God – He, She or It?
I heard someone refer to the Holy Spirit as “She” recently – it caused quite a ripple round the room which is why I recently put a poll in the field to see what others think.
Anyhow after this all happened, someone asked me over lunch what I thought.
The line they ran was this – in the Old Testament, the noun used for the Holy Spirit is feminine – the Hebrew word ruach. Since women as well as men are made in God’s image, why shouldn’t we use the “She” preposition as well as “He”?
And what about when Jesus says that He brooded over Jerusalem like a “mother hen”? (Matt 23:37, Luke 13:34)
Now I’m a pretty simply kind of guy. I’ve always gone with “He” because to me it seemed obvious. But I promised to do my research and get back to the enquirer. I wasn’t concerned in which direction that took me – my only desire was to honour God as best I could by getting to the truth.
Well, the research and thinking are done and my conclusion is that referring to any Person of the Godhead as “She” is an error that falls short of the truth and of what God wants for us and from us.
It’s not because I think that women are second class citizens of the Kingdom of God. They aren’t!
And it’s not because I don’t think that the nature of women is drawn directly from the nature of God. It clearly is – since women are made in God’s image, just as men are. (Gen 1:26,27)
So – what led me to this conclusion? Well, here it is:
1. God is Spirit: First and foremost, let’s be clear – God is neither a man nor a woman. He is not human and physical as we are, He is Spirit – John 4:24. So the discussion is not about His gender – it’s about His name and how He chooses sovereignly to reveal Himself to us. And that’s no trifling matter because as we’ll see, God’s name is very important to Him.
2. Noun Gender: It is true that in the Hebrew language, the word pneuma – which literally means a breath of wind and which is used frequently throughout the Old Testament to refer to the Holy Spirit – is a feminine noun. Hebrew as it turns out has no neuter gender, only masculine and feminine and so even an inaniminate object such as a breath of wind, must use either a masculine or feminine noun to represent itself in language. Not surprisingly then, in Hebrew (as in some other languages) the grammatical gender of a noun does not necessarily denote the gender of the object to which it refers. In German for instance, my nose is a feminine noun, my mouth is a masculine noun and my ear is a neuter noun. That does not mean (I hope!) that I have a female nose, a male mouth and a neuter set of ears. It’s just the way the language works. Would I then – in translating a German book that refers to my nose call it “she” in English? No, because the fact that German happens to have a different approach to grammar, is not meant to change the gender of the object to which a noun refers. (Incidentally the wind is represented by a masculine noun in German). And this same principle holds true in translating Hebrew into English, because it too is a language that has countless instances of nouns with a gender that doesn’t correspond to the gender of the person or object which they represent.
3. God’s Revelation: God reveals Himself and His nature principally through the masculine – as a Father, as a Son (who did for a brief period in history take on a human body and did therefore for that time have a gender) and of course God also reveals Himself through the Person of the Holy Spirit – for Whom there is no direct, human equivalent. The one thing that He does not do in Scripture is to reveal Himself through a feminine Person in the Trinity (remembering that as well as the feminine noun in the Old Testament, in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is referred to variously as the Comforter/Advocate who is just like Jesus – the masculine noun parakletos – and further through the representation of moving air or rushing wind – the neuter noun pneuma John 14:16, 17, 26). Some would argue that this revelation of God as Father, Son and Spirit came through a patriarchal culture and therefore is informed and indeed constrained by culture. That’s no doubt true … and yet God is sovereign over all things – including culture. Had God wanted to reveal Himself differently, He could readily have chosen a different time and place to do so. Of course, He did not. Are there feminine images used of God in the Bible? Yes there is a relatively small number of them – Deut 32:18, Psalm 22:10, Psalm 131:2, Is 42:14, Is 49: 15, Is 66:13 and Luke 15:8-10 to name the most commonly cited – there are others. But my hunch is that these serve no more to reveal Him as She, than the image of God as having wings (Psalm 36:7 and elsewhere) reveals Him to be a Bird.
