The image of the invisible God: (an)iconic knowing, God and gender

In discussion of "God and Gender", the use of gendered imagery to speak of God plays a crucial role. Since within Christian theology and practice "Father" (and also the correlative "Son") language has had a special and central place in God-talk, the paper will focus on this language. I start from a conviction that any Christian consideration of gendered God-language must take seriously a fundamental theological commitment that as Thomas Aquinas put it "Deus non est in genere." God is not a member of any class. [1] A god who is part of some larger class of entities is not the God of the Bible or of the tradition, but merely an idol, a god. However, once this is said, we are left with the problem of speaking about this unspeakable God. Again there is a long tradition of attempts to do this. They have often been broadly categorized as via negativa and its "opposite" via positiva. [2] The positive road attempts to approach God-talk through a variety of (more and less appropriate) naming, the negative road recognizes that any talk of what God is fails, and so we might talk of God by speaking of what God is not.

Here I want to make use of a related but less sophisticated distinction. [3] Based on the biblical injunction against making images (plastic art) to represent God, I will speak of "aniconic" [4] and "iconic knowing". Aniconic knowing attempts to talk of God using verbal pictures, this approach permits us to transcend the limits of physical imagery whilst still "speaking in pictures". "Iconic knowing" by contrast desires to focus this knowing on one image (which I will argue requires first denaturing the image).

Aniconic knowing: God beyond gender

When one draws word pictures of a God who transcends gender, then one uses language and images appropriate to both genders. Word pictures allow imagery which would be impossible or grotesque if painted or sculpted. Hebrews 6:19 provides an example unconnected with gender:

We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain…

If we imagine an attempt to film this image, it would involve an anchor (representing Christ our hope) travelling through the veil of the temple, into the Holy of Holies. What is ridiculous as concrete art, communicates in words. Pictures drawn with words are in a sense aniconic and often do not "work" if painted, sculpted or drawn.

Biblical faith is founded on such aniconic imagery. [5] The second commandment forbids all idols, [6] even images of the true God. In a world of gods and goddesses, both sculpted and drawn, the Bible pictures God with words alone. Yet God is person, not some abstract philosophical concept. The Old Testament reveals God’s personhood at the deepest level, using God’s personal name. The name of the not-to-be-pictured-God even had abbreviated versions “Yah” and “Yahu” (a nickname?), found in the exclamation “Halleluia” [7] (= “Praise Yah!”) and in names - like Elijah’s (Eli Yahu in Hebrew). In a previous generation, Old Testament theology noticed that “It is his personhood… which is involuntarily thought of in terms of human personality… not the spiritual nature of God which is the foundation of Old Testament faith.” [8]

The gods and goddesses of Canaan, and every other Ancient Near Eastern culture except that portrayed in the ideology of the Bible, were imaged by statues based on human and animal forms.  Such “gods” could easily be thought of a gendered, indeed to avoid such implication is difficult for the image almost has to be either male or female. Only the Bible’s aniconic God could avoid being of one sex or the other. Dt 4 makes this connection clear and explicit, first reminding the hearers that they "saw no form (תְּמוּנָה) when the LORD spoke at Horeb" (v.12) and then in verse 16 continuing "so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure" (פֶּסֶל and תְּמוּנָה). Which is then expanded to make its meaning quite clear: "the likeness (סָמֶל) of male or female". In verses 17-18 images of animals are forbidden, while verse 19 excludes also the host of heaven. However, the initial command in verse 16 mentioned and excluded explicitly "the likeness of male or female". Since the following verses exclude all other sorts of creatures, these males and females are human. Only for human images are both genders distinguished, and both forbidden.

Archaeology and the Bible's own account show that ancient Israel's popular religion was seldom as pure as biblical law demanded. At "high places" across Palestine, and even in Solomon's temple in Jerusalem, Yhwh was in fact worshipped alongside Asherah poles representing a goddess. Popular religion often confused the real God, Yhwh, with the Canaanite god, Ba‘al (whose name means "lord", "husband" or "master"). Yet there is no archaeological evidence that Yahweh was ever pictured.

