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Published Date: August 9, 2022

Published Date: August 9, 2022

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The Father and the Feminine: Assessing the Grammar of Gender-Inclusive God Language

John Piper, one of the most committedly patriarchal theologians writing today, insisted at a conference in 2012 that Christianity is a “masculine” religion: God is Father and King (not mother or queen), Jesus is Son (not daughter), pastors are to be men, and this is what the Bible clearly teaches.1 Meanwhile, the feminist theologian, Mary Daly, writing in the 1970s, saw statements like this in her time as evidence of how an idolatrous patriarchy has infected Christianity and the Bible, and this is why, leaving Christianity, she insisted God must be called Mother, a goddess who prophetically fights for the liberation of women against these representations that reiterate male-domination.2 Between these two theologians, a vast gulf stands, and so we must ask: Is language for God exclusively male? Is Christianity synonymous with patriarchy? Is there a causal connection between the two? Can God be spoken about in motherly or in other feminine ways? This article seeks to clarify the debate over the possibility of feminine God language by charting the crucial topics and how they can be addressed.3

This debate, like many others in Christian theology, is a sprawling battleground where two divergent sets of theological sensibilities collide. Is there divine revelation in historical events and in written and spoken words? Are statements and narratives about God in Scripture realistic, depicting God’s actions and character, or is there an unbridgeable divide between human words and God’s being? Are claims of the Christian creeds correct concerning Jesus’s deity, and do the Gospels depict Jesus Christ in a historically reliable way? Are a person’s experience and social location relevant to theological reflection, or is the role of such things minimal and fallible? I ask these questions only to admit that this topic, where the immense pluralism and fragmentation of Christian theology are on full display, presupposes many other conversations.

However, for the purposes of this article, I assume several rules, or “a grammar,” for how to speak about God in order to move forward:

  • First, the Bible has a normative usage in legitimating the convictions of Christians, though approaches to interpretation differ widely.4
  • Second, the identity of Jesus Christ as presented in Scripture is regulative for all Christian convictions: whatever Christians believe, that conviction must cohere with who Jesus of Nazareth is. In doing so, one does not then merely “believe” in who Jesus is as a purely linguistic or cognitive assent, but one must seek to trust and follow Jesus’s way. Thus, the Christian manner of speaking must, in order to be consistent with its christological claims, be inseparable from a Christlike pattern of action.
  • Third, while the role of tradition is contested (especially between Protestants and Catholics), Christian theology, as a discipline that reflects on the contents of the Christian faith, must contend with the history of those who profess to be Christians and what they have thought. This is vital for understanding the development of any doctrine. Moreover, it challenges both sides of this debate, as we will see, as prominent thinkers (like Julian of Norwich or Anselm) have used feminine language for God and do not conform to the modern conservative-liberal binary. History upsets expectations of uniformity on this and many other subjects.
  • Fourth, Christianity is, in its essence, committed to the irrevocable dignity of all human beings and to their ethical treatment, and any perspective or criticism on a Christian conviction that might promote better ethical action should not be disregarded. The feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether once stated that feminist interpretation begins with the conviction that women are fully human.5 This, in principle, should be a conviction all Christians embrace in some way, despite a wide variety of applications. One can see, then, that this article assumes a more conservative or “post-liberal”6 concern for the function of biblical revelation in Jesus Christ but also upholds the feminist concern for liberation against the sin of patriarchy and does so under the conviction that the latter is a consequence of the former.

This article intends a constructive aim: for theology to be deliberative and not merely expressive (or worse, arbitrary), it must in some way offer the common criteria by which it and other positions can be legitimated or falsified. In using what we might call these “grammars”7 to reflect on the governing concerns, rules, and conditions of intelligibility for Christian speech, this article seeks not merely to reflect flatly on what Scripture says, but why and how it says it and thus, what Scripture may permit us further to say.8 In doing so, one extreme in this debate, while insisting on Scripture, misses important nuances, engaging in a kind of truncated literalism. The other, in seeking to bypass the role of Scripture and the realistic claims to revelation in Christ as theologically central,9 often engages in a kind of problematic liberalism, undermining its own sustainability in Christian discourse by suggesting or imposing an alternative center.10 It is by seeing biblical sources and liberating pragmatics as essentially undivorceable that a productive position is possible. With these rules stated, I will outline these criteria through the following topics: the meaning of the ineffability and transcendence of God against human idolatry, the use of analogies and metaphors to speak of God, the meaning of “Father” and the identity of the first member of the Trinity, the gender of Jesus Christ, the identity of the Holy Spirit, and finally, some recommendations for how words are practiced.

Human Language and a Transcendent God

The premise of the first crucial issue in the debate is that if God is transcendent and ineffable, all human language is fallible. Attempts to reduce God to a created thing are idolatry. However, T. F. Torrance, expressing what I will call the “male-exclusive position” in this debate, states that if God is transcendent, no language can grasp God; therefore, the words God chooses to reveal himself with—exclusively male in Torrance’s estimate—is the only authorized language humans can use.11 Anything further, such as feminine language (so worries Elizabeth Achtemeier and others), would be to project pagan or polytheistic notions into the God of Israel.12 The feminine-inclusive position argues the opposite from the same premise: If God is transcendent and ineffable, all language indeed does fall short,13 and reducing God to one sex and aligning that sex with the divine is a sign that this has become idolatrous—especially if this language is connected with the oppression of the opposite sex—and should be corrected or negated with something else:14 for instance, Father language with Mother language.15

Seeing the divergence of interpretations on this point alone illustrates the quagmire of this debate, but this issue can only be resolved by addressing these questions: Is it correct that Scripture only uses male language about God? If not, the accusation of feminine language being a projection of paganism is unwarranted. Can God-given language and symbols in the Bible be used in idolatrous ways? Can the biblical symbol of God as Father be used in an idolatrous manner the way the bronze serpent, Gideon’s ephod, or the ark of the covenant were used?16 If it can (and there does not seem to be any reason why it cannot), then what is the strategy to correct it? Would it be to reiterate a non-oppressive understanding of divine fatherhood, or would it be appropriate to negate it with feminine language in an iconoclastic manner? These questions can only be answered by addressing the next issue.

