Gender of the Holy Spirit

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The gender of the Holy Spirit has been the object of some discussion in recent years, questioning whether the Holy Spirit should be referred to as "he", "she" or "it".

Grammatical considerations[edit]

If by "gender" is meant grammatical gender, then the gender of the Holy Spirit varies according to the language used. Thus the grammatical gender of the word "spirit" is generally feminine in the Semitic languages such as Hebrew (רוּחַ, rūaḥ), in which the Old Testament was originally written, and in Aramaic, which is the language Jesus is held to have taught in, and in which the Gospel of Matthew is said to have been originally written according to Papias of Hierapolis; in Greek, which the rest of the New Testament was written in, the word for spirit is neuter (πνεῦμα, pneûma). However, the word for spirit is masculine in other languages unrelated to the original writing of the Bible, such as Latin (spiritus) and in Latin-derived languages, as also, for instance, in German (Geist).


Modern Christian thinkers have discussed gender in reference to the gender of the Almighty. A chapter in a book called, Discovering Biblical Equality entitled "God, Gender and Biblical Metaphor" maintains that viewing God in masculine terms are merely ways in which we speak of God in figurative language, but a language which does not reflect who God really is. The author reiterates that God is spirit and that the Bible presents God through personification and anthropomorphism which reflects only a likeness to God.[1]

There are some Christian churches (see below) who teach that the Holy Spirit is feminine based on the fact that both feminine nouns and verbs, as well as feminine analogies, are used by the original authors of the Bible to describe the Spirit of God in passages such as Genesis 1:1-2, Genesis 2:7, Duet. 32:11-12, Proverbs 1:20, Matthew 11:19, Luke 3:22, and John 3:5-6, as well as others. (This includes the Eastern Orthodox Church, which continues the traditions of the early church of the Apostles). These are based on the grammatical gender of both the nouns and verbs used by the original authors for the Spirit, as well as maternal analogies used by the prophets and Jesus for the Spirit in the original Bible languages. In Hebrew the word for spirit (ruach) is feminine.[2] In Aramaic also, the language generally considered to have been spoken by Jesus, the word is feminine. However, in Greek the word (pneuma) is neuter.[2]

There are biblical translations where the pronoun used for the Holy Spirit is masculine, in contradiction to the gender of the noun used for spirit in Hebrew and Aramaic.[2] Most English translations of the New Testament refer to the Holy Spirit as masculine in a number of places where the masculine Greek word "Paraclete" occurs, for "Comforter", most clearly in the Gospel of John, chapters 14 to 16.[3] These texts were particularly significant when Christians were debating whether the New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit is a fully divine hypostasis, or some kind of created force. However, since Jesus didn't teach the Jewish people in Greek but in Aramaic, which portrays the word "Spirit" as feminine, and since the Greek word for "Spirit" is masculine by contrast, the masculine terminology is likely due to linguistic limitations and inconsistency in translation work.

The Syriac language, which was in common use around AD 300, is derived from Aramaic. In documents produced in Syriac by the early Miaphysite church (which later became the Syrian Orthodox Church) the feminine gender of the word for spirit gave rise to a theology in which the Holy Spirit was considered feminine.[4]

In 1977 a leader of the Branch Davidian church, Lois Roden, began to formally teach that the feminine Holy Spirit is the heavenly pattern of women, citing scholars and researchers from Jewish, Christian, and other sources.[5]

There are some independent Messianic Judaism groups with similar teachings,[6] and some scholars associated with mainline denominations, while not necessarily indicative of the denominations themselves, have written works explaining a feminine understanding of the third member of the Godhead.[7]

The Unity Church's co-founder Charles Fillmore considered the Holy Spirit a distinctly feminine aspect of God, considering it to be "the love of Jehovah" and "love is always feminine".[8]

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gender is seen "as an essential characteristic of eternal identity and purpose".[9] The LDS Church believes that before we lived on earth, we existed spiritually, with a spiritual body with defined gender,[10] and that the Holy Spirit had a similar body, but was to become a member of the Godhead.

Male attribution[edit]

When in art a human material form is used to represent the Holy Spirit, that form is usually that of the male human body, without meaning to attribute such physical features to the reality represented. For example, in the rare cases of depiction of the Trinity as three identical persons, the Holy Spirit is represented as male, in line with the depictions of the Father and the Son.

This holds also for Andrei Rublev's icon, known as The Trinity, which depicts the "three men" who visited Abraham at the oak of Mamre,[11] often pictured as a theophany of the Trinity.[12]

In the Catholic Church's practice, the Holy Spirit is referred to in English as "he" in liturgical texts,[13] however the Holy See wishes to likewise maintain "the established gender usage of each respective language." [14] For semitic based languages, such as ancient Syriac, the earliest liturgical tradition and established gender usage for referring to the Holy Spirit is feminine. [15]

William Mounce argues that in John's gospel, when Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as Comforter (masculine in Greek), the grammatically necessary masculine form of the Greek pronoun autos is used,[16] but when Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as Spirit, grammatically neuter in Greek,[17] the masculine form of the demonstrative pronoun ekeinos ("that masculine one") is used.[16] This breaking of the grammatical agreement expected by native language readers is an indication of the author's intention to convey the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and also the Spirit's masculinity.[18] Daniel Wallace, however, disputes the claim that ekeinos is connected with pneuma in John 14:26 and 16:13-14, asserting instead that it belongs to parakletos. Wallace concludes that "it is difficult to find any text in which πνευμα is grammatically referred to with the masculine gender".[19]

Bible translations[edit]

The majority of English Bible translations generally use the masculine pronoun for the Spirit, as in John 16:13.

