Clearly, God is not ‘male’. So should we not stop referring to God exclusively (or predominantly) as ‘he’?
The argument is that to refer to God with masculine language is to demean the dignity of women, to imply that they are less ‘godlike’ than men, and to perpetuate their subservient positions.
The solutions would be either to refer to God in both masculine and feminine language (in roughly equal proportions), or to use gender-neutral language when referring to the deity. God would then become both ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’, or would be referred to as ‘Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer’ (or something similar).
Arguments in favour
Various arguments are used to support such a move:
- The language of the Bible, when referring to God in masculine language, is metaphorical. Feminists would argue that since God is not literally a Father (or a King), we may use feminine metaphors as well. For example, we may refer to God as ‘comforter’, ‘healer’, and ‘sympathizer’, and, by extension, use feminine names as well as masculine names. We would, then, speak of the First Person of the Trinity as ‘Father/Mother’, and the Second as ‘Child of God’. Alternatively, we would move to gender-neutral language for the Trinity, such as Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer.
- The gendered language of the Bible (and of the Christian tradition) is culturally conditioned. Patriarchal culture leads to patriarchal ways of talking about God, and to the assumption that the male is of higher value and authority. Clearly (it is claimed) the language needs to be changed in order to correct this assumption.
- Perpetuating the masculinity of God reinforces the idea of the female as inferior and subservient, and acts as a barrier to the true liberation of women, and prevents them from serving at all levels in the church.
We should note that most evangelical feminists are opposed to this agenda to feminise or neutralise our God-talk. Here are some of the reasons:
- While it is true that the Bible uses both male and female metaphorical language to describe God, female language is never used to name God.
- We ought not to suppose that cultural pressure drove Israel to refer to her God using masculine language. The most natural route would have been to follow the surrounding nations, which were replete with feminine deities. Elizabeth Achtemeier has suggested that the main reason for the Bible’s masculine language for God is that ‘the God of the Bible will not let himself be identified with his creation, and therefore human beings are to worship not the creation but the Creator.… It is precisely the introduction of female language for God that opens the door to such identification of God with the world, however.’
- While the teaching of the Bible does indeed reflect its various historical and cultural settings in many ways, the God of the Bible is presented by self-disclosure. The pinnacle of that self-disclosure is, of course, Christ, who scandalised his Jewish hearers by referring to God as his own ‘Father’. Moreover, it was as ‘the Son’ that Jesus came from ‘the Father’.
- The substitution of ‘Father/Son/Holy Spirit’ by ‘Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer’ is problematic for several reasons:
- First, such a move risks a modalist understanding of the Trinity, where three persons are reduced to three phases of being, whereby the God who is first Creator becomes Redeemer, and then Sustainer.
- Second, the substitution masks God’s being and nature. God is eternally Father, Son and Spirit. To redesignate God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer is merely to describe his functions. Moreover, to designate God as eternal Creator is to imply that the creation is eternal.
- Third, the names of Father, Son and Spirit do not reduce to Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer:
‘Is the Father and the Father alone the Creator? Is the Son alone the Redeemer? Is the Spirit alone the Sustainer? Biblical teaching instructs us that each of these activities is accomplished by all three divine persons working together. Yes, the Father creates, but He does so through the power of His Word (John 1:3) who acts as implementer of His creative design (Col. 1:16). The Spirit, likewise, energizes the formation of the creative work of the Father through the Son (Gen. 1:2). Redemption, likewise, is destroyed altogether if the work of redemption is reduced to that of the second person of the Trinity. Biblically, redemption only occurs as the Father sends the Son into the world to receive the wrath of the Father against Him for our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). And, of course, the Son accomplishes this work only by the power of the Spirit who rests on Him and empowers Him to go to the cross (Heb. 9:14) and raises Him from the dead (Rom. 8:11). Likewise, sustaining and sanctifying is the work of the Father (1 Thess. 5:23–24) and the Son (Eph. 5:25–27) and the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18) to preserve believers and move them toward the holiness of life and character designed for them from all eternity (Eph. 1:4). One realizes that the substitution of “creator, redeemer, and sustainer” for “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” not only fails as a functional equivalent of the traditional and biblical trinitarian formula, but worse, if followed it would result in such major theological distortions that the faith that would result would bear only a superficial resemblance to the faith of true biblical and Christian religion.’
Based on Bruce A. Ware, ‘Tampering With The Trinity: Does The Son Submit To The Father?’ in Grudem, ed. Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, Crossway Books, 2002, chapter 8.