Symbolic Language for God

The second crucial issue is the use of analogies and metaphors in reference to God. Isaiah uses an analogy to speak of God, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isa 66:13a NRSVue). This is one of several Scriptures that use feminine analogies and metaphors.17 Some of them have been disputed,18 and such feminine analogies and metaphors are interpreted in different ways. The male-exclusive side sees these as inconsequential: Analogies and metaphors are not the same as names or pronouns; therefore, they are a moot point. Figures as towering as Thomas Aquinas have argued that, while God is named by the analogy of being (God is the goodness of every good, therefore the goodness of any created being can be used to speak of God’s being),19 “Father,” on the other hand, is a direct name, not an analogical title (this claim will be discussed shortly).20 Meanwhile, the feminine-inclusive position challenges this: if God is indeed the goodness of all good things, yet beyond all created things, feminine analogies and metaphors can be used to refer to God where male-exclusive ones have dominated, filling out the picture.21 This dynamic can extend even to pronouns. God is like a river, fire, rock, shepherd, lion, strong tower, etc.; surely God can also be a mother and feminine in this manner of speaking, a “she” while still beyond gender. As Paul Jewett argues, to refuse this would in some way say fatherhood bears divine goodness more than motherhood, which would be an affront not only to the analogy of being but also to the imago Dei, male and female in God’s image, equally.22 Again, while nearly everyone agrees there are feminine analogies and metaphors in the Bible, the question is whether this affects the conventional pronoun “he” or could be used to change “Father” to “Mother” in, for instance, general prayer and worship or more controversially, in the baptismal formula,23 the Lord’s Prayer, or christological references.

One worry of the conservative male-exclusive position is that if all created things can be used as analogies and metaphors in some way, what qualifies their usage if all created things also bear the marks of sin? Does this not give license to humans to project human convention into God? Janet Soskice points out that all figures of speech find their meaning and reference in the broader context of usage, and so, arguing from the general principle that language about God is analogical or metaphorical does little to establish the content and meaning of specific statements.24 The challenge to the feminine-inclusive side is this: if the position does not, for instance, regard the historical narratives of Scripture as the regulative context of meaning or see the historical narratives of Jesus as a realistic depiction of God’s character, what qualifies the meaning of metaphors and analogies? After all, both God and the devil have been likened to lions, though surely not in the same way.25 Can human experience really provide the guide? Human experience is multifaceted, fallible, and ambiguous, and it should be noted that some religions with feminine deities are not liberating to women.26 This necessitates that any Christian metaphorical language for God must find its fullest meaning through the context of the biblical narrative, the events of divine action that characterize God’s identity.

However, does the narrative context dismiss human experience? Can human experiences name God in response? The story of Hagar suggests so: Hagar experiences God coming to her aid, seeing her plight, and she, in turn, names God in congruence with the action she experiences. God is El-Roi, “the God who sees me” (Gen 16:13). This story, in turn, has been accepted and retold within a community that saw this confession in congruence with the character of God displayed in other narratives. This suggests that if God’s loving action resembles motherly roles (e.g., Isa 49:15 uses the analogy of the love of a nursing mother),27 a motherly analogical title is warranted based on a person or a community’s experience of that action. This dynamic is particularly pertinent for conversations in global Christianity where non-Western ways of referring to God can be feminine and utilizing these conceptions could be essential to communicating the gospel intelligibly.28 Thus, one can use maternal and feminine imagery to describe God’s redemptive action, for this imagery is in congruence with the character of God displayed in Jesus Christ.

“Father” Language and the Trinity

This merely moves the line of skirmish to our next topic: is the first member of the Trinity irreplaceably named “Father” by Jesus? The male-exclusivist position argues the word “Father” (or “Abba, Father”) is the name Jesus gave to the first member of the Trinity.29 This position is as old as Tertullian, who insisted these were not analogical titles but ontological relations.30 In other words, it is novel to Jesus, unseen in prior Hebrew traditions, and thus, constitutes a timeless revelation.31 The feminine-inclusive position sees the word as a title, not a name, and thus able to be supplemented with other titles and names. Some go further to insist that the title is a cultural analogy, reflective of the patriarchal culture Scripture was nursed in, and therefore must be surmounted.

There are some ambiguities in this criterion. For instance, if the male-exclusive position is correct, the grammar of feminine analogies and metaphors is secondary to an authorized name. What does “Father” mean here if not a male parent? Most who accept the male-exclusive position would insist “Father” is the name of an identity that transcends gender (a qualification that dates back to Gregory of Nazianzus).32 Thus, one can say something like, “God is our Father, who loves like a mother’s love,” but one cannot say, “God is our Mother.” However, there is the question of how names connect with pronouns. If Father is the proper name of the first member of the Trinity, does that impact gendered pronouns? In other words, if the argument for the male-exclusive position is that the name is Father, but God is beyond gender, that would imply pronouns are not fixed. After all, names can be unisex. This would imply the possibility of statements like “God is Father; she is good.” This would suggest that arguments for Father as a genderless name are unclear. Whatever “Father” means, whether a name or title, it has gendered denotations and connotations.

