I want to begin by reading you a new hymn just to stimulate your thinking. I don't know the tune, but the text is as follows:
"Who is she, neither male nor female, maker of all things, only glimpsed or hinted, source of life and gender. She is god, mother, sister, lover. In her love we wake, move and grow, are daunted, triumph and surrender."
Or this recent production of a Jewish feminist doxology to God:
"Blessed is she who in the beginning gave birth. Blessed is she whose womb covers the earth."
These are two admittedly dramatic and extreme examples of a project that's going on in academic and religious circles not only to make language about people inclusive but language about God inclusive as well.
There are less shocking versions of this project. In some circles, there is the desire to at least speak of God as both mother and father, or to avoid the use of personal pronouns like "he" and "him" when speaking of Goduse only the proper noun "God"or, perhaps, to spend more time preaching and teaching on the feminine side of God or the feminine images of God.
Why is this going on? I don't know all the reasons, but I want to spin out at least one legitimate reason: Very simply, women have been given a raw deal through a good portion of the history of Western civilization. That may be a valid motivation for the desire to somehow correct this injustice.
But as you probably guessed by the title of my talk, I think this is a giant step in the wrong direction to correct the problem.
But I believe there is a problem.
We need to recognize the importance of this issue.
Now why should you care about this? Ideas have consequences. I want to give you three images of what I'm talking about.
First, ideas have trajectories to them. It's a bit like the moonshot. When the rocket is aimed at the moon some 200,000 miles away, it has to be precise. What may be just a millimeter off within the first mile or so of the earth's atmosphere will be a huge miss when out toward the moon. Ideas have this same quality about them. They have their trajectories.
Second, there is a place in Switzerland where you can stand that, when covered with snow, looks rather unremarkable. Except when the snow melts, the snow will go down one side of the mountain into the Rhone River and on the other side of the mountain down into the Rhine River. That spot determines what will one day be the Mediterranean sea or the cold waters of the Atlantic ocean. It's a watershed.
There are some issues that are unquestionably watershed kinds of ideas. While that may not appear to be at stake here, when this idea of inclusive language runs its course, one ends up in radically different places, depending on where you come down on the idea.
Third, there is a dimension of theology that Dr. J.I. Packer calls "sewage treatment." The work of theology requires that theologians must make sure the water we're drinking is free of pollutants.
Now Paul put it this way to Timothy. He urged him to guard "the good deposit of the faith." Clearly, in Paul's mind, there was something that had been delivered to the Christian community. It was a deposit, and it was to be guarded.
There are trajectories; there are watersheds; there's the stuff we feed on as Christians that is to nourish us and give us strength and wisdom. Ideas have consequences.
The second reason we ought to care about this subject is that the trajectories involved are of maximum consequence. They have to do with two things, revelation and the nature of God.
One of the things at the heart of what we believe as Christians is that we could know nothing about God unless God definitively showed himself to us in human flesh in his Son Jesus Christ. We are a revealed faith. Our faith is based on a conviction that God himself said something about himself that we could not know on our own.
Is the Bible a record of humankind's evolving consciousness about God, or is the Bible God's Word and words to us about God? You can see that's a watershed question, isn't it? One ends up in radically different places depending on how one answers that question. As with all questions, there are nuances to it, but I hope it's clear what's at stake here. This trajectory has to do with the kind of God we worship; we become what we worship.
Scriptures reveal God exclusively as Father.
Quite simply, God is revealed by both Jesus Christ and by the whole of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, in exclusively masculine language. There are principally six metaphors for God used in the Bible. God is king. God is father in some generic, paternal sense. God is judge. God is husband. God is master. And finally and definitively, God is the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus speaks of God in intimate, family terms, not in raw paternity. These are the pegs on which one hangs practically every line of Scripture regarding God in the Old and New Testaments.
Now the primary objection to this is that language about God is the product of a culture that was patriarchal, that is, a culture that's male centered, male dominated. So one would, of course, expect the Bible to speak of God in masculine terms because the Bible was produced by a culture that was . I have three responses to that.
The first is critical. Jesus is the Word of God incarnate. He is God in human flesh revealed to us in space and time. That's the very core of the gospel we believe. If he is who he says he is and who the Christian church has confessed that he is, then what he says about God is for us the first and last word to be spoken about God. Jesus says, "God is Father."
