Posted by: eliseanne | October 23, 2009

Open Discussion: God’s gender

This is a topic that has been rolling around in my brain for a few weeks. I’m really curious about the different Christian perspectives on it, how our cultures influence our perspectives, etc. It is kind of blowing my mind.

In true openness and curiousity, I would love to know and understand what you think about this and why. I think it will help me a lot to hear from various perspectives on to observe or participate in a discussion that goes around about it.

Please contribute! The only rule is that you respect and value every person and perspective mentioned, even if you disagree strongly.

Thanks!

Background – In my Christian upbringing, I was taught that God was “above” gender, that as man and woman were both created in the image of God, then God had the stereotypical attributes of both genders (i.e. headship and service, compassion and fierceness). So God wasn’t “male” or “female,” God was the culmination of the two.

But, whenever God is discussed – espeically  in reference to the Father part of the Trinity – God is always discussed with stereotypical male characteristics (beginning first with the title Father, of course). So God is always talked about as if God is male. This leaves us in a paradox (which, I know, God is a lot of those).

From this leads to the idea of gender roles in our Western culture. Because God is seen as male, men are given God-like roles in our culture, with government/leadership, family. etc.

But what if God is referenced as Father/male by Jesus because of the gender culture of Bible times,  not because God wanted to set up a male/female power or role difference, or not because God is more male than female?

Specifically I come with two questions:

1. In Bible times, the father was the person in the family who gave rules, leadership, inheritance, worth, and identity. So the Father entity of the Trinity was readily accepted as it followed the customs of the culture and gives all of those things. Hypothetically, if the culture held that rules, leadership, inheritance, worth, and identity came from the mother in the family, would that entity of the Trinity have been introduced as the Mother? Why or why not? What are the implications if this is true or if it is not true?

2. Hypothetically, if Jesus came in flesh to a culture where women were the leaders, teachers, heads, etc, would Jesus have come in flesh as a woman? Why or why not? What are the implications if this is true or if it is not true?

(P.S. Sorry if “entity” is not the word you would choose for discussing the concept of the Trinity…I don’t have the vocabulary for that right now)

While several different things prompted this movement of thoughts in my head, this article by Mimi Haddad on the God’s Politics blog was a big piece.

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Responses

  1. I’m not a scholar or anything, but my perception of gender is that the masculine is the stronger and the feminine is the weaker.

    Using these definitions, God is called masculine because He is the epitome of strength.

    Likewise, men are called masculine because they are the stronger while women are the weaker, the feminine.

    So, God is not called “He” because he is a man but because he is the masculine.

    And, you are right, it is our society which says men are also the masculine. If women were the stronger, then society would associate women with the masculine and we would describe God with the same pronouns as women.

    So long as terms such as “Mother,” “Her,” and “She” are associated as feminine, however, God should not be called these.

    Does this make sense? Maybe I skipped a key point.

    • Looking for clarification…

      What does strength mean? Physical? Mental? Emotional? Spiritual? Examples?

      And after that, go to the implications. What does that imply about women and who they are?

  2. I think “always” is a bit of an overstatement. There’s passages that talks about God as a mother hen. I think the idea of inheritance and familial identity is huge in bible, and I suspect that God is not referred to as father outside of those ideas or the idea of a provider (which is also linked with fatherhood in the culture). This is to say, I can’t recall seeing the bible speak of a father-redeemer nor a father-warrior. I think father-disciplinarian is implied once, and I think father-creator is only mentioned once. Though this isn’t proof, it is consistent with the idea that the bible only speaks of God as father when the idea of fatherhood will help the reader understand an aspect of God.

    So my answer to Hypothetical question #1 is that if those cultural roles were assigned to women, then I believe the bible would have spoken more about God our Heavenly Mother.

    #2 isn’t as set in my mind yet, so I’m going to have to think about it for a bit.

  3. I’m not a scholar or anything, but my perception of gender is that the masculine is the stronger and the feminine is the weaker.

    Using these definitions, God is called masculine because He is the epitome of strength.

    Likewise, men are called masculine because they are the stronger while women are the weaker, the feminine

    I would offer some push-back on each of these three points, and basically my argument would come down to two things.

    1. While society would consider feminine = weak, I don’t think that this was God’s creative intent. In Genesis when woman is created, it says that God creates a help meet. The implication of the Hebrew word for help is not of a servant (as in “the help”) but of someone who has strength (say to help someone out of a pit), the word for meet in Hebrew means something close to “on the opposite side of” or “corresponding to” and is usually used spatially.

