Is God Male?

Holy Trinity of Urschalling 1150When I teach about the Trinity in my introductory theology class the topic of God and gender often comes up. “Is God male?” Let’s think about that.

The Bible often refers to God with masculine personal pronouns. Following this, Christians usually say “He,” “Him, “His,” and “Himself,” when referring to God. Trinitarian language is predominately masculine (“Father” and “Son”) though “Holy Spirit” is more elusive. Many popular Christian books celebrate the more masculine qualities of God (especially books for men and books on ‘leadership’): God is a hero, a conqueror, a warrior, a triumphant king, and so forth.

Even so, I would be extremely hesitant about saying that God IS male; in fact, I would push further to argue that such a notion applied to God absolutely and without qualification is both false and misleading.

Granted, Scripture predominately speaks of God with masculine language. However, it also employs female language, images, and metaphors with reference to God.* For example, it portrays God as a mother. God is like a woman in labour (Isa. 42:14), a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12), a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15), a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13), a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4), a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Dt. 32:18), and a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals, and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4). Other maternal images can be found in Ps. 131:2; Job. 38:8, 29; Prov. 8:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:2-3, Acts 17:28.

In addition to using maternal images, the Bible portrays God in terms of common feminine roles (in biblical times): as a seamstress making clothes for Israel to wear (Neh. 9:21), a midwife attending a birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9), and a woman working leaven into bread (Lk. 13:18-21). The point is not that these tasks are inherently feminine, but that Scripture appeals to common culturally feminine roles to depict God.

Moreover, Scripture speaks about God using female bird or animal imagery. God acts like a female bird protecting her young (Ps. 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 91:1, 4; Isa. 31:5; Dt. 32:11-12), like an eagle (Dt. 32:11-12; Ex. 19:4; Job 39:27-30), like a hen (Mt. 23:37; Lk. 13:34; cf. Ruth 2:12), and like a mother bear (Hosea 13:8).

Finally, the Holy Spirit is often associated with female imagery and functions, such as birth/new birth, life, water, a comforter and counsellor, and love that binds together, etc. (e.g., John 3:5-6; John 14; 1 John 4.).

Genesis 1:26-27 teaches that both male and female human beings reflect God’s image. If this is true, and if there is any meaningful difference between male and female, this implies that it is only together, as both male and female, that we reflect God’s image. It also implies that God transcends both categories and that God is characterized by both male and female qualities.

So, Scripture can employ both masculine and feminine language to speak about God. Whether one or the other predominates is ultimately not significant. The larger point to grasp is that all such language is analogical not literal when used with reference to God. Why is that so?

Male and female are created categories; they relate essentially to creaturely sexuality and reproduction, not to God’s life as transcendent and infinite Spirit. Saying “God IS male” in an ontological sense—i.e., moving from saying God is like to saying God IS without qualification—leads us into idolatry, because such a statement limits God to finite, anthropomorphic, and created categories. We end up envisioning a god made in our own image (a human projection), rather than seeing human beings in God’s image. The danger of idolatry, of course, is that it tends to religiously undergird harmful and oppressive ideologies. For example, feminists worry (and not without reasonable warrant I think) that the problem with viewing God as ‘male’ is that we tend to begin with certain cultural notions of ‘maleness,’ which we project onto God; we then use these projections to underwrite the very cultural biases with which we began. We have to be very careful about this.

What about classical Trinitarian language that speaks of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? It is important to understand that when it comes to Trinitarian theology, Father, Son, and Spirit refer to the divine ‘persons’ or relations, not the divine being or essence. O.K. That way of putting things is rather technical. Let me illustrate with some practical examples.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was clearly male in his incarnate human form (a form he apparently retained in his resurrection). Does this mean that God IS male? No, this does not follow. Even if it were appropriate to say that Jesus IS male (not just was a male): (a) we would have to ask about the meaning of such ‘maleness’ in the resurrection (in light of passages such as Matthew 22:30); and (b) we would have to distinguish this from what we say about GOD’s being or essence. Whatever we say about GOD ontologically (God’s essence or being) we must say equally of the three divine ‘persons’ (e.g., God is holy, God is just, God is good, God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, etc.; Likewise, each divine person is holy, just, good, omnipotent, etc.). BUT, what we say about the individual ‘persons’ cannot always be said about GOD as such (ontologically, God’s essence). For example, Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew; the Holy Spirit was/is not. The Father is not a Son, the Son is not a Father, and the Spirit is neither. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is sent from the Father and Son (or from the Father through the Son). The Spirit is the breath of God, the Son is the Word of God, and the Father is the One who breathes and speaks his Spirit and Word. Jesus the Son died and endured physical suffering on the cross; Father and Spirit did not suffer in this way (though perhaps they suffered in other ways). And so on. So, the fact that Jesus was (or even is) male does not mean that GOD IS male. Everything that GOD is, Jesus is; but not everything about Jesus applies equally to God’s essential being.

Perhaps, in the end, the better question is not “Is God male?” but rather: “Are we men like God?” and “Are we women like God?” Do we resemble God in our character, our actions, our dealings with others, our treatment of creation, our vocational goals and responsibilities, and our stewardship of God’s material resources (which really belong to God and are entrusted to us to serve God and others)? Posing the question this way leads us to focus on how God’s character and actions ought to determine how we live out our cultural embodiment of masculinity and femininity, not the other way around.

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Painting: Holy Trinity of Urschalling (1150 CE).

* See Dr. Margo G. Houts, “Feminine Images for God: What Does the Bible Say?” Online: http://clubs.calvin.edu/chimes/970418/o1041897.htm

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