How English-speakers misunderstand the gender of God

English uses natural gender, inanimate objects are neuter “it” while animals and humans are gendered along the lines of the individual’s sex (except for some dialects)1 where the sex of the individual is unknown a guess is made (with e.g. cats being often assumed female and dogs male) rather than the neuter used. This usage means that many English-speakers have difficulty understanding languages that use grammatical gender. Since Hebrew is such a language, with only two genders “masculine” and “feminine”, this creates problems for discussions of the gender of God.

English-speakers, based on how their language treats sexual identity, and surprised by the novel idea of this being attributed to inanimate objects,2 assume that, where language refers to people, “gender” in some way correlates with identity. And, of course, if we are talking correlations, it does. Men are usually “he” and women “she”. Except, not always. In French3 if one speaks of a woman (f)4 who is a government minister (m)5 then the grammatical gender one uses, and hence the pronouns used to refer to her, will depend on whether the reference is to her name:Marie would be referred to later as elle (she), or her function: le ministre will be referred to later as il (he).

In Hebrew the word for God ‘elohim is masculine, as is God’s name yhwh. But what does this imply about God’s sexual identity (or indeed gender in whatever non-grammatical sense)?

Tony Reinke in an article Our Mother Who Art In Heaven? on John Piper’s Desiring God website argues that this data implies that God is in some sense masculine.

His argument is based on work by John Cooper whose book Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God, [amtap book:isbn=080102188X] whom he quotes:

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.6

Notice that Cooper’s argument is not merely the crude misunderstanding I have outlined above. Though he seems to give weight to this misunderstanding :( “There are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term,” his more significant claim is that: “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.”

I challenged this argument in chapter 5 section 4 of my book Not Only a Father. There I engaged with Elizabeth Achtemeier as a strong representative of the claim that masculine and feminine imagery for God works in different ways. She had used more traditional language to express the argument, father language about God is metaphorical while mother language is merely comparison (simile).

Basically I have two problems with Achtemeier’s and Cooper’s argument:

  1. I am not convinced that the neat distinction of how metaphor and simile (direct identification and comparison)  operate in Biblical Hebrew can be sustained. When God is described as “being” a father or the rock (m) of our salvation (Ps 95:1) always only some aspects of rocks and of fathers are in view in any place. Just as is the case also when God is described as like a mother, or indeed as “being” the rock (f) of Israel (Gen 49:24).7
  2. I am however convinced that to call God father in ways which are significantly different from the ways one refers to “him” as mother is idolatry. Such talk (whether indulged in by Achtemeier, a biblical scholar, or Cooper, a philosophical theologian) makes God a member of one class of beings (male or masculine) and not a member of another (female or feminine). Such a partial8 god, one who is precisely a god and not a goddess, is not the God of Scripture.

For more on this see my book Not Only a Father.

  1. In some dialects of English, especially in the westcountry, inanimate objects have gender, a wardrobe is “he”, a fork “she” and so on. []
  2. With only two grammatical genders every noun must be “gendered” []
  3. Another language with two grammatical genders. []
  4. I’ll identify feminine words as (f) and masculine ones as (m). Since she is a woman this ascription of feminine gender to her does seem natural. []
  5. The word ministre is masculine. []
  6. John Cooper, Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God (Baker, 1998), 89. []
  7. Incidentally, I must sometime check Cooper’s book to see how he deals with that last case… []
  8. Pun intended []