So, is “Father” a name Jesus gives to the first member of the Trinity? This issue, while perhaps the most pivotal, is fairly easily qualified: Can it be established that Father or Abba language predates Jesus in Hebrew culture? Does Jesus ever explicitly institute Father as a proper name? This conversation has developed in recent years, and it has been well established that Abba and father language are not unique to Jesus. Nor does Abba in Aramaic mean “Daddy” or denote an intimacy deeper than the Greek and Hebrew terms for “father” used in Bible, as was previously thought.33 The words abi (Hebrew “my father”) and pater (Greek “father”) are both used, though not frequently, in the OT and intertestamental passages to refer to God.34 Jesus is not uniquely naming God by calling God “Father” or Abba but rather is utilizing known prayer conventions.

So, what does the Father symbol mean? In the OT, it is a title used to communicate God’s love to wayward Israel.35 This is not a name but rather a title used alongside the divine name, Yahweh.36 Also, the Father-Son relationship is used to speak about the nation of Israel but gains intensity with the covenant of David as the son of God (2 Sam 7:12–14), a title Jesus is bestowed in his baptism (e.g., Mark 1:11, cf. Ps 2:7). Thus the NT is employing a known prayer convention in referring to God as Father as well as adding the title, Son of God, to suggest Jesus’s distinctive messianic identity. This linking of messianic Sonship and Fatherhood is central to Paul’s usage. Marianne Meye Thompson clarifies, “But it is clear that Father is not the preferred designation for God in the Pauline writings. The most common term for God is simply the Greek term theos, which occurs about five hundred times.”37 Additionally, Paul uses the father title to analogically argue for the view of the church as the family of God, including both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6; Eph 2:17–19, 4:4–6).

In the Gospel of Mark, the title Father is only mentioned four times. No overtly explanatory narrative is present for Jesus naming God “Father,” but Jesus’s own usage of the term is closely bound up with Jesus being the messianic Son of God and the Son of Man from Daniel 7, whom the Father will vindicate.38 The only time Mark places the Aramaic title Abba on Jesus’s lips (an invocation absent from the other Gospels) is in the Garden of Gethsemane, and this usage appears to be a sustained allusion to how the crucifixion is similar to the sacrifice of Isaac.39

Clearly, Matthew, Luke, and John rhetorically expand the usage beyond the relatively sparse employment Father-language receives in Mark (a full exposition of which cannot be undertaken here).40 However, while the relational title of Father is undeniably important for the NT (increasing in usage and significance in the life of the early church), it does not assign a name to the first member of the Trinity. Rather, it serves as a title that points to Jesus’s fulfillment of messianic expectations, and it is used as an analogy to think about the church as a family. If this is the case, the question then revolves around whether the title Father is reinforcing patriarchy in its continued usage and should be supplemented or whether the historic language can be retained and used in a non-patriarchal way.

Jesus as Male

The fourth crucial issue in the debate helps us answer this question in dealing with the nature of Jesus as a historical male figure. Male-exclusive views see this as where the proverbial buck stops: even if there are possible feminine figures for God in the Bible, God’s language must be prioritized as male because Jesus was male.41 Meanwhile, feminine-inclusive arguments have offered ways that seek to bypass or supplement the image of a male Jesus in various ways. While egalitarians hold to the compatibility of a male Christ and equality of women, many complementarians have used the masculinity of Jesus in part to deny women in leadership42 or, as it is in Roman Catholicism, to bar women from the priesthood.43 This practical insistence has led to many feminists objecting to the masculinity of Jesus. Ruether has argued that a male incarnate saviour cannot represent women (and therefore save them from oppression). In her account, the worship of the Logos must be in some way disconnected from the historical maleness of Jesus.44 Those that hold to the Gospels as non-historical or of a primarily symbolic character find this move easier to make for obvious reasons. Thus, some have even argued that the image of a male saviour ought to be supplemented with a female saviour, “Christa.”45

Here, as with the others, the disparity between liberals and conservatives is evident. Assuming the Gospels do have a historically reliable core, the identity of the Logos with the historical person, Jesus, the man from Nazareth, is insurmountable for Christian theology.46 However, the question then becomes this: Does Jesus’s maleness, as it is bound up with his identity as the Messiah who preached the kingdom of God and died at the cross, support patriarchy or counter it? Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson makes the case that the maleness of Jesus nullifies patriarchy: “for a man to live and die in this way in a world of male privilege is to challenge the patriarchal ideal of the dominating male at its root.”47 Thus, there exists a viable pathway where the historically male Jesus (and by extension, Father-language as it is connected with Jesus’s Sonship) is to be ethically retained and used in a counter-patriarchal way.

However, does this completely dismiss feminine christological language? There is precedent in Christian history, for example, for reflections on Christ as a mother based on Jesus’s saying he wanted to gather Israel like a hen with her chicks (Matt 23:37). From this, Anslem, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich,48 and others reflect on Jesus as Mother,49 yet none of them saw this as a contradiction to the Gospels’ historicity. It is Clement of Alexandria who mentions that God must be incarnated into femininity to truly be incarnate love into all flesh,50 and this argument offers its own warrants worthy of pursuit, consistent with the Bible’s own incarnational grammars: While the incarnation of Christ is indisputably male in the historical record of the Gospels, Jesus is the sign that God is present to all flesh, and thus, in the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, no flesh is barred or prejudiced in the oneness the Spirit grants to Christ’s body (Gal 3:28).51 By this, Christ’s body as a present reality need not be viewed as exclusively male. If Christ can be portrayed as different ethnicities to imaginatively reiterate the truth of Jesus’s incarnation into all flesh, feminine depictions are permissible as long as they do not eclipse by intention the Gospels’ claims to history.

The Holy Spirit

The fifth issue surrounds the identity of the Holy Spirit. The male-exclusive position sees in the Gospels the dominant reference to the Holy Spirit as a “he” since the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. However, feminine-inclusive arguments look at the figure of Lady Wisdom, a figure mentioned in Proverbs and the intertestamental books. Male-exclusivists argue that the figure is only a personification or metaphor.52 However, is this the case?

