answer: Many languages, ancient and modern, assign genders to their nouns. In Hebrew, the word for “spirit” (ruach) is feminine; the Greek equivalent (pneuma) is neuter. The Greek word “advocate” (paraklete, used in Saint John’s Gospel to describe the Holy Spirit) is masculine, while the Hebrew word for the divine presence (lit. “dwelling;” shekhinah) is feminine. In Greek, the word for “dove” is feminine, meaning that at Christ’s Baptism, the Holy Spirit takes on a feminine form.
Other ancient languages used by the earliest Christians are equally as divided. In the language most likely spoken by Christ, Aramaic, and in Syriac, the words for “spirit” are feminine. In Latin, spiritus is masculine.
The earliest Christians used the language of their time. In the Latin-speaking parts of the Church, the early Christians would have used masculine language to reflect the gender of spiritus; in the parts of the Church that spoke Semitic languages like Aramaic, the feminine would have been used.
When we talk about the Holy Spirit in contemporary English, which lacks the rigid system of gendered nouns, what pronoun do we use? He? She? It? They? Neither “he” nor “she” fully encompass the variety of ways in which the biblical authors or the earliest Christians would speak and write about the Spirit. “It,” by comparison, lacks the personality of the other two pronouns. “They” might be an inclusive enough option, but English is currently undergoing a shift in how the third person plural pronoun is understood; it’ll be a few years before grammarians stop correcting the singular use of “they.”
Of course, this is circling around a much larger issue: how we understand gender and the Triune God.
Our starting point should be that words like “Father” and “Son,” while describing the relationship between the Primogenitor and the Only-Begotten, are not meant to be literal descriptions of the Divine Persons. While Jesus of Nazareth was both the True God from True God and a human man, the Eternally Begotten Child does not posses the same physical features as his human body. Words like “father” and “son” are markers of relationship rather than anatomy. We can no sooner make the claim that God the Son has eternally brown hair than that Christ is eternally biologically male.
Moreover, the earthly connections we make to the father-son relationship and all parent-child relationships are imperfect, whereas God the Parent and God the Begotten exist in perfect relationship. Our language brings baggage.
And yet, so oftenwhen we talk about the One True God, we refer to God in the masculine: “Praise God, for He has done wonderful things.” That’s the language used throughout most of Scripture, especially to refer to God the Father and God the Son. Such patriarchal language, though, undermines feminine aspects of God.Take, for instance, the imago Dei, the Divine Image. In Genesis 1:27, both male and female are created in God’s image. If women are also image-bearers, then God must have feminine qualities. Or consider Matthew 23:37, when Christ — God the Son — laments over Jersualem, expressing his desire to gather the children of Jerusalem as a mother hen. (The Junia Project explores this very topic in more detail in this post on feminine images of God in Scripture.)
But all of this gets even more complicated when we consider Wisdom, which is feminine in both Hebrew (khokhma) and Greek (sophia). Through Scripture, Divine Wisdom is personified and often associated with God. See especially Proverbs 8, in which Divine Wisdom precedes the rest of Creation. In v. 35, we are told that to find Wisdom is to find life. In ancient Christian thought, Wisdom was understood to be the divine Logos, the Word of God which is God in John 1:1. Christ, the very Word of God is also the Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, of Proverbs 8. Thus, to these ancient Church leaders, when Paul writes about the Wisdom of God in 1 Corinthians, he is literally discussing Christ. But what this means is that the masculine Logos is also the feminine Sophia.*
All of this is to say that reference to God as “he” is not inclusive enough. Thinking of the Triune God in only masculine terms means we omit many divine qualities and may even miss testimony to Christ as the Divine Wisdom at work in the Old Testament.
Finally, if there are linguistic and theological reasons to refer to God, and especially the Holy Spirit, in feminine terms, then let us do it. We are called to be reconciled to God and, through God, to one another. And yet, for centuries, the Church has relegated women to second-class status, telling our sisters that they are cannot be like Christ in the same way as their brothers, that women cannot be godly in the same way as men. Language has played an large role in this ongoing sinful subjugation.
To refer to the Holy Spirit — that bold, divine Person — as “she” is to give voice to the role of women in the Church as bold preachers, witnesses to God’s truth, workers in the Kingdom. The Holy Spirit herself is calling us to be bold now, bearing witness to Divine Truth and Holy Wisdom.
*A few ancient Christians understood Sophia to be the Spirit instead. They represent a minority position, but if the Spirit is Sophia, then this article could have been a lot shorter.