Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Eikon.
Feminist theologians have long wrestled with the question of God’s gender. In particular, they have chafed against naming God as “Father” and even against Jesus’ incarnation in a male body. As Mary Daly famously wrote, “If God is male, then the male is God.” Therefore, the business of women’s liberation involves freeing women from patriarchal notions of God. Daly complained that “The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.” For that reason, Daly argued, people’s masculine conception of God needs to be castrated. There needs to be a “cutting away the Supreme Phallus.”1
Daly and other feminist theologians view the Fatherhood of God and the maleness of Jesus as fixtures in an oppressive patriarchy designed to subjugate women. Their aim, therefore, has been to rewrite orthodoxy so as to remove all vestiges of patriarchy. That revision includes how we name God and how we think about the incarnation itself.
By and large, evangelicals have been consistent opponents of this program and have insisted on affirming the authority of Scripture, orthodox Trinitarianism, and orthodox Christology. Nevertheless, within evangelicalism, egalitarians have staked-out a kind of theological no-man’s land. On the one hand, they wish to affirm the authority of Scripture and the integrity of the Christian tradition. But on the other hand, they also wish to take on board some of the feminist critiques of “patriarchal” religion. For the most part, this has led to innovative reinterpretations of biblical texts (e.g. 1 Tim. 2:12, 1 Cor. 11:3, and 14:34-35) while affirming inerrancy, Nicene trinitarianism, and Chalcedonian Christology.
A new book by egalitarian Wheaton College professor Amy Peeler, however, takes a different approach. In Women and the Gender of God (Eerdmans, 2022), Peeler makes an egalitarian case that sits in tension with both Nicea and Chalcedon. Her basic contention is uncomplicated and uncontroversial: God is not male. From that observation, however, she extrapolates a number of other points that are controversial—including elements that implicate trinitarianism, Christology, and the ordination of women.
In the “Introduction,” Peeler contends that Christianity has failed women by its toleration of misogyny, much of which is due to “an underlying belief that God is male” (p. 2). Even though many conservative Christians deny that God is male, their denial is contradicted by their “tight grip on the male-like masculinity of God” (p. 3). She aims to break that grip by showing that God the Father is not male and that God the Son is male like no other (p. 4). She plans to demonstrate this by careful exegesis of biblical texts about Mary and the incarnation.
In chapter 1, “The Father Who Is Not Male,” Peeler argues that even though the Bible uses masculine language to describe God (e.g., “Father”), God is not male. The accounts in Matthew and Luke about Mary’s conception are clearly not sexualized (p. 19), nor is there any notion of “divine rape” in the narratives (p. 25). Moreover, masculine language for God (though predominant) does not exhaust the scriptural witness (pp. 16-17). “Parent” or “Mother” are equally faithful ways of referring to the first person on the Trinity (p. 17).
In chapter 2, “Holiness and the Female Body,” Peeler argues that Jesus’s conception in a female body implies “a radical affirmation concerning the female body’s proximity to holiness” (p. 33). The belief by many in the ancient world that birth is something shameful or dirty reflects a “deep-seated pancultural misogyny” (p. 58). On the contrary, Christianity teaches that Jesus’ presence in Mary’s womb “prohibits any despising of the female body” (p. 59). Indeed in the incarnation, God has deemed the female body “worthy to handle the most sacred of all things, the very body of God” (p. 61).
In chapter 3, “Honor and Agency,” Peeler contends that even though Mary calls herself the “slave of the Lord” (p. 77), God has not transgressed Mary’s agency as an individual. God did not play the role of a coercive male, nor did Mary play the part of a “coerced female” (p. 65).
In chapter 4, “God Is Not Masculine,” Peeler argues against the “insidious” notion “that males are more like God” (p. 89). She dings John Piper’s contention that Christianity has a “masculine feel” and suggests that Piper’s view requires a belief that men bear God’s image more clearly than women do (p. 89). Peeler argues on the contrary that neither God nor Christianity itself is masculine. Divine initiative and authority are not masculine traits (p. 107). Even though we may privilege masculine language for God (like “Father”), that language is not the only way to speak of him nor does that language in any way suggest that God himself is masculine.
