Children of a Better God
A Reply to “Is God Masculine?”
by S. M. Hutchens
Alan Padgett may be thanked for candor in his attack on the “traditionalist” Christianity shared against him and his authorities by the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox editors of Touchstone. He is not ashamed to make it clear his opinions are based on modern realizations about the inner nature of the faith, things not fully known or appreciated in the past, and against which those who fail to change their antiquated patriarchalist views may be accused of the unorthodoxy of Traditionalism. Thus he enlists the saints, angels, and even some of the doctors of the Church in his cause, for no right-thinking believer will mistake the traditions of humans for the doctrine of God, understood, thanks primarily to the efforts of a great many scholarly persons, more perfectly now than in times past. His frankness extends to his remarks about just what is wrong with the kind of Christianity against which he stands, but it is just there that those who may not be altogether sure of his materially advanced orthodoxy will find some points that give them pause.
Egalitarian Difficulties with Scripture
Padgett and those who share his opinions have profound difficulties with the Bible—not with passages that show men and women to be equal, of course, but in those that demonstrate an unfortunate tendency toward patriarchalism. These, by enlightened reckoning, are not really Holy Scripture, for they do not accord with the true message of the Bible, a message that can be divined only with some difficulty, but has been so-divined by a great many learned people skilled in such divinations. Padgett puts it this way, and italicizes lest we miss his point: “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.”
He goes on to find an example of patriarchalist misunderstanding in my view of the use of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11. To be sure, he concludes, Paul does use a good bit of male-oriented language, given his patriarchal education and culture, but while this is one of many similar instances of possible misprision, the actual teaching of this “difficult” passage is not patriarchal at all. By this he means that in the many places the Bible seems to advance patriarchy, it doesn’t really, while in the many places it treats men and women as equal, it really does. “The Bible certainly assumes patriarchy,” Padgett says, “and often puts things in a male-oriented way. But nowhere does the Bible teach the ‘male principle’ of ‘divine order’” to which those of us who don’t find this and similar passages particularly difficult hold.
Here one sighs and wonders just how far he need go on in the demonstration. Do we need to belabor the point that Padgett and his allies are using Jefferson’s razor—an interpretive principle that un-scriptures anything unfriendly to their convictions? What opposes these beliefs, they propose, is not really Scripture, it’s just “in the Bible” as a kind of cultural artifact of its writers, who can’t really be blamed for saying things in the wrong way, since they hadn’t our advantages. Wherever these deviations appear, a way must be found around them. Passages that appear to endorse patriarchalism actually oppose it in ways that can be explained by subtle minds, but only to those who are clever enough to follow them and bold enough to deny what is obvious to the simple. We who know better, they are telling us, can help these old authors along, fixing up their writing and making it more presentable to ears better attuned to truth than those of the Apostle Paul. It is painful to hear people who think this way accusing us of unorthodoxy. It is more painful still thinking of how many are following them.
Difficulties with Reason
Padgett demands a full and catholic definition of heresy, but one cannot fail to notice that unless he is a Catholic himself, his understanding of what can and cannot be called a heresy effectively insulates egalitarians from conviction on the charge, no matter how erroneous or divisive their teaching. What is the likelihood that what Protestants could consider an ecumenical council might be convened to condemn any of their doctrines? And if he is a Catholic, how does he stand with respect to papal and magisterial teaching on egalitarian issues? If his definition holds, identifying someone as a heretic, whatever he teaches and whatever its effect on the Church, is impossible among Protestants for any foreseeable future. If he is a Catholic, he is teaching what Catholic authority identifies as error, so cannot credibly claim protection from the body of doctrine to which he goes for support. (If he is Orthodox, he may expect to meet with a fatal accident.) I will hold to my definition: In the beginning and the end, heresy refers to false teaching and its divisive effect on the Church. That is its essential meaning, both before and after official condemnation. For a teaching to be identified as a heresy and condemned as such, it must first be a heresy, and someone must allege that it is so.
