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Womanist and Feminist on Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit refers to God’s activity within followers. That is, if the Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ can be spoken of as objective, then our appropriation of it is subjective. While God on the one hand does something for us, on the other hand, He does something within us. One aspect of this, to which we have already referred, is the recognition of the Bible as God’s word to us. The Bible may well be the record of God’s past revelation to men, but it becomes an actual living revelation to us when we are convinced that here God is addressing us personally and we must pay heed. The theme of the Holy Spirit is one of the debatable issues on theology as there are different points of view and interpretations of its nature and place in Christian traditions. Delores S. Williams and Rosemary Radford Reuther propose different interpretations of the Holy Spirit based on feminist and womanish ideologies and trisections.

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The Holy Spirit is one of the most disputable phenomena in Christianity and yet probably the most inspiring and faith-giving. “The Holy Spirit is sometimes defined as the aspect of God immanent in this world, in human beings, and the church. Jesus’ promise to his disciples of a Comforter (or Paraclete, i.e., advocate), in John 14, is considered his principal reference to the Holy Spirit, and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the communication of the gift of tongues, as recounted in Acts 2, is thought to be an example of the work of the Holy Spirit in time” (Columbia Encyclopedia 2009, p. 22780). The Holy Spirit appears in Christian theology in John Gospel in the words of Jesus speaking to his apostles before his death (John 14:15-18). Jesus teaches his disciples about the “Spirit of Truth”. Chronologically, one can find the mention of the Holy Spirit in Luke 1:35, when Mary is being told that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she would have a child. Later, when Jesus begun his ministry and was baptized in the Jordan River the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove (Dreyer 32). Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!” This knowledge of faith is possible only in the Holy Spirit: to be in touch with Christ, we must first have been touched by the Holy Spirit. He comes to meet us and kindles faith in us” (Catechism 2009).


Womanists reject the unity and dualism of the matter and the Spirit. For this movement, God is Spirit. The Church, then, essentially is the community that shares the memory of Christ and the Spirit of God. As such it transcends denominational lines (Burrow 19). No single denomination is the Church. And yet denominations are not constituent parts of the Church, for the Church exists wherever there is the fellowship of believers. The Church is a society, and society is as truly manifest in small groups as in large. Moreover, as a society, it is visible, even in the context of denominationalism. The Church is always personal, not in the sense that it is entirely a matter of private judgment, but in the sense that it is a fellowship of persons (D’Souza 21).

The weakness of womanism and its interpretation of Spirit is that they deny the duality of the world. It is also misleading to think of a single worldwide organization of the church from the beginning. There was no overall authority apart from the Spirit of God. The Jerusalem Christians assumed leadership and the Apostles, but they sometimes were at cross purposes with each other. Through the years, and especially as teachings fundamentally contrary to the Gospel crept into Christian circles, Christians tried to establish unity to meet such challenges (Williams 21). The first example of this was the development of the Catholic Church (as distinct from the Roman Catholic Church with its characteristic practices) in the third and fourth centuries. The disciples, in turn, delegated their powers to others who succeeded them (Johnson 141). So the line has continued through the centuries, and it is this continuing organization that is the Church. If one is not related to this institution, he does not belong with the fellowship of apostles, martyrs, and saints. For practical purposes, this makes the Church principally the clergy, for it is they who are given the special powers and authority necessary to maintain the organization, power that has descended from Christ through an unbroken line of successors. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church is the prime example of this view, although it is held by some Anglicans as well, especially by those who insist on the necessity of “apostolic succession” of an organizational type for the existence of the Church. Apostolic succession means that the present clergy are in a direct line with the apostles, a line maintained only as one proper bishop ordains another to follow him (Burrow 19). The common Spirit of God is related to Christ as the controlling factor of the Church’s life, prompting members to Christ-like living. This common Spirit is not theory, but the basis of theory. He produces a new and rich quality of community life. He is the foundation for that life. To belong to the Church means to share in it. One participates in the Spirit only as one participates in the community (D’Souza 51).