In chapter 5, “The Male Savior,” Peeler argues against the belief that—since Jesus is male—only males can represent Jesus. This argument has particular relevance to sacramental traditions (like Catholicism) in which clergy must be male in order to faithfully represent Christ (pp. 118-19). Peeler concedes that Jesus is male but also that he is a “male who became embodied like no other” (p. 121). Because there was no male involved in Jesus’ conception, his flesh derives from female flesh alone (p. 132). He is able to save both male and female sinners because he himself is male and has “female-provided flesh” (p. 137). Peeler writes, “the inclusion of male and female in the body of the incarnate Lord provides the Christological justification for rejecting an exclusive maleness in God” (p. 139). It also “eliminates the maleness of Jesus as support for a male-only clergy” (p. 145).
In chapter 6, “Ministry,” Peeler provides an exposition of all the New Testament texts dealing with Mary and shows that Mary’s contribution was not just her womb but also her proclamation. Mary’s life and ministry show that “the God of the New Testament does not silence the verbal ministry of women” (p. 153). This chapter is followed by a brief “Conclusion” and an extended appendix arguing that God is a good Father, not a threatening or oppressive one (p. 223).
Peeler’s basic contention in this book is completely sound: God is not male. All of the orthodox believe this—including those who have different views than Peeler on women’s ordination. She also argues clearly in favor of the virgin birth. To the degree that Peeler demonstrates all of this from the Bible, that is all to the good. Nevertheless, her various extrapolations do contain within them some significant problems, and it is to those problems that we now turn.
Problems with Defining Terms
Peeler’s argument is undermined by her failure to define crucial terms. And yet she uses these terms throughout the project. She never explains, for example, the difference between male vs. masculine, female vs. feminine, or sex vs. gender. This leaves the reader with his feet firmly planted in mid-air. Perhaps we can assume that the terms male and female refer to sexed bodies. But can we assume the same about the terms masculine and feminine?
Clearly, many writers use the terms masculine and feminine to refer to non-sexual characteristics, such as when someone says, “That room is decorated in a masculine way.” That use of the term masculine does not signify a sexual reality but a kind of stereotype. Could it be that some of the writers that Peeler criticizes are likewise not using masculine terms to indicate that God has a sexed body? To censure those writers before coming to terms with those writers is not helpful. These kinds of terms must be defined clearly before a project like this can succeed.
This weakness really comes to the fore in chapter 4 where Peeler has moved from her contention that God is not male (chapter 1) to a further contention that God is not masculine. In contending that God is not masculine, is that just another way of saying that God doesn’t have a sexed body? Or does she mean that God does not act in stereotypically masculine ways? She doesn’t tell us. Nor does she tell us what she means by gender—a term that for many readers denotes a social role or relation without any necessary connection to a particular sexed body. When Peeler says that “God the Father is indeed beyond gender” (p. 142), does she mean that God does not have a body, or does she mean that God does not act in stereotypically masculine ways? None of this is clear because she doesn’t define her terms.
To make matters even more confusing, Peeler cites Judith Butler’s work favorably, arguing that “Judith Butler’s work has—beneficially in my opinion—unsettled a neat bifurcation between sex and gender” (p. 5). Beneficially? Judith Butler is a postmodern feminist whose work erases the distinction between sex and gender by arguing that both sex and gender are socially constructed. How can any Christian view this as beneficial? Does Peeler agree with Butler that both gender and sex are social constructs? All of this ambiguity makes Peeler’s argument really confusing and hobbles the overall project.
Problems with Theology Proper
Peeler’s egalitarianism is the tail wagging the dog in this book. Her egalitarianism at times seems to overdetermine her doctrine of God. For example, in chapter 4 “God Is Not Masculine,” she argues against the widely held notion that God’s initiative and leading are masculine characteristics. She believes that view is based on a traditional view of gender roles, which she rejects outright because “Not all the faithful interpret the biblical text to demand that only men should lead. Hence to demand that God’s sovereign initiation be described as masculine is to assume a consensus that does not exist” (p. 106). Notice that her egalitarianism drives her understanding of the Bible’s masculine expressions about God. Indeed, her egalitarianism rules out a priori that God could act in a stereotypically masculine way.