One drawing on an ostracon from Kuntillet Ajrud (an Israelite fortress in Sinai occupied early in the monarchic period) may portray Yhwh with a goddess. The text speaks of Yahweh and “his Asherah”, and is accompanied by three stick-figures, one presumed male, one sometimes presumed female, and “behind” them, a seated (female?) figure playing a lyre. The text reads: “I bless you by Yhwh and his Ashera”. Yhwh is God’s name and Ashera could be the goddess. If so, and if the stick figures represent the text, though they are crude while the text is well written, then here is one place where an Israelite drew a picture of God. That this find is unique, and from a distant outpost, emphasises the strength of the prohibition on graven images! [9]

Examples of Motherly imagery from Patristic Sources

The Christian theologians of the formative years (the "fathers of the church") were clear that gender categories do not apply to God. God's transcendence of human categories includes not being limited to one gender. So, Gregory of Nyssa stated that: "God is neither male nor female." [10] and Jerome noted in his Isaiah commentary that "Sexual categories do not apply to the Godhead." [11] Since the Christian God was not limited by gender categories these theologians were free to picture God using both male and female imagery.

Therefore, as examples of aniconic attempts to talk of God it is interesting to find motherly word pictures alongside fatherly ones among the early Christian theologians.

Among the feminine imagery used, maternal imagery was particularly often used of God. It focused mainly on two themes: the mother who gives birth - as we are given new birth in conversion and baptism, and the image of divine teaching as feeding, and in particular as like a mother feeding the child at her breast.

This image of education as feeding, and particularly as breastfeeding, was a commonplace in the Hellenistic world. It occurs already in a Christian context in the New Testament. The Epistles speak of the apostles' feeding their readers with the “milk of the gospel” and extend the image to God as the source of this milk.

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation--   if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2-3 with a reference to the Ps 34:8, cf. 1 Cor 3:1-3; 1 Thess 2:7-8; and Heb 5:12-13).

This picture was taken up enthusiastically by the "fathers" in ways that make clear that they do not picture God as male. Here are a few prominent examples:


Irenaeus’ language is poetic and rhetorical not systematic. The image’s referent changes, and 1 Cor 3:2 & 1 Pet 2:2 stand alternately behind his thought. However, unlike either New Testament writer, Irenaeus applies imagery of breasts and milk directly to God, both to the Spirit and to the Son. Motherly language was not restricted to any one person of the Trinity.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-230)

Clement uses motherly language extensively to speak of God; here we will merely look at two instances. In the Instructor 1,6 a section headed “The Name Children does not Imply Instruction in Elementary Principles”, the image of instruction is breastfeeding. Yet, Clement cannot accept at face value Paul’s contrast of milk and solid food, for this would allow his heretical opponents their point. So, discussing 1 Cor 3:2, he provides a lengthy (and inevitably now out of date) presentation of the physiology and natural history of lactation, before, overcome by the wonder of God’s love in the incarnation of Christ, the nurturing of the Church and of Mary, he bundles all together in a welter of exclamation and imagery:

O mystic marvel! The universal Father is one, and one the universal Word; and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere, and one is the only virgin mother. I love to call her the Church. This mother, when alone, had not milk, because alone she was not a woman. But she is once virgin and mother—pure as a virgin, loving as a mother. And calling her children to her, she nurses them with holy milk, viz., with the Word for childhood. Therefore she had not milk; for the milk was this child fair and comely, the body of Christ, which nourishes by the Word the young brood, which the Lord Himself brought forth in throes of the flesh, which the Lord Himself swathed in His precious blood. O amazing birth! O holy swaddling bands! The Word is all to the child, both father and mother and tutor and nurse. [13]

Notice how here images of feeding, food and birthing are mixed and applied to Christ.

Clement later attempts an organised and logically persuasive presentation for those “not inclined to understand it thus, but perchance more generally.” Flesh represents the Spirit; blood points to the Word, and the union of both is the Lord Jesus, who is Spirit and Word. So, the food, the Lord Jesus, the Word of God, the Spirit made flesh, “is the milk of the Father, by which alone we infants are nourished.” [14] Those who believe “flee to the Word, the care-soothing breast of the Father. Who alone, as is befitting, supplies us children with the milk of love.”

That milk feeding is linked to birthing causes Clement also to say:

Wherefore the Holy Spirit in the apostle, using the voice of the Lord, says mystically, “I have given you milk to drink.”* For if we have been regenerated unto Christ, He who has regenerated us nourishes us with His own milk, the Word; for it is proper that what has procreated should forthwith supply nourishment to that which has been procreated. [15]

* 1 Cor. iii 2.

