Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: c. Why NOT call God “Mother”?

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Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: b. Why Change the Habit of Centuries?

The god Baal about to throw a thunderbolt (from the Louvre photo from Wikipedia)

In view of this pastoral need (see previous post), we may ask why we evangelicals do not talk of God as motherly. Does some clear and strong reason prohibit this? A number of admired evangelical thinkers believe there is. Alongside the feminist argument for equality in God-talk, an opposing literature claims this is unChristian.1 Key figure Elizabeth Achtemeier, a respected evangelical biblical scholar and teacher of preaching, posed a case against speaking of God as mother.2 She claimed, along with others, that the Bible uses “father” not merely as a picture but as a name, so that to speak of God as mother speaks of another God, different from the God of the Bible.

Below, in the section “Yahweh or Baal” in Chapter 5, I argue that her conclusion is precisely the wrong way round. Those who speak of a God who is father rather than mother talk of a different god. Baal the Canaanite god was a male figure, as were half of the gods of the pagans. The biblical God is no more male than “he”3 is female!

  1. Kimel (1992) collected notable examples. []
  2. See Achtemeier (1986, 1987, 1992, 1993) and my critique in “Shall we serve Yahweh or Baal?” []
  3. I will put gender-specific pronouns for God in inverted commas, indicating that, though the use of “he” is traditional for God, this implies nothing about God’s nature. “S/he” and “her/his”, or an impersonal pronoun the worst alternative for the living God seem clumsy. Quotation marks are intrusive, slowing reading, but this lets us examine our unrecognised prejudices. []

5 comments on “Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: c. Why NOT call God “Mother”?

  1. Andrea Candy

    I get your point and it’s a very good one. But how to pray to God? How to address him in worship if he is not father alone? We don’t avoid ‘Lord’ just because that was Baal’s name as well. We don’t avoid ‘Father’, for all the misconnotations of the word. But neither do we pray “Our Mother in heaven…” To remove all gender-specific terms would be silly because Jesus himself taught us to pray “Our Father…” So what are we to do?

  2. tim

    I’ll be gettimng to my take on that later, but basically I think we need to make clearer that we are using picture language, and e.g. often mention that God (whom as you say we can hardly stop calling Father) is like, but better than because the perfect model of, human mothers and fathers. Similarly we should ensure that as well as the judge, lawgiver, maker, we also include midwife, clothes-maker, feeder etc… And how about the shepherd girl as well as or instead of the shepherd!?

  3. Brooke

    I respect Achtemeier a great deal, and return to her commentary (e.g., on Minor Prophets) again and again. I especially rely on her when trying to talk to students about how the OT celebrates the death of the wicked (as in Nahum).

    Here, though, it is hard not to see special pleading in the form of the “slippery slope” argument. Once God is imagined as a woman, suddenly she is mother earth, and suddenly we as part of earth are part of her, and suddenly we are worshiping ourselves as little gods and goddesses… But, as must be said again and again, *all terrain is slippery slope*, and using masculine language for God is not less slippery (as the centuries show).

    Andrea, without getting into either endorsements or condemnations, I can report that I have heard Christians pray to “our Mother in Heaven.” Hardly ever, but some.

    Brooke

  4. tim

    Oh, yes, I tried to suggest her value as a scholar by calling her “respected”, which I think sums it up well. CS Lewis is another who makes very similar mistakes, and though not a biblical scholar or theologian professionally he was also highly respected. But when people make mistakes, and every one does, we need to say so.

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