BACKGROUND TO BUDDY #21

Note to the reader: the series of articles entitled Background to Buddy were extracted from a Christian nonfiction work that formed the basis for the novel Buddy, which is available from either Amazon or Signalman Publishing. Directions are noted on the page entitled Buddy on this blog site. The purpose of this work was to explain the reasons why I consider the Holy Spirit to be functionally female. Adventure episodes and humor were added for the entertainment of both the reader and the author.

Chapter 11: Resistance to a Female Attribute in Deity (continued)

A squeamish fear of offending the Holy Spirit

Perhaps the persistent caution that theologians have exercised against any attempt to change the established understanding of the Holy Spirit, despite the vagueness and confusion attending it, is related to the warning given in Proverbs 8:36: he that sins against the Holy Spirit wrongs his own soul. There may well be a correlation between this caution and the one expressed by Jesus in Matthew 12:31 and 32, as I noted earlier in Chapter 8:

“Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”

These are strong words. Perhaps theologians instinctively sense this correlation and, not wishing to shoot themselves in the foot, shy away from presenting anything controversial or beyond the superficial regarding the Holy Spirit. Historically, that has certainly been the situation with numerous theological expositions regarding the Holy Spirit, all of which end up complicating an extremely simple understanding of the nature of the Trinity by claiming that ultimately man is unable to grasp it.

Dr. H. A. Ironside, in a little tome first printed in 1941 entitled The Holy Trinity2, also interprets Genesis 1:2 as asserting that the Holy Spirit, in concert with the Father, was actively involved in creation. Interestingly, in referencing Isaiah 66 as an Old Testament reference to the Trinity he quotes from verse 13:

“As one whom his mother comforteth so will I comfort you.”

Although Ironside invariably interprets the Holy Spirit in terms of the masculine pronoun ‘he’, he also confesses a lack of full understanding of the nature of the Trinity. Yet the passage quoted above, by associating the word ‘mother’ with ‘comfort’, furnishes a key argument for the feminine function of the Holy Spirit. For Jesus, in John 14:16 and 17, directly links the Holy Spirit with the name (implying the role of) Comforter:

“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.”

As I noted in Family of God3, as long as one limits the application of the female gender to the Holy Spirit in a functional as opposed to substantive context, there is no necessary contradiction between the use of the masculine pronoun and a feminine occupation. The use of ‘he’ may be as simple as an emphasis on the ‘oneness’ of Father and Holy Spirit. Or it may relate to the promise I mentioned in Family of God.

Dedicated theologian Dr. Bruce A. Ware makes similar statements regarding the executive (implementation of will) role of the Holy Spirit in his work Father, Son, & Holy Spirit4. In that work, Ware encapsulates the roles of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as follows: Father – Grand Architect; Son – Submission to the Father in doing (displaying) His Will; Holy Spirit – Carrying out the work of the Father.

Could it be, then, that the use in Scripture of the pronoun ‘He’ in reference to the Holy Spirit, instead of constituting a gratuitous introduction of confusion, represents a remarkable promise to the Church in this parallelism of object/function relativity of gender that in its future role as Bride of Christ the Church will perform a function akin to that of the Holy Spirit? The mere thought of such a possibility, while reasonable of itself, possibly has been suppressed out of nothing more profound than simple fear – not the fear of God Himself, but the fear of what God might do to them for delving too far into His nature.

I would chide all such expositors for allowing this unjustified fear to prevent them from furnishing a richer, more love-inducing understanding of their God to the Christian community. How can we possibly fulfill God’s greatest commandment to us to love Him with all our hearts if we cannot understand Him? How can we truly worship God if we turn our hearts away from His own Word? I assert with the Revised Westminster Confession that the three Persons of the Trinity have but one substance – that of the Father, shared among them, and three distinct Personalities, or roles. I identify those roles as Father, Mother, and Son, wherein the Three constitute one God in the context of Family, by virtue of the love intrinsic to that structure which, of course, is idealized in its application to God. This identification I make does not represent any cleverness on my part; rather, its very simplicity gives me cause to suspect that many followers of God would do well to actually follow God in love tempered by fear instead of fear tempered by love, and to follow God Himself instead of adhering so stubbornly to the traditions of man.