Who is Lady Wisdom? Later intertestamental books (Sirach 24:1–8, Baruch 3:28–37, 1 Enoch 42:2–3, Wisdom of Solomon 6–12) display Lady Wisdom as the Holy Spirit and a fully divine person,particularly the Wisdom of Solomon, where she is praised and depicted as the saving agency of God in the history of Israel. Such ascriptions push the limits of metaphor.53

Thus, the question is, how admissible are these intertestamental books for Protestant theology? While they are not considered canonical, there are important allusions to them in the NT. Specifically, references to Lady Wisdom can be found on the lips of Jesus. Matthew 11:19 (cf. Luke 7:35) states that “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” which refers to the Holy Spirit as Lady Wisdom acting in and through Christ’s deeds (as well as John the Baptist’s). Later in Luke, Jesus denounces the Pharisees and, in so doing, again cites the words of Lady Wisdom (Luke 11:49) as a speaking agent. Thus, both Matthew and Luke depict Jesus referring to God as Wisdom with feminine pronouns, alluding back to these intertestamental depictions.

However, the debate continues along these lines: Wisdom imagery seems to be absorbed and fulfilled into the figure of Christ, the Logos and Wisdom of God, particularly as seen in John and Paul.54 In Christian tradition, while there is clear evidence of the early church acknowledging the femininity of the Spirit in theology55 and worship (most significantly, the Odes of Solomon),56 these faded in the coming centuries. There are complex and unclear reasons for this, such as the lack of circulation and usage of certain documents, the increasing absorption of pneumatology into Christology,57 the gradual patriarchalization of Christianity and its imagery,58 the reaction against Gnostic feminine imagery,59 etc.

However, the image of Lady Wisdom does not entirely disappear. Catholic theologian Yves Congar notes that feminine pneumatological language and imagery retreated into Mariology as Mary became an icon of the Holy Spirit in Western art and iconography.60 This is, perhaps, a conflation due to how the Spirit “overshadows” Mary (Luke 1:34), alluding to the presence of God acting in her, as is sometimes recorded in the OT as well. Beyond that, mystics like Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch,61 as well as a tradition of thinkers in modern Russian Orthodoxy,62 all appeal to Lady Wisdom as a figure that represents the Holy Spirit. The question of Lady Wisdom imagery in Christian speech is not one of whether but how. Furthermore, to interpret in a Trinitarian manner means God not only has Spirit but is Spirit (John 4:24), so if Lady Wisdom imagery is viable for the Holy Spirit, it must also be constitutive of the whole being of God. Thus, as the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov insists, the whole Trinity is Sophia, Lady Wisdom, the presence of God’s glory.63 Julian of Norwich similarly insists that the whole Trinity is our “Mother.”64 Thus, the path forward is in interpreting Lady Wisdom in a way that is not at loggerheads with Christ: they are in and through each other and ought not to be viewed in competition.

Questions of Practice

These criteria offer the possibility that fatherly and masculine references are not necessarily offensive as they are situated in the wider context of the biblical narrative and can be employed in counter-patriarchal ways. However, the biblical clarifications stated in this essay refute any exclusively male grammar of speaking, which sadly is the norm in many churches, often fostering a patriarchal mindset. Feminine and motherly references are biblical, intelligible, and can be used in a number of ways to subvert patriarchal convictions, sustain egalitarian practices, or simply express genuine worship. However, the questions surrounding the application of these insights are complex. Here proposals range from conservative, with a reluctance to change existing liturgical patterns and accepting only minimal revisions, to more radical proposals such as adopting inclusive language lectionaries, revising hymns, modifying the Lord’s Prayer or baptismal formula, etc.

While full constructive proposals on these issues are beyond the scope of this essay, several grammars are recommended: First, proposals ought to sufficiently preserve and present the historical contents of the Bible and Christian history. This may explain the unpopularity of inclusive language lectionaries, even amongst congregations that are committed egalitarians and feminists. While imaginative renderings of biblical passages are permitted (for example, one thinks of how a creative paraphrased translation like the Message often captures the force of a passage faithfully in ways literalistic translations do not), a historical approach is indispensable for an accurate understanding of these matters, both their positive and negative dimensions. More importantly, while Christian identity is not bound strictly to its past (particularly not its failures), history offers the resources by which contemporary revisions can be viewed not as foreign interpolations into Christianity but as recoveries and reorientations that are germane to the historic grammar of Christian faith. Feminine language is in the Bible and has been used in Christian worship, which implies that any male-exclusivist position is not an authentically conservative one.

Second, a part of the previous recommendation is the necessity of communal discipleship and discernment. This debate has been framed by unhelpful popular binaries where patriarchy is presented as biblical and feminine language is viewed as unbiblical. This debate is one of many where disciples must recapture a more sophisticated way of thinking about biblical faith beyond shallow proof texts and simple offences. This can only be rectified in a lasting way by communities gathering around the Scriptures, admitting the fallibility and limits of everyone’s perspectives, allowing a diversity of standpoints to be discerned, and being confronted by biblical truths afresh.

Third, the processes of communal discernment, where voices are offered, arguments weighed, and decisions made (whether at the local or denominational level), are notoriously slow and sore, so they should not be used to forbid readily available avenues for feminine and motherly language: a preacher preaching the Scriptures accurately, a person praying authentically, whether personally or in the presence of their church family, a congregation worshipping with materials they see as genuine, a counsellor or therapist using the metaphors and memories that can name God’s loving presence in the life of one in their care, etc. These are all constitutive of the liberty and responsibility disciples have at present in studying these passages and perspectives together to live redemptively, as the ministry of the church works to combat the sin of patriarchy and promote the reign of God’s liberating love.

