What the early church thought about God’s gender

August 1, 2018

The Episcopal Church has decided to revise its 1979 prayer book, so that God is no longer referred to by masculine pronouns.

The prayer book, first published in 1549 and now in its fourth edition, is the symbol of unity for the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian communion founded in 1867. While there is no clear timeline for the changes, religious leaders at the denomination’s recent triennial conference in Austin have agreed to a demand to replace the masculine terms for God such as “He” and “King” and “Father.”

Indeed, early Christian writings and texts, all refer to God in feminine terms.

God of the Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Bible. Stock CatalogCC BY

As a scholar of Christian origins and gender theory, I’ve studied the early references to God.

In Genesis, for example, women and men are created in the “Imago Dei,” image of God, which suggests that God transcends socially constructed notions of gender. Furthermore, Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible written in the seventh century B.C., states that God gave birth to Israel.

In the oracles of the eighth century prophet Isaiah, God is described as a woman in labor and a mother comforting her children.

And the Book of Proverbs maintains that the feminine figure of Holy Wisdom, Sophia, assisted God during the creation of the world.

Indeed, The Church Fathers and Mothers understood Sophia to be the “Logos,” or Word of God. Additionally, Jewish rabbis equated the Torah, the law of God, with Sophia, which means that feminine wisdom was with God from the very beginning of time.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things ever said about God in the Hebrew Bible occurs in Exodus 3 when Moses first encounters the deity and asks for its name. In verse 14, God responds, “I am who I am,” which is simply a mixture of “to be” verbs in Hebrew without any specific reference to gender. If anything, the book of Exodus is clear that God is simply “being,” which echoes later Christian doctrine that God is spirit.

In fact, the personal name of God, Yahweh, which is revealed to Moses in Exodus 3, is a remarkable combination of both female and male grammatical endings. The first part of God’s name in Hebrew, “Yah,” is feminine, and the last part, “weh,” is masculine. In light of Exodus 3, the feminist theologian Mary Daly asks, “Why must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all.”

God in the New Testament

New Testament. kolosser417CC BY

In the New Testament, Jesus also presents himself in feminine language. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus stands over Jerusalem and weeps, saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Furthermore, the author of Matthew equates Jesus with the feminine Sophia (wisdom), when he writes, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” In Matthew’s mind, it seems that Jesus is the feminine Wisdom of Proverbs, who was with God from the beginning of creation. In my opinion, I think it is very likely that Matthew is suggesting that there is a spark of the feminine in Jesus’ nature.

Additionally, in his letter to the Galatians, written around 54 or 55 A.D., Paul says that he will continue “in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.”

Clearly, feminine imagery was acceptable among the first followers of Jesus.

The church fathers

This trend continues with the writings of the Church fathers. In his book “Salvation to the Rich Man,” Clement, the bishop of Alexandria who lived around 150-215 A.D., states, “In his ineffable essence he is father; in his compassion to us he became mother. The father by loving becomes feminine.” It’s important to remember that Alexandria was one of the most important Christian cities in the second and third centuries along with Rome and Jerusalem. It was also the hub for Christian intellectual activity.

Additionally, in another book, “Christ the Educator,” he writes, “The Word [Christ] is everything to his little ones, both father and mother.” Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of Hippo in North Africa, uses the image of God as mother to demonstrate that God nurses and cares for the faithful. He writes, “He who has promised us heavenly food has nourished us on milk, having recourse to a mother’s tenderness.”

And, Gregory, the bishop of Nyssa, one of the early Greek church fatherswho lived from 335-395 A.D., speaks of God’s unknowable essence – God’s transcendence – in feminine terms. He says,

“The divine power, though exalted far above our nature and inaccessible to all approach, like a tender mother who joins in the inarticulate utterances of her babe, gives to our human nature what it is capable of receiving.”

What is God’s gender?

Do images limit our religious experience? Saint-Petersburg Theological AcademyCC BY-ND

Modern followers of Jesus live in a world where images risk becoming socially, politically or morally inadequate. When this happens, as the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow notes, “Instead of pointing to and evoking the reality of God, [our images] block the possibility of religious experience.” In other words, limiting God to masculine pronouns and imagery limits the countless religious experiences of billions of Christians throughout the world.