Egalitarians typically claim for themselves the support of apophatic theology, saying that God, because he is ineffable Spirit, is above all categories properly applied to creation, like “father,” so that when terminology like this is used, it is metaphorical, describing what God is like, but not what God in God’s fundamental being—which is beyond all of this—is. They deduce from this that if God is like a father, if he demonstrates masculine qualities, he is also, because he demonstrates feminine ones, like a mother, so that if we use masculine terms for God, they, being no more than metaphors, are just as good as other serviceable metaphors—therefore God is as much Mother as Father—that the masculine and the feminine, so far as we may say they exist in God, are equal co-principles, as reflected in the created co-principality of male and female, mother and father. This shell-game catechism is repeated in many forms.
We observe, however, that one can’t have his cake and eat it too. One cannot say that God is beyond the categories of creation and then use this to make deductions about how we are to speak of him when we use these categories. If he is beyond them, he is beyond them, and we cannot move from there to the next step in their logic, that the categories of creation are metaphorical, for this is saying something about the relation of that which is effable to that which is not. If something is beyond knowing, it is also beyond comparing to what can be known. Wittgenstein’s “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” would seem to apply. But silent the egalitarians are not, for it is just here they advance their notion that there is a “not” (for that is part of what is meant by “metaphor”) that stands between the language of revelation and its divine referents. God, while he is “Father,” is not Father, strictly speaking, and because “Father,” being metaphor, is neither exclusive nor prescriptive, God, who is also like a mother, may also be called by that name.
Orthodox Christianity rejects this formulation absolutely, teaching that the ineffable God who is beyond our knowing is our Father in heaven, truly known, truly named, and truly worshiped as such. The paradox is taken raw: The unknowable is known, the one who is beyond the categories of creation is known rightly in those categories, primarily and ultimately the “category” Christ Jesus, in whom the unknown God is known to us, and rightly, as our Father in heaven. In Christ, no metaphorical “not really” intervenes between God and man: In him God is man and man is God, nor, in Christ, is “Father” merely a human way of telling us something about what cannot be known. He who is beyond fatherhood is truly our Father, the One for whom we might call human fathers potent metaphors, for they are like him. But the point is this: One cannot convert “unknown” into “known” by means of a metaphor, only by a paradox, and once this is done, it becomes impervious to metaphor, for the Is Not is the Is, without the intervention of “is like” or “stands for.”
The next gap in argument comes from the gratuitous equation of father and mother, male and female, according to the egalitarian formula, which even the placing of the metaphorical “not” between the created and uncreated does not require. There is a categorical leap, even in the realm of metaphor, between “father and mother both apply” and “God is as much Mother as Father.” This is assigning weight (here equal weight) to the significance of the categories without saying why this should be done. The procedure masks the fact that there is no “reason” involved here, if what is meant by this is that it is the end of a deductive argument, for this is the egalitarian axiom, the point from which all argument leads as a first principle. We must have first principles but can be blamed for pretending they are something other than the dogmatic basis of our beliefs.
The belief that sexual principles are ineluctably and by definition equal in a way that excludes “patriarch-alism” is what distinguishes the egalitarian from the orthodox Christian. It is what makes the leap between co-principality and equal co-principality unnecessary for them to prove, for this, to the egalitarian, is axiomatic and self-evident. It is what makes it possible to scold us for not understanding Genesis or Paul when, for example, we fail to realize that God’s creation not of “man,” but the “human species” (ha’adam) male and female obviously extinguishes any doctrine of male priority. What signifies, they tell us, is only their equality in humanness. That the male was made first and named by God, that woman was taken out of him, that she is named with his name, that he named her, that this is understood by St. Paul and commented on by him in his typical patriarchal fashion—it is as if none of this existed, or if it does, bears no significant theological weight. Alas for poor, dim Paul, who imagined a direct connection between the man’s being “formed first” (protos eplasthe) and the woman’s subordination to him.
