On God “Herself”

Gender“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18)

On Twitter today, something of a kerfuffle has broken out about whether it’s right to call God using feminine pronouns – ‘her’, ‘herself’, etc. John Bingham wrote about it in the Telegraph yesterday; today Rev Kate Bottley (the Gogglebox vicar) has written about it today in the Guardian. The debate itself has been going for some time now, for example there’s an article in the Christian Today magazine from last year: “Is it wrong to refer to God in the female?”

As I understand it, the arguments for referring to God as female boil down to these:

  • Referring to God exclusively using masculine pronouns devalues women. According to the Telegraph piece above, a spokesperson from WATCH (“Women at the Church”, who campaigned for Women Bishops) said: “to continue to refer to God purely as male is just unhelpful to many people now”. Using exclusively masculine language for God reflects a patriarchal time and there is no reason for it any more.
  • Biblically, male and female are made in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In other words, because men and women are both created in the image of God, God therefore embodies both male and female characteristics. God transcends our language of gender.
  • Following on from the point above, God is described at various points in the Bible as having feminine characteristics. For example, in Matthew 23:37 Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” So Jesus uses a femine metaphor to describe himself.

I hope I haven’t misrepresented these arguments or left anything major out – the articles I linked to above have some fuller discussion. However, I remain strongly convinced that the church should not change its liturgy on this matter, and continue to refer to God using masculine pronouns. Once again (like the question of sexuality), I think this issue really boils down to a question of the Bible, its authority and its interpretation.

The most important question for me is the one introduced by the quote I started out with from John’s Gospel. How do any of us know God? John answers that question, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” In other words, Jesus, the Son of God, has made God – the Father – known to us. And, as such, if we are Christian we have to say that the revelation that Jesus gave us of God was a true revelation.

This was significant in the church’s debates around Arianism (around 3rd-5th centuries): for example, when Jesus instructed his disciples to baptise people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), were those names simply terms of convenience or did they actually represent something important about God? The Arians wanted to make Jesus a created being, and in a sense actually deny that Jesus was a true Son. However, the early church ecumenical councils decided that those names did actually mean something beyond labels of convenience: the Father is a real Father; the Son is a real Son – not in the human sense, but in an eternal sense. Although it is of course true that human language lacks the capacity to describe the infinite, we are nonetheless able to apprehend something of the truth by the terms “Father” and “Son”. So Jesus’ revelation of God is a true revelation, and it reveals that God is eternally Father, Son and Spirit.

I think you can see something of the difference in approaches here by looking at Rachel Held Evans’ blog post about this issue last year (she was accused of heresy for describing God as ‘she’). Rachel says, “while God is often referred to as Father [my emphasis]”. ‘Referred to’? I think rather the traditional orthodox position would be revealed as. If you think that Jesus simply referred to God as ‘Father’ out of convenience rather than out of meaning something significant, that is moving away from a traditional understanding of the Trinity.

Following on from that, was Jesus simply using the words “Father” and “Son” due to the society being patriarchal? Could he, in another society, been born as a woman and called God “mother”? In a nutshell, would it ever be right to call God “Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit”? I’m always a little suspicious of the patriarchy argument: it seems to be a lazy way of glossing over what the Biblical text actually says, reading back into the text modern notions of patriarchy and assuming that if the Biblical authors had been as enlightened as we are they would have written something different. Whatever you think of these texts, you have to wrestle with Genesis 2:18, 22; 1 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:11-15 and so on. What Kate Bottley does in her article is emphasise the human aspect of the BIble in saying that it was written into a patriarchal context, while seemingly downplaying the divine aspect of the Bible. I believe that the Bible is ‘God-breathed’, although it was written by men it is nonetheless the Word of God. So I think to talk about ‘patriarchy’ is to downplay the fact that God might actually have something to say to us on gender in our society: it overrides anything the Bible might say with our own society’s conceptions of gender (which are not based on the Bible).

It is of course true that there are times when the Bible uses feminine metaphors to talk about God. However, a feminine metaphor is not defining. For example, I know men who have some stereotypically feminine characteristics – does that make them female? No! I simply can’t get past the fact that Scripture always calls God by masculine pronouns – even by Jesus who, as we have already seen, is the only one who ever walked this earth to be in a position to really know!

Incidentally, I do find it interesting that those who advocate for calling God by feminine names (e.g. WATCH, who campaigned vigorously for women bishops) do so on the basis of the differences between men and women. It seems like much of the campaign for women bishops rested on minimising if not erasing differences between men and women (such as the constant misuse of Galatians 3:28). Although I am aware that many did not campaign in this way, the idea that there could be any actual God-ordained differences between men and women was often downplayed. So I think there is a tension there, although I won’t go into that now.

