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Is God Gender Neutral?

Lee Gatiss | December 8th 2017

The recent announcement that the Church of Sweden has dropped the use of the pronoun “he” for God in favour of gender neutral terms is a recent take on a very old discussion about God and gender.

There were precursors in the early church debates with heretical gnosticism. Julian of Norwich (a woman despite the name) spoke of God as our Mother. It has been a commonplace in feminist reinterpretations of theology over the last 50 years. As one contributor to The Guardian put it in an earlier debate: 

“For many of us with a theological persuasion, the debate about gender-specific pronouns for the Divine is as dated as a fondue set and flares, but apparently to some normal people this is not the case.”

Others have addressed these issues before. But since it is again topical, it is worth another look. There are perhaps two main issues here, I think. One is about theology proper, about who God is. The other is about how we know about God, about the doctrine of revelation. But above them both is the issue of power.

1. Theology

In terms of theology proper, of course God is not “male" as opposed to female. For a start, God is “without body, parts, or passions” as Article 1 of the Church of England’s doctrinal basis puts it, a Spirit without sex as we physical mortals understand it.

However, Christians have always spoken of God as “the Father”, because this is his relationship to the Son within the godhead, an eternal relationship we discover in Scripture. It is not about his relationship to us, primarily, but his eternal relationship to another person in the Trinity. 

God is our Lord, creator, judge, refuge. And he becomes our Father, when we are regenerated by the grace of him who gave us the power to become children of God (John 1:12). But he is first and foremost the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:3, 1 Peter 1:3), and always has been Father to the eternally begotten Son, as we affirm in the Nicene Creed (and Article 2 of The Thirty-nine Articles). In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus himself (who, we must assume, knew what / who he was talking about) told us to pray to God as “Our Father…” It would be a bold disciple who then refused to follow their Master in this.

God’s fatherhood is not patterned after ours, as if he is using a human metaphor to grasp at a way of telling us something ineffable about himself

2. Revelation

It is true that ordinary language is inadequate to describe the nature and being of God. But that does not mean we are free to play with the language we use with reference to God, to make our own theological points. Language is very powerful in shaping people’s views and shaping our culture. So we must be careful with it and not misuse its power. 

In Scripture, it is true that there are female metaphors applied to God: he is like a woman in labour (Isaiah 42:14), like a considerate, comforting mother (Isaiah 49:15; 66:13), like a mother eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11-12). Jesus compares himself to a mother hen (Matthew 23:37). These particular poetic images and analogies are not common, but they are there, and they are glorious. Though interestingly, God is not called our Mother, or referred to as “she.”

For some reason, God chose to speak to us at a particular time and in particular places, and in such languages that enshrine what is thought by some to be irredeemably “patriarchal language.” Feminine language was available — many ancient cultures had goddesses — but for some reason God chose not to utilise it in his written word when referring to himself.

Overwhelmingly, God is referred to in the Bible as Father, and by use of masculine pronouns. As the apostle John puts it, “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Jesus Christ, of course, is the Son of God not the Daughter of God, and is described as “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3).

God’s fatherhood is not patterned after ours, as if he is using a human metaphor to grasp at a way of telling us something ineffable about himself. Rather, every fatherhood on earth is named after his fatherhood (Ephesians 3:14-15).

3. Power

As Christians, we cede power to God. We give up the claim to run our own life, and submit to him as our Lord. That is our basic relationship to him: we are creatures and disciples. We must, therefore, also acknowledge God’s power and right to shape our views of him and his relationship to us.

That is the essential message of the Ten Commandments, for example, when God tells us how we are to relate to him, and how not. We are to have no other gods but him, and we are to worship him in the way he sets out, not by way of “graven images” — methods of worship and theology originating in pictures conjured up from our own imagination or borrowed from the culture around us.

Who has the power in our relationship with God? Who rules? Who decides the nature of the relationship, and how it will be conceived of and spoken?

Should we not extend the same courtesy to God as we and other gender activists insist upon for themselves—to be called by the pronoun of their own choice?

We are all prone to doubt that what God reveals concerning himself in scripture has any necessary relationship to who God is as God. But as the 4th century theologian, Hilary of Poitiers (a man, despite the name) puts it in his book De Trinitate (1.18):

“For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages. Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of himself, and bow with humble reverence to his words. For he whom we can only know through his own utterances is the fitting witness concerning himself.”

See also this article on translating gender in Hebrew and Greek by Nick Gowers.

Lee Gatiss

Dr Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society, and has served at churches including St Ebbes, Oxford, and St Helens Bishopsgate, London. He is the author of For Us and Our Salvation and editor of The NIV Proclamation Bible. He is married to Kerry and they have three children.

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