Balancing Out the Trinity: The Genders of the Godhead

by John Dart

Formerly religion religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, John Dart is news editor of the Christian Century magazine.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 16-23, 1983, pp. 147-150. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A case can be made that a female Holy Spirit represents an important early teaching of Jesus’ followers. For some early Christians, the baptismal initiation reversed the division of male and female, returning to the gender unity found in Adam.

It was not a typographical error, said Sanders, a professor at the School of Theology at Claremont and president of its Ancient Bible Manuscript Center for Preservation and Research. Citing the familiar theological-linguistic problem of addressing the biblical God with a pronoun other than "he" -- despite the consensus that God embraces both the masculine and the feminine -- Sanders explained that he decided simply as a matter of personal choice to use "she" for the Spirit of God.

Sanders’s precedent is the fact that the Hebrew word for spirit, ruach, is of the feminine gender. The neuter word pneuma is used for spirit in the Greek-language New Testament. But the pronoun found in those texts is not "it," since Christian theology regards the Holy Spirit as a person rather than an impersonal force; "he" was the pronoun selected for the enabling power and earthly agent of God the Father.

However, the use of "she" as a pronoun for the Holy Spirit is more than a matter of personal choice; such usage appears to have some theological possibilities, especially if serious attention is given to certain research on early Christian texts, apocryphal as well as canonical. Initial suggestions to regard the Holy Spirit as feminine have been made by some theologians -- mostly male academicians -- who stay within canonical and church perimeters. However, women scholars are unenthusiastic about the idea. "It’s still two against one," says one feminist of such a revamped Trinity.

There are biblical research findings that nonetheless could "balance out" the genders of the Trinity -- a step true to an early strain of Christian thinking, although not to what developed as orthodox church tradition. The balancing would require rescuing two primitive ideas found among Jesus’ followers.

One concept is that the Holy Spirit was the "mother" of Jesus, and consequently of believers. The written evidence for this is both earlier and much broader than had been previously thought.

The second concept has to be presented as a theory, though a plausible one: that Jesus was considered by followers as androgynous in a significant symbolic sense. A persuasive theory proposed nine years ago holds that an early baptism brought forth a new androgynous person in the initiated Christian believer, "neither male nor female." The idea, apparently inspired by first century Jewish speculation that Adam was originally male and female, goes on to suggest that the "last Adam," as Paul once referred to Jesus, provided the model for the new believer.

If the first century notions of a maternal spirit and an androgynous Jesus were indeed early teachings that the developing church subsequently rejected (for whatever reasons), then a "balanced out" theology of the Christian godhead, informed by psychological insights, has both "modern" relevance and "ancient" precedent.

A Moltmann lecture about the feminine aspects of the Holy Spirit prompted Neill Q. Hamilton, professor of New Testament at Drew University School of Theology, to develop the idea further. The contemporary emphasis on God as father figure, he said, "in effect makes us deprived children of a one-parent family." Drawing on certain biblical depictions of the Spirit, especially in the Gospel of John, Hamilton went on to say that Christians will find "the Holy Spirit begins to perform a mothering role for us that is unconditional acceptance, love and caring. God then begins to parent us in father and mother modes."

Catholic scholar Franz Mayr of the University of Portland in Oregon also finds the feminine image of the Holy Spirit to be appropriate. He notes the remark of St. Augustine (354-430) that some Christians of his day were wrongly believing that the Holy Spirit was "mother of the Son of God and wife of the Father." Augustine then cautioned, in his book on the Trinity, that even when a maternal Holy Spirit was "most chastely thought of by the pure to whom all things are pure," outsiders would think in crudely physical terms.

Mayr, on the other hand, feels that Christianity could manage a "father-mother-child" Trinity today without lapsing into physical images or watering down the unity of God. Augustine "skipped over the social and maternal aspect of God," which Mayr says is best found in the Holy Spirit.

Evangelical scholar Donald G. Bloesch makes a modest concession to views of the Spirit as feminine in his recently published book Is the Bible Sexist? (Crossway, 1982) by granting that the Holy Spirit could be portrayed as feminine "as the indwelling presence of God within the church, nurturing and bringing to birth souls for the kingdom." But he maintains that the Spirit who acts on humanity with transforming power "is properly designated as masculine."