At the close of the work, Clement offers a “Hymn to the Tutor” (Christ), whose second half comprises epithet upon epithet praising the instructing Word. It begins:

Wing of unwandering birds,

Ship’s sure helm,

Shepherd of royal lambs.

This sets the tone for a hymn concerned with one who cares, guides, and protects the young, small and infant. Among pictures that recur are: shepherd, mother-bird, saviour, helm and bridle. The tone throughout is warm and affectionate. The closing reads:

Christ Jesus,

heavenly milk

from the sweet breasts

of the bride of grace,

squeezed from your wisdom.

The childlike,

with tender mouths, are cherished

filled with the dewy spirit

of the Word’s breasts,

sing together simple praises,

true hymns to Christ the King,

a holy fee for life giving teaching;

let us sing together,

sending forth simply

the powerful Child.

O Christ born,

choir of peace,

O temperate people,

let us celebrate together

the God of peace.

The prominence of motherly, and especially of breastfeeding imagery in this hymn, with which he closes the work, indicates the importance of this picture for Clement.

Eusebius (c. 260-341) and Jerome (c. 340-420)

In their comments on Isaiah 40:10-11, both Eusebius and Jerome make interesting use of the idea they find in the New Testament that the apostles are "mothers" to the churches in their care (Gal 4:19; 1 Thess 2:7-8). God is shepherd and among 'his' sheep are 'those that give suck'; i.e. mothers with young lambs. Eusebius and Jerome interpret these motherly ewes in God's flock similarly. [16] They quote Galatians 4:19 and call them apostles.

Jerome, however, is led to further reflection. He is reminded, by the phrase from Galatians “until Christ be formed in you”, of the work of the Holy Spirit. This in turn causes him to mention that in Semitic languages the Spirit is feminine. He then quotes from Psalm 123:2:

As the eyes of a slave follow his master's hand

  as the eyes of a slave-girl her mistress,

He sees in the mistress a feminine figure of the Holy Spirit. This leads the scholarly Jerome to quote also from the, now lost, Gospel of the Hebrews. Here Christ speaks of the Spirit as his mother:

Even so did my mother, the Holy Spirit, take me... [17]

Jerome is well aware that such talk of God as motherly is unusual and may seem strange. So he points out that no one need be offended by it, for whilst in the Semitic languages the Spirit is feminine, Latin uses masculine and Greek uses neuter gender for the word Spirit. This shows that sexuality does not apply to the Godhead.

Augustine (354-430)

A little later the great Augustine extends this idea of the apostle as mother and father. He links it with Jesus' words about the mother hen, and so speaks of Christ in a motherly way. The Lord, he says, has the authority of a father and the affection of a mother, indeed in Christ's blood we have all been called to life. [18]

Other examples of motherly thoughts about Christ in Augustine are found in his comments on John's gospel. He says that, we can see that a hen is a mother because she looks worn out, so Christ wearies himself for us, his children, in the incarnation. [19] Elsewhere in this work also Augustine takes up the milk-feeding theme.

Chrysostom (354- 407)

The early Christian writers loved to build up lists to illustrate the richness of Christ who is all and in all. Typical of such lists is one from the great Greek father John Chrysostom. It begins: "Father, brother, bridegroom, dwelling place, food, raiment, root, foundation,..." and builds again to a climax with: "brother, sister and mother." It is interesting that this list is framed and enclosed by “father” at the start and “mother” at the close. [20]

) writes: 

From baptism we receive the Spirit of Christ, and in the same hour that the priests invoke the Spirit, 'she' opens the heavens and descends, and hovers over the waters, and those who are baptised put 'her' on. From all who are born of a body the Spirit is absent till they come to birth by water, and then receive the Holy Spirit. [21]

Ephrem (c. 306-373) expresses similar pictures: 

The Holy Spirit has brooded in Baptism, and mystically has given birth to eagles (virgins and prelates), and to fishes (celibates and intercessors). [22]  

Here the Spirit hovering or brooding is explicitly linked to the notion of new birth. This link is natural. Baptism is new birth, spiritual as opposed to fleshly birth (John 3:4-7). So, the baptismal water is pictured as a womb, or mother. Brock gives examples from Ephrem and later writers, as well as liturgical evidence. [23] Here are two examples:

