Not a Modern Invention: The Femininity of God in Church History
Talking about God as feminine or motherly can often be caricatured as a modern invention by people who are offended by the Bible and want to revise it. Now, there are certainly those that have said that and argued that, and if that was the whole story, that would be a problem. We are not at liberty to invent God, but we are at liberty to respond to God at the leading of the Bible, and there is a beautiful liberty there. As Luke Steeves recently wrote, just as Hagar saw what God did and named him "El-Roi," the one who sees her, there is this invitation in worship to express God's love with the resources of our experience. This does not undermine the Bible's revelation in Jesus Christ. In fact, it proves it: God is the God of all reality. If we tried to find a part of God's good creation that did not declare God's glory, we would search in vain. How much more can then our experiences as men and women, beings made in God's image , be a cue to thinking about God (a point Linda DeMone reflected on)?
In the Bible, while there is certainly much more male language than female language, to say that it is exclusively male is to miss quite a bit (see my survey here). There are important passages that speak of God as a mother to Israel, the Holy Spirit as Lady Wisdom (which Jesus cites in Matthew and Luke), and a host of smaller metaphors speaking of feminine roles and traits. The question is, really, why haven’t more people noticed this and included this in their worship? It might surprise some to see that there have been those in church history, from the early church to modern times, who have used feminine language for God. In a previous post, I explored some of the icons and artwork that show this (for that, click here). In this post, I would like to point out that feminine and motherly language for God is not merely the product of modern thinkers. It is actually a perennial notion that a lot of Christians have thought and prayed about over the years. While God as Father is the most common image for God in the New Testament, and there is no reason to be offended at that, this does not mean God is literally a father such that feminine language is out of bounds. There are numerous examples of Christians who did not think language about God was a zero-sum game, and their lessons are worth listening to.
The Odes of Solomon
What are the Odes of Solomon? They are perhaps the earliest book of worship literature outside the New Testament. They date to the early second century and thus, stand as an extremely important example. In it, Jesus is worshiped as the Mother of believers (Odes 8:14), and there are more sustained examples of how God is worship as feminine. Here is one of them, and it is quite explicit:
A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
The Son is the cup, and the Father is He who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;
Because His breasts were full, and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.
The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing, and those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.
The womb of the Virgin took it, and she received conception and gave birth.
Can you imagine sining that in church service? The early church did.
Benedictions to God as Mother and Father in Melito of Sardis and John Chrysostom
Many of the works of Melito of Sardis (d. 180), the Bishop of Sardis, have been lost, but from how he is quoted and described by later thinkers, we know that he was regarded as a leader to his peers. From the fragments of his writings, we know he frequently gave this benediction, encouraging the saints to sing (or “hymn”) to God:
Hymn the Father, you holy ones; sing to your Mother, virgins. We hymn, we exalt (them) exceedingly, we holy ones. You have been exalted to be brides and bridegrooms, for you have found your bridegroom, Christ. Drink for wine, brides and bridegrooms (Melito, Fragment, 17)
Similarly, John Chrysostom (347-407), the greatest preacher of his day, hails God in this benediction prayer like this: “Thou art my Father, thou art my Mother, thou my Brother, thou art Friend, thou art Servant, thou art House-keeper; thou art the All, and the All is in thee; thou art Being, and there is nothing that is, except thou” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew). What is interesting is that both these thinkers, who stand centuries apart, coupled the title Mother and Father together, as if the one did not cofound the other.
