Can we address God as ‘She’?

female-godA 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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26 thoughts on “Can we address God as ‘She’?”

  1. What is most revealing about Kate’s approach is when, on discussing the Bible, she writes the following:

    “The men, wonderful and learned though many of them were, wrote the theology, they wrote it about men and for men, of course they were going to use the pronoun that they feel most at ease with. Of course they would call God “he”.”

    That’s less an argument over the gender of God and more a presumption that the Holy Spirit was not active in shaping Scripture but rather that it is an uninspired human construct. There’s a clear divide between those who see Scripture as the product of religious people and those who see it as chiefly driven by the divine breath of God (even if communicated through human agents).

    • Thanks Peter. I am not quite sure I am convinced by your analysis.

      If you live in a patriarchal culture, then you are bound to use patriarchal terminology. I guess I would always want to draw a distinction between Scripture as set in a context and as trapped in that context.

      I think it is generally recognised that ‘moderate’ feminism focusses on the first, and to that extent it does nothing more than practice good hermeneutics.

      ‘Radical’ feminism would claim the second, and so Scripture needs to be rescued from itself.

      That distinction is too subtle for newspaper columns—but it is a rather important distinction, it seems to me.

      • I have no issue with Scripture set in context and dealing with that. I just don’t think that is what this piece by Bottley is implying.

  2. I do find it problematic when talking about the Bible being written in a ‘patriarchal’ culture. One does have to be careful as it could in theory be used to justify ignoring anything that the Bible says about sex/gender.

    ‘Patriarchy’ can give you carte blanche when it comes to interpreting the Bible to simply reinterpret anything ‘patriarchal’ to mean something else. “Oh, they were simply being patriarchal… clearly if they knew what we knew *now* they would say…” I think we have to let Scripture judge modern feminism, rather than vice versa.

    And I think this was my problem with Kate’s article – she seemed to be saying “we know so much better now” – and thus opening the possibility for diminishing God’s revelation in favour of our own more preferable knowledge.

    I very much agree with what you say Ian: “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.”

  3. An extension of the metaphor issue, it seems to me, is the issue of translation. If God’s reality can only be expressed (imperfectly) through metaphor, it is also true that Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek language can only be imperfectly expressed through English. But surely we have to do the best we can to transmit the meaning given as faithfully as possible.

    For instance, in “Man cannot live by bread alone,” is the original using a Greek term referring to just the male part of humanity or was it a general term for humanity as a whole? If the latter, is ‘man’ really a faithful translation into 21st-century English?

    Likewise with ‘father’ and ‘son’ metaphors. You seem to be suggesting they should be kept because of the meaning they had in the 1st century. But this is the 21st century, so surely the language used now should communicate those meanings to all, not just to privileged scholars (think Wycliffe’s ploughboy).

    This, I would have thought, should be even more important for those who have a high view of the inspiration of Scripture, in its original language, as expressed by Peter Ould above.

    • I think it would be best to keep a linguistically accurate translation, but just have a footnote explaining the context. When translators try and shoehorn context into a translation it tends (in my opinion) to be fairly inelegant.

  4. Generally the proposal is not to replace father language but to augment it. Father language is easily misunderstood and two markers are helpful
    1. We look to God to see what human fathers might be like, not the other way round
    2. Referring to God and Jesus as Father and Son is about their relationship to each other, not about fathership and sonship generally.

  5. Small question here. If the writers of the Bible were being patriarchal why didn’t Jesus not come as a woman? That would have shown them up.

    In Bottley’s theology, did he come as a man for patriarchal reasons then?

  6. Thanks for highlighting this recurring question. One thing I’d add:

    To me, the use of masculine language in the ancient world has less to do with “patriarchy” than it does the presumption of the gendered nature of fruitfulness. The masculine was the first stage of progeny.

    There were (and are) plenty of things to celebrate about the feminine in Scripture. For example, when it comes to long-suffering toil, the exclusively feminine experience of bearing and birthing is almost always reached for, cf. Num 11:12; John 16:2-21; Gal 4:19.

