Sunday, 11 February 2018

Epiphany 6- Is God a Dude?

Image result for early church women

The question we are going to deal with today has to do with the maleness of God.

Throughout the Bible, God is constantly referred to in male terms. In the Old Testament, the grammar of the Hebrew describes God as male. In the New Testament we see a similar theme in the Greek grammar and with Jesus referring to God as “Father”.

There are, however, a few hints of God being referred to using female imagery. For example, Hosea 13:8 describes God as being like a mother bear. Deuteronomy 32 uses similar female imagery describing God as a mother eagle (vv11-12) and as giving birth to the nation (v18). Isaiah compares God to a mother in a number of places (66:13; 49:15; 42:14). One of the Hebrew words to describe God’s compassion is (R-H-M) rachum, which is related to the word for womb, rechem. So, we might say God’s compassion is womb-like.

In Luke 15 Jesus compares God to a woman looking for a lost coin (15:8-10). In Matthew Jesus says to Jerusalem, 

“… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37).

The Holy Spirit is complicated in terms of gender. The word “spirit” in Greek (which doesn’t always refer to the Holy Spirit) is neuter and neither male nor female. In Hebrew, “spirit” is feminine, but when the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “comforter” a masculine pronoun is used.[1]

While the Bible doesn’t refer to God directly in female terms, neither is the Bible bothered by occasionally using feminine imagery for God.

Male imagery of God is probably more dominant because the culture was a patriarchal culture. Everyone found their place under a protective male head of the family, so it was a natural image to use for God in that society.

Under the influence of feminism, there have been those who have questioned the overwhelming use of male imagery of God. Some have called for a more balanced approach, using both masculine and feminine images. For example, some will call God “Mother” to try to balance out the use of “Father” imagery. …. Others have tried to remove gendered language when referring to God. Instead of saying, 
“God refers to Himself in Scripture”.
 They might instead say, 
“God refers to God’s-self in Scripture”.
 Or, instead of saying “him” they will just say “God”. This can get a bit awkward. For example, in Gen 1:27 we read, 
“So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”.
 To try to remove the gendered language we might say, 
“So God created humankind in [God’s] own image, in the image of God [God] created him; male and female [God] created them”.

The overall motivation of feminism towards the Bible is to rightfully bring out feminine aspects, and to lift up female contributions. These are very important insights. Feminism has been important for addressing the inequality between the sexes. The contribution of women has been suppressed, and it is impossible to deny the violence women have endured throughout history. 
Not everyone, however, is in agreement about pronouns for God. Switching pronouns from male to female can get cumbersome and confusing for some. Calling God “it”, rather than “he” or “she”, feels impersonal. “It” is usually reserved for inanimate objects. God is not a chair, or a robot. The God of the Bible is personal and that would require a “he” or “she”.

It is also a historical reality that having a female deity hasn’t always meant liberation for women. For example, the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth in the first century is said to have had around one thousand female slaves that functioned as temple prostitutes.[2] Just as an image of a male god can trap us in an image of maleness as dominance and warfare. It is also possible that a goddess can trap us in an image of femaleness as a sexual object, as a womb, and as a mother.

So what is the answer? There is an ancient type of theology called Apophatic theology, or sometimes it is called Negative theology. The concept is that all images of God ultimately fail to show us God’s true essence. The 10 commandments instruct us to “not make for yourself a carved image” for worship (Exodus 20:4). Any image we have of God will eventually fail us. In the end, carved images tell us something not completely true. God says in Hosea, 
“I am God and no human, the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:9).

If we call God “Father” what do we mean by that? Do we mean that at the time of creation the Creator of the universe was a flesh and blood human being? And not just a human being, but a ‘male’ human being? With all the accessories that makes one male? … It is the image of an old man in the clouds. Is that an accurate image of the God who created the universe? … So, what do we mean when we say “Father”? … It is an analogy. Just as a loving father (and not everyone had one) cares for his children- teaches them, guides them, and provides a place for them in his home- so God cares for His people.[3]

We have to be careful to allow the analogy to say something true, but we have to be careful to not push the analogy into absurdity and make it say something untrue. So there is a way in which God is like a father and a way in which God is not. … In Psalm 18 we read, 
“who is a rock, except our God?”
 Well, we don’t mean that God is inanimate and not conscious. Psalm 18 is saying that God is strong, everlasting, and can be relied upon. If you stand behind a rock you are protected. If you build your house on a rock (rather than sand) it will be stable.

Apophatic theology reminds us that God is always beyond our words. Ultimately, when all analogies fail, when they are pushed to their very limit, God is not like anything but God. As Isaiah says, 
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Is 46:9).
 As the 4th century archbishop and theologian St. Gregory Nazianzen said, 
“It is difficult to conceive God, but to define him in words is impossible”.

Now we can’t stay there for long because then we can’t speak about God. We end up in a wordless contemplation. We need our analogies, while also recognizing their limits. I mentioned Apophatic theology. Well I want to also mention Cataphatic theology[4], which is a theology that embraces analogies. We have to use the things of creation to speak about God. God is like a rock. God is like a bridegroom. God is like a shepherd. Or, we can use less concrete analogies- God is light; God is love. We need to be able to speak about God, and to do that we need analogies.

God is so other- so transcendent- that we can lose all ability to speak about God. It is essential that God reveals God’s Self to us through the creation, otherwise it is impossible to know God. This is why the incarnation is essential. The letter to the Colossians tells us 
Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).
 God has expresses God’s self to us most perfectly through Jesus. Jesus is the dynamic image of the revelation of God. 

