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Topic: Theology

They, Them, Godself? Human Pronouncements and Divine Pronouns

November 4, 2021

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with a statement from FBC Elm Mott.

The pronoun is a basic concept of grammar first learned by intuition and later catalogued by name in the elementary years. Yet today it dominates much of our national conversation. In the aftermath of the ongoing LGBT revolution, many have had to grapple with the “preferred pronoun,” an unsettling if uncertain neologism.

Until very recently, most didn’t think twice about which pronouns to use, either for ourselves or for others. They came so naturally — in every sense of the word.

But the need for “preferred pronouns” arises in a world captivated by several ideological commitments: 1) the conceptual separation of gender and sex to the point that they are no longer mutually informing; 2) the questioning, if not outright rejection, of the dimorphic male-female sexual binary; and 3) an atomization of the self that untethers self-concept from reality, such that one’s self-determination demands a self-definition that ignores the body, nature, and any sense of the common.

At the heart of the phrase “preferred pronouns” is a preference, the liking of one alternative over another. But whose preference? It is not, as might be expected in our liberal age, a paean to free speech which acknowledges the supreme preference of the speaker. Instead, the “preferred pronoun” centers the preference of the referent, the one being spoken about — regardless of whether he or she is being spoken to.

But what on the surface seems nothing more than polite deference is a species of surrender to intellectual colonization. This preference turns out to be parasitic, depending on and necessitating a revolution in the mind of another. And as the “I” takes precedence over all “yous,” it simultaneously becomes fractiously isolated and totalizingly tyrannical. Let me explain.

Traditionally, the pronoun is a statement of natural and categorical commonality that humanizes speech. It works at the level of the subconscious to connect and relate individual persons to other members of the human race. Today, as pronoun preferences multiply — theoretically as many and varied as there are people — each person becomes an alien “other,” no longer associated by natural category.

Pronouns used to be simple and held in common. They reflected an epistemological foundation that made community possible. Whether or not we are acquainted, I at least know any man on the street as a “he,” sharing his manhood in common with every man born of woman. Familiar or not, I know any woman I meet as a “she,” sharing her womanhood in common with every woman made from man. “They” together form two halves of the human whole.

But today the pronoun is complex and atomized to the point of absurdity — what does “zir” have in common with “xe,” let alone me? When what is common is neglected or, worse, denied, the community suffers.

“Gender Neutral” Divine Pronouns?

The debate over pronouns has significant fallout. How we refer to ourselves affects and reflects our theology and vice versa, as it is God who made us male and female in his image. Recent conversations have made this explicit, and our doctrine of God now suffers because of the stupidity of the pronoun debate.

For example, Religion News Service recently published an article titled, “Why our preferred pronoun for God should be ‘they.’” In the article, Mark Silk, Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and a contributing editor at RNS, co-opts “preferred pronouns” in service of rewriting God’s self-revelation.

The article’s title presents a curious divergence from how the “preferred pronouns” conversation has so far proceeded. Normally, when people talk today about “preferred pronouns,” they are talking about which pronouns a person prefers to be used when he or she is being referred to. But this RNS article reverses the protocol in service of violating the second commandment.

In his article, Silk argues we should use “they” pronouns to refer to God. How does God refer to himself? What does God prefer? Silk seems not to be bothered by these questions, as he doesn’t take them up. He is instead focused on “our” preferences. We are the masters of our own universe, that captains of our own — and God’s — “preferred pronouns.”

To be fair, Silk begins his argument with an orthodox statement:

In contrast to human beings, it has long been accepted that God is not gendered, at least within the main Abrahamic theological tradition.

It is true that God is not gendered. He is a spirit and does not have a body, thus he cannot have a sex or gender, properly speaking (note the correct assumption that gender and sex are related). But Silk quickly finds an off-ramp toward heterodoxy:

A phrase such as ‘God the Father’ should be treated as a metaphor — and for those concerned about the embedded misogyny of the tradition, to say nothing of post-binary folks — a deeply problematic one.

Here Silk openly suggests that the Christian tradition, including the very language of Holy Scripture, is misogynist and deeply problematic. The mere suggestion seems warrant enough for Silk to ignore God’s self-revelation in the Bible. But is Silk right? Is “God the Father” — and by implication the Bible — problematic?

God’s Self-Revelation

We cannot follow Silk in saying the Christian revelation is problematic. Contrary to Silk’s claims, God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures is unquestionably gendered. To say otherwise is to deny the authority of the Bible and cease to confess Christian orthodoxy which universally, throughout time and space, has worshiped God as Father, Son, and Spirit. From the beginning when God revealed his name to Moses, to when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, to the Apostles and Nicene-Constantinople Creeds and beyond, there is uniform consistency about God’s masculine self-revelation.

God the Father is not a problematic, misogynistic metaphor; God the Father is the name lovingly used by Jesus and given to his followers when he taught them to pray. God the Son is not merely a problematic metaphor; God the Son is the name given to the second person of the Trinity who was sent to be incarnated in a human, male body. God the Spirit is not merely a problematic metaphor; God the Spirit is his name, the one sent by the Father and the Son. These names always have been and always will be the Christian way of distinguishing between the persons of the Trinity.

But Silk has a different theological proposal. Despite Scripture’s uniform revelation and despite 2,000 years of consistent Christian confession, Silk seems to want God to get with the times and go gender-neutral in his self-revelation:

As a result, we have been faced liturgically as well as theologically with the imperative of gender-neutral language, which means being obliged to repeat the word ‘God’ where a gendered pronoun would normally be used and to have recourse to the unattractive neologism ‘Godself’ lest, God forbid, we find ourselves saying Himself.