With but a few exceptions, the gender-issue discussion is being carried on by male scholars. One feminist, Joan Chamberlain Engelsman, in a study of repressed female deity images in antiquity, The Feminine Dimensions of the Divine (Westminster, 1979), suggested three ways to restore that dimension in Christianity. Future theology, she wrote, might (1) develop the female nature of each member of the Trinity; (2) add a fourth member to the godhead in the person of the Virgin Mary; or (3) pick the Holy Spirit to describe as feminine.

At that time favoring the latter, Engelsman wrote that "the Holy Spirit is the least sexually defined member of the Trinity and . . . it is often symbolized by feminine images -- by fire and the dove." (The dove, a visible sign of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ baptism, was a bird often linked to female deities in the ancient Near East.) However, she now prefers her first alternative -- to bring out the feminine side of all members of the Trinity.

According to Rosemary Radford Ruether, considering the Holy Spirit as feminine makes the female "side" of God subordinate to the dominant image of male divine sovereignty. Even a form of divine androgyny must be questioned, she says, if it assumes that the "highest" symbol of divine sovereignty is exclusively male.

Evangelical theology professor Paul K. Jewett of Fuller Theological Seminary in The Ordination of Women (Eerdmans, 1980) dismisses the significance of two texts indicating a belief in the Holy Spirit as a mother figure. He claims that the Gospel of the Hebrews and the Acts of Thomas, two apocryphal works, "are late second or even third century documents, belonging to the rubric of romance rather than history."

The Gospel of the Hebrews is known only through quotations from it given in the writing of early church fathers. In one such, a feminine Holy Spirit, descending upon Jesus at his baptism, says: "My Son, in all the prophets was I waiting for you that you should come and I might rest in you." Another quote, this time from Jesus: "Even so did my mother, the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me away to the great mountain Tabor." The Acts of Thomas, a legendary account of the apostle Thomas’s travels to India, contains prayers invoking the Holy Spirit as, among other titles, "the Mother of all creation" and "compassionate mother."

In dismissing the feminine Holy Spirit as an idea present only in "obscure and heretical sects on the periphery of the Christian church," Jewett had relied on research that did not take into account the 1945 discovery near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, of some 50 ancient texts. Subsequent translations and studies of these Coptic manuscripts, translated from the Greek in the fourth century, revealed the views of Gnostic Christians from the second century onward. In addition, there are elements which some scholars say are non-Gnostic Christian thought from the first century.

The best-known find was the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. In one of them, Jesus declares that his disciples must hate their earthly parents (as in Luke 14:26) but love the Father and the Mother as he does, "for my mother [gave me falsehood), but [my] true [Mother] gave me life."

Another Nag Hammadi discovery is the Secret Book of James, in which Jesus refers to himself as "the son of the Holy Spirit." The Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Book of James, and the Gospel of the Hebrews have such close affinities that most scholars assume the maternal Holy Spirit is meant in all three texts, even though it is perfectly clear only in the Gospel of the Hebrews.

But what about dates? Harvard’s Helmut Koester, one of the principal interpreters of the Gospel of Thomas, believes that it was composed at about the same time as the biblical Gospels. Ron Cameron of Wesleyan University agrees. In The Other Gospels, a collection of 16 apocryphal Gospels (Westminster, 1982), he also dates the Gospel of the Hebrews as circa 100 AD. or earlier, and the Secret Book of James in the first half of the second century. However, he says, all three could have been written as early as the middle of the first century (about the time of Paul).

To Rosemary Ruether, the evidence assembled in recent times makes it difficult to conclude that female imagery for the Spirit is a late deviation of heretical Christianity. "Rather, we should see an earlier Christianity, which used such female imagery, gradually being marginalized by a victorious Greco-Roman Christianity that repressed it," she says. Her conclusion is that Gnostic Christians merely expanded on traditions once shared widely.

Even so, Ruether balks’ at claiming a historical precedent that might perpetuate a lesser status in Christianity for the female divine dimension. Nevertheless, one teaching attributed to Jesus might challenge any thoughts that God the Father is much more important than the Holy Spirit. The synoptic Gospels all have a version of the saying, admittedly mysterious, that no blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is ever forgiven, unlike sins or blasphemies against sons of men (Mark) or the Son of Man (Matthew and Luke). Thomas 44 says it more strongly: blasphemies against Father and Son will be pardoned, but those against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven on earth or in heaven.

