As I sit in my Systematic Theology class, a big question comes up. “Which gender pronoun should we use for the Holy Spirit?” Okay, so we’re obviously going to take one some BIG conversations in this class…
And honestly, it’s exactly the kind of conversation that feels more commonplace in our society today. And attempting to answer it could be a landmine, depending on your position on the question and who you’re talking to about it.
But I wanted to dig deep into this one. Searching Scriptures, mining for opinions of others online, discussing it with clergy I respect a great deal. It’s not my intent to give a definitive answer on this question, but to lay out what I’ve been processing. Based on other conversations I’ve seen (particularly online) on this topic, I’m sure some (or many) may disagree with me. And that’s okay. I respect your right to have a different opinion than where I’ve landed on this. And in the end, I believe we can still worship and share communion together.
With that said, let’s go…
why ask this question in the first place?
Modern thinking get us always wanting to know and reason more. We have this need to understand and define everything. And if we look further into post-modern thinking, people also strive to find connection and meaning in our communities. With all of that dynamic going on, no knowing something about God can be a game-changer. To pull it back to a more personal, human level, could you marry someone who you know incredibly little about?
Ultimately, many may find it difficult to believe in or follow a God that they don’t understand.
It’s difficult for most of us to just accept a level of mystery and just not knowing. So we need to understand and define, especially if we want to have confidence in the communities we commit ourselves to.
which gender qualities does the Bible share about The Holy Spirit?
Aside from gender used in the grammar (which we’ll talk about next), there are certainly many references that would indicate traditionally more feminine traits when talking about the Holy Spirit. There are times when the Holy Spirit is referred to as a comforter and a helper, terms also used in reference to wives.
There are also references that would indicate strength and power, qualities often more attributed to men.
It’s not really my goal here to produce and exhaustive list of references. In the end, I just don’t see a clear position one way or another in the Bible as it relates to gender qualities. For every reference that would lean one way, there’s another that leans the opposite direction. In my opinion, it’s indecisive.
grammatical answers to the question of gender of The Holy Spirit
The New Testament term most often used to refer to the Holy Spirit is Parakletos, which means “counselor” and is grammatically masculine. These references are more directly related directly to the Holy Spirit. However, there are other terms for the word “spirit.” While these terms may not refer to the Holy Spirit (the third person in the Trinity), they can give us some insight into the nature of “spirit.” They are:
Again, with the variety, this feels largely inconclusive as well. The greatest argument, in my opinion, could be made for the masculine gender of Parakletos in direct references to the Holy Spirit that would come after Jesus. Even still, looking at the whole, I don’t feel convinced either way.
why i’m hesitant to even answer the question
This whole question certainly comes with some mystery. And people definitely have a sense of curiosity (and a need to know and understand). But ultimately, I’m really hesitant to try to even answer this question about which gender pronoun the Holy Spirit should be referred to as.
The reason for my hesitancy simply goes back to study on heresies in the church. As I’ve studied heresy, one thing I’ve learned is that most of them don’t come from people trying to be malicious and lead people away from Christ. Rather, they come from people trying to answer burning questions about God, Jesus, and the Trinity. And the heresy comes merely from an attempt to over-simplify the answers to questions that don’t have easy answers.
This question about gender pronouns and the Holy Spirit feels like one of those questions. I could make arguments to go either way. And both sides have very valid points. Our issue comes from trying to simplify some aspect of part of the Triune God (which is a mystery in itself) into an either/or answer that defines part of our human context… which the Holy Spirit is not (human). Picking an answer just feels like it could be heretical in nature.
there is one source of direction
If I absolutely had to take a stand on a position with this question, there’s one source that I would look to as the authority. And that source is the Nicene Creed, which states (emphasis mine)…
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets,
This creed, developed over a long period of time in the early church by some people who know much more about these things than me, has been established as our core statement of belief. And the male pronoun references are there, stating a belief on who the Holy Spirit is.
Could it be wrong in this statement? That’s totally possible. But it’s a statement made with the best understanding of the situation as can possibly be made. So I’m not trying to say that this is the absolute, definitive statement on the matter. But it is the closest thing we have to a ruling on what the answer might be.
One big thing to note is that I’ve heard about someone (actually a male) reciting the Nicene Creed, and then when they get to this point, they change the text by proclaiming out lour “She” instead of “He.” While I totally understand the reasons why they may feel convinced that the Holy Spirit should be considered female, I’m not comfortable with changing words in the Creed to fit how I believe things should be answered.
It’s just a place I don’t want to go, because if you can change that word, then what keeps us from changing any word?
why a “he” response isn’t about patriarchal oppression
I also want to be clear that by leaning towards the male pronoun for the Holy Spirit (based primarily on the Creed), I’m not trying to force the idea that the Triune God is dominant male figure who is oppressive to anything female. And really that’s because of how some pronoun-based terms have historically been used in the English language.
One big example is a term like “mankind.” It’s not a term that only refers to males, and therefore discounts females. The English term refers to all of mankind, male and female. So it’s not a gender-specific term.
So I don’t believe that using a term like “He” in reference to the Holy Spirit is something that’s used to discount or oppress women by a dominating patriarchal system.
I don’t see evidence in the Scriptures that women are less than in any way. In fact, some of the most important people in the Bible are women. So it wouldn’t align with the Christian faith that anything would be oppressive. So using a term in our English grammar doesn’t change that.
final thoughts on gender pronouns and The Holy Spirit
While this certainly is a fascinating conversation, it’s really just one that I don’t know that I feel comfortable pushing one way or another. With that said, I’ll recite the Nicene Creed as it has been documented and recited by many generations of Christians before me. I’m not up for changing that. At the same time, I also recognize that there are many female qualities we can see in the Holy Spirit, and I know that women are also created in the image of the Triune God.
Both men and women are equally valuable in the church, and I don’t think that answering this question one way or another changes that fact. But we do need to be careful when trying to oversimplify how we answer questions about God… someone far bigger than we’re capable of fully understanding in the first place.