"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Heresy challenge: On male pronouns for God

So my friend Rae observed today that she has “yet to meet an American woman my age who can talk for 5 mins about why male pronouns are preferable for God without speaking heresy.”  When I stuck my tongue in my cheek and said we need to hang out more, she extended to me a challenge to see if I could do so on the blog.

Linguistically, I find pronouns to be a tricky thing.  English tends to be strongly dichotomous whereas other languages, such as Latin and German, have a range of possibilities.  We use pronouns in reference to something particular, and many people construct sentences that lead to ambiguous pronoun use.  For example, inserting “them” after “that lead” creates an unclear referent because am I meaning to say “that lead many people” or “that lead sentences”?  If every day sentences can carry this ambiguity, then how much more can theological constructs carry ambiguity?

When discussing the triune God, we must remember that God carries the fullness of both male and female.  God creates male and female after His own image.  We must always be careful when ascribing anthropology to the mystery of the Godhead.  God is a Trinity.  The community within the Godhead should boggle our mind about everything we ascribe to human community.  Gender relations within our human community do not get a free ride.  St Paul famously exhorts in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ there is neither male or female.  Reading this letter in its entirety, I am of the opinion that St Paul is saying that we don’t have a unique Gospel for men and a unique Gospel for women.  If readers want to hear some more on that observation, let me know.  I’ll write another post.

Yet, we have a particular challenge when we discuss the triune God by His name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The incarnation establishes Christ’s appropriate pronouns as male as He came and dwelt among us in a male body.  Christ can only be one person.  However, I am equally of the opinion that the Incarnation renders the appropriate name of the Father as “Father” with the related pronouns.  After all, the Mother of Christ is a distinct human person.  Mary’s presence as mother cannot be overstated when one defends the Incarnation of Christ.  What is more, Christ Himself is consistent in His usage of “mother” and “father” according to His Father in heaven.

The Holy Spirit proves to be a bit different relative to an ascribed tradition of pronoun use.  I’ll admit that I frequently just go with “the Spirit” when I’m trying to truncate the full title to something shorter.  Additionally, the Holy Spirit frequently comes to us as a non-human form: the cloud, the dove, the breath.  Such an observation about the Holy Spirit allows the faithful to speak rightly in similes and metaphors.  We can compare God to a mother hen; we can use our image of our own mothers to speak of Christ’s faithfulness.  Even St Paul in his epistle to the Galatians speaks about giving birth to the Gospel again in Galatia.  It’s an entirely reasonable thing to do provided one is mindful about where attention is directed.  I do think that Biblically, the Holy Spirit does carry some gender ambiguity as it relates to the manifestations of Lady Wisdom.

We also come to a question regarding prayer.  Our pronouns should generally reflect the person we’re addressing.  The Orthodox Prayer of the Holy Spirit reveals some more of the gender ambiguity regarding the Spirit:

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

Looking at appropriate genders of the metaphors, we flop around. O heavenly King: male; the Comforter: generally more associated with female; the Spirit of Truth: unclear unless we want to say that Christ is Truth and therefore this one is male; Treasury of Blessings: we’ll have to switch out of English here if I tried to make sense of the gender; and Giver of Life; generally female.  Yet the prayer itself never incorporates any direct pronouns.

Conversely, we find two distinct prayers offered by the faithful addressed to God as Father: the Lord’s prayer and the invocation associated with baptism.  As people who pray in the way that Christ commanded, I think Christians must preserve the integrity of these prayers.  Additionally, we have to consider the reality of the Incarnate God when considering who is Christ’s mother.

So what are your thoughts on these issues of addressing God in prayer?


12 responses

  1. Rae

    “However, I am equally of the opinion that the Incarnation renders the appropriate name of the Father as “Father” with the related pronouns. After all, the Mother of Christ is a distinct human person. Mary’s presence as mother cannot be overstated when one defends the Incarnation of Christ. What is more, Christ Himself is consistent in His usage of “mother” and “father” according to His Father in heaven.”
    Am I correctly reading that you believe that it is right to ascribe the masculine attributes of parenting to God and the feminine to Mary, a human? How do you deal with Joseph as Jesus’ father? For Mary might have been confused when Jesus referred to God as “father” but no doubt Jesus was not confused at all when Mary referred to Joseph as his “father.” Do you think that calling Joseph “father” is “overstating” his position relative to Jesus? If not, then how is calling Mary mother a problem for also calling God mother?

    “Christ can only be one person.” And yet, that which is not assumed is not redeemed. If Christ is so much Jesus the man that he may only be seen as a male person, then he is not God enough to redeem me, a woman.

    Why does one need to be “mindful about where attention is directed” when it comes to feminine metaphors, but not masculine? Also, why do you place the “mother hen” metaphor under the Holy Spirit rather than the first person of the Trinity whom you believe only appropriately called Father (if I understand you correctly)?

