The question of the gender of God is now a live one in evangelicalism. Although many of us are acquainted with earlier controversies and debates about the gender of God in mainstream and academic theological circles, my sense is that the theological Overton Window on these issues is currently expanding in evangelical contexts. The question of the gender of God hasn’t just gained prominence on account of those who would employ feminine pronouns with reference to God, or address him as ‘Mother’. Its prominence is also encouraged by more conservative Christians, who seem to be considerably more likely to place a weight and significance upon the masculine imagery, identity, and pronouns the Scriptures use of God far exceeding that which their forefathers did. For Christians across the theological spectrum, arguments about gender roles and identities more generally often stray into the territory of theology proper.
Such a move is, of course, fraught with the danger of idolatry, the danger of projecting a deity in the image of our gender ideologies (a danger that faces conservatives, no less than liberals and progressives). As in any theological debate, there is the danger of thoughtlessly adopting the embedded assumptions in the claims of opponents—in this case that God should be gendered—failing to recognize that the greater danger may not be mis-gendering God, but reducing God to human patterns of masculinity or femininity. Whatever conclusions we arrive at on these questions, we must remain alert to the danger of such smuggled assumptions.
The challenges that are presented to the gendered language and imagery used of God in Scripture from egalitarian and feminist quarters of broader evangelicalism are typically couched in a few sets of different arguments, such as the following:
- Arguments from social justice: Masculine language and imagery of God underwrites and embeds patriarchal assumptions, which have entrenched male authority and led to the historical and continuing oppression of women (Mary Daly once famously declared ‘If God is male then the male is God’). As God is love and opposed to injustice in his very being, we must recognize the injustice perpetuated by our portrayals of God and allow this revelation of God’s fundamental character to leaven our theological language.
- Arguments from apophaticism: We are mistaken to attribute sex or gender to God, as God is Spirit and gendered language can only ever be a theologically inappropriate projection. God is neither male nor masculine. In order to combat this idolatrous perception of God, one proposed solution is to resist speaking of God in gendered language at all. Clumsy circumlocutions, ugly neologisms such as ‘Godself’, unisex identities such as ‘parent’ instead of gendered ones such as ‘Father’ (or Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier instead of Father, Son, and Spirit), and gender neutral pronouns (‘ze’, ‘hir’, ‘they’, etc.) can be employed in order to avoid such language. Another proposed solution to release the idolatrous hold that the masculine language and imagery has upon our imaginations is to employ feminine language and imagery alongside it, unsettling any gendered identification of God.
- Arguments from ‘accommodation’: The self-revelation of God recorded in Scripture occurred in the context of patriarchal societies, so had to proceed on the basis of such societies’ cultural meanings, meanings that are no longer operative in the same way or to the same degree today. Now that we have been freed from such a restrictive context, we should articulate our doctrine of God in a manner that liberates it from such cultural constraints, rather than perpetuating them.
- Arguments from biblical anthropology: Women are created in the image of God just as men are. Consequently, we should speak of God in feminine ways much as we speak of God in masculine ways.
- Arguments from identity politics: As women are marginalized and oppressed in society and the Church, there is an onus upon us to be proactively inclusive in the language that we use of God in order to express the equality of women, to affirm their identity, and give them the sense that they are loved and valued, especially because God habitually identifies with the oppressed.
- Arguments from relatability and spirituality: The more masculine portrayals of God that we find prominently in Scripture—Father, Lord, King, Judge, Law-giver, Warrior, etc.—are images that tend to present a less approachable God, emphasizing his transcendence over us. Many, especially women, claim that they have found feminine images of God enriching for their spirituality. A divine Mother who bears and nurses us is much more intimate and relatable.
- Arguments from biblical imagery and language: Usually in light of the concerns expressed in these other arguments, many Christians are appealing to neglected imagery and language in Scripture as warrant for the use of feminine language of God. Whether it is the description of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, the use of a feminine noun for the third Person of the Trinity, or Jesus’ comparison of himself to a hen seeking to gather her brood in Luke 13, occasional instances of feminine imagery and language give us biblical justification for a far-reaching reconsideration of the ways that we speak about God.