    The implication of this is not that God created woman as subordinate, but rather as one of complimentary/corresponding strength.

    2. While I would agree that God is the epitome of strength, I would say that the bible spends way more time talking about God’s justice, mercy and love and that God’s strength is subordinate and in service to these things (an important, but secondary characteristic one might say)

    • I agree with both of these points fully.

      I did not mean to imply that God ordained women to be weak or without strength, haha.

  4. Interesting line of thought, Elise. What’s coming to my mind is actually a question of the authority of Scripture in this area. If we believe that Old Testament Scripture is just a by-product of the Jewish culture, and New Testament Scripture a by-product of nascent Christianity in Jewish Roman Empirial culture which had to ascribe to God certain human characteristics in order for the people to understand God better, then by all means, if the tables had been turned and the feminine had been dominant in those cultures, we very well could have been calling God by feminine pronouns today.

    However, if we accept that Scripture is the inerrant, inspired Word of God that it purports to be, then we are looking at the question completely backwards. If God inspired the Bible, then He is the one who gets to describe Himself. He chose male pronouns for Himself. If He also is the Creator of male and female, then He is the one who chose and assigned the attributes of male and female. He refers to Himself as Father, and establishes the role of father for human males that people might understand Him in His role as father (I’m NOT saying that human fathers are like God in His perfection as a father… to look at human fathers to see God as Father is to look through a very sin-dirtied and sin-blurred glass, but the image is recognizable).

    If we truly believe Jesus Christ IS God, then there’s no question that God is male (He was circumcised on the eighth day like all Jewish boys…–Luke 2:22, Gen. 17:10– not to seem crass…). Also, if we claim to have Jesus as our God, then we ought to take Him at His word when He refers to the Father as His own Father, no? (Mark 8:38, When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, He said “Pray then like this, ‘Our Father…'”(Matt. 6:8-10). Jesus also repeatedly refers to the Father as “my father” and as “your father in heaven” when he speaks to the disciples (48 times in the Matthew alone!).

    There is one passage wherein Jesus does compare Himself to a mother hen, just as Richard said above. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt. 23:37). He is ascribing to Himself the traits of a female animal, wanting to protect Jerusalem, who really is His child, as He created them; therefore there is room to ascribe “female traits” or “female behaviors” to the Lord. However, Jesus (in the hen statement) is not referring to the Father as “mother.” It’s interesting to search biblegateway.com for mother… it only came up 299 times in the ESV (compared to 1621 of father), all of which, but two, referred to actual human or animal mothers. The other two: Abel of Beth-maacah, as “mother among cities” and mother-of-pearl…

    Maybe this was a bit much (I get over-zealous when it’s past my bedtime), but again, I really think it’s a question of believing God when He speaks about Himself. We really only have a right to refer to Him in ways He’s given us to refer to Him. Christ Jesus, the God-man and our Lord, instructs us to call God “Father.” If we can trust Christ for our salvation, then surely we can trust Him to tell us the truth about God.

    • Old Testament Scripture is just a by-product of the Jewish culture, and New Testament Scripture a by-product of nascent Christianity in Jewish Roman Empirial culture which had to ascribe to God certain human characteristics in order for the people to understand God better,

      However, if we accept that Scripture is the inerrant, inspired Word of God that it purports to be

      Hi Ashley,
      If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that these two ideas are incompatible. I’m wondering what you think of the following view of scripture.

      Scripture is the inerrant, inspired Word of God spoken to, and in the language of, particular cultures such that people would understand God better.

      I have other thoughts/questions, but I don’t want to dominate the conversation and I think that some of it depends on what you think of that statement.

  5. Richard,

    Good question for clarification. I am not saying that the idea of Scripture being God’s inerrant, inspired Word is incompatible with it also being rooted in Jewish and early Christian culture and traditions. In my comments I said:

    “If we believe that Old Testament Scripture is just a by-product of the Jewish culture, and New Testament Scripture a by-product of nascent Christianity in Jewish Roman Empirial culture…”

    In there I included a tiny word with BIG significance: “just.” I intended in that word to indicate “exclusively.”

    I was trying to say that it’s incorrect to see Scripture as solely, exclusively a human product. To say that is to ignore what Scripture says about its own divine origin and to call all of its subsequent claims into question. It is perfectly legitimate to say that Scripture is both divine and human in origin (Rom. 1:2, 2 Tim. 3:16, Heb. 1:1-2) which can be seen in the various literary forms and the ‘voice’ of the human writers coming through.

