Thou hast been faithful to my highest need:
And I, thy debtor, ever, evermore,
Shall never feel the grateful burden sore.
Yet most I thank thee, not for any deed,
But for the sense thy living self did breed
That Fatherhood is at the world's great core.1
Judy Brown, in her chapter in Discovering Biblical Equality, entitled "God, Gender and Biblical Metaphor,"2 seeks to dissuade her readers from viewing God in masculine terms by explaining that such terms are merely ways in which we speak of God in figurative language, but a language which does not reflect who he really is (287). She reminds us that God is spirit and that the Bible presents God through personification and anthropomorphism which reflects only a likeness to God (287-88). Titles like "Father" and "King" are human characteristics ascribed to God but should not be carried too far for self-serving reasons (287-88).
She then seeks to affirm the use of the masculine gender, third personal singular pronoun in modern translations for the person of God. Declaring that even though God is not male she does recognize that English, Greek, Hebrew, and most ancient and modern languages do not have a third person personal pronoun which does not express gender. Consequently, she continues, the third person pronoun he refers to a male person or to a generic individual without reference to gender (288). She concludes, by alluding to Carl F. H. Henry, that the only pronoun that may be used of God is a masculine, but the point is not "to convey that God has a sexual or gendered nature but to emphasize God's personal nature. When he is used for God in Scripture, it is used in its general sense as a generic personal pronoun, not in its gender-specific sense as a masculine pronoun" (288).
Though Brown is correct that Henry believes any sexual overtones should be avoided in speaking of the biblical teaching regarding God, he also recognizes that masculine terminology is inherent in speaking of God in a way that feminine terminology is not. Henry says,
But the Bible's predominant use of masculine imagery and metaphors is not to be hurriedly dismissed as a matter of indifference. Even as the biblical writers do not indiscriminately employ anthropomorphisms with reference to God, so the gender-uses of the inspired writers involve ontologically important conceptual distinctions, even though they do not convey sexual connotations. The biblical linguistic precedents are to be considered normative for Christian theology.3
Brown rightly understands that there is a temptation to speak of God as if he were a male sexual being, if one depicts him as a physical being. She is right to emphasize that attempts to do so in ancient Israel would have been a form of idolatry, prohibited by God on the first table of the Law. She is also correct to argue that a male (and thus sexual) deity led to the need for female (sexual) deities, and that God is, rather, spirit. Brown, however, goes on to say something much more:
Moreover, the prohibition against ascribing sexual characteristics to God cannot be circumvented by positing that God's masculinity is metaphysical (and not physical). While some pagan and Eastern religions spiritualize sexuality—casting masculinity and femininity as spiritual polar forces defining and pervading all of reality—such notions are utterly alien to biblical teaching. According to Scripture, God created sexuality when he created physical life on earth. The being and nature of God does not partake of or participate in sexuality in any way (289-90).
God is not a sexual being, either male or female—something that was considered to be true in ancient Near Eastern religion. He even speaks specifically against such a view in Num 23:19, where the text has God saying he is not a man [ish], and in Deut 4:15-16, in which he warns against creating a graven image of himself in "the likeness of male and female." But though he is not a male, the "formless" deity (Deut 4:15) has chosen to reveal himself largely in masculine ways. The inherent equation of human masculinity with human male sexuality, however, would require that references to God in masculine terms is merely a "picture" of God for the purpose of human understanding (290). There would be, then, no metaphysical or telic reasons why the personal nature of God is spoken of in masculine terms, or why God is Father and Son from all eternity and spoken of repeatedly in strong masculine names, or why he is pictured performing seemingly masculine tasks (though granted there are a few instances when seemingly feminine acts are performed by God).
Brown appears to understand that masculine language for God comes from a cultural, patriarchal context of the Middle-East rather than something intrinsic in God (290). After making this point, she contends,
The man was the central figure in society, and the husband-father was the authority figure as the family's primary protector and provider. It is understandable, then, that masculine terms would be the common choice for describing a God who is the greater protector, provider and authority figure. . . . In ancient times, all these traits were more characteristic of men than of women and were summed up in the traditional father's role (290).
