An Unpolished Amalgam of Thoughts on Gendering God

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Doctrine of God, NT Theology, OT Theology, Passing the Salt Shaker, Revelation, Sex and Sexuality, The Triune God, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to An Unpolished Amalgam of Thoughts on Gendering God

  1. evan773 says:

    It does seem like there’s a doubling down on these sorts of things within the TGC wing of evangelicalism. I visited some friends’ church this morning because we were having brunch afterwards. They were inducting new members into the church. Two of the membership vows stood out to me.

    First, new members had to vow that “the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, which is applicable to all aspects of life, and speaks with unequivocal voice to all peoples and cultures at all times and places.” Second, new members had to vow that “the Bible sets forth specific gender roles according to which [the new members] will strive to conform their lives.”

    I’ve spent my whole life in evangelicalism, and have never even heard of any conservative church requiring such agreement from its members. The last time I checked, church membership was generally open to anyone who had a credible profession of faith. Since when did we start requiring 23-year-old clerks at Whole Foods to affirm the doctrine of inerrancy and agree to conform their lives to “biblical manhood and womanhood.” If traditional evangelical churches want to know why their pews are emptying and those of places like Willow Creek are filling up, look no further than this kind of stuff. This suggests to me that the TGC wing of evangelicalism is cutting its losses, retreating from the culture, and hunkering back into a kind of neo-fundamentalism.

    • ‘These sorts of things’? ‘This kind of stuff’? I wonder what exactly you are referring to. The debate about the way that language refers to God and whether it is appropriate to use gendered imagery interchangeably or switch to feminine pronouns is a rather different one from a debate about ‘gender roles’, although both debates may be provoked by the challenge posed by a certain sort of feminism. The issue of the naming of God is a fairly central Christian doctrine, whatever one might think about ‘gender roles’. Furthermore, gender ‘roles’ don’t really feature in the post above, although gendered identities—a rather different thing—do. I wonder whether you are projecting issues from your particular context onto a far broader debate that has been taking place in the Church for some time, far beyond the narrow contexts of conservative American evangelicalism

  2. Daniel Edwards says:

    Hi Alastair, I found this post helpful on a number of levels. I’ve been struggling through these issues, but have often found much more heat than light as I’ve tried to think these things through. So, thank you for some clear-headed, even-handed thinking on the subject.

  3. One comment (though it doesn’t affect most of your argument): I think Soulen is wrong when he says names are deictic. “This” and “that” are deictic, but they are not names. (And, as Witgenstein noted, philosophers who say they are, are silly.) But names are not sounds we use to point things out, but names we use to summon, or call upon, persons—indeed, to call them into existence. (God even calls things that are not persons: God calls the light into being, though He doesn’t quite address it.)

    The odd think about using the Divine name is that we only use it if He is already turned toward us, and so, in fact, in calling upon the Name of LORD, we are ourselves called by LORD.

    • Here’s one (probably slight, but I think eventually important) difference: I’d say:

      “They correspond to God’s particular self-designation in his personal proper name, ensuring that we don’t call on Him purely as an anonymous and mysterious God within a swirling cloud of human metaphors, as particular God who has identified himself to us” since when we call on Him we are called by Him, and if we are only called by one surrounded by human metaphors, we are called only to ourselves.

    • Surely names perform both of these purposes. God’s revelation of himself as YHWH to Moses in Exodus does not immediately serve the purpose of being a name that is called upon, but is rather given in order that Moses might point out the One who sent him to the people.

      • This isn’t to deny the importance of primarily emphasizing calling upon God’s name.

      • Nathan Barnes says:

        God’s revelation of himself as YHWH to Moses in Exodus does not immediately serve the purpose of being a name that is called upon, but is rather given in order that Moses might point out the One who sent him to the people.

        Yes, that’s what Soulen claims, but I thought he presupposed that’s what names are for, and then read that aspect of his analysis into the text. (Otherwise he had good things to say.) Can you show it in Exodus 3? That doesn’t seem to be what’s going on there to me, though I’d have to review the book to interact with his argument. Looking at the Scripture passage now, it would seem that we can only say the name is deictic if we assume “What is his name” means “which one”. But to read it that way presupposes names are deictic.

        In the text itself, it is described as a memorial, but it isn’t clear to me that memorials are deictic. We point through space, and so to describe a memorial as deictic is to spacialize time. But time is not like space.

