It’s been over two months now since I wrote the following paragraphs after a bit of an exchange/flap between Rachel Held Evans and Owen Strachan:
It seems that in one of Evans’s articles she referred to God with the feminine pronoun, “Herself.” Strachan, who is the President of the complementarian organization, The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, upon discovering this article of Evans, sent out a tweet which read, “Let’s stop pretending like all’s okay. Rachel Held Evans called God a she: ‘God Herself.’ This is heresy, straight up.”
For a number of biblical, theological, and even just practical reasons, I believe Evans was wrong to use a feminine pronoun for God. And in the articles which Evans and Strachan have written subsequent to this initial incident, I believe Strachan comes out way ahead as far as good, sound, biblical, hermeneutical, and logical argumentation is concerned. I’ll be posting an article on this later. But I also believe that Strachan over presses his charge by referring to this as “heresy, straight up.” What Evans did certainly has its shock value; it was ill-advised and it was unbiblical; but I believe it falls quite a bit short of being heretical.
The article I wrote then had to do with the ridicule and taunting that came Strachan’s way, and how the seat of the mocker, the taunter, the ridiculer, is a very dangerous place in which to sit. But, now, I keep my promise and come back to deal with the article which Evans wrote in response to Strachan. Her blog post article was entitled, “Is God a man? (a brief response to CBMW’s accusation of heresy).” Evans seeks to demonstrate that (1) God should not be thought of as male, and that (2) God may be appropriately referred to with feminine pronouns.
Before I look at Evans’s arguments, I want to reiterate that I still believe that Strachan was wrong to refer to Evans’s use of a feminine pronoun for God as “heresy, straight up.” Evans states in her article that she is in full agreement with the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and that she regards Scripture to be inspired and authoritative in the Christian life. She goes on to say that she believes in the proclamation of the mystery of faith—Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. I see no reason to doubt the truth or sincerity of these affirmations. My criticisms of Evans’s arguments then have to do with methodology in biblical interpretation and hermeneutics.
(1) Evans states:
I believe Scripture teaches that both men and women are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), which means both masculinity and femininity are – at some level – part of God’s nature.
The literature on what it means that humankind was created in God’s image is voluminous, and the theories are legion. While, on the one hand, it would be wrong to exempt humankind’s genderedness as at least one factor in what it means be made in God’s image, there are also certain conclusions which can be improperly drawn. And one of these conclusions is that God is either male or female, or, in the case of Evans’s article, that God must necessarily have masculine and feminine sides, or that these supposed masculine and feminine sides are necessarily part of God’s nature at some level. Frankly, there is no consensus among Old Testament scholars that the statements about humans being made in God’s image necessarily allow for inferences to be drawn about God’s sexuality, or about any masculine or feminine qualities necessarily being part of God’s nature.
(2) Evans states:
Scripture often uses feminine imagery to describe God as a mother, nurse, seamstress, midwife, etc. (Ruth 2:12, Ps. 17:8, Matt. 23:37, Isa. 46: 3-4, Job 38:29, Hos. 11:3-4, Ps. 22:9, Luke 13:20–21, Luke 15:8-9) . . .
The problems with this line of argumentation are numerous.
First, the referenced passages are almost completely irrelevant. Evidently, because God could use imagery to describe himself as a protective mother bird (Ruth 2:12; Ps 17:8; Matt 23:37), we are supposed to take this as warrant for thinking of God as feminine. I don’t see it, any more than I see warrant for addressing God as our Great Protective Hen. Despite what I think Evans may be suggesting from Isa 46:3-4; Job 38:29; Hos 11:3-4; and Ps 22:9, I don’t think any of these passages portray God in feminine terms. To keep this post from being overly long, I won’t go into a full-blown exegesis here. Suffice it to say that I think the reading of feminine imagery for God into these passages is an over-reading. And the use of the imagery of a woman baking in Luke 13, and a woman sweeping in Luke 15, frankly does very little to argue for viewing God in feminine terms. In neither parable is the typically womanly activity the actual point being made. Actually, there are much better passages that could have been used for this line of argumentation; but, of course, it’s not my job to argue the other person’s case for them.
Second, and I’ll say more about this below, none of these passages give any warrant for addressing God as female, or using feminine pronouns to refer to God. Indeed, Scripture never does.
