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Should we address God as ‘she’ (like Sweden)?

female-god

A minor theological news storm has blown up about the apparent decision of the Lutheran Church of Sweden to stop using masculine terms (the pronoun ‘he’ and the title ‘Lord’) in reference to God. The main article appeared in the Telegraph but was also reported in the Independent—though this second version appeared to be entirely dependent on the first, which both offers an interesting exercise in source criticism and warns us against giving weight to a story just because it is in more than one paper. (Journalists do read other newspapers!) Some would see the move as significant, though it was actually slightly more modest than the headline suggested:

Priests can now open their services by referring to the traditional “Father, son and Holy Ghost” or the gender-neutral phrase “in the name of God and the Holy Trinity”. Other gender-neutral options are available for other parts of the Church of Sweden liturgy…

“We talk about Jesus Christ, but in a few places we have changed it to say ‘God’ instead of ‘he’,” Church of Sweden spokesperson Sofija Pedersen Videke told The Telegraph. “We have some prayer options that are more gender-neutral than others.”

 There were three interesting aspects to the story. The first was that the move was criticised theologically from within Sweden.

Christer Pahlmblad, an associate theology professor at Lund University in Sweden, told Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad that the decision was “undermining the doctrine of the Trinity and the community with the other Christian churches.It really isn’t smart if the Church of Sweden becomes known as a church that does not respect the common theology heritage,” he said. The Church of Sweden has 6.1 million baptised members in a country with a population of 10 million.

The second was that the position is quite distinct from the Church of England, and this was made clear in the Telegraph story:

The Church of England told The Telegraph that it also chooses to avoid divisive language in its services, but not with regards to God.  “When liturgy is revised we also seek to use inclusive language where appropriate when referring to people,” a spokesperson said.

“The Church of England has always used masculine language when speaking about God, for example in the words of the Lord’s Prayer – ‘our Father, who art in Heaven’ – and in referring to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and continues to do so.”

Kudos to the Telegraph for asking—and kudos to the Church of England (anonymous) spokesperson [see what I did there?] who gave a theologically informed response to a newspaper.


But the third interesting thing about the story is the response from the Church of Sweden that the story was untrue—it is still perfectly possible to use traditional, masculine language about God.

“It’s not true,” repeated Sofija Pedersen Videke, head of the Church’s service of worship committee, which was heavily involved in the work on the new handbook before it went before the Church Assembly. “The old handbook is from 1986 and the new edition is much more in line with the Swedish Bible translation made in 2000,” Pedersen Videke told The Local. “God is beyond ‘she’ and ‘he’, God is so much more. We want variation when it comes to how you express yourself, just like in the Bible.”

Actually, this is only half true. The report goes on:

The Church Assembly also agreed to use the female grammatical gender for the Holy Spirit, as it the case in Hebrew as well as in the 2000 Swedish Bible translation (‘den heliga anden’ as opposed to ‘den helige ande’).

The difficulty here is that the Spirit (in orthodox Christian belief) is God, and to use the feminine gender as a change to traditional language, and in a contemporary context, actually has a different significance from the Hebrew ruach being feminine in grammatical gender, not least because it can also mean ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, which have impersonal connotations.

This complex issue hit the headlines two years ago, with the suggestion that things might change in the Church of England with the appointment of women as bishops, so I reproduce here what I wrote then.


From 2015: A little storm brewed up over the weekend on the question of whether we can address God as ‘she’ and use female images to describe God. It arose from some comments made at the Faith Debate on the difference that women bishops might make. (I think it rather unhelpful that this debate was an inter-faith panel which included Hindu, Islamic and Pagan representatives, because it suggests that the Church of England’s decision on women bishops was part of a pan-religious feminism rather than arising from reflection on Christian theology and Scripture.)

The reporting of the issues followed some predictable lines. This is, it seems, the beginning of an irresistible trend:

Support is growing within the Church of England to rewrite its official liturgy to refer to God as female following the selection of the first women bishops.

And like all trends it is secretly being trialled in various places—there is a take-over by stealth:

“The reality is that in many churches up and down the country something more than the almost default male language about God is already being used…Quietly clergy are just talking about God as ‘she’ every now and then.”

And in the Mail there was the usual rent-a-reaction from Anne Widdicombe

God clearly isn’t a She as a She can’t be a father. This is plain silly, unbiblical and ridiculous. I think it’s the work of a few lunatics.


Amidst all the media sensationalising, some important points were missed. The first is that this debate is hardly new; there was a Grove booklet on inclusive language back in the 1980s. As Kate Bottley puts is rather arrestingly:

For many of us with a theological persuasion the debate about gender-specific pronouns for the Divine is as dated as a fondue set and flares, but apparently to some normal people this is not the case.

