The Church’s Language About God | CBE International

You are here

The Church’s Language About God

Her article was first printed in "The Other Side," December 1987, and is reprinted by permission.

For some years now, Christians have struggled with the nature of our language about humanity. Are the nouns man and mankind or the pronouns he and him inclusive of women or not? Acknowledgement that they are not inclusive has often been difficult, and the actual switch to gender-inclusive terms has always been awkward, particularly in the beginning. Nonetheless, more and more Christians are finding inclusive language an almost automatic part of their vocabularies when speaking of human beings.

But what about God? If emotions have run high over language about human begins, they have virtually exploded in the debate over language about God. Those who argue that the church must retain its predominantly masculine imagery for God and those who want to introduce into the church's vocabulary female imagery for God are in agreement at only one point: both are convinced that the integrity of Christian faith is at stake. In many circles, liberal as well as conservative, the test of orthodoxy has become the nouns and pronouns one uses in speaking of God.

For several years, I have resisted invitations to enter the discussion. In part, I have feared being branded a one-issue theologian. I have also resisted being identified as an expert on this issue, someone who can clarify all the issues, or worse, give out all the right answers. This is not my debate. It is the church's debate. This is not a technical problem to be handed over to the church's theologians. The problem belongs to all of us. And though it may seem at first glance to be a narrowly focused and even trivial debate, it is not. The way we reflect on this issue has implications for everything we believe about God and about ourselves.

The Need for a Nondefensive Approach

All appearances to the contrary, this is hardly a new problem. The sense of panic I hear from some quarters cannot be justified on either historical or theological grounds. Questions regarding the church's language about God have been with us for centuries. They are central to theological reflection, not in spite of God's self-revelation to us but precisely because of the nature of that revelation. To think that we must, in our generation, resolve this issue is to deny our own humanity and the humanity of our words about God. A sense of panic is inappropriate.

However, a sense of urgency is not just appropriate but is demanded by the circumstances. It is a sense of urgency that motivates me to write this article. If we cannot pause for a moment to listen carefully to each other, we risk destroying one another with our words. We cannot afford to lose sight of our solidarity under God and with each other. Nor can we possibly succeed in our escalating attempts to mold everyone else into our particular theological images.

Yes, the question regarding the church's language about God is crucial. But even more urgent is whether we are willing to risk change – the change that is inevitable when two people expose and share together their struggles with God and with each other. This article is my attempt to expose my own struggles as I listen to the debate and reflect on our language about God.

As I listen to others, the urge to defend myself as a Christian feminist theologian is great. It is painful and frustrating to find myself lumped together with all other feminist theologians as an evil, menacing threat to the church. While I will not deny my solidarity with all feminist theologians regarding the need for inclusiveness in theological reflection, there are clearly points at which my theological identity will never sit well with my sisters. Arguments which fail to take into full and consistent account the various theological options within feminist theology have already abandoned one of the basic requirements of all theological reflection: the requirement to make careful, significant distinctions. It is not enough simply to acknowledge in a preliminary way the range of options, and then go on to treat all feminist theologians as though they spoke with one voice on this issue.

The urge to defend myself from the suggestion of guilt by association is also great. I am both fascinated and appalled by attempts to link female imagery for God with Gnosticism, Baalism, or even Nazism. I am fascinated because the same kinds of associations can be made with male imagery for God! I am appalled because these pseudoconnections quickly lead people to substitute the power of suggestion for the discipline of theological reflection.

Finally, there is the urge to catalog and expose as false all those choices I am supposedly up against or have already made if I choose to adopt female imagery for God. Once again, rhetoric that links biblical faith with male imagery, and pantheism (or other nonbiblical forms of religion) with female imagery, has already abdicated the demanding task of theological reflection. While it is true that the implications of using female imagery for God are profound, these implications do not necessarily include rejection of biblical faith.

The urge to go on the defensive, to launch an apologetic counterattack, is great. However, I am not convinced that my agenda should be determined by the urge to defend myself or my theological position. Rather, given the continuing need of the church for positive, constructive reflection, especially from Christian feminist theologians, I have chosen another approach.

Three Theological Presuppositions

I bring several presuppositions to my reflection on the church's language about God.

First, my approach to this theological issue should be coherent with my approach to any other theological issue. What is called for is not special pleading or some new method but rather a careful exploration of the problem – from the same standpoint I would take with any other theological question. This means that the way I reflect on language about God must be coherent with, for example, the way I reflect on God, or sin, or the church.

The second presupposition is that theological reflection necessarily joins attention to Scripture with attention to human experience. Whatever conclusions I form regarding language about God must be consistent with the witness of Scripture. Reflection on language about God must continually drive me back to the text. Have I listened to it with at least as much care as I would want to be listened to myself?

