Ancient Faith Continued: God and Gender



Ancient Faith Continued – A series of reflections about the meaning of Tradition in the life of the church today. Read more about the series here.

Blessed is she who placed her pure mouth on the lips

of that One, from whose fire, the Seraphim of fire hide themselves.

Blessed is she who nourished as a babe with pure milk

the great breast from which the worlds suck life.

– Jacob of Serug, “Homily 1,” On the Mother of God

It is my practice when I write to refer to the Holy Spirit as “she.” Some perceive this as me being too “liberal” or “feminist.” I will admit that I think my daughter should grow up in a world in which she can not only pursue any possibility but perceive any possibility. Through gender-exclusive language, like “man,” “mankind,” and “manpower,” we encourage children and adults alike to think of human beings as basically male.

But that is not why I call the Holy Spirit “she.”

By Fr. Damian (St. Sophia mission) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
Others know that I have done work on Sergei Bulgakov, a controversial priest who talked about God’s nature in feminine terms as “Sophia,” or “Holy Wisdom.” They assume that my use of the feminine for the Holy Spirit must have something to do with that. Of course, just because I read Bulgakov does not mean I agree with everything Bulgakov says. To my knowledge, though he talks about a close relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Mother of God, he does not call the Holy Spirit “she.”

So that is not why I call the Holy Spirit “she,” either.

I refer to the Holy Spirit in the feminine because it is so very easy for us to imagine God as basically masculine. Whenever I hear the word “God,” I picture a big, bearded man with long white robes (you know, Zeus!). I call the Holy Spirit “she” to help banish such idols from my intellect.

In other words, I call the Holy Spirit “she” in order to be as Orthodox as possible.

Sometimes, by trying hard not to appear “feminist” (or something), we end up downplaying the richness of the biblical and Orthodox tradition, which is full of feminine images for God.

The Old Testament describes God in masculine and feminine terms. The majority of Old Testament language for God is masculine. The Bible was written in a chauvinistic context. But this only makes feminine images for God all the more remarkable.

  • In Genesis women and men are made in the image of God (see 1:27), which suggests that God is not above gender so much as God is the fullness of gender.
  • In Deuteronomy God gives birth to Israel. God the Father has a womb! (See 32:18; some translations mask the feminine imagery.)
  • In Isaiah God is a woman in labor and a mother comforting her children. (See 42:14 and 66:13).
  • In Proverbs we encounter the feminine figure of Holy Wisdom, who says of herself, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting” (Prov. 8:22-23). The church fathers and mothers understood Wisdom – Sophia – to be the Logos: God’s eternal Son.

There are other passages I could mention, but I don’t think there is any point in piling on “proof texts.” Scripture is clearly being poetic when it refers to God in feminine ways. But Scripture is also being poetic when it refers to God in masculine ways. God, in God’s essence, is unknowable. Thus we are left only with metaphor.

Syrian Christianity called the Holy Spirit “she.” Syriac is one of those languages that has gendered pronouns. Their word for the Holy Spirit is feminine. Of course, those familiar with gendered nouns in other languages would point out that just because a noun is feminine does not mean it is actually thought of in a feminine way. That may be true for a language like German. Just because its word for “girl” – das Mädchen – is neuter does not mean my daughter is an “it.” But some have suggested that Syrian Christianity did tend to think of feminine nouns in more feminine ways (possibly because the language lacks neuter nouns; everything is either masculine or feminine).

But that is a bit beside the point. Syrian theology has a long tradition of poetic “gender bending” when it comes to God. Thus Jacob of Serug (quoted above) called the Son the great breast nourishing the cosmos itself.

Incidentally, when Orthodox theology first began responding to calls for the ordination of women, prominent theologians like Fr. Thomas Hopko and Paul Evdokimov argued that women corresponded to the Holy Spirit, who was feminine in the Godhead. Because the Holy Spirit “hides” behind the Son in the history of salvation, women must not take a prominent role in the Divine Liturgy.

I am not being nearly so literal when I call the Holy Spirit “she.” Critics of Fr. Hopko and Evdokimov pointed out that their argument tended to be too literal and thus too tritheistic (I do not know about Evdokimov, but I know Hopko has modified his position). For me, calling the Holy Spirit “she” is an exercise in personal apophasis.