Secondly, there are two separate (though related) issues involved here. One is the language we use about people (where the first ‘inclusive language’ debates happened); the other is about the language we use about God. Both of these suffer from a problem that we have in English (and in many languages) which is the lack of a UGASP—an UnGender Assigned Singular Pronoun. In other words, it is very difficult to refer to an individual without specifying his or her (there, you see?) sex. (Strictly speaking, ‘sex’ refers to whether someone is a man or a woman; gender is socially constructed and relates to roles and expectations. But it is odd to talk about ‘sex’ all the time, so these debates are usually, wrongly, described in terms of ‘gender’)

This is manifested in the struggle of some recent Bible translations. For example, the NRSV, committed to gender-inclusive language use for humanity, rather clumsily translated Matt 4.4 as ‘One does not live by bread alone’, which made use of the closest English has to a UGASP, but in doing so made Jesus sound like the Queen on a picnic. On Facebook, the lack of a UGASP is manifested in my being told that I need to send a message to John because ‘they’ have a birthday, even if there is only one of them.


The third issue is again rather helpfully highlighted by Kate in her Guardian piece:

God as feminine is nothing new. Scripture and Christian tradition often describes God using female imagery. God as mother hen protectively gathering her chicks under her wings. God as a woman making bread, moulding and shaping us. God as a nursing mother, feeding and connected to her child….

[But] God is not a woman. And God is not a man. God is God.

TTtZ3dMDThe most prominent images in Scripture of God are the male images, but the female images are not absent. (There is quite a good list of them here; the main references are Hosea 11.3–4 and 13.8, Isaiah 42.14, 49.15 and 66.13, Deut 32.11-12 and 18. Perhaps the most striking ones in the NT are of the kingdom of God being like a women kneading dough (Lk. 13:20-21), God being like a woman who has lost a coin (Luke 15.8–10) and Jesus likening himself to a mother hen (Matt 23.37, Luke 13.34). Most striking of all as a female image in ministry is Paul’s description of himself as a women in labour (Gal 4.19).

Underlying this is a very clear claim: God does not have a gender. Although the gendered identity of humanity has its origins in our creation in the image of God, Gen 1 is very clear that neither gender on its own is the image of God:

So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1.27)

In a culture and context where gods where male or female, and where for the most part the male gods conquered and controlled the female, this is a striking statement. If we think that the male more truly represents the ‘image and likeness’ of God than the female, we are contradicting a central claim of the biblical revelation about God.


Does that mean, then, that we should use the feminine singular pronoun for God, prioritise female imagery, and change male-gendered metaphors for God (‘father’) into the equivalent female-gendered metaphors (‘mother’)? In short: no, yes and no.

On pronouns, I would agree that talking of God as ‘he’ runs the danger of making people think God is male, and to avoid using this pronoun would be a good thing. The problem here is that (like the NRSV’s clumsy royal UGASP), there is a danger that we draw attention to the issue if we refer to ‘Godself’, which simply isn’t English. I think the problem gets worse, not better, if we use ‘she’ for God. At least ‘he’ has the virtue of making the claim to be the universal pronoun (though this is disputed); ‘she’ has no such historic claim, and so suggests that God does have a gender, and that that gender is up for debate.

On using feminine biblical imagery, yes of course we should. It is there, and it is important.

On changing biblical metaphors, there is rather a lot at stake. Kate Bottley somehow manages to make reference to kangaroo testicles, but does so to make exactly the right point:

Celebrities challenged to eat the bits of a kangaroo that wouldn’t make your average tin of better-priced dog food often declare: “It tastes just like chicken!” Of course it doesn’t. Chicken tastes like chicken and kangaroo bits taste like kangaroo bits. But the contestant has no other way to describe it, given that most of us never have, and probably never will, taste the part of the kangaroo they are dining on. We cannot describe the indescribable and for me that’s what it’s like when we try to use human language to describe God.

God is not a woman. And God is not a man. God is God. But we can only describe God in the terms we can easily comprehend, comparing God to something we know better.

She is referring here to our use of metaphors. Metaphors are the way by which we transport meaning from an arena of life that we know into an arena of life which we don’t yet know. (In Greece, the metaphores is literally the removal lorry.) In fact, it is arguable that metaphor is the way in which language is extended to express new meaning; just think of ‘inflation’ in economics, genes as ‘packets of information’ in biology, or how you are now ‘surfing the internet’ or even ‘visiting’ my website.


