What’s in a pronoun? The divine gender controversy
Published: 20 August 2008 (GMT+10)
A recent UK Times story1reported on a Populus survey conducted for the Movement for Reform Judaism, saying that ‘[nearly] three quarters of Christians think that God is male, compared with less than half of the general population.’
However, the newspaper report was slightly misleading, as the wording in the actual poll asks simply how the respondents had thought about God most recently. And the only way they were able to get ‘less than half of the general population’ not believing in a solely male God was to exclude the religious from the general population (62% of respondents last thought of God as male, compared with 73% of Christians and 48% of those who did not consider themselves to belong to any religion). Only 1% of respondents thought of God as female, the rest being divided between both male and female, neither, or ‘none of the above’ (the latter category left undefined—perhaps for the best!).
The radical feminist assault on Christianity
Many feminist writers and theologians claim that the concept of a male God is rooted in a patriarchal culture which by its very nature is oppressive to women, and that the Bible contains a female portrayal of God’s nature that has been suppressed by the Church.2 Having moved past this ‘archaic’ and ‘misogynistic’ view of women, they argue that society should accordingly revise its view of God to include the female characteristics they claim are found both in Scripture and Jewish and Church tradition.
Christians believe that it is only possible to know the information about God that He reveals to us Himself through Scripture. Of course, God is Spirit (John 4:24), so is biologically neither male nor female, and He does not have a sexual nature. Rita Gross objects: ‘If we do not mean that God is male when we use masculine pronouns and imagery, then why should there be any objections to using female imagery and pronouns as well.’3 The simple answer is that God is described in male terms because that best describes how God relates to His creation; God has revealed Himself to humanity in male terms; and God became incarnate as a man, not a woman.
Does the Bible use female imagery to refer to God?
Some feminist theologians and writers claim that Scripture contains feminine or maternal imagery as well as masculine imagery. Some of this is simply linguistic gender; both Hebrew and Greek, like French and Spanish, use gender for nouns. The words for ‘spirit (רוּחַ rûach) and wisdom (חָכְמָה chokmāh) take the feminine gender in Hebrew. However, this does not make them intrinsically feminine any more than truth or sin, both of which take the feminine article in Greek (ἀλήθεια (alētheia) and ἁμαρτία (hamartia)).4 Furthermore, when rûach is used for the Spirit of God, it is always combined with the masculine Elohim and takes on its masculine characteristics. E.g. in 1 Kings 22:24: ‘Which way did the Spirit of the Lord go …?’, the word rûach takes the masculine verb עָבַר ‘ābar: ‘went’.5
Another type of instance that is claimed as evidence of God being described in feminine terms is in similes and metaphors. However, similes and metaphors always are comparing attributes of one thing with attributes of another they never mean that one thing is literally the other thing. When Deuteronomy 32:4 calls God a rock, we do not ask ‘Granite or limestone?’ because we correctly understand it to be non-literal. The same principle applies a few verses later when God is compared to an eagle who protects its young (32:11). It is ridiculous to infer from the imagery that God is female; it would be just as justified in the context to assume that this verse teaches that God has feathers and wings! This is not even simply a question of bad hermeneutics (which it is), but of poor basic reading comprehension, whether intentional or not, on the part of these scholars.
Male imagery referring to God
The male imagery used to depict God is fundamentally different from the female similes found in Scripture. God may be like a mother in certain aspects, but He is Father; Jesus prayed to Him as Father and taught His disciples to do the same (Matt 6:9). The Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, became incarnate as a man, not a woman, and Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit with the pronoun ‘He’ (John 14:16–17). These are not similes or metaphors, but teaching regarding the very nature of God and how He relates to His creation, and how the members of the Godhead relate to each other.
Was male imagery and Incarnation a concession to a patriarchal culture?
Some scholars admit that the Bible depicts God in male terms, but argue that it was simply because the patriarchal culture would not accept a female God. Some go so far as to argue that the only reason that Jesus couldn’t have been a female is because the culture was not ready for a female Messiah. However, much of this so-called patriarchy is contained in the Mosaic Law, which God gave to Israel! God could have revealed Himself in female terms if it was an accurate portrayal of His nature, and He could have prepared the culture for a female Messiah. On a similar note, it is also claimed that the only reason Jesus had to be male was that a female would not be accepted as a teacher in first century Palestine.
It is not even clear if the culture was as patriarchal as is claimed; many ancient cultures worshipped goddesses (see, e.g., Acts 19:27–28) and Paul even had to straighten out the Corinthians about women’s proper place in church services (1 Corinthians 14:33–38). What Paul meant when he forbade women to have authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12) is debated (and outside the mandate of CMI), but it seems unlikely that he would have addressed it at all if it weren’t an issue in his day.