The perspective that the Fatherhood of God originates from the cultural attempt to explain God falls short of the evidence. The culture of the ancient Near East did not create the reality of who God is by the name assigned to him in Scripture. God revealed himself, his identity, and then began to transform the culture. God is certainly not a male, but he has chosen to reveal himself to us primarily in masculine terms which reflect his personal identity and how he will work with his creation, in rule, in provision, in protection, and the like. Moreover, divine Fatherhood and Son-ship are not temporal in nature, though our weak imitations are; God is the eternal Father and the eternal Son. One comes only to God through the language by which he has chosen to reveal himself to us and not by our creating his reality and who we might want him to be.
Elizabeth Achtemeier insightfully comments,
It is not that the prophets were slaves to their patriarchal culture, as some feminists hold. And it is not that the prophets could not imagine their deities. It is rather that the prophets . . . would not use such language, because they knew and had ample evidence from the religions surrounding them that female language for the deity results in a basic distortion of the nature of God and of his relation to his creation.4
It is clear that Brown does not believe that God named himself, and then sought to order a world in which the man acted, from Adam onwards, as the protector, provider, and authority, and that the woman, from Eve onwards, was to be the nurturer and in submission to a father and a husband, as a refection of him.
Roland M. Frye, who accepts the use of inclusive language for people, nonetheless believes that such language for God is unacceptable:
Language for God is not equivalent to the kinds of naming we use in ordinary speech. . . . [W]e recognize that ordinary names for creatures are subject to human custom, choice, and change. According to biblical religion, on the other hand, only God can name God. Distinctive Christian experiences and beliefs are expressed through distinctive language about God, and the changes in that language proposed by feminist theologians do not merely add a few unfamiliar words for God . . . but in fact introduce beliefs about God that differ radically from those inherent in Christian faith, understanding and Scripture.5
In line with the foregoing is the important distinction regarding human seeking to understand the inscrutable, hidden God who is only known through his self-revelation. Certainly people, apart from the clear revelation of Scripture, have made God (in their minds) to be any number of distorted images (Rom 1:20-23), but only God has a right to name himself. It behooves us to simply accept God's self-revelation.
When Brown deals with the Father representation of God in the New Testament she believes (rightly) that the terminology is relational rather than sexual. But then Brown concludes that God is Father because of Jesus' relationship with his Father in heaven, and that Jesus has made this intimate relationship available to believers who are thus able to call God "Father." The fatherhood of God, then, "primarily expresses our family relationship with God through Christ. It is not intended to signify that God's essential nature is masculine, or more masculine than feminine, or gendered in any sense" (290).
I believe that she fails to understand the issue of essence and person in her discussion of the persons of God. If, in fact, the divine essence (ousia) precedes the person (hypostasia) God is an impersonal being. Patrick Henry Reardon rejects such a perspective as contrary to the ancient creedal formulas of the church:
The Apostle's Creed, for example, does not begin with the divine essence but with the Person of the Father: Credo in Deum, Patrem omnipotentem. The Nicene Creed likewise does not make God first ousia but hypotasis, not essentia, but persona: "I believe in one God, the Father almighty."
In identifying God first as the Father and then affirming that the Son is begotten of the Father and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father—in holding, that is, that the pater is the arche—then we necessarily affirm patriarchy in the Holy Trinity. Indeed, inasmuch as all the Christian dispensation is Trinitarian, there is a necessary inference that "all of the Christian revelation is patriarchal."6
Reardon also argues that "Patristic literature asserts that in God the name Father is not titular but real. It is a ‘proper' name, pertaining to God as God and not simply to God's relationship to us. Before he is our Father outside the Trinity, he is the Son's Father within the Trinity (see John 20:17)."7
Brown goes on to explain why she believes that God is expressed in masculine terms in the Bible. It is similar to how he is likened to animals, or even inanimate objects. This is merely a way for humans to understand God, an anthropomorphism. She writes,
Even as Scripture likens God to various animals (Deut 32:10-12; Hos 5:14; 11:10; 13:7)—certainly not because God is an animal but because some animals have characteristics that help humanity better understood God—so too Scripture depicts God in terms of roles or attributes associated with men. This is done not because God is male or essentially masculine in nature but because men in ancient cultures possessed characteristics, including authority, that help portray God's relationship to his people. In a similar manner, Scripture likens God to various inanimate objects or entities (e.g., rock, fortress, shield, gate, bread, light), not because God is inanimate but because such things have an identity or a quality that helps humanity grasp certain qualities that are true of God (290-91).
