Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Is God Male?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has stirred up a bit of controversy. They have given their imprimatur to a host of new names for the Trinity. I'd like to focus upon one. It is this: Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-Giving Womb. Many conservatives, Albert Mohler and Joe Carter among them, have condemned the terminological novelty. They ask us instead to use only the names of God that God Himself uses in Scripture and thus ask us to reject the use of such feminine names for the Trinity.

My point of entry into this debate is the question, Is God male?

The simple answer of course is 'No'. God is not male. Male is a biological category; it is the category of life-forms whose organs of reproduction create sperm for the fertilization of ova. God does no such thing as this. Thus He is not male. (Christ was male. But does this imply that any of the three persons of the Trinity is male? Surely not. To use the language of John, Christ was the union of the Logos and a particular human male. Christ qua human was male. Christ qua Logos was not. The Logos - the second person of the Trinity - is not itself male, for like the other two persons of the Trinity it is not physical.)

But why then when Scripture speaks of God does it make persistent use of masculine language? One conclusion is immediate and obvious. If God is not male, when God is referred to with a masculine pronoun (or some other bit of masculine language), that pronoun (or other bit of language) is not literal. It is rather in some way figurative.

But in what way is it figurative? How are we to understand it? Here we must begin theological speculation, for Scripture does not provide a direct answer to our question.

I can think of only one answer to our question. It is this: God must be more male-like than He is female-like in some significant regard. Only if this is true is the use of 'He'-metaphor appropriate; if it were not true, i.e. if God were more female-like than male-like, it would be appropriate not to use 'He' in reference to God but rather 'She'.

So then we are driven to ask a second question. In what way is God is more male-like than female-like? Here Scripture gives us a hint. The man, we are told, is to rule over the woman in a marriage. He is sovereign there. (Ephesians 5.22 ff, Colossians 3.18 ff and I Peter 3.1 ff. I know that some attempt to interpret these passages so that they say that husband and wife are to submit to one other equally. This does violence to the texts. If left to speak for themselves, they make clear that the husband is at the head of the family and that the wife stands behind.) Moreover, men are sovereign within the Church (1 Corinthians 14:34 and 35 e.g.); women's roles within it are quite severely restricted, for they are commanded not to speak there. Indeed his sovereignty within both family and Church is what, from a spiritual point of view, is distinctive about man; if we put this characteristic aside, there is nothing to distinguish man spiritually from woman.

Second point: God too is sovereign. His sovereignty is of course infinitely greater than that of a mere man, for it extends over the whole of creation. Moreover, a man's sovereignty within Church and home is subordinate to God's; a man is, as it were, but a lieutenant to God the general. But nonetheless both man and God are sovereign within their particular domains.

My suggestion is this: it is the sovereignty evinced by both man and God that makes use of the masculine pronoun 'He' appropriate of God. I know that this is a mere suggestion. Nothing I've said amounts to a proof. But I do find appeal in the above line of thought; it is plausible. (It is no doubt accepted by many Christians of an especially conservative bent of mind.)

If my suggestion should prove true, we have a condemnation of Biblical theology. Woman is relegated to a lesser status; she is more animal-like than God-like, for like an animal she is not to rule but to be ruled over. She is less than fully rational, for if man is to stand as sovereign in Church and home it must be because his rational faculties make him suited for that role.

One last word and I'll be done. Perhaps we should pursue another exegetical strategy here. We've assumed throughout that a certain model of Scripture's inspiration. We've assumed that God Himself has made the choice to use masculine language in description of Himself, and we've attempted to find His reason for this. But what if it was not God but was rather man who chose to use 'He' of God? Of course conservatives will not accept this; they read Scripture in such a way that it is always God and never man who chooses the manner of Scripture's composition. But I take the argument of the above to show that this conservative view is likely untenable. If we accept the conservative exegetical strategy, we find that we must attribute a most pernicious sexism to God. I'll not mince words. This is heresy. Thus the conservative exegetical strategy is likely flawed and so should be rejected.


Tom Gilson said...

I'll not mince words. This is heresy.

Heresy in terms of the prevailing 25-year-old orthodoxy; heresy if you have interpreted the Biblical position correctly. Your conclusion that women are next to animals is absolutely overblown.

I'm no expert in the passages on this topic, so I won't try to extend an answer further than that. (They require careful exegesis that would take more time than I can afford to put into this topic for now.) It's at least necessary, though, to point out that your orthodoxy rests on a foundation that is very compelling in today's views but has been completely untested by the passage of history.

Franklin Mason said...

I didn't quite say that women are next to aninals. I said rather that they are more animal-like that God-like. But on reflection that does seem more rhetorical flourish than reasonable conclusion. I withdraw it.

I'm curious though what you'd have to say about my claim that the conservative view entails that women lack, or have to a lesser degree, the sort of rationality that makes men suited to their role as leader in family and church. There must be some reason for this after all . . .