The concerns expressed in points two, four, and seven are the ones that I find most worthy of exploration. Here are some thoughts on them (this entire post is a roughly connected set of thoughts that I had previously written on the subject in various contexts, so it may not flow especially smoothly at some points).
Apophaticism and Gendered Pronouns
R. Kendall Soulen discusses three different patterns for the naming of God: ‘theological’, ‘Christological’, and ‘pneumatological’. The first pattern (‘theological’) relates to the Tetragrammaton, God’s self-designation as I AM, as YHWH. The second pattern (‘Christological’) relates to the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. The third pattern of naming (‘pneumatological’) ‘identifies the three persons by using an open-ended variety of ternaries, such as “Love, Lover, Beloved,” “God, Word, Breathe [sic.],” and so on.’ Each of these patterns of naming is particularly associated with one person of the Trinity, has an integrity of its own, and is distinct from the other forms of naming. The different forms of naming are interrelated, shed light upon each other, and are equally important.
The first form of naming is noteworthy in that its ‘role consists solely in pointing, in gesturing away from itself to the transcendent unfathomable mystery of its bearer.’ ‘YHWH’ is uniquely God’s ‘personal proper name,’ one that is often represented obliquely, using forms such as ‘Lord’. This name is not a human metaphor for God, but a divine self-naming, a declaration of divine particularity. No other name can substitute for or displace this. Many titles and relational names can be ascribed to God, but this name alone is peculiarly his proper name. Without the particularity of the divine self-designation, God can easily become the anonymous screen for our own projections.
The second form of naming—Father, Son, and Spirit—has an especial significance on a number of counts. It is a fairly fixed form of naming, characterized by kinship terminology. The revelation of the divine identity as Father, Son, and Spirit is integral to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It is the revelation of the mystery of God’s presence in a focused and fixed name—associated with the particularity of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth—a name that is especially iconic for God’s identity.
The third form of naming involves a glorious and open-ended multiplicity of metaphors and names for the Triune God. This pattern of naming can be encountered in the Scriptures, where Christ is designated as the Image, Word, Firstborn, etc. or the Spirit is named the Spirit of grace, of life, of glory, or of wisdom and revelation, or is manifested as wind, fire, water, or dove. This pattern of naming is also widely present in the tradition—‘Fountain, River, Stream’ (Tertullian); ‘Light, Wisdom, Strength’ (Catherine of Siena); ‘Lover, Beloved, Co-Beloved’ (Richard of St. Victor), etc. This third pattern of naming holds particular and understandable appeal and significance for those who want to argue for feminine pronouns and metaphors for God.
In the post that occasioned me writing this (as I had some text that I wanted to do something with), I write:
God’s particular personal identity—revealed in the Tetragrammaton (his personal proper name, YHWH)—is consistently referred to in grammatically masculine ways in Scripture (God isn’t a man or a male). This consistency of usage reflects the fact that God’s self-designation is not just another human metaphor or title for God, but functions as a self-revealed personal proper name. It doesn’t compare God to any human entity, but simply refers to him. The consistent use of masculine pronouns corresponds to the fixity in reference of a personal proper name in contrast to a cloud of metaphors. The consistent use of masculine pronouns relates, I believe, to the biblical precedent for such consistent usage and to the fact that such masculine personal pronouns are the most apt to express the transcendence of the One to whom we refer. It also has to do a resistance to relativizing God’s self-revelation as ‘Father, Son, and Spirit’ in Jesus Christ. We share in the Sonship of Christ in relation to his Father.
Masculine pronouns, in short, relate principally to the first pattern of naming that Soulen identifies. They correspond to God’s particular self-designation in his personal proper name, ensuring that we don’t think purely in terms of an anonymous and mysterious God within a swirling cloud of human metaphors, but of a particular God who has identified himself to us. They also correspond to the way that God has revealed himself as Father in his Son, Jesus Christ. This revelation in the gospel gives focused expression and form to our relationship with God, in a manner that calls for a particular use of gendered pronouns.