Orthodox theology demands we unthink God. Apophaticism is the ideal of Orthodox theology. It is the recognition that our language and thoughts about God are ultimately means toward an experience of God. To fall in love with God is like falling in love with a person. Deep love between a couple is characterized both by familiarity and a respect for mystery. A long marriage is like a dance. The couple moves together – as one – without thinking or reflecting on it. Yet at the same time each has a deep respect for the mystery of her or his partner, a depth to her or his inner life that we know we can never possibly comprehend.

That is why the ideal for the Orthodox Christian is to unsay everything we say about God. This does not mean we practice double-speak, saying God is a Father and is not a Father. Rather, we tend to do what Jacob of Serug did, and what Scripture does: we mix our metaphors. Scripture defaults to masculine language because of when it was written, but it robs that language of meaning. God the Father has a womb and becomes a Mother to Israel. The Father also begets his daughter Sophia, who is the Eternal Son. The Son is masculine groom to his bride, the feminine church, which is also his body.

If thinking this way of thinking upsets our sensibilities, good! God does that.

When the mind tries to think two things that cannot be thought together (like how God is one and three), it glimpses the mystery of eternal. It does not comprehend that mystery, but it does help us participate in it.

Therefore, when I call the Holy Spirit “she,” I am not saying the Holy Spirit is a “girl.” I am saying I am a fallen man, and I need the metaphor-mixing tradition of the Eastern mystics in order to inject a little transcendent reality into my ever-present intellectual idolatry.

Some Selected Readings

On God and Gender

Serug, Jacob of. On the Mother of God. Translated by Mary Hansbury. Popular Patristics. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998.
Jensen, Jane Richardson. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Mothers in Early Syrian Literature.” Continuum (St. Xavier College (Chicago, Ill)) 2, no. 2–3 (January 1, 1993): 27–49.
McDonnell, Kilian. “The Holy Spirit and Christian Initiation in the East Syrian Tradition.” Theological Studies 57, no. 4 (December 1, 1996): 776–22.
McVey, Kathleen E. “Ephrem the Syrian’s Use of Female Metaphors to Describe the Deity.” Zeitschrift Für Antikes Christentum 5, no. 2 (January 1, 2001): 261–288.
Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, “The Ordination of Women: A Point of Contention in Ecumenical Dialogue,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 48, no. 1 (2004): 49-66
Fr. Thomas Hopko, “On the Male Character of Christian Priesthood,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quaterly, 19 (1975): 141,147-73
On Apophaticism:
Nyssen, Gregory. The Life of Moses. Edited by Everett Ferguson. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist, 1978.
Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s, 1998.
Papanikolaou, Aristotle. Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.

29 thoughts on “Ancient Faith Continued: God and Gender”

  1. Also the idea that we need to “unthink” God sounds a lot more like something originating from liberal protestant seminaries in the post-modern period than anything based on the teachings of the Fathers of the Church. Where do the Fathers teach that we need to “unthink” God? Where do they encourage us to dispense with accepted language in reference to God, and to experiment?

  2. And if you were talking about some nuance that the Church had actually affirmed, then we would need to work on bringing that out in English as best as we can. The Church has never taught that the Holy Spirit is a “she”.

    1. But in English, if you are not talking specifically about a female, you have to pick between “He” or “It”. “It” suggests something that is impersonal, and so you are left with “He”.

      And again, did the practice of referring to the Holy Spirit as “she” in English originate with you, or can you point to other Orthodox writers whose precedent you are following?

    2. I do? So I have been doing it wrong for years! Dang!

      I am not answering your question because it is a poorly disguised rhetorical trap, coaxing me into a debate whose very terms I reject. I am trying to be civil, Father, which for me means not setting up your counterpoint.

    3. David,

      If you have the time, could you answer my two questions from above (or two very much like them)? 1) Is there metaphorical language that is unacceptable, and 2) Can metaphorical language about God be true or false, and if so what is the truth-maker?

    4. Not ignoring you, Alex. I’m just very busy. I will try to give a brief response when I have a few spare minutes.

    5. It is a trap to ask you if you are the first English speaking Orthodox Christian to refer to the Holy Spirit as “She”?