4. God’s Actions: Some of the references above compare God’s actions and emotions to those of a woman. I think that’s fantastic, because it reminds us that the inherent nature of women can be used understand God as well, not just the inherent nature of men. And this not by remaking Him in our image, but by tracing back through our human understandings of male and female, who were made in His image. I really encourage this line of thinking in trying to understand the amazing love of God – the compassion, the forgiveness, the tenderness that we see in Him which many would argue are attributes more readily found in women than in men. J.B. Phillips once wrote a book called “Your God is Too Small”. I truly think that our view of God is all too often all too small. Thinking through the relatively few feminine metaphors used for some of God’s actions gives us a much deeper understanding of His nature. But it doesn’t give us the licence to go against His overwhelmingly pervasive revelation through the masculine gender – a revelation given clearly and by His sovereign choice.
5. God’s Name: My desire is to think as broadly and widely and deeply about God’s nature as I possibly can. So what causes me to conclude that referring to God through the feminine preposition “She” is an error that falls short of God’s truth? Quite simply this. God takes His name very, very, very seriously. A simple search on “my name” throughout the Bible makes that abundantly clear. God’s name and God are inseparable. Now – my name (Berni’s that is) is much less important in the scheme of things than God’s, I’m sure you’ll agree. And yet if you chose for whatever reason, to start referring to me as “she” or “it” rather than “he”, you’ll imagine that I might be just slightly peeved with you. God’s name is awesome and mighty and above all other things. He is the Lord our God who commands us not to misuse His name and in fact tells us that He will punish those who do (Exodus 20:7). How then can we then come to the conclusion, having availed ourselves of His chosen revelation of Himself in His Word, that to call God “She” – for whatever reason we may have in an ever changing cultural context – is the right thing to do; that it somehow honours God?
For me, going with what God has revealed about Himself in no way diminishes the role or the status of women. Nor need it constrain our understanding of this unfathomable God in Whose image we have been created.
It is quite simply a matter of seeking out the truth and honouring His name.
Thank you Berni, for giving us greater insight into God’s character as well as revealing us the answer to the question of whether God should be referred to as masculine or feminine. Generally, the more we know of God and His ways, the bigger and more accurately we can have our sincere enquiries answered. While the inquirer who initiated this question may have some way to go before totally understanding God and His ways (as all of us do), it takes a man filled with heavenly wisdom and thorough understanding of Scripture to adequately answer some of these somewhat mind boggling questions.
I sincerely thank you Berni, for explaining the Bible once again so clearly and precisely, seasoned with an incredible spirit of down-to-earth humility of someone who sincerely seeks the Lord, as you always seem to be able to do. My prayers will go along with your ministry, Berni. Please keep up with His good work. God bless.
I totally agree with the fact that God is THE FATHER, therefore he is masculine, but not as we generally think of masculine, He is soo much more.
I also have problems with those who want to PC the fact that we are joint heirs ans sons of God with Jesus. I am a woman and I have no trouble with thinking of myself as a son and heir of God.
A lot of these questions are debated over to the detriment of more important issues in the church and this is why I have left several congregations. These types of issues take our minds off the bigger picture and can prove to be very divisive.
I read in my sisters bible something a friend had written in the cover. “God says it. I believe it. That’s it.” This I try to follow.
Reading some of these comments makes me more passionate about going to church every Sunday to learn from those who have devoted there whole lives to God.
It’s really amazing to see there are so many people who put there own interpretation on certain passages in the bible without actually reading the whole thing or getting any historical background on a book over 2000 years old.
I’ve spent about 3 hours this morning on the net reading more up on this subject and the best response I found to the question (aside from yours Berni) was the following:
‘Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition never refer to any person of the Godhead as she or he or she. The word he is always used. This same usage is invariably followed by the Church’s magisterium and in the liturgy and is stipulated in the Church’s translational norms as well. Jesus began the only prayer he taught us with “Our Father.” A father is a he. Jesus himself is obviously male, so it would be inappropriate to refer to him with a non-masculine pronoun. And Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as he: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). While the Bible does sometimes use feminine and maternal metaphors for God and especially for divine wisdom—which in some passages seems to be represented as a divine person and has sometimes been theologically identified with God the Son—nevertheless Scripture and the Church’s liturgical tradition agree that God is to be called he, not she. Bottom line: There is no place in historic Christian expression for “inclusive” God language’.