061-ntwright-fullOne of the crucial things about metaphors is that they relocate meaning from one place to another place—so to understand the metaphor properly we need to understand both places that the metaphor connects. When Jesus calls God ‘Father’, he is not simply using a generic, patriarchal parental term. He is making use of it in a particular context, and (as Tom Wright points out in The Lord and his Prayer), part of that is about the son sharing in the father’s business, which in this case is the kingdom of God. It is no coincidence that after calling God ‘Father’, we immediate pray ‘May your kingdom come’. The same is true with language of sonship; men and women in Christ are all ‘sons’ in the sense that we all stand to inherit the kingdom, since in the first century it was sons who inherited. (This is a nice example of how gendered metaphors can even deconstruct their gendered expression.)

But there is something more fundamental about the metaphors in Scripture, and this is where I would part company with Kate’s approach. At one level I would agree that ‘our language is inadequate’—and yet it is through our language that God has chosen to express the truth about who God is. So it might not be ideal, but God has said it is enough. Yet it is only enough if we recognise its limits. The use of metaphor to describe God is a distinctive feature of Christian theology, since metaphor constantly says to us that this language can communicate—but don’t think that by doing so, you have mastered God.

I was recently at a conference which focussed on the Greek first century context of the New Testament, and the first paper exploring the language of revelation in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), in Philo the Jewish philosopher, and in Greek religious texts. What was striking was the difference in language used about God’s self-revelation. In the other traditions, the gods could be ‘seen’ by people—but in the OT there was a distinctive restriction of expressed, where God ‘manifested’ himself. When we encounter God’s revelation of himself, there is genuine communication and connection, but God never becomes the object of our experience in the way that the world around us does.

There is a parallel here between the God’s revelation of himself in Scripture and God’s revelation of himself in Jesus (which Peter Enns has written about in Inspiration and Incarnation). Human frailty might be inadequate to express the truth about God, but in both cases this is what God has chosen to reveal himself. If we think the language of God as ‘father’ is inadequate and needs to be replaced, then we are suggesting that Jesus was not merely located in first century Jewish culture, but also trapped in its inadequacies.

Christianity uses metaphors because it makes the unique claim that God is both beyond human comprehension and yet somehow makes himself comprehendible. Using specific, historically conditioned metaphors is a central part of that, and we tinker with them at our peril.


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50 Responses to Should we address God as ‘she’ (like Sweden)?

  1. simon ponsonby November 28, 2017 at 9:27 am #

    NO – never! God is who he is in his self disclosure -and he is revealed as he and not she. Female metaphors in Scripture not withstanding, we address God in the language God gives us to address him – and he never in Scripture invites us to address him as she. There are plenty of she ‘gods’ in pagan religions but the God and Father our Lord Jesus Christ aint one of them. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name….Wolfhardt Panneberg is right “on the lips of Jesus, “Father” becomes a proper name for God” – and this title is “non negotiable”.

  2. Clive November 28, 2017 at 9:35 am #

    Dear Ian

    You wrote:
    “….Strictly speaking, ‘sex’ refers to whether someone is a man or a woman; gender is socially constructed and relates to roles and expectations. But it is odd to talk about ‘sex’ all the time, so these debates are usually, wrongly, described in terms of ‘gender’….”

    Only this isn’t really true.

    The re-definition of gender is a 21st century phenomena entirely. One only has to look at things likes passports that stated “Gender:” and for which the answer was either Male or Female and no other options even existed.

    Kate the is quoted writing in her Guardian piece:

    “God as feminine is nothing new. Scripture and Christian tradition often describes God using female imagery…..”

    The use of the word “often” is very inaccurate here and misleading. God is occasionally referred to as feminine however, in reality, God is almost always referenced as masculine and the few references of God as feminine refer to characteristics (the one quoted is the mother hen) so do not contradicted God as masculine so much as saying that God has some nominally feminine characteristics as well.

    You then write:
    “….At least ‘he’ has the virtue of making the claim to be the universal pronoun (though this is disputed)….”

    It is only disputed in the 21st century, it has not actually been disputed for centuries so those disputing it have yet to actually make the case properly.

    The real point is that we worship Jesus as Lord, and Lord over the Church, and Jesus calls God ‘Father’.

    • Will Jones November 28, 2017 at 11:14 am #

      Hi Clive

      I agree – the supposed distinction between sex and gender is a recent invention of gender theory intended to establish the concept of gender identity as something fluid and separable from biology. It has no basis in the historical use of the term, and as an innovation should be resisted as an ideological corruption of language.

    • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

      Clive and Will

      I don’t think this is correct on a couple of grounds. First, actually historical usage. If there was no need (prior to modernity) to differentiate between biological sex and socially constructed expressions, then there would have been no need to use two different terms…and this is in fact the case. My handy dictionary tells me thus:

      The word gender has been used since the 14th century as a grammatical term, referring to classes of noun designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter in some languages. The sense ‘the state of being male or female’ has also been used since the 14th century, but this did not become common until the mid 20th century. Although the words gender and sex both have the sense ‘the state of being male or female’, they are typically used in slightly different ways: sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender refers to cultural or social ones.