One stands before assertions like this marveling at the cheek it takes to make them, until one remembers that they rest on the first principles of egalitarianism, and are beyond contradiction among those who have adopted them. Any alleged male priority in the creation accounts, like the maleness of Christ in their Christology, is incidental to a sexually neutral or bisexual quality of “humanness.” The Scriptures, however, know of no such thing: Humanness is always sexual, and sexual in a way that involves both equality and the non-equality so obnoxious to the egalitarians.
We have said before in these pages that because God made man male and female in his own image, the feminine has a place in God, but that it is not “equal” in the manner of egalitarian teaching. The egalitarians wish to have a feminine principle (let us call it) that is not equal only in substance, worth, and dignity, but of which it cannot be said that it is contained in the masculine so that the latter is the defining principal—as indicated by the language of headship, obedience, and submission. To say, as they typically do, that God is as much Mother as Father appears to recognize the truth that all motherhood as well as all fatherhood is in God, but ignores this wholeness as the very thing that makes God Father, and sets at naught the revelation of Christ his Son that that is what he is, and that is what we are to call him. That all motherhood is in and comes from God surely is true, but this does not make him “as much Mother as Father.” It makes him Father.
The analogy in creation, once again rejected in principle by the egalitarians, is the man made in his image, who is whole, but alone, as a single male. When he is divided into male and female, the wholeness rests in the headship of the man and is expressed in the dominion he exercises in naming, in defining, in placing the woman’s being in relation to his. Let me suggest that the making of a female man to be the male’s helpmeet in time answers to the begetting of the Son and procession of the Spirit from the Father in eternity. The numerical character of the wholeness of man is one in two, while that of God is One in Three, for man is less than God. But man is like God, and one of the principal ways in which this likeness is expressed is in the masculinity of the one who unites the persons, who is the fountainhead of God-ness in heaven and of man-ness on earth.
If this is so, those who detect motherly qualities in God are not incorrect, but they are mistaken in calling him Mother, for it is in his Fatherhood that this character is found, and we have not been told by our Lord that he is Mother, but Father. It is wrong to find the character of God in an apophasis in which God is neither male nor female, or in a corruption of human sexuality in which he is both. The Scriptures teach us that all he is, is Father. They present us with no maternal Person in God, no female hypostasis that has a name, that we can worship, to whom we can pray, or of whom we may say that She, like the Son and the Holy Spirit, is One with the Father. This makes it impossible to say that God “is as much Mother as Father,” or as much (in keeping with a spurious apophatic principle that generates only metaphors for God) female as male.
It does, however, tell us that when we call upon God our Father, we are also calling upon all those qualities of perfect fatherhood that we, who exist in sexes, know as motherly. It is not that when we say “our Father,” we are also saying “our Mother,” but calling upon the One in whom the perfection of male and female, father and mother, is Father. How else could man be made male and female in his image? I have often heard people complain that they cannot relate to a paternal God because of some lack they perceive in him—of kindness, sympathy, nurture, fruitfulness, or some quality we recognize as womanly. In that case their complaint is not against the God of the Christians, for in him there is no lack of any such thing. If they are saying they cannot speak to or worship an idol, that is, a God who lacks any good thing, well and good. When, however, they refuse to know him as Father, they remain outside the faith of Christ, for whom all that is mother in God is comprehended and named in the Father, and in whose image a humanity was created that was both male and female, but called by the name of the man who comprehends them both as the original and principal man.
Difficulties with Tradition
Given the character of divine fatherhood as containing archetypically all that pertains to both sexes, comprehended in the masculine, feminine metaphors for God are possible and on occasion proper, and so they are found in the Bible, as expressions of the female or maternal aspects of perfect Fatherhood. While there is no Our Mother in heaven, nor can it be said that God is “as much” Mother as Father when this denies the character of divine Fatherhood, which among modern egalitarians it always does, it can be understood why Christians may have called God Mother while not holding to the egalitarian denials, and with no untoward intentions.