Third, and perhaps most tellingly, this line of argumentation proves absolutely nothing. This can be demonstrated by looking at these passages:
20 I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (John 16:20-22)
19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, . . . (Gal 4:19)
Are we to conclude from these two passages that the Apostles who were in the upper room with Jesus can properly be thought of as female? And should we conclude that Paul, in Galatians 4, was simply getting in touch with his feminine side, or that it would now be safe in our theology books to refer to him in one line as Paul, and in the next line as Paula, or that it would be proper to refer to Paul as “she”? In the same way, simply because God uses feminine imagery to demonstrate his protection and care for his people, this is no reason to argue that God may properly be thought of as feminine, or referred to or addressed with feminine titles or pronouns.
These arguments from imagery, metaphor, and parable are non-starters.
(3) Evans states:
. . . the self-naming of God in Scripture is “I AM WHO I AM”—a name without gender. I suspect that’s because, though God is a person, God is not a human being like us.
This is the first of two linguistic arguments in the article, which, frankly, just don’t go anywhere. Evans argues that God named himself “I AM WHO I AM,” and that he picked out this name for himself because it has no gender. There are three huge problems with this argument.
The first is that “I AM” is simply a first-person, singular verb in Hebrew. First-person verbs in Hebrew are always non-gendered. There is no way in Hebrew to mark a first-person verb for gender. So it is completely illegitimate to argue that God, speaking to Moses in Hebrew, makes a statement about himself in the first-person, and intentionally makes sure that it has no gender marking. The argument has no force at all.
Second, even though the name has no gender marking, the other verbs describing God in the verse do have gender, and they are third-person, masculine singular.
God said [third-person, masculine, singular] to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent [third-person, masculine, singular] me to you.’ ” (Exod 3:14)
So, even though God chooses a first-person, non-gendered verb for his name, he nevertheless describes his actions in the verse using third-person masculine verbs. He had to—that’s the way Hebrew works.
Third, though God uses a first-person non-gendered verb to name himself in Exod 3:14, this is the only place where it happens. In every other place this name occurs in the rest of the Old Testament, it occurs instead as a third-person verb, YAHWEH. And this third-person verb is also masculine. Though God named himself in Exod 3:14 using the non-gendered “I am,” in the rest of the Old Testament he refers to himself with the gendered “He is.” He specifically owns the third-person version of this name in Exod 6:3. And here is the account of God’s proclamation of himself in Exod 34:6:
The LORD [Yahweh] passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD [Yahweh], the LORD [Yahweh], a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness . . . (Exod 34:6 ESV)
In addition, there are all the many places, some seventy times, where God names himself, using this third-person masculine form, in the very solemn pronouncement: “Then they will know that I am Yahweh.”
So this linguistic argument holds no weight whatsoever. God did not simply choose a first-person, non-gendered, singular verb to form his name. He also chose a third-person, masculine, singular form of that verb to name himself as well. Furthermore, that first-person, non-gendered form occurs in only one verse in the entire Old Testament. The third-person, gendered form, on the other hand, occurs nearly six thousand times.
(4) The second linguistic argument employed in the article is also completely irrelevant. Evans argues that,
. . . while God is often referred to as Father, and Jesus was certainly a man, the Hebrew word for Holy Spirit is a feminine noun. And in the New Testament, the Spirit is frequently connected with images of childbirth and nursing (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).
There are so many problems here that it is hard to deal with them in just a little bit of space. But I’ll try.
First, Evans refers to the Spirit as being a feminine noun in Hebrew, but then goes on to talk about references to the word Spirit in the New Testament being connected with childbirth, without letting the reader know that in the Greek of the New Testament, the word for “spirit” is not feminine. Nor is it masculine; it is simply neuter. So Old Testament references to the feminine noun “spirit” don’t really hook up with the neuter noun “spirit” in the New Testament.
Second, even though Evans says, “in the New Testament, the Spirit is frequently connected with images of childbirth and nursing,” interestingly, of the references she gives, only the one in John 3:5 refers to the Spirit. The other references, in John 1:13; and 1 John 4:7; 5:1, 4, and 18, do not refer to the Spirit. Rather, they have to do with God as the one who begets, or “sires”—not as a woman who gives birth. And even in the John 3:5 passage, the Spirit is almost certainly not being envisioned there as a mother giving birth. So, contrary to Evans’s assertion, the Spirit is not, in any of these passages, connected to the idea of a mother giving birth or nursing.