Peeler claims that treating initiative and leadership as masculine traits unleashes “heretical theology” and “blasphemy” (p. 106). It portrays God “as an aggressive sexual human male” (p. 107). She claims that “Rape by a man is the only time when initiation must be from the male,” for women may initiate and lead anywhere they please, including in sexual relationships (p. 107). Indeed, even heterosexual intercourse may be seen as a form of female domination, “as the woman enveloping the man” (p. 107). In her view, the Bible teaches egalitarian gender roles and therefore does not depict leading and initiating as masculine stereotypes.
In short, Peeler wants to “affirm the triune God’s supremacy without calling that masculinity” (p. 107). Anyone who does call it masculinity is trading in heresy and blasphemy. This is an astonishing accusation given that two of her examples of this error are C. S. Lewis and John Frame (p. 105). But Peeler has overplayed her hand at this point, and part of it is due again to her failure to define her terms. She never really defines what she means by “masculine” (or “feminine” for that matter). Nevertheless, she seems to assume that calling God “masculine” amounts to a “crude male sexualization of God” (p. 107). But that is not what C. S. Lewis or John Frame mean when they refer to God with masculine language. Lewis, Frame, and all the orthodox recognize that God does not have a body and is not a sexual being. But they also recognize that God’s Fatherhood is prior to and gives rise to creaturely Fatherhood (Eph. 3:14). Herman Bavinck says it this way:
This name “Father,” accordingly, is not a metaphor derived from the earth and attributed to God. Exactly the opposite is true: fatherhood on earth is but a distant and vague reflection of the fatherhood of God (Eph. 3:14-15). God is Father in the true and complete sense of the term… He is solely, purely, and totally Father. He is Father alone; he is Father by nature and Father eternally, without beginning or end (Reformed Dogmatics, II:307-308).
When Christians like Lewis or Frame describe God in masculine terms, they aren’t saying that God has a sexual body. Indeed, they reject that notion outright. They are simply recognizing that God’s non-sexual nature is truly imaged in creaturely masculinity, especially his Lordship and Kingship and, yes, his Fatherhood. This observation doesn’t deny that God is also imaged in certain feminine characteristics. Certainly, He is, for women are equally created in God’s image. It is simply an attempt to explain why Scripture by and large makes use of masculine expressions for God.
One need not agree with this way of putting things to recognize that it is probably the majority view of the orthodox over the long history of the church. Indeed, even Peeler acknowledges that the view can be found “in each of the major branches of the Christian church” (p. 103). For that reason alone, she ought to exercise more caution before making the view tantamount to rape and blasphemy.
Problems with Masculine Language for God
Peeler acknowledges “that it is both right and good to call God ‘Father'” (p. 109). Nevertheless, she sees many serious problems with paternal language for God (p. 109). Indeed, she throws a penalty flag against the Bible’s “unrelenting masculine language for God” and sometimes makes use of the gender-neutral “Godself” instead of the Bible’s “himself” to refer to God (pp. 5, 190). She favors thinking of God as “beyond gender” and as encompassing aspects of “both genders” (p. 17). She says that thinking of God as “Parent” or “Mother” and “not only Father, helps to work against the ‘phallacy’ that God is male” (p. 17). For this reason, she is very much open to addressing the triune God with terms other than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. On this point, it will probably be most useful to quote her at length:
“As the tradition has envisioned the eternal begetting of the Son, it has deemed both fatherly and motherly language and processes as fitting descriptions of a mystery no human language could ever fully describe” (p. 99).
“Hence, exclusive use of paternal language for God cannot be justified on what Scripture and the ancient and widespread theological tradition point to concerning the eternally begotten relationship in God. Addressing the personal and eternal divine source of the Son as ‘Parent’ rather than ‘Father’ may more correctly name this relationship” (p. 101).
“In full alignment with the biblical text, God may be called upon metaphorically as Father just as God may be addressed metaphorically as Mother” (p. 102).
“Neither the doctrine of creation nor the Trinity nor salvation necessitate exclusively masculine paternal language for the first person. In fact, they all prohibit it” (p. 103).
