Is God Masculine?
Orthodoxy versus Traditionalism
by Alan G. Padgett
Editor’s Note: The following article is a critique of Touchstone’s position articulated in recent editorials on “gender-inclusive” Bible translation. It was first printed in Priscilla Papers, 16/4 (Fall 2002), and is reprinted with permission from Christians for Biblical Equality. Senior editor S. M. Hutchens has written a response, entitled “Children of a Better God.”
Remember praying to Howard as a child? Yes, that’s right: “Our Father, whose art’s in heaven, Howard be thy name.” I still think God’s art really is in heaven (or at least some of it), but the name of God I know now is a more glorious one: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Most children think of God as a kind of old grandpa in the sky. Hopefully, with age has come a greater wisdom about the nature of our living, infinite, loving Creator. Is God an old man, or at least a male? The main stream of Christian thought would say no. The reason is simple: the essence of God is Spirit, without a body. To be male or female requires having a body, and so God the Blessed Trinity cannot be male (that Jesus is male is not in question here).
While agreeing that God is not male, some tradition-minded Christians have taught that God is masculine. The difference here is that God may represent a kind of masculine spiritual principle, without being “male” in the literal sense. The purpose of this essay is to refute this idea, and to continue a conversation with the editors of Touchstone magazine on this topic.
The appearance of a gender-inclusive version of the New International Version (Today’s NIV) has sparked a significant debate among Evangelical Christians in America. This has provided the occasion, but not the substance, of my debate with the editors of Touchstone magazine. I am very much in sympathy with the purposes of this “journal of Mere Christianity,” which seeks to provide a traditional yet ecumenical approach to issues facing the Church today. Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical Christians share much in common, and their conversation, convergences and conflicts are important for the future of Christianity. No doubt it is because I share much of their theological viewpoint that I find the theology expressed in two recent editorials to be so puzzling. Perhaps their fondness for C. S. Lewis has led them to follow him in asserting the masculine character of God.1 While I too enjoy and appreciate Lewis, on this point he strayed from mere Christianity.
The first editorial was written by S. M. Hutchens “for the editors,” in the April 2002 issue (15.3). I found this essay, entitled “Heretical Bibles,” quite odd and out of keeping with the orthodox faith. Especially in its use of the word “heretic,” it was not in keeping with sound theology, so I wrote a letter to the editors. This was published by them in the June 2002 issue (15.5), along with another letter from the conservative New Testament scholar Doug Moo, who helped to translate the TNIV. In the same issue, a further editorial responded to these letters to the editor.2 The time has come, I think, to review this important debate.
Simply stated, I will argue that God is not masculine, and patriarchy is not part of the grammar of orthodoxy. I will not be discussing here the issue of gender-inclusive Bible translations (but see an article on the TNIV by Craig Blomberg on the CBE Web page at www.cbeinternational.org). For the purposes of this debate, we begin with an outline of the Touchstone position.
Hutchens asserts that every Bible using inclusive language is unorthodox because it encourages a “faulty view of man, thus of Christ, thus of God.” (Heretical, 4, his emphasis). The use of gender-inclusive language has no proper Christian ground. The feminists have used political pressure to impose their non-Christian ideology upon the Church and its Bibles (Heretical, 5). To deny “male headship” as “an indispensable mark of the divine being” is unorthodox and heretical. This does not imply that the sexes are not equal: they are. Men and women are equal in dignity and worth. The heresy comes in a subtle denial of the “deep significance” of the maleness of Christ (ibid.) The heart of the so-called heresy is, “it obscures and confuses headship in the human order that, according to St. Paul, directly reflects the divine” (Unmanning, 3). He goes on to assert that “because man is made in the image of God, bad anthropology is also bad theology. To misunderstand and misrepresent man is to misunderstand and misrepresent God.” His view of man is that “man is the proper title of the male as primary, comprehensive, and representative of the human race” (Unmanning, 3–4). He gives as evidence of this the whole sweep of biblical narrative, with particular focus on Genesis 1. There the “seminal incursion” of God into the formless and empty earth is one sample of the priority of the masculine. The next is that God created man as male and female. He next asserts that, for the Bible, “man is the defining member of the woman, of the Church, and of the race.” He goes on to cite 1 Corinthians 11 as a key verse where St. Paul asserts the kind of male headship he finds in the entire Bible.
