The Primacy of the Holy Spirit

Spirit
God
Questioning Church
Image of a road with a shaft of sunlight falling between trees
Author
Alwyn Marriage

Alwyn Marriage's ten published books include two theology books, Life-Giving Spirit: Responding to the Feminine in God (SPCK) and The People of God: A Royal Priesthood (DLT). Her other works are predominantly poetry or fiction. She has been a university Philosophy lecturer, Chief Executive of Feed the Minds and the United Society for Christian Literature, Editor of the journal Christian, and an environmental consultant.

 

Summary

This article presents a dual thesis: first that the doctrine of the Trinity is a poor metaphor for God that threatens the more important truth that God is One and indivisible; and second that however one chooses to speak of the being and activity of God, that divinity is Spirit. It is meaningless to try to separate the concepts of God and Holy Spirit.

 

Article

Many years ago, a publisher heard me give a lecture in London, in which I made a passing reference to the possibility of using feminine language when speaking of the Holy Spirit. Clearly impressed with the idea, he invited me out to lunch and subsequently commissioned me to write a book on the subject. The result was Life-giving Spirit, published by SPCK.

I enjoyed the research and the writing, and the book was well-received. I was, however somewhat appalled when one reviewer hinted that by using the feminine gender to speak about the Holy Spirit, I was demoting that person of God to third place. There are two reasons why this attitude was reprehensible: first because it suggested that anything that was feminine as opposed to masculine was necessarily inferior; and second because it implied that the third person of the Trinity was less important than the other two. Both of these assumptions were anathema to me.

Oceans of ink have been spilled on the subject of the Holy Trinity, and anything one says is likely to have been addressed already. However, I have to admit that I am increasingly unhappy with the Church's 'One God in three persons' doctrine; and not very surprised that people of other monotheistic faiths sometimes accuse us of polytheism.

As Life-Giving Spirit was published so long ago, I will take the liberty of repeating a short extract from that book in which I addressed the subject of the Trinity. I will then outline the direction in which I would now like to take this discussion:

'The danger with the doctrine of the Trinity is that it tends to fragment rather than unify our concept of God. Its purpose is really to help us comprehend the unity of God but, by giving us bite-sized pieces, it allows us to separate these pieces out and imagine that they can be served at completely different meals. At its best, the doctrine of the Trinity offers us the concept of the triune God and thus allows us to understand and adore the unity of God. But the Church has frequently failed to appreciate the full glory of this unity and, by concentrating on the separate parts as though they were different deities, has fallen unconsciously into 'tritheism' instead – with the result that other religions, such as Judaism and Islam, have never been persuaded that Christianity is monotheistic, since it appears to them to recognise and celebrate three gods.

... What the Bible demonstrates is that God is constantly changing form in order to get through to us, appearing to some as an angel, to others as a cloud, to others as a burning bush. God is revealed as the deepest wisdom of the world, as a suffering dying man, as wind, or words of common sense addressed by someone we know and love.'  (pp25-26)

If people find the concept of the Trinity helpful to their understanding of God, that's fine as long as it doesn't diminish either the Holy Spirit or our attitude to the feminine. But ultimately it should be recognised as a metaphor, rather than being clung to as a doctrine. There are many other metaphors for God that might be equally helpful – God as Mother, God as cleansing wind and fire, God as the inner voice, God as Truth.

At the time of the controversies over the nature of God, the defence against Arianism and the thrashing out of the homoousia by Gregory and the other 4th century Cappadocian Fathers, most writers probably still believed in the literal truth of Genesis. It is not surprising, therefore, that the language they used to describe God should have become inappropriate for us today and that many women find the innate sexism of the traditional names of the Trinity offensive. The exclusive male terms have sometimes been replaced by other, non-sexist words such as Creator, Redeemer and Life-giving Spirit, and although it has not made it into trinitarian dialogue, many Christians are now comfortable addressing the divinity as Mother God. But these solutions do nothing to address the basic question as to why we should envisage God as three persons, rather than one or a hundred. God the Holy Spirit is father, mother, lover, friend, sister, brother and much else; and we can celebrate each of those and respond to them appropriately. Not all of them, including Father, are universally helpful, of course, and would have very different connotations for someone who had an abusive father or partner, an absent or indifferent mother.

The trinitarian formula embeds hierarchy at the heart of our faith and reduces the mystery of God to a magic formula; and despite the fact that God is all and in all, the common trinitarian formula, deeply embedded in our prayers and many of our hymns, always occurs in the same order of 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit', subtly reinforcing the assumption that God is male and that male is best.

This needs to be challenged at every step of our theological and prayer journeys. In Life-Giving Spirit, I showed how the language we use to speak about the Holy Spirit fits very comfortably, linguistically, historically and theologically, into the feminine gender and offers something of a balance to the consistent masculinity of talk about God. But this, obviously, does not mean that the Holy Spirit is, ever was or will be, a woman.