Anyway, in summary, I don’t think changing our liturgy to include God ‘herself’ would be a good thing!

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25 thoughts on “On God “Herself”

  1. The christian god is called Yahweh, and from the Old Testament its gender would definitely be male.
    You are aware, I’m sure, that Yahweh was a Canaanite or Edomite god and he originally had a consort/wife.
    It seems even from the bible that ancient Israelites were quite possibly henotheist or polytheist and Yahweh was simply one of a number of gods.
    One can see this even from a cursory read of the First Commandment.
    I would say Yahweh was definitely male.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I’m aware that some people think Yahweh was a Canaanite or Edomite God. I disagree with that view, I don’t think it is supported by the evidence.

      Yes, ancient Israel worshipped other gods – they are constantly chastised for this in the prophets.

      • It matters not whether you, personally, disagree with the view, it is supported by the archaeological evidence, this is the thing.
        That’s a bit like saying I disagree with the evolution.
        The question I would ask is why do you disagree with the evidence pertaining to Yahweh and what evidence do you have to support your view?

        From Wiki.
        Nor necessarily the best source but always worthwhile as a start and this piece quotes Dever and provides plenty of links.
        What problems do you have with this?

        Scholars agree that the Israelite community arose peacefully and internally in the highlands of Canaan[17]–in the words of archaeologist William Dever, “most of those who came to call themselves Israelites … were or had been indigenous Canaanites”–[18][Notes 1] and that Israelite religion accordingly emerged gradually from a Canaanite milieu.[19]
        El, not Yahweh, was the original “God of Israel”–the word “Israel” is based on the name El rather than Yahweh.[20] He was the chief of the Canaanite gods, described as “the kind, the compassionate,” “the creator of creatures”.[21] He lived in a tent on a mountain from whose base originated all the fresh waters of the world, from where he presided over the Assembly of the Gods with the goddess Asherah as his consort.[21][22] The pair made up the top tier of the Canaanite pantheon;[21] the second tier was made up of their children, the “seventy sons of Athirat” (another name of Asherah).[23] Prominent in this group was Baal, with his home on Mount Zaphon; he gradually became the dominant deity, so that El became the executive power and Baal the military power in the cosmos.[24] Baal’s sphere was the thunderstorm with its life-giving rains, so that he was also a fertility god, although not quite the fertility god.[25] The third tier was made up of comparatively minor craftsman and trader deities, and the fourth and final tier of divine messengers and the like.[23] Yahweh, the southern warrior-god, joined the pantheon headed by El and in time he and El were identified, with El’s name becoming a generic term for “god”.[22] Each member of the divine council had a human nation under his care, and a textual variant of Deuteronomy 32:8–9 describes the sons of El, including Yahweh, each receiving his own people:[20]

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yahweh#Yahweh_and_the_gods_of_Canaan

        • Hi again,

          The problem I have with much of the academic establishment when it comes to the Bible is the commitment to methodological naturalism. This is something which Tom Wright critiques strongly in ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’.

          There is plenty of archaeological evidence out there which actually supports the Bible – I’ve seen someone do a study on inflation in the ancient world, for example, based on the price of slaves. If you lay the Biblical accounts side to side with the extra Biblical sources, the Biblical dates match up. I’ve been to the British Museum and seen artefacts which correspond with the Bible – one of the most important being the Lachish mural.

          In terms of the specific example cited by Wikipedia, as far as I can tell none of the historical facts in that example actually contradict the biblical record. The Israelites were supposed to rid the Canaanites from the land but they didn’t. It’s no surprise that they became syncretistic, and some of the Canaanites started worshipping ‘Yahweh’. The Israelites were constantly chided for worshipping the gods of other nations. I’d say the fact that God is sometimes called ‘El’ means nothing – it’s like God being called ‘Allah’ in Arabic countries. There is only one God whatever you call him, the fact that some nations had a particular mythology for a God named ‘El’ is neither here nor there.

          Anyway, all this is a long way from God being male or female. I’m not an archaeologist, but there are good resources on biblical archaeology if you have a desire to read them.

          • Im not an archaeologist, but there are good resources on biblical archaeology if you have a desire to read them.

            No you are not an archaeologist. And for the record, neither am I. But Dever is (was) and there are many others.
            And yes there are plenty of good resources on biblical archaeology, but there is nothing that supports the Pentateuch or the Exodus. No a thing.
            And I asked for the evidence you have that refutes Devers and you merely hand waved it away without offering a single piece.
            I have read quite a lot actually. Who/what had you in mind? Albright?