      That is a question of fact, and it would seem that the answer is that you are the first one to do that. In the Orthodox Church, novelty is not seen as a good thing. “Novelty” is in fact a synonym for “heresy”.

    6. I think your second paragraph answers your first question.

      Like I said, Fr. John, I am trying my best to be civil. That means avoiding “conversations” in which the other person has already figured out what she is going to say.

    7. David, when I ask a question, I am always prepared to be surprised by a good answer. You might have said that you were following the precedent of some current theologian. You might have said that you will following some other precedent that sounded half-way plausible. That wouldn’t necessarily convince me that you were correct, but it would be better than making it up on your own.
      Orthodox Christians should be extremely hesitant to tamper with the way we speak about God, on their own authority. The very word heresy means at its root “I choose”.

    8. It’s the principle of the thing, Father. You were attempting to goad me into a debate. The “good” answer you were waiting to be surprised by is an answer you already knew (the surprise, I suppose, being that I happened upon it?). I have decided not to engage in those sorts of conversations. I could say more about that, and maybe even respond to your question a bit more directly, but, respectfully, I am not going to.

    9. Fr. John,

      Fairness and propriety should suggest that you accept comments on your own blog when, like Rommel into Egypt, you stomp into a man’s home and refuse to take “no” for an answer.

      You seem to be living for a “Zola-esque” moment of “J’Accusse!” and reeling in a big heretic from the pond. However essential you might judge this task to be – and I do not know you personally – you present as extraordinary mean-spirited. Frankly, while I enjoy the opportunity for both learning & correction that blogs afford, David Dunn has permitted a latitude of “inquisition” for you that I personally would not tolerate.

      There are simply no such thing as “vague” implications of heresy. Such an assertion is to place a man outside the saving Grace of the Body of Christ, and shameful is it cast as “bait.” My thought: put your feet on the furniture in your own home and provide a link.

    10. Michael, you are free to start a blog and run it as you see fit. David is free to run his blog as he sees fit. I am free to run my blog as I see fit. You have already raised this issue once, and I answered you. If David decided to turn off the comment feature, then I would respond, if I felt it was warranted on my blog. You are free to do the same on yours.

      As for being “mean-spirited”, liberals in our politically correct age think that anyone who takes a position contrary to theirs and defends it with reasoned and supported arguments is “mean-spirited”. If you want to cite a specific instance that you think fits the bill, feel free to do so, and I will address it, if it is worth addressing.

    11. Fr. John,

      I think you misread the comment. I did not hear Michael saying you do not have the *right* to run your blog as you see fit, and that you are mean-spirited. I heard him make it two but one point: Making pointed comments on other people’s blogs (often quite a few of them) gives others the sense that you are a mean-spirited person. Michael, please correct me if I am wrong and you were saying something different. To expand on this point with a metaphor: Do you know how some buildings have two sets of doors before you enter the lobby? Imagine someone holding the first set of doors for you, but then you do not return the favor and hold the second set of doors for them. Such a person might think you are inconsiderate. Of course, you have a right not to hold the door for someone else, but that does not make not holding the door right.

      I thought, given your point about your commitment to logic and reason, you would not mind someone pointing out that you had not responded to the actual question. (-:

    12. Well, I did hear him say that, and I did address his question. In my opinion, tossing out unsubstantiated charges of being “mean-spirited” is simple ad hominem, and is itself mean-spirited. He has raised the same question before, and I answered him then. I have never activated the comments function on my blog, and have no intention of doing so… primarily because it is so easy for people to make comments under false identities, and I don’t have the time to fool with that. I moderate several yahoo group discussions as it is (5 that have active discussions — and this does not include forums that I post on that I do not moderate), but there I have an easier time making sure that participants are who they say they are. If Michael wants to respond to anything I have said on my blog, he is free to blog it himself, and if it warrants a reply I will reply. If someone wants to have an online discussion with me, they have sufficient venues to do so.