I’ve only been a Christian for 3.5 years but I can absolutely say I will never have the authority to freely interpet the bible as I see fit, even 50 years from now and regardless of the fact that I’m a woman (oh poor me that God is male?) I know my strengths and appreciate what I have been given.
God’s name IS important. But God’s NAME isn’t “He” or even “Father”.
“He” is a pronoun. “Father” is a noun indicating relationship. We call God “Father” as a title because God created (fathered) us and because Jesus makes us adopted sons and daughters of his father. Jesus could just as well have said God mothered us and referred to God as “Mother” if it wasn’t for other important reasons. For one, Mary was the name of Jesus’ mother, and Jesus did not have an earthly father, so he calls God his “Father” (he doesn’t use a personal name for God). In the human context God did quite literally father Jesus. Then, secondly, Jesus wanted us to to see this “Father” in the same way as he saw God – as a loving Father. Jesus makes this relationship possible. So yes, God is our Father but that’s not his name.
“Father” is a title, not a name as such. In the Hebrew tradition God could not be named, so they came up with ways of writing and saying the name Yahweh in obscure ways, such as saying it with an inhalation of the breath and hardly audible. At one point God calls himself “I Am” – tell them “I Am” sent you, God says to Moses. This is significant: Moses demanded to know of God what his name was, and God’s reply to Moses was “I am who is”. No name!
I don’t think we should be focusing on gender here. Its all about relationship. God is my Father but I don’t see this Father as a man with gender. God is beyond gender as much as God is beyond being named.
It may also need to be considered that the creation of Eve was from the man and for the purpose of fulfilling a special relationship with the man. God himself is a relational being, within the trinity, and extended this to include the man whom he created in the Garden of Eden. The uniqueness of the woman was in the way she was created so that the man would not be alone. The whole relationship idea gets distorted when gender debates center around power struggles and submission. Being male was never meant to be about lording it over someone, quite the contrary because it is all about the positive relationships we build when we serve each other in submission to God.
The thought of God being Father is an image of a loving God who takes care of us in every way protecting us and being the giver of all things that we need.Its a beautiful image.
His Name is very important to Him and therefore whatever the Bible calls Him that is what He is
I think that you get into very deep water when you try to change what the bible says
Well said, Leonie … and Paul the Apostle: “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
It was difficult to respond to the poll because I am a bit of both. As has been discussed previously, language plays an important part of gender description. I recently read the book “The Shack” where God is depicted as a Black (sorry African American) Mama and found that I was impressed with the understanding of God that came through that method.
However, the biggest problem lies in the theological understandings. Probably the most used analogy of the relationship between God and His people is that of a marriage relationship. “Her bride” opens up substantial difficulties in interpretation.
Thank you Louise for attempting to say the unsayable – as you say, we battle with the limitations of language. But God is beyond all language and it does not help anyone when people want to be clear and concrete about God to such an exptent that they become fundamentalistic about it.
We want to nail God down in clear unequivocal terms. Its quite silly really. Yes, Jesus called God “Father” and so we call God “Father” but that does not imply that I must think of God’s GENDER as MALE – God does not have a gender! We are dealing with a mystery, a Divine Reality that surpasses all understanding.
If this “debate” has accomplished anything, it is that we should all have another read of Louise’s post and really listen to what she is trying to say. She has said some wise things and with such humilty and gentelness.
In Genesis it says:
” God created man in the image of himself,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.”
See how the Word of God struggles with the limitations of language there? It’s almost non-sensical or paraodixical. That signals to me that if I wanted to nail God’s gender down to one or the other, I’d have to say God is both male and female in his Divine mystery.
In God’s love,
This discussion is too small-minded for Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit to worry about and is an unholy cause of division in the body of Christ. “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian…there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3.25-29
“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” John 21.25
Apart from considering the influence of the many things omitted from the Bible, it is important to always take the context of the writers and editors into account. So it is of great consequence that the Bible is a text from a patriarchal society. Even so, it manages to show a valuable glimpse of the inestimable variety signed by the Creator and sustained by the Creator with unfathomable love and mercy.