Egalitarians are very fond of fishing Scripture for its limited stock of feminine metaphors for God, and have triumphantly found references to God as Mother in the church fathers. But there is real cause to question whether these give any support at all to their contentions about a God who is as much Mother as Father—that the authors of these passages had any interest in establishing a feminine co-principle in a masculine God, or envisaged the reforms of family, church, and society that egalitarians propose to follow their conviction that there is no patriarchy in God or man.
Dr. Padgett refers to three fathers in particular, claiming no less than Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, and Gregory of Nyssa as fellow-laborers against traditionalist errorists who will only call God Father. We will examine each in their turn. I will say at the outset that I believe each of them, in each of the instances cited, to have departed from Scripture in calling God Mother, for having, in effect, created the illusion of a feminine Person in God, and so laid themselves open to use by heterodox commentators. But neither do I believe this makes them party to the egalitarian cause, for there is no credible evidence they mean what egalitarians mean by divine Motherhood, or intended what egalitarians intend to follow from it.
In Clement of Alexandria’s treatise The Rich Man’s Salvation, translated in Padgett’s notes in true egalitarian fashion as “Who Is the Rich Person Who Is Being Saved?” Clement says, “Behold the mysteries of love, and then you will have a vision of the bosom of the Father, whom the only-begotten God alone declared. God in his very self is love, and for love’s sake he became visible to us. And while the unspeakable part of him is Father (kai to men arreton autou pater), the part that has sympathy with us is Mother (to de eis hemas sumpathes gegone meter). By his great loving, the Father became of a woman’s nature, a great proof of which is he whom he begat from himself. . . .” (trans. G. W. Butterworth, Loeb Classical Library, 1919, pp. 346–347).
There is, quite understandably, no reference here to the editor’s note on this text: “This thought of the Motherhood of God has a parallel in Synesius (Bishop of Ptolemais in Libya early in the fifth century), Hymn II. 63–64: ‘Thou art Father, thou art Mother, Thou art male, and thou art female.’ Gnostic speculation introduced a Mother as the cause of creation (cp. Irenaeus i. 4), but the present passage would seem to have no connexion [sic] at all with this. Clement is simply trying to account, in a mystical way, for the love of God as shown in the incarnation.” Precisely. What is in Clement’s expositional view here is the “bosom” of the God whose “inexpressible part is Father.” This is directly contrary to the egalitarian teaching that the inexpressible part of God is beyond the masculine or feminine, beyond fatherhood or motherhood, and so can be expressed only metaphorically. While it is impossible to know exactly what was in Clement’s mind when he wrote this, it is difficult to enlist him in the egalitarian cause by virtue of what he actually says here, and the editor’s suggestion that he is trying to account in a mystical way for the love of God shown in the incarnation appears more reasonable than the assertion that he is advancing the egalitarian thesis that God is as much Mother as Father.
I will add here that one wonders if those who, like Dr. Padgett, assert that “the true essence of God . . . is beyond the power of our language to name with precision,” so that we “must use analogies drawn from the created and human world to speak of the Uncreated One” understand how, under the guise of piety, dreadfully pagan and anti-incarnational this language is. One wonders if he has ever read, “he who has seen me has seen the Father,” or of “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands.”
The Scriptures do indeed teach that no man has at any time seen God—not that his essence is beyond our language to name “with precision,” but that it is beyond our language to name at all. But they also teach that the only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father has made him known to us. No orthodox Christian may answer the correct assertion that God is beyond human categories with the counter-assertion that he is known metaphorically. This not only begs the question by re-positing that of the ontological relation involved in the metaphor, but it is simply the wrong answer, the right one being that the unknowable God is known truly in Christ, whom we have seen, whom we have heard, into whom we have been baptized, whose flesh we have touched, and whose blood we have drunk. The One in whom all the fullness of God dwells bodily is in us and we are in him, and he has taught us to call God Father. God is therefore, as Clement says here, in one of the perfect paradoxes of orthodoxy, in his inexpressible essence, Father.
