Image via David Hayward @ NakedPastor

(Part 2 of 4)
(continued from Part 1, “The Shack and the Gender of God”)

For some, the gender [1] of God is obvious. The God of the Old Testament is referred to exclusively with masculine pronouns, adjectives, and verbs. [2] For the New Testament, both the Father and the Son are similarly described in masculine terms, while the titles used for God in both testaments are entirely masculine as well. Many believe this alone represents enough data to show that God is an essentially male or masculine being.

Most male headship advocates [3] will assert that the Spirit is referred to as a masculine being as well. [4] In actuality, the data on the Third Person of the Trinity is less decisive. In Hebrew, the word for “spirit” is the feminine רוּחַ, so the adjectives and verbs associated with it throughout the Old Testament are usually feminine—for example, מְרַחֶפֶת for hovered in Gen. 1:3. In Greek, the word for “spirit” is the neuter πνεῦμα with most of its adjectives and pronouns matching that case. Going by gendered language alone, the Spirit is a “she” or an “it.”

The oft-cited exceptions occur in John 15-16 when Jesus is delivering his sermon on the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, wherein he refers to the Spirit with the masculine pronoun ἐκεῖνος. At first glance this seems significant since a neuter form for this adjective exists (ἐκεῖνο) and John seems to have shunned it in favor of the masculine even though it does not match the case of the noun under discussion. However, the antecedent to ἐκεῖνος is not πνεῦμα, but παράκλητος, a masculine adjective functioning as a substantive noun. This could still be a decisive declaration on the Spirit’s sexuality if John had originated this usage of the term, but he did not. The masculine plural form was similarly used as a substantive adjective by Demosthenes in the 4th century BC. [5] John took the pre-existing masculine concept of a παράκλητος as one’s legal advocate and applied it to the Holy Spirit. It therefore follows that his identification has everything to do with the Spirit’s function in the lives of believers, not its gender.

This poses a dilemma for Christians who assert that God is wholly male or masculine: only two persons of the Trinity are identified with distinctly masculine titles, adjectives, or pronouns, with the third being expressed primarily through feminine and neuter identifiers. However, even the masculine pronouns and titles are not enough to assign God with a definitive sexuality. As R. K. McGregor Wright notes:

It does not follow from the use of masculine pronouns that God is male in his essential being. To begin with, few languages have personal pronouns that are neuter. Certainly Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and English do not. It is therefore not possible to refer to God (or any person) in these languages in the singular without using he or she. The neuter pronoun it has an impersonal flavor in most languages and is tied to the grammatical gender of nouns, which tells us nothing about the sex of the subject . . . Thus the question of God’s “gender” must be settled on grounds other than the gender of pronouns. [6]

The same reasoning can easily be applied to the titles argument. If the biblical writers had decided to use male pronouns for God due to a lack of personal neutral terms, it naturally follows that they would ascribe masculine titles to God.

Here I need to take a moment to address a counter-argument that a number of egalitarians use that is, I believe, in error. This counter-argument revolves around the feminine imagery for God found scattered throughout the Old and New Testaments. The list is too exhaustive to cover here, but a few examples will suffice. In Deu. 32:18, God is described as giving birth to Israel while the “Father of Lights” gives birth in James 1:18. Psalm 22:9-10 depicts God as a midwife attending a birth, and in Isaiah 66:13, God promises to comfort Israel just as a mother comforts her children. Jesus presents God as a woman who sweeps her house to find a lost coin in Luke 15:8-10, and probably most significantly, in Malachi 2:13-16, God depicts himself as the scorned wife of a faithless husband with Israel in the latter role. That last example does devastate the “panentheism” argument which holds that only men are ever compared to God in biblical male-female analogies while women are compared to the church or Israel, as in that case, God is the woman while Israel is the man. However, those who see God as an essentially male or masculine being often counter that feminine imagery is used for confirmed men in the Bible, as in 2 Sam. 17:8 and Gal. 4:19. [7] While the feminine metaphors for God may work as beautiful descriptions of who God is in relation to us, they do not in themselves disprove that God is masculine or prove that God has a “feminine side.”