Sarah Coakley also recognises the danger of relegating the Spirit to the third person of the Trinity:

' ... the conciliar negotiation of trinitarian orthodoxy in the fourth century, by which the Christian God came normatively to be spoken of as three 'persons' in one 'substance', actually brought with it a profound theological and spiritual danger, even given its extraordinary theological achievement. For it came with ... the temptation to re-relegate the Spirit to an effective remaining subordination, even despite the rhetoric of full equality with the other two persons.' (Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self, p 101)

My contention in this article is not so much the gender of the words we use of God, as the poverty of the metaphor of the Trinity itself for describing the divinity, and even more, the relegating of the Holy Spirit to third place in a divine hierarchy. Much as I agree with Coakley's thought and writing, I feel that she sometimes gives too much ground here, as in the following where she almost appears implicitly to accept such a hierarchy:

'Yves Congar ... is ready to propose ...  that it would be a good idea to 'feminize' the Holy Spirit in a slightly different way as a concession to modern women's interests, and in witness to the sporadic, and especially early Syriac, such gendering of the Spirit. What he unfortunately fails to engage with from his 20th century perspective, however, is the far from liberating effect of a 'feminine' principle in the Godhead if she is, as here, still ranged in what is obviously the lowliest place in a descending hierarchy, where the ultimate point of authority is visually male and quasi-papal.'   (p 220)

However, Coakley later writes in more positive vein (in The New Asceticism):

'The Spirit ... is no redundant third, no hypostatized afterthought, no cooing 'feminine' adjunct to an established male household. Rather, experientially speaking, the Spirit is primary, just as Pentecost is primary for the Church; and leaving non-cluttered space for the Spirit is the absolute precondition for the unimpeded flowing of this divine exchange in us, the 'breathing of the divine breath'.'  (page 91)

The thesis I espouse is first that God is One and indivisible; and second, that however one chooses to speak of the being and activity of God, that divinity is Spirit. It is to the Holy Spirit that I now turn.

If the phrase 'Spirit of God' is understood as a genitive, then the Holy Spirit is different from God and becomes, in effect, God's pet dog. But surely Spirit is part of the nominative, is a way of describing God. How else can we possibly refer to God than as Spirit? The straw man of 'the old man in the sky' picture was firmly dismissed over a century ago, and yet by speaking of God in physical as opposed to spiritual terms, we introduce that figure again, possibly minus the beard and cloud.

It was God, who is Spirit, who moved over the waters before all time. God the Spirit is and always was the Logos, the Word that makes sense of everything. God the Holy Spirit is Wisdom. It was God-who-is-Spirit who was Elijah's still small voice, not some disembodied adjunct of God. Similarly, if we really believe in the Incarnation (which I do), it was God-who-is-Spirit who grew in Mary's womb. It would be plainly ridiculous to claim that if God is growing in Mary's womb, that same God is not busy constantly creating the world and whispering into people's ears and hearts. God the Holy Spirit is one, present everywhere and in all time.

The Holy Spirit IS God the Creator, the one from whom all comes and who sustains life. The Holy Spirit IS God incarnate in Jesus Christ and in the Church throughout all time. To speak of the Holy Spirit is to speak of God. This counters the common objection to the idea of God sending 'his' son to die, a belief that is objectionable to many human parents. It is surely more credible and palatable to claim that God the Holy Spirit, the God-self, came in person to die in an act of divine self-sacrifice.

Paul, inching his way towards a theology that might explain the inexplicable, recognises that God is Spirit, in such passages as Romans 8 and II Corinthians 3. We should therefore not be seeking physical form, but spiritual reality.

In Jesus Christ, God the Holy Spirit was incarnate as a human being; but after the Resurrection he can pass through walls and be in different places at the same time. While still on earth, Jesus promised that he would come again as the Holy Spirit; and this promise was fulfilled at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit, God, the Spirit of Christ became available to everyone and we, the Church, became the body of Christ. This is why Jesus was able to assure his followers that when they needed to speak on his behalf, the Holy Spirit would speak directly through them (Luke 12).

Prayer, through which we come into closer relationship with God, is a spiritual activity; and Paul explains how the Spirit prays through us. We do not pray, but God as Spirit prays in and through us (Romans 8).

John Taylor, in The Go-between God, speaks of all three persons of the Trinity as metaphors; and indeed in so far as we interpret spirit as breath, then the Holy Spirit is a metaphor that allows us to understand something of divinity by reference to our own human experience of breathing; but I hope I was able to indicate, in Life-Giving Spirit, that when we say God is Spirit, this is true in a more literal sense than when we say God is a Father.

The other difficulty that is solved by a more thorough espousal of God as Spirit is the nature of the Eucharistic elements, because that sacrament is a spiritual activity in which we partake of spiritual food which then becomes part of who and what we are. This seems to me to render arguments about transubstantiation and consubstantiation unnecessary.

Having rashly tackled the limiting nature of the doctrine of the Trinity, I turn to a small and seemingly insignificant by-product of changing the way we speak of God. For many Christians, the signing of the Cross over the body is a powerful reminder of our commitment to God and God's presence within us; but the words, said or implied, are entirely trinitarian. However, there are other formulae that could be used to accompany this small physical prayer. One that I use, as my hand moves over my body, is 'Within / me / around / me / God', with the final gesture-reinforced word, naturally falling on the heart.

 

Bibliography

Coakley, Sarah: God, Sexuality and the Self. Cambridge, 2013

Coakley, Sarah: The New Asceticism'. Bloomsbury, 2015

Congar, Yves: I believe in the Holy Spirit. London, Chapman, 1983

Marriage, Alwyn: Life-Giving Spirit: Responding to the Feminine in God. SPCK, 1989

Taylor, John: The Go-between God'. SCM, 1972.

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