    About your summary statement on the view of Scripture. I suppose I would revise it to say: “Scripture is the inerrant, inspired Word of God spoken to, and in the language of, particular cultures such that people would have salvation by believing in Jesus (see John 5:39, 20:31).”

    If you’d allow me to add more, I would also include Paul’s words in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (3:16-17)”

    I’d sure like to hear your other thoughts on this. Don’t worry that you’ll be dominating the conversation, because I’ll sure give you a run for your money in conversation domination…

    • I think we’re pretty much in agreement with the nature of scripture then.

      So the question I would say is, how much is the reference of God as Father descriptive (which is to say, it describes an empirical reality) or illustrative (which is to say it’s used to illustrate an empirical reality). Or in other words, when the bible refers to God as Father, is it describing the nature of God as male, or is it using the cultural concept of Fatherhood to teach us truth about who God is (in the same way that Jesus used the cultural concept of a shepherd to teach us the truth of who he was, or the culture’s knowledge of mother hens and vines to teach us the truth of who he was and who God was)?
      I think both options are compatible with the idea of divine inspiration and inerrancy of the bible. The question is, what was God’s communicative intent as he worked through these writers.

      With regards to your point about Jesus’ gender:-
      That Jesus was a male human is a physical reality, but I think it may be a stretch to say that all members of the Godhead share that same physical reality. If Jesus in his humanity was 6′ 1″ does it mean that God the Father is also 6″ 1′ and thus God the Holy Spirit is also 6′ 1″?

      Does it even make sense to ask about God’s height (or weight, or eye color, or other physical characteristic)? Can we really say that the physical particulars of Jesus’ incarnation tells us about God’s physical particulars? Does God have physical particulars or does he transcend them? I would lean towards the assertion that God transcends physical particulars, and gender is a physical particular and thus is transcended.

      • I’ve been struggling with this question of illustrative versus descriptive. I’m going back and forth in my head here, and I’ve come up with way more thoughts and “what about…?s” than I have time (patience with myself, actually) to clearly explicate.

        At first I was going to say that I lean toward illustrative, because of course the first person of the Trinity is not male, He’s spirit. But then the Nicene Creed came to mind, wherein I confess that “I believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all worlds.” In that creed (which is not Scripture, but which is derived in its entirely from Scripture and has been confessed by all of Christian orthodoxy since it was completed… barring the filioque, but that’s a different topic for a different time), we confess that the first and second persons of the Trinity eternally relate to each other as Father and Son. If it’s part of the eternal nature of God, I don’t think that the use of the words “Father” and “Son” are merely illustrative for us, I truly think they tell us about who God is.

        IF God uses the word “Father” to merely illustrate something He wants us to understand about Himself, I have to argue that this illustration transcends the other lesser analogies of Christ as the vine or as a hen, because it is consistently applied throughout the whole of Scripture, whereas those are only used in certain, limited circumstances. It is clear that God wants us to think of Him as our Father, but not to actually imagine that He is a vine or a hen.

        That Jesus is a human male certainly is a physical reality. I in no way implied that God the Father nor that God the Holy Spirit was a physical human male. I said that Jesus is. Please don’t imply that I think we should attribute physical dimensions to the omnipresent and non-incarnate members of the Trinity. That would be ridiculous. When I point to Christ the Lord’s maleness for an argument for the maleness of God, it is with the understanding the Christ Jesus is FULLY God as well as fully man. Therefore, to say that God is a Jewish man who lived on earth 2000 years ago, who died and was bodily resurrected– again as a human male– who is of a certain height, eye color, hair color, weight, and ethnicity, is not inaccurate. Of course this tells us nothing of the physical particulars of the Father or of the Holy Spirit, who have no physical particulars.

      • (pre. s. – i just learned about the filioque – adding that Christ is from the Father and the Spirit – last week in class! yay i can now have these discussions with you! 😉 )

        Clarification question –> Off of the Illustrative conversation, Is God being illustrative that God is Father, or is God being illustrative that God is provider, inheritance giver, identity giver, namer, leader, love giver, teacher, comforter, etc etc?

        Dont think that i am picking at you, sorry if you do. I am just trying to follow everyone’s thinking paths so i can understand each one – where it goes and where it doesn’t go. It is just that Richard and I talked about this yesterday over lunch not on here

      • Elise: Cool that you learned about the filioque in your class, but oops! better check your notes on the filioque before the test… it adds that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, not the Son from the Father and the Spirit. Don’t want you to miss that one. 🙂

        I don’t think you’re picking on me. It’s good to seek clarification.