Blessed are you, Lord God, through whose great and indescribable gift this water has been sanctified by the coming of your Holy Spirit so that it has become the womb of the Spirit that gives birth to the new man out of the old. [24]  

Yea, we beseech you, Father of mercies and God of all comfort, send your living Spirit and sanctify this water, and may it become the womb of the Spirit that gives rebirth anew to mankind who are baptised in it. [25]  

Given the linguistic encouragement of a feminine gender, it is easy to see how these early Middle Eastern Christians could speak of baptism as the “womb of the Spirit” for they were already calling her "she" and so naming her "mother":

Aphrahat in his Demonstrations 18:10 writes 

Who is it that leaves father and mother to take a wife? The meaning is this. As long as a man has not taken a wife he loves and reveres God his father and the Holy Spirit his mother, and he has no other love. [26]

A similar idea is expressed in the Macarian homilies (though not in a related work the Liber Graduum), 

The homilist says of men after the Fall, they did not look upon the true, heavenly Father, or on the good kind Mother, the grace of the Spirit, nor the sweet and longed-for brother, the Lord. [27]

However, such language is not restricted to the Spirit, the astounding and paradoxical notion of  "the womb of the Father" is also found in Syriac liturgy. It is not surprising that this phrase occurs in connection with the sending of the Spirit. Some texts of the Syrian Orthodox Baptismal service - which is usually attributed to Severus (465-536) - contain the epiclesis [28]

Have mercy on us, O God the Father almighty, and send upon us and upon this water that is being consecrated, from your dwelling that is prepared, from your infinite womb, the Paraclete, your Holy Spirit, the establisher, lord and life-giver. [29]

The Spirit is sent from the "infinite womb" of the Father. Actually, a similar picture was found in connection with the Word in the apologists (Justin, Tatian, Athenagorus and Theophilus of Antioch). Their imagery concerning the logos endiathetis has been expressed like this "this internal Word lives in the womb of God, like the embryo in the womb of his mother... " [30]

Clement in his only known sermon expresses the same idea in typically warm language: 

Behold the mysteries of love, and then you will have a vision of the bosom of the Father, whom the only-begotten God alone declared. God’s very self is love, and for love's sake he became visible to us. And while the unspeakable part of Him is Father, the part that has sympathy with us is Mother. By his loving the father became of woman's nature, a great proof of which is He whom He begat from himself; and the fruit that is born of love is love. [31]

This tradition of motherly language was still alive early in the second millennium (Anselm provides a fine example) however, after a well known flowering in Julian of Norwich, it seems to die out in Western Christianity. This happens at about the time when devotion of Mary the Mother of God was burgeoning. I am suggesting that the example of the early theologians is one we might usefully recover as we seek to speak of the ineffable God.

Iconic knowing: Jesus and the Father

The aniconic God of the Old Testament is beyond the categories of human gender. However, the New Testament both presents Jesus (a male human) as “the image of the invisible God” and Jesus talks of God as “Father”. This double imaging of the invisible God has resulted in a tendency to imagine God as male. There are however also signs within the New Testament talk of God as Father which may assist us in resisting this tendency.

Jesus was male

Jesus' maleness has been used, often somewhat unthinkingly to argue that God is male, or can only appropriately be represented by male "priests". Evidently the fact of Jesus' maleness is an unquestioned element of the traditions about him. But what is its theological significance. What characteristics of the human Jesus have significance as theological descriptors?

Is the maleness of the son asarkos (as a heavenly being, not “incarnate” or enfleshed) implied by his maleness ensarkos (incarnate or enfleshed)? Is a “masculine” character essential to the being of the Son or accidental to his human existence? [32]

It is clear that certain characteristics of Jesus are not essential, but are indeed “accident”. For example, one would not, presumably, claim that the son asarkos has certain genetic characteristics such as eye colour or body shape as essential to “him”. Such characteristics are clearly accident not essential. God does not have dark curly hair, any more than “he” has a long white beard!

Yet Jesus was Jewish, descended from a long line of Semitic ancestors (Matt 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). If his gender applies to the Godhead, why is his ethnic inheritance not determinative of God? If his eye colour, or any other aspect of his genetic makeup are not descriptive of God, then on what grounds could his gender be so understood?