She concludes from her manner of argument, consequently, and quite naturally, that authority is not really specifically invested in man:
Furthermore, the fact that Scripture frequently portrays God's authority (along with a number of his other attributes) by means of masculine titles and word pictures does not mean that authority is necessarily or exclusively a masculine attribute. It simply means that Scripture reveals God as a personal being who has the power to command obedience—an attribute that typically characterized male persons and not female persons during biblical times (291).
Brown does not distinguish personal qualities of the eternal Father (and the eternal Son) from figures of speech used in temporal settings as God is manifested to humans. Donald Bloesch speaks to this question of the intrinsic nature of Father and Son in contrast to mere metaphors when God is compared to a rock, or is expressed in feminine terms at times. To see God as Father and Son because of human fathers and sons, is to turn biblical theology regarding God on its head. Fatherhood is patterned after God's Fatherhood, not vice versa.8
According to Bloesch, the names of God are analogical; they reveal God's identity. They speak to identity, the being of God, unlike Creator or Rock, which are metaphors that seek to explain his actions. Bloesch, citing Elizabeth Achtemeier, says to speak of God as Mother is to prepare for pantheism which would lead us to regard creation as coming out of the womb or being of God and that this would then be an extension
Brown also speaks of feminine imagery in the Bible and puts it on par with masculine imagery of God. For example, God is said to be like a
mother eagle—stirring up the nest, hovering over the young and carrying the young in fight (Deut 32:11). The language is identical to that of Gen 1:2, in which "hovering" is ascribed to God's Spirit. Moses described God as being the One who both fathered and birthed Israel (Deut 32:18; "formed" instead of "birthed" in KJV ignores the wording of the Hebrew text "writhe in pain" and the fact that this wording was used in reference to childbirth) (291).
She goes through the remainder of Scripture pointing out ways in which God is spoken of as involved in feminine activities. Even believers being "born again" is seen as feminine imagery for God and his activity (292).
Brown concludes with her discussion on feminine imagery:
Of course, none of these analogies means that God is female, any more than the masculine imagery means that God is male. The Spirit God is neither male nor female and is certainly not bisexual. Again, it must be emphasized, the Spirit God transcends all characteristics of physical creatures, including sexuality. . . . Defining the Creator according to the creation lowers the Creator to the level of the creation and produces serious theological errors (292-93).
Several of Brown's underlying assumptions about God need to be clarified. She is certainly right that we must view God analogously, even regarding his being viewed in masculine terms. Analogy shares components of univocal and equivocal language,10 so that when God is spoken of as Father, this means in fact that he is a Father, though far more than human fathers. Analogical language, then, is neither equivocal nor univocal, but rather "there is a partial resemblance between our words and the transcendent reality to which they point."11 Tat is, God is certainly different from humans, particularly (for our discussion) male humans, but also, in some sense, males share their masculinity with God who is perfectly masculine (not male) after whom masculine beings are an imperfect replica. Reardon sounds an alarm about classifying Father, unlike Mother or motherly characteristics, as a metaphor:
[I]t appears to me that classifying the Father's proper name as only metaphorical is not, in practice at least, to explain it; it is to explain it away. It makes God's revelation nothing more than a restatement of our ignorance of him, so that we are back where we started, as though there had never been a divine revelation in Jesus Christ.12
The biblical text does not present God the Father as acquiring his name from human usage but human father being patterned after the Father of heaven. As F. F. Bruce says,
Eph. 3:14f. probably means that God is ‘the Father [pater] from whom every fatherhood [patria] in heaven and on earth is named', ‘every patria is so named after the pater' (G. Schrenk, patria, TDNT V, 1017). God is the archetypal Father, all other fatherhood is a more or less imperfect copy of his perfect fatherhood. . . . According to Clem. of Alex., in what seems to be a reference to this passage, . . . ‘every lineage [or fatherhood] runs back to God the maker.' (Strom. 6, 7).13
In the words of W. G. M. Martin, "The Fatherhood of God is not a mere metaphor drawn from human relationships. The very opposite is the case. . . . The archetype of all fatherhood is seen in the God-head, and all other fatherhoods are derived from Him."14
Moreover, the use of Father, in contrast to other terms such as Rock or King, is an essential part of his person-hood rather than merely a description of how he acts or even relates to us. He is the eternal Father, even as the Son is the eternal Son. In the relationship of Father and Son, the Son, as is characteristic of a son, is subordinate to the authority of the Father; and the Father, in some sense, is the eternal producer, begetter, of the eternal Son.
