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The Blasphemy of Saint Augustine
James Hale argues that the Holy Spirit is feminine and that the Trinity is a mirror of the nuclear human family.
Religious philosophers who believe in Hell run the risk of going there themselves. Aurelius Augustine, the patron saint of Christian theology, is a case in point. Best known for his Confessions and The City of God, Augustine devoted the better part of his last thirty-five years composing his treatise, Of The Trinity, wherein he meticulously defined and defended the notion that God exists as three ‘persons’ – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
For the nearly sixteen centuries since that time, the doctrine of the Trinity has formed the vanguard of the Christian movement and become the principal unifying distinctive of the world’s most populous religion. Because of Augustine, however, the doctrine emerged and remains under a shroud of sexism, for according to him, each of these three supposed ‘persons’ of God is thoroughly masculine in nature.
Even granting Augustine his presuppositions concerning the existence and triune nature of God, not to mention his steadfast belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture, his allmasculine formulation of the Trinity, if not downright misogynistic, at least begs the question: “If God is the tri-personal Creator of all, then from whence sprang the concept, no less the manifestation, of femininity?”
Augustine might retort, “Where did trees come from?”, as if we might as well suggest that the existence of trees compels us to find a tree in the godhead. But that ignores the distinction that gender, unlike ‘treeness’, is a personal attribute of a personal being. Even an omnipotent deity experiences certain limitations. For example, if God is independently and eternally self-existent, then God could not, by definition, create God. How then could an all-masculine deity somehow reach outside ‘Himself’ and create anything resembling the personal attribute of femininity?
‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are explicitly masculine monikers. Thus, unless we are eager to attribute androgyny to one or both of these two persons of God, we must search elsewhere for the origin of femininity. The only remaining candidate for such a gender re-engineering effort would be the Holy Spirit, the socalled ‘third’ person of the Trinity.
This may be a bitter pill for Christians to swallow, however, since an otherwise all-forgiving Christ is quoted in Matthew 12:31 as having said that there is only one ‘unforgivable’ sin, that being ‘blasphemy’ against the Holy Spirit. Attributing femininity to the Spirit therefore becomes a highstakes game for believers, with nothing less than eternal damnation as the possible penalty for error.
But surely this risk is two-sided. Unlike ‘Father’ and ‘Son’,the English term, ‘Holy Spirit’, does not appear to be burdened by any specific gender connotation. The Hebrew word for spirit, however, is ruach, a feminine noun; the Greek word is pneuma, a neuter noun. Masculine personal pronouns attributed to the Spirit in the English translations, therefore, have been supplied by the translators.
Nevertheless, if thinking or speaking about the Spirit in feminine terms constitutes blasphemy, then what would make masculine attributions not blasphemous? Indeed, if the worst insult we can hurl at one another is to attribute masculinity to one’s mother (e.g., “Your mother wears Army boots”), how much worse an insult to deny femininity to the Spirit, if this should be the case?
The problem finds its root in the first stirrings of an historic debate that preceded and led to the doctrine. The earliest Christians were predominately Jewish and thus fiercely monotheistic. Yet their Messiah had arguably claimed to be God incarnate. He even taught them to pray to the ‘Father’, as if to a separate person.
Faced with the unacceptable prospect of ‘two’ Gods, a heated dispute erupted in the early church over the divinity of Jesus.
The disputants turned to the Scriptures for guidance. The writings of the Apostles were cited by both sides as authoritative on the question. Those who argued in favor of Christ’s divinity, however, ultimately had to deal with the divinity of the Holy Spirit as well, since the apostolic writings seemed to attribute as much ‘personhood’ to the Spirit as they did to the Father and the Son.
In 325 AD, the Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea to resolve the issue. The resulting Nicene Creed became the basic model for Trinitarian doctrine by including the Holy Spirit as the ‘third person’ of God.
The Trinity, in other words, was the unintended byproduct of this prior debate. Thus, the Holy Spirit became a sort of theological afterthought. The gender of the Spirit, however, was not specifically addressed until Augustine did so in his treatise, wherein he argued against what was most probably a Gnostic proposition that the Holy Spirit is feminine in nature.
The problem for today, of course, is that this aspect of the doctrine flies in the face of a more enlightened social consensus. It is not ‘politically correct’, for while this masculine bias is shared by Christianity’s cousins, Judaism and Islam, the insult to femininity seems three times worse. In vulgar terms, the ‘man upstairs’ is really three ‘men.’
The Church would do well, therefore, to reconsider this ancient proposition concerning the gender of the Holy Spirit, along with Augustine’s objections to it, in a more accommodating age.
Beginning with Genesis 1:26-27, the creation of Humankind is described in the following terms:
And God said, Let us make man in our Image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion … over all the earth … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (emphasis added).