God becomes Female in Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria (150-215) is a Church Father and Saint, who ran the school of theology in Alexandria, the most important Christian educational institution in antiquity. Along with Irenaeus, he is one of the first theologians of the church that started thinking about Scripture in programmatic ways. Concerning the Son, he writes, “The Word is everything to his little ones, both father and mother and tutor and nurse” (Christ the Educator, sect. 68). Clement knew that God had to be both male and female in order for God to be the root of all goodness in creation, the good of every good, and thus, while respecting the language of Father and Son, he also sees them as leading into feminine language through God's essential character. In other words, the point that God is a Father is to communicate the more important truth that God is love, and if this is the case, this permits and even necessitates motherly language. He writes,
For what further need has God of the mysteries of love? And then you shall look into the bosom of the Father, whom God the only-begotten Son alone has declared. And God Himself is love; and out of love to us became feminine. In His ineffable essence He is Father; in His compassion to us He became Mother. The Father by loving became feminine: and the great proof of this is He whom He begot of Himself; and the fruit brought forth by love is love. (Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved? sect. 37)
Mother Spirit in Origen, Jerome, and Others
There is a book, known today only in fragments, called the Gospel of the Hebrews. It dates to the early second century and seems to be a Jewish-Christian community’s recollections of Jesus in a vein very similar to the Gospel of John, except it claims no apostolic connection. It was regarded as Scripture by a number of early thinkers all the way up until Jerome. Unlike other spurious documents that were removed for being heretical, it seems that this document merely fell out of usage, because it was associated with the Hebrews and did not claim to be an apostolic memoir (thus, it just was not as important as the four canonical ones). In it, the book identifies the Spirit as the Mother of Christ, and it seemed to have been cited by several early church thinkers with approval. That is not binding today in and of itself, but what is significant is that these early church thinkers did not see the notion of the femininity of the Spirit as out of line with what they saw in the rest of the Bible. Origen (184-253) cites the Gospel of Hebrews, saying,
If anyone should lend credence to the Gospel according to the Hebrews, where the Saviour Himself says, ‘My Mother, the Holy Spirit, took me just now by one of my hairs and carried me off to the great Mount Tabor,’ he will have to face the difficulty of explaining how the Holy Spirit can be the Mother of Christ when She was herself brought into existence through the Word. But neither the passage nor this difficulty is hard to explain. For if he who does the will of the Father in heaven [Mt. 12:50] is Christ’s brother and sister and mother, and if the name of the brother of Christ may be applied, not only to the race of men, but to beings of diviner rank than they, then there is nothing absurd in the Holy Spirit’s being His Mother; everyone being His mother who does the will of the Father in heaven. (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2.12)
Jerome (342-420) concurs with Origen over a century later as he seems to also comment on a passage from the Gospel to the Hebrews (a book he zealously defended as canonical), but then he looks to other biblical passages noting the femininity of the Spirit as well:
And also this: (in the text) ‘like the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress’ [Ps. 123:2], the maid is the soul and the mistress is the Holy Spirit. For also in that Gospel written according to the Hebrews, which the Nazoreans read, the Lord says: ‘Just now, my Mother, the Holy Spirit, took me.’ Nobody should be offended by this, for among the Hebrews the Spirit is said to be of the feminine gender although in our language it is called to be of masculine gender and in the Greek language, neuter. (Commentary on Isaiah, 11, 40, 9)
Again, it is not in and of itself significant that the Gospel of Hebrews says this: think of how the Spirit is Lady Wisdom in Proverbs (which continues on in Deuterocanonical wisdom literature that the early church knew well), think of how Jesus speaks of Wisdom in Matthew and Luke, how the Spirit comes on Mary to birth Jesus, then comes on Jesus as a dove at baptism, and how the Spirit is responsible for bringing about spiritual "birth" - put that all together, and you have the grounds for how the early church believed that Spirit was both male and female.
While Origen and Jerome are “heavy hitters” of church history, there are a bunch of lesser-known figures that said similar, suggesting this idea was quite common in the early church. Epiphanius states, “And the Holy Spirit is (said to be) like Christ, too, but She is a female being” (Panarion 19, 4, 1–2). Hippolytus says similarly, “The male is the Son of God and the female is called the Holy Spirit”(Refutatio, 9, 13, 3). In discussing chastity before marriage, Aphrahat states, “As long as a man has not taken a wife he loves and reveres God his Father and the Holy Spirit his Mother, and he has no other love” (Demonstrations, 18). Aphrahat also describes the work of the Spirit in baptism like that of a female dove: “From baptism, we receive the Spirit of Christ, and in the same hour that the priests invoke the Spirit, She opens the heavens and descends, and hovers over the waters [cf. Gen. 1:2], and those who are baptized put Her on” (Demonstrations, 6).
Mother Christ in Anslem and Bernard
Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) is one of the most important medieval minds for Western Christianity. His book, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), reshaped how Western Christianity saw the atonement. His Proslogion, a mediative prayer where he contemplates God’s perfect being and the necessity of its existence, is really the first example of what is called an “ontological argument” for God’s existence. Anselm was also an extremely sophisticated poet, and his prayers deserve appreciation for their intricacy and beauty, although they are rarely read compared to these other philosophical works. One prayer looks at how Jesus wanted to protect Jerusalem like a mother bird (Matt. 23:37) and gleans from that the notion that Jesus is a mother: “And you, Jesus, are you not also a mother? Are you not the mother who, like a hen, gathers her chickens under her wings?” (“Prayers to Saint Paul”)
It has often been said that what Dante did for poetry and what Aquinas did for theology Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) did for spiritual formation. This saint was a master of the spiritual disciplines, and his prayers and meditations are cherished classics. In one of his letters, he, similar to Anselm, prays this: “Do not let the roughness of our life frighten your tender years. If you feel the stings of temptation... suck not so much the wounds as the breasts of the Crucified. He will be your mother, and you will be his son” (Letter 322).