Feminist approach (strengths and weaknesses)

In contrast to womanists, feminists accept the Trinity: God, his Son, and the Holy Spirit. They suppose that our turning to Christ is faith, while it is our decision, rests on a conviction that such faith is right and ultimately safe, and again, this conviction is God’s work within us. This is the experience to which St. Paul referred as the testimony of the Spirit: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15, 16). And if it is the Holy Spirit who gives witness to us of God’s claim on us, then in a sense it is the Spirit who creates the fellowship of the Church and is responsible for its life. St. Paul speaks of the gifts of the Spirit–different capacities of different people–given for accomplishing God’s purpose through the Church (Dreyer 236). What binds Christians together, in other words, is not their natural camaraderie, nor their human determination to cooperate–their “spirit of unity”–but their sharing in the unity of God’s Spirit. So also the Spirit produces the change in life in us from sin to faith. St. Paul speaks of “living by the Spirit” (see Rom. 8), for the resource of Christian living is not stoical grit but the Spirit of God. It is the relation between the inner witness of the Spirit and the outward Lordship of Christ that links the Spirit inseparably with God and Christ. No one led by the Spirit can say, ” Jesus be cursed”; and obversely, it is only by the Spirit that one can say, ” Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3). The Spirit is as free and perhaps as unpredictable as the wind, but his character is that of Christ (Marbley 605). The Spirit, in other words, is not an indefinable, impersonal force that people feel. He is a continuation of Christ in the world and attests to His Lordship. So real is this relationship that the Fourth Gospel says the Spirit could not come to men until Christ was glorified, and St. Paul can use Spirit of Christ and Holy Spirit almost interchangeably (Burrow 19). This means that the Spirit has Christ’s personality, and although that character is established, he cannot be exhausted by pat human formulas (D’Souza 77). Rosemary Radford Reuther underlines that the Holy Spirit has a feminine nature, unlike the male one.

The strength of feminists’ approach is that they share the traditional interpretation of the Holy Spirit accepted in Christianity. And this is why the Spirit is included with the Father and the Son in the Trinity. The Church never did give the Spirit the careful consideration given the relation of Christ to God, and the bareness of the creeds at this point reflects that neglect (Marbley 605). But it has insisted that the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son (at least in the Western part of the Church) and that God is known in these three persons. It has been the failure to recognize the mutual relation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that has caused trouble not only in the Church but in society as well. When the Spirit is dissociated from the whole Christian understanding of God, people exploit their feelings. This happened with St. Paul’s converts at Corinth who brought with them into the Church largely pagan concepts of spirituality (Dreyer 238). They came to regard “speaking in tongues” (which we would probably call gibberish or ecstatic speech caused by intense emotional stimulation) as the choice manifestation of the Spirit, and they took pride in their ability thus to speak in tongues. St. Paul declared, however, that the Spirit, being the Spirit of God and Christ, is not given to men for their exploitation, but for accomplishing God’s purpose. So while the Apostle did not forbid speaking in tongues, he did insist that this was decidedly subordinate to the welfare of the Church and its mission (Johnson 147).

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A similar misunderstanding of the role of the Spirit is found today among those whose religious testimony is always to their feeling. Of course, they do not divorce these utterly from new life in Christ, but the emphasis is placed on their personal experience rather than on Christ (Dreyer 238). Traditionally this has been called enthusiasm (note the technical difference in meaning from the typical use of the word in everyday speech) which concentrates on “religious experiences” and is apt to evaluate them from the standpoint of their intensity (Johnson 154). Those who fail to relate the Spirit to Christ often succumb to the most unchristian conduct in the belief that it is “Spirit-led.” The New Testament warns that “spiritual influences” must be evaluated: only those are from God which corroborates the work of Christ. But any attempt to understand it must begin with the full Christian experience of God as the Father, as the Son incarnates in Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit bearing witness in us of the Lordship of Christ; and yet in these three: one God with one purpose, one will, one concern of love (D’Souza 83; Reuther and Keller 1999).