The term ‘image’ here thus carries with it twin notions of dominion and relationship – dominion in the sense of a viceregency or rule, and relationship in the sense of a diversity between the two sexes. An image, however, like a picture, is not the thing portrayed but rather something like it. If we see the image of a rose, for example in a photograph, we realize that we are not beholding the rose itself. Yet we can learn something about the rose by studying the image.
So it is with the image of God, at least according to the self-proclaimed ‘Word of God’. Thus, as Humans are ruling beings, so is God a ruling being. In this regard, Humankind is not God, but an image of God. Humans rule the Earth whereas God rules everything, including Humankind.
Similarly, Humans are revealed as relational beings. Mankind is “male and female”. Does this mean that God is also “male and female” in the sense of being distinguished sexually? Certainly not, since that would equate the image with the thing being imaged. God is expressly revealed throughout Scripture as being a spiritual, not a material, being. Prior to the Incarnation, at least, God did not have a physical body. Therefore, God could not have been ‘male and female’ in the same sense that Mankind is male and female.
What this does suggest, however, is that there is a distinction to be found in God that is somehow similar to the sexual distinction we observe between men and women. But because God is a nonmaterial being, this distinction could not possibly be physical in nature. Rather, it must be founded upon some nonmaterial basis that is imaged by sex.
The distinction between men and women is not solely physical. There is a nonmaterial distinction as well. We conceive and speak of this nonmaterial distinction between the sexes as ‘masculinity’ versus ‘femininity.’
In other words, with nothing more to go on than Genesis 1:27, we might legitimately conclude that God somehow consists of two spiritual persons, one masculine and one feminine.
But this is not where the Biblical image of God ends. Mankind is not portrayed as merely binary. There is a further distinction between human beings that pertains to God’s image. Immediately following the creation of the first man and the first woman, according to the Biblical story, God commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply.” God commanded them to come together as a unity – to become, as it were, “one flesh.”
The result of this union was the procreation of another category of human being – children – who would then, in turn, continue the replication of God’s image throughout the Earth. Here, then, in its fullest sense, is the relational image of God as revealed in the Biblical account of the creation of Humankind: Father, Mother, and Child. A trinity of persons, if you will, united by familial love. The nuclear human family. As God is eternally Father, Holy Spirit, and Son, so is Humankind temporally father, mother, and children. Indeed, it is this attribute of family that distinguishes human beings from all other creatures, be they animals or angels.
Strangely, however, this analogy to the human family as being the image of God did not resonate at all well with Augustine as he ruminated on the Trinity. To the contrary, he found this proposition “absurd,” principally because it sought the image of God in a diversity of persons rather than in the mind of the individual.
Since Adam was created first, he argued, we must seek the image of God in him alone (and by extension in each individual man), and not just in him, but specifically in his mind, since God is not a bodily being. This has become known as the ‘psychological analogy’ of the Trinity, finding as it does the image of God in the mind of the individual human. Incredibly, however, Augustine went on to argue that Eve (and by extension women in general), being derived from Adam, could not, in and of herself, be considered as the image of God.
Augustine compounds this error by reading too much into 1 Corinthians 11:7 (“For a man … is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man”), concluding that Paul here intended to deny to the woman her participation in the image of God. But were we to apply this selfsame illogic to an earlier foundational verse, 1 Corinthians 11:3 (“the head of every man is Christ … and the head of Christ is God.”), we would be led to the conclusion that Paul intended by this to deny Christ’s participation in the divinity of God, a conclusion that Augustine himself would find preposterous.
Aside from the issue of gender, however, nothing in Augustine’s psychological analogy of the Trinity necessarily conflicts with the analogy we find in the human family. Indeed, both analogies, taken together, complement one another perfectly.
The traditional Christian belief that each person of the Trinity is fully God does not conflict with the complementary view that all three together are also fully God. Similarly, we recognize that every individual man, woman, or child, standing alone, is fully human. Yet alone, no single individual can represent humanity as fully as does the human family.
One therefore gets the impression from reading Augustine’s objection to the family analogy that he was actually most disturbed by the notion of attributing femininity to the person of the Holy Spirit, despite his elaborate protestations to the contrary.
But the Bible contains many such attributions, stereotypical though they may seem to us in our liberated age. For example, the principal ministry of the Holy Spirit in human affairs, as revealed throughout the New Testament, is the spiritual regeneration of those who would come to faith. According to Christ, it is by the Holy Spirit that a person is ‘born again’. This particular analogy bears closer examination, especially since it comes from that passage in the Bible that many believers have appropriated as the high-octane fuel for their evangelical zeal.
The story is set forth in the third chapter of John’s Gospel. A Pharisee named Nicodemus, a “leader of the Jews” in Jerusalem, approached Jesus one evening under cover of darkness, probably because Christ had attained by that time a certain controversial notoriety. Nicodemus started by speaking flattering words to Jesus, which Christ ignored with the following non-sequitur: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
This reference to the process of birth confused Nicodemus, who responded by asking how it was possible for a man to be born again without first crawling back inside his mother’s womb. Jesus replied by making the obvious distinction between the material world, which is what Nicodemus was thinking about, and the spiritual realm, to which Christ was referring. He said: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
This birth analogy is notable for two reasons. First, because birth is, as Nicodemus realized, an exclusively feminine activity. Only a mother is capable of giving birth, and the labor involved is entirely her own. Neither father nor fetus plays any active role in the process. Second, Christ completes the analogy by identifying the Holy Spirit as the only person of the Trinity who participates in this process of spiritual rebirth.