        Perhaps verse 16 could be read as pointing, “when you tell them, point over at me: That one said…” But since this is an account of LORD’s faithfulness, in the past, to make “LORD” deictic is to spacialize time, and to disrupt the unity of the account in looking to the past: “That one, which is over there, did X, Y, Z…”

        The same is true at the end of the next chapter, when Moses recounts the works of LORD. He recounts the past, as a memorial. A present pointing to an object breaks the trajective force of the passage.

        Also, God is not an object, or particular. We point to things which are separate from others. But, God has no other–as I believe a Midrash glosses Isaiah 45:5, and Deuteronomy 4:39, and which is simply classic theism.

        When Moses speaks to Pharoah, he uses the more traditional formula, in which the prophet is the mouth of God “Thus saith LORD…”. This is simply the word of LORD, and though LORD speaks with his performance through tongue and mouth just as much as we do, He has no need to point to Himself. So again, it doesn’t seem LORD is deictic. It invokes LORD, and makes Moses’ utterance LORD’s, but it doesn’t serve to point Him out.

        And even in Exodus 3, the point is that Israel will return to Horeb and offer sacrifices to LORD, that is, to call upon LORD.

        We do use names as deictic–Russell even believed “this” and “that” were the only true names–but I don’t think this was their primary purpose in antiquity. Perhaps I Kings 18 “LORD, He is God” points, and perhaps in passages like Psalms 130:7. But I don’t think that’s what a name is, at least primarily.

        But I think this is more important for issues like what name did God call Bruce by in his baptism; and whether we relate to God as someone to speak about–like gradeschoolers memorizing baseball players’ stats–but someone we respond to, and call out to.

      • I still think that you are setting up far too sharp of an ‘either-or’ here and speaking past Soulen’s position as a result. Nor need the claim that names are deictic be taken to mean that names are solely or even primarily so. Besides, neither I nor Soulen are claiming any of these things anyway. Soulen expends far more words upon names as forms of address than as deictic, but just doesn’t set the two at odds with each other.

        Although Exodus 3 does look forward to Israel returning and calling upon the name of the LORD, the giving of the name is not disclosed for this immediate purpose (even though that may be the greater purpose for which it is revealed). It is given in the context of the pointing out of Moses’ sender as the God of Israel’s fathers and relating the Name of this God.

        We point through space, and so to describe a memorial as deictic is to spacialize time. But time is not like space.

        The spatialization of time is more of a problem for moderns. Time and space are not so straightforwardly opposed in premodern thought (‘In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you…’—Exodus 20:24). Besides, why can’t we ‘point’ through time? Deixis is typically taken to relate to time too: what argument would you present against this?

        God may not be an object or particular in the way that created entities are. However, he can be ‘particular’ in being distinguished from created entities, or other supposed ‘gods’. He can also be an ‘object’ grammatically, for instance. Classical theism is important, but equivocation can get us tangled up here.

        Also, when we are talking about God, it is important that we don’t allow philosophical strictures to blind us to the way that Scripture speaks. The Scripture consistently speaks of the LORD dwelling in a particular location, being the God of a particular people, being associated with particular events (and, by implication, not being associated in the same way with others), being identified in and through a particular history, etc. The result is that we can in some sense ‘point’ through time and space when speaking about God.

        Once again, none of this is to say that words are primarily about pointing. But that was never the claim.

      • I think we’re missing each other. You had said “The first form of naming is noteworthy in that its role consists solely in pointing.” (First emphasis mine.) I think the role of names, and of this name in particular is invoking and calling, and maybe secondarily in pointing.

        The point about deixis being spacial is that the root physical metaphor is the physical act of pointing, which points over there, through space. So when we use a metaphor of “pointing through time”, we are using a spacial analogy for time. We are, in the metaphor, describing time as a type of space. And although the ancients could see places as weighty with time, I think they spoke of space and time as different sorts of things: To describe time as a form of space (as the metaphor of pointing through time does) is a modern way of speaking, I believe.

        When Moses speaks to the Israelites, he uses an odd formula. Setting that aside for a moment, and looking at how he addresses Pharaoh, I’d use Exodus 4:16 to describe his invocation of the Divine name: Moses is for God a mouth. When the prophet says “Thus saith the LORD…” He isn’t quite a person reporting back on a different conversation with God, but has become the mouth of God, or, like John the Baptist, the voice. (This isn’t to say that the prophet is merely a tool. We perform speech through gestures of the mouth; so does God.)

