A few weeks ago, a pastor friend I grew up with told me on Facebook that the word for the Holy Spirit in Greek (pneuma) is masculine, not feminine. He was wanting to show me that God is “masculine in spirit.” Someone may have told him that the Holy Spirit might be viewed as feminine. The following is a reply to him and to every one who has wondered about this.
The nature of language means that a word can be masculine or feminine without any particular meaning attached to that fact. Still, cultures with a feminine word for the Holy Spirit are more open to feminine word pictures for Her. Language changes culture, as culture changes language.
Though my friend is right in what he said about the Greek word for the Holy Spirit being masculine, Semitic (Middle Eastern) languages do have feminine names for the Holy Spirit. Ruach and Shekinah feature in the Old Testament. This may be why Jesus said that you must be “born again” of the Spirit, to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5,6).
The early church mostly spoke Greek or Latin, but Old Testament scholar Tim Bulkeley notes that the church in Syria spoke Syriac, a Semitic language derived from Aramaic, which Jesus spoke. The fathers of the Syriac church at least sometimes spoke of the Spirit as Mother. They referred to the “womb of the Spirit” in their baptismal liturgy, as well as made other feminine references to the Spirit.
What is just as interesting is the way the Spirit is described in the New Testament. What are some stereotypical descriptors of women or a feminine nature? Wikipedia says gentleness, empathy and sensitivity. Another site says we view women generally as caring, compassionate, and emotional. Women are obviously associated with birth and giving life, as well.
And that is what we see in the New Testament associations with the Spirit. Here are just a few:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trust, gentleness, and self-control.” Gal. 5:22a
“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:26
“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.'” John 3:5, 6
“The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.” John 6:63
“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Cor. 3:6
Even though there are some good reasons to see a feminine nature in the Holy Spirit, there are equally good reasons to see that it belongs to each person of the Trinity, not just the Spirit.
Julian of Norwich, for example, saw feminine, motherly characteristics in Jesus. Julian writes:
So we see that Jesus is the true Mother of our nature, for he made us. He is our mother, too, by grace, because he took our created nature upon himself. All the lovely deeds and tender services that beloved motherhood implies are appropriate to the Second Person.
And because the Muslims are right that God is One (and paradoxically, the Christians are right that God is also three), we know that any characteristic we see in one member of the Trinity also exists in the others.
What do you think? Do you have any examples or counter-examples of the feminine nature of the Holy Spirit?