It's important to point out that many, not all, radical feminists deny this central truth about Jesus Christ. Frankly, it seems to me to be the logic of a position that would say our Lord's words about God are not sufficient to describe who God is.
Jesus put it this way in John 13:20: "I tell you the truth. Whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me. And whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me."
My second response to this objection is that patriarchalism does not account for Jesus' use of the word "father." It simply doesn't. Jesus' use of the word "father" for God was unprecedented and virtually without parallel in both the Old Testament and in his culture. God as paternity, yes, but God as Abba, no.
It's fascinating to read the preaching of the early church fathers and evangelists who took the message of the gospel to the pagan world. Every time one of them comes to the idea of father, they have to stop and explain what they mean to a patriarchal society. His word for father was, in fact, a scandal to Jewish notions of transcendence.
By the time of Jesus, no Jew would speak the name of God. They would speak indirectly about God. God was too high. He was too lifted up. He was too holy even to be called by name. You couldn't speak about him. Jesus walked into this patriarchal culture and said, "He's Abba."
A third response to this view that the Bible is the product of a patriarchal culture assumes something about the Bible that the vast mainstream of Christianity has rejected for two thousand years. It's this: that the Bible is a record of an evolving human consciousness about God, human words about God rather than God's words about God.
If one gets upset at someone like myself saying "I'm going to stand with the Bible," just take into account what G. K. Chesterton called the "great democracy of the dead."
While they may disagree on just how the Bible exercises its authority, two thousand years of dead Christians from every tradition in historic ChristianityGreek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestanthave insisted that the Bible is not a record of humankind's evolving consciousness about God. Rather, it is God's words about himself spoken to people and through people. That alone, it seems to me, ought to settle the issue for us.
What is at stake is whether the Bible comes from God or from humankind. Do we stand on the rock of God's Word to us about God or on the shifting sands of what different peoples and cultures have thought to be true about God? Isaiah 66:2 says this about his word: "But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit who trembles at my word."
God's masculine reference does not degrade women.
To call God Father, to speak of God in masculine terms does not mean that God is a male. Mary Daily says, "Since God is male, the male is God."
The God of the Bible has no sexuality. God is completely "Other" than his creation. That's what is meant by his holiness. He's set apart. God says to the prophet Isaiah, "To whom then will you liken God or what likeness compare with him?" Well, the question assumes the answer. God can't be compared to anything. He's "Other."
The reason God is spoken of in masculine terms is not to speak of his sexuality but to preserve the distinction between God and his creation. Therefore, we will worship him, not his creation.
That the Bible speaks of God in masculine terms does not mean that God has no feminine qualities. There are some broad kinds of feminine comparisons. But four times in all of Scripture, God is spoken of as being like a woman. All of them in Isaiah: 42:14; 45:10; 49:15; 66:13. God is once in a while compared to a mother. He's never in all Scripture called "mother" or addressed as mother. While there are some feminine similes used of God in the Bible, it's critical that we keep in mind the difference between a simile and a metaphor.
A simile compares one aspect of something to another; God, says the Bible, will cry out like a woman. A metaphor compares the whole of one thing to another; Jesus is the good shepherd. God is Father. A metaphor takes a word or a phrase beyond its ordinary usage, and it gives it a much broader and more direct understanding of the subject.
So, yes, God has feminine qualities, as do all of us. But to say God has feminine qualities is not license to say he's Mother.
Third, that the Bible speaks of God in masculine terms does not mean that women have no place in ministry. The Bible's masculine language about God has been used to exclude women from the ordained ministry and other forms of service in a church. This is wrong.
It's wrong because it's a heresy to make God in our image. Those who deduce from the Bible's masculine language about God that males are more like God than women are idolatrous in their thinking. If you insist upon excluding women from ministry, you have to make your case on some other basis than God's fatherhood.
The Bible lumps men with women equally before God like all of its paired images of our relationship to God. God is the husband. The Church, the Christian community, both male and female, are the bride. In this sense, we're all feminine before God. God is the king; all of us, male and female, are his subjects. God is the father; all of us, male and female, are his children.
Depicting God as Mother is a descent back to pagan theology.
The Bible's exclusively masculine language about God was unique in the ancient world, and it still is. God will not let himself be identified with his creation.