Some have argued from Jesus’ maleness for an exclusively male priesthood. Does such an argument mean that “masculinity” is an essential characteristic of the Son? For example, Myers wrote: “The sexuality of Christ is no accident nor is his masculinity incidental.” [33] To be fair, Myers here is using accident in the popular sense, for he continues: “This is the divine choice.” If there is choice, then, in the technical sense, the sexuality (and in particular the “masculinity”) of Christ is accident. Surely it is evident that all such particular genetically determined characteristics of Jesus imply nothing about the nature of God. [34]

Jesus called God "Father"

If Jesus’ maleness does not imply that the godhead is male, does his choice of Father as name for God imply more? In the debate over the ordination of women Rutler admitted: “God  ... includes in his being maleness and femaleness together” but added “God taught us to call Him… not Mother as the primitives liked to do, but Father.” [35]

Clearly, since Rutler said “God…includes in his being maleness and femaleness together” the fatherhood of God can not be understood in any literal sense. Equally, since we are to call him father the intra-trinitarian Father-son relation cannot be meant. What Rutler must mean is that Fatherhood is an analogy or metaphor of Godhead.

The Old Testament is very sparing in its use of father imagery to speak of God. (It prefers language like shepherd, kinsman-redeemer, rock and other pictures which had less dangerous echoes in polytheistic systems of thought.) Interestingly undetermined parental imagery (as in Hos 11:1ff. which mentions parental care rather than naming either parent) and imagery which mentions and so balances both parents (as in Job 38:28f. cf. Jer 2:27) is found. Explicitly motherly language is also found in several places most notably Isaiah 40ff. (Is 42:14; 43:1ff.; 42:2, 21ff.; 45:8ff.; 46:3f.; 49:13-21; 50:1-3; 66:7ff.) At times the writers seem deliberately to balance motherly and fatherly pictures. The New Testament, from the gospels onward, seems to contrast with this reticence. Here father-language abounds, indeed "Father" becomes a name for God. An uncritical reading of this change may attribute it to Jesus' teaching.

Indeed German scholarship of the middle of the last century represented the father-language of the New Testament as a unique contribution of Jesus, unlike both his Jewish forebears and his Early Church followers. Much has also been made of Jesus' use of ββα abba (Mark 14:36 cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15) which has been portrayed as a baby-talk version of "father", and thus of the link between Jesus' special intimacy with God and his and the church's use of father-language. [36]

Before examining this argument further, however, we should ask in just what way Jesus initiates this development. Jeremias was aware of a striking feature of the Gospels' father-talk for God on the lips of Jesus. [37] This usage shows a clear pattern: [38]

With the possible exception of the materials special to Luke and Matthew (whose relative order might be debated) there is a strong positive correlation between the material's distance in time from Jesus and its use of father to identify God. The further removed from the historical Jesus the more likely a writer is to talk about God as father. Indeed, with the exception of Matthew's special material and John, the figures are not strikingly greater than we might expect in sections of the Old Testament.

It has long been recognised that such use of "Father", and especially of expressions like "Father in heaven", were becoming more common in Palestinian Judaism around this time, and that such language was beginning to be used with respect to individuals (and not exclusively in relation to the nation or community as a whole as in the Old Testament). [40] So it would seem that the earliest witnesses to Jesus' speech remember him as using such expressions in ways which would not seem abnormal in a Jewish teacher of his time and place.

Later traditions, however, remember his usage as much more frequent, to the extent that in the New Testament as a whole, Father becomes a name for God, and one which is especially associated with Jesus as Son. The phrase "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" Rom 15:6; 2 Co 1:3; Eph 1:3; 1 Pet 1:3 is a good illustration of this thinking.

In drawing attention to this development, one is led to wonder why the tradition increasingly remembered Jesus to have used this language. [41] In this connection it is interesting to notice that by contrast the earliest strands of the New Testament, and in particular Paul seem to make use of the figure of Wisdom to understand Jesus in relation to God. "What pre-Christian Judaism said of Wisdom and Philo also of the Logos, Paul and the others say of Jesus. The role that Proverbs, ben Sira, etc. ascribe to Wisdom, these earliest Christians ascribe to Jesus." [42] However, no matter how close the association of personified Wisdom in these text with God, she was not God. Increasingly therefore "Son" became the dominant metaphor for understanding the person of Christ, and therefore "Father" is reinforced as a name for God.