      So where the two ideas coalesce, no-one would need to reach for gender. Thus we read in Jane Austen Darcy challenging Lizzie: ‘Are you so hard on your own sex?’

      This leads to the second issue. In a context where it is believed that biological sex non-negotiably determines social understanding of roles, there is no need to distinguish the two. Even if the separation has been led by ‘gender theory’, it is in fact cross-cultural experience and awareness that tells us that social roles for the sexes is indeed (to some extent) either fluid or negotiable. Men and women do indeed relate differently in different cultures.

      So you can be suspicious of the use of these terms when used to argue that sex identity is fluid (which in fact does not logically follow from the distinction). But to reject such a distinction, you need to believe that my being born male *determines* my social role in all regards.

      Are either of you really going to argue for this…?

      • Will Jones November 28, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

        Thanks Ian. I can see that Oxford makes that distinction. Cambridge doesn’t appear to: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/gender
        The physical and/or social condition of being male or female. ‘Does this test show the gender of the baby?’

        Nor Collins: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/gender
        A person’s gender is the fact that they are male or female.

        I guess I don’t wholly trust the OED not to be politically motivated in some of their definitions, or at least overly keen on allowing the latest usage to drive changes in definitions. They refer to ‘typical usage’ which means their impression of how people currently use it; I didn’t see any evidence of this being a historical distinction. As you say, gender was very rare in English before the mid-20th century and used mainly grammatically (the etymology is the same as genre and genus and just means ‘kind’, I can’t see any particular etymological connection with social as opposed to biological forms). I question whether this was a connotation that was present historically – do you have any examples which show it? That would be really interesting.

      • Will Jones November 28, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

        Thanks Ian. I can see that Oxford makes that distinction. Cambridge doesn’t appear to: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/gender
        The physical and/or social condition of being male or female. ‘Does this test show the gender of the baby?’

        Nor Collins:
        A person’s gender is the fact that they are male or female.

        I guess I don’t wholly trust the OED not to be politically motivated in some of their definitions, or at least overly keen on allowing the latest usage to drive changes in definitions. They refer to ‘typical usage’ which means their impression of how people currently use it; I didn’t see any evidence of this being a historical distinction. As you say, gender was very rare in English before the mid-20th century and used mainly grammatically (the etymology is the same as genre and genus and just means ‘kind’, I can’t see any particular etymological connection with social as opposed to biological forms). I question whether this was a connotation that was present historically – do you have any examples which show it? That would be really interesting.

        • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 2:43 pm #

          Will, what the dictionaries mask is that the use of gender at all for people’s sex is an innovation. I don’t think in earlier centuries the question would have been asked of the baby’s ‘gender’; what would have been asked is the baby’s sex.

          But the underlying question remains: would you or Clive want to argue that the social expression of someone’s sex is determined by their biological sex?

          If not, what word would you use for that social expression?

          • Will Jones November 28, 2017 at 3:02 pm #

            I don’t think social expression of sex/gender is determined by biology, though I think biology indicates (and constrains) social expressions which are more practical and healthier for human beings (and more in keeping with God’s designs and the moral law). I think I would just use a phrase like ‘social and cultural expressions of gender’.

            Personally I use gender when the word sex would be confusing or sound inappropriate because of its other meaning(s). I think others do similarly, and that they aren’t (unless intentionally adopting the new usage) primarily thinking in terms of a social/biological distinction.

            I accept that applying the word gender to the sexes is a relatively recent innovation, though I think that drawing a biological/social distinction between sex and gender is a more recent innovation still.

          • Clive November 28, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

            Dear Ian,

            You wrote:
            “……The word gender has been used since the 14th century as a grammatical term, referring to classes of noun designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter in some languages……”

            Ummm

            So what would have happened 10 years ago when you tried to say that your gender was “neuter” on your passport application?

            I sort of agree that the word “sex” would have been used more frequently than “gender” in the past but then that doesn’t change much of the discussion I don’t think.

          • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 4:26 pm #

            Clive, no I didn’t. That was the dictionary quotation. I trust you are familiar with the notion of ‘semantic range’. The use of gender as a grammatical term is connected with but not identical to the homonymic use of the term elsewhere. So I am not sure your questions means anything; if it does, it highlights that lack of carry-over from grammar to personal sex and gender.

            But you still haven’t answered my question: do you believe that cultural expressions of sex identity are pre-determined by biological sex? If not, what do you call the former, since you cannot use the latter for that?

          • Clive November 28, 2017 at 10:16 pm #

            Dear Ian,

            I haven’t really answered your question because I don’t really know the answer for myself and you have just made me pause and think in return.

          • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 10:50 pm #

            Clive—great. It is the central issue in this whole debate.

      • Christine November 28, 2017 at 5:19 pm #

        Dear Ian, Will and Clive,
        On the subject of gender as a grammatical term, the German for ‘ovary’ is masculine – ‘der Eierstock’. This is one example of many, but it just made me smile. But seriously, this is a very interesting discussion and the more I think about ‘gender’ as a way of defining people, the more questions I have about it.
        Ian my answer is ‘yes’ to your question ‘do you believe that cultural expressions of sex identity are predetermined by biological sex?’. Yet ‘what boys are like’ and ‘what girls are like’ varies considerably within and across cultures. For instance, when I was a little girl, I liked the nursery rhyme words ‘Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of’ and ‘snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails, that’s what little boys are made of’ . (Sorry, gentlemen 🙂 ) In those days, in the part of Wales where I grew up, girls who behaved the way most boys behaved were called ‘tomboys’ and boys who behaved the way most girls behaved were called ‘sissies’. Do you think that concepts of ‘gender’ may be informed by the characteristic behaviour of boys and girls in a particular culture and on expectations we form on the basis of our observations of such behaviour?

        • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 10:52 pm #

          I think that biological sex does significantly shape cultural expressions. There is a stack of evidence that there are some basic brain differences, and bodily difference and hormonal difference will have significance influence too.

          But that does not mean that all roles are predetermined. The biological influences will always find their expression in particular cultural forms, and these might well vary from time to time and culture to culture, as well as having continuity.

  3. Phill November 28, 2017 at 9:41 am #

    I’m just gonna leave this one here…

    https://babylonbee.com/news/bigoted-progressive-christian-refuses-call-god-preferred-pronouns/

  4. Thomas Renz November 28, 2017 at 10:59 am #

    Ian, two minor points by way of observation and question. (1) To be pedantic, maybe, the Hebrew ruach is generally fem. but it is also (rarely) attested as masc., so in Ex 10:13.19; Nu 11:31; Is 57:16; Jr 4:12; Ezk 27:26; Ps 51:12; 78:39; Jb 4:15; 8:2; 20:3; 41:8; Qoh 1:6; 3:19 (references from HALOT). And of course in many instances one would not be able to tell, namely when there is no verb form or pronoun associated with the noun to give away the grammatical gender.

    (2) Do you happen to know how frequently, if at all, the feminine singular pronoun is used in the NT to refer to the Holy Spirit?

  5. David W November 28, 2017 at 11:27 am #

    I’m surprised that there is no reference to Romans 8 and Galatians 4, and how the Spirit (“of the Son”) enables us to cry out “Abba, Father”. Thus that we find ourselves addressing God as ‘Father’ seems to me to be a pretty fundamental part of what it means to be a Christian.

    • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

      Except that calling on those passages simpliciter just avoids the question.

      Does calling God ‘Father’ mean God is male?

      Does calling God ‘Father’ mean that there are fundamental aspects of male parenting which God manifests, and God does *not* manifest the complementary or corresponding aspects of female parenting?

      Or does calling God ‘Father’ in a first-century context mean that God manifests things which were in the first century associated with fatherhood, but which might or might not be associated with fathering today?

      And what is the relation between God as our father and God as the God and Father of the Son?

      • Christine November 28, 2017 at 9:17 pm #

        Simple questions here from one who is not well-versed theologically: As Jesus had a mother in Mary, if he had addressed and referred to God as his mother, would we have to conclude that he had two mothers and no father? Might anyone be tempted to think that Joseph was his father, which according to the scriptures he was not?

        • Christine November 29, 2017 at 5:32 am #

          ‘Does calling God ‘Father’ mean that there are fundamental aspects of male parenting which God manifests and God does *not* manifest the complementary or corresponding aspects of female parenting?’
          I have a thought which does not directly answer your question but which may suggest a link between God and human fathers which does not link in the same way with human mothers, and which is focussed on procreation rather than parenting ( raising offspring)
          To begin with God: He created us bodily and then reaches out to us and makes His home in us, if we are willing (Revelation 3:16 ) {and we are given new life in the Spirit}.
          A man (or more specifically his sperm, when procreation takes place) reaches out to a woman (or more specifically her ovum, when procreation takes place) and the sperm ‘makes its home’ in the ovum, and a new (bodily) life is conceived in the woman’s womb.
          I know that Rev. 3:16 applies to men, too, and that God makes His home in men ,too, and gives men new life in the Spirit , but when we are considering the conception of Christ Incarnate, whereas both Mary and Joseph were filled with the Holy Spirit, the new life in bodily form, the baby Jesus, was miraculously conceived inside Mary when the Holy Spirit entered her womb. So God was the Father of Christ Incarnate when He entered her womb in the form of the Holy Spirit. Correspondingly a mortal men becomes a father when his sperm enters the womb of a woman and new life is created.(Created by God, of course)
          This is not as clear as I would like it to be, but I hope it is clear enough and I would be interested in any thoughts any of you have about it.

