Conceiving God: The Veneration of Mary and the Denigration of the Spirit

Privileging The Feminine Work of the Spirit

Romans 8 pictures a birth in progress, in which the Holy Spirit, all of creation, and humanity share in the groanings of travail which culminate in the incorporation of the children of God into the divine family. There is a conception in progress, the prime reality Paul is conveying, and his readers are simultaneously being conceived and conceiving. The two conceptions are interwoven, as incorporation into the divine order is inclusive of human realization. There is a dynamic of prayer, in which those praying do not know rightly; they cannot formulate their requests but the Spirit intercedes in the communion-communication-conception, so that engendering them into the divine intercommunication is birth in progress. The imagery is of the Spirit interpenetrating, indwelling, coalescing, incorporating, empathizing, so as to bring about the fulness of a love relationship. This binding together in the Spirit of love is an unbreakable bond in which all of created and uncreated reality converge, and while God is beyond gender, the imagery here privileges the feminine-like role of the Spirit. Even the fatherhood of God, or the Abba relationship enabled through the Son, is accessed and completed through the Spirit.

Confusing the Law with God

Chapter 8 contrasts with the masculine, commanding, principled, punishing, alienating, depiction of the law in chapter 7 (vs. 7-25). The implicit question of chapter 7 (answered in chapter 8), concerns the role of the law in perceiving God. Where God is known through the law, he is separate and dangerous. He dictates, prohibits, proscribes, and inscribes on stone and there is no sharing or incorporation. His Theophanous appearance is repellent to the senses, such that he cannot be looked upon, and only through special permission can Moses, from the cleft in the rock, view his trace.  He then disappears behind an impenetrable veil, leaving nothing for the eyes or the senses.

So too in chapter 7, everything proves ungraspable: the good or right action, the enactment of the will, understanding “what I am doing,” even the principle of the law. Though desire or coveting concerns the senses, the only object of desire which presents itself is the law. In verse 23 he sees this law, or at least its effects in his body, but even here it is not really an object of sight or any positive object for the senses, as it is felt only in its antagonism with the law of the mind. The depiction of 7 is of an ego who would reappropriate himself through the law, yet the law divides even from his own body. Where chapter 8 depicts an incorporating unity of all creation into the life of God, chapter 7 lacks any space other than the law and the law acts only as a point of division. The only portion of the created order to appear in chapter 7 is the body, but even this body is written over with a law that makes it inaccessible. Where chapter 8 is infinitely expansive and incorporative, chapter 7 describes the opposite movement of reduction, restriction, dis-communion, and uncommunication. Nothing is conveyed, nothing is grasped, and nothing is seen.

The key turn in chapter 7 is perhaps, verse 10. The expectation of this law was that it would produce life, but this proved to be the entry point of the deception of sin, which “killed me.” In Genesis 3, the deception of sin was that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would produce life, and so could displace God. The prohibition was not to eat of this tree, but this prohibition was not life-giving per se, as the tree of life, representing the presence of God, was the source of life. In Paul’s argument, the Jewish and Gentile type of person constitutes a singular form that can be summed up under Adam (so that the Jewish encounter with the Decalogue also falls under Adam’s encounter with God’s prohibition).  Due to sin the Jews attempted to establish their own righteousness through the law and failed to combine it with faith (10:3ff).  Paul’s argument throughout the letter is that the law is not an end in itself; at its origin is the faith and example of Abraham and at its end is the fulfillment of Christ.  Law alone, apart from this faith, is void and nullifies the promise (4:14). The work of sin is to skew the perception of the promise of life in the law, so as to remove the necessity of God and leave only the reality of the law. The Mosaic law, like the prohibition in the garden, may have been a pointer or guide, but to imagine that it contains life is to confuse the law with God.

The Law and Gospel as Masculine Incompleteness

This principle of life in the law reduces life to a singular principle which, if one can grasp or obtain it, enfolds all of reality into this singularity – which is, of course, the lie of sin.  This mistake is gendered masculine in the story of Babel and Abraham, in that Abraham is turned away from the Babel notion that he can make a name for himself through his towering (pro)creative powers. Circumcision marks the spot of the accepted incompleteness and dependence on God. This castration cut short exposes the satanic lie (you won’t die), which might otherwise have been repressed. The function of the law and of circumcision was to open the reality of death and mortality and to point to God as the source of life.