    If we flop around with our metaphors, why is it not also appropriate to switch around with our pronouns?

    1 December 2010 at 5:03 pm

    • I do believe that you inferred a whole host of things from my post, generally taking your objections out of the context, where I began with a disclaimer about the differences between the triune God and the title ascribed to God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

      Beginning first with your middle point: that which is not assumed is not redeemed. In Colossians, we see that in Christ, the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell. This fullness of the Godhead includes the fullness of the Trinity. It is a colossal mystery, but Metropolitan Anthony Bloom makes an astute point that Christ as the new Adam means considering Adam before God fashioned Eve from Adam’s ribs. To speak crassly about gender just for a bit, we tend to assign pronouns principally from genital identification. Because Christ did not have a vagina, it does not mean that he couldn’t sanctify birth-giving. He sanctified birth-giving [and the whole of human reproductive life] through being born. One can raise a similar objection to Christ being able to sanctify marriage because we know Christ lived a celibate life.

      Moving to your third point, I made no such distinction regarding appropriate masculine and feminine metaphors. One always must be careful how one prays. For instance, in my daily office prayer book, I need to “add” the appropriate closing ending. If the prayer is addressed to the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit, this ending differs slightly. Additionally, it is an incredibly Orthodox custom to pray in the full name of the Trinity, given to us by Christ as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” When I address my prayers to the Saints, I am also careful to use their appropriate pronouns. As metaphor, I discussed how the metaphors can shift, even when discussing the Saints such as when I discussed St Paul birthing the Gospel to the Galatians. I use a prayer book for a reason to help me with some of the more metaphorical means of praying.

      My experience with prayers that use feminine imagery for God is that they tend to be addressed to the triune God with second-person pronouns. To name the one example, “God, You are a mother who draws all of Your children into Your family as a mother hen shelters her young.” When I am praying to the Spirit to discern Wisdom, I tend to find such prayers rely on feminine pronouns.

      Additionally, I think it’s important to ask you to cut me a bit of a “break” when it comes to my prayer life and the Mother of God. I didn’t grow up with her in my life, and it’s really been only the past year and a half where I’ve gotten comfortable seeking her intercessions. Moreover, I believe pronouns in English are assigned on the distinction between male and female, not on the basis of masculine and feminine. God the Father is a complete parent, encompassing both masculine and feminine attributes; similarly Christ is a complete person, encompassing both masculine and feminine attributes. However, an observation that God is compassionate does not necessarily assign a gender as such to God. I do think it is entirely appropriate to use prayers that extend metaphors [rather than just similes] to God. However, I do not equate “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer” one-to-one with “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” It’s not to say that CRS is a “bad” title for God but I would not say that a Christian should be baptized in the name of the CRS or pray the Lord’s prayer to “Our Creator.”

      1 December 2010 at 5:29 pm

      • Rae

        I am confused but have an idea what may be the cause. Were you simply offering arguments for why male pronouns are appropriate for God? If so, then I can understand how I “inferred a whole host of things” took “objections out of the context.” But if you were explaining how male pronouns are *preferable* then I do not understand your arguments without my inferences. Because without them, I do not see how feminine pronouns are inferior.

        It seems that you may also be inferring a lot that I never implied. What did I say that made you think I objected to the term “father” as applied to God?

        I am more than willing to cut you as much slack as you want on anything. 🙂 But I don’t understand how personal discomfort with Mary as the Mother of God and our mother implies that we must not call God mother.

        1 December 2010 at 5:50 pm

      • Summary of my argument:

        The triune God is above any conception of gender. Both male and female metaphors work; do be careful.

        When addressing prayers to the name of the triune God as revealed by Christ (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), do be exceptionally careful given the prayer’s context. I am of the firm opinion that both the Lord’s Prayer and the invocation at baptism must preserve the how the Gospels present the invocations. The Lord’s Prayer should be addressed to “Our Father” and people should be baptized in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” When speaking directly of the incarnate Christ, I believe you need to use male pronouns as in “He walked beside the Sea of Galilee when calling His first disciples.” It’s historically accurate.

        In my mind, the realities of the incarnate Christ establish a preference for male pronouns if only for our desire to make it known how Christ lived. We want to speak as faithful “eyewitnesses” to the God whom we have seen with our own eyes (bearing the apostolic message). Moreover, as stated many times, I believe Christians have a liturgical obligation to preserve the name of the triune God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” in at least two places: the Lord’s Prayer and the baptismal invocation. Within a Christian’s private devotion [key exception being the Lord’s prayer] I find metaphors highly appropriate. Yet I think it’s entirely appropriate that the metaphors match the linguistic context, ie “When Christ reigns as king, she will rule over all of the earth.” That’s using a female pronoun for the sake of using a female pronoun and doesn’t match the context.