The analogy is clear. Just as Nicodemus’ mother was to his physical birth, says Christ, so is the Holy Spirit to a human’s spiritual rebirth.
The Holy Spirit, in other words, acts in the capacity of a mother to those who are ‘born again’. The parallel is simply undeniable. This alone should have sent Augustine back to his drawing board, since the cross-analogy is just as valid: spiritual rebirth is to physical birth as the Holy Spirit is to … mother. But there is more. Take another look at the Annunciation, wherein the angel Gabriel comes to Mary with the news that she has been chosen from among all women to bring the long-awaited Messiah into the world. The account is set forth in Luke 1:26-38, and has been traditionally interpreted to mean that Jesus was conceived through a mystical union between Mary and the Holy Spirit alone.
However, a closer look at the process by which Jesus was conceived, as described by Gabriel, clearly involves two separate steps and, more importantly, two separate persons of the Trinity, not just one:
The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
In step one, the Holy Spirit will “come upon” Mary. Then, and only then, will the “power of the Highest” overshadow her. How else can we make sense of this than by seeing it as the supernatural union, not just between Mary and the Holy Spirit, but involving the ‘Highest’ as well?
One need not look very far to determine precisely who Gabriel meant by the ‘Highest’. First, we can see from the immediate context that the ‘Highest’ is distinct from the ‘Holy Ghost’. Second, in a previous verse, Gabriel says to Mary that the son she will bear and name Jesus will be “called the Son of the Highest.”
Clearly, then, Gabriel has the Father in mind when he refers to the ‘Highest’. Thus, what is being pictured here is a union, first and foremost, between the Father and the Holy Spirit, as eternal Spouse of the Father and eternal Mother of the Son. Mary’s involvement in this union is secondary (“therefore also”), limited to the role of the human vessel who will bear and give birth to the incarnate Son of God. She serves as Christ’s temporal mother, and in this she is “blessed among women,” but it would be quite impossible for her to be the “Mother of God” in any way other than this temporal sense.
If Jesus is divine, as Augustine himself believed and forcefully argued, then the eternal Son pre-existed the incarnate Christ. He did not first come into being as a person when He was born of Mary in Bethlehem. He had always existed prior to that time, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, all three persons of the Trinity being eternally selfexistent. In this sense, Christ, as the eternal Son of the Father, is traditionally said to have been ‘eternally begotten’ by the Father, not by the Holy Spirit.
But the term ‘father’ has a very specific denotation that was ignored not only by Augustine but by all of the other so-called ‘fathers’ of the Church. ‘Father’ is a relational term that is specific to the human family. In order for a person to be called a father, he needs to stand in relation to both of the other two familial persons. Certainly, he needs to stand in relation to his children, just as the Biblicallyrevealed Father so explicitly stands in relation to the Son. But before that, a father must first stand in relation to the mother of his child.
Without the existence of a mother, it is quite impossible for a man to be considered a father in any sense other than a highly abstract one, for example, as George Washington is called the ‘father’ of the United States. This is manifestly not the sense in which God the Father is portrayed in the Bible. The relationship between the Father and the Son is not abstract but explicitly familial. How then could anyone, no less someone of Augustine’s enormous intellect, come to the conclusion that completing this divine family portrait by including the Holy Spirit as Spouse and Mother should be ‘absurd?’
At minimum, the Scriptural references discussed above should be sufficient to cause even the most ardent God-is-aguy advocate to begin scratching his head. They should also cause no end of rejoicing among religious feminists, some of whom, in righteous indignation, have come to advocate the view of God as Goddess.
If nothing else, the family analogy would seem to be a welcome compromise between these two radically opposed positions. More important, it alone speaks vitally to that highest order of loving relation in which human beings participate, however imperfectly, in the image of God.
As the Christian Church stands at the dawn of ‘her’ third millennium, awaiting, as the ‘Bride of Christ,’ the promised return of her ‘Espoused,’ she would do well to consider the possibility, at least, that the voice joining hers at that great and final summons to the altar of marriage, as set forth in Revelation 22:17 (“And the Spirit and the bride say, Come”), may well be that of her future Mother-In-Law.
As for Augustine, may Hell have no fury …
© James L. Hale 2002
James Hale is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the Syracuse University College of Law. His essays and poems have appeared in The Syracuse Law Review, The New York Law Reporter, Two Rivers Review, The Crazy Scribbler and Dartmouth Poems. He and his wife Deborah divide their time between Upstate New York and Mexico.