        • Hi,

          I’m not sure which evidence you want me to give which refutes Dever. Almost everything in that article is consistent with the Bible. No need to present alternative evidence.

          I haven’t read much on biblical archaeology of the Pentateuch, I have some in my notes but I’d have to dig it out (don’t have time to look through at the moment, sorry). To my mind though, given the ways that archeology does support the Bible, I’d be cautious of being so confident that the Pentateuch is not supported.

          Anyway, have a good day, God bless 🙂

          Phill

          • I cannot see how anything in the bible supports Dever’s view that Yahweh was simply one of many gods – and a lessor one at that, and had a consort.
            Perhaps you would like to elaborate?

            I haven’t read much on biblical archaeology of the Pentateuch,…

            As you seem so confident of your position don’t you think you ought to read then?

            You mentioned archaeological books that support the bible. Which ones are you talking about specifically please?

        • I’m sure that the nations did believe in many gods, and that Yahweh was simply one of those gods (the nations certainly knew about Yahweh, thinking about e.g. 2 Chron 20:29). I think it eminently plausible that ‘Yahweh’ was adopted by e.g. Canaanites as a god in their pantheon. It’s not surprising that there’s evidence of such things – how you interpret the evidence is everything. Even within the nation of Israel, as I said, they were constantly chastised for idolatry.

          Frankly I’m not interested in the historicity of the Pentateuch, because as I said before I think most archaeologists are only interested in methodological naturalism. I’ve studied the theology of the Pentateuch enough to know it is consistent and logical, it makes sense to me without the need to read someone’s opinion on whether it’s historical or not.

          Like I said, I don’t have time to go and read through all my notes to find everything. But I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t find without Google and Amazon etc. I’m not here to debate archaeological interpretation and methodology.

          God bless 🙂

          • I’ll be honest I am quite surprised by this somewhat dismissive response.
            You study the theology of the Pentateuch yet are not interested in the background: the archaeology and I presume, therefore, the history.
            How can you claim any degree of certainty or intellectual integrity regards your position on the god Yahweh when you show little or no interest in the history?
            Surely a sound foundation is tantamount to supporting your belief?
            To an outsider, your approach seems somewhat blinkered, much like when a child puts its hand across its eyes and says: ”You can’t see me.”

            Are you not encouraged to pursue truth?

          • I’m sorry if I come across as dismissive. I don’t mean that I am unconcerned about the history, just that the history doesn’t matter nearly as much to me as whether what the text says actually makes sense. And it does make sense.

            I do have friends who are interested in archaeology and history and they seem pretty happy that archaeology does not destroy the Pentateuch and the rest of the Old Testament. And I have read some things a while back. But we can’t be experts on everything, or even have every argument and reference on hand all the time.

            God bless, go well. 🙂

          • I think your friends must have a Christian perspective similar to yourself and with all due respect have little awareness of the advances archaeology has made in uncovering the history of the Israelites, foremost among these is they were never in Egypt, never slaves , never made an Exodus and never conquered Canaan, but rather were always there and merely assimilated gradually.
            And yes, there is evidence that supports this.
            However, I would still be interested in the titles of some of the books you allude to that support biblical archaeology. I would appreciate you telling me which ones these are, please.

  2. Arkenaten you seem rather pushy on your point. There is of course a lot of evidence for a lot of things, but we don’t always need to be re engaging with everything and the post was about female language for God not about where the Old Testament name comes from.

    Phil, I think we do need to be careful not to completely overhaul everything for the sake of the new or hang on to everything for the sake of the old. There is a lot of female language in the Bible and I wish we heard it more.I know you are aware of this link, it is very good. http://clubs.calvin.edu/chimes/970418/o1041897.htm

    All best wishes, Helen June

    • Hi Helen,

      Thank you – I don’t think we should cling to tradition for the sake of it, and I don’t think that everything new should be embraced either. You may be right that we should talk more about the feminine imagery of God as described in the bible, but I think it is too far to use ‘she’, ‘mother’ language etc.

    • Hi Darren,

      I didn’t say I don’t need evidence. I just don’t think that secular archaeologists are always the best people to go to, especially when we are talking about events that happened several thousand years ago. I just can’t believe you can conclude with certainty that what the bible says happened didn’t happen. Especially given the gaps in our knowledge. And, as I said, archaeology does support the bible in areas I have read about – you can see some of the artefacts with your own eyes if you visit the British Museum (and I have).