Another problem with Brown's view is the idea that our language of God is an attempt for us to understand him rather than this language being his self-expression. Tat is, rather than speaking of anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language, we should speak of theomorphic and theopathic language. We are made in the image of God, not he in ours.
Brown writes, "God is said to see, but a Spirit God doesn't have actual eyes; God is said to hear, but a Spirit God doesn't have ears" (288). Certainly, as a spirit, God does not have the physical organs of eyes and ears, nor for that matter the same intellectual nor emotional characteristics and limitations of humans. But Brown has made an important error. She has assumed that seeing and hearing may only be done by physical organs, and that, even in humans, seeing and hearing reside only in the physical and not in the immaterial part of humans. Through physical organs, human persons are able to receive light and sound, but such functions are deeper than the physical reception as human brains register and record phenomena of the physical world. The immaterial mind is what really thinks and works through the brain. Thus, God has an ability to see, hear, and think apart from the physical organs, and the manner of our physical interaction with our immaterial self is inferior to him. Consequently, like God, we think, feel, see, hear, and so on, but our doing so is only a weak likeness to his ability without a physical body.
We have been created in the image of God to function as he functions, but he is far more than us in all of his attributes. This is also true regarding sexuality. God has a self-revealed masculinity in Father and Son, but this is not maleness, for maleness deals with human sexuality (the Hebrew words for male and female are the physical sexual organs). Even so, our sexuality does bear a weak refection to the infinite creativity of God as a spirit being.
In the Bible it is said that God is like a mother in some respects, but that he is a father. It may be that maternal similes [sic] (or more of them) could be introduced into liturgical language. However, the introduction of feminine names, titles, pronouns, or metaphors would be to speak of God in terms other than those in which he has revealed himself in Scripture. It may well be, that masculine imagery for God reflects an important truth about the nature of his relationship with us, and therefore one that we are not at liberty to change.15
I would commend Brown for her section on feminist extremes, in which she speaks of possible extremes that feminists might advocate in this issue. She advocates staying with biblical terminology of God rather than subtracting or adding to it. Inasmuch as she is speaking of metaphors about God, I would concur, whether God is spoken of in masculine, feminine, or neuter (inanimate) ways. This, however, does not deal with the personal sense of God being eternally, not culturally, a Father and a Son.
In her next section on traditionalist extremes, I would agree, in part, with what she points out. Certainly we should not think of God as a physically sexual being, though he is creative, and our sexuality is but a weak representation of that creativity. Her conclusion, though—that even if God were masculine, this would in no way mean that spiritual leadership should be limited to the male gender—is a non sequitur in light of the abundance of Scripture that teaches differently. Even the apostle Paul relies heavily on the priority of Adam in his creation as a basis of male headship or authority in the home and church. I agree with much that she argues, but the effort to move from God not being a male to the view that males are not entrusted with leadership roles in the home and church is weakly argued. She fails adequately to make the connection on why this is so.
Brown continues her chapter on the matter of the image of God in male and female (296-299), a point with which I do not generally disagree, though I believe she has failed to deal squarely and carefully with the import of maleness and femaleness in Genesis 1 and 2, and Paul's teaching regarding these chapters. I would like to complete this brief interaction by considering her understanding of Jesus as a man. She argues that Jesus was born as man mainly because of the culture into which he was born:
In order to be a representative human being (albeit without sin), Jesus had to be either male or female. The choice could not have been based on God's gender, for God is neither male nor female. Nor could the choice have been based on God's preference, for God does not favor men over women. What, then, determined Jesus' gender? The culture into which Jesus was born is the most likely possibility (295).
