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Language and Limitations

In my writing I have generally used traditional “male” language for God: he, his, him. Although I do not regard God as a “Super Male in the Sky,” I grew up hearing and reading those male pronouns for God, and the use of them comes naturally to me.

Many people I know, including some of my closest friends, would like to see that usage change. They point to the overwhelming “masculinization” of the Judeo-Christian tradition and what that has meant, from its beginnings, for the role, status, and (in some eras) the survival of women. I agree with that perspective in many ways—although I am not satisfied with any of the attempts I know of to reformulate “God-Language.” In this article, therefore, I would like to outline how my thoughts have developed on this issue, and why I am still able to think of the “sovereign creator of all-that-is” as my Father in heaven.

On the other hand, language about human beings is a different matter. Psychologically, for many women, generic (i.e., “male”) language does not include them. In my own writing, and in my editing, I want to be as inclusive as possible. To do that seems only fair and just, and I do not find it at all hard or awkward to rephrase my thoughts and word use accordingly.

Several years ago my husband and I were entertaining an older Christian couple, long-time friends whom we seldom see. After awhile, our breakfast conversation got around to what we have been doing professionally for the past twenty years: writing and editing. When we mentioned our concern to broaden certain authors’ language from generic language to inclusive language, the wife suddenly flared up:

How absurd! (she said). Certainly she had learned very early in her schooling that the term man included women. The pronoun he, depending on the context, could just as well be understood as she. (Brothers? Of course that included her.) It was ridiculous, she exclaimed, that people were now making an issue of such things. My husband and I sat astounded and silent at what heretofore had been innocent and friendly conversation.

I have never forgotten that gentle woman’s anger and raised voice over the question of the kind of language to use about human beings. Yet how much more controversial is the question of the kind of language that Christians today should use about God.

Three ideas have been helpful to me as I have thought about the current debates over “God-language.”

1. All language is in some sense metaphorical. We are finite human beings and therefore the words we use will always reflect our finite understandings. We have only humanly devised words as we attempt to describe ineffable divine realities. From the start, therefore, we must recognize that all our words, phrases, and metaphors, in whatever earthly language, are in some ways inadequate.

Further, in order to speak to us in self-revelation, God had to use human words, the conceptual building blocks of the particular cultures in which he gave his revelation. So it is important to remember that even the language of the Bible has some inherent limitations.

2. Although God is not a super male in the sky, the writings that comprise our Old and New Testaments were articulated (given) in patriarchal cultures. The divinely inspired biblical authors necessarily wrote in the thought patterns of their times, patterns that were overwhelmingly male-centered. Nonetheless, the studies of Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible and others have made us aware of the remarkable number of biblical examples in which God is pictured in ways that are (or that we, in our acculturation, consider to be) womanly. Those descriptions of God’s nature and activity have been overlooked, trivialized, or rather casually bypassed in centuries of commentaries and sermons.

In recent years, in response to biblical scholarship like Trible’s, a number of linguists and other specialists have worked out a three-volume series of yearly Bible readings, An Inclusive Language Lectionary, for use in worship services or for personal study. In it, when it seems contextually accurate to do so, traditional generic language is broadened to include women. It also uses experimental phrases like “God the Father [ and Mother].”

3. In my opinion, objections to such usages are rooted primarily in the fact that sexism is still pervasive in our hearts. For conservative Christians to think of God as maternal as well as paternal sounds like a denigration: a motherly God is less powerful, less sovereign, less important.

So, to begin with, we have to acknowledge that God is not a genderized Being in any anthropomorphic sense and that therefore male pronouns like he and his for God are really just as inaccurate as female pronouns like she and her. Nor would neuter pronouns (it, its) solve the problem. If we think of adjectives or traits stereotypically associated with terms like “masculine” and “feminine,” the implications of the secondary or inferior status of the female characterizations are even more evident. We want a God who is strong, direct, initiatory, working on our behalf in the real world, able to provide for us, and so on.

Keeping those three considerations in mind—that language is necessarily metaphorical; that God’s nature defies the categories of human gender, and that a subtle sexism probably colors our “instinctual” response to many ordinary words—it does not seem unacceptable to me to follow the example of Jesus and speak of God as Father. I choose to do that.

Perhaps the parental appellation is the one our human minds can most readily relate to, since it is inherently personal. If our human father was not the parent we might have wished for in his treatment of us, it helps to know that God is like, and is profoundly superior to, the best of fathers. Similarly, if our human mother failed us in situations that would have enabled us to have a more propitious start in life, it helps to know that God’s care for us is profoundly superior to the care of the best of mothers.

To describe God only in impersonal or functional terms-creator, sovereign, king—is not so directly applicable to our individual experience. Further, even a human person is much more than what he or she does.

Likewise, God is more than whatever functional designation we might come up with to describe the divine nature and ways.

Years ago British scholar Donald MacKay, a professor of communication at the University of Keele, alerted Christians to the hazards of what he called “nothing-buttery” thinking: “Religion is nothing but...” “God is merely...” If we can also avoid the nothing-buttery fallacy in our understanding of what God is like, no matter what words we use, we will avoid worshiping a false image: a God who is too small.

This article ma adapted from, “God Language: Some Personal Reflections, in Catalyst: A Form for Scriptural Christianity Within the United Methodist Church. March 1989, p. 2. Used by permission.

The two sources mentioned were Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress, 1984), and Donald M. MacKay, Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe (InterVarsity, 1966).

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