    13. And a debate would be bad because? You know it is a feminine habit to avoid debate and rational reaction to argument? Women, you see, tend to, use their emotion when backed into a corner, rather than argue rationally. And when they are not given the chance by a man to play their game, they lash out. You did a very good at the intelligent woman’s part though by playing the subtle “I am not going to argue with you because it would be pointless”. But why I ask? You refuse to justify, but play this self-righteous, self-justified game. In any case, your poetic idea of the Spirit having a feminine quality as to love might be good for poetry, but not for theology IMO. There is, whether you like it or not, a basic masculine principle to the human species, and it is proper that we often use the word “man” to describe both genders as in “man is a two legged creature” Intentional gender inclusive language is dangerous. It undermines the hierarchy of the sexes. Man is the principle, woman the effect of creation. Man the head, superior in reason, woman the heart, superior in emotion, the inferior part of the soul. Thus Aristotle calls woman an incomplete man, though Christianity corrects this, making woman equal in essence, but inferior in effect, particularly of the fall, where she is subject to her husband, and man in general. The equality of the sexes, both in creation and death is enough. It is ideal for the man to work, as he is the active sex, and the woman to keep the home, as she is the passive sex. She receives in the child-making act, as proof of her passiveness, the man gives, as proof of his activeness. It is his seed given, her aid that receives. He thrusts, to be crude (theologians have pointed this out), and she receives his thrust. It is a work of art. And yet creation and death, whatever our state in life, makes us equal. That is how it works. God, through kings, makes us equal. Remember the Magnificat.

  3. Fr. John, I’m glad to see that we can agree overall! What we say about God is important, and it’s true that God is neither “He” nor “She” in an exclusive sense. I understand what you mean about “he” being less gender specific in English than “she.” Historically, this has been the case. However, the English language is a living language and continues to evolve, and because of this, it has become increasingly common for the use of “he” to mean, specifically, a male. People often now say “he or she,” “they,” or “it,” in relation to non-gender specific nouns. In fact, it’s not unheard of for people to use “she” as a general term now instead of “he,” so it isn’t even always the case that “she” is definitely a female.

    I’m not sure if you had a negative experience with someone accusing you of sexism; that’s unfortunate, if so. However, minimalizing the shortcomings of our language because that’s “how it works” seems a little frivolous in relation to our contemplation of, and prayer to, our God. God is beyond the English language, and if our language lacks some subtleties and nuances in relation to our concept of God, we should be willing to challenge those deficits by, among other things, changing how we speak about God in order to encourage us to remember the mysterious nature of our God.

    As for Chinese and Turkish, I’m afraid I don’t see a relation. I think we may have jumped from speaking of God apophatically to discussing the relationship between language and women’s rights–another important topic, of course, and one I’m sure we could discuss in depth, but not the subject of Dr. Dunn’s post. As you mention it, however, Chinese has different characters for “he” (他) and “she” (她) despite being homophones. While language may not have furthered women’s rights in those countries as much as one may hope, it doesn’t follow that the way we should exclusively refer to God as “he.”

    I appreciate your comments and thoughts, always providing a counterbalance!

    1. Languages develop, but not usually because someone sets out to change it in 1984 fashion. The Chinese words for “he” (他) and “she” (她) are not homophones (two words that sound alike, but have different meanings), they are in fact the same exact word written in two different ways. You can also write the same with the “spirit” radical, when referring to God, or with an animal radical in reference to animals, but the word is exactly the same. It is simply a fact that the Chinese language has no gender. So if inclusive language was the key to the happiness of women, Chinese and Turkish culture should be the ideal for feminism… but it just aint so.

  4. Carl, the issue here is that since anything we say about God is a matter of serious importance, the Church has always been very cautious about its wording. It is true that the Father is not a “He” in the sense of gender, but it is also true that using “he” in english is actually less gender specific than “she”. For example, if we say “He who hesitates is lost” we know that this does not exclude women, but if you use “she”, your are definitely speaking of a female.

    Now you can cry sexism all you want, but that is how English works. However, there are two languages that come to mind that have no gender: Turkish, and Chinese. If being gender neutral was the key to women’s rights, then these cultures should be feminist paradises… but they are just the opposite.

  5. All language involving God’s essence is metaphor. Falling into the pit of thinking that one metaphor is representative of a concrete reality over-against another is dangerous. What does it even mean to say that God is literally a “He” rather than a “She”? Does it mean that he, in his essence, is anatomically male? It makes as little since to say that God is a specific gender as it does to say that God is a certain race or a certain height.