The law stood against idolatry but idolatry simply enacts the proclivity to displace God with human creative powers. The typical idol was phallic; a male ordering of reality. The problem is not maleness or procreation, but it is to imagine this alone produces life.  In turn, to imagine that circumcision or the law contains life is to make the law into an idol. It is to miss the counterpoint of the mark of circumcision. The mark means life, procreative power, endurance in the face of death, is only possible with God. For Abraham, this was a reality he committed himself to in his journey of faith.

The question Paul raises in Romans 7:7, might be translated as, “Is the law the Thing? Can’t all things be summed up in this Singularity? Aren’t all things reducible to this Symbolic Order?” Here is a disavowal of the meaning of the mark of circumcision and a return to the original sin. By giving oneself completely over to the symbolic order of law (the knowledge of good and evil), death is denied and sexual difference refused. The naked and ashamed condition of the first couple must relate to their genital difference which exposes the lie, “You will be like gods.” Likewise, beneath the denial of the meaning of circumcision (law) is the denial of death and a refusal of the contingencies of sexual difference. Nothing is lacking as the law is sufficient and “I” can enact the law (the law of sin and death). The question Paul poses is impossible for those who have already presumed that they have life in the law. The law is sin; it is the denial of death and sexuality, and there is no questioning of the all-encompassing order of the law. In this law ordered reality, God is masculine, singular, transcendent, and hidden behind and accessed through the law. This traditional masculine account of God subordinates any trace of difference – difference within the God-head and difference between the sexes (the bearers of the image of the Godhead).

This indifferent God is displaced in Trinitarian difference. As in Romans 8, this difference is an enacted realization in which “the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (8:11) and the law of life in the Spirit displaces the law of sin and death (8:2). The image is of the Father’s Spirit raising Jesus and incorporating believers into an egalitarian unified Trinitarian community. The Trinity incorporates difference into unity, so that male/female, slave/free, and Jew/Gentile are all given an identity that surpasses former modes of identity. Romans and a large portion of the letters of the New Testament, are written to ward off the legal, idolizing tendency, of Judaizers who would make the law absolute and so return Christians to this former mode of doing identity. This continued struggle with the masculine principle of idolatry characterizes the subsequent Christian age.

 Though there are abundant signs that in the early church women were apostles, prophets, deaconesses, missionaries, ministers, and were counted equal to men, the tendency was to gradually subordinate the feminine aspect of God, and this was marked by the simultaneous denigration of women.[1] Where God is masculine the male is most divine-like, and women are completed by men, so that theirs is a complementary role lacking its own substance. Patriarchy, monarchy, the privileging of fathers and sons, and a society premised on male sameness flowed from this masculine God. At the same time, the incorporating, birthing, empathetic groaning, qualities of the Spirit, tended to be written or drawn over (literally in iconography) by masculine images of God.

The Iconographic Subordination of the Spirit

When the Greek East and Latin West began to divide, primarily over their different understandings of the processions of the Trinity, Western iconography focuses on the Father and Son with the near loss of images of the Spirit. As Sarah Coakley describes it, “The simultaneous ‘feminization’ of the Spirit in some paintings, and the regular replacement of the Spirit by the Virgin Mary, represent important implicit relocations of female power and presence, but arguably serve more to shore up cultural stereotypes of ‘femininity’ rather than dissolve them.”[2] While it could be argued that the adoration of Mary, reflected in the art, represents an appreciation of the feminine, Coakley’s point is that it seems to reflect a reduction in status of feminine characteristics from the divine to the human.[3] The reduction of the power of the flaming Holy Spirit, first to a soft cooing dove and then to a woman, indicates that the greater the feminization the more the redundancy. The focus is no longer on God giving birth, incorporating, and indwelling as part of his saving action, as these attributes are relegated to a human female stand-in.