          • Christine November 29, 2017 at 5:42 am #

            Correction: Revelation 3:20 (not 3:16)- but you probably spotted that anyway!

  6. Simon November 28, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    Yes – very good point indeed

  7. Christopher Shell November 28, 2017 at 12:23 pm #

    BIBLICAL TITLES AND ATTRIBUTES – There is a bias to the masculine over the feminine, quite a strong bias. The most central titles are some of the most masculine. I AM, the most central of all, is however an exception.

    There are several feminine roles ascribed to God, but that is to be expected as scripture is over 1000 pages long, so one would expect there to be some. However, this does not go so far as God being given a feminine gender or feminine key title, or referred to as ‘she’.

    In terms of the big picture, there is the wedding and wedding supper of the Lamb.

    There is also the masculinity of Jesus.

    ‘God the Son’ is an interesting debating point – how far that formulation reflects the scriptural intention – let alone the universal scriptural intention. It smacks more of later cut-and-dried dogma; but that alone does not make it unbiblical, not by any means.

    A third pronoun neither he nor she might certainly be appropriate; however, biblical writers felt content with ‘he’, and one has to check their reasons for that first (apart from no third pronoun being available).

    Lewis’s idea that God is very masculine indeed (the masculinity before which everything else becomes feminine) has the virtue of being incorporated in a very well worked-out system of thought (system of biblical theology).

    One would different conclusions here depending on whether one was speaking of the God of the Scriptures (top-down revelation) or of the God we deduce in Philosophy of Religion (bottom-up cogitation). Both have a very valuable place, and also their limitations.

    The idea that there is an *even* balance between masculine and feminine in biblical portrayals of God is a clear example of ideology; and, worse, idolatry; and, worst, dishonesty. This is an example of not allowing things to be as they clearly are (as though anyone had the right to do that), but foregrounding our own time-bound, culture-bound and relatively trivial concerns.

    A key point is that the debate is vitiated by two things: (1) the refusal in some circles to admit that anyone female can be wrong or immature in anything; (2) the use of male etc as a smear-word which is deeply hurtful and inaccurate.

    • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 2:50 pm #

      But, Christopher, all of that needs to be contexualised in a patriarchal world, and the key question hermeneutically is the extent to which a social patriarchy which most of us would not see as binding shapes the deployment of this terminology.

      For example, in the first century it was widely believed that children were offspring of their fathers see, and that mothers were merely the vessel in which they grew and through which they were transferred.

      What impact does recognising this as a false biological assumption change the way we read any of these texts?

      • Christopher Shell November 28, 2017 at 5:56 pm #

        Yes – as ever, a single change impacts everything else (ripple effect).

        Supposing we take away that wrong if understandable biological assumption: I think there are a lot of enduring male-female complementarities without which literary history, romance, and the big narrative of the Bible (to name but 3) lie dead. Men flourish with adventure; women love to be chased. Women flourish with love, men with respect. In the wedding service, wives obey, whereas men honour or worship. Complementarity (which does not imply any lack of equality) is a glorious thing, and there would be no sexual attraction (which makes the world go round) without it. It is all so extremely subtly balanced (e.g., men needing to become civilised or gents in order to attain their carrot, namely sex), and with the sexual revolution we have found that the slightest (or not so slight) disturbance can cause havoc. Over my dead body do we (I was going to say ’emasculate’…) flatten romance: that’s a backwards step when we should be seeking forwards steps. The picture of Christ and the church is rich: the glorious Lord and the receptive expectant one that has waited and longed. God as Father (initiator, eternally active agent, progenitor – and it remains the case that the male’s sexual contribution comes first chronologically) is a pleasantly specific and contingent (not theoretical or a priori) idea; it amounts to something very different to God as mother. It is earth that has, not without reason, traditionally been called mother, and likewise the church – in both cases because they are warm, fruitful, and homely. So to return to my first point – disturb even a single thread of that, and the law of unintended consequences kicks in as the whole thing unravels.

        Also, I find that revisionists are more clued up on the easy bit – listing what they don’t like about the present regime. Probing into whether they can come up with a better, that produces better-achieving (or fails to produce far worse) results – that yields a different story. And (secondly) I do not think they can even come up with a self-consistent system that does not contradict itself.

  8. John Gay November 28, 2017 at 3:38 pm #

    Jesus called God ‘Father’. Given that he knows God better than I do, I’ll go with that!

    • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 4:24 pm #

      OK, but some of the NT writers call God ‘despot’. What are you going to do with that?

    • Christine November 29, 2017 at 9:10 pm #

      Yes, when Jesus called God ‘Father he knew exactly what he was saying and God knew all about cultural attitudes towards men and women at the time.

      • Christine November 29, 2017 at 9:12 pm #

        My most recent comment was in reply to Simon – I’m not sure where to place these replies where I want them to go!

  9. simon ponsonby November 28, 2017 at 5:15 pm #

    Dont be naughty Ian – modern use-age of ‘despot’ though derived conveys a very different sense than the ancient Greek ‘despotes’ – but the same can’t be said for the universal ‘father’. Incidentally, do you know of any translations that go with ‘despot’ ?

    • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 10:57 pm #

      No, of course not. But the point I am making is that words mean different things in different cultures.

      We are bizarrely oblivious to the connotations—both then and now—of the word ‘Lord’. The only reason it appears acceptable to us is that it has become a religious word with its own, self-contained, semantic range.

      • simon November 29, 2017 at 6:25 am #

        That’s true – I wont mention that Sarah called Abraham Lord – that opens a whole can of worms!

  10. Christopher Shell November 28, 2017 at 5:30 pm #

    I had an amusing experience when leafleting outside the Reformation 500 years joint Anglican-Lutheran service at Westminster Abbey on…Halloween. I was thanked effusively before and after the service by a Lutheran pastor for my endeavours, and he went on to publicise my leaflet to others of his acquaintances. Trouble is, my leaflet, which he had not yet had time to read, said the exact opposite of what he expected. I imagine they got home, settled down, took a look at it and went ‘Aaaargh!’.

  11. Mat Sheffield November 28, 2017 at 10:04 pm #

    Oh no, not again.

    *flashbacks of coverage two years ago*

    I just think this is very silly.

    While I would definitely affirm the measured criticisms coming from within Sweden, media coverage of this kind of issue (adjustments to biblical language for the sake of ‘inclusivity’) tends to achieve very little, well, save for one thing: it draws out the red-faced conservative reactionaries from their greenhouses and cups of Earl Grey, causing them to turn off Radio 4 for just long enough to write angry letters to the Times, all so they can in turn be laughed at by the prevailing progressive media zeitgeist.

    I despair.

    God is both male and female, fully both, and yet at the same time, neither. God is both like, and quite unlike us. The attempt to classify God in terms of the limited human binary is to miss the point entirely and to create God in our image, not the other way around.

    • Clive November 28, 2017 at 10:18 pm #

      Sorry Mat, I don’t particularly like Earl Grey

    • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 10:59 pm #

      Yes, Mat, but it is a great opportunity to rehearse the things you mention—which, from the reaction, clearly need rehearsing!

      • Mat Sheffield November 28, 2017 at 11:05 pm #

        Well, that is a good a justification as any for writing this article.

        I suppose the sub – question to my comment would be something like; to what degree does the media cover stories like this for the primary purpose of eliciting that reaction and how can we address that? I sincerely doubt the Telegraph thought this a matter of national interest even if, to its credit, the paper did some research.

      • Mat Sheffield November 28, 2017 at 11:06 pm #

        The point being, surely we shouldn’t have to be rehearsing for this….

        • Ian Paul November 28, 2017 at 11:18 pm #

          Um, see my article on theological formation…!!

          • Mat Sheffield November 28, 2017 at 11:20 pm #

            Touchè

      • simon November 29, 2017 at 6:22 am #

        It needs rehearsing because inside the church & out folk always attempt to reinvent God.

        • simon November 29, 2017 at 6:22 am #

          in their own image not His

  12. Scott Raymond November 29, 2017 at 1:32 am #

    I’m on the fence. I don’t have a problem with calling
    God She. I just am not used to it. Would that make God the Goddess?
    It brings to mind some not so holy thoughts. But that’s just me.

    • Ian Paul November 29, 2017 at 8:01 pm #

      ‘It brings to mind some not so holy thoughts’. Isn’t that a good enough reason to nudge you off the fence…?

      • Penelope Cowell Doe November 30, 2017 at 6:06 pm #

        Ian and Mat

        This is a genuine question! Does our shock at the idea of Goddess mean that we really do construe God as male? Or, to pit it another way, why does the term goddess imply unholy thoughts, when the term god does/might not?

    • Mat Sheffield November 30, 2017 at 3:52 pm #

      Maybe you’ve been watching too much Haruhi Suzumiya? 😉 I looked at your website, and the image/Gif that jumped out (of Kyon lamenting his loneliness) leads me to think you might have a very strange idea of what a Goddess might be?