    By contrast, the masculine “sowed the seed.” Of course, we now know that men and women contributed equal DNA, but they didn’t. In ancient observation of the world: seed + soil/womb = life. Of course, too, this is metaphorical when speaking of God.

    But when thinking about the One who created/sourced all things, it was, I think very hard for any ancient Mediterranean person (Greek or Jewish; male or female) to think about that being as feminine. It wouldn’t make sense.

    That this sense of the first stage of progeny was then used by many to wrongly (and unbiblically) promote men *over* women is beside the point in why the language was used, I think.

    To reflect God’s nature as “unsourced source” is still a good reason to use the masculine about God, despite abusive patriarchy spoiling that language (which of course cannot be ignored as we try to speak about God today).

    • I think Jon is absolutely right to locate the masculine description of God with progeny. A female cannot ‘beget’ as the seed comes from the man. If Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit then how can it make sense ontologically to refer to the HS as ‘she’?

  7. As a woman I find these feminist inspired comments to be from people who have an inflated opinion of self and a lack of humility. I am truly overwhelmed when I say the prayer that Jesus taught us to say. Abba – Father. Only because of His sacrifice can we come before the awesome presence of God. He is not Allah or Jehovah or a name which must not even be spoken. He is our Father who loves us and gave us life. The Father initiates life – the mother holds the egg and then nurtures life.

    • Tricia thank you for your comments, I agree and many of my colleges have similar thoughts. But unfortunately it is those who want to be in the media spotlight that do all the running leaving the rest of us to try and get on with the real work of God in a divided world

  8. It’s always interesting to have this conversation, but I find it fascinating that it’s suddenly come up in this way. It’s intriguing that certain sections of the media have seemed to decide that women bishops = feminist takeover, and have made this a thing in a way that I’m not certain it was a thing before.

    That said, what do I think? Mainly, Ian, I agree with you. I agree that we need to make use of the very helpful feminine/maternal imagery we find in Scripture, perhaps most of all in pastoral situations where someone struggles for whatever reason with the masculine imagery. Having said that, I have never been in a pastoral situation where someone has struggled with calling God ‘Father’ and ended up instead calling God ‘Mother’ – rather they have worked through what the issue is for them, what that means for their relationship with their earthly father, and how they can most helpfully know and relate to God as Father, understanding him to be the perfect example of fathering.

    I can count on one hand the number of times that in public worship I have heard someone refer to any member of the trinity as ‘she’. I admit to finding it a little grating. God the Father is neither he nor she, but the word ‘Father’ implies ‘he’ so I find ‘she’ strange in that context. Jesus is a man, so ‘he’. The Holy Spirit – well, as Ian says, we lack a word, & I understand therefore why people sometimes use ‘she’, to if you like redress the balance, but I confess that I find it distracting & unnecessary. If it is used publicly I think it can distract people because there’s no explanation or context (& we run the risk of sounding like we have 2 male gods and a female god). If in conversation we choose to explore with people the masculine/feminine, paternal/maternal images of and sides to God, that’s great, because we are then able to be clear about what we do and don’t mean.

    I am 100% happy with referring to God as ‘he’ (at least in the absence of what I’m delighted to learn from Ian is called an UGASP). If I meet someone who isn’t I’m happy to chat with them & explore with them who God is & how we can know him. I’m not sure that changing what we say in public worship really helps in any way.

    What I do think helps is inclusivity in Bible translations, wherever possible. Sometimes that can get clunky, and sometimes it doesn’t quite work, but referring to ‘brothers and sisters’ not just ‘brothers’ and ‘children’ not just sons is helpful because it makes the listener aware that they are included, not excluded. Referring to God as ‘he’ doesn’t have the same baggage, I don’t think.

    As part of my sermon on Trinity Sunday I said something to the effect that I’m ok with not 100% understanding 100% of who God is – he’s God, he’s bigger & cleverer than me, & I’m ok with that. I think I feel the same about these metaphors. Ok, ‘he’ doesn’t quite tell me all I want to know about God, But I don’t think ‘she’ would help at all.