Conclusion

I have offered clarifications for a grammar of how God can be spoken about in masculine and, particularly, feminine ways, the latter being the disputed possibility. By mapping out the crucial issues of each side for the various loci of the conversation, I have demonstrated where the viable pathways of discussion are. Less concrete pathways include appeals to God’s ineffability, to radical iconoclasm, and to analogical and metaphorical language, which, while evident, also can lack context and qualifiers. More concrete and constructive pathways are through first clarifying the meaning and usage of the term “Father,” which is not a name but an analogical title that reinforces Jesus’s messianic identity. Also, it is by interpreting the historical Jesus, his incarnation, and cross in counter-patriarchal ways that the male saviour image has enduring cogency (however, Christian tradition has some precedent for imaginative ways that depict Jesus as feminine to reiterate the full scope of the incarnation into all human flesh). The most concrete and convincing avenue is Jesus’s own use of God as the female figure of Lady Wisdom. This, while sparse, nevertheless places a feminine pronoun with rich theological imagery on the lips of Jesus. While Father language is not inherently offensive, it also cannot be held to be exclusive given the warrants for feminine language in Scripture and tradition. How these are practiced is complex, as language embeds itself in habits that require sensitivity and skill to change in an intelligible manner, especially given the polarity on this subject. Nevertheless, such an undertaking ought to be a part of the natural pursuit of discipleship and discernment, witness, and worship of any Christian community.

Notes

1. Statements reported by Alex Murashko, “John Piper: God Gave Christianity a ‘Masculine Feel,’” Christian Post (Feb 1, 2012), https://christianpost.com/news/john-piper-god-gave-christianity-a-masculine-feel.html.

2. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Beacon, 1973): “The biblical and popular image of God as a great patriarch in heaven, rewarding and punishing according to his mysterious and seemingly arbitrary will, has dominated the imagination of millions over thousands of years. The symbol of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has, in turn, rendered service to this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to the divine plan and order of the universe that society be male-dominated” (13). She then says, “if God is male than the male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination. The process of cutting away the Supreme Phallus can hardly be a mere ‘rational’ affair. The problem is one of transforming the collective imagination so that this distortion of the human aspiration to transcendence loses its credibility” (19).

3. This article seeks constructive pathways, but a full constructive position is beyond its scope. Also, this article seeks to expand and distill earlier arguments, thinking, and research as presented in these posts and articles: Spencer Miles Boersma, “The Motherly Love of God: Theological Reflections on Mother’s Day,” Spencer Boersma, Friend of Radicals (May 27, 2015), https://spencerboersma.com/2015/05/27/the-motherly-love-of-god/; Spencer Miles Boersma, “Beyond Literalism and Liberalism: Understanding the Grammar of Gendered Language About God,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 21 (2019–2020) 111–57.

4. David Kelsey points out that there are many usages of the Bible in constructing modern theology. These “usages” flow from the kinds of assumptions the theologian has regarding what Christianity is essentially about. Kelsey, Proving Doctrine (Trinity, 1999).

5. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk (Beacon, 1983)18–19.

6. For an explanation of this approach, see George Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine (Westminster John Knox, 1984) 112–35. A post-liberal approach attempts to move beyond modern assumptions about religion, the Bible, and Christian doctrine. For Lindbeck, this meant moving beyond the conservative-liberal binary where doctrinal statements are either treated as timeless and infallible or merely expressive.

7. Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine, 18.

8. It should be noted that the appeal to thinking about the “grammar” of language about God has been used by scholars on both sides of the argument; thus, it represents a commonality of methodology from which constructive discussion can take place. Richard Biggs, while offering a (gentle) male-exclusivist position, appeals to the grammatical method of what Scripture says, how and why it says it, and thus, what it permits the believer to possibly say. Biggs, “Gender and God-Talk: Can We Call God ‘Mother’?,” Them 29/2 (April 2004). Meanwhile, for a feminine-inclusive view, Janet Soskice appeals to the need to think through the triune “grammar” in her argument for feminine language. Soskice, “Trinity and Feminism,” in Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology, ed. Susan Frank Parson (Cambridge University Press, 2002) 136.

9. This concern is stated in Thomas Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology (Wipf and Stock, 2003) 110: “What is at stake here is the question whether biblical statements about God—for example, his Fatherhood in respect to Jesus Christ his incarnate Son—are related to what they claim to signify merely in a conventional way . . . or in a real way.”

10. For example, Sallie McFague admitted that her own theology was almost agnostic in her thinking about revelation and models for God, an admission that served to paint the feminine-inclusive position as unbiblical. McFague, Models of God (Fortress, 1987) 92–93 n. 37: “I do not know who God is . . . God is and remains a mystery. We really do not know: the hints and clues we have of the way things are—whether we call them experiences, revelation, or whatever—are too fragile, too little (and more often than not, too negative) for much more than a hypothesis, a guess, a projection of a possibility that, although it can be comprehensive and illuminating, may not be true. We can believe it is and act as if it were, but it is, to use Ricoeur’s term, a ‘wager.’”

11. T. F. Torrance, “The Christian Apprehension of God the Father,” in Speaking the Christian God, ed. Alvin Kimel Jr. (Eerdmans, 1992) 121.

12. Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Exchanging God for ‘No Gods’: A Discussion of Female Language for God,” in Speaking the Christian God, 16.

13. Elizabeth Johnson, The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God as Male and Female,” TS 43 (1984) 441.

14. Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is (Crossroad, 1992) 112.

15. See McFague, Models of God.

16. See Edward Curtis, “Idol, Idolatry,” ABD 3:376–81. Curtis notes that the things of God can be turned into idols. The bronze statue of the serpent, used to heal the Israelites in the desert, was eventually worshipped, and so it had to be dismantled (2 Kgs 18:4, cf. Num 21:4–9). Similarly, Gideon’s ephod was worshipped (Judg 8:26–27). More significantly, the ark of the covenant itself, the site of divine presence for Israelite worship, was turned into something like an idol (1 Sam 4–6).