Third, and even more importantly, this linguistic argument is a non- “starter” from the very “start.” Biblical scholars long ago learned that in a language like Hebrew, in which all nouns are marked for gender, you cannot make arguments about the mentality of the users of language with reference to this gender marking. For example, the word for “law” in Hebrew is a feminine noun. But this means nothing. And it certainly does not mean that the Hebrews thought of the law as a female, or regarded all women as legalistic. That the word “spirit” in Hebrew is a feminine noun is of no conceptual significance whatsoever. In fact, even though the word “spirit” is a feminine noun (usually, not always), it is often coupled with masculine verbs, especially when the spirit referred to is the Spirit of God (e.g., Gen 6:3; 2 Sam 23:2; 1 Kgs 18:12; Isa 34:16). It is interesting in these verses that, even though the rule is that a verb must agree with its noun in gender, in these and other cases, the author overrides this rule, possibly because the word “spirit” is, in particular, the Spirit of God.
So, again, this argument carries no weight. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is grammatically feminine; but that does not translate into conceptually feminine. It simply is not a very good argument.
[In all fairness to Evans, she derived much of her data for the preceding arguments from an article by Mimi Haddad. Unfortunately, it is just not a very good article, and shows no real awareness of the hermeneutical or linguistic issues involved.]
(5) The fifth thing I want to mention is not so much an argument that Evans makes; rather, it has to do with the way she off-handedly refers to a phenomenon in Scripture. Already, above, I noted where Evans says, “while God is often referred to as Father.” In another place she notes, ” I don’t have a problem referring to God as Father, or as He. Scripture does this often.” The problem here is with what Evans fails to note, or how she underplays the situation with these statements. She says “God is often referred to as Father,” and that “Scripture does this often.” This is a serious downplaying of the Scriptural phenomena. When Scripture does refer to God in parental terms, it is always as “Father,” never as “Mother.” Evans says that she has no problem referring to God as He and that Scripture does this “often.” However, again, “often” doesn’t do justice to the scriptural data. She should have said it this way: “I have no problem with referring to God as He. Scripture never does anything else.”
(6) Frankly, the points I have made above, to my mind, are fairly conclusive. I don’t think any of Evans’s arguments stand up to scrutiny—not even close. The point I’m going to make now, however, is more controversial. And I’m sure it is the one I’ll get the most flack for. Evans states the following:
I believe that when we declare God to be exclusively male, we flirt with idolatry, for we re-create God in a human image.
On the one hand, I really do appreciate the point that Evans tries to make here. On the other hand, however, I think it overstates the case and ends up calling something idolatry which is not idolatry. Or, to put that another way, I think Evans’s assertion is actually wrong.
When Scripture refers to God as a parent, as I’ve already said, it always refers to him and addresses him as Father, never as Mother. When Scripture refers to God pronominally, it always refers to him as He, never as She. There are no exceptions. None.
Biblical theologians often refer to something they call the “scandal of particularity.” God did not reveal himself to everyone. Rather he revealed himself to a particular people, at a particular time, at a particular place. He did not reveal himself to all peoples. He did not provide a redemptive exodus for all nations. He did not give every people their own set of scriptures. He did not send a Jesus, a Savior, a Redeemer to live personally and historically in every people group. The history of redemption, the holy Scriptures, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—all of these things are “once and for all.” These things all happened through one people’s particular history, in one particular location, through one set of historical figures.
It is through this one particular people, this one particular set of Scriptures, this one Savior, that God has chosen to reveal himself. Through this history, through these Scriptures, through this Savior, we have set before us the God-authorized way in which he wishes to be envisioned. This is how he has revealed himself. He has revealed himself as Father, not as Mother. He has revealed himself as He, not as She. He has revealed himself as male, not as female. Over, and over, and over again he portrays himself in masculine terms. Notice the following phenomena:
“The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.” (Exod 15:3 ESV)
God is consistently portrayed as Israel’s husband, but never as Israel’s wife.
God is Israel’s King, never Israel’s queen.
God is Israel’s Father, never Israel’s mother.
God is always the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, never the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, to use the language of Karl Barth, God is wholly other. He is beyond all our imaginings, beyond all our conceptualizing. And I fully confess that God has accommodated himself to our understanding. Paraphrasing John Calvin, God has baby-talked to us, he has lisped in speaking to us. Perhaps all the language in the Bible is analogical, accommodative language. And perhaps understanding this might serve as justification for attempting to go beyond the language of Scripture and say that God is neither male nor female. But this is not the testimony of Scripture. And I believe there is a danger in going beyond the language of Scripture and making confident assertions as to what God is “really like.”