        Moses’ speech to Israel is different because he does not say “Thus saith LORD…”, but “LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you…” But even here, it doesn’t seem like pointing. This is a recounting of the past love of the LORD for his people, a memorial of the works of the LORD, and because of that, it seems imprecise to say that the first word is pointing. (Though aside from what I said earlier, I’m having trouble articulating why.) At the least, I’m suspicious that we’re using our understanding of naming, and imposing it on the text, rather than describing it in terms adequate to their time, and would want to see it argued. (I’ll look and see if Soulen does.)

        You’re right, God has identified Himself with locations, and so made himself present to us. And by pointing at those locations, we can point at God. (Or perhaps better, by facing those locations, we can face God.) But “the God who dwells at Zion” isn’t the sort of naming of God at issue here.

      • Thanks for the comment, Nathan. That helps to clarify where some of the confusion lies.

        Perhaps part of the problem here is a failure to distinguish between two things: 1) the way that the name relates to the one named; 2) the way that our use of that name relates to the one whose name it is. I suspect that much of the confusion lies in the conflation of these two things. Soulen is very clear that we don’t merely use words to point, nor is this even the primary way that we use words. However, Soulen’s point is to distinguish, for instance, between names that function as personal proper names, those that function as relational terms, and those that function more as titles. The first type of name ‘points’ in a way that the others don’t, even though we may use each of these terms in somewhat similar ways.

        Although Soulen uses the term ‘pointing’ one could argue that it is mistaken to see this as a point about deixis. In fact, part of his point may be that YHWH is the LEAST deictic of names for God, as terms such as ‘Father’, ‘Lord’, ‘Sovereign’, etc. are all heavily context and speaker dependent.

        I still stand by my claim that, in our use of names for God, there is a necessary ‘pointing’ dimension. As with the spatial issues, I think that you are overreacting to an impression of what such a claim must entail based upon more modern expressions. More felicitous understandings are available to us, however. For instance, in speaking about time and space, it is important to recognize just how closely the two can be united in an itinerary-based, rather than a map-based way of understanding spatiality. People like Pickstock and others may attack contemporary spatialization, but even they recognize that their criticisms wouldn’t really hold if we conceptualized space in the way of, say, someone like Merleau-Ponty.

      • Also, Exodus 20:24 speaks of a temporalization of space, not a spatialization of time.

      • Soulen’s questions turn on a different axis than mine. So for instance, in his discussion of Aquinas on pp. 77-81, he elides the distinction between signification and reference, because it isn’t critical to his argument. So for instance “[For Aquinas] The Tetragrammaton does not describe God analogically or metaphorically by beginning with creatures. Instead it merely refers to God after the fashion of proper names.” But the difference between medieval “signify” and modern “reference” is huge, which indicates that the nature of names and of naming is not his concern. The modern (Fregian) understanding of reference is close enough for what he’s trying to do. (This isn’t a problem.)

        But, as a theory of names, reference is controversial. Wittgenstein, for instance, rejected it. I think that in that quote, which describes the Tetragrammaton as solely pointing, the Fregian understanding of names sneaks in, and while it’s good enough for the point Soulen is making, and the one you are making in this post, it’s problematic in other areas. Specifically, it runs us into trouble when we talk about God calling us by name, and it encourages our tendency to think if revelation as statements which refer to God, rather than as a summons (call and command) into communion with him. Because of the last one, I think it also ties in with modern rejection of the commands: Love cannot, so it seems, be commanded, rather, the autonomous person turns themselves toward the one they choose to love. Rather, love can be commanded, but only by one who loves us and has called us by name, and who, in commanding us to love Him, calls us to call Him by name.

      • Quickly, the last two cross-posted with your last response. I’ll try to respond to your response later, but those aren’t a response to the last response.

      • I think I have more to say, but I’m confused by your distinction. How could one describe how a name relates to the one named without appealing to a use? Or, at the least, isn’t it controversial whether it could? Wittgenstein would deny that the way a name relates to the one named can be distinguished from the one named.

        I’m also confused by the context of 1): Relation implies context, and so it would seem the context of the relation between the one named and the name needs specified. Specifically, when we address someone , by name (e.g. “Moses, Moses”, in Exodus 3), or when we name ourselves (e.g. “I, LORD your God,…”) the name relates to the one named in a very different way than when we talk about a third person. (The tense seems important too.)