Pointing out that use of Father as a name for God was probably remembered in Jesus' speech more often than he in fact used such language, does not deny that Jesus spoke of God as a "father" or even used Father as a name for God. However, it should caution us from making too much of the origin of this language in Jesus.

A motherly father in Jesus parables

It is also interesting to examine how God is pictured as father in Jesus' words. What did he mean by calling God "father"?

Authority and discipline (especially with respect to sons) was a strong and frequent overtone of father-language in the ancient world. Pilch neatly summarises the cultural stereotypes of the biblical world:

Clearly, the father is viewed as severe, stern and authoritarian; the mother is viewed as loving and compassionate. Children respect and fear the father but love the mother affectionately even after they are married. [43]

Such an understanding of the stern authoritarianism is almost absent [44] from father-talk in the Gospels. Here fathers are responsible for feeding their children (Luke 11:13) and perhaps the best loved parable describing God by any image is the story of the two sons (Luke 15:11ff.) considered in the light of cultural stereotypes (ancient or modern) this parable "works" because the father breaks the stereotype. If the story were told substituting "mother" for "father" (whether or not a substitution of "daughter" for "son" was also made) the tale would be unremarkable. This parable operates, and has captured the imaginations of generations of Gospel readers precisely because the father acts like a stereotypical mother!

Ricoeur and an aniconic Father

The commandment not to image God protects the divine from the human tendency to reduce things to our level. An imaged god is the divine reduced to a thing we can understand and to whom we can apply the meaningful "techniques" of religion. The biblical God refuses such imaging. In the Old Testament even verbal images are often used of God with care. For example in Isaiah 40:10f. the image of God as a victorious general or king (v.10) is paired with the contrasting image of God as a tender shepherd who cares for the weak (v.11).  Such use of language enables a form of imaging which resists the idolatrous tendency inherent in imagining the ineffable. In a world of gods and goddesses who either give birth or impregnate, parental pictures are potentially idolatrous. Thus, when parenthood is invoked to describe God the usage may not specify which parent is intended (e.g. Hos 11:1ff.), or both parents may be invoked in the same passage (Job 38:28-29) or their roles may both be suggested through careful wording (Dt 32:18 cf. 6).

These usages are supple and flexible linguistic responses to the need to speak of God, while acknowledging that whatever we say is inevitably inadequate. Ricoeur in his exploration of this theme [45] ties this reticence to the revelation of the divine name in Exodus.

For the revelation of the name is the dissolution of all anthropomorphisms, of all figures and figurations, including that of the father.  The name against the idol. [46]  

He then talks of how, in order to make use of father language, "father" must first be "reinterpreted on the basis of this relation of similitude" and so father language is understood in dependence on other images (in view of the date of his work it is perhaps less strange that he does not mention "mother" here) and so arrive at "the zero degree of the figure". [47] That is, as I have understood him, according to Ricoeur we may only accurately call God "father" if we first reduce the concept "father" to its degree zero, by stripping it of the distinguishing features (such as maleness or engendering) that give "father" its specific character. Indeed it is here that Ricoeur does go on to mention "mother". In the movement from the "exteriorizing" of story to the "interiorizing" of faith:

I take the word "interiorize" in the sense of Erinnerung, which is both memory and interiority-recollection.  Entry into Erinnerung is at the same time entry into feeling; the affective connotations are, moreover, extremely complex, ranging from sovereign authority to tenderness and pity, as if the father were also the mother. [48]  


A central thread of biblical understanding of God is that, by contrast with the gods of human ideologies God is aniconic. The prohibition on plastic images for God provides a powerful protection against the worst forms of idolatry. It allowed the biblical writers great freedom to talk about God, for we can talk about what we cannot image, at least by combining distinct even opposite images (as the poet does in Is 40:10-11). Yet to forbid plastic images is not sufficient in the end to protect humans against our idolatrous tendency. For, of course, we desire a god we can control, and understand (see the discussions in the poetry of Job!). Therefore in the end we must add another warning: God is ineffable. Not only can the true God not be truly represented in plastic images, but verbal images too fail to express the full truth of God.

As Thomas Aquinas (quoted often, among others by Karl Barth) put it: "Deus non est in genere." [49] God is not a member of any class. God, then is not a father, any more than God is a rock. But father is a good and frequently used verbal image which points towards what God is like. However, to use the image of father alone, is to turn our backs on Scripture and tradition (for Scripture and at least a millennium of orthodox Christian tradition also images God as mother).