17. While it is not necessary to survey all the references here, for a work that goes through these references, see Virginia Ramsey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (Wipf and Stock, 1983). Also see Mimi Haddad, “What Language Shall We Use: A Look at Inclusive Language for People, Feminine Images for God, and Gender-Accurate Bible Translations,” Priscilla Papers 17/1 (Winter, 2003) 3–7, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/what-language-shall-we-use-look-inclusive.

18. See David J. A. Clines, “Alleged Female Language about Deity in the Hebrew Bible,” JBL 140/2 (2021) 229–49. Clines does not think references such as Deut 32:18 should say “the Rock who bore you,” arguing that Rock suggests the masculine “beget,” not “bore.” Many of his arguments are strained. More importantly, while some of the references are not as clear as the feminist side would like them, Clines’s view of analogy is highly de-actualized, leaving any philosophical approach to divine language untouched. In other words, just as the male-exclusive position sees feminine analogies as moot points due to the use of male pronouns, this argument in turn ignores perhaps the most robust account of Christian language and ontology: the analogy of being. In addition to this, Clines’s article completely ignores the tradition of Lady Wisdom (which we will treat shortly).

19. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. Anton Pegis (University of Notre Dame Press, 1955) Book 1, ch. 34, §1. He goes on to say, “Since it is possible to find in God every perfection of creatures, but in another and more eminent way, whatever names unqualifiedly designate a perfection without effect are predicated of God and of other things: for example, goodness, wisdom, being, and the like. But when any name expresses such perfections along with a mode that is proper to a creature, it can be said of God only according to likeness and metaphor” (1:30:2).

20. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2nd rev. ed., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, online edition, ed. Kevin Knight, New Advent (2017), https://newadvent.org/summa/. Aquinas cites Eph 3:14 as evidence that the term “Father” is a name for the first member of the Trinity and thus is not based on human convention (1:33:2). Sadly, Eph 3:14 is a common proof text in this debate for the male-exclusive side. However, the nature of this text is routinely missed. Paul prays, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father [pros ton patera],from whom every family [pasa patria] in heaven and on earth takes its name” (3:14–15 NRSVue). This passage is often incorrectly translated as “from whom all fatherhood . . . takes its name.” This passage is not demonstrating that all true fatherhood is derived from God’s fatherhood in the ontological sense, nor is “Father” the name of God eternally, uninfluenced by cultural convention. It is a play on words only applicable in Greek, and its employment in the greater context of Ephesians is very much about a convention, as the metaphor of Greco-Roman families, governed by a paterfamilias, is being used to describe the new reality of Gentiles and Jews joining together in the household of God.

21. For a feminist criticism on why Aquinas was prejudiced in a way that led him to think of God as more like a father than a mother, against his own convictions on the imago Dei and analogy of being, see Genevieve Lloyd, “Augustine and Aquinas,” in Feminist Theology: A Reader, ed. Ann Loades (SPCK, 1990)90–99, specifically 96.

22. Paul Jewett, God, Creation, and Revelation (Eerdmans, 1991) 323–25.

23. Arguments for changing the baptismal formula are stated in Ruth Duck, Gender and the Name of God: The Trinitarian Baptismal Formula (Pilgrim, 1991).

24. See Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Clarendon, 1985). In other words, metaphorical language does not imply anti-realism.

25. The devil is likened to a lion in 1 Pet 5:8, and God is in Rev 5:5 and in other places.

26. So argues Paul Hanson, “Masculine Metaphors for God and Sex‐discrimination in the Old Testament,” Ecumenical Review 27/4 (Oct, 1975) 318. Hanson notes that while Israel had relatively little feminine God-language, their social practices toward women were more progressive than those of neighbouring religions with feminine deities.

27. For further examples on nursing imagery, see Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine, ch. 4.

28. See, for example, Aloo Osotsi Mojola, “The Power of Bible Translation,” Priscilla Papers 33/2 (Spring, 2019) 3–7; Aloo O. Mojola, “Bible Translation and Gender, Challenges and Opportunities—with Specific Reference to sub-Saharan Africa,” Verbum et Ecclesia 39/1 (2018); Joshua Robert Barron, “My God is enkAi: A Reflection of Vernacular Theology,” Journal of Language, Culture, and Religion 2/1 (2021) 1–20; Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Beads and Strands: Reflections of an African Woman on Christianity in Africa: Theological Reflections from the South (Orbis, 2002) ch. 10.

29. Some examples are as follows: J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity, 1973) 183; Claude Geffe, “‘Father’ as the Proper Name of God,” in God as Father?, ed. Johannes-Baptist Metz and Edward Schillebeeckx (Seabury, 1981) 44; Donald Bloesch, Battle for the Trinity: The Debate over Inclusive God Language (Servant, 1985); Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1988) 259–64; Kimel, ed., Speaking the Christian God; John Cooper, Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God (Baker, 1998); Biggs, “Gender and God-Talk: Can We Call God ‘Mother’?”

30. Tertullian, Adversus Praxean, 9–10, as quoted in Donald G. Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology (Paternoster, 1992) 295 n. 77.

31. See Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (SCM, 1967); Robert Hamerton-Kelly, God the Father (Fortress, 1979) 72; Gerhard Kittel, “Abba,” TDNT 1:5–6.

32. Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 31: Fifth Theological Oration: On the Holy Spirit,” §7, in On God and Christ (St. Valdimir’s Seminary Press, 2002) 122.