Male and Female in the Image of God
God is not male in any sexual or physiological sense, although he is identified using masculine names and pronouns. And this is not accidental. Masculine and feminine are not interchangeable, especially in a society where childbirth is a far more prominent reality. Gender differences are charged with meaning in Scripture. God often stipulates, for instance, the gender of animals to be sacrificed, male animals particularly representing the leaders of the congregation. We need to take such details seriously.
Masculine and feminine name different ‘genres’ of personhood as they refer to different modes of relational and symbolic being. A woman cannot be a ‘father’ and a man cannot be a ‘mother’. Women can bear other persons in themselves. All of us came from the womb of a woman. We drew from their being and had a natural bond of coinherence in them. The givenness and immediacy of this bond provides the foundation for the understanding of motherhood more generally. By contrast, a father’s parenting finds it origin in an action that is directed outside of his body. An intimate relation is established—a child in the father’s own image—but the relationship is one where the two parties are clearly materially detached in their being, not just in their personhood. The relationship that is established is maintained, not through the continuation of a natural maternal bond, but through the paternal commitment of covenant. Masculine pronouns and imagery are particularly apt for expressing the transcendence of God.
The point here is not that maternal and feminine imagery is entirely inappropriate with reference to God, but that it is not interchangeable with paternal and masculine imagery and that it doesn’t appropriately convey God’s transcendence. Rather, it needs to be used in its own appropriate place and time. Masculine and feminine imagery and identifiers are not interchangeable. The very fact that they are not interchangeable is part of what makes them meaningful. ‘Mother’ is meaningful as a word because it means things that ‘father’ cannot mean. ‘He’ refers to a different mode of personal being than ‘she’. Gender is also important because gender highlights our nature as relational—hence, personal—beings. To speak of God without gender would be depersonalizing in terms of most human language as persons are gendered, while only non-personal beings are without gender (using gender neutral pronouns such as ‘ze’ to refer to God would also entail a reduction of meaning).
Women are not excluded from the reflection and expression of God’s creative rule in the world. Certainly not! Rather, they are called and equipped to reflect and express this in ways particular to themselves. Here I believe that it can be helpful to reflect upon the work of the Spirit.
I have drawn attention on several occasions in the past to the way that the Spirit is—while not identified as ‘She’ (there is a case to be made for masculine pronouns being used of the Spirit in John)—strongly associated with the feminine, and have argued that we must attend to and give weight to this. When speaking of the economic Trinity it is important to recognize that the work of the Spirit is not interchangeable with the work of the Son. The Spirit is not the Image of God in the way that the Son is, for instance. Conversely, the Son is not the agent and medium of communion in the way that the Spirit is. The Spirit is associated with filling, glorifying, bringing the future, life, (re)generation, communion, coinherence, conception and wombs, birth pangs, the Bride, etc. These are all things that the Scripture particularly associates with women, over against men. We should pay attention to this.
Spirit and Son are not like fungible and interchangeable labourers in creation and redemption, but each acts in a particular personal manner. There is an order to God’s work more generally, an order first revealed in Genesis 1, where forming, naming, and taming is followed by filling, glorifying, and life-giving. This same order is manifested in various ways in the chapters that follow: Adam, the man, is primarily charged with the first half of this work (naming, taming, and establishing and guarding the boundaries), while Eve, the woman, is primarily charged with the second (the bringing of life, communion, and the future promise), both vocations inseparably intertwined. Likewise, in redemption, the forming work of Christ is accompanied by the filling work of the Spirit, each person distinctively active in glorious concert.
Biblical Imagery and Language
There are several passages in Scripture that introduce imagery that seems to unsettle this fundamental picture in various ways. The following are a few examples.
Deuteronomy 32:18 is presented as an example of God giving birth, implying that we should think of God in feminine imagery. This is only confusing if we are forgetful of the broader context. To what ‘birth’ did God bring Israel that would be spoken of in the context of the Song of Moses? Although most people miss it, the Exodus is a story of birth, as the Israelites are delivered by God from the womb of Egypt. God brings about the birth, but it isn’t a birth from God’s own womb.