Hildegard of Bingen: Sophia as Trinity
It must be said that one cannot overstate Hildegard of Bingen’s (1098-1179) intellectual abilities, but up until recently, her theological contributions have been ignored by a wider often male audience. A German Benedictine Abbess, she was extraordinarily gifted: a philosopher, composer, doctor, biologist, linguist, and theologian. She was a polymath of the highest sort. In her theological writings, she reflects on mystical visions she had, and it is here we see feminine Wisdom imagery. In her Scivias, there is a codex of manuscripts that contains a picture entitled “Trinity” (See the top of the post). This is a feminine figure who is the eternal love of God that made creation. Creation is depicted as the circles flowing outward, the outer rings signifying the planets, sun, and stars. Hildegard writes,
She has invoked no one’s help and needs no help because she is the First and the Last... she who is the First has arranged the order of all things. Out of her own being and by herself she has formed all things in love and tenderness.... For she oversaw completely and fully the beginning and end of her deeds because she formed everything completely, just as everything is under her guidance. (Book of Divine Works, 8,2)
Wisdom, following the Old Testament portrayals of the Holy Spirit, is the energy of all life, in which all things subsist. Following the imagery in later Deuterocanonical books and John, Wisdom is the point in which God and creation dwell together. Wisdom is all truth in all the sciences, arts, and philosophy.
Julian of Norwich and Mother Trinity
Julian of Norwich (1343-1416) was an anchoress and mystic. She had profound visions of God, which she wrote down in her Revelations of Divine Love (also called, Showings). She is regarded as a saint and doctor of the Catholic church, which means her teaching is approved as being not only being in congruence with historic orthodoxy, but are exemplary for students of theology. In her visions, she describes Christ as her Mother, but also she sees the whole being of the Trinity as Mother: “The high might of the Trinity is our Father, and the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, and the great love of the Trinity is our Lord” (Revelations of Divine Love, vision 58)
John Calvin (1509-1564), of course, is one of the great theologians of the Reformation along with Martin Luther, and as a formidable commentator on Scripture, he did not miss the references to God as a mother in Isaiah (however, did fail to integrate them into his theology and liturgical practices). For instance, in commenting on the Isaiah passages, Calvin writes, responding to arguments that “Father” is a more appropriate title for God, “that no figures of speech can describe God’s extraordinary affection towards us; for it is infinite and various” Thus, in regards to Isaiah 46:3, he writes, God “has manifested himself to be both...Father and Mother.” (Commentary on Isaiah, 46:3). Calvin continues on and says this:
Shall a woman forget her child! In order to correct that distrust, he adds to the remonstrance an exhortation full of the sweetest consolation. By an appropriate comparison, he shews how strong is his anxiety about his people, comparing himself to a mother, whose love toward her offspring is so strong and ardent, as to leave far behind it a father’s love. Thus, he did not satisfy himself with proposing the example of a father, (which on other occasions he very frequently employs,) but in order to express his very strong affection, he chose to liken himself to a mother, and calls them not merely “children,” but the fruit of the womb, towards which there is usually a warmer affection. What amazing affection does a mother feel toward her offspring, which she cherishes in her bosom, suckles on her breast, and watches over with tender care, so that she passes sleepless nights, wears herself out by continued anxiety, and forgets herself! And this carefulness is manifested, not only among men, but even among savage beasts, which, though they are by nature cruel, yet in this respect are gentle. (Commentary on Isaiah 49:15)
There are, of course, many more references, but this quick survey demonstrates a few things. The Odes of Solomon and benedictions of Melito and Chrysostom show that feminine imagery has been used in the worship of the early church. The theology of Clement shows an early example that Christians did indeed think about inclusivity when contemplating the incarnation of Jesus. The quotations from Origen, Jerome, and others gives a lot of evidences that Christians regarded the Holy Spirit as feminine and a mother, and that this was widely understood. The medieval prayers of St. Anselm and St. Bernard show an interesting need to think about Jesus as a mother. They, of course, did not question that the historical Jesus was in fact male, but their contemplation of the mystery of the incarnation led them to pray with these inclusive metaphors. Hildegard and Julian of Norwich used feminine language for the Trinity in more sustained ways, and these were accepted and cherished in their own day. Finally, John Calvin, while there is often a more fundamentalist appropriation of this person's teachings, when one actually looks at just how sophisticated his commentary on the Bible is, one quickly finds that his own thinking is hard to pigeonhole. Again, while he did not integrate his thinking on these passages into his wider theology, here we record an important and honest reflection on God's love being expressed in the title, Mother.
Is feminine imagery for God an invention of modern thinkers? No. The debate as sadly suffered from the binary thinking of camps, liberal versus conservative, which has frankly clouded this discussion from the facts. The evidence is that the early church did not see an "either-or" choice between imagery. With that in mind, this issue has come to the fore in the modern times, but this is an opportunity not a threat. We fool ourselves if we think that we are so enlightened that we are now the first to start thinking about these issues. As the church grapples with moving beyond patriarchy and learns new ways to think and worship God, we should keep in mind that some of these ways are not new at all. Feminine language for God is not revising what the church has always believed. It is a recovery.
Spencer Miles Boersma is the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College, and he serves on the Board of ASBE.