      I joke of course, and I share some of that sentiment. I don’t have any problems thinking of God as having feminine traits, or of God self-describing as a mother, but there is something about the personal pronoun ‘she’ that conjures up associations (of female deity) which those characteristics (motherhood) alone don’t.

      That is more a feature of my context and background than of what the bible actually describes though.

  13. Don Benson November 30, 2017 at 9:53 pm #

    If we have the right mutually understood and accepted words available to us, and put them together well, there’s no doubt it can help us to increase our understanding a lot. But of course the opposite is also true, and in the case of sex and gender, God and humanity, we do seem to be struggling with words, at the moment. Or is the search for the right pronoun a smokescreen, covering the real problem?

    Perhaps we’re starting from the presuppositions of the current socio/political agenda rather than first pondering the nature of God and how he implanted his reflection in mankind at creation in a particular way. Perhaps we can’t yet fully understand why God created mankind in 2 halves rather than place all the qualities which we recognise as masculine or feminine in the one single person. But that’s what he did, none of us can argue with it, and so we’ve descended to chanting the familiar playground complaint: ‘it’s not fair!’

    Why are we disposed to look at God’s arrangement with such displeasure?

    Could it be that we think like this (viewing human relationships as power struggles, always with an unfair pecking order) because of our innate sinfulness? Was that not exactly what eating of the forbidden fruit was all about? It gave us the ability to recognise good and evil and thereby placed us right at the centre of a power struggle we could never handle in our own strength (Romans 7.14-15). And one result is that we are condemned to seeing everything as a fight.

    So, unless we have fully given ourselves to the will of God, we cannot even look at the divine gift of complementarity without complaining about the whole idea, condemning it as a form of patriarchal tyranny. And now all of a sudden, even in a church, the ‘wrong’ pronoun encapsulates our present dissatisfaction. How sad – in every sense of that word. And that’s why today’s feminism is satanic: it takes its cue from the one who’s whole business is the power struggle with God and everything which God designed and saw as good.

  14. Simon Ponsonby December 1, 2017 at 9:37 am #

    Penelope – if I may pitch in. Naming the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as goddess is not to be seen as part of the ongoing important debate over inclusive language, theological gender politics, rightly challenging patriarchy etc I believe it is a direct assault on God himself. God is who he is in his revelation – we do not get to shape that by positing on him our attributes, writing our humanity large onto him, that is a feuerbachian projection, an idol, an illegitimate analogia entis. That the one God – Elohim (Masculine plural) made humankind in his image ‘male and female’ does not encourage us to conceive of God as male, nor female, but reflects the one God’s plurality of persons in diversity/complementarity/unity. Gendering the divine is not in view. We know God through the means of his revelation and as the content of his revelation. Some here may not mind calling God she – the question is does God mind? And all we have to go on to answer that is the who & how of his revelation in which (barring a few (12) verses employing female metaphors) God sovereignly adopts our language to reveal himself as He. He could easily have chosen ‘she’, but repeatedly refuses ever to do so. Both the OT and NT pagan cultures had goddesses – who often attempted to supplant God amongst his people – be it Asherah or Artemis/Diana. When God’s people employed these pagan notions of god as goddess (notably in OT with forbidden Asherah groves, poles, worship supplanting Yahweh in his temple) God’s judgment was clear. Scott is shocked at the unholy thoughts he has when hearing God described as goddess, but he shouldn’t be – it is an unholy description and depiction. The Holy Spirit protests what the unholy spirit promotes. To ascribe ‘goddess’ to God is to conceive of him and respond to him against him. It is another god, a human or dare I say a demonic construct.

    • Penelope Cowell Doe December 1, 2017 at 3:35 pm #

      Thanks Simon. I still don’t ‘get’ the concept that God can mean YHWH/Elohim (good) and Baal (bad). But Goddess can only mean Asherah (bad). Does this not mean that our understanding of God is gendered, since we created this understanding?

  15. Simon Ponsonby December 1, 2017 at 5:21 pm #

    Well, I dont believe sex or gender comes into God. I fear when we go up the may-pole from our gender categories to God we end up with a big version of us and that’s an idol. God adopts our language to reveal himself and he does so using masculine nouns and grammar but also feminine imagery and metaphor. I don’t see the modern gender/sex distinction in Scripture and I think Biblically gender and sex are the same and relate to procreative roles, which God does not have. God is not male nor female. I would as strongly challenge conceiving God with pagan notions of the masculine Baal as I would the pagan feminine/goddess motif. Such Baal/Asherah Idols are always made in the image of created things (idealized supersized male & female) but the creator cannot be circumscribed by such anthropomorphisms and binery distinctions. God transcends our sexual and gender categories and cannot be thought of as female goddess nor male god. He’s neither male nor female, he’s God.

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