33. James Barr, “Abba isn’t ’Daddy,’” JTS 39 (1988) 28–47.

34. See examples in Eileen Schuller, “The Psalm of 4Q372 1 within the context of Second Temple Prayer,” CBQ 54 (Jan 1992) 67–79; Mary D’Angelo, “Theology in Mark and Q: Abba and ‘Father’ in Context,” HTR 85/2 (April 1992). D’Angelo points out the usages of Father in intertestamental prayers where the persecuted Jews considered themselves the child of God, their Father, praying for vindication. She writes, “Jesus was a Jew who is likely to have drawn on the tradition in prayer. In light of his death at the hands of Rome and his role in a movement that expected and preached God’s reign, it would not be surprising if Jesus and his companions preferred the use of ‘father’ as an address to God that called Caesar’s reign into question and made a special claim on God’s protection, mercy, and providence. It cannot be argued that such a usage was unique or was characterized by special intimacy. Thus, Jesus’ possible use of Abba or ‘father’ cannot be used to defend the normative nature and primacy of ‘father’ for twentieth century theology and liturgy or to endow these words with special meaning” (174–75).

35. While Robert Hamerton-Kelly argues, mistakenly, that “Abba” is a name, he admits that Father- (and Mother-) language is used by the Hebrew prophets. He writes, “Among the prophets, God is called father directly, in order to emphasize his care for his people, as a foil to their sin—sin as an expression of ingratitude. Throughout the prophetic stage, whether the symbolization is direct or indirect, explicit or implied, there is a tendency to move back and forth between ‘father’ and ‘mother’ imagery. The symbol is described as that of a ‘parent,’ with a preponderance of the ‘father’ element” (51). See Hamerton-Kelly, God the Father. He goes on to say that fatherliness (and motherly language) becomes less about the social order of power and more about “a symbol of free relationship and divine kindness” (51). For a full exposition on the nature of God’s Fatherhood in the OT, see David Russell Tasker, “The Fatherhood of God: An Exegetical Study from the Hebrew Scriptures” (PhD Diss., Andrews University, Berrien Springs, 2002).

36. See R. Kendall Soulen, “The Name of the Holy Trinity: A Triune Name,” ModTh 59/2 (July 2002) 244–61.

37. Marianne Meye Thompson, The Promise of the Father: Jesus and God in the New Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2000) 118.

38. Two of the four “Father” references in Mark are eschatological: Jesus says he is coming “in the glory of the Father” (8:38), but of the hour of his coming, “no one knows except the Father” (13:32). These have strong allusions to the coming of the Son of Man from Dan 7.

39. See Joseph Grassi, “Abba, Father (Mark 14:36): Another Approach,” JAAR 50/3 (Sept 1982) 450. Grassi points out that the prayer in the Garden in Mark 14:36 is not a naming narrative, rather it is an allusion to Isaac’s sacrifice in Gen 22 as retold in the Aramaic targums.

40. For the best exposition of the meaning (and goodness) of father language in the NT, see Thompson, The Promise of the Father.

41. Ray Anderson, “The Incarnation of God in Feminist Christology: A Theological Critique,” in Speaking the Christian God, 288.

42. For a popular example, see David Matthis, “Why Jesus Was Not A Woman,” Desiring God (Oct 11, 2020), https://desiringgod.org/articles/why-jesus-was-not-a-woman.

43. See “Declaration Inter Insigniores on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Oct 15, 1976) §5.

44. Rosemary Radford Ruether, “The Liberation of Christology from Patriarchy,” in Feminist Theology: A Reader, 140.

45. For an argument that sees Christ as “Christa,” which assumes a detachment of the historical Christ from the living Christ, see Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (Crossroad, 1995)52–70. While a few theologians have argued this, the title received serious attention when a sculpture by that name was set up at Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York in 1975. The sculpture was by Edwina Sandys. For what it meant for her, see Sian Ballen, Lesley Hauge, and Jeff Hirsch, “Interview with Edwina Sandys,” New York Social Diary (Nov 18, 2011), https://newyorksocialdiary.com/edwina-sandys/.

46. Several works that flesh out this conviction are as follows: Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ (Wipf and Stock, 1997). Frei makes the argument from the narrative fabric of the Gospels that, while some might be tempted to see the character of Jesus referring mythically or allegorically to experiences of liberation or “new being” today, the narrative’s descriptions primarily identify the Christ figure with Jesus of Nazareth. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 2017). This book explores the nature of the Gospel’s historical claims through their medium as eyewitness testimonies, which establishes the likelihood of a historical core to the Gospels.

47. Elizabeth Johnson, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (Crossroad, 1992) 111. Also, Catherine Mowry LaCugna states, “The total identification of God with Jesus the Son, even unto death on a cross, makes it impossible to think of God as a distant, omnipotent monarch who rules the world just as any patriarch rules over his family and possessions.” LaCugna, “The Baptismal Formula, Feminist Objections, and Trinitarian Theology,” JES 26/2 (Spring 1989) 243.

48. Anslem, “Prayers to Saint Paul,” 396–98, in The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion, trans. Sister Benedicta Ward (Penguin, 1997) 153; Bernard of Clairvaux, “Letter 322 PL 182: col. 303B-C,” as quoted in Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (University of California Press) 117; Julian of Norwich, Showings (long version)ch. 58,trans. Edmund Colledge (Paulist, 1978).

49. More specific references to Mother Christ in medieval spirituality are charted in Bynum, Jesus as Mother,ch. 4.

50. Clement of Alexandria, “Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved?,” ANF vol. 2, §37: “For what further need has God of the mysteries of love? And then you shall look into the bosom of the Father, whom God the only-begotten Son alone has declared. And God Himself is love, and out of love to us became feminine. In His ineffable essence He is Father; in His compassion to us He became Mother. The Father by loving became feminine: and the great proof of this is He whom He begot of Himself; and the fruit brought forth by love is love.”

51. This is laid out in Elizabeth Johnson, “Redeeming the Name of Christ: Christology,” in Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, ed. Catherine Mowry LaCugna (HarperOne, 1993)129.