In contrast to feminists, womanists suggest that the passages in Paul’s letters which speak of the work of the living Christ and the Holy Spirit in almost interchangeable terms have puzzled interpreters, but they show that the presence of the Spirit is indissolubly linked with the interest and activity of the risen Christ in his church (Marbley 605). The risen Christ and the Holy Spirit are neither separable nor completely identifiable, which is precisely what the doctrine of the church is meant to say. The risen Christ continues his work as Lord through the gift and work of the Holy Spirit. This is a symbolic way of saying that the risen Christ, of whom the book is speaking, sends into the world the divine Spirit (probably described as sevenfold to indicate the fullness of the gift) (Johnson 156). The passages in Paul’s letters which speak of the work of the living Christ and the Holy Spirit in almost interchangeable terms have puzzled interpreters, but they show that the presence of the Spirit is indissolubly linked with the interest and activity of the risen Christ in his church. The risen Christ and the Holy Spirit are neither separable nor completely identifiable, which is precisely what the trinitarian doctrine of the church is meant to say. The risen Christ continues his work as Lord through the gift and work of the Holy Spirit (D’Souza 71).

The weakness of the womanist approach is that their position means that the emphasis of the Christian is not on stereotyped and routine behavior governed by rules. The emphasis is rather on the free expression of a new spirit, defined in Christ and applicable to the unique situations in which each person finds himself. Hence the question to be asked in each situation is “How can I express the love of God as Christ revealed it?” (Johnson 65). Paul does add two lists characterizing two different orderings of life: living by the flesh brings “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like”; but living by the Spirit produces “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:19-23). The same thought is embodied in the Johannine writings as “He who says he abides in him [Christ] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). What this means is that in the Christian life there is never a time when Christian love is not relevant, though the situation to which it must be related may be far from perfect (Williams 21). To attempt to express Christian love in absolute rules which do not correspond to a non-absolute existence leads inevitably to despair. Some who take the commandment against killing as absolute, for example, find difficulty in seeking to relate it to a world of war and brutality without attempting in some way to escape the world. There are those, too, who reject the commandment because the world is not perfect because they think such laws were meant only for a new situation (Dreyer 236). The mainline of Christianity, however, following the teaching of the New Testament, has always tried to apply love in the prevailing situation even though it was not an ideal one (Marbley 605). The Christian life is a response in obedience and faith to God: it is living according to God’s will as outlined in Jesus Christ. And it finds its vindication not in its success, judged by worldly standards in a world which does not wholly acknowledge Christ as Lord, but in the power of God and the redemption given in Christ (Huebsch 135).

The one essential feature of the feminist approach is the preservation of individual personalities. We have discussed the logic involved in this belief. Eastern concepts of “reabsorption” into the one Ultimate Reality can never satisfy one whose experience, however ethereal, remains his own, even when it includes the Divine fellowship. It is not an impersonal ” Spirit of goodness” that we love in our friends, but those friends themselves. Nor can the idea of immortality only within the memory of the living be satisfactory (Johnson 141). When the memory is lost something of priceless value is gone. Critics cherish memories, but a memory and a person are two different things. While many think that the concept of personal immortality is the height of human egoism, the Christian feels that no other theory can adequately account for our experience of fellowship with God (Huebsch 141). Jesus indicated what we all must surely admit, that the life fulfilled in heaven will not have the same limitations and relationships as life on earth, but that to be overly concerned about it is to doubt the power of God. When Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe the descending of the Holy Spirit, John emphasizes that the purpose of Jesus was to grant the spirit to his believers, uniting them with the Father. After he had resurrected Jesus promised to his Apostles that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” and it would give them special strength and power. As the Bible says, disciples gathered in Jerusalem and a strong wind blew, tongues of fire appeared over their heads and they started to speak different languages (D’Souza 87).

The gift of Spirit leads Christians to faith in Jesus and gives them the strength and obedience to lead a life according to God’s will. When a person accepts the Spirit in his life and heart, he is granted some virtues – the fruit of Spirit – like patience, kindness, wisdom, fortitude, and fear of the Lord (Marbley 605). These gifts give an individual a strong personal connection to God and the power to heal others, to have visions and hear God speak, to speak different languages, and even perform miracles. But this power is given to build up the Body of Christ, the Holy Church. The phenomenon of the Holy Spirit and its interpretation gave birth to many denominations, among which the biggest are Pentecostalism and Charismatic Movement (Hamm 82).