Another expositor of the Holy Spirit is Dr. Alister McGrath who, in his book Understanding the Trinity5, stands on what I humbly perceive as firm soil in his eloquent and moving descriptions of God and the incarnate Jesus in chapters 1 through 6. In reading it for a second time quite recently I realized afresh how his treatment of the Trinity had influenced my own work Family of God. It was Dr. McGrath, in fact, to whom I referred on pages 24 through 26:

“Some theologians, having briefly noted the one intuitively satisfactory functional description of the Trinity, reject this particular answer quite abruptly, justifying their rejection on the basis of insufficient logic. They proceed from there to hammer out tortuously-derived and ultimately insufficient, emotionally empty alternatives. One such expositor, who otherwise paints with highly readable and insightful words a delightful description of God, mentions the Trinity with profound understanding and then quickly discards it as a misapplication of a familiar model in an attempt to apply too much of what is, after all, just a simplistic and imperfect model to the reality of God Himself. In his haste to reject that application, however, he violates the same logical guidelines which he carefully presented in the immediately preceding pages of his discussion.

“This same theologian, in viewing the Trinity in the uncontroversial terms of man’s encounters with God, explains it as different facets of His nature through which God has chosen to reveal Himself to man. God, he asserts, is altogether too vast for man, with his limitations in time and space, to acquire a complete picture of His entire nature. We can sample portions of this Divine Entity, however, and by thinking through the implications of the composite picture that He has given us through Scripture, we perceive His Trinitarian nature and the necessity for it. This experiential description is, I think, a valid one and has the advantage of being safely neutral with respect to gender. It is certainly the most intuitively satisfying characterization of the Trinity that I have seen to date. Yet such an exclusively man-centered description yields a disappointing poverty of information about God Himself, leaving the reader to ask why, if God does indeed have a Trinitarian nature, His is so reluctant to share a picture of that characteristic with us in terms of His intrinsic functional attributes. It would seem, after all, that a God-centered intuitive understanding would naturally lead to a greater appreciation of Him, and consequently a greater love toward Him on the part of His subjects. One might easily suspect, as a matter of fact, that those individuals in the past who were named in the Book of Hebrews, did indeed have personal insights into the nature of God beyond those which the usual Churchgoer might have access to via his pastor or his reading of Scripture.”

The description of the Trinity that Dr. McGrath presented with profound understanding and subsequently discarded in haste begins on page 57 of Understanding the Trinity, with an important continuation twelve pages later, where the author appears to wish to tone down his rejection of the earlier model by presenting some qualifying remarks which suggest that perhaps he himself had some persistently lingering thoughts about the nature of the Holy Spirit that he didn’t wish to assert directly:

“It was therefore assumed that light also needed to travel through something [as was the case for sound, upon which light was modeled], and the word ‘aether’ was coined to describe the medium through which light waves traveled. If you read old radio magazines, or listen to old radio programmes, you’ll sometimes find people referring to ‘waves traveling through the aether’. But by the end of the century it had become clear that light did not seem to need any medium to travel through. What had happened was simply that the logical necessity of one aspect of the model (sound) had initially been assumed to apply to what was being modeled (light), and this assumption was gradually recognized to be incorrect as the experimental evidence built up.

“And so it is with models of God. For example, we often use ‘father’ as a very helpful model of God, emphasizing the way in which we are dependent upon God for our existence. But for every human child there is a human mother as well as a human father. This would seem to imply that there is a heavenly mother in addition to a heavenly father. But this assumption rests upon the improper transfer of the logical necessity of an aspect of the model (father) to what is being modeled (God), in just the same way as the necessity of one aspect (the need for a medium of propagation) of the model (sound) was transferred to what was being modeled (light). . .”

“. . . Although the strongly patriarchal structure of society of the time inevitably meant that emphasis was placed upon God as father (e.g., Jeremiah 3:19; Matthew 6:9), there are several passages which encourage us to think of God as our mother (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:18). We shall be considering these two images together, and ask what they tell us about God.

“The first, and most obvious, point is that God is understood as the one who called us into being, who created us. Just as our human parents brought us into being, so God must be recognized as the author and source of our existence. Thus at one point in her history, Israel is chided because she ‘forgot the God who gave [her] birth’ (Deuteronomy 32:18; cf. Isaiah 44:2, 24; 49:15).

