For Part 2 of a two-part series of reflections on the gender of God, we return to the question with which we ended Part 1: 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? Because of the complexity of the question, this post will be quite a bit longer than Part 1. I hope you can find the patience wade through the details and contribute your thoughts.
Proponents of “inclusive language for God” (who shall be called inclusivists from this point forward) argue that if God is beyond gender, then it is just as appropriate to speak of God with feminine language (i.e., names, titles, metaphors, and pronouns), as it is to speak of God with masculine language.(1) Those who hold this view desire to downplay masculine language for God and employ an equal amount of feminine and gender-neutral language for God, with the aim of promoting gender equality in religious language and the Christian view of God.(2)
Opinions vary among inclusivists on how gender inclusive language for God should be employed, but some examples are needed to illustrate what this program of change would mean. Instead of referring to God exclusively as Father, worshippers may employ Father-Mother, Parent, or intersperse the references to God the Father with references to God the Mother. To avoid the exclusively masculine implications of the traditional Trinitarian titles, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, worshippers may substitute Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, or God, Christ, and Spirit, or Parent, Child, and Spirit. Finally, instead of referring to Jesus exclusively as Christ or Son of God, worshippers may employ Sophia’s Child or Holy Wisdom. Inclusivist theologians and writers have recommended numerous other creative alternatives to traditional God-language, but these suffice to show the significance of the changes they propose.
At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the promotion of gender equality is a legitimate concern for those forwarding the inclusivist program. All Christians can share in the desire that the church be liberated from sexism and women affirmed as equals before God and in the church. Given the record of women being caricatured and marginalized in church history, many times with the perceived blessing of God, it is understandable that inclusivists look to alter Christian God-language to help institute change. In their thinking, whether God is genderless or not, speaking of God in exclusively masculine terms projects maleness onto God. If God is perceived as male, they argue, human males will be seen as closer to God’s image than females. Such a mindset is not only wrong, but can be a source of serious detriment to women.
Even as I affirm and sympathize with the concerns of inclusivists, I believe there remains a fundamental problem with the inclusivist program that militates against its acceptance (especially by evangelicals). No matter one’s social convictions (one might even say "ideology"), Scripture is normative for providing and defining the appropriate Christian language for God. By and large, however, inclusivists regard the biblical revelation as historically and culturally limited, fallible, and in need of some correction to overcome its perceived sexism. On this basis, in practice they take the doctrine of God’s genderlessness and give it priority over the details of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. (This is not to say, of course, that inclusivists knowingly or purposefully do so, but I believe that this is the undeniable result of their theological methodology.)
For some, such a practice is not a cause for concern. Yet, for most who claim the label "evangelical" (including myself), the affirmation of Scripture's veracity and authority means that the legitimacy of language for God depends on whether such language accurately sustains the biblical picture of God. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts and motivations of inclusivists, with which I am sincerely sympathetic, it seems apparent that the inclusive language for God almost always obscures and undermines the biblical revelation.(3) As I understand revelation, God’s identity in the biblical narrative is unique and inseparable from the various masculine names, titles, and metaphors ascribed to him. To neutralize or remove this language for God from the Bible is to damage God’s unique identity and, in addition, overturn almost two thousand years of church practice.
While it is impossible for evangelicals to accept the complete agenda for inclusive language for God, I affirm that there is room to acknowledge the Bible’s feminine references to God.(4) Many of such references are similes.(5) Psalm 131:2 says, “Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me.” Here, an indirect simile can be inferred between God, with whom the psalmist finds rest, and the mother of a weaned child. In Isaiah 42:14, God says through the prophet, “Now like a woman in labor I will groan, I will both gasp and pant.” Here God compares his efforts to redeem his people to that of a woman in the throes birth pains. Perhaps the most explicit maternal image for God is found in Isaiah 66:13: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem." Here, God’s comfort for his people is compared to the tender comfort of mother to child. These are only a few of a number of other clear feminine similes for God in the Bible (see Ps. 123:2; Hosea 13:8; Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34; 1 Pet. 2:2-3).
Other feminine references to God in the Bible are metaphors.(6) Moses questions God in his frustration in Numbers 11:12: “Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’?” Though Moses asks these questions about himself, the implication is that God is the one who figuratively conceived and gave birth to his people. Another birth metaphor is in Deuteronomy 32:18: “You neglected the Rock who begot you, and forgot the God who gave you birth.” Here again, God is viewed as one who gave birth to his people, Israel. In Psalm 90:2, the psalmist declares: “Before the mountains were born or You gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” This is another clear maternal metaphor, this time referring to God’s activity of creation. Again, these are only a few of a number of feminine metaphors for God in the Bible (see Job 38:8, 28-29; Prov. 8:1, 22-25; Isa. 45:10-11; John 3:3-8).
