“…we understand her to be the Word of God…”

A splendid variety of ideas so far – I’d like to pick up and ponder a couple of questions which Hannah provided.  Not to answer them, but simply to develop a couple of themes.  I’ll also be carrying on the Patristic note which April brought into our discussion.

Hannah noted the tradition of referring to the Spirit in feminine language, and speculated upon how using gendered terms for persons of the Trinity might connect with instinctive feelings about power.  If I’m reading her right, she implies that for some people using “she” for the Spirit will might inclusive and reflect the diversity in unity within the Trinity.  And, if I’m still understanding her, she implies that for others it might lead to subordinationist assumptions, given two historical accidents: the less developed theology of the Spirit in many Christian traditions, and the socially-conditioned view of women as inferior or secondary which is such a constant presence in our patriarchal societies.

I think she’s absolutely right in both cases, and I’d like to draw out a point which lies behind her suggestions: the contingency of speech and its dependence upon context and developing traditions.  As Hannah points out, “she” will have vastly different implications for different people, and its meanings will vary across time and cultures as well as across individuals.  Given the amount of time we spend scrutinising the context of past speech and writing, I wonder if it’s worth asking what context we’re imagining we speak in.  Would it be reasonable to speak of God differently in theological speculation than in communal worship?  In Biblical commentary and in personal prayer?  Might it be appropriate to be more kataphatic at some moments and apophatic at others?  There are many forms of speech – description, address, proclamation, performance, citation – which it might be helpful to consider as needing varying words.

It’s also possible to extend Hannah’s remarks by a reference to Origen, whom I was reading recently as part of my not very extensive pottering around the writings of the Fathers.  In De Principiis, Origen goes beyond referring to the third person of the Trinity with female pronouns, and cheerfully uses them of Christ.  the line I quoted for the title of this post comes from Of Christ, in the passage where Origen is concerned to identify the Word of God with divine Wisdom (and to insists on Wisdom’s hypostatic existence on the way.)  In identifying the two, he includes lines such as “we understand her to be the Word of God” and “on this account she is called the Word”.  I wonder how this connects with the issues of speech and context I sketched in the previous paragraph: does it seem controversial to put the pronoun “she” next to the second person of the Trinity?  If so, does that reflect a difference in situation, or a lack of thinking through our theological and Biblical commitments?

And I can’t quote that bit of Origen without remembering the heroine of Catherine Fox’s novel The Benefits of Passion, who finds herself frustrated by the way her tutor adds “or woman, of course, or woman” to the end of sentences to sound scrupulously inclusive, and expects one day to hear him declare “He was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary, and was made man…or woman, of course.  Or woman.”