Well, one can see that we really have touched the tip of an iceberg here! Perhaps it might be well to state what we agree on, before discussing our disagreements. We both affirm the key moral and spiritual doctrines of the Christian faith, for example, the true divinity and humanity of Christ, the Triune nature of God, the authority and inspiration of Scripture, the importance of consensual, canonical Tradition, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. I also agree that what is at stake is “the grammar of orthodoxy,” that is, the shape of Christian theology (Heretical, 5). For the sake of simplicity, I will call what we disagree about “Christian patriarchy.” I do not intend by the use of this term any derogatory defamation of character, but I do find it descriptive of the kind of priority and power of the male, even within God, which Hutchens is defending. So here is the question before us: Is patriarchy part of the grammar of Christian orthodoxy? I will argue the right answer to this question is No. We cannot in a short article substantiate all our views, nor cover all the ground surrounding this debate. So I have limited myself to five key points in response to my brothers at Touchstone.
1. You abuse the powerful word “heresy.”
In my letter to the editor, I claimed that you abuse the word “heresy.” I will start again with this main point. Heresy is a powerful word, which should be used with care. You dismiss my concern as “blustering,” (Unmanning, 4) but you might want to think this casual dismissal over again. You are wrong to identify heresy as “false teaching and its effect on the Church.” That is not nearly enough to make an idea heretical. A heresy is a willful and persistent false teaching, by a Christian, in dissent from a dogma of the Church (that is, a doctrine promulgated by recognized ecumenical Church authorities). The false teaching needs to be important, in other words: so important that a recognized body took the time to condemn it. That at least is the definition in the (Roman Catholic) Code of Canon Law (§751, 1364), as well as the Code of Canons for the Oriental Churches (§1436–1437). The point is not about the technical details of canon law. It is in fact much more important. We cannot decide on our own what is heretical, just because we think it is false. A teaching may well be false, and not heretical. More is needed to make a doctrine heretical, namely, that the teaching is opposed by the Church. There are many false teachings which are not heresy, just as there are many true Christian doctrines which are not dogmas (i.e., not a defining doctrine of the orthodox faith).
2. You confuse traditionalism with orthodoxy.
My second point follows from the first one. Patriarchy is certainly a traditional part of Christian theology—more is the pity! Not to put too fine a point on it, but the same can be said of anti-Semitism. The hatred, oppression and murder of Jews has a very long and widespread tradition in Christianity. Thank God, we are beginning to see the light about this, but only after centuries of prejudice that helped make the Holocaust possible. While anti-Semitism is traditional, it is not orthodox, when by “orthodoxy” we mean not just traditional Christianity but the key ideas of the Christian faith, as defined by the Bible and the ecumenical Creeds. When we elevate our appreciation of tradition to a dogma; when we begin to think that anything new must be suspect; when we defend something just because it is traditional, then we are in danger of moving from a healthy appreciation of tradition to traditionalism. We are in danger of substituting the living faith of the dead for the dead faith of the living (to borrow an oft-quoted phrase from Jaroslav Pelikan).3 Yes, patriarchy is traditional; but it is not orthodox, because it is not taught in Scripture and the Creeds.
3. You misread the Bible.
Just as you claim that “feminism” has corrupted the reading and translation of the Bible, so I claim that patriarchy has corrupted the interpretation and translation of the Bible for over a millennium. We strongly disagree on how to understand and interpret the Scriptures with respect to gender issues. Your reading of Genesis 1 is quite flawed, for example. There are ancient Semitic myths about a male god creating the world from his semen, but that is most assuredly not found in Genesis 1. You have read your patriarchy into the text. Genesis 1, most Bible commentators agree, is written exactly against such Ancient Near Eastern myths. They were the stories of idolatry. For the Hebrews, God is not to be depicted in the shape of any creature or animal figure, including the human. That is the first and greatest commandment! God does not create with his semen. He does not use any body parts at all! Instead, God creates by the pure Word alone, in Genesis 1.4
When it comes to the creation of human beings, you fail to understand either Genesis or Paul. God creates human Being (ha’adam in Hebrew) both male and female. There is no “priority of the male” in this chapter. Rather, it is only man and woman together who are in the “image of God.” What the text says is that “in the image of God he created it, male and female he created them.” The reference of the pronoun “it” or “he” is back to ha’adam, that is, back to the human species, not to the man alone, as the second phrase makes clear (“male and female”).
In the second chapter, it is true, man is created first, then woman. Woman is indeed taken out of man. But don’t confuse origin with importance. Humans are made out of the dust after all. Does that make our “dusty” nature (the physical body) the central part of who we are? What comes later in time is often the more important. The animals are made before humans in both chapters: does that make us somehow “under” the animals? Notice that the man leaves his family, and clings to the woman—not the other way around (Gen. 2:24). Your reading of Genesis 1 will not withstand critical scrutiny.
