Our Mother Who Art In Heaven?

With the recent launch of The Shack movie, we are reminded of a whole mix of theological questions raised by the novel, and the problems of projecting the divine onto a screen. One of the lead characters in the book, for example, is a woman named Papa, who plays the role of God the Father, and her character reignites questions over divine identity and gender language.

“I am neither male nor female,” Papa self-discloses in the novel, “even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.”

Religious conditioning in this context points a finger at the default of using predominantly male metaphors for God. When it comes to the divine titles for God, should we be more inclusive and gender-blended?

Coincidentally, a student in the Netherlands recently wrote us to ask something similar:

Recently, I met someone at my university who tried to convince me of the existence of a female God — God the Mother — using various passages from the Bible. I had never heard of this before, and therefore didn’t know how to answer her. As a Christian, I think that this can’t be true. But how can I prove it from the Bible?

This is a good question, on many different levels, and the impulse is right: the Bible never titles God as our Mother. But the question is worth looking at more carefully because in dozens of places the Bible uses feminine language for God.

Feminine Passages

It’s worth saying from the outset, in the words of Jesus, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). God is not a sexual being, nor is he a biological male. He is spirit. “From eternity,” says John Piper, “God has not had a physical body and, therefore, he doesn’t have male features: facial hair, musculature, male genitals, no Y chromosome, no male hormones. Male is a biological word, and God is not a biological being” (Ask Pastor John, episode 294).

Yet even without biology, God chooses to reveal himself in Scripture through language that is both masculine and feminine. In fact, God’s character and actions are revealed by feminine imagery in at least 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

But even taken together, the evidence does not warrant us praying to “our Mother who art in heaven” for at least three compelling reasons.

1. Silence in Titles

In his book Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God, John Cooper published the conclusions from his study of these passages. One of his major discoveries was that while feminine metaphors for God’s activity are indeed used on occasion 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. (89)

That explains why in Scripture we find 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. While feminine titles for God — Queen, Lady, Mother, and Daughter — are never used.

2. The Meaning of the Incarnation

The second compelling argument is Trinitarian. Of course, the incarnate Jesus marks the arrival of the “God-man” into human history. Unlike the eternal God (who is non-biological), Jesus enters earth in the incarnation and takes on biological maleness as the Son of God. From this point onward, as the nature of God becomes more and more clear — specifically as the contours of the Trinity emerge in the New Testament, and the Father-Son dynamic becomes more fully developed — we find a sharp drop-off with the feminine metaphors for God.

This Trinitarian unfolding explains why a bulk of the feminine language for God is found in the Old Testament. In the words of Cooper, “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” (90).

3. Feminine Metaphors for Men

Third, as theologian John Frame points out, it is not uncommon to see in Scripture feminine imagery intentionally applied to men (as in 2 Samuel 17:8). This makes sense to us, as we often speak of the feminine side of men today, meaning that men can (and should) display qualities often associated with women, like gentleness.

The apostle Paul’s anguish over the growth of his churches was for him like the pain of birthing a child (Galatians 4:19). And Paul’s apostolic gentleness was something like the kindness and patience of a nursing mother (1 Thessalonians 2:7). Obviously, Paul’s maleness is never brought into question by these female metaphors.

This is also true of striking passages like the promise of flourishing in Zion, pictured in Isaiah 60:16 with the language of nursing “at the breast of kings.” Frame concludes, “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” (Doctrine of God, 381–382).

“My conclusion from these biblical references is that there are a few feminine images of God in Scripture, but they do not suggest any sexual ambivalence in the divine nature. They do not justify, let alone necessitate, the use of ‘Mother’ or feminine pronouns for God” (383).

A Word to Women

So, are males more godlike? Absolutely not.

“Everything created in woman that sets her off from man comes from God and reflects something of him,” stresses Piper. “Woman was not modeled after some other god. There is no other god. She was modeled after God. When the Bible says she and he were created in the image of God, it means she is also made after the model of her Creator. So, it is important to say that in his essential divine being, not referring to his incarnate union with humanity, but in his essential, divine essence, God is not male and God is not female. Maleness and femaleness are God’s creation, as biological bearers of masculinity and femininity, both of which are rooted in God” (Ask Pastor John, episode 294).

And yet God’s self-chosen titles matter. Masculine titles for God are not the evidence of “religious conditioning,” but the product of God’s self-disclosure. God has chosen to reveal himself with masculine titles, and we receive those titles by faith because, in the words of theologian Bruce Waltke, “It is inexcusable hubris and idolatry on the part of mortals to change the images by which the eternal God chooses to represent himself” (Old Testament Theology, 244).

God the Father is spirit. He makes man and woman in his own image, though he himself is not male or female. He prefers to manifest his own nature to us through masculine titles, and sometimes in feminine metaphors. We can add all this to the impossibilities of projecting God the Father on the big screen.