    I want people to know who God is & how he feels about them & how they can get to know him. We have the words we have & the language we have & I’ll use them as best I can to achieve that goal!

  9. I really don’t believe that we would be better off with gender neutral language for God, nor do I believe that the gender of the language that we use can be treated as a matter of indifference. The Scriptures use feminine imagery and metaphors of God, but it primarily identifies God using masculine pronouns, names, and imagery. Male and female imagery isn’t interchangeable.

    The fact that God is called ‘Father’ can’t be substituted by ‘Mother’ without changing meaning, nor can it be gender neutralized to ‘Parent’ without loss of meaning. Fathers and mothers are not interchangeable, but relate to their offspring in different ways. A mother’s relationship with her child is a more immediate, naturally given union of shared bodies. It is more clearly characterized by close empathetic identification. A father’s relationship with his child, by contrast, is characterized by a ‘material hiatus’ and more typically involves a greater degree of ‘standing over against’ the child. While motherhood is more naturally given and more rooted in the body through the process of gestation and nursing, fatherhood is established principally by covenant commitment. If he is to be more than a mere inseminator, a man must lovingly commit himself to his wife and offspring. The different nature of the father’s relationship with his child also means that he more readily represents law and authority to the child: he can stand over against the child to a degree that the child’s mother can’t.

    All of this matters when we are speaking about God. A shift beyond biblical feminine metaphors and imagery to feminine identification of God will have a noticeable effect upon our vision of God, our ideas of where God stands in relation to us, the way that we conceive of the Creator-creature distinction, and the sort of language that we use when speaking about sin, separation from God, etc.

    Let’s recover the feminine imagery of Scripture, but let’s do so in a careful and theologically principled way, rather than presuming that any symbol or language we choose to employ for God is as appropriate as any other.

  10. “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.”

    I don’t know if “trapped” is the right word, but Jesus of Nazareth was certainly a man of his time, shaped by his culture. It shows throughout the gospel traditions: from Jesus’ unyielding attitude to divorce, to him calling a Canaanite woman a dog, to his appointing male disciples, to his viewing the cosmos via ancient cosmology and believing that Adonai was about intervene and to end history. I’m sure a good chunk of those traditions are authentic.

    So yes, language of God as “father” is inadequate, and since God isn’t a guy, I see no peril in either applying gender-neutral language (even if it’s the awkward “godself,” which I’ve occasionally used myself), or throwing feminine pronouns into the mix. Like Aquinas said, metaphors convey things that can’t be comprehended directly, and should speak in contemporary language.

    But then I’m a liberal, so I would say that. 😀

  11. Language in this case is just a way of expressing the inexpressible. Effing the ineffable. So the context of the scriptures is no different to our context – we can’t properly eff the ineffable but we have to try, so being aware of the limitations of language is part of our duty.
    I’ve never understood why scripture can’t be inspired but also infallible so I don’t think Peter’s argument stacks up.

  12. I don’t mean infallible …I mean fallible. Why can’t scripture been inspired but also fallible? Sermons are often inspired but are not necessarily always right. The same has to be true of scripture.

  13. I read the Kate’s comment piece in the Guardian and I listened to her speech at the Faith Debates.

    The bit that riles most is her dismissiveness over-simplification of the opposing arguments and her own. For example, : ‘The argument goes that the Bible calls God “he”, that Jesus called God “Father” and so God must be a man.’.

    Well, there’s nothing like a gentle chiding gloss to set us straight and, oh, of course, that exactly our theology, Kate. In this case, our theology of divine fatherhood amounting to little more than a logical extrapolation of Anne Widdecombe’s facile response. Yep, Kate’s skewered our flimsy attempts to perpetuate patriarchy with admirable acuity again.

    In fact, we’re, to a man (or woman), thick as two short planks! Cue the smirks and chuckles from the sensible-minded largely-agnostic public who laud the new champion of ‘kool church’.

    She then claims that the apostles used the masculine pronoun for fear of dismissive contempt and lethal reprisals: ‘Of course they would call God “he”. If Jesus had been the “daughter of God” rather than the son and had chosen female disciples (s)he would have been at best ignored by 1st century Palestinian society and at worst stoned to death before she uttered a word or healed anyone. Context is everything.’