I find your reading of Paul’s letters equally implausible. Paul agrees with an egalitarian understanding of Genesis 1, in 1 Corinthians 11. He specifically states there that “In the Lord, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man. For just as woman came out of man, so now man is born of woman. And all [people] come from God.” (v. 11–12). This is of a piece with Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is no longer male and female (Gal. 3:28), and that in marriage the husband has authority over the body of his wife, and the wife has authority over the body of her husband (1 Cor. 7:4). Your principle of masculine priority in the divine order is based upon a very selective reading of the Bible, which will not hold up to scholarly investigation even for the passages you pay attention to.
With respect to God, yes, he is usually depicted as a male in Scripture. It does not follow from this that God is in fact masculine, since the naming of God reflects the language and culture in which the name (like any name) originated. We know this is true without much reflection for names like “Elohim” or “Yahweh,” but we forget it is just as true for “Abba, Father.” Furthermore, you neglect the feminine images for God in the Bible! What is striking is that in a patriarchal culture, such images were still used at all. Examples of feminine images for God would be Deuteronomy 32:11, Psalm 90:2 (God “gives birth” to the world—the Hebrew verb is used for women in labor), Isaiah 66:10–13, Matthew 23:37 and Luke 15:8–10.5
We cannot here go over every verse and passage of the Bible, in order to demonstrate that patriarchy is not taught in Scripture, except as a result of sin (Gen. 3:15). However, there is abundant literature which has already done this, including books and articles by respected Bible scholars of all types. You might want to look at the many articles on this topic published in Priscilla Papers over the years, as well as the books and articles available from the CBE Book Store (on the Web at www.cbeinternational.org). In my own research and publication on this issue, I have found again and again that patriarchy in the Bible is a cultural assumption of the authors, not a doctrine taught by the Scriptures. It is there in the Bible, certainly. But it is not what the Bible teaches as religious or moral truth.
Let us take one example, again from Paul’s letters. We will use the verse you cite yourself, 1 Corinthians 11:3. You assume that the word “head” here (kephale) has the metaphorical meaning of “authority.” Paul is, on your view, establishing a divine order of masculine priority, both in God (“God is the head of Christ”) and in humanity (“the husband is the head of the wife.”) But your reading is in fact most unlikely. Yes, Paul wrote using the word “head,” which reflects his own cultural assumptions. But what does this verse actually teach? Check the context! Paul can use the word “head” in many ways, as a metaphor. These multiple meanings cluster around the idea of “being first” in some way.6 I would assert that Paul never uses the word “head” as a metaphor for authority in his letters, but that could be debated. What we do know is that a perfectly fine word for both origin/priority and authority exists in Greek (arche), but Paul does not use it here. The overall context (see vv. 7–12) demands that the issue is about origins, about who is from whom. “Head” as a metaphor (like “fountainhead” and “head of a river” in English) does have this meaning and it is the most likely one here. Therefore this verse does not teach patriarchy, that is, it does not teach that man is an authority over woman. Man’s priority is simply that he was created first in the Genesis 2 story, and woman was made out of him. That is, this verse teaches just what Paul says later in the same passage, that woman was taken out of man. Likewise, Christ was sent from God, and all men were created by Christ. Just in case someone might think he is saying women were not created by Christ, too (see v. 7), he explicitly states as much in vv. 11–12: “All people come from God.” So while Paul does put things in a male-oriented way (given his patriarchal education and culture), the actual teaching of this difficult passage (11:2–16) is not patriarchal. This example could be multiplied many times. The Bible certainly assumes patriarchy, and often puts things in a male-oriented way. But nowhere does the Bible teach the “male principle” of “divine order” that you seek to hold on to. Patriarchy is finally pagan, not Christian. Christianity over time became more and more patriarchal as it assimilated to the Roman Empire. You defend traditional Greco-Roman values, not orthodoxy, when you defend Christian patriarchy.
4. Patriarchy is not orthodox.
The points I have made about the Bible transfer quite well to the literature of orthodox theology. None of the Creeds defend the patriarchy you find so key to the faith. You complain that I don’t know my Greek, and that anthropos in the Nicene Creed means “man” (Unmanning, 3). I continue to insist that the Nicene Creed claims that Jesus “was made human,” not that he was made male. What we share with the Savior is his humanity, not his manhood. The Greek text uses the word enanthropesanta, meaning “to become human,” not to become male. There are perfectly fine Greek words that mean “male human being” if that is what the Fathers wanted to use. Notice that the Latin translation supports my reading. It uses the word homo (human), not vir nor mas (male), to translate the Greek.7 While the word anthropos in Greek can sometimes be used to denote a male rather than a female, the most common meanings are “human being” or “member of the human race” according to the most respected Greek lexicon for the New Testament.8 I make no claim to being a Greek scholar, but I do find all the evidence against you on this one.