In other words, Jesus would not have been accepted as a teacher or Messiah as a woman. He had to be a man, though she says that this was probably not theologically required, only culturally (295). She does believe that it is important to use the titles God the Father and God the Son, rather than God the Mother and God the Daughter, because the Bible uses them. But her reasons for God to be a Father and a Son are unfounded. She bases it on the physical birth of the Son, his acceptance in the culture as a male child, and the likelihood that "male dominance" needed to be overturned by a male (296).
Male and female in Genesis are sexual, and man and woman are sexual distinctions. Brown seems to reject, or to be uninformed of, the eternal nature of the Father and the Son taught in the Scriptures and in the teachings of the Christian church from early times.
She seems to be incapable of accepting a view that masculinity and fatherhood reflect—even if imperfectly—the personal nature of God. Man, then, is made after the personal nature of God, not God made after the personal nature of men. Scripture presents Adam created directly by God first, then Eve is created indirectly by God from Adam. She is other than man, and is in fact also in the image of God as the man, but Paul distinguishes her likeness from that shared by men, and that she reflects the likeness of the man (1 Corinthians 11). It is on the basis of the priority of the man in creation, the nature of this relationship in the imago Dei, and the sin of the woman that Paul constructs his theology of leadership in the church and in the home.
1 George MacDonald in the dedication to his father in his first book in 1857.
2 Editor's Note: Brown's article appears in the original edition of the book. After it was released, it became known that Brown had been involved in an adulterous lesbian affair and found guilty on felony accounts of breaking and entering with the intent to commit murder and malicious wounding. InterVarsity Press officials announced that they did not learn about the incident until April of 2005 and that they would cease publication of the book. IVP plans to re-release Discovering Biblical Equality without the article by Brown. See the full story at http://www.gender-news.com/article.php?id=71. Nevertheless, since Brown's article was pulled because of her actions and not because of the content of her article (with which the editors of the book presumably agreed), it was decided that JBMW would respond to the article.
3 Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (6 vols.; Waco, TX.: Word, 1976-1983; repr.; Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 5:160.
4 Elizabeth Achtemeier, "Female Language for God: Should the Church Adopt It?" in The Hermeneutical Quest: Essays in Honor of James Luther Mays on his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. Donald G. Miller (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1986), 109.
5 Roland M. Frye, Language for God and Feminist Language: Problems and Principles, Reports from the Center 3 (Princeton: Center of Theological Inquiry, 1988), 1.
6 Patrick Henry Reardon, "Father, Glorify Thy Name!" in Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox Dialogue, ed. James S. Cutsinger (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997),106-07.
7 Ibid., 108.
8 Donald Bloesch, "Does God Have a Name?" an un published address delivered 25 September 1990.
10 Aristotle defines and distinguishes equivocal and univocal in the following manner: Things are said to be named ‘equivocally' when, though they have a common name, the definition corresponding with the name differs for each. Thus, a real man and a figure in a picture can both lay claim to the name ‘animal'; yet these are equivocally so named, for, though they have a common name, the definition corresponding with the name differs for each. For should any one define in what sense each is an animal, his definition in the one case will be appropriate to that case only . . .On the other hand, things are said to be named ‘univocally' which have both the name and the definition answering to the name in common. A man and an ox are both ‘animal', and these are univocally so named, inasmuch as not only the name, but also the definition, is the same in both cases: for if a man should state in what sense each is an animal, the statement in the one case would be identical with that in the other (Aristotle, Categories, §1, trans. E. M. Edghill, Great Books of the Western World, The Works of Aristotle, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins [Chicago: William Benton, 1952], 1:5).
11 Donald Bloesch, The Battle for the Trinity: The De bate over Inclusive God-Language (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1985), 14.
12 Reardon, "Father, Glorify Thy Name!" 109.
13 F. F. Bruce, "Name," in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 2:655.
14 W. G. M. Martin, "The Epistle to the Ephesians," in The New Bible Commentary, ed. F. Davidson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 1023. See also Reardon, "Father, Glorify Thy Name!" 110.
15 A report from the Doctrine Commission of the Anglical Diocese of Sydney, "Language, Gender and God," Year Book of the Diocese of Sydney, 1992 Synod Summary: Language, Gender and God, 450-51.