More importantly, however, this verse doesn’t identify God as ‘Mother’. It identifies God as ‘the Rock’ (a masculine noun, incidentally). It compares God, the Rock, to a parent (Genesis 4:18 is one verse that shows that the first verb is by no means gender specific). While it would be possible to read the verse as a reference to God acting as a mother towards Israel (which still wouldn’t be the same thing as naming and identifying God as ‘Mother’), the reference of the second verb is to be understood against the background of the Exodus narrative. There God brings Israel to birth. However, the means by which he does so is by hearing Israel in its fruitless pangs and delivering his firstborn son from the womb of Egypt. The role played by God here is not that of mother, but something between creator and midwife.
There are many complicated and arresting uses of gendered imagery in Scripture. Christ is spoken of as if he possessed breasts in Revelation (Moses in Numbers 11:12, Gentile kings in Isaiah 49:23, Solomon in Song of Songs 1:2 LXX, Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, and Jesus in John 13:23 and Revelation 1:13 are all presented as if nursing men), Jesus compares himself to a mother hen in Luke, in the Psalms God implicitly compares himself to a midwife, the cross could be regarded as an event of giving birth in John, in Acts, God is spoken of as a ‘him’ who upholds a realm of coinherence whose nearest human analogy would seem to be the womb, the Apostle Paul describes himself as a nursing mother (in 1 Thessalonians) and as a mother struggling to give birth (Galatians), etc. Several more examples could be added.
This sort of language is not, as many would have it, an undermining of gender difference and justification for an egalitarian and unisex Church where men and women are interchangeable. It is rather the precise revelatory use of gendered language and imagery to indicate realities that exceed it. The paradoxical and mixed character of the imagery is part of the point. God may be identified as the father of Israel and spoken of using masculine pronouns, but there is much in his relationship that cannot be captured with the language and model of fatherhood. God isn’t a male and, while we stand in relation to him in a personal way that is more fundamentally akin to a child’s relationship to its father rather than to its mother’s (and masculine pronouns are important for this and other reasons), he acts and relates to us in personal ways that exceed fatherhood and require paradoxical language to convey. In the Exodus, God also behaves like a midwife (a female occupation in Israel), drawing Israel out from the womb. Even more than this, God is intimately involved with actively forming Israel in the ‘womb’ to the point of birth. This role isn’t that of a mother, but it most definitely is more than the role of a human father. It is more like the role of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s pregnancy.
Likewise, it is through the pangs of the cross that Jesus becomes the firstborn of the dead and it is from his belly that the rivers of blood and living water flow to give rise to the Church. While it is very important to recognize that Jesus is male and that he is the new Adam, it is also important that we recognize the birth-like character of his death and resurrection and the way that the Church is sustained by feeding on his flesh. In carefully using feminine imagery at such points, we would not only be able to reveal dynamics that might otherwise be missed, we would be following biblical precedent.
The position that creation doesn’t come from God’s womb is scriptural. I have already addressed Deuteronomy 32:18. In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit’s gender is not specified. The noun may be a feminine one but this does not mean that the Spirit is ‘female’ (although we should recognize that there are definitely strong feminine overtones in the Spirit’s work). The Spirit hovers over the dark womb of the deep (the deep isn’t a divine womb, but is created) and brings the creation to birth in an intimate manner. God is distinct from and transcendent over the womb of his creation, as a father is distinct from the womb in which his child is formed. However, God is also intimately active in the womb, as the Holy Spirit overshadowed the womb of Mary and caused Christ to be conceived within it or as God overshadowed Israel in the glory of the Shekinah as he brought him out of the womb of Egypt.
When we treat gendered language as interchangeable, we lose sight of its revelatory character and the way that the principled use of—occasionally paradoxical—gendered imagery and language helps to describe the unique manner in which God relates to his creation and people. We lose sight of the dignity entailed in the difference between male and female and how this difference is involved in the reflecting of God’s creative rule in the world. We end up erasing much that the Scripture reveals about God and the character of his relationship to us, preferring to project our own vague symbols and metaphors into the fog of our immodest apophaticism, in a manner that absolves us of the task of reflecting God aright in the world.
Anyway, these are some rough and very incomplete thoughts. You can read the post that spawned this one here.