What follows is Part 1 of a two-part series of my reflections on the gender of God. This issue is one that I researched at length at the beginning of the summer as part of a writing project for Harvest House. Also, it has been a subject of discussion with not a few of the Christian women with whom I serve every week in Fairfield. I do not claim to have reached the conclusion on the matter, for it is an exceedingly complex issue theologically, hermeneutically, and missionally, but I hope that the presentation of my thoughts may produce some interesting discussion.
While never a major issue in the past, the proliferation of feminist theologies in the latter half of the twentieth century has caused the question of God’s gender to become a matter of some debate. Radical feminist Mary Daly shocked the world with her blunt pronouncement: “If God is male, then male is God.”(1) She used this assertion to support her endeavor not only to de-throne “God the Father,” but also to discredit Christianity in its entirety as an evil, oppressive religion.
Despite her militant feminist ideology, which evangelicals cannot support, Daly’s challenge is of great consequence. Few matters are as important as how one conceives and speaks of the God of Jesus Christ. Many contemporary feminists affirm Daly’s supposition that the male God of Christianity can never liberate women, so it is prudent for evangelicals to seek to provide a thoughtful and biblical response to her challenge.
Is the God of Christianity male? Two matters contribute to an answer of this question: the nature of gender and the nature of God. Although debates continue over the full definition and origin of gender, there is universal agreement that, at the very least, gender is based upon one’s physical body and one’s cultural environment. From a biological standpoint, the human body carries the permanent marks of belonging either to the male or female sex. Genesis testifies that God designed human beings as a distinctly male and female in their physical bodies (Gen. 2:21-25). There are rare times when these marks are mixed or obscured, but such exceptions are few and they reinforce the norm. As a result, men and women’s gender identities are grounded in and limited by the permanent details of their sexed bodies.
From a sociological standpoint, human beings with sexed bodies develop their gender identities from within a specific culture. This accounts for the way in which notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” vary in cultures over time and space. In one sense, such notions of are fixed, as cultural expectations for gender become embedded in economic, political, and cultural practices. In another sense, though, notions of gender can be fluid, able to be influenced and altered through changes in culture and subcultures. As a result, gender identity has some flexibility depending upon cultural contexts, but ultimately the distinctions of the male and female bodies provide a foundation of stability.
With this basic understanding of the nature of gender, it seems apparent that God, having neither a sexed body nor a human culture, cannot have a gender. Yet, does the testimony of Scripture support this conclusion? Although the Bible often speaks of God in masculine terms and even figuratively describes him as having body parts, God is never said to have reproductive organs (as Baal and other gods have). God has no female god as a counterpart, and he does not produce the world through procreation, but through his spoken word. Moreover, John 4:24 testifies, “God is spirit.” An implication of this verse is that God, being holy and transcendent, has no body, and exists as a being wholly outside the realm of creaturely existence. Because sexuality and gender are characteristics of bodily creatures, then God cannot have gender.
Moreover, some biblical texts specifically warn against identifying God with human males and females.(2) Numbers 23:19 warns that “God is not a man [ish: male human], that He should lie, nor a son of man [adam: human], that He should repent.” Hosea 11:9b is similar: “For I am God, and not man [ish], the Holy One in your midst.” In speaking of the righteous nature of God’s character, both texts prohibit thinking of God as a man. The clearest teaching on this subject is Deuteronomy 4:15-16: “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female.”
In this way, imaging God as male or female is considered idolatry, suggesting strongly that the biblical tradition is against attributing gender to God. Despite the fact that Scripture often uses language for God that is suitable for a masculine person, God is not like a human male in his form or character.
Establishing the genderlessness of God does not counter Mary Daly’s initial challenge, however. If it is almost universally agreed that the Christian God is beyond gender, then does it follow that both masculine and feminine language should be used to speak of God? We will consider this question in Part 2.
(1) Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1973), 19.
(2) For these observations, I am indebted to John W. Cooper’s discussion of the biblical evidence for God’s genderlessness in Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 182-187.