When we turn from the Creeds to the great theologians of the early Church, we find a similar rejection of the claim that the Divine Being is masculine. First of all, the Church theologians who helped to define orthodoxy agreed that the being of God cannot be captured in human terms. The true essence of God is beyond our understanding, and beyond the power of our language to name with precision. The result is that we must use metaphors and analogies drawn from the created and human world, to speak of the Uncreated One. This is the common teaching of the early Church, as set forth classically by Dionysius in his treatise, The Divine Names.9 The great theologians of the early Church, such as Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine, drew the proper conclusion from this: that God is just as much a Mother as a Father.10 Why not? It is there for all to read in the Bible. While I agree that the name of the Triune God is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” to call God a father is to use a metaphor. God is not masculine, anymore than God is feminine! Jesus called God “father,” and so do his followers. But this in no way means that God the Father is a masculine being. God the Infinite-Personal Creator transcends such categories altogether.
The philosopher-bishop, Synesius of Cyrene, wrote a long hymn to God which puts this point in poetry as:
The infinite, uncreated God has the virtues of both the male and the female within creation. For the Christian faith, God is no more masculine than he is feminine.
5. Your view of God is not heretical, but it does smack of idolatry.
I would not call your Christian patriarchy “heresy” because it has never been condemned by the Church in official teachings. But I do think that you border upon idolatry. By elevating the masculine into the very being of God, you confuse creature and creator. You create God in your own image, and worship a created category (masculinity). You come close to exchanging the truth about God for a lie, and worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever (Rom. 1:25).
In sum, you are wrong to see patriarchy as part of the grammar of orthodox belief.
I sincerely hope that thoughtful Christians dedicated to Scripture and the Creeds will not be lead astray by the traditionalism and patriarchy you represent. The good news is that slowly these views are being overcome, not on the basis of ideology, power politics, or sheer prejudice (as you claim), but just because it is the truth of the Gospel that God is not masculine. Patriarchy is not orthodoxy. Thanks be to God!
1. C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 237–239.
2. We will cite these two editorials in the text as follows: “Heretical Bibles” (15.3, pp. 4–5) as Heretical and “Unmanning the Bible” (15.5, pp. 3–5) as Unmanning. Both were written by S. M. Hutchens “for the editors.” They can be read on-line at www.touchstonemag.org.
3. J. Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–699), The Christian Tradition, vol. 1 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1971), 9.
4. See, for example, W. P. Brown, “Creation,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. D. N. Freedman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 293–294.
5. See further Paul K. Jewett, The Ordination of Women (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 35–47, and Virginia R. Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine (New York: Crossroad, 1983). Jewett provides an excellent overview of the entire question, in the context of his argument for the ordination of women.
6. On the metaphorical meaning for “head” (kephale) in Paul, I have found very helpful Andrew C. Perriman, “The Head of a Woman: The Meaning of Kephale in 1 Cor. 11:3,” Journal of Theological Studies 45 (1994), 602–622. Perriman argues that there are many uses and meanings to “head” in Paul, when used as a metaphor; but they cluster around the idea of “being first” in some way. What is clear is that “head” does not always mean authority in Paul. See further the Appendix on “head” in G. Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985).
7. For the Greek and Latin text, see Norman P. Tanner, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Univ. Pr., 1990), 1:5.
8. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, ed. F. W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 2000), 81–82.
9. There is a convenient English translation in Pseudo-Dionysius, Complete Works, tr. Colin Luibheid (New York: Paulist Pr., 1987).
10. Clement of Alexandria, “Who Is the Rich Person Who Is Being Saved?,” par. 37; in Clement of Alexandria, Loeb Classical Library, ed. G. W. Butterworth (New York: G. Putnam’s, 1919), 346; Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily VII, tr. C. McCambley (Brookline, MA: Hellenic College Press, 1987), 145; Augustine, Enarrationes in psalmos, 26:18 (on Ps. 27:10), in English as St. Augustine on the Psalms, Psalms 1–29, Ancient Christian Writers 29, tr. S. Hebgin and F. Corrigan (Westminster, MD: Newman Pr., 1960), 272.
11. J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologia Graeca, vol. 66, col. 1593. There is an English translation of the hymns, which I have not checked: The Essays and Hymns of Synesius of Cyrene, 2 vols., tr. A. FitzGerald (London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1930).
Alan G. Padgett is Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
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