It is said that a great theologian and preacher was once introduced as the man who could "know the unknowable, unscrew the inscrutable and eff the ineffable." The desire to do these things lies deep in the human psyche. Yet, unless the image of father is first reduced to its degree zero, to use it alone to "eff the ineffable" [50] is merely to deceive ourselves. In practical everyday use of language about God, talk in "degree zero" is not possible, in such contexts we need to follow the biblical model and speak of God as both victorious general and tender shepherd, both father and mother whose powerful tender love exceeds those of even the best of human parents.

[1]    Aquinas' slogan (among other citations: Summa Theologiae, prima pars quaestio III articulus 5) has been quoted very often, within recent Protestant tradition most notably by Karl Barth e.g. in Church Dogmatics II.1 T. & T. Clark, 1957, 310.

[2]    This convenient terminology has a history which goes back at least to Pseudo-Dionysius (late fifth or early sixth century CE).

[3]    My concerns are in the realm of "practical theology" - that is with how Christian people may speak about God in practice.

[4]    Aniconic, comes from the Greek word εικων ikon an image or picture. A negative prefix is added indicating an absence or opposition to such images. The Jewish and Muslim religions have obeyed the commandment against images strictly; Christianity has often understood it as only forbidding images of other gods! The Bible makes no such distinction - indeed it assumes the gods are imaged.

[5]    I am aware that this term is oxymoronic, yet it seems useful because it permits me to stress both, that this is "picture" language, but that such pictures work differently to those of plastic art.

[6]    That a פֶסֶל can be an image of YHWH is seen in Judges 17-18 where Micah's mother makes a פֶסֶל from the stolen silver that he returns saying: "I consecrate the silver to the LORD from my hand for my son, to make an image of cast metal."

[7]    hallelu Yah, “hallelu” being a plural imperative form of the verb “praise”.

[8]    Walther Eichrodt, Theology Of the Old Testament, Vol. I London, SCM, 1961, 211.

[9]    See e.g. the review article by David Noel Freedman, “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” Biblical Archaeologist 50, 4, 1987, 241-249.

[10]        Migne P.G. 44, 916B. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily VII In Cantica Canticorum in Greek the quotation reads: "epeide gar oute arren, oute thelu to theion esti".

[11] Jerome, Commentariorum in Esaiam libri I-XI (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 73) M. Adriaen (ed.) Turnhout: Brepols, 1963, 459, 1.82-83, in Latin the quotation reads: "In divinitate enim nullus est sexus".

[12] Irenaeus Against Heresies Book IV, Chap. XXXVIII, translation from Alexander Roberts et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol.I : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, (based on the 1885 edition), 521.

[13] Clement of Alexandria Paedogogus I, VI translation from Alexander Roberts et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. II : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,  (based on the 1885 edition), 220.

[14] Ibid.

[15]   Ibid, 221.

[16] Zeigler (1975) 252-253, Eusebius In Esaiam; Jerome In Esaiam in CC, Series Latine LXXIII 458-459. According to Michael J. Hollerich, Eusebius of Caesarea's Commentary on Isaiah: Christian Exegesis in the Age of Constantine Oxford: OUP, 1999, 47, "Jerome had [Origen's and Eusebius' commentary at his disposal when he wrote his own commentary".

[17] ibid. 459, 1.79.

[18] Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos CI-CL (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 40) E. Dekkers, J. Fraipont (eds.) Turnhout: Brepols, 1953, 101,8.

[19] Augustine, In Iohannis evangelium tractatus CXXIV  (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 36) R. Willems (ed.) Turnhout: Brepols, 1954, on John 15:6.

[20] Migne P.G. 58, 700; Chrysostom Hom. in Matth. 76,5.

[21] Dem. VI, translation quoted from Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition London: CUP, 1975, 143.

[22] J.H. Bernard, The Odes of Solomon: edited with introduction and notes (Texts and Studies VIII) Cambridge: CUP, 1912, 121. See also H. Epiph. VI, 1; H Epiph. VII, 16, English translation by a Mr Johnston in Gwyn (1898). 

[23] Sebastian P. Brock, The Holy Spirit in Syrian Baptismal Tradition (The Syrian Churches Series 9) Poona: n.p., 1979, 84-87 lists the liturgy attributed to Timothy, other Syrian and Maronite liturgies, Ephrem, Theodore, Jacob of Serugh, and Severus; to these can be added others, for example H. Epiph. VIII:9.