Writing in a 1974 issue of History of Religions, Wayne Meeks of Yale University Divinity School proposed that congregations founded by Paul used a baptism ritual which reunified the male and female in each new believer. The key verses are in Galatians, the much-quoted 3:27-28: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Meeks wrote:

The symbolization of a reunified mankind was not just pious talk in early Christianity, but a quite important way of conceptualizing and dramatizing the Christians’ awareness of their peculiar relationship to the larger societies around them. At least some of the early Christian groups thought of themselves as a new genus of mankind, or as the restored original mankind.

According to Meeks, the Christian baptismal initiation reversed the division of male and female, returning to the gender unity found in Adam before Eve and in God. Paul also uses reunification language in I Corinthians and Colossians, but without specific reference to male and female. Meeks contended that the androgynous concept received expanded -- even "luxuriant" -- treatment from Gnostic Christians, some of whom developed the sacrament of the bridegroom chamber to reunite the two halves in the believer. (In the Second Epistle of Clement, a second century sermon, appears a saying not inconsistent with Galatians 3:28: "When the Lord himself was asked by someone when his kingdom would come, he said, ‘When the two become one, and the outside as the inside and the male with the female neither male nor female.’")

Meeks said that he suspected Paul did not always accept the androgynous interpretation of the baptismal formula, and that he probably did not coin it. Further, Meeks argued, it proved too dangerously ambivalent for the emerging church and "faded into innocuous metaphor, perhaps to await the coming of its proper moment." And Hans Dieter Betz, of the University of Chicago Divinity School, agreed with Meeks that "this doctrine of an androgynous nature of the redeemed Christian seems to be pre-Pauline."

That rite’s imagery can be linked with the imagery of Jesus as the reappearing Primal Man, the androgynous Anthropos, or, as Paul expressed it, the "Last Adam" (I Cor. 15:45). Paul does not bring up questions of androgyny. Nonetheless, Betz leaned cautiously toward the understanding that the androgynous anthropos myth lies behind the Galatians 3:28 teaching of the dissolution of sexual distinctions. Being baptized into a new, androgynous person would be a form of "imitation of Christ," he said.

Such an imitation, the desire of the disciple to emulate the teacher, would be natural. Also, Jesus urged his followers to become his equal -- Luke 6:40, the Gospel of Thomas 13, 108, and in the Secret Book of James. "Make yourselves like the son of the Holy Spirit," Jesus says in the latter text; and again, "If you . . . do his [the Father’s] will, I [say] that he will love you, and make you equal with me."

It is not too surprising that many of Jesus’ early followers could see the feminine dimension of divinity in their teacher when one remembers that some Jesus sayings depicted him as the voice of Wisdom, a personified female aspect of God popular among Jews at the turn of the era. Jesus is particularly seen as Wisdom personified in the Thomas sayings and also in the "Q" source of Matthew and Luke.

And yet certain apocryphal works are valuable for a fuller understanding of teachings attributed to Jesus -- some teachings only dimly seen in the New Testament. Two theologians who hold this view are Helmut Koester and James M. Robinson. Koester, in a 1980 Harvard Theological Review article, said of examples from five apocryphal gospels: "They are significant witnesses for the formation of the gospel literature. . . . The term apocryphal with all its negative connotations should not prejudice us any longer."

Robinson, in his address as outgoing president of the Society of Biblical Literature in December 1981, presented a detailed case for the argument that the earliest resurrection traditions were luminous appearances of Jesus, while stories of physical resurrection were secondary. Adducing his points from both canonical and noncanonical sources, he said that what long ago became known as heresy was sometimes a relatively valid claim rooted in an original Christian emphasis. Suggesting in an interview that the contemporary ecumenical mood be extended back to the "losers" of the early centuries, the Gnostic Christians, he concluded: "I would hope we could open minds to a big hunk of early Christianity and rethink our conceptions of what was ‘heresy’ and ‘orthodoxy."’