On the other hand, my conclusions regarding language about God will also be informed by my human experience. Listening to Scripture (or to any other text) involves making connections between our lives and the words we are hearing. These connections are both a blessing and a curse. Without them we would be incapable of understanding anything at all; yet because of them we risk total misunderstanding and distortion of the text.

The attempt to set aside human experience as we listen to Scripture is as problematic as the attempt to place all the emphasis on human experience. In both cases, the intention is to keep theological reflection from becoming captive to particular human agendas. However, the irony is that while each side claims by opposite approaches to have overcome or greatly reduced the danger of serving special interests, neither is free of the self-deception that accompanies all human reflection, including reflection on God's self-revelation.

This brings me to a third presupposition. It has to do first with how I listen to Scripture but also with how I listen to my own experience. As a member of the Christian church, I confess that Jesus Christ is the one true revelation of God and of humanity. In Jesus Christ we see displayed the character of God and the character of God's creatures. Hence, if we are to talk about God or about ourselves from a theological point of view, we must first learn to talk about Jesus Christ.

This doesn't mean studying the ideas and concepts of theological discourse, as though these technical terms had in themselves some special sacred or even revealed status. Rather, it means attending carefully to the biblical witness to Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. It means discovering patterns of speech and behavior that reveal how Jesus Christ is both like and unlike us. It means listening for patterns within the Gospel witness to Jesus that convey both who God is and what it means to "be one" of God's human creatures. It means rediscovering the complex, dynamic life to which all those theological terms bear their own often strange-sounding witness. And it means discovering that these terms, especially those we think we understand best, cannot possibly begin to capture or convey the significance of Jesus Christ as true God or as true humanity.

The Primary Theological Issue

At this point the theological problem of language about God comes into full view. It is crucial to identify the problem accurately. The primary issue isn't which images or words we should use of God. Rather, the primary issue is whether we know where to turn our attention in order to hear in one word what God is like.

In other words, the problem isn't that we are surrounded and besieged by competing images and words. Rather, the problem is that we have yet to hear the one word from and around which all of our human words take their unity. Theologically speaking, there is only one word which is indispensable if we are to speak of God. That word is not the English noun father or the English noun mother. Nor is it the English pronoun he or the English pronoun she. Rather, the one word which is utterly essential is the Word of God. Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega not simply of faith but of language about God.

I am not suggesting that our words are dispensable. Instead, I am suggesting that our words, like our lives, can do no better than stand ready to return gratitude to God, who has already spoken the one Word that is needful. Just as we human beings stand in solidarity with each other before God, so our human words stand ready to join together in witness to the one Word of God. The one Word of God has spoken into being a new creation in which human distinctions no longer determine how closely we can approach God. In the same way, the one Word of God has broken down distinctions that made some words supposedly more capable than others of witnessing to God with us.

No Sacred Words

If Jesus Christ as the living Word of God is the only indispensable norm for our words about God, then certain implications follow. First, there are no sacred words in the English language or in any other language. We are not called upon either to create or even to repeat a set of holy words which somehow carry in themselves a special capacity for speaking of God. The miracle of language about God is already contained within the miracle of God with us. Just as God chose to take up residence with us in a fully human being to whom human words gave witness, so God still chooses to be seen, heard, and known through our human lives and our human words. God's affirmation of humanity in Jesus Christ carries with it the affirmation of our humanity as capable of bearing witness to God with us.

If there are no words in any language with special sacred status, then there can be no hierarchy of words when speaking of God, as though some words were in themselves more appropriate than others. While the words of Scripture and even the words attributed to Jesus Christ have a special status in our worship and reflection together, this does not make them in themselves more than human words. In fact, we must struggle against the constant temptation to deny their humanity and to elevate them to the same status as the one Word of God. The temptation is to forget what makes them special yet no different than any other words: their readiness to witness to the one Word of God, spoken in Jesus Christ. The temptation is to believe that they evoke the presence of the Word of God, instead of acknowledging that the presence of the Word of God evokes them, along with all other human words of witness.

This is not to suggest that the church can dispense with the words of Scripture. We cannot, since these human words, in spite of their limitations, give access to the one Word of God spoken in Jesus Christ. However, we are not to worship these words. We are to worship the one Word to which they point with their complex and even puzzling humanity.

The words of Scripture are not the only language the church speaks, but they are a necessary means to an end. That end is that the church proclaim in the human language of its day what it hears as it attends to the one Word of God. Indeed, to begin to hear the one Word of God is to become acutely aware of the humanity of the many words which bear witness to it.