I should point out that none of the above feminine references to God contain feminine titles or names for God, as many inclusivists claim. For example, although there are a number of maternal references to God, he is never named “Mother God” or given the title, “Mother.” Moreover, all of the verbs in the above references have masculine grammatical gender, corresponding to the masculine titles “Lord” (Yahweh) and “God” (Elohim). This is in keeping with the fact that, although the languages of the Bible never speak of God as a sexual or gendered being, they almost uniformly utilize masculine figures of speech (similes, metaphors, etc.), names, and titles for God.
It has been established that God is genderless, but it is the pattern of Scripture to speak of God as though he is masculine. With these qualifications in mind, however, I believe evangelicals can and should support the careful and appropriate usage of the occasional feminine similes and metaphors provided by God’s self-revelation in Scripture, in the arenas of public and private worship and theology.
Any attempt to explain why God chose to reveal himself in Scripture through overwhelmingly masculine language will be complete speculation. Based upon the genderlessness of God, however, it may be affirmed that the Bible does not use gendered language for God because God is male or female. Instead, the Bible uses gendered language because God is personal (i.e., God certainly is not an “it”). The difficulty is that there is no way in any known human language to speak of persons without implying gender. Since human beings are the only truly personal creatures, to speak of the personal God one must use human language that implies gender. Ultimately, no matter the reasons, the only sovereign, wise, and good God of Jesus Christ reveals himself in the predominantly masculine language of Scripture.
Yet, what about the concerns of feminists and inclusivists that speaking of God in exclusively masculine terms projects maleness onto God, casting human males as more “god-like,” and resulting in serious harm to women? In response, it should be noted that the God of Scripture does not promote male dominance, injustice, or abuse of women. Although the Old Testament certainly does not provide full social equality, the progress of revelation is such that the New Testament does establish the ultimate standard of love, justice, and mutual respect for women and men.(7) Moreover, while it is obvious that men have used (and will continue to use) the perceived masculinity of God as reason for oppressing women, Christians should not reject the details of biblical revelation because of such abuses. It is far better to acknowledge and condemn such abuses as wrong, while endorsing the appropriate usage of the Bible’s revealed God-language.
In conclusion, Scripture must be normative for providing and defining the appropriate Christian language for God. While it is true that Scripture has a historical and cultural context, it remains the faithful, true, and authoritative guide for all matters of Christian faith and practice. God’s transcendent and holy nature indicates that he is without sex or gender, but this truth may not take a place of priority over the details of God’s revelation. For evangelicals, the legitimacy of any language for God depends on whether that language accurately sustains the biblical picture of God. This means it is as inappropriate to speak of God as “the man upstairs” as it is to speak of God as “Mother Sophia.” God’s identity in the biblical narrative is unique and inseparable from the various names, titles, and metaphors ascribed to him. While there is justification for the careful and occasional usage of the Bible’s feminine references to God in worship and theology, to neutralize or remove the overwhelmingly masculine language for God is not an option for those who ascribe to the sufficiency of God’s special revelation.
(1) Consider, for example, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (New York: Crossroad, 1985); Brian Wren, What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1989); Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in a Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
(2) This view is to be distinguished from both the two exclusivist approaches: traditionalists employ exclusively masculine language for God, while radical feminists often employ exclusively feminine language for God.
(3) See the excellent work contained in the following volumes: Alvin F. Kimel, ed., Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992); Donald G. Bloesch, The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-Language (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1985); Cooper, Our Father in Heaven, 191-220.
(4) For the following information on the Bible’s feminine similes and metaphors for God, I have benefited much from Cooper’s careful and fair discussion in his Our Father in Heaven, 65-90.
(5) A simile is a figure of speech in which two unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by “like” or “as.” Some English similes include, “He eats like a bird,” or “She is slow as molasses.”
(6) A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word or expression normally denoting another thing, idea, or action, so as to suggest some common quality shared by the two. Some English metaphors include, “You are my sunshine,” or “He is a teddy bear.”
(7) Cooper provides a skillful discussion of this truth (244-249). His conclusion is worth quoting at length: "However the disagreements about marriage and ordination turn out, there is strong consensus that the Bible generates a high view of women, considers them naturally and spiritually equal to men, insists on their well-being, and provides the foundation for healthy and just relations between the genders. Thus we come to a curious conclusion: The Bible progressively elevates the status of women as it progressively reveals God as Father. God the Father loves women and provides for them as much as men. Therefore the inclusivist charge that the Bible, especially its predominantly masculine presentation of God, promotes the devaluation and oppression of women is false" (248-249).