But God has not only not forbid saying “himself” in reference to him, he has everywhere, consistently given “he/him/himself” as his “preferred pronouns” in his self-revelation. But Silk doesn’t seem to mind. Instead he wants to rewrite the tradition:

‘They,’ ‘theirs,’ ‘them,’ and ‘themself’ (or maybe ‘themselves’) solves the problem. As in: ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow; / Praise Them, all creatures here below,’ etc.

To be clear, Silk’s proposal is in direct contradiction to God’s self-revelation. So why would Silk suggest it? Ultimately, Silk seems concerned about the charges that God’s self-revelation is misogynistic and problematic. But simply asserting that something is misogynistic or problematic does not make it so. Maybe we should consider that God’s word is neither: “This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true” (Ps 18:30).

Coming to a Local Church Near You

Why spend time on such an obvious error? Unfortunately, we live in a world where this error is not obvious to all. And Paul told Titus to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Silk’s article was read and shared far and wide, even at one of America’s largest papers. (Before they curiously deleted it, the Washington Post syndicated Silk’s column to its readers.) And Silk’s article represents a growing minority of voices that want to change not only how we speak about and pray to God, but also how we worship him through our confessions.

Yes, divine gender-neutral pronouns are making their way into Christian confessions. Of course, this is not new. Christian egalitarians and feminists have long been challenging, both implicitly and outright, the integrity of God’s self-revelation. But with the ongoing gender revolution and its new “preferred pronouns” handmaiden, these efforts are increasingly widespread, and they are having measurable effect at the level of the local church.

It would be difficult to pinpoint the origin of this effort to assign God different pronouns from the ones he revealed. A search for the (admittedly unwieldy) reflexive “Godself” in Google’s NGram Viewer returns a fascinating exponential graph which takes off shortly after 1980. One early use of “Godself” comes from June 9 of that year. In the pages of Christianity and Crisis, James F. White, professor at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, wrote:

I have come to use regularly ‘Godself,’ which after one year of use becomes perfectly normal. But in liturgical texts we simply avoid the reflexive. There is some loss since pronouns can make a text more personal. Any attempt to balance ‘he’ with ‘she’ makes the reference highly confusing to the worshiper. So we have decided to avoid third-person pronouns except for Jesus Christ.

Only a few decades later, the world would see the publication in 2008 of the book, Jesus is Female by Aaron Spencer Fogelman. Less than another decade on in 2016, Huffington Post would publish an article by Suzanne DeWitt titled, “Jesus: The First Transgender Man.”

While these last examples represent a radical kind of revisionism, the effort to change God’s self-revelation is perhaps closer to home than many think. For example, the evangelical group Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) published an article in 2019 titled, “The Power of a Pronoun: How What We Call God Affects Everything,” which won an award in the organization’s Top 15 CBE Writing Contest. In the article, the author writes about how she refers to God:

I began using ‘she’ for God in my private prayers and journals. At times, I called her ‘mother.’ Using the feminine pronoun for God helped me to feel seen, valued, and affirmed in a way that I hadn’t experienced yet as a woman in ministry. This was important since I had recently taken a leadership position within my Christian organization where most of my colleagues were men. Dismantling the belief that God is male allowed me to feel connected to God as a woman, in the way that I so often preached to others.

Another example comes from First Baptist Church of Elm Mott, whose pastor is the husband of Baylor professor and feminist historian Beth Allison Barr. You may recognize Barr’s name from her much-lauded book The Making of Biblical Womanhood (see Kevin DeYoung’s helpful review here).

On FBC of Elm Mott’s “What We Believe” page, their statement of faith includes the following confession:

the Bible – We value the Bible as the divinely inspired record of God’s revelation of Godself to us. It serves as the authoritative guide for life and ministry.

[Editor’s note: After the publication of this article, the following note appeared on FBC Elm Mott’s “What We Believe” page: (NOTE – for those looking for the word “Godself”, yes it was here, and yes it has been changed. That phrasing was written prior to Pastor Barr’s tenure here and he was unaware that it was used on the church’s website. While there is nothing inaccurate about the word “Godself”, Scriptures clearly uses “Himself” in reference to God, and our church has no problem with that. We seek to use gender-neutral pronouns when the scriptural text does so in the original languages, and we use gendered-pronouns when the text does so in the original languages.)”]

Setting aside the pseudo-orthodox treatment of the authority of God’s Word in language of “record” and “value” — which, theologically speaking, is the fundamental error — here is a clear example of the kind of “neutering” God’s self-revelation that Silk recommends in his RNS article. Where one would naturally and theologically expect “himself” is the pronoun “Godself.”

One wonders how FBC of Elm Mott recites the Apostles Creed with the faithful throughout time and space: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son.” Is “His” replaced by “God’s”? Three letters, but a world of difference in approach to God and his Word.

This kind of revisionism is dangerous, unorthodox, and should be rejected by confessional Christians. One would hope with the recent resurgence of evangelical interest in creedal orthodoxy — particularly with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity — there would be uniform condemnation by the confessional gatekeepers and the theologically concerned.

Because what we see recommended in Silk’s column, present at CBE, and enacted in Barr’s church separates people not only from the Great Tradition, but more importantly from God’s own self-revelation in his word. To refer to God using gender-inclusive pronouns is to contradict God himself in his self-revelation. This is the opposite posture of the Psalmist, who confesses: “Know that the Lord Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3, NASB). As such, it is God’s pronoun pronouncements, not man’s, that we should follow.

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