        In the context of address to someone, it doesn’t seem that their name points at them, but that it points them at us–or perhaps squares us up to each other, so we are face-to-face. If “Moses, Moses” pointed at Moses, would Moses have had the strength to raise himself up and point back at God? Or would he not have been overcome by the pointing, and deflect it aside, pointing to a third?

      • A few brief points here, at which stage I will bow out of this discussion, as it really is off-topic of the post and, as you say, not really germane to the claims that either I or Soulen are making.

        First, the distinction that I make is important in this case because the name YHWH does not arise from any human ‘language game’. Its place in such ‘games’ needs to be distinguished from, yet grounded upon, God’s own gift and use of his name.

        Second, there is a difference between the single act of naming and the subsequent general use of that name. Both are uses of the name, of course, but the former ‘causes’ the latter (or the latter ‘effects’ the former). The name ‘Alastair’ may be used in many ways of me, but these uses ultimately arise from the once-off event when my parents named me. The particular ways that people use my name more generally ‘(a/e)ffects’ my relationship with my name, but it doesn’t ‘cause’ it. The relationship between me and my name is not best discerned in a synchronic framework of ‘use’. The meaning of my name in relation to me—and to me—isn’t even just found in my being frequently addressed or first named by it, but on account of the persons by whom it was chosen (my parents, expressing my relationship with them) and in the reasons why I was first addressed using it by them (their related private intentions and associations). The relationship between me and my name is not something that is extricable from the many uses of my name that ‘(a/e)ffect’ it, but it isn’t reducible to such uses either. I am wary of presuming that general Wittgensteinian or Saussurean claims about language and meaning, for instance, can be applied as straightforwardly in the case of personal proper names as the relation between objects and their names is established and sustained rather differently from the relation between persons and their names, despite important parallels.

        Third, the act of naming typically involves at least an implicit ‘pointing to’, which almost certainly doesn’t carry the sort of philosophical weight that I think you think that it does (the act of naming, in most cases, is also a constitutive act of designation that long precedes any act of command or summons to the one named). This ‘pointing to’ definitely needn’t involve a literal finger being directed to the object, nor even a word functioning like such a finger. In its use, ‘YHWH’ ‘points’ to God by drawing us to reflect on his covenant deeds, by contrasting him with the gods of the nations, by standing as a check against all of our idolatrous tendencies to assert an identity for God against that which he has declared himself, etc. This ‘pointing’ derives its strength from the unique sort of relation that this name bears to God and the way that it ‘points’ to him in a manner rather distinct from other terms (such as Father, Master, the Divine, the Holy One, etc.). This term rests on a unique sort and act of self-‘pointing’.

        Anyway, thanks for the stimulating discussion!

      • And that first paragraph, despite (or perhaps because of) editing, doesn’t make sense. It should say:

        “I think I have more to say, but I’m confused by your distinction. How could one describe how a name relates to the one named without appealing to a use? Or, at the least, isn’t one controversial whether it could? Wittgenstein would deny that the way a name relates to the one named can be distinguished use.”

      • Nathan Barnes says:

        I’ll write one more comment then.

        Starting with your last paragraph: I think you move from using “name” as “To give a name to, to call by a name” and to speaking of our use of a name about half way through, at “In its use..”. I’ll address that section first.

        I would, mutatis mutandis, agree with that section, if you changed ‘pointing to’ to ‘facing’. (With the possible exception of ‘drawing us to reflect…’, since we reflect on something in private thought–at least in the US–not in the face-to-face address with a person.) We face God in a distinctly different manner when we speak to him using “LORD” than when we use other names. And the three patterns of naming are three distinctly different ways we face God. But ‘facing’ is a very different metaphor than ‘pointing’. We think of, or talk about, something we point at, but we talk to someone we face. That is, we point to LORD only if we aren’t talking to him, but only about Him; we face LORD when we talk to Him.

        So, it isn’t that I’m giving some philosophical weight to the act pointing, but that I think pointing is a distinctly different sort of act from calling by name. I think pointing is a gesture that fits best with the third person–talking about someone, over there–and the nominative and objective cases, not with first and second person address, and the vocative case; whereas the name does fit best with first and second person address, and the vocative case. We may point at the person we are talking to–usually, I think, in accusation–but the pointing directs their, and our, attention to them, and so faces them from us, toward themselves; calling them by name faces them up to us, and us up to them. The two are incongruent acts.