“The second point which the model of God as parent makes is the natural love of God for his people. God doesn’t love us because of our achievements, but simply because we are his children. ‘The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you’ (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). Just as a mother can never forget or turn against her child, so God will not forget or gturn against his people (Isaiah 49:15). There is a natural bond of affection and sympathy between God and his children, simply because he has brought them into being. Thus God loved us long before we loved him (1 John 4:10, 19). Psalm 51:1 refers to God’s ‘great compassion, and it is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for ‘compassion’ (rachmin) is derived from the word for ‘womb’ (rechmen). God’s compassion towards his people is that of a mother towards her child (cf. Isaiah 66:12-13). Compassion stems from the womb.”

A delightful feature of his discourses, remarkable for its rarity, is a description of God’s loving relationship to mankind in romantic terms, a facet of God with which I wholeheartedly agree. Another feature of his presentation which I admire is his lengthy discussion of the necessities of Jesus’ essence as both man and God, and of His resurrection.

Unfortunately, Dr. McGrath appears to be on less stable ground when he attempts to delve deeper in his discussion of the Trinity. In his presentation of this dogma he avoids investigating too thoroughly into God’s intrinsic nature or attributes by substituting in its place a lengthy experientially-based account of Him in terms of His interaction with mankind. He is careful near the outset of his discourse, however, to distance himself from any notion that the Trinity includes a female Persona. He does so in his chapter entitled Thinking About God by noting that intellectual models are subject to misapplication through the improper assumption that every attribute of a model must apply to its counterpart in reality. He cites as an example the wave characteristic of sound as a model for light, as was quoted directly from his work above.

But is the assumption of a Divine Mother in the economy of God necessarily a misapplication of the human parent model? It could be, but that’s a long way from must be. Nowhere does Dr. McGrath justify the necessity that he associates with that application. Instead, he elevates a mere illustrative example to the status of a law, which is either less than honest or less than brilliant. (Actually, I recognize my lack of qualification to cast such judgment on a man who possesses doctorates in both theology and science; indeed, I suspect quite strongly that he is neither dishonest or less than brilliant. Rather, I think that his presentation here is an overzealous attempt to distance himself from an extremely controversial topic.)

Moreover, as we have already noted, a few pages further along, Dr. McGrath equivocates a bit regarding the possibility of motherhood in God’s economy, citing a number of Scriptural passages that describe God in a role more appropriate to motherhood than to fatherhood.

Almost at the end of his book it can be seen how Dr. McGrath rescues himself from this apparent inconsistency: as discussed in more detail below, he does not posit a distinct Member of the Godhead who possesses the attributes of femininity; instead, he attributes this characteristic to the same Person as the Father. But rather than solving the problem of the feminine side of God, he comes dangerously close both to ultra-monotheism and modalism. Beyond that, he defines a God with gender characteristics indeed, but in the same Person. According to 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10, this suggests a model for a human malady known as hermaphroditism, which is related to the transgender affliction, and which is contrary to Scripture, even to the extent of being labeled as unrighteous:

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”

I find it hard to believe, given its treatment in Scripture, that in His own organization God would wish even to hint at sexual perversion, or even sexual difficulty.

The essence of McGrath’s description of Jesus may be encapsulated in this passage, found in his chapter entitled God as Three and God as One: “The difficulties really begin with the recognition of the fundamental Christian insight that Jesus is God incarnate: that in the face of Jesus Christ we see none other than the living God himself. Although the New Testament is not really anything like a textbook of systematic theology, there is nothing stated in the great creeds of the Church which is not already explicitly or implicitly stated within its pages. Jesus is understood to act as God and for God: whoever sees him, sees God; when he speaks, he speaks with the authority of God; when he makes promises, he makes them on behalf of God; when he judges us, he judges as God; when we worship, we worship the risen Christ as God; and so forth.” Dr. McGrath goes on to characterize Jesus in his incarnate form as not actually comprising the fullness of God, but merely as a representative sample of God suitable for furnishing humanity with some comprehension, consistent with their limitations, of the far more complete spiritual God who resides in heaven. He claims in a similar vein that the Holy Spirit, like Jesus, is another manifestation of God, in this case one that indwells the believer, that furnishes another way by which redeemed mankind can encounter, or experience, God.

[to be continued]

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