The Goodness of Human Language

This brings me to a second implication. The other side of acknowledging that we are not to make idols of particular human words, especially those of Scripture, is to acknowledge as good the complexity of human language, especially our language about God. Again, this is not a goodness that resides in human words themselves. Rather, it is a reflection of the dynamic complexity of the one Word of God, Jesus Christ. While the Word of God is one, and profoundly simple, it is also a Word capable of being heard by every human being, in every human language, and in every human time and place. The capacity of human language to resonate at many levels both reflects and witnesses to this unique capacity of the one Word of God.

Hence, there should be in our speaking and hearing of words about God an openness bounded only by the resolution to keep our imaginations fixed on Jesus Christ. To have the meaning of this Word unlocked is to have the meanings of all our human words unlocked, including all the words of Scripture. It is to have this one Word suggest fresh and persuasive ways of talking about God and about each other. It is to rediscover in the complexity of this one living Word the significance of the complexity of our human languages. This complexity is neither our own awesome creation nor an embarrassing speech impediment. Rather, it is a fitting witness to the boundlessly creative Word of God. The attempt to standardize and normalize language about God produces lifeless uniformity – not a dynamic witness to the living Word of God.

No Need to Protect God's Image

This leads me to a third implication. It has never been nor is it now our task to protect God from misunderstanding. Both God's otherness and God's relatedness have been conveyed in Jesus Christ. The Word of God remains free. Our task is simply to bear witness with our human words to what we have seen and heard in Jesus Christ. We are not asked to defend God by controlling or prepackaging images of God. It may well be that the greatest protection of God's otherness and of God's relatedness lies in the seemingly unorchestrated diversity of human witness to Jesus Christ. In any case, the attempt by some to name definitively and thus to protect God runs the risk of doing the exact opposite. By overestimating the power of human words, we underestimate the power of the one Word to evoke its own surprising witness.

Attempts to preserve or create "safe" images of God abound on both sides of the debate. Some try to protect God by giving priority to the predominantly male imagery of Scripture. On the other side are those who want to undo or compensate for false perceptions of God which have been thoughtlessly associated with the male imagery of Scripture.

We cannot deny the power of human language to shape the way we perceive reality.

The language the church uses in speaking of God is a critical part of the proclamation of the living Word of God. However, in our proper attention to the power of human language to convey life or death, we dare not mistake the extent of our power. We cannot create or control by our human words the reality that is God. Nor can we, by means of our language about God, presume to undertake the task of protecting God's otherness or of making real God's relatedness.

The living Word of God is its own best defender. To hear Jesus Christ aright is to hear not simply the transcendence and immanence of God. Rather, it is to hear them as God spoke them – eternally united in the same witness. To think we need to name and try to balance two sets of characteristics or two kinds of imagery for God is to miss the point altogether. Equally misguided is the attempt to reduce language about God to one or the other set of characteristics or images. Our task as humans is simple: we are called to bear witness to the one perfect image of God, not as we think God needs to be witnessed to but as the Word itself comes to us in all its freedom.

The One Word Needed

A final implication has to do with the kinds of words we use in speaking of God. Most of the debate over language about God has revolved around titles or nouns we use of God. This is consistent with Western theology's preoccupation with concepts and ideas. However if the indispensable norm for language about God is a life, the living Word of God, then we cannot rely on nouns or titles alone to convey the character of God.

The biblical witness to Jesus Christ is not a list of correct titles but a collection of carefully chosen Gospel narratives surrounded on each side by related narrative and non-narrative writings. The ambiguity of titles and nouns used of God is resolved only when they are related to their appropriate story contexts. It is one thing to name God as father or mother. It is quite another to describe God's character by retelling what we hear in the story of Jesus speaking publicly with the Samaritan woman, or of Jesus feeding the five thousand, or touching the leper. In the first case, we are left wondering what it means that God is father or mother; or worse, we assume we already know what it means. In the second case, by fixing our attention on the activity of Jesus, we can see the character of God revealed, along with our own character as human beings created in the image of God.

Our language about God will be only as persuasive and illuminating as our language about Jesus Christ. By turning our attention away from the ultimately false choice between father and mother, we may be able once again to focus on the one Word of God that empowers all our words about God and about each other. By returning our concepts about God to their proper narrative context, the biblical witness to the living Word of God, we may discover surprising ways of describing how God relates to us – ways that both affirm and challenge the way we relate to each other.

Join the Cause

CBE advances the gospel by equipping Christians to use their God-given talents in leadership and service regardless of gender, ethnicity, or class. Together with supporters and ministry partners from 100 denominations and 65 countries, CBE works to inspire and mobilize women and men with the Bible’s call to lead and serve as equals.

Learn More