Let me explain. The gods of the nations around Israel were replete with masculine and feminine deities. There were Asherah and Anak and Nut and Isis, Teomat, and the Queen of Heaven, Ademitur, and Artemis. They were everywhere. It's significant that these cultures with both female and male gods were grossly more patriarchal than Israel's ever was.
These nature religions featured male and female deities having sexual intercourse and giving birth to the creation, to the crops and even to children. The Old Testament record can be read as a war with those religions that surrounded Israel. Canaanites worshiped Baal. The Mesopotamians worshiped the stars. Both had male and female deities, and both understood their gods in explicitly sexual terms.
But the Bible's masculine imagery regarding God has to do with a distinction between God and his creation. Consider the masculine imagery: As father, God is separate and distinct from his creation. He relates to the worldcaring for it, ordering it, sustaining itthrough his Word and his Spirit. But he is in no way to be identified with it. He is in every way holy and distinct from his creation. That's the impact of the imagery, isn't it?
But consider the feminine imagery of mother. As mother, God gives birth to creation and suckles it. In other words, creation issues out of the body of God. It participates in God's being as God is in and through and under all things. All things, in fact, become God or at least divine. This is what the Bible calls "idolatry."
I hasten to add that not every person anxious to use feminine language about God has this in mind. But feminine language about God historically and logically opens the door for identification of God with his creation rather than God speaking the world into existence, as we're told he did in Genesis 1:1.
We'll hear certain feminist readings of this text as God giving birth to the creation. Nothing could be more distant from the message of that text. The world did not proceed out of God's being. It was spoken into existence out of nothing. The Father says that. Mother cannot.
God and Scripture cannot bend to ideology.
In 1934, the Confessing Christian church in Germany spoke out against the rise of what was called "German Christianity," inspired by Nazism. Hitler was anxious to enlist the aid of the churches. He appealed to certain churchmen, patriotic Germans, who were bishops and elders and pastors in a church, to work with him to better the lot of the German people. What began to emerge was the idea that it was the duty of the church to advance a political ideology. And much of the German church embraced this "German Christianity."
But a group of Confessing Christians in 1934 got together and authored what is known now as the Barman Declaration, and it argued with this premise. It said that the church and the gospel serves no one or nothing, that Christ is Lord over everything and the church must never allow itself to be enlisted in the service of any ideology, no matter how good it may seem. They put it this way: "We cannot put the word and the work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans."
We cannot put the word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans by changing the language of Scripture about God, or by changing the meaning of the words of Jesus himself about God.
In the final analysis, the issue of the Bible's language about God is not about gender. It's about the authority of Jesus Christ and his Bible. Gender is merely another arena in which that battle has been fought throughout time. It's not the first, and it won't be the last. We do men and women no good when we make the God we serve and worship look like, what our ideology tells us he ought to look like.
The great Dutch thinker Abraham Kuiper put it this way: "Does God exist for our sakes or do we exist for his?" Kuiper said that's a watershed question. If you say God exists for our sakes, you end up over here; if you say we exist for God's sake, you end up over there. Kuiper believed, and I agree, that if we think God exists to serve our causes, our faith will be narcissistic and ultimately idolatrous.
But if we say, "God is primary and we exist for his sake to serve him and to glorify him as he has shown himself to be," our faith will be strong and virile.
Can we change the Bible's language about God simply because we don't like it? Well, Paul Minier says when we change what the Bible does say to what we think it should say, it becomes a dummy for our own thought. No dummy exercises authority over the ventriloquist.
The Word of God is something to submit to, not to revise. To do this kind of revising is to be not unlike the false prophets mentioned in the book of Jeremiah whom God said, "steal from one another words supposedly from me." This is a sobering thought.
For God says to these prophets, "Is not my word like a fire and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?" These are serious matters which we must speak of with the utmost sobriety and humility even as we feel the passion rise in us about them.
The Word of God is alive and active, says the Bible, sharper than any sword. It pierces through the heart of things. And it lays bare everyone of us as we stand before the one to whom we must give an account. "Whoever accepts me and my words," says Jesus, "accepts the one who sent me."
May God give us grace to trust this Lord and to let him be Lord over our language, our worship, and our attitudes toward one another. And may he forgive us the ways we have sometimes said the right thing but done the wrong thing.
Ben Patterson is dean of the chapel at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He wrote Serving God: The Grand Essentials of Work & Worship.