St. Augustine, in his Enarrationes in Psalmos (on Psalm 26:18) says of the Psalmist, “Fecit se parvulum Deo; ipsum fecit patrem, ipsum fecit matrem. Pater est, quia condidit, quia vocat, quia iubet, quia regit; mater, quia fovet, quia nutrit, quia lactat, quia continet” (Aurelii Augustini, Enarrationes in Psalmos, I-L Turnholti: Typographi Brepolis Editores Pontifici, 1956, p. 164): “He makes himself a little child to God, of whom he speaks as his father and mother. He is father in that he creates, calls, commands, and governs him, mother in cherishing, feeding, nursing, and protecting him.”
Of the several ways the sexual references here could be understood, the one seized upon by those who regard the passage as evidence for Augustine’s support for a feminine co-principal by which God is as much Father as Mother, is the least likely. One might begin with the observation that the entire context of the passage is the Psalmist’s “as if ” [fecit se . . . fecit . . . fecit]. A certain imaginative distance is opened between the objective realities of the Psalmist and God on one hand, and the child, and God as both father and mother, on the other. This is not simile or even metaphor, strictly speaking, and does point to both paternal and maternal realities in God, as well as the truth of the Psalmist’s relative status as a little child. It is not, however, in the form of something that can be taken as teaching either for or against the egalitarians’ contentions. For Augustine’s actual views, this passage must be placed and weighted in the unfriendly context of the saint’s larger work, which shows him to be a fairly conventional patriarchalist.
More dogmatic, and less equivocal, is Gregory of Nyssa’s straightforward denial: epeide gar oute arren oute thelu to theion estin. . . . oute theleos oute arrenos tyn semasian tes akeratou katamolumnontos phuseos” (H. Langerbeck, ed., Gregorii Nysseni in Canticum Canticorum, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960, p. 213): “The divine nature is in fact neither male nor female. . . . neither the feminine nor the masculine can tarnish the signification of the pure nature.” Indeed, Gregory goes on, how can one conceive of this notion with regard to divinity while we ourselves are being divested of the signs of sexual difference, of a state in which we will not ourselves remain forever? On the contrary, he insists, while we are all becoming one in Christ, we are being stripped, along with the old man, of the signs of sexual differentiation.
Here St. Gregory appears to stray directly into pagan territory by treating allegations of male and female aspects of God as tarnishing an asexual divine nature. If the egalitarians wish to take him to themselves on the basis of an apophaticism that terminates in willingness to regard unification in Christ as de-sexualization (apparently Matthew 22:30 is in mind), they are welcome, for he appears to be with them here. In the end, however, he is a weak ally to those who wish also to show that God is as much Mother as Father, for the disagreement between egalitarians and orthodox Christians is not over whether there are male and female elements in God, but how they are related, how they are to be spoken of, and the meaning of the result of their expression in man made male and female in his image.
Difficulties with Mythology
As for Dr. Padgett’s concern that we not fall into paganism in speaking of God’s “seminal incursion” in creative activity, we find his concern for biblical truth commendable, but take a rather broader view than his. The myths that creation was made from the blood of a slain god, or from his seed cast into a primeval womb, are not entirely incorrect. The old stories are like children’s guesses about how they and the world came to be in the absence of the deeper knowledge given by those present at the beginning. These guesses are not illogical, nor necessarily wicked, nor altogether wrong, but need correction.
Answering the intuition the blood of a god is somehow involved as the stuff of creation, divine revelation tells them not of Saturn and Kronos, but the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world, in whom, by whom, and for whom all things were made. If they suppose it came about through the congress of a sky-Father and earth-Mother, one notes the reasonableness of this assumption, so far as it is drawn from the observation of nature, but would tell them, as we remind the far less innocent egalitarians of our own day, that what in man, the highest creation, is divided into sexes with the male as the inclusive principal is united in God and revealed to us by a divine Son as Father. The worlds did not come into existence by the emission of seminal fluid (Padgett misrepresents the editorial’s careful wording here), but were made in and by the Word that came from God and is his Son. We do not speak of a God who is “as much Father as Mother,” or humanity that is properly identified as as much male as female, for the same reason there is no Earth Mother or Platonic hermaphrodite: because God, in his fullness, is Father, that humanity, in its fullness, is Man, and that when we speak or write of them in this way, it is not metaphor or convention, but a sacrament in which we, by speaking the truth, participate.