I tend to use masculine pronouns when it comes to God because that is the scriptural language, but that doesn't mean I'm not very aware of the limitations of the analogy. If we drift too far from the language of the Bible, however, I think we cause more problems than we solve, theologically. I tend to side with theologian David Yeago who has said, 
"If feminist concerns can only be received in the Church against the grain of the biblical texts, there is every reason to think that feminism will lose out. Any reform of Christian language that requires that we censor or discredit persistent features of the Bible's discourse will always be artificial, fragile, of severely limited effectiveness and extremely doubtful survival value. ... In the long run, then, the Christian Church throughout the world will read the Bible and learn its talk of God from the Bible, skillfully or ineptly. Surely it would be better, even on sheerly pragmatic grounds, to embrace important feminist concerns from within a credible reading of the Bible, rather than getting embroiled in a struggle against the Bible." (The Apostolic Faith, Unpublished).

I do want to come back to the original feminist motivation behind the question. This is important and deserves much more time than we are going to give here. The role of women in the church has been incredibly important from the very beginning and that role has often been suppressed and not celebrated. 
For example, in Romans 16:7 
“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”
 "Junia" is a woman’s name, and Paul says she is not just an apostle, but prominent among them. She has not been spoken of much, and recent scholarship has found that in her name had been transformed to make it appear male even though it was not a known male name in the ancient world. Her name and status as an apostle of the early church was suppressed. John Chrysostom (around 344AD) said this about her, 
“To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles- just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle”.[5]

Some scholarship has shown that cultural understandings can drastically change the meaning of some of the more difficult passages of the letters of the New Testament having to do with women. For example, knowing that worship in some places may have been conducted in a more formal language that was usually known by men, but not women, may have had something to do with comments about instructing bored women to quiet their chatting down during the long sermon they couldn’t understand. Or, perhaps it would be helpful to know that in Ephesus the cult of the goddess Artemis was dominated by women and trying to create ordered worship when women were used to dominating worship might include instructions that would be understood very differently without that cultural backdrop. Paul even instructs women on proper dress while praying and prophesying in worship in 1 Cor 11:2-11, which wouldn’t make sense if women were expected to be perpetually silent.

We know women were very active in the early church. When the Roman governor Pliny (61-113 AD) was trying to uncover what Christians were all about, among those he captured and tortured were two female ministers.[6] These women were probably selected because they were leaders in the church.

There are many other women mentioned in the Bible who play very important roles, but we don’t celebrate them very often- Hulda the prophet, who was asked about the Torah by young King Josiah, which led to a massive reform (2 Kings 22); Queen Ester, who saved her people; Deborah, who led Israel as a prophet, a warrior, and a monarch all that the same time; Mary, who Jesus accepts in the role of disciple, learning at his feet, when Martha says she should be away from the men in the back rooms with the other women (Luke 10). 

We could say a lot about women in the Bible and in the early church, and they deserve to be spoken about and celebrated, but we will have to save that for another day. I believe that the Bible provides us with resources for lifting up and valuing women and their contributions. We need to pay more attention to these aspects of our faith. It is important that we listen to what faithful feminist voices are teaching us about our faith.    


[1] The Greek word for spirit is the neuter “pneuma”. The English pronoun would more correctly be “it” rather than “he”. Though, scholars argue about this citing examples when the Greek may break the grammatical rule and use a male pronoun with pneuma when it refers to the Holy Spirit- Jn 14:26; 16:13-14. The Holy Spirit has also been associated with feminine Wisdom in the Old Testament by two of the Church Fathers and Syrian liturgies often saw The Holy Spirit as feminine. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is “ruach”, which is feminine. However, the masculine pronoun is used when the Holy Spirit is referred to by the masculine word Parakletos (Comforter) (John 16:7-8).

[2] According to the Greek geographer Strabo

[3] While I use the male pronoun in reference to God I try to practice capitalizing it (Him) to remind myself and readers that this is a different order of “Him”. It is a metaphor and not essential to the nature of God. It is a necessity to refer to God as a person, but also dealing with the unfortunate reality of not having a helpful pronoun to replace it with that won’t result in cumbersome sentences and confusion.  

[4] Sometimes spelled “Kataphatic” theology.

[5] In ep. ad Romanos 31.2.  Similar things were said about her by Theodoret, and John of Damascus

[6] “The Story of Christianity”, Justo Gonzalez, “the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan p.40. 

Further Reading:

The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky
(This is not an easy read, but it is a pretty foundational text in Eastern Orthodox Theology regarding Apophatic Theology)   
Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis Paperback by Marion Ann Taylor
(Marion Taylor was one of my Old Testament Prof. in Seminary. I highly recommend her work on historical female interpreters of Scripture).

Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters: A Historical and Biographical Guide by Marion Ann Taylor and Agnes Choi

Women in the Story of Jesus: The Gospels through the Eyes of Nineteenth-Century Female Biblical Interpreters by Marion Ann Taylor and Heather Weir

Women of War, Women of Woe: Joshua and Judges through the Eyesof Nineteenth-Century Female Biblical interpreters 
by Marion Ann Taylor

Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues by N.T. Wright
(See especially chapter 4: The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women)

Junia Is Not Alone by Scot McKnight
(This is an excellent essay about the female apostle Junia and how her name was lost amidst patriarchal assumptions. McKnight also points towards numerous other women in the Bible and in Christian history whose names should be commonly know, but sadly are not.)

Finally Feminist (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology): A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender by John G. Stackhouse

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