Monday, October 18, 2021

Anonymous Asks (167)

“Is God male or female?”

J. Manning feels there is a “connection between belief in the maleness of God and the deeply ingrained acceptance of the abuse of women in society”. Of the origins of belief in a masculine God, D.T. Williams writes, “It is felt that ascribing maleness to God was due to the superiority of the male in pre‑modem and especially Biblical culture,” and that “as modern culture is more enlightened about recognizing the equality of the sexes, so the maleness of God [is thought to be] an anachronism which should be disposed of.”

All to say that this is one of those matters into which few theologians of the pre-feminist era would have thought to inquire.

The Image of God

Genesis teaches that both male and female human beings are made in God’s image and after his likeness. What that means precisely has been vigorously debated for centuries, but we can say two things about images from our own experience of the world: (i) image and reality are two separate things; and (ii) of the two, the reality is generally greater in substance and the derived image lesser in some way. (For example, an image may be two-dimensional while the reality it represents is actually three-dimensional, or perhaps the image may be stationary, while the reality is constantly in motion.)

I think we can also say that it does not follow from being made in God’s image that every feature of either human sex can be said to possess a heavenly analogy, nor can it be demonstrated that in every aspect, both sexes correspond equally to every feature of the divine reality. Two images need not represent the same reality in precisely the same way. God possesses both qualities some people consider female — compassion, for example — and qualities that have traditionally been considered more masculine, like strength and the ability to provide protection. For the Christian, arguing about these things from a masculinist or feminist standpoint is fundamentally unproductive.

In the search for truth, it is not useful to assess the validity of a belief on the basis of our subjective impressions about its effects on society or on the basis of its antiquity. If it is the case that belief in the maleness of God has led some men to abuse women, it is equally likely that belief in the maleness of God has inspired other men to chivalry, protectiveness and service of the fairer sex. If it is the case that the ancients believed in the maleness of God, it may well have been one of the many things they got right. The real question is whether the belief is based on anything of substance.

The Christian Argument

For those who believe in the inspiration of scripture, the Christian argument for belief in the maleness of God does not derive from its utility to society or from the role of the male in pre‑modern cultures. Rather, it is based on the fact that throughout human history God has deliberately chosen to reveal himself through the language and metaphors of masculinity, consistently employing expressions like “Father” and “Son”. Most importantly of all, when the Word of God was made flesh, he was made flesh as a male. This is not a matter of what men believed about God because of personal biases; it is what God declares about himself in both word and deed.

As to the Holy Spirit, “spirit” in Greek is pneuma, meaning “wind” or “breath”. The word pneuma is neuter, so English translations which employ possessive pronouns like “its” are not being irreverent, simply grammatical. However, liberal theologians who happily adopt this convention across the board or opt to use “she” instead are ignoring the fact that the Holy Spirit is also referred to as parakletos, or “comforter”, a noun which grammatically requires masculine pronouns. Further, there are several places in the NT where pronouns associated with pneuma, despite it being neuter, have been masculinized. This is surely not accidental; the same writer has used neuter pronouns elsewhere. Moreover, in the New Testament the phrase “Holy Spirit” is used interchangeably with the terms “Spirit of God”, “Spirit of Christ”, and “the Spirit of his Son”. On what authority might we use deliberately feminized English to refer to the Spirit of one who revealed himself in human history as a man and who even in eternity is called the Son?

The Limitations of Language

All that said, since God preceded and initiated mankind (both sexes), applying words like “masculine” and “feminine” to him is a bit like trying to appreciate the color spectrum on a black and white TV screen. The colors existed in the first place to be captured on film, and reducing them to black and white still represents them to some degree, but we are also experiencing a significant loss of information, and no amount of speculation about the original colors can perfectly fill in the blanks for us. So too with God: our terms of reference are fragmentary and insufficient.

Further, because God is spirit rather than flesh, as we are, we would be foolish to try to read back our own experience of living out a human sex role into our understanding of the operations of the Godhead. Some concepts are just too big for our little heads.

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