Difficulties with Christ & His Disciples
In the end, readers of exchanges like this will need to decide what they are going to do with all those patriarchal, masculine, and male-dominant passages in the constitutional documents of the Church, culminating in the teaching that the male who bears in his person the very stamp of the divine nature is the very image of the invisible God in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and One with the God he identified as Father, telling his disciples to do likewise.
They must decide whether the egalitarians are right that his maleness is incidental to his humanness, that it has no important connection to his ability to stand before God for the whole human race, that it is not vitally related to his identity as the paschal Lamb, and that it has little practical significance in the lives of Christians in their relations to one another, or in the life of the Church that is his body. Those who hear must decide whether the old, patriarchalist views of God and man—found, we are told, in the Bible, but “difficult,” and so to be worked on until they may be interpreted away or assigned the status of cultural artifacts—have been superseded by the knowledge of an enlightened generation that brings a new and better-informed view of God and humanity to the text. They must decide if those who hold to the old teachings in spite of the offer of enlightenment are guilty of teaching a very ancient, pervasive, and persistent error, substituting the traditions of men for the Word of God.
While they are at it, they might consider whether these discoveries have arisen from the parts of the Church best known for fidelity to the faith, spiritual health, and vigorous evangelical life, or are a worldly philosophy, hostile to Christianity, imported into the Church by its weakest, sickest, and most compromised parts.
The Active Exclusion of Orthodox Christianity
To my mind the most significant proof that the modern egalitarians recognize a severance between themselves and the historic faith of the Church is that they, while extraordinarily sensitive about being called heretics themselves, treat “traditionalism” as heresy, throwing orthodox Christianity and orthodox Christians out of the institutions they have come to control. The proof that they are not allies of the ancient authorities they cite on God’s motherhood is that the fathers did not see fit to change the grammars of their native tongues, nor the language of worship, nor the text of Scripture, in accordance with a principle of equality that terminated in a God who was as much Mother as Father, or who could not be perfectly described in the “human category” of an incarnate Son, the Sacrificial Male whose maleness was essential to his sacrifice. (The mystery of our faith does not lie in conundrums about the eternal and the temporal, the created and uncreated, faith and history, the phenomenal and noumenal, the effable and ineffable, the knowable and unknowable, the apophatic and kataphatic—all conceptualizations abstracted from the reality they attempt to describe—but is the person of Christ Jesus who is in himself the answer to the riddles we pose for ourselves, and in the knowing of whom all true questions on these matters are answered.)
The fathers did not bar people who would not use a reprincipled doctrine and dialect from their schools, refuse to publish unemasculated writing, ordain women to the presbyterate, or cast those who would not cooperate out of their churches or institutions they controlled by insisting that they speak and write or worship against their consciences. They did not write statements of institutional policy making out those who insisted on using traditional language for God and man to be unorthodox and uncharitable. How can the egalitarians claim any of the fathers for their sect? One suspects even Gregory of Nyssa is horrified to see what modern friends his speculations have earned him.
It is difficult for the egalitarian to prove his doctrine within the hostile realm of orthodox Christianity, a world beset with unfriendly scriptures, backward apostles, uncooperative church fathers, recalcitrant traditions, and Touchstone editors. The net cleverness that must be employed to move this dark, inert mass, that must be expended to prove the egalitarian point, is more than considerable, but it becomes a much more hopeful project when the full cooperation of the Spirit of the Age is factored in, along with certain weaknesses one may expect from the general audience, principally, perhaps, its decreasing ability to see whence all this comes or to care where it is leading.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Children of a Better God” first appeared in the January/February 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.