Thankfully, Peeler does not rule out the propriety of masculine language for God. Indeed, she says that we should “privilege” paternal language for God (p. 112). Nevertheless, she argues that the Bible prohibits the exclusive use of such language. I don’t know how else to read this except that she believes that we must use both gender-neutral and feminine expressions to speak of God, at least sometimes. After all, “Mother” is just as biblical as “Father” (p. 102).2
This approach to the naming of God is fundamentally flawed. Peeler denies that eternal generation is the primary grounds for naming God as Father (p. 114). She rejects that God’s eternal “nature” determines His self-disclosure as Father (p. 113). She contends that eternal generation could just as well be expressed by “Mother” or “Parent” (p. 115). For Peeler, we should address God as Father simply because Jesus did so (p. 112), and Jesus did so because “God invited a woman to bear a son” (p. 19).3 Peeler seems to be saying that Father/Son language is appropriate because of the trinitarian economy but not proper to the eternal relations of origin themselves. In my view, this is the fundamental error that puts her at odds with the tradition.
Problems with Christology
The egalitarian tail wags the dog again in chapter 7, “The Male Savior.” Peeler argues that Christ is clearly male but that his maleness is different from all other males. All other males have flesh deriving from another male and a female. Jesus alone has flesh deriving from a female alone. According to Peeler, Jesus’ maleness and his female-derived flesh enable him to represent both male and female in his redemptive work. She writes:
“If Jesus were not birthed as a male, he would not include male bodies in his recapitulation. If he were not birthed and conceived from a woman alone, he would not include female bodies in his recapitulation” (p. 145).
Peeler’s argument in this chapter constitutes a basic Christological error. She is correct to argue that Jesus is male through and through and that he was born of a virgin’s flesh. But she is wrong to make these the basis for his representation of males and females. After all, Adam represents all of mankind and yet has no mother or father but is simply the federal head of the human race by virtue of the special creation of God. Likewise, Jesus represents all people simply by virtue of his human nature.
Peeler’s argument wrongly implies that Jesus must take on every accidental property a human could have in order to represent them. This is an error. Christ can represent blue-eyed people even if he had brown eyes. And the list could go on with any imaginable accidental property (including sex). Jesus’ representation is contingent on his sharing the fullness of human nature. He is everything essential to humanity. This is the way the orthodox tradition has always understood passages like John 1:14 (“word became flesh”), Hebrews 2:14-18 (“like us in all ways”), and Philippians 2:5-8 (“form of a servant”). It’s also the point of the Chalcedonian two-nature formula (consubstantial with us according to manhood) and the burden of the Apollinarian controversy (a full human nature, not a partial one).
Binary sex as such is essential to being human, but neither maleness nor femaleness is either more or less human than the other. The particular sex of a person is best thought of as a necessary type of the human nature. Neither sex is essential, but being sexed (as one of the two types) is essential. In a sense, it is precisely because Jesus is only one sex (male) that he is a fit representative of both sexes.
And in the biblical economy, by God’s design, covenant heads are male. To be human, he has to be one of the two sexes; to be last Adam, prophet, priest, king, etc., he has to be male and of Davidic descent. Peeler seems to misconstrue all of this.
Problems Interpreting Mary’s Pregnancy
Peeler contends that the incarnation of Jesus within the body of Mary symbolizes God’s approval of women in general. Peeler writes, “The sinful fruit of patriarchy may cause some to despise the female body, but the God of Judaism and Christianity did not” (p. 62). On the contrary, “God’s choice to allow the body of a woman, even the most intimate parts of herself, to come into direct contact with the body and blood of the Son stands against any who would deny women by virtue of the fact that they are women access to the holy” (p. 62). Peeler thus argues that Mary and by extension all women are “worthy to handle the most sacred of all things, the very body of God” (p. 61).
Peeler argues that because God called Mary to carry the body of Jesus, so also women can carry the body of Christ by serving the eucharist (p. 63). As an Episcopalian priest, Peeler writes from a sacramental perspective, and her point is clear. Mary’s pregnancy offers an implicit authorization of the ordination of women to priestly ministry. Her contention, however, is severely weakened by the fact that she doesn’t deal with Pauline texts that teach male headship in marriage or that limit pastoral leadership to men (1 Cor. 11:3; 14:34-35; Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Tim. 2:12). In the conclusion, she admits that this book does not provide that engagement and that she may take up that work elsewhere (p. 189). Nevertheless, it is difficult to accept any sweeping egalitarian conclusions based merely on her reading of Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Mary.