    Phew! What blessed relief it must have been to be crucified, beheaded and torn asunder for revering as God he who was thought to be man instead. In contrast, the severity of stoning for calling God ‘she’ was clearly so much worse!

    I get the ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘religion for the rest of us’ materteral appeal and how it so important to prove that vicars are normal people. Of course, not so normal as to lose hieratic trappings entirely.

    Well, here’s an easier way, ‘ditch the dog collar’ and the normal life of relative anonymity that the rest of us live awaits.

    This might arouse a fit of pique, but what if it’s not cantankerous mean-spiritedness that made me lose patience with Kate’s half-baked populist-flavoured theology? What if it’s because she’s just plain wrong.

  14. Ian
    Thanks for the post I like what Peter Kreeft and Tacelli write in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics:

    The Jewish revelation was distinctive in its exclusively masculine pronoun because it was distinctive in its theology of the divine transcendence. That seems to be the main point of the masculine imagery. As a man comes into a woman from without to make her pregnant, so God creates the universe from without rather than birthing it from within and impregnates our souls with grace or supernatural life from without. As a woman cannot impregnate herself, so the universe cannot create itself, nor can the soul redeem itself. Surely there is an inherent connection between these two radically distinctive features of the…biblical religions…: their unique view of a transcendent God creating nature out of nothing and their refusal to call God “she” despite the fact that Scripture ascribes to him feminine attributes like compassionate nursing (Is. 49:15), motherly comfort (Is. 66:13) and carrying an infant (Is. 46:3). The masculine pronoun safeguards (1) the transcendence of God against the illusion that nature is born from God as a mother rather than created and (2) the grace of God against the illusion that we can somehow save ourselves—two illusions ubiquitous and inevitable in the history of religion (1994, p. 98, emp. in orig.).

    • Khaldoun,

      I think that’s a great response. Typically, in paganism, the mother goddess personifies fertility and fecundity and, therefore, the origin of things by natural means.

      The divine fatherhood emphasizes the supernatural means and, therefore, presents God as the transcendent source of being.

      That difference puts paid to this exploratory speculation about theology.

  15. I think there are two very strong God as female references in the NT:

    (1) 1 Peter (not by Peter) 2.2-3 ‘like newborn babes, desire the undeceptive milk of the word, if indeed you have tasted (maintaining milk metaphor) that the Lord is good’. Here the milk is Jesus (and the word ‘chrestos’ puns on ‘Christos’), whose ‘mother’ is God, and ‘Lord’ is both God and Jesus.

    (2) James (possibly even Jesus’ brother) 1.15-18 ‘then desire [feminine] when it has conceived [female] gives birth to [tikto can be used of both male and female)sin [feminine], and sin when it comes to fruition gives birth to [of females] death … 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is … from the father of lights, 18 he gave birth to us of his own will’ (i.e. he didn’t need a partner in willingness: this is an autosexual act). So he’s both father AND mother.

    • John, thanks for commenting. These are fascinating examples, which perhaps show that the NT writers were more relaxed about God and gender than some of us have been! The ‘autosexual’ nature of God’s birthing of us seems crucial, since in its ANE context this would also be how Gen 1 was read.

      Btw, very interested to see how your own publications have weaved in and out of the New Testament…

  16. There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.

    We need to be careful we are not trying to make God in our own image.

  17. I really enjoyed this piece–thank you! The only thing I feel it is missing re: God and gender is any reference to the female nouns for the Holy Spirit (ruach, pneuma). Perhaps you have addressed this elsewhere or it wasn’t relevant to the immediate conversation, but I was hoping it would be mentioned somewhere.

    • Thanks Loyd! The reason why I don’t explore this is primarily because most scholars are agreed that the grammatical gender pronouns used to refer to things actually tells us very little about the identity of the objects themselves.

      Much is sometimes built on the grammatical gender of the Hebrew ruach, but what then should we make of the neutral gender of the Greek pneuma? That the Spirit is not personal?


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