        I think that all of the ideas of God being our provider, our inheritance giver, identity give, namer, leader, love giver, teacher, and comforter are all contained within His self-identifying as Father. After all, those are all descriptions of what a father is/does.

        Now for some unsolicited miscellany…
        I was listening to some pastor-talk on the radio just yesterday and they were talking about the Fatherhood of God. The host asked the guest pastor the question about whether God being referred to as a Father in the Scriptures was a figure of speech. The guest replied no, that when Scripture calls God “Father”, that doesn’t mean that God is “like a father,” but that it’s the other way around. God is the archtypical father and human fathers are kinda like God, that they are given to us with the purpose of showing us what God is like, what God does, albeit imperfectly, as we all know.

    • @all: Thank you for chiming in 🙂

      @Ashley – Really interesting to me that you took the issue straight to the inspiration of Scripture. I had not thought of that coming in to the conversation. I can see from you and Richard’s back and forth that the issue of contextual theology/inspiration vs literal word inspiration is coming in to play.

      I pose at both of you the second part of my two questions – what are the implications of these hypotheticals? Would you put forward the implication of the errancy of Scripture?

      And, what is it that turns you off to seeing Scripture in a contextualized way? What are the implications of Scripture being contextual?

      • I pose at both of you the second part of my two questions – what are the implications of these hypotheticals? Would you put forward the implication of the errancy of Scripture?

        I’ll take a crack at this. Here’s some of the implications that I can think of.

        1. If the answers to both questions are no (ie in a matriarchal society God was still introduced as father and Jesus still incarnated as male) then:-
        a) Gender is a spiritual identity as well as a physical identity.
        b) There is at least one aspect of a male spiritual identity that is a key component of God’s identity and/or God’s message.
        OR
        b) There is at least one aspect of a female spiritual identity that is incompatible with God’s identity and/or God’s message.
        AND/OR
        c) That God presenting himself as male to the world is more important than presenting himself as teacher/authority/source of familial identity*.

        *that being said, it is possible that it could be seen as part of the “last shall be first” message.

      • Thanks for humoring me and following the formula 😉

        Great!

        Who’s next – what if the answer to both questions is “yes”? (i.e. in a matriarchal society God would have been introduced as Mother and Jesus would’ve come as a woman)

      • What do you think E? It’s not fair for you to just goad Richard and me on and not put in your two cents, too, you know. 😛

        I really don’t even know how to think about trying to answer the question of matriarchal societies, a mother god and a female christ. If that were the case, all of human history would have to be turned on it’s head starting with the creation of Eve in the garden and god taking her rib to form Adam from the dust (of course if that god were a radical feminist, she might have just stopped with Eve…). God has revealed Himself as male since day 6 of creation, and I’ve got too many mental barriers to even know how to imagine the thing you’re proposing. I don’t want to be uncooperative with your questions, it’s just that the harder I think about it, the more impossible it seems to become.

      • God has revealed Himself as male since day 6 of creation,

        Actually, I don’t think this is true. I was doing some searches in Bible Gateway, and the first time I could find God being referred to as Father was Is. 63. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t missing something before I posted that. But on day 6 of creation, when it talks about God creating “man” in “his” own image, the author takes care to include male and female in that image, even though chronologically, the creation of woman happened later.

        Given that the word for “man” is plural and that “his” image is the same word that’s used a couple verses up when God says “our” image means that God did not reveal himself as male there. I need to do some more study on this, but I don’t know of a place where, outside of the pronouns that were used (e.g. he, his) that may or may not be translator choice, I don’t see anything that supports the assertion that God revealed himself as male this early in the history of the world.

  6. Fascinating conversation. Ashley, you put into words what I was thinking in a way 10x better than I ever could have.

    I think your reasoning comes down to whether or not people choose to believe in the inerrancy vs the infallibility of the Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments. I agree that if it is inerrant, then we must see God as a He, however, if someone were to believe in the infallibility, that could lead to believing that God used the he pronoun and the word father just to represent Himself and in other cultures a female pronoun would be just as acceptable. Also, I don’t know anything about the original languages and how all of that works in, which matters more than a discussion of the english translations, of course. I know few people, if any, who would say that the English translations are inerrant. Only the original languages, and sometimes only the original document.

    That’s all I have to contribute. Continue on 🙂

    • hi em 🙂 thank you for commenting. that was the whole point of me asking these questions!

      So…..what do *you* think?

      Again, what are the implications of them? Not necessarily how would you come to your conclusion, but if you were to just jump to one, what would that conclusion imply?