Some advocates for God as an essentially male being point out that God is distinctly described as an אִישׁ (man) in passages such as Exo. 15:3, but never as an אִשָּׁה (woman). However, Num. 23:19 and Hos. 11:9 specifically deny that God is an אִישׁ, and conversely, none of the books in the Old Testament ever issue a similar declaration that God is not an אִשָּׁה. If the passages calling God an אִישׁ were intended as literal statements on God’s masculinity, then the texts contradict one another. Furthermore, of all the adjectives used throughout the Old Testament to describe God, זָכָר (male) is not among them, and the children of Israel are specifically forbidden from crafting any images of God in a male (זָכָר) likeness or female (נְקֵבָה) likeness in Deu. 4:15-16—an odd specification if God is essentially masculine. Had the creation of idols been the issue at hand and not the additional perception of God as male or female, a general prohibition on the creation of idols would have sufficed.

Perhaps the greatest theological statement on God and gender comes with Gen. 1:26-27, when both sexes are said to be created in the image of God. Egalitarians are divided on the meaning of this passage. Some believe that it teaches a God who is both masculine and feminine. Others believe that the image-holding has nothing to do with gender and argue that the differentiation of humanity as male and female is a strict statement on their status as created beings, not heavenly ones. [8]

The one interpretation that does not lend itself well to Gen. 1:26-27 is the idea that God is exclusively male or masculine. If that were the case, only males could truly be said to image God. Realizing this difficulty, some male headship advocates have argued that women still image God because they have a gender at all, just as God does, [9] but this interpretation seems hopelessly strained. If masculinity is an essential part of God’s divine nature and always has been so that there is no feminine aspect within him, the entire female gender is a created, derivative construct while masculinity is an eternal one. By this understanding of gender, women do not have a real gender; what we have is gender fan-fiction.

For all of the reasons argued above, God may be understood as a genderless being or God may be understood as a being who transcends and includes aspects of both sexes, but to see God as an exclusively masculine figure is to fashion God in the image of his creation rather than letting God’s revelation of who he is speak for itself.

(continued in Part 3, “Jesus Christ, Wisdom of God”)

Part 1 — The Shack and the Gender of God
Part 3 — Jesus Christ, Wisdom of God
Part 4 — Does Jesus’ Gender Role Limit His Omnipotence?
Note: This blog series is being adapted from a paper that I wrote for Dr. Thomas McCall’s “Theology II: Christ, Man, Sin, Salvation” class in May 2010, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The paper was called, “Does Jesus’ Gender Role Limit His Omnipotence?: A Study of Sexuality and the Incarnation.” Limited parts were also used in my 2016 master’s thesis on Mormonism, gender, and theology.

[1] I recognize that there is a scientific distinction between gender and sex, wherein “gender” is a social construct while “sex” is a biological feature. However, for the purposes of this series, I will use the terms interchangeably, mostly to mean “sex.”

[2] Excluding the identification of Christ with the person of Wisdom in the Old Testament, which is addressed in Part 3 of this series.

[3] Christians who oppose the ordination of women do not all call themselves by the same homogenous term. Evangelicals who take this position currently tend to identify as “complementarians,” but that label is a fairly recent innovation, having been adopted c. 1986. Prior to that they were known simply as “traditionalists” or “hierarchists.” Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and a good number of Anglican Christians who oppose the ordination of women tend to identify as none of the above; for them, advocacy for female ordination represents a feminist incursion into what is or has been their standard position and there is no need to create a special category for what they consider to be historic orthodoxy. For the purpose of this series, I have identified those who oppose the ordination of women as “male headship advocates.”

[4] For example, see Mark David Walton, “What We Shall Be: A Look at Gender and the New Creation,” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 9.1 (Spring 2004): 24-25.

[5] Demosthenes, On the False Embassy 19:1.

[6] R. K. McGregor Wright, “God, Metaphor and Gender: Is the God of the Bible as Male Deity?,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, ed. by Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordon D. Fee (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 288.

[7] See, for example, Randy Stinson and Christopher W. Cowan, “How Shall We Speak of God? Seven Reasons Why We Cannot Call God ‘Mother,’” JBMW 13.2 (Fall 2008): 21.

[8] William David Spencer, “Editor’s Ink,” Priscilla Papers 19.1 (Winter 2005): 3.

[9] For example, see Walton, 25. Note that this argument is dependent on a substantive interpretation of the imago Dei, which is the preferred view for most male headship advocates who argue that God is masculine or male; however, I believe that a functional interpretation of the imago Dei is the correct one.

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