    God created “male and female” to be in his “image and likeness.” The image of God in man is not complete without both male and female; so how can our relationship to God be full if we do not accept even what we can know from supernatural revelation?

    It’s true that God is not a woman, but it’s equally true that God is not a man. He is neither–or maybe, the fullness of both. Using language to remind us of God’s greatness is always appropriate.

    1. I’m rather late to the party on this.

      The assertion that language about God’s *essence* is *merely* metaphorical ignores, I believe, two insights:

      1. The article above does not merely use language about God’s essence, but about God as person.

      2. Language about God – in general – is not merely metaphorical. To wit, God is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this by His own choosing. While he could have chosen to reveal himself as Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit, he didn’t. This is key, as his chosen ‘metaphor’ is specifically masculine.

      Fatherhood is distinct from motherhood. Fathers beget; mothers bear. Sons are distinct from daughters. Our ‘sonship’ (adoption as sons) mentioned on the Pauline letters is not equivalent to a ‘daughtership’ or a ‘childship’. There are specific benefits that accrue to a ‘son’ of God in Christ that ‘daughtership’ does not enjoy. Not only because of what sonship is as contrasted with daughtership, but also because of what Fatherhood is and its ability to bestow sonship is on progeny.

      As well, it is safe to say, that the metaphors of ‘Father’, ‘Son’, ‘he’ etc, are so important to the revealed identity of God vis-a-vis human understanding that were one to begin praying to a Mother and Daughter, then one is simply praying to another god.

      To use one language’s gender construction for Spirit is to radically misunderstand the very concreteness of how God has chosen to reveal himself to us. He has done it verbally, in a language that he knew was filtered by gendered terms, in a timeframe (pre-modern) that had ‘primitive’ theological and cosmological understanding of the universe and human relations. As well, he became flesh *as a male* not a female. These are not accidents.

      And these realities, which were never questioned prior to the last 60 years or so, are not illuminated by a modernist reductionism by which we peel away the layer of historical accident to find the pure abstract core. This is the conceit of the ancient Gnostics. This is the conceit of all the named heretics throughout Church history.

      God is he. Not she. Not it. He has incarnated in male human flesh , not female. Adam, per Paul represented humanity organically, covenantally and spiritually, not Eve. And only Christ can represent the new humanity, not Mary. The Theotokos facilitated Christ’s being head of a new humanity by her verbal fiat and holy birth-giving; Eve facilitated Adam’s conveyance of our ancestral sin. Neither could do it themselves.

      His essence is non-sexual, but he has revealed that he eternally exists in his persons as ‘he.’ What that means, we don’t know beyond revelation. But it is no accident, and it is not irrelevant.

  6. I’m not a theologian, so I can’t respond too well from an academic point of view, but as an Orthodox Christian I love this post! “Orthodoxy demands that we unthink God.” Even if this post was not about femininity, I would love it for that one quote. This was one thing that drew me to Orthodoxy – the mysterious. I was tired of all the Protestants trying to “think God.” Thanks for this.

  7. David,

    A couple of related questions:

    1) Are there any metaphors or metaphorical language that is not acceptable? If so, on what basis?

    2) Do metaphors or metaphorical language have truth values? If so, what are the truth makers?


  8. It reminds me of a couple passages in the Odes of Solomon (the very early hymnal). The 19th Ode specifically uses familiar gender pronouns throughout:

    A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
    The Son is the cup, and the Father is He who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;
    Because His breasts were full, and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.
    The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
    Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing, and those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.
    The womb of the Virgin took it, and she received conception and gave birth.
    So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.
    And she labored and bore the Son but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose.
    And she did not require a midwife, because He caused her to give life.
    She brought forth like a strong man with desire, and she bore according to the manifestation, and she acquired according to the Great Power.
    And she loved with redemption, and guarded with kindness, and declared with grandeur.

  9. By the way, in Hebrew “Spirit” is a feminine word, and I am sure this is also true in Syriac. It is entirely natural that they would use feminine pronouns in reference to a feminine word. The Greek word for Spirit is neuter, but that has absolutely no theological significance.


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