Our Mother Who Art In Heaven?

Returning to the "masculine feel" of Christianity discussion, it may be worthwhile to address one prominent point in the debate. While God the Father is spirit, and therefore is not a sexual being nor is he "male," he chooses to predominantly reveal himself in masculine language in Scripture.

But one of the immediate objections to this is the simple fact that God sometimes references himself through feminine imagery, and this is certainly true. By my count we find this in 26 places:

  • Numbers 11:12
  • Deuteronomy 32:18
  • Ruth 2:12
  • Job 38:8
  • Job 38:28–29
  • Psalm 17:8
  • Psalm 22:9–10
  • Psalm 90:2
  • Psalm 91:4
  • Psalm 123:2
  • Psalm 131:2–3
  • Proverbs 8:1
  • Proverbs 8:22–25
  • Isaiah 31:5
  • Isaiah 42:13–14
  • Isaiah 45:10
  • Isaiah 46:3
  • Isaiah 49:15
  • Isaiah 63:15
  • Isaiah 66:7–13
  • Hosea 13:8
  • Matthew 23:37
  • Luke 13:34
  • Luke 15:8–10
  • John 3:3–8
  • 1 Peter 2:2–3

In his book Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God, John Cooper published the conclusions from his study of these 26 (or so) passages. One of his major discoveries was while feminine metaphors for God's activity are sometimes used, and used to illustrate the tender nurturing character of God, none of these references include feminine titles for God.

Cooper explains:

Linguistically, all the clear and plausible instances of feminine reference to God are imagery or figures of speech: similes, analogies, metaphors, and personification. . . . there are no cases in which feminine terms are used as names, titles, or invocations of God, and thus there are no feminine pronouns for God. There are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term, even a metaphorical predicate noun. In other words, God is never directly said to be a mother, mistress, or female bird in the way he is said to be a father, king, judge, or shepherd.1

That explains why in Scripture we find many many masculine titles for God: Lord, Father, King, Judge, Savior, Ruler, Warrior, Shepherd, Husband, and even a handful of metaphorical masculine titles like Rock, Fortress, and Shield. But when it comes to feminine titles for God, there simply are none.

Cooper goes on to argue that the developing clarity in Scripture in regards to the trinitarian nature of God means that most of the feminine language for God is to be found in the Old Testament. "As the Bible progressively reveals God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the feminine imagery for God does not increase but recedes into the background."2

Theologian John Frame makes an additional point that feminine imagery in Scripture is often intentionally applied to men. This is true of Paul's references in Galatians 4:19 and 1 Thessalonians 2:7. Obviously, Paul's male-ness is never brought into question by these female metaphors. This is also true of striking passages like one about the male kings in Isaiah 60:16. "So," Frame concludes on this passage, "while Scripture does use this feminine metaphor [of birthing and nursing] for God, it gives us no more encouragement to think of God as female than it gives us to think of these kings as female."3 Good point.

A Masculine God Changes Everything

Assuming you agree with me up until this point, and many Christians will, you may object: Yes, but in the end those masculine titles for God do not make the faith or the church any more masculine.

And yet, J. I. Packer, in his greatest book, and in perhaps the greatest chapter of his greatest book, tells us that the key to understanding creation and redemption and adoption and therefore all of Christianity, is bound up in the Fatherhood of God.4 In other words, we cannot dismiss this masculine title and role for God as Father and hope to arrive at a clearer understanding of what Christianity or creation is all about. We certainly may end up forfeiting something important about God in the process.

Which is Frame's concern. When he explored the modern feminist attempts to highlight the 26 feminine references to God as a means of downplaying his masculine titles, Frame discovered that the rejection of God's masculine character and authority went hand-in-hand with a denial of God's Lordship.5 That makes sense. If God is not masculine, then he is not Lord, and he therefore no longer stands as the sovereign Lord over all.

I wonder if Frame is on to something more significant here than semantics, similes, metaphors, and analogies. What if the tension over the "masculine feel" of Christianity reveals an uncomfortableness with God's authority and his Lordship?

It may be.

Among other reasons, Frame makes an important connection between the emphasis in Scripture on God's masculine titles and the explicitness of his masculine-Lordship. Preserving the masculine names and titles of God is not merely good for our Theology 1 class, but is essential in shaping all of Christianity, in shaping our lives, and in shaping our churches as we all submit to God's explicit authority.

Which can only mean that God chose to reveal himself as the masculine-Lord for the flourishing of women and for men alike. That God is the masculine-Lord over all things, and that Christianity has a "masculine feel" to it, does not exalt men over women. Quite the contrary. A proper biblical emphasis on God's masculine-Lordship puts men like me in our proper place. It puts us on our knees.

________

2 Ibid, 90.

3 John Frame, The Doctrine of God (P&R, 2002), 381–382.

4 J. I. Packer, Knowing God, chapter 19.

5 Frame, The Doctrine of God, 23, 384.

Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) is a content strategist and staff writer for Desiring God and the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011) and John Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (2015). He hosts the Ask Pastor John and Authors on the Line podcasts, and lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and their three children.