Well said Berni, as a Catholic I’d also like to point out that saying God is a she also belittles the role of Mary (I’ve been told we ‘Catholics’ hold Mary in high esteem).
Hi Berni, I agree to your comment about the sex of God. Ingrid DK
I have to say that I saw your poll the other day, but I didn’t participate,
As the the answer pop in my head straight away…
The answer to this question is highlighted all over the Bible, to me, it was very simply…(if you study the Bible well enough)..
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
I’ve read through your analysis, although a very good one…, I have a simpler answer…If you don’t mind…
The whole Bible teaches obedience to our Lord, God says “DO” and we should DO, don’t ask why. Same way as Abraham did.
And Jesus has shown us this, and since Jesus is a male, and “He” has referred GOD as the Father. It’s pretty quite obvious that GOD wants us to see HIM as a Masculine figure.
We shouldn’t be asking, but why? or why not? Because this is How Jesus did it, and this is how GOD wanted to present himself to us.
If we have faith in Jesus, then we do what He did…
Have Faith & Obedience…
In the letter from Paul to the Romans…
“Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.”
To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
GOD ISS ONE IN THREE PERSONS HE HOULD BE REFERED TO AS HE AT ALL TIME NOT SHE OR IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I thought that I’d give you also the fuller intent of the person who recently asked me this question over lunch. Her email is below – thought since it presents a different position to mine, it would help you to think through what you believe.
Thanks so much for encouraging dialogue on this issue. I really appreciate the way in which you engage with issues as they arise.
I must say I found it hard to respond to your poll because it doesn’t have an option that captures my understanding and experience of God. (incidently, the thing that sparked the discussion, was the use of “She” for the Spirit specifically, not to the term of “God”. I think that distinction is important.)
I would say that God is revealed in both masculine and feminine attributes, and is referred in that way in the bible. However, that is not to discount the fact that God is revealed primarily through masculine images.
For this reason I would not use God (which represents to me the triune God)and mother or “Goddess” interchangibly. But as male and female have been created in God’s image, it is clear that the essential nature of “maleness ” and “femaleness” (which I totally agree with you is not the same as genatalia) is part of God.
I think at the heart of this matter is an issue of language which, as often happens, makes it hard to capture and pin down God.
Our use of language changes, (but God obviously doesn’t!). Fifty years ago, people routinely referred to the word “man” as if it included women. In general. That has changed. If we are talking about the heads of Boards we say “Chairs” and most people only refer to a Chairman if in fact he is male. But 50 years ago, women were addresed as “Madam Chairman”, but the generic word was Chairman. It was understood that the word allowed for both male and femail occupants of the position. So in the past using the masculine for God was actually much less exclusive in English than it is now. We now, in everyday language, only assign a gender when it fits, otherwise we go for a neutral name that encompasses both.
This is why I am concerned that some people within our church react as if it is taboo to ever refer to any aspect of God by anything other than the maculine pronoun. It seems like in reacting to heretical expressions of the Gospel (ie the God is female movement) we in fact are edging towards the equally ludicrous view that God is actually a man.
I struggle within the limits of English (as I certainly do not want to refer to the Spirit or any part of God as “it”) to express my experience of God. The occassional use of the feminine in reference to the Spirit (which is biblically based reflecting the female pronoun attached to the Hebrew word for Spirit), is helpful for me as it reminds me that it is our language that is too small, not God. It is an affirmation that women in general, and me specifically, are made in the image of God and reminds me God is fully present with me in my experience of being a woman.
If there was no reference to God is female terms in the Bible, I would take it as fairly clear directive from God to refer to him only in masuline terms. But as there are specific references in both the Old and New testament to God using feminine images, I think God is OK about us highlighting occassionally that part of God’s relevation to us!
Thanks again for the opportunity to contribute to your consideration. However, I can’t answer it your actuallpoll as it has no “all of the above” option. I think that in particular contexts all the options are correct!