Version Text
King James Version (17th century) Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth:

for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak:
and he will shew you things to come.

New American Standard Bible (1963) But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth;

for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak;
and He will disclose to you what is to come.

New American Bible (1970)
Roman Catholic
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, He will guide you to all truth.

He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.

New Revised Standard Version (1989)
Gender neutral
When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth;

for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears,
and he will disclose to you the things that are to come.

However, the King James Version uses the neuter pronoun "it" of "the Spirit" four times (John 1:32; Romans 8:16, 26; 1 Peter 1:11), as do other versions in at least some of these verses.

Neuter attribution[edit]

In Greek the word pneuma is grammatically neuter[2] and so, in that language, the pronoun referring to the Holy Spirit under that name is also grammatically neuter. However, when the Holy Spirit is referred to by the grammatically masculine word Parakletos (Counsellor, Comforter), the pronoun is masculine, as in John 16:7-8.[20]

Female attribution[edit]

Semitic languages[edit]

In Hebrew the word for Spirit (רוה) (ruach) is feminine, (which is used in the Hebrew Bible, as is the feminine word "shekhinah" used in rabbinical writings, to indicate the presence of God, سكينة Sakinah in Arabic language, a word mentioned six times in the Quran).

In the Syriac language too, the grammatically feminine word rucha means "spirit", and writers in that language, both orthodox and Gnostic, used maternal images when speaking of the Holy Spirit. This imagery is found in the fourth-century theologians Aphrahat and Ephraim. It is found in earlier writings of Syriac Christianity such as the Odes of Solomon[21] and in the early-third-century Gnostic Acts of Thomas:

Holy Dove that bearest the twin young;

Come, hidden Mother;
Come, thou that art manifest in thy deeds
and dost furnish joy and rest for all that are joined with thee;
Come and partake with us in this Eucharist
Which we celebrate in thy name,
and in the love-feast in which we are gathered together at thy call.


While scholars generally agree that grammatical gender is not necessarily correlative to personal gender, historian of religion Susan Ashbrook Harvey considers the grammatical gender to have been significant for early Syriac Christianity: "It seems clear that for the Syrians, the cue from grammar—ruah as a feminine noun—was not entirely gratuitous. There was real meaning in calling the Spirit 'She'."[23]

Feminine imagery[edit]

Sentiments and attitudes that certain societies associate with women ("femininity") rather than men ("masculinity") are sometimes attributed to each of the three Persons of the Trinity, without thereby assigning to the Person a particular gender. The God spoken of in the Old Testament, generally regarded as God the Father, is spoken of also as a mother giving birth to her people in Deuteronomy 32:18.[24][25] In Luke 13:34[26] and in the parallel passages of the other Synoptic Gospels Jesus compares his care for Jerusalem to that of a mother hen for her chickens, and Jesus has been seen as the incarnation of Divine Wisdom (sophia, grammatically feminine in Greek). So too the Holy Spirit has been associated with a feminine attitude on the part of the Divinity and has been spoken of under the images of mother and mistress.[27]

Some recent theologians, while retaining masculine reference to Father and Son, have explored feminine alternatives for the Holy Spirit. Some have related this to perceived maternal functions in Scripture or Christian tradition. These include: Clark H. Pinnock,[28] Thomas N. Finger,[29] Jürgen Moltmann,[30] Yves M.J. Congar,[31] John J. O'Donnell,[32] Donald L. Gelpi,[33] and R.P. Nettlehorst,.[34][35][36]

Branch Davidians[edit]

Some small Christian groups regard the gender of the Holy Spirit to be female, based on their understanding that the Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, is feminine. Their views derive from skepticism toward Greek primacy for the New Testament. They are skeptical of the neuter Greek word for "spirit" (Greek pneuma), and the masculine Latin word, because the logos ("oracles" or "words") of God were are said to be given unto the Jews (Romans 3:1-2).[citation needed] Foremost among these groups, and the most vocal on the subject are the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists.

In 1977, one of their leaders, Lois Roden, began to formally teach that a feminine Holy Spirit is the heavenly pattern of women. In her many studies and talks she cited numerous scholars and researchers from Jewish, Christian, and other sources. [37] They see in the creation of Adam and Eve a literal image and likeness of the invisible Godhead, male and female, who is "clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made".[38]

They take the Oneness of God to mean the "familial" unity which exists between them, which unity is not seen in any other depiction of the Godhead by the various non-Hebrew peoples. Thus, having a Father and Mother in heaven, they see that the Bible shows that those Parents had a Son born unto them before the creation of the world, by Whom all things were created.[39][40][41][42]

Unity Church[edit]

The Unity Church's co-founder Charles Fillmore considered the Holy Spirit a distinctly feminine aspect of God considering it to be "the love of Jehovah" and "love is always feminine".[43]

Messianic Jews[edit]

The B'nai Yashua Synagogues Worldwide,[44] a Messianic group headed by Rabbi Moshe Koniuchowsky, holds to the feminine view of the Holy Spirit.[45][46] Messianic Judaism is considered by most Christians and Jews to be a form of Christianity.