And yet even here, Peeler’s perspective on Mary stands in contrast to the Bible’s depiction of Mary not as the “worthy” one but as the “favored” one (Lk 1:28). Mary was a sinner like all other people, but God showed his grace to her in calling her to be the mother of Jesus (Lk 1:30). She was chosen not because she deserved it but because of God’s grace. All generations call her blessed not because of her own merits but because God in his mercy had done great things for her (Lk 1:49-50). Peeler’s argument that Mary was worthy to bear the divine and that therefore women are now worthy to bear the divine (the eucharist) is not supported by what the text actually says about Mary in Luke 1. The analogy breaks down and so do the egalitarian conclusions that she draws from the analogy.
At the end of her book, Peeler addresses Christians who believe that the Bible defines “role distinctions” for men and women. She exhorts complementarians and the like not to hold their view on the basis of a belief that God is male (pp. 189-90). I can’t imagine that she will find any pushback to that counsel because I can’t think of a single complementarian who believes that God is male. Both sides of the debate on women’s ordination confess that God is spirit and does not have a body. This much we hold in common, and there is no real controversy about it.
Peeler is no radical feminist, but her work in this book is aimed largely at those who are—or at least those who may be persuaded by radical feminists. This leads her to a defensive posture concerning the Bible’s masculine language for God. She sees that language as a problem to be solved, and in doing so she suggests some revisions to trinitarianism and Christology that cannot be sustained. It is these revisions that concern me most about Women and the Gender of God.4
Contrary to what Peeler claims, calling God Father is proper and necessary to the first person of the Trinity. “Father” and “Son” name the immanent life of the Trinity and are not dependent on the economy for their validity or reality. Christ can represent all people because he shares in their humanity, not because he is male and has female flesh derived from Mary. Peeler seems to miss these basic elements of Nicea and Chalcedon, and her book is the worse for it.
This book may be a step forward for egalitarianism, but it is a step backwards from Scripture and the Tradition. While I am glad that the argument does not suggest radical revisions along the lines of Mary Daly, it still flies too close to the sun and ultimately fails.
Denny Burk is President of CBMW and professor of biblical studies at Boyce College.
1 Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1973), 19.
2 In an interview about the book, Peeler encourages women not to use the term “Father” at all if it makes them uncomfortable while praying. She says, “I’ve had several people approach me… and say fatherhood language for God is almost impossible for me given my story. And I think the abundance of naming that we have in Scripture totally says to that person [that] you don’t have to take this term in your prayer life if you want to use one of the many other images names given for God.” See Phil Vischer, “Women and the Gender of God with Amy Peeler,” Holy Post Podcast, accessed January 16, 2023, https://www.holypost.com/post/543-women-and-the-gender-of-god-with-amy-peeler.
3 Describing the incarnation, she says that “God, as fathers are, was the cause of the Son” (p. 116). Jesus calls God “Father” because Joseph was not his Father (p. 116). Jesus refrains from calling God “mother” because he already has a mother—Mary (p. 115). All of this suggests that Peeler views the names Father and Son as proper only to the trinitarian economy and not to the immanent trinity.
4 Complementarians had their own intramural discussion about the doctrine of God in the so-called “Trinity Debate” of 2016. For as difficult and acerbic as the conversation was at times (especially on social media), I think it ultimately served a good purpose for complementarianism. Perhaps a similar reconsideration will happen among egalitarians who may be finding themselves more and more reluctant about the Bible’s masculine language for God. For those interested in my thoughts and interactions regarding the “trinity debate,” see Denny Burk, “My Take-Away’s from the Trinity Debate,” Denny Burk: A Commentary on Theology, Politics, and Culture (blog), August 10, 2016, https://www.dennyburk.com/my-take-aways-from-the-trinity-debate/; Denny Burk, “A Clarification about a New Book on the Trinity,” Denny Burk, June 19, 2019, https://www.dennyburk.com/a-clarification-about-a-new-book-on-the-trinity/; Denny Burk, “The Will of the Father and the Will of the Son in the Covenant of Redemption,” Denny Burk, August 13, 2019, https://www.dennyburk.com/the-will-of-the-father-and-the-will-of-the-son-in-the-covenant-of-redemption/; Denny Burk, “The Difference between the Apple and the Worm,” CBMW, February 7, 2022, https://cbmw.org/2022/02/07/the-difference-between-the-apple-and-the-worm/.
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