The gender of God

  • Question 162, from Paul, United Kingdom

    Is it possible to think of God as having a gender?

    This is an interesting question because most Christians, and most Christian writers, automatically use the personal pronouns ‘He’ or ‘Him’ to describe God. This is partly due to the limitations of human language, and also the longstanding tendency to describe God in human terms that have gender-specific connotations, for example, the word ‘Father’.

    While most Christians would acknowledge that “God is Spirit to be worshipped in spirit and truth” and that both men and women were created in God’s image, there is still an underlying temptation to ascribe the male gender to God.

    However, although Yahweh is often described in male terms, for example as a ‘King’ [1] or a ‘Warrior’ [2], feminine imagery is also used descriptively of Yahweh’s nature. One metaphor for Yahweh’s protection is of a mother hen gathering her chicks beneath her wings to shield them from predators. This imagery is found in the Psalms [3] and is also echoed by Jesus when he grieves over the destruction that will befall Jerusalem [4].

    God becomes male
    Jesus, of course, was born a boy. (There can be no doubt about his maleness as the Bible says he was circumcised according to Jewish custom! [5]) So, in one sense it is right to say there is a gender-specific element within the Godhead. It’s quite correct to use masculine personal pronouns to talk about Jesus, the man.

    However, Jesus broke with the masculine culture in his ministry, speaking with women and even travelling with them. On one occasion in his teaching, he was pressed to answer a question about marriage in heaven and responded by saying that there is no male and female in heaven, but humans are “like the angels”[6].

    Jesus’ response could mean that resurrection bodies are gender neutral or that gender is an irrelevant division in heaven. This would echo the teachings of the Apostle Paul who stated that there were no divisions “in Christ”, meaning the resurrection life experienced by believers after conversion. One of the divisions broken down is between men and women [7].

    Jesus, of course, also introduces the most important ‘masculine’ term applied to God: the word ‘Father’. Technically the word Jesus uses is ‘Abba’, an Aramaic word of very close familiarity – a comparative term in English would be the word ‘daddy’, rather than Father.

    Anecdotes abound of people insisting that because God is called ‘Father’ that means God is ‘male’. This has led to some contemporary theologians rejecting the term ‘Father’ and addressing God as ‘Mother’, or even ‘Father and Mother’, following a long-standing mystical tradition that addresses God as ‘Mother’ [8].

    However, many feminist theologians are content to retain masculine descriptive terms, but stress the need to treat them as metaphors [9]. In the case of ‘Father’, the metaphorical meaning includes the idea of a ‘familial likeness’ and relationship between God and human beings. It also acknowledges God’s authority over humans, and that God is the ultimate source of life. There is also the idea that God’s children receive an ‘inheritance’ – an important concept in the culture from which the New Testament emerged [10].

    ‘Father’ is therefore a useful term because of what it means, but the metaphor is just that, and applying the name ‘Father’ to God to determine God’s gender could be thought of as naïve.

    ‘Divine Wisdom’ and the Holy Spirit
    Some parts of the Old Testament use personal pronouns to describe ‘Wisdom’ as an attribute of God that seems to have its own identity. The most well-known passage is Proverbs chapters 1 to 9, where Wisdom, a ‘feminine’ noun, is described in female terms like ‘sister’ [11].

    It may be that the writer of Proverbs is subverting pagan terminology applied to goddesses such as Asherah, a Canaanite goddess worshipped in Israel at the time. Some scholars believe that ‘Wisdom’ as a female divinity reflects a belief that Yahweh had a ‘consort’. Most tribal religion in Old Testament times had ‘married’ male and female gods. It is possible that as Israelite religion developed a more rigid form of monotheism, Yahweh’s divine consort was understood in a new way – as part of Yahweh, emanating from the one God, and in that way divine.

    ‘Wisdom’, translated as ‘Sophia’ in Greek, was also identified with the word ‘Logos’, meaning ‘Word’. Logos was a term directly applied to Jesus Christ by early Christians, for example at the beginning of John’s gospel. The Apostle Paul calls Christ “the wisdom [sophia] of God” [12], which means that an element of the divine nature identified as female is also applied to God’s male incarnation. This is an interesting twist on the idea of God being both male and female.

    As Christian theology developed its trinitarian doctrines, there were several attempts to legitimise statements regarding the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In addition to references to the ‘Spirit of Yahweh’ in the Old Testament, the imagery of ‘Divine Wisdom’ was applied to the Holy Spirit by those in favour of ascribing divinity to the Holy Spirit. Divine Wisdom was identified as the Holy Spirit in action in the Old Testament.

    If the Holy Spirit and Divine Wisdom are thought of as synonymous, that would mean that the Christian Trinitarian God includes a ‘female’ element in the Holy Spirit. Interestingly the Christian fictional work The Shack by William P Young that has attained great popularity in the last couple of years depicts the Holy Spirit as a woman. This literary device is less innovative than many Christians would think, as it appears to hark back to the identification of the Holy Spirit as the female personification of Divine Wisdom.

    Talking about God requires personal words
    In conclusion, there is a need to use something in order to be able to talk about God without repeatedly using the word ‘God’. A personal pronoun, for example ‘He’ or ‘Him’, is more acceptable than an impersonal pronoun like ‘It’. It simply sounds wrong to talk about ‘God revealing itself to humanity’ or ‘God working out its plans’, because the Christian understanding of God is of a person, and the human understanding of a person is of a being with gender.

    However, the limitations of language (particularly the English language) when it comes to ascribing gender will probably mean God will always have gendered personal pronouns applied to him (or her). The important thing is to remember that all language applied to God, and all human terms and names, are essentially metaphorical in nature. They may reveal aspects of God’s nature, but they are unreliable indicators of God’s true essence.

    Notes and References
    [1] For example, Psalm 47, verse 2 “How awesome is the LORD most high, the great King over all the earth” (NIV) – the capitalised word ‘LORD’ indicates the presence of the Hebrew word YHWH (Yahweh, sometimes written as Jehovah) in the original text
    [2] For example, Exodus 15, verse 3 “The LORD is a warrior” (NIV)
    [3] See Psalm 17, verse 8 and Psalm 91, verse 4.
    [4] Luke chapter 13, verse 34
    [5] Luke chapter 2, verse 21
    [6] Matthew chapter 22, verses 23-30
    [7] Galatians chapter 3, verse 28
    [8] For example the female mystic of the Middle Ages who is known as ‘Julian of Norwich’ after the church dedicated the St Julian, where she lived.
    [9] For example, Sallie McFague, cited in McGrath, Christian Theology – An Introduction (1st edition), Blackwell 1994, p.101
    [10] Many of these metaphorical attributes can actually be traced to St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274AD), cited in McGrath, op.cit, p.135
    [11] Proverbs chapter 9, verse 4
    [12] 1 Corinthians chapter 1, verse 24

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    1. Sally May 3

      Great post, this has been a passion of mine for a while, and whilst I agree with the metaphorical nature of any pronoun used sometimes to highlight an ascpet of God ( if we dare) it might be useful to call God Mother insted of father. I did this for a Mothering Sunday Service For a complete how-to, click here. It was well recieved by all!

    2. Jon the freelance theologian May 3

      That’s a very interesting idea, Sally. I guess the important thing, of course, is to be aware that using ‘Mother’ should be in a metaphorical way too, as otherwise it’s possible to fall into the same trap of ascribing gender to God – just a different gender. On the plus side, it may help people discover a more positive view of God if they are ‘given permission’ to think of God as Mother. (I’m thinking here of people with a very negative father figure, or totally absent father, in their life, who then find it hard to relate to God as ‘Father’.)

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