The main strength of womanist ideology and understanding of spirit is that it believes in the direct personal experience of God through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Having experienced miraculous healing himself a person focused much of his ministry on faith healing. On this belief, an ability to cure people was probably the most significant Fruit of the Holy Spirit (Huebsch 135). Womanists believed that healing comes through faith and he avoided medical treatment as far as possible and even did not let an autopsy be performed after his death. The most evident sign of a person’s possession of the Holy Spirit is the ability to speak in tongues – “as the Spirit gives him utterance” (Act 1:4). In the parish, a believer is baptized in the Holy Spirit and uses a sacred language or “tongue” provided by the Spirit in his or her private prayers. In few words, this general approach is based on the biblical accounts that can be found in the Gospels and Acts. One can name such examples the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit and later his baptism in the Spirit, the apostles’ receiving the Spirit’ when their teacher breathed upon them, and their later Pentecost experience, etc (Hamm 66).

They stressed that there is only one reference to ‘Baptizing in the Spirit’ in the New Testament letters (I Corinthians 12:12-13). Thus, the fight began, and the troops became occupied trenches within their fixed positions. For years conventional theologies of the Baptism in the Spirit confronted each other along one principal doctrinal battle line. Finally, unexpectedly the Holy Spirit infiltrated charismatic renewal behind the lines of mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic. The apostles Luke and Paul, for instance, are writing about the Holy Spirit from different angles (Vacek 159). While Luke states that the Spirit gives believers power for witness in the world – and that can be repeated, Paul says the Spirit incorporates people into the Body of Christ – and that occurs once and for all. Paul writes about the initiating function of the Spirit, whereas Luke describes his ‘overwhelming’ activity (Marbley 605). As for Luke, he uses the terms ‘baptized’ and ‘filled’ as synonyms. Unlike Luke, Paul uses different words like ‘regenerating’, ‘sealing’, ‘sanctifying’ etc., so we can say that the apostle Luke is descriptive, whereas the apostle Paul is didactic. Thus, an event may be described in different ways and the words from the New Testament can have different meanings in different contexts (Hamm 33).

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In sum, the main difference between womanists’ and feminists’ interpretations of the Holy Spirit is that womanism denies the dual nature of matter and spirit while feminism accepts Trinity. But this was not all, for the experience did not end when Christ left his disciples. They had not just a fond memory of the richness of their experience, but the continuing reality of his presence. This they described not in inadequate and vague terms of inspiration, but in terms rather of God’s giving and they’re receiving His own Holy Spirit. To have the Spirit (note the definitive use of the capital letter) was to have the capacity to act as Christ did: to love with his quality of love, to obey God with his unflinching obedience, to be tied to their fellow Christians as the various parts of the human body–in short, to live “in Christ” or to be possessed of Christ.

Works Cited

The Bible Home Page. 2009. Web.

Dreyer, Elizabeth, Manifestations of Grace. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1990. Print.

Burrow, R. Enter Womanist Theology and Ethics. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 22 (1998), 19.

D’Souza, Dinesh. What’s So Great about Christianity. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 2008. Print.

Hamm, D. Christianity: An Outline Of Salvation And The Christian Life. CreateSpace, 2008. Print.

“Holy Spirit”. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2009. Print.

Huebsch, Bill. A New Look at Grace Mysteic, CT: Twenty-Third, 1988. Print.

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Johnson, Elizabeth. Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology. New York: Crossroad, 1992. Print.

Marbley, A. F. African-American Women’s Feelings on Alienation from Third-Wave Feminism: A Conversation with My Sisters. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 29 (2005), 605. Print.

Reuther, Rosnary Radford, Keller, Rosemary Skinner. In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing Harper San Francisco, 1996, Print.

The Theology of the Holy Spirit. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2009. Web.

Williams, Delores S. Sisters in the Wilderness. Orbis Books, 1995. Print.

Vacek, E. C. “Feminism and the Vatican” Theological Studies, 66 (2005), 159. Print.

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