So here is my disagreement with Evans on this point: When someone envisions God as male, even exclusively so, per the language of the only Scriptures which God has given to us, per the only revelation of himself which God has given to us, this is by no means idolatrous. Indeed, it is the only God-authorized way God has given us in which to envision him. In the only Scripture which God has given us, in the only special revelation we have received, God is portrayed exclusively as male. To think of God in scriptural terms, even exclusively in biblical terms, should never be regarded as idolatrous.
However, when one wishes to go beyond the language of Scripture and make statements as to what God is “really like”—it is precisely in this position that one must be careful of straying off into idolatrous territory. I do not say that this is idolatry; but I do think the danger is there. And that this danger has the potential for being realized has already been well demonstrated in the Re-Imagining God movement, conferences, and literature of the 1990s, the ramifications of which are still with us today.
Without by any means claiming that Herman Bavinck would necessarily have agreed with everything I have said in this last point, I believe the following quotation from him demonstrates the point well:
. . . the names which we use in mentioning and addressing God are not arbitrary: they are not the mere inventions of our mind. Rather it is God himself who in nature and in grace reveals himself consciously and freely, who gives us the right to name him on the ground of his revelation, and who has even made known to us in his Word the names which are based on that revelation. (The Doctrine of God)
Again, I reiterate, to conceptualize God through the language and descriptions which he himself has provided in the special revelation which he has given us is never wrong, and it is not idolatrous. To go beyond Scripture in naming and conceptualizing God is not necessarily idolatrous, but, to use Evans’s term, it is indeed “flirting” with it. To think of God in male terms is not, as Evans suggests, to “re-create God in a human image.” Rather, it is thinking of God in the terms which he himself has given us to use in our conceptualizing of God.
One last word. If the reader would like to delve into this whole discussion more deeply, I can think of no better resource than John W. Cooper’s Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God (Baker, 1998). It is a tremendously fair-minded discussion of the issues: biblically, theologically, historically, linguistically, philosophically, etc. On the one hand, and to the chagrin of those in favor of using gender-inclusive language for God, he comes down squarely against this practice. On the other hand, against the traditional complementarian position (my own position), he notes that he has “defended the hermeneutical and theological integrity of arguments for the ordination of women in my own denomination [the Christian Reformed Church].” Beyond this, he also states:
I follow a number of other biblically orthodox Christians in recommending that the church bring the language of faith more fully into conformity with the language of Scripture by incorporating feminine imagery for God within its traditional, biblically based pattern of speech. . . . Recovering the biblical feminine imagery for God is not capitulation to the women’s liberation movement. It is an example of continuing reformation in the light of the Word of God.
I am in full accord with this last statement. And Cooper devotes an entire chapter in his book to this recovery project. Nevertheless, his bottom line is as follows:
In the end the book concludes that gender-inclusive language for God and the biblical-historical Christian faith are incompatible. I can find no successful way to combine a high view of Scripture, sound exegesis, standard linguistics, doctrinal orthodoxy, and good logic to justify inclusive language for God.
And, of course, I am fully in accord with this understanding.
I think Owen Strachan used very unfortunate, reactionary language in applying the word “heresy” to what I consider to be more of a second-order, non-creedal, theological issue. I think Rachel Held Evans ill-advisedly, unbiblically, and without sound logic, used feminine-gendered language to refer to God. I do not know either one of them. I trust they are both seeking to be faithful believers, faithful to God and to his word. And I pray that I am as well.
August 6, 2014
A keeper! Thanks for this excellent article!
Thanks, Elsie. I thought it was an important set of heremeneutical misconceptions to respond to.
Thanks so much for wading into this discussion and for the grace and clarity with which you explain things. Much appreciated.
Thanks, Dennis. I was hoping to hit a good medium between grace and firmness.
Not that my reminiscing will add anything to the conversation but, I can’t resist. This spring I was at a retreat centre and during a worship time the Lord’s prayer began with, “Our Father, Our Mother who art in heaven…” This conversation is not confined to the blogosphere and the real world conversations can be just as heated as Strachan’s tweet.
Thanks, Jon. Theological debates are rarely, if ever, unrelated to every day life; and your anecdote illustrates that.