It is probably best, then, for modern day Christians to heed the words and warning of bishop Augustine, who once said, “si comprehendis non est Deus.” If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.

________________________________________________________

In the great debate about gender language in worship, here we have an article about whether Almighty God should be addressed as either male or female – as though God were made in the human image instead of the other way round.

Of course, we all know that Jesus instructed his disciples in prayer (the Lord’s Prayer) to address God as “Our Father in Heaven”, whose name was/is to be hallowed. The question for us today might be: ‘Was this the only title by Which God could/should be addressed or known? One problem with this is that Christians are aware that God cannot be limited to any human understanding of a single (gender) identity. God, as we recite in the Creeds, is both ‘Three and One’ at the same time – a ‘Trinity of Persons’, by whom the world was created, and in whose ‘Image and Likeness’ all humanity is created. This fact, alone, would tell us that we cannot imprison God in any one gender classification.

The’Mystery’ that is God is beyond our human definition – certainly in terms of our representation of God’s image and likeness. Otherwise, we might be tempted to imagine God as male, female and intersex – a prospect that would not help us in any attempt to ‘genderise’ God in purely human terms.

However, this being the case, what ought we to make of Jesus’ own reference to God as ‘Father’? One thing we can be sure of is that Jesus meant we should treat God as our origin and model of nurture as human beings. In his incarnate life on earth, however, Jesus, though he was masculine in physical characteristics, actually did refer to the necessity of the feminine in our experience of the overarching nurture of God in our lives: referring to himself as a ‘mother hen’ caring for her chicks. (Mother Julian of Norwich was once said to have addressed God, in prayer, as ‘Father-Mother God’!)

It is important here to note that Jesus himself never took part in the human act of procreation – which might have marked him out more clearly as the perfect male of the species. Of course, the complications that might have arisen from physical descent from a person of the Godhead (which Jesus was) could have posed a problem that would not have helped in this discussion.

The Incarnate Jesus, though ‘equal’ with the Father and present at the creation of the world; in human form did not ‘consider himself equal’ – in other words; Jesus, in his earthly form, acknowledged the difference between his (male) humanity and his innate God-ness. This was necessary for us to understand that, in our human state, we can never claim equality with God. Nevertheless, we are called by Jesus to become ‘children of God’ – whatever our gender or sexual orientation. It is interesting to note that the agency of our becoming ‘children of God’ is generally understood to have been the work of the Holy Spirit (the Comforter) whose feminine characteristics are sometimes referred to in theological discourse. 

That we are called into relationship with God, as children (“Unless you become as little children you cannot enter the Kingdom of God” – Jesus) is evidenced in our call to Baptism into Christ – a relationship which is both temporal and eternal – yet another part of the ‘Mystery of Faith’ that we sign up to as members of the Body of Christ. Perhaps we might even acknowledge God’s ‘motherhood’ in the part that the Church plays in our Christian nurture – as ‘Mother Church’ – bringing us into a special relationship with God at the Font, where we are ‘born again’ of water and The Spirit.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

 

 

Advertisements

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What the early church thought about God’s gender

  1. santascoffee says:

    To be clear: I don’t believe God has a gender. However, the experience of being in the midst of reading a lot of the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew (currently a chapter of Isaiah in which God compares his faithfulness to that of a nursing mother), I am very struck by how tendentious and partial this breezy tour of the exceptions to ordinary scriptural language is. A better accounting would impress the reader with the incredible abundance of masculine language! You see, we could get nervous and shy about Father, King, Lord, and all that, but then we really need to own, more honestly, our decision to reject the mainstream of scriptural language & the Church’s tradition, and the way Jesus spoke about God and taught us to pray to him…

  2. kiwianglo says:

    Thank you, Santa. What the Church of today is trying to do, in the interests of ALL people – not only the male of the species – is to debunk the patriarchal position that wanted to lionise the masculine – sometimes at the expense of the feminine – in both God and human beings. I, for instance, am very glad that the Church today honours the person of the Mother of The Lord, Mary, through whose positivity towards God’s call on her life, enabled the salvation of the world by Jesus Christ.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.