        Regarding the act of christening or naming:

        There may be a pointing that is often involved in the act of christening, I’m not sure. However, I’m not convinced it’s a characteristic gesture. I think that “orienting” would be more accurate for the characteristic gesture: The act of naming orients the one named to the world, and the world to the one named. As Cristaudo says in the name of Rosenstock-Huessy, “Naming is orientating.” Naming faces us in a particular direction, and faces others toward us in a particular way.

        So when God named Himself in Exodus 3, he oriented Himself toward Israel, and oriented Israel toward Himself. But He didn’t point at Himself. Pointing at oneself is an odd, chest-thumping, gesture–“I’m the man” or “Did you see who did that? I did that!”–and is incongruent for Exodus 3. And even when we talk about LORD’s history with His people, e.g. “LORD has visited…”, we don’t merely point at LORD, as with our hand, but orientate our whole persons toward and around Him, and His acts.

        (Perhaps it’s also clear that my concern is more with Rosenstock-Huessy, or Rosenzweig, or Chretien than with Wittgenstein–it’s a passage from Rosenzweig and another from Chretien that I have in the back of my mind. (Though Hilary Putnam thinks Wittgenstein is saying something very similar to Rosenzweig, and that Rosenzweig’s “name” plays a similar role to Wittgenstein’s “language game”.))

  4. Swithun says:


    What’s your position on the role of Natural Theology? Your concern about projection seems to a large degree similar to a wariness of reasoning from particulars to universals. As such projection is fine as long as you do it well.

    In regards gender names per se I think a good starting point is to consider an essential feature of masculinity as acting from without and an essential feature of femininity as receptivity. I think this well explains the tendency to refer to Mother Nature since man acts upon her rather than the other way round. This implies that a petite woman is more masculine that even a Rhino given the disposition differences.

    Given this taxonomy, God is the ultimate expression of masculinity: he creates the universe out of nothing. This view explains on an ontology level, why the Church is considered the Bride of Christ- mankind is feminine relative to God.

    The feminine imagery of God I think is only explicable within a triune God. If God were as Allah there would be no basis for feminine traits at all as he would be only masculine (I don’t know whether there is any feminine imagery used of Allah in the Koran). Within the Trinity you have the space for the relative masculinity and femininity – the most masculine being the Father and the most feminine being the Holy Spirit. This relative feminine position of the Spirit explains to some extent the feminine language used in reference to him but also allows for the Spirit to overcome (in a masculine sense) Mary in the virgin birth.

    I think this also helps explain how we can still be male and female post-resurrection as we have a concept which transcends human biology.

    Finally, this view would undergird the primacy of masculine pronouns in regards God as his primary relation to man is his creation ex nihilo so is therefore primarily male.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I believe that God has revealed himself in the natural order. I believe that natural theology is usually flawed, though. This isn’t the same as a concern about reasoning from particulars to universals, as God doesn’t stand in an analogous relation to his creation as a universal stands in relation to particulars. There is a radical Creator-creature distinction that needs to be upheld.

      I know that the active-receptive binary is popular in some quarters. However, I really don’t believe that it provides a helpful account of gender difference, nor do I believe that it is helpful to think of different entities in terms of their relative place upon a spectrum between two poles. The differences between men and women are both more and less absolute than that—more absolute positionally, relationally, and symbolically, much less absolute in terms of tendencies of behaviour. Women can be active and men can be receptive. The difference lies deeper than this. Humanity isn’t only ‘feminine’ relative to God: we are also related to him in sonship, for instance.

      I am also uncomfortable of speaking of the Spirit ‘overcoming’ Mary. This isn’t the language of Scripture (cf. Luke 1:35). Better to speak of the Spirit ‘overshadowing’ Mary, like the Shekinah Glory Cloud. This imagery is more closely related to temple imagery.

  5. Swithun says:

    If you hold such a radical Creature Creator distinction, I can’t see how natural law is even intelligible since even attempts at using natural law to speak just analogically about God would be without foundation.