There are also some other independent Messianic groups with similar teachings. Some examples include Joy In the World;[47][48] The Torah and Testimony Revealed;[49] Messianic Judaism - The Torah and the Testimony Revealed;[50] and he Union of Nazarene Jewish Congregations/Synagogues[51] ,[52] who also count as canonical the Gospel of the Hebrews which has the unique feature of referring to the Holy Spirit as Jesus' Mother.[53]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b House, H. Wayne (reviewer). "God, Gender and Biblical Metaphor." J of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 10:1 (Spring 2005) p. 64
  2. ^ a b c d "Catholic Exchange". Retrieved 2009-05-13. 
  3. ^ Nestle and others, Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgeselschaft, 1993)
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Joy In the World[1]; The Torah and Testimony Revealed [2].
  7. ^ For example, R.P. Nettlehorst, professor at the Quartz Hill School of Theology (associated with the Southern Baptist Convention) has written on the subject. [3][4][5].
  8. ^ Charles Fillmore. Jesus Christ Heals. pp. 182–183. 
  9. ^ "Gender Is an Essential Characteristic of Eternal Identity and Purpose", Ensign, Oct. 2008, 67
  10. ^ "Strengthening the Family: Created in the Image of God, Male and Female", Ensign, Jan. 2005, 48–49
  11. ^ Genesis 18
  12. ^ "Rublev's Icon of the Trinity". Retrieved 2008-12-23. 
  13. ^ John Trigilio, Kenneth Brighenti, The Catholicism Answer Book (Sourcebooks 2006 ISBN 978-1-4022-0806-5), pp. 7-8
  14. ^ Liturgiam Authenticam, 31 (a)
  15. ^ Feminine-Maternal Images of the Spirit in Early Syriac Tradition, by Emmanuel Kaniyamparampil, O.C.D.
  16. ^ a b William D. Mounce, The Morphology of Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), pp. 241-242
  17. ^ John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-14.
  18. ^ Grudem, Wayne (1995). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p. 232. ISBN 0-310-28670-0. 
  19. ^ Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of New Testament Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 332.
  20. ^ John 16:7-8
  21. ^ Susan Ashbrook Harvey, "Feminine Imagery for the Divine: The Holy Spirit, the Odes of Solomon, and Early Syriac Tradition," St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 37, nos. 2-3 (1993): 111-120.
  22. ^ Acts of Thomas 5:50, quoted in More Than Just a Controversy: All About The Holy Spirit
  23. ^ Harvey, "Feminine Imagery," 136.
  24. ^ Deuteronomy 32:18
  25. ^ Feminine Images for God: What Does the Bible Say?
  26. ^ Luke 13:34
  27. ^ Collation of Theosophical Glossaries: Christianity
  28. ^ Clark H. Pinnock, "The Role of the Spirit in Creation," Asbury Theological Journal 52 (Spring 1997), 47-54.
  29. ^ Thomas N. Finger, Christian Theology:An Eschatological Approach vol. 2 (Scottdale, Penn.:Herald, 1987), 483-490.
  30. ^ Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 157-158.
  31. ^ Yves M.J. Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, vol. 3 (New York: Seabury, 1983), 155-164.
  32. ^ John J. O'Donnell, The Mystery of the Triune God (London:Sheed & Ward, 1988), 97-99.
  33. ^ Donald L. Gelpi, The Divine Mother: A Trinitarian Theology of the Holy Spirit (New York:University Press of America, 1984).
  34. ^ More Than Just a Controversy: All About The Holy Spirit - by R.P. Nettelhorst
  35. ^ Chapter Seven - Pneumatology: Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
  36. ^ Appendix 3 -The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament - The Occurrences of Spirit
  37. ^
  38. ^ Romans 1:20
  39. ^ It's all Greek to Them The Holy Spirit He, She, or It?
  40. ^ The Real Ghost Story
  41. ^ She is a Tree of Life
  42. ^ Shelter from the Storm
  43. ^ Charles Fillmore. Jesus Christ Heals. pp. 182–183. 
  44. ^ [6]
  45. ^ Who/What is the Ruach HaKodesh? Sermon Delivered 12-25-04 Part One
  46. ^ Who/What is the Ruach HaKadosh? Sermon Delivered 1-1-05 Part Two
  47. ^ Joy In the World
  48. ^ The Ruach HaKodesh: Him Or Her?
  49. ^ The Torah and Testimony Revealed
  50. ^ Messianic Judaism - The Torah and the Testimony Revealed - Haas genealogy
  51. ^ The Union of Nazarene Jewish Congregations/Synagogues
  52. ^ [7]
  53. ^ Gospel of the Hebrews#Content