A friend recently recommended a book to me by Rachel Held Evans called Searching for Sunday. Evans, a wife, mother, and author, passed away just a few years ago at 37 years old, so reading the book has been very difficult for me, especially as a husband, father, and author close to the same age. It is hard to read some parts without a tear in my eye, and I can only imagine it will get more difficult as I continue. In his comments on the book, my friend mentioned how Evans referred to the Spirit as “her.”
This immediately reminded me of the Woods v Franklin debate of the early 70’s. It is one of the most influential books in my life. It got me started in rethinking my view of the last days, and it was the basis of most of my understanding of the Holy Spirit.
In public debates, like the one recorded in the book, speakers are called on to define the terms of their proposition. An argument is composed of two major parts: the terms (words or words that need to be defined) and the premises (a statement made up of terms). The terms fit together to make a premise and the premises fit together to form the argument (major, minor, and the conclusion). In order for the one participating in the debate to be convincing, from a purely logical perspective, the argument must be valid (the conclusion must logically follow the premises), the premises must be true, and the terms must be defined. If one fails in any three of these departments, then their position is not proven.
Sometimes though, speakers can get a little too carried away with their defining. Most propositions start with “the Scriptures teach…” The debater then goes on to define the Scriptures as the sixty-six books of the Bible. I get it, but is it really necessary among Protestants? I guess to some people it is.
In this particular debate, Brother Woods said,
The Holy Spirit is not a mere influence as a matter of fact, he’s not an influence at all. He is a person wielding an influence. John chapter 16, verse 13 establishes his personality as well as the fact that he is a masculine person.Page 3
Of course, I get where Woods is coming from. The Bible does use the pronoun “he” when referring to the Holy Spirit. The reason for the masculine pronoun in John is rather simple. John isn’t saying that the Holy Spirit identifies as male or has a Y chromosome. The word Helper or Comforter is masculine, so a masculine pronoun in used.
Take the word “wisdom” for instance. When you think of wisdom, what do you picture? I personally picture something like Gandalf, Dumbledore, or Merlin, the three wise men. Basically wisdom to me is an old guy with a long beard and maybe a pointy hat.
But that isn’t the picture Proverbs paints.
Wisdom shouts in the street, She lifts her voice in the square; At the head of the noisy streets she cries out; At the entrance of the gates in the city she utters her sayings: “How long, O naive ones, will you love being simple-minded? And scoffers delight themselves in scoffing And fools hate knowledge? Turn to my reproof, Behold, I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you…”Proverbs 1:20–23
The Hebrew word for wisdom is feminine, so wisdom is personified as a woman (to simplify things). Jesus refers to wisdom with the pronoun “her” as well.
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.Matthew 11:19
Does this mean that wisdom is literally a woman with two X chromosomes? No. And the Spirit isn’t masculine. The words in these languages have gender, so they are referred to as such. William Paul Young, in his book The Shack, pictures the Holy Spirit as a woman named Sophia, which is the transliteration of the Greek word translated wisdom in Matthew 11:9.
Referring to the Holy Spirit as a “she” or a “he” is really a nonissue because the Holy Spirit is neither, especially in a language when lamps, pens, and coffee cups don’t have gender. It is just as valid to use a feminine pronoun as it is a masculine pronoun. If Jesus can compare Himself or God to a mother hen or an unrighteous landowner, then picturing the Spirit as a wise woman crying out in the streets is no big deal.
Another element to this, and one that I am not qualified to talk about, is the negative impact a male dominated society can have on a woman. If a woman feels like she has been marginalized because of her gender, then picturing the Spirit as a wise woman who offers her comfort may be exactly what she needs. Mankind, both male and female, were made in the image of God, so when we talk about God, using feminine language is totally valid and even necessary for many Christians.
The Bible even does this itself. 1 Peter 2 talks about desiring the milk of the word. Jesus compares himself to a mother hen. The Bible even speaks of God giving birth, like in Deuteronomy 32:18. The point is, God is spirit, and as such he has no actual gender. Like Paul, he is all things to all people. And if that means someone feels more comfortable picturing God as a nurturing mother, then more power to them!