    The active-receptive binary need not be considered solely on a specific act but a general disposition towards particular actions. Also women to be receptive in the context need only have a general receptive disposition towards men not animals nor children. As such it doesn’t preclude activity on the part od women. Even if not all women exhibit this, it does not follow that their nature is not directed to it.

    We are related to Christ in his sonship but he is in the same position within the Godhead as mankind is with God and Creation. On the scale it is God- Man – Creation and Father, Son and Spirit. Therefore it is perfectly reasonable to use Sonship language as well as Bridal language.

    Overcoming was probably a bad choice of words.

    • Natural law is not the same thing as natural theology. Natural law is about the relationship between the creative and its telos that is established and experienced within the creation itself. Nor is a belief in natural revelation the same thing as a belief that we should be doing natural theology.

      I just don’t believe that the active-receptive binary is very illuminating here. Besides the deepest difference between men and women has much more to do with their relational positionality, the distinct structure of how they are related to others. This encourages certain dispositions, but it shouldn’t be confused with them. The active-receptive binary may clumsily get a couple of fingers upon the more fundamental difference, but it cannot get a firm grasp. I also think that the active-receptive binary comes, at the very least, troublingly close to imposing a masculine-feminine hierarchy of value throughout the creation.

      • Swithun says:

        I accidentally equivocated over natural law and natural theology, I meant the latter. How would you distinguish between natural theology and natural revelation? Also why is the former usually wrong?

        How does the active-receptive binary impose a hierarchy of value? I can’t see how the view necessarily values one over the other.

        Finally, have you a link to what you mean by relational positionality? It seems on the surface to be very similar to what I would argue but without the active-receptive binary.

      • Natural revelation is the expression of God’s goodness and glory in the cosmos. Natural theology is the attempt to reason to God from the natural order apart from appeal to revelation. Although some measure of man’s relationship to God can be known from the creation alone, natural theology tends to fall into projection unless read through the lens of special revelation. Read through the lens of and in relation to special revelation, natural revelation can be revelatory in the way that it ought to be.

        As the binary is applied, the feminine always seems to be associated with some relatively lower order of the creation. God-humanity, male-female, humanity-animals—at each point the first term of the binary is labelled ‘masculine’ and, at least implicitly, privileged over the other.

        Relational positionality as I hold it isn’t really similar to the active-receptive binary. Relational positionality doesn’t focus on a particular manner of behaviour, but upon the way in which one party is positioned relative to others within the structure of a relational system. Also, more importantly, it doesn’t treat masculinity and femininity as if they were merely situational functions. They run deeper than contextual patterns of relational action. For instance, a woman can be both receptive or active, but as a woman she is characterized by the potential to conceive and bear another person within herself. She procreates within herself, is born from one like herself, and can nourish others from her own body. This not only structures and exerts an orienting force upon her subjectivity, it also structures society more objectively. Women symbolize and express modes of fundamental human relation and realities that are closed to men (the same is true of men relative to women). This is deeper than tendencies of behaviour. Even when a woman is profoundly active, she is an active woman, not a quasi-masculine figure. This is the case because she is acting in that particular manner from her relational position, not from a masculine one.

  6. Swithun says:

    I think the active-receptive binary would privilege masculinity if God was a monad. In a trinitarian model I think they can easily co-exist without privileging over the other.

    Also without an all-compassing concept of gender we have no basis on which to call God he, which brings us back to natural theology. Of course projection is possible but I don’t see how it is necessary. With the radical-creature creation distinction you hold I don’t see how natural revelation is possible- all we can do is wait for God to condescend in human language to disclose himself. This is in direct opposition to Romans 1 which states that God as God is clearly seen in creation.

  7. quinnjones2 says:

    As I am not a theologian ( though I am very interested in Alastair’s blog and in the comments above), I find it difficult to follow many of the concepts. However, when God said to Moses ‘ I am who I am’, that meant, according to my understanding, that God cannot be fully defined in human terms. We have been given many descriptors of God in the scriptures, but these are glimpses of God and, although we are all made in the image of God, we none of us have all of the characteristics of God . We are also, for instance, each given some, but not all, of the spiritual gifts – we none of us ‘have it all’, but it is all of God. It seems to me to be common sense ( though some claim that ‘common sense’ is not so common!) that God created male and female for a reason and gave us all gender-specific attributes which are, in some way , characteristic of God.
    For many reasons, I think of God as ‘Father’. One main reason is that, when Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he taught them to address God as ‘Our Father.’

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