With the emphasis in the West on substitutionary atonement, in which Christ’s death satisfied the Father and secured forgiveness, male images of the Father and Son complete the edging out of the Spirit. The dove, where it does make its appearance, is often small and hard to find so that one has to go dove hunting to locate the Spirit. As Coakley notes in typical British understatement, this “witnesses to a less than vibrant pneumatology in the theological thinking that attends the type.”[4] For example, in Hans Holbein the Elder’s memorial for Augsburg (on the eve of the Reformation), punishment and pain are accentuated with the vengeful Father sheathing his sword only upon the pleadings of the wounded Son and the Virgin, who is baring her breast and begging (above her are the words): “Lord, sheathe thy sword that thou hast drawn and see my breast where the Son has sucked.” Here the Virgin has displaced the Spirit and even in this reduced role she only pleads to the Father on behalf of the Son.

Coakley’s comments on a miniature in an eleventh-century Winchester manuscript serve to sum up what she calls “the subterranean pathology of Western ideas of inner-trinitarian relations.” The Father and Son huddled together on the right side of the picture are trampling on the devil, Arius (a heretic) and Judas, while all things feminine (i.e., a dejected looking dove and the Virgin holding a fragile baby) are excluded from the inner divine council. Coakley concludes, “For it is clear where the real power, the real locus of salvific activity, resides in this remarkable manuscript miniature: the left-hand figures, in contrast, strain to gain entry into that salvific realm of eternal male spiritual authority. Has the sense of ‘feminine’ exclusion from the realm of male divinity ever been more masterfully expressed?”[5]

Reconceiving God

Those images which best represent a Romans 8 mutual reception and procession, often depict a circular incorporating movement. In the mystical vision of Hildegard of Bingen, a silver outer circle, representing the Father, and a golden inner circle, representing the Spirit, encompass the figure of Christ. In her theology and iconography, the Spirit is a central theme – picturing, perhaps, Jesus’ explanation to Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and Paul’s understanding, “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12. 3). Likewise, William Blake depicts the Father humbly bending to embrace the Son, who is lying as if on the cross (the cross or any orientating feature is absent). The Spirit forms an all-encompassing background, with outstretched wings mirroring and extending beyond the Son’s outstretched arms. The lack of any grounded perspective, makes it seem “the turned-around Christ is veritably leaping into the Father’s arms, in an ecstasy of simultaneous joy and costly gift.” The movement is from death into the waiting arms of the Father and the enfolding wings of the Spirit and thus a leap into life.[6] A final modern sketch that, in Coakley’s opinion best captures the imagery of Romans 8, depicts a Christ like pray-er with his palms turned upward in supplication, with a flaming dove receiving the prayer from the heart and channeling it into the vortex of the “Father,” represented in arms reaching toward a downward embrace. In Coakley’s words, “The downward movement is thus returned – balanced – by an upward one; and both are taken up into the ‘apophatic’ whirl of a circular tunnel reaching out and up to the unknown.”[7]

The biblical depiction of the law as a warning against and displacement of phallic idolization, and then the New Testament deliverance from the idolatry of the law (Paul equates the turn to law to a return to idolatry) directs us to an incorporating Trinitarian conception of God. The danger, illustrated in the iconography, is of returning to the masculine idolizing principle and of losing the birthing, indwelling, interpenetrating, bond of love, enacted by the Spirit.


[1] Noteworthy here is the recent find of a cathedral, dating to the 5th century, honoring women ministers. “The Holy Mother Sophronia. Theodosia the deaconess. Gregoria the deaconess. These are some of the women lovingly memorialized at a magnificent Byzantine basilica that Israeli archaeologists have uncovered in the southern city of Ashdod.” https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/MAGAZINE-byzantine-basilica-with-female-ministers-and-baffling-burials-found-in-israel-1.10387014 Thank you Matt.

[2] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (197-198). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] The feminization of the Spirit may already indicate relegation to a secondary status.

[4] Coakley, 211-212.

[5] Coakley, 247-248

[6] Coakley, 255-256.

[7] Coakley, 258-259.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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