52. Roland Frye, “Language for God and Feminist Language: Problems and Principles,” in Speaking the Christian God, 34; see also, Tina J. Ostrander, “Who is Sophia?,” Priscilla Papers 8/2 (Spring 1994) 1–3, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/who-sophia.

53. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2 vols., trans. D. M. G. Stalker (Harper & Row, 1962–1965) 1:444: “Nonetheless it is correct to say that wisdom is the form in which Jahweh’s will and his accompanying of man (i.e. his salvation) approaches men. . . . the most important thing is that wisdom does not turn toward man in the shape of an ‘It,’ teaching guidance, salvation, or the like, but of a person, a summoning ‘I.’ So wisdom is truly the form in which Jahweh makes himself present and in which he wishes to be sought by man.”

54. A dynamic described and criticized in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet (Continuum, 1994) 147–54.

55. Johannes van Oort, “The Holy Spirit as Feminine: Early Christian Testimonies and Their Interpretation,” TS 72/1 (2016). Notable examples he cites include Origen, who states, “For if he who does the will of the Father in heaven is Christ’s brother and sister and mother, and if the name of brother of Christ may be applied, not only to the race of men, but to beings of diviner rank than they, then there is nothing absurd in the Holy Spirit’s being His Mother” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2.6). Jerome concurs, both Origen and Jerome seem to be commentating on a passage from the lost Gospel to the Hebrews, but then looking to other biblical passages noting the femininity of the Spirit: “And also this: (in the text) ‘like the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress’ [Ps. 123:2], the maid is the soul and the mistress is the Holy Spirit. For also in that Gospel written according to the Hebrews, which the Nazoreans read, the Lord says: ‘Just now, my Mother, the Holy Spirit, took me.’ Nobody should be offended by this, for among the Hebrews the Spirit is said to be of the feminine gender although in our language it is called to be of masculine gender and in the Greek language neuter” (Commentary on Isaiah, 11, 40, 9). Epiphanius, who states, “Next he describes Christ as a kind of power and also gives His dimensions . . . And the Holy Spirit is (said to be) like Christ, too, but She is a female being” (Panarion 19, 4, 1–2). Hippolytus, who says similarly, “There should also be a female with Him (i.e., with Christ as an angel). . . . The male is the Son of God and the female is called the Holy Spirit” (Refutatio 9, 13, 3). Melito of Sardis has a prayer invoking worship that reads as follows: “Hymn the Father, you holy ones; sing to your Mother, virgins” (Frag. 17). In discussing chastity before marriage, Aphrahat states, “As long as a man has not taken a wife he loves and reveres God his Father and the Holy Spirit his Mother, and he has no other love” (Demonstrations, 18). Aphrahat then describes the work of the Spirit in baptism as that of a female dove: “From baptism we receive the Spirit of Christ, and in the same hour that the priests invoke the Spirit, She opens the heavens and descends, and hovers over the waters [cf. Gen 1:2], and those who are baptized put Her on” (Dem., 6). These examples are enough to warrant that the ancient church did at times include Mother and Father language in its theology and worship.

56. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Feminine Imagery for the Divine: The Holy Spirit, the Odes of Solomon, and Early Syriac Tradition,” SVTQ 37 (1993) 111–39. Notably, the Odes of Solomon, one of the earliest known collections of post-apostolic church worship, praises the Holy Spirit as the Mother of Christ. Also see Sebastian Brock, “The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature,” Syriac Studies (Feb 26, 2016), http://syriacstudies.com/2016/02/26/the-holy-spirit-as-feminine-in-early-syriac-literature-sebastian-brock/.

57. See Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, trans. Stephen Hildebrand (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011). Basil contains little reflection from the deuterocanonical wisdom literature. The nature of the Spirit as Wisdom is almost entirely grounded in 1 Cor 1:24, where Christ is the “power and wisdom of God.” By the time of Augustine, feminine imagery for the Spirit is dismissed. See Augustine, On the Trinity, 2nd ed., trans. Edmund Hill (New York City Press, 2015) Book XII, §5–6.

58. See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (Crossroad, 1983) ch. 2.

59. Irenaeus displays important evidence. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, trans. Philip Schaff (Eerdmans, 2016). In one of his descriptions of Gnosticism, Irenaeus mentions that the Gnostics worship many deity personas, one of which is Sophia, the mother of Christ (Book 1, ch. 19). It is possible feminine language was increasingly associated with Gnosticism as time passed, even though it seems likely that Gnostics borrowed these terms from Christians. Irenaeus displays a dual theology of the Father’s two hands, Word and Wisdom, but wisdom, despite various Lady Wisdom texts being cited, is referenced using male language (Book 4, ch. 20).

60. Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit,3 vols. (Herder & Herder, 1983) 3:162.

61. See Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, ed. Matthew Fox, trans. Robert Cunningham (Bear and Company, 1987) 2.2, 8.2; Hadewijch, Hadewijch: The Complete Works, trans. Mother Columba Hart (Paulist, 1980) vision 13 (298) and letter 10 (118–19).

62. See Vladimir Solovyov, Lectures on Divine Humanity, trans. P. Zouboff, ed. B. Jakim (Lindisfarne, 1995). Solovyov had visions of God as Sophia that revolutionized his thinking, and this “Sophiology” was defended by his two students, Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov. See Florensky, Pillar and Ground of Truth, trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton University Press, 1997); as well as Sergei Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God, trans. Patrick Thompson, O. Fielding Clarke, Xenia Braikevitc (Lindisfarne, 1993).

63. Bulgakov, Sophia, 33: Bulgakov speaks of wisdom as the Holy Spirit, who, as the Glory of God, is the very being of the Trinity. Sophia is glory, and glory is ousia (being).

64. Julian of Norwich applied motherhood to the whole Trinity: “the high might of the Trinity is our Father, and the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, and the great love of the Trinity is our Lord.” Julian of Norwich, Showings (long version)ch. 58.

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