For Christians, one danger of not knowing the tradition is the chance that you might set out to defend it with great boldness, only to discover that you are actually contradicting it.
We might call this the Saul of Tarsus model of apologetics: boldly going in the wrong direction. And for the record, I’ve done it.
I was reminded of this danger recently as I watched an online argument in which a few Christians argued quite strongly, on “conservative” grounds, that “God is male.”
Yet the irony is that if you showed up at the councils of Nicaea or Constantinople with that argument, they wouldn’t call you a conservative; they would call you a heretic.
In fact, the Christian tradition has never claimed that God is male.
On the contrary, God is beyond gender, not least because God does not have a body.
“THEOS” AND THE FATHER
To be sure, Jesus (the second person of the Trinity) is male—and Scripture is clear that he retains his maleness to this day. After all, he ascends bodily to heaven. Yet while Christ is fully divine, the term theos (“God”) is almost always a reference to the first person of the godhead (a.k.a., the Father).
Things get confusing, of course, because “Father” sounds pretty “male” too. Yet the tradition has always viewed the label as a metaphor, just as it has the masculine pronoun “he” when used to speak of God the Father.
As with all metaphors, these come with a whisper of “it is” and “it is not.”
In other words, when applied to God, such labels shouldn’t be over-literalized. To call God “Father” doesn’t make him “male” any more than to call God “Rock” (Ps. 18.2) makes him a lump of granite out of which to make a countertop.
AN IRONIC CONTRADITION
As at least one person pointed out during this online conversation —there is an ironic contradiction in the (so-called) “conservative” contention that God should be seen as male.
In its simplest form, the contradictory logic runs like this:
- Sex and gender are connected to “bodily” realities.
- God does not have a body.
- Still, God is male.
To be clear, I actually agree with the first two points (as I’ve noted elsewhere: here and here). Yet to try to add the third point to the list is about as consistent as yelling “Meat is murder!” one minute, and “Down with vegans!” the next.
And it has no precedent in orthodox theology.
ON FEMININE METAPHORS
Since God is not male, the next question is often whether we should complement our masculine pronouns with female ones.
In truth, the Bible does supply some feminine metaphors for God. These include likening God’s protective heart to that of a mother bird sheltering chicks (Ruth 2.12; Ps. 91; Mt. 23.37). While Isaiah likens God’s cries to those of a woman in labor (42.14), and God’s comfort to that of a mother with her children (66.13; 49.15).
Even so, Scripture stops short of calling God a “she.”
To do so in the ancient world may have risked certain problems in a culture filled with fertility cults, goddess worship, and copulating deities.
If one were going to supply a feminine pronoun to one person of the Trinity, the Spirit would be the most likely candidate. After all, the Hebrew word for “Spirit” is feminine; and the Greek is neuter. Yet not even this means that we should think of the Spirit as predominantly female.
To do so, would be to make the same error that was previously made with the unorthodox conception of “the Father.” And it would also be to forget that masculine and feminine nouns (in Greek and Hebrew) do not equate with “male” and “female.”
After all, the Greek word for “table” is feminine, but this hardly means that we should think of that thing you sit around for dinner as having “xx” chromosomes.
As the feminist theologian Sarah Coakley notes, to speak of the Spirit as a “she” may not even be advantageous to the cause of women’s equality—first, because it could simply replace blanket male stereotypes with unhelpful female ones, and second, because the church has often (tacitly or overtly) subordinated the Spirit to the other members of the godhead.
This too runs counter to orthodox theology– and it has resulted in what Coakley sees as the Spirit being drawn and painted as an ever-shrinking “pigeon” in our hierarchal artwork.
In the end, one takeaway from all this is that it is important for Christians to actually know the tradition before seeking to defend or overthrow it.
And on this matter especially, the tradition is not nearly as “patriarchal” as one might have been led to think.
Likewise, it is important to remember the “otherness” of God when discussing such matters.
To cite Karl Barth: “God is not ‘man’ said in a loud voice!”
And the same goes for “woman.”
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