      I’m sorry for not providing a book list, I’m on holiday at the moment – but even at the best of times I just don’t have time to go through all my notes and dig this kind of thing out.

      I tell you what: you tell me the best book I need to read on modern archaeology and the Pentateuch, and I will go away and read it – and maybe you could do the same if I suggest a book for you to read. That seems fair to me.

      God bless,

      Phill

  3. Ok cool, so no books or references.

    Meaning your post is only opinion without anything to back it up.

    • Yep… A bit like yours then, isn’t it? 😉 which are the best books you’ve read on this subject?

      God bless,
      Phill

  4. I’m not presenting an argument, I’m just asking for proof of yours.

    But I guess religious people do struggle with the whole ‘proof’ thing. Lol.

    • I can’t prove to you that the Pentateuch is historical. But I was just pointing out that I don’t think anyone can prove it either way – there is sufficient evidence for me in the archaeology I have seen to satisfy me that much of what the Old Testament says is actually true.

      But, Darren, *everyone* struggles with proof. (In fact, I don’t think a proof exists outside of mathematics – we only have evidence)

      If atheism is true, for example, no thought of mine or yours is rational because all our brains are simply the product of blind chance. All our thoughts are simply neurons firing in the brain (I wrote about this a bit before). You can’t prove to me our thoughts are rational or coherent. And there’s no reason to believe that science should continue to work if the universe is random a product of blind chance. Science rests on unprovable assumptions about an ordered universe.

      The point is, all of us have faith in things we can’t prove. The question is, do the things you have faith in actually make sense of the world?

      I think the only thing that makes sense of the world is that there is a God, the Christian God. It makes sense of science, it makes sense of our rationality, it makes sense of morality, it makes sense of the way people behave towards each other, it makes sense of the way almost everyone believes in a higher power whether they admit it or not, and so on. I can’t “prove” it, but neither can you or anyone else prove what they believe.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting, sorry for the long reply, God bless 🙂

      Phill

  5. So you are saying that archeological evidence, or evidence in general doesn’t exist, so we should just guess and make up assumptions?

    Right…

    • Not at all. There is plenty of evidence for those who want to look for it.

      But I am saying that all of us make unprovable assumptions, atheists included. If we all have to do it we might as well make sure that our unprovable assumptions are consistent and logical etc – and I don’t think atheist assumptions are consistent.

      God bless,
      Phill

  6. How do atheists make unprovable assumptions?

    Being that the term atheist in general should actually be agnostic (most atheists would agree that’s what they are since god or the lack of is unprovable.)

    The term atheist is used as a blanket now.

    • I’ve mentioned a few of the unprovable assumptions before. If you believe in reason, you believe in something unprovable (couldn’t evolution have just tricked us that we are in fact rational?) If you believe in science, you believe in something unprovable (it was founded on the unprovable assumption that the universe is ordered and logical, which came from a Christian view of the world). If you believe in morality, or love, or justice, you believe in something unprovable.

      Basically, all of our fundamental beliefs about the world are unprovable. We just intuitively believe that the world is a rational place, that there are moral and immoral ways to behave, etc – I think those things make most sense when you think that there was a rational mind who created everything and ordered things in a certain way etc etc.

      If you think that the universe is simply the product of blind chance then it seems to me you basically undermine any of the beliefs that we all hold dear about what it means to be human.

  7. Please look up the definition of science, to avoid such huge fails in future.

    Your post speaks for itself.

    • The fact that science needs to make assumptions is completely uncontroversial.

      Scientists assume that the universe is ordered, rather than chaotic. If the universe really was created by chance there would be no reason to suppose that was the case. Even if science “works” (and I think this is where most atheist scientists end up – it ‘just works’), there is no reason to explain why it works – it just does. There are just things called natural laws, and they arose by chance.

      But all this is unprovable, and I think it makes more sense in the light of a God who gives order to the universe.

      Modern science really sprang from a Christian worldview and a belief that the hand of God could be discerned in nature. Many early scientists were Christians, and many, many scientists through the years have been Christian including some very notable thinkers such as Robert Boyle and Michael Faraday .

      There are plenty of Christians working in the field of science who find that actually science bolsters their Christian faith as they find the wonder and intricacy of the way God has made the world. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, is a Christian and wrote a book about it called The Language of God.

      In fact you could say that Christian scientists are being more consistent, because they actually have an understanding of *why* the universe is as it is, i.e. ordered, rather than simply taking it as read that that is the case without explanation.

      I’m sorry, I’m writing a lot.

      God bless,
      Phill

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