        A Christian must always pray with vigilance as he or she stands before an ineffable triune God who desires to reveal life’s fullness to us.

        1 December 2010 at 6:11 pm

    • Re Joseph as father for Christ: I did a keyword search in the Gospels for “father.” Of the 251 references returned in the ESV, only 2 seemingly have any bearing on Joseph as father.

      In St Matthew’s lineage, he writes: “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” which strikes me as an awkward construction to avoid calling Joseph Christ’s father.

      John 6:42 where the crowd asks: They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Incidentally, this question seems to be about the crowd knowing Joseph’s lineage and ascribes Christ to be Joseph’s son.

      Additionally, I think the finding of the boy Jesus in the temple clearly indicates who Christ calls Father.

      1 December 2010 at 5:48 pm

      • Rae

        Then perhaps Orthodox and Catholic tradition differ on this point? For us it is clear that Joseph is indeed the father (albeit adopted) of Jesus. And the lack of direct scriptural discussion of this point is no more of an issue than the lack of scriptures on venerating Mary.

        Mary’s confusion at Jesus’ reference to his “Father’s house” only makes sense if one understands that everyone would have understood Jesus’ normal use of the term “father” to apply to Joseph.

        But how do you understand it?

        1 December 2010 at 5:55 pm

      • St Joseph doesn’t really get much press in the Orthodox tradition. We refer to him as “St Joseph the Betrothed.” We tend to speak of him as a Defender and Protector of Christ and the Virgin, not as Christ’s father.

        And I think the Virgin’s confusion in the Gospels mirrors everyone’s confusion in the Gospels until after the Resurrection of Christ clarified everything for everyone.

        1 December 2010 at 6:17 pm

  2. Rae

    AH! You don’t allow much nesting so I can’t reply to your comment directly beneath it. In any case, I largely agree with you, I just don’t see how what you’re saying defends the primacy of the male pronoun. I never said anything about removing the term “Father” or “Son” or referring to Jesus as “she.” I said that it is painful to read about He who is our Mother.

    So, based on what I am understanding now I see that you are nowhere near heresy, but as far as I can tell you did not actually explain why male pronouns are preferable except for a few limited circumstances, and I wasn’t talking about limited circumstances.

    I am sorry for the lack of reverence of Joseph in the Orthodox tradition. There is much that we can all learn from each other.

    2 December 2010 at 2:22 pm

    • Perhaps it would make a bit of a sense to talk about the primacy of the male pronoun for whom.

      I believe that when we speak of Christ, then the historical realities of the Incarnation lead us to use the male pronouns. He took on flesh and dwelt among us, he walked along the Sea of Galilee, he died on the cross, he rose again…

      When we speak about the Father, then I think it’s equally important to use male pronouns as “father” carries with it the principally male sense.

      When we speak of the Holy Spirit and of the Godhead, then I think we need to be careful to match the metaphors invoked by our prayers. If we speak of God as King, then our pronouns should follow suit. If we speak of God as Mother, then our pronouns should follow suit. We also speak in metaphors more often than we think. For instance, I can’t think of appropriate pronouns for “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” I can’t even match one-to-one with the name of God revealed as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” from this title because, just for an example, Christ clearly creates, redeems and sustains.

      2 December 2010 at 2:48 pm

  3. Rukundo

    Okay, coming in late helps understand the flow of the conversation, just abit! When it comes to these things, i tend to take my position with that of Paul, when he says that Man’s wisdom is only…(you know it) to God; and so reasoning with what u may choose to accept or repulse?? Believing in the Triune God in His/Her trinity is only but Faith and Faith doesn’t call for reason, it calls for believe…just believe!!

    Am falling in love with this song that i play it many times a day! Science and Faith by the script…mind listening to it??

    4 December 2010 at 1:01 pm

    • Feel free to send along the song. I’m always open to listening to more music.

      Our wisdom is indeed nothing when compared to the mind of God. Yet equally we are called to love the Lord our God with all of our soul, with all of our mind, with all of heart and with all of our strength. The questions about pronouns for the Triune God comes when we try to live into a relationship with God. When you relate to someone, you want to know them; in particular, you need to know their name and how to use it.

      4 December 2010 at 1:52 pm

  4. Rukundo

    Ooohh Yes…Knowing their name and how to use it! Wow, spot on! Rather it gets bad to use it in a wrong way…however just been reminded of John Wesley’s statement that without the willingness of man, God’s willingness to help (be God to pipo) is rendered inactive!!! (paraphrased)…and so scrutinising Him (oopps, may be Her..hahah) on whether He can save us or not (good enough to) would put a post “… dont knock on the door…yo not welcome!!”

    4 December 2010 at 2:32 pm

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