    • Em, thanks for the props on my explanation. I hope you like the more recent one, too.

      Clarification question: Are you putting infallible as an antonym of inerrant (which it is not, they both mean “freedom from error”)? Or is there a typo in your sentence, because I’m not making sense of how, if someone sees Scripture as infallible, that they’d be able to insert female pronouns for God and that would be acceptable.

      • i think she means what you think she means.

        haha.

        (translation: i too assumed it was a typo)

  7. I figure it is only fair to stop just reading and comment as well.
    If Jesus came as a women (to a matriarchial society) and God chose to reveal Himself through the description of Mother, but Mother meant
    “illustrative that God is provider, inheritance giver, identity giver, namer, leader, love giver, teacher, comforter, etc etc?”,
    would that change God, change my view of God, or my identity as man of God? If God, being exactly who God is, had described Himself as “Herself,” (but my hypothetical culture saw the mother as everything my current culture calls father) would I see God any different?

    I want to say I should not, but I am really struggling to.

    I believe that women are as much in the immage of God as men. But it seems to say to me that if I would not find the same God in this hypothetical world (of a matriachal culture and God as Mother) as I do in the real world (of a patriachial culture and God as Father) that therefore male is more in the immage of God then female (being why God chose to reveal himself as Father).

    So, if the cultural context to which God was revealing Godself was not the reason God chose the lable of Father, does that mean God identifies closer to men than to women? Does that mean God is more male than female? Does that mean women are less of the immage of God than men?

  8. @techy people – this reply and indent stuff is getting confusing. Why cant i reply to a reply? i dont even know which reply button to push anymore… 😦

    @Ashley – oops on the filioque! Thanks for the correction. That test will come all too soon.

    In response to your pondering of the matriarchal society, I know it is hard. That is why I am asking us all to do it!

    The point of all these questions is to get to the root of the implications of what we have picked up over the years. Usually on things we just pick up, we dont process them to the fullest extent.

    I have been waiting for someone to bring up creation order. That is actually what I had expected to come up first; I never expected Scripture’s inspiration to come up that early in the game.

    To read you say “God has revealed himself as male” really makes me stop and think. Because I have been always taught that God is not a gender! I go to the implications again that Richard listed
    – If God is male……how are women created in his image?

    Similar to you saying that God truly is “father,” not just “like a father.” If God is the architypal example to fathers, implication would be……
    – Mothers cannot relate to God?
    – God is not an example to women?
    – Women cannot model their lives off of God and God’s characteristics and still be women/feminine?

    See what I am getting at?!?!

    Your thoughts?

    • re techy stuff: I think your blog only allows replies 3 levels deep. So on the 3rd level the reply link disappears.

      • and that is sad, and that stinks. i shall try to change this some day.

  9. Oh, and in case you haven’t figured it out, I am increasingly leaning toward God as Father is descriptive of God’s characteristics through a patriarchal cultural description.

    Not because I want God to not be male because I am anti-male or anti-male leadership. But because I dont know that God would agree with the above stated implications if it were true that God is all male. I think that God is an example for women, that women can become more godlike while not becoming more manlike. That God has characteristics of men and women.

    Kapeesh?

    😀

    • I have to agree with that. God has to be above gender because both male and female are in his image. And God is undisputably a loving God, to open your self up to loving someone who could hurt you and allowing them to choose to love you in return (again allowing yourself to be hurt) is a huge act of vulnerability. And vulnerability is a charictoristic that people would more often than not associate to women. Yet from my view God very much so allows Godself to be vulnerable.
      The Trinity also shows a charictoristic that we consider femanine–submission. Jesus, member of the trinity, who is God, while on earth constantly submitted to “God the Father”.
      So what if it is not our view of God that needs to change, so much as our views of gender?
      huh, this is very interesting Elise!

  10. I find it interesting that when we read of God as Father we think of a human man to some extent, rather than just the characteristics which ‘Father’ describes. What about Rock, Light, Living Water and other such descriptions ? We seem to get the message there that these are just words to describe one aspect of God’s make-up but as limited humans we can look at God and Jesus as super-humans and attribute to them a likeness of our own making. The Holy Spirit is just as much God as the Son and Father and yet we don’t necessarily consider that person of the Godhead as any particular gender because the words don’t give us a picture of ‘maleness’

    I hope this makes some sort of sense!

  11. Hey friends,

    Another blogger took the topic on a different perspective, mulling over Jesus being born female in a patriarchal society.

    check it out

    http://julieclawson.com/2009/12/02/contemplating-feminine-incarnation/


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