Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part III: Thinking it Through (Logical and Theological Perspectives)
Chapter 17 (2nd Edition)– God Metaphor and Gender: Is the God of the Bible a Male Deity? R. K. McGregor Wright.
Wright opens his essay with this:
The purpose of this essay is to show that there are no grounds in Scripture for the popular assumption that God is essentially masculine or male. (287)
Wright makes this critical observation:
While human beings typically come into the world either male or female, there are a very small number of hermaphrodites whose genes, for reasons still unclear to embryologists, fail to determine their sex in early development, thus producing a baby of mixed sexuality. It should be noted, however, that people with combination sexual organs exhibit otherwise normal human characteristics. Clearly, their personhood is more basic to their natures than their sex. The mere fact that there are now numbers of people who have experienced a “sex change,” and are living among us often unnoticed, shows that sex is a far more superficial category than personhood. It should also be noted that human beings share sexuality with horses and butterflies, and with many plants, though they do not so share the image of God with any of these. The creational evidence points to sexuality being based in biology rather than in spirituality. (287)
After his brief introductory remarks Wright turns to questions about God and gender. He proceeds through the rest of the essay in a question/answer format.
Isn’t it obvious from even a first reading of the Bible that Scripture usually refers to God as “he” and “him,” suggesting that God is in some sense male? (288)
Few languages (including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and English) have a neuter pronoun. God is "person" but is not male or female. “It” is unsatisfactory because it does no reflect personhood. Male pronouns are used to designate both genders and the only way to refer to God in a gender neutral way is with male pronouns. Female pronouns would indicate that God is somehow sexed. Wright points out that Gentile gods were depicted as male and female. Sex drives were the forces that gave life to the universe. Thus, many pagan religions included sexual activity with temple prostitutes as ritual acts that honored the primordial forces. God was uniquely referred to in agender neutral way to avoid this confusion with pagan religion.
If humans – who are sexual beings – are made in the image of God, then doesn’t this mean that God must be sexual or gendered in some sense? (289)
Sexuality is a created good for the purpose of reproduction, not the extension of divine character. Human beings share traits with God like rationality, language, the ability to chose, the ability to love and moral character. Sexuality is part of the created order, just as humans are, but it is not indicative of God’s nature.
But wasn’t Jesus a man rather than a woman? Doesn’t this tell us something about the gender of God? (290)
Jesus had to come as a man or a woman if he was to be fully human. Wright does not go into why Jesus was male but points out that his coming as male does not somehow no introduce maleness into the Trinity.
If God is without gender, then what does the Bible mean when it uses gendered imagery to describe God? (291)
Wright gives an extended discussion of metaphorical language here. He emphasizes that by the nature of who God is, any description of him will be metaphorical. Metaphors merely draw us to the truth of some aspect of the subject alluded to but should not be mistaken as a synonym for the subject itself. Thus we find a rich variety of metaphors for God including both male and female imagery.
But surely “Father” and “Son” are personal names for God, not just metaphors. As such, don’t they tell us something fundamental about who God is and so point to God’s masculine or male-like nature? (294)
The simplest answer to this is that the distinction between a name and a metaphor is not complete or definitive: a name may be metaphorical, or a metaphor may be used as a personal name. … God’s name would need to be established on more secure grounds than the assertion that Father is a personal name. (294-295)
Wright adds here that calling God “Mother” or “Mother-God” or gender-inclusive names is unjustifiable and actually interjects sexuality issues where the should be none.
If God is not essentially masculine or gendered in any sense, then why does the Bible use predominantly masculine language to describe God? God is often called “Father” but never “Mother.” (295-296)
The first observation on the claim that God must be masculine because he is never called “Mother” is that it is an argument from silence and is therefore invalid. (296)
Wright points out that “Trinity” is never used to describe God in the Bible yet all the essential elements are there testifying to the existence of the Trinity. Wright gives a substantial list of feminine metaphors for God to show that God was not thought of as male.
The predominance of male imagery is in part an accommodation to a patriarchal culture… It is in part a byproduct of the limitations of language… Masculine images of God signify anthropomorphic metaphors only. Our heavenly Father does not have the eternal attribute of divine masculinity any more than he has the eternal attribute of divine chickenhood. (297)
Every systematic theology refers to the “fatherhood of God.” If this key theological concept does not speak of God’s masculinity, then why is God referred to as “Father”? (297)
Accordingly, when Christians call God “our Father,” nothing is being said of God’s gender, but only that God is the one who gives life to everyone (Acts 17:25). Through regeneration God gives life to believers in an additional sense: protecting, training and disciplining us like a father with his children (Heb 12:1-12). As with all metaphors, God may be Father in one sense but not in another. God describes himself as our Father because he acts like a father, first toward Jesus (MT 17:5) and then toward us (Eph 1:3, 1 Pet 1:3, 17). We are to emulate the relationship that Jesus has with his Father (Mt 6:9; Gal 4:6; I Jn 2:23-24) (298)
But surely an understanding of our divinely designated masculinity and femininity is crucial to our obedience to God and his Word. Isn’t fulfilled manhood and womanhood a key biblical goal for the body of Christ? How could something be this important to God, yet have nothing to do with God’s Nature? (299)
I thought Wright’s final three paragraphs were important so I present them here in their entirety:
The insistence that God be thought of as revealing an eternal masculinity is really on a reification (an ontologizing) of an abstraction never mentioned in the Bible. The ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity” are created by a process of abstraction from the physical sexual differences between human beings. These concepts are not defined or discussed in Scripture. However, the extent to which these presuppositions control agenda of such a traditionalist text as Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is overwhelming – as we see in John Piper’s introductory chapter, where he promises to define these concepts and then offers behavioral illustrations but not definitions. Despite the verses he refers to, the Bible in fact sets forth no doctrine of universally and transculturally prescribed male and female roles that permit certain activities and behaviors for one gender and prohibit those behaviors for another gender – especially not with respect to spiritual status, gifts and ministries in the body of Christ, where the freedom and equality of every believer in Christ is presented in the New Testament as a governing principle for the new covenant community.
When Piper tells us that differentiated roles for men and women “are never traced back to the fall of man and woman into sin,” he is no doubt correct, for the idea of “roles” is a modern sociological notion and the Bible never mentions it – neither in the Genesis narrative nor elsewhere. An oft-stated goal of evangelical traditionalists is fulfilled manhood and womanhood. Yet the Bible says nothing about this either, but rather exhorts all believers without distinction to be full of the Holy Spirit and conformed to the image of Christ. Since masculinity and femininity are concepts explicated nowhere in scripture, it is not surprising that the “definitions” Piper gives are actually summaries of his own conclusions about these two rather mystical reifications.
Our conclusion must be that there are no biblical grounds for the controlling influence of the ideas of “masculinity” and femininity” for our understanding of God’s essential nature. God is he because God is personal and “our Father” because God acts like a loving father. He is neither male nor female, nor a combination of both. Notions of a gendered God are intrinsic to a variety of paganisms, but are absent from a fully biblical Christianity. (299-300)
R. K. McGregor Wright received his Th.M. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Ph.D. from Denver University/Iliff School of Theology in historical theology. With his wife, Julia Castle, he codirects the Aquila and Priscilla Study Center, a Bible and apologetics teaching ministry in East Tennessee. He is the author of No Place for Sovereignty.
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