This objection is absurd even on the face of it—the Prophets and Jesus themselves frequently challenged the culture of their day, where it didn’t match God’s standards. Indeed, humanly speaking, Jesus’ enemies wouldn’t have bothered to criticize Him if he had not been a staunch critic of much of the culture, even using challenge-riposte in His critique.
Some go so far as to claim that Jesus was either genetically or psychologically female; since Jesus did not have a human father, the argument goes, all His genetic material came from Mary. Since Mary did not have a Y chromosome, Jesus must have been genetically female, though male in appearance. It should be obvious that, though natural parthenogenic offspring are the same sex as the parent, the case of Jesus was a supernatural virginal conception, and the God who created the universe surely would have no problem in creating a Y chromosome.
Some have the good sense to accept that Jesus was physically male, but claim that He had female psychological characteristics, or that he behaved in female ways: He loved children, had special friendships with women, and wept. However, none of these are especially feminine characteristics. There was no taboo for males displaying emotion in public; in some cases, it would be expected of them. People claiming Jesus displayed female psychology nearly always cite Matthew 23:37 or the parallel passage Luke 13:34: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’ This is a simile, like the examples above, and the scholars who infer female psychology from this passage might as well say that Jesus had some aspects of chicken psychology, as well!6
The Bible has an overwhelming emphasis that the Saviour of humanity would not only be both God and human, but a male human. Indeed, the first prophecy about Jesus in the Bible, Protevangelion of Genesis 3:15, specified that it would be a male descendent who would crush the head of the serpent, and Eve understood the prophecy to refer to a male when she misapplied it to Cain in Genesis 4:1 (see ‘Eve and the God-Man’). God declares Jesus to be His beloved Son (Matthew 3:17, 17:5), not daughter, and He is called High Priest (Hebrews 2:17), not priestess. In Revelation, Jesus is the Bridegroom of the Church (ch. 21). The overwhelming presence of male imagery applied to Jesus from Genesis to Revelation strongly suggests that the Messiah’s maleness was no accident or concession to culture, but central to His nature and mission.
The relational maleness of God
Identifying God in female terms leads to a fundamental change in how God is viewed:
He is no longer Lord over the world, but a mother birthing it. He is no longer king over his realm, but the world is actually part of his (her?) body. It seems that the evangelicals who wish to simply add mother to the list of names for God in the Scriptures, have no way of preventing this kind of revision of the way in which God relates to the world. Once the authority of scripture is given up with regard to the name (mother), there is no authority to which they may appeal to argue against the natural revisions of the God-world relationship associated with feminine language.7
The Bible is clear about the ‘otherness’ of God; the creation narrative in Genesis clearly illustrates that God existed before the creation and is completely separate from it. Those who identify God in female terms have no way to prevent this fundamental change in the view of God where the creation becomes part of God (panentheism), and thus in some way humanity becomes divine in this view as well.
The way that God relates to His creation corresponds with male roles; He is Father, King, and Master. There is no way to diminish the maleness of these roles without diminishing our view of the nature of God Himself.
Is it anti-female to refer to God with male pronouns?
A truly biblical understanding of God is far from anti-female, because both male and female are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–28). Some imagery used in the Bible may even be easier for females to understand and relate to; e.g. the Church as the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22–33, Revelation 21:9,17).
The issue is: who defines how we relate to God: us or God? If we refer to humans by the names, and even with the pronouns, that they wish to be known by, it seems to be common courtesy to do the same for God. If God reveals Himself as Father, King, Lord, etc, it seems obscene to insist on calling Him Mother, Goddess, etc. As Michael Bott argued, ‘respecting the requested manner of address is good manners at least. So we call God our “Father” because to do otherwise is simply rude.’8 Furthermore, in the Bible naming someone or something symbolized authority over that person. As Roland Mushat Frye put it:
Language for God is not equivalent to the kinds of naming we use in ordinary speech. … [W]e recognize that ordinary names for creatures are subject to human custom, choice, and change. According to biblical religion, on the other hand, only God can name God. Distinctive Christian experiences and beliefs are expressed through distinctive language about God, and the changes in that language proposed by feminist theologians do not merely add a few unfamiliar words for God … but in fact introduce beliefs about God that differ radically from those inherent in Christian faith, understanding and Scripture.9
Does secularism have anything better to offer?