[24] This prayer is common to both Syrian Orthodox and Maronite services, see Brock, 84.

[25] The Syrian Orthodox service attributed to Timothy, quoted from Brock, 71.

[26] Murray, 143.

[27] Ibid. 318.

[28] Epiclesis (Greek for "invocation" or “calling upon”) is used as a technical term for the prayer in a sacrament which calls on God to send the Holy Spirit.

[29] Brock,  72.

[30] A. Chollet, “Circuminsession” in Dictionaire de Théologie Catholique Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1903-1972, 11:2 article on "Circuminsession" col 2529 the French reads: "Ce Verbe intérieur qui vit au sein de Dieu, comme l'embryon au sein de sa mère".

[31] Otto Stahlin, Clemens Alexandrinus 3 vols. (Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller) Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1905-9, 183 l. 31-184 l. 4; translation from G.W. Butterworth, Clement of Alexandria (Loeb Classical Library) London: Heinemann, 1919.

[32] The distinction of accident and essence is an old one in philosophy. “Intuitively, the essential properties of an object are those properties that make the object "what it is." More exactly, they are the properties that the object couldn’t possibly have lacked. Its accidental properties, by contrast, are those that it just happens to have but might well have lacked. Thus, the property being a horse is intuitively not a property that the champion racehorse Secretariat could have lacked; he couldn’t have been a rabbit, say, or a stone. The property being a horse is thus essential to Secretariat.”  Christopher Menzel, “Actualism” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2002), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

[33] C. Kilmer Myers, “Statement on the proposed ordination of women to the 122nd Diocesan Convention” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 9 1972, 230.

[34] Whether, then, it implies anything about the possibility of women priests is not an issue germane to this thesis. I suspect that to truly argue for an exclusively male priesthood one must argue that maleness (or at least masculinity) is an essential characteristic of the Son. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note, however, that Myers and others stopped short of this.

[35] George William Rutler, “Speech to the Convention of the Diocese of Pennsylvania” quoted in H. Karl Lutge, Sexuality-Theology-Priesthood San Gabriel: Concerned Fellow Episcopalians, 1973, 58. The phrase “as the primitives liked to do” is sufficiently polemic to indicate the intention.

[36] Jeremias is still sometimes cited in support of this claim, although he wrote: "One often reads (and I myself believed it at one time) that when Jesus spoke to his heavenly Father he took up the chatter of a small child. To assume this would be a piece of inadmissible naivety." J. Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (SBT 2/6; London: SCM) 1967, 62 (translated by John Bowen from Abba: Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966).

[37] Jeremias, 29ff..

[38] These figures are taken from O. Hofius, "Father" in Colin Brown (ed) New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Zondervan, 1986, 619-20.

[39] By comparison Paul uses such language 40 times only.

[40] Jeremias, 15-29; Alon Goshen-Gottstein, “God the Father in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity: Transformed Background or Common Ground?” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 38:4 (Fall 2001): 470- 504 (for a more recent and critical Jewish perspective).

[41] I am unconvinced by Jeremias claim that since it is used in Jesus' prayers it was necessarily his own usage, since Jesus' prayers like his other speech comes to us remembered by others, whose own patterns of prayer may influence the wording they remember. We know that this usage was common in the earliest church.

[42] James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry Into the Origins of the. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996, 167.

[43] John J. Pilch, "Parenting" in John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina (eds.) Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998, 147.

[44] Mat 21:30f.; John 14:28 may be exceptions.

[45] Paul Ricoeur, "Fatherhood: From Phantasm to Symbol" The Conflict of Interpretations. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974, 468-497.

[46] ibid., 486.

[47] ibid., 487.

[48] ibid., 487-8.

[49] E.g. Karl Barth Church Dogmatics II.1 T. & T. Clark, 1957, 310 quotes Aquinas' slogan from Summa Theologiae, prima pars quaestio III articulus 5 though Aquinas (like Barth) repeated the theme in other places as a central element of his thought.

[50] In recent scholarly discussion the phrase "to eff the ineffable" is usually attributed to the character Arsene in Samuel Beckett's Watt, Grove, 1994, 62. Though the word play evidently predates the playwright!