Early Christianity and ancient Judaism before it were both light-years ahead of their cultures regarding the treatment of women. The Mosaic law was very pro-woman; it was the first ancient law to punish both parties of adultery equally (Leviticus 20:10) whereas in other cultures of that time only the woman was culpable, and it has been argued that the birth impurity laws (Leviticus 12), so vilified by modern feminists, amounted to a maternity leave for new mothers since they could not do household work while they were unclean. The Mosaic law also provided for a woman who was raped by forcing the rapist to support her for the rest of her life, and forced Jewish men to treat females of conquered people with dignity. Jewish daughters could even inherit property when there were no sons. While some of the laws may seem misogynist in the 21st century Western world, such laws were vital for the well-being of women in the ancient world.10
Paul’s statements commanding women to be silent and forbidding them to have authority in the Church have given him an anti-female reputation, but he also wrote that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). The Church provided for elderly widows with no family to take care of them (1 Timothy 5:9–16). Outside the Church, in the prevailing culture of the day, it was not uncommon for baby girls to be exposed and left to die soon after birth; both Christianity and Judaism regarded this as an abomination.
On the other hand; secularists have been shown to be anti-female. Many evolutionists, including Darwin, have argued that women are inferior to men, since the weaker men are eliminated by war and other things, but weaker women are not eliminated by such forces—instead, men protect weak women. Thus the male population is worked on by natural selection where only the strongest survive, but the women who men find attractive, not necessarily the strongest or most ‘fit’, reproduce. One evolutionist even argued that females were closer to animals than to males. Indeed, sexual equality would be totally unexpected under consistent evolutionary theory, since males and females throughout the biosphere experienced different selective pressures.
Abortion, advocated by secularists as a fundamental women’s right, results in far more dead baby girls than boys, and has horrendous psychological consequences for the mother, while allowing fathers reduced responsibility for promiscuous behaviour. And of course, abortion kills babies, which is by far the most important reason why it’s evil.
That Christians with a biblical view of God insist on calling Him by the male names He has given Himself in no way reflects negatively on the biblical view of women, because both men and women are created in the image of God. Because of this, Christians are commanded to treat both men and women with proper dignity and respect. Replacing biblical language for God with unbiblical female names and terminology does not elevate women, but is an attempt to redefine God Himself. The same hermeneutic that allows exegetes to replace ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ with ‘Mother, Daughter, and Life-bearing Womb’ would also free humans to reinterpret any part of Scripture to fit with the spirit of the age—including the many parts of the Bible which are explicitly pro-female! If we are free to redefine even one word of Scripture, not one word of it is unchangeable.
Feedback on this articleCMI contributor, engineer, linguist and Bible translator Kevin May says:
I have long said to people that we are all made in God’s image. What it is to be a man is a reflection of what God is like. In the same way, what it is to be a woman is a reflection of what God is like. In other words, all the specific characteristics of men and women are to be found in God’s own nature.
I agree heartily that grammatical gender does not describe biological gender. Lots of examples exist of differences between the two kinds of gender.
I also think that if God were described in feminine terms, men would tend to relate to God in the wrong way. Ancient people used to worship goddesses through sexual intercourse with the goddess’ representatives. This would be an appalling way to ‘worship’ the true God, and a travesty in the use of men’s God-given sexual drive. I feel sure that God’s use of male imagery and relational terms in his revelation of himself is at least in part to counter this kind of error.
Thank you for a great article. It deserves to be widely disseminated.
- ‘God moves in a gender neutral way’, The Times 19 May 2008, p. 25. Return to text.
- For some answers to these fallacious claims, see Wieland, C., The follies of feminism, Prayer News, August 1991. Return to text.
- Gross, R, ‘Female God language in a Jewish Context’; Womanspirit rising: a feminist reader in religion, p. 173, cited in Bott, M. ‘Is God She?’ Apologia 5(2):5–20. p 9. Return to text.
- Jeffrey, D.L. ‘Inclusive Language and Worship: The Central Role of Language in Defining the People of God’ Return to text.
- Taylor, C.V., Linguistics, Genesis and Evolution, Part 5: The Creator, Creation 7(4):21–22, 1985. Return to text.
- Cottrell, J. ‘The Gender of Jesus and the Incarnation: A Case Study of Feminist Hermeneutics’. Return to text.
- Stinson, R, ‘Our Mother Who Art in Heaven: A Brief Overview and Critique of Evangelical Feminists and the Use of Feminine God-Language’. Return to text.
- Bott. M. ‘Is God She?’ Apologia 5(2):5–20, p. 11–12. Return to text.
- House, H.W. ‘God, Gender, and Biblical Metaphor’ (Ch. 17) by Judy L. Brown’ Return to text.
- See Glenn Miller’s series, Women in the Heart of God. Return to text.