Your God is too small: a response to William Birch

William Birch has an interesting post mulling the gender (or not) of God. It’s titled: “God and gender: what if God had breasts?” echoing a chapter by Karen Jo Torjesen.1 At the heart of William’s post he makes three claims about the consequences if we (in his language) “attempt to remove male gender with reference to the God of the Bible”. I think William is dead wrong, so I’d like to respond to each of them:

1) Scripture is wrong, for every word of it is alleged to be “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16 ESV); this means that when reference is made to God or to Christ Jesus as “He,” “Him,” or “His,” it is correct;

William, surely you understand that to talk about God (who you rightly note is spirit) we must use human language with all its limitations, and that usually (if not always) we are using picture language? When we say: “God is a consuming fire” (Dt 4:24) we do not mean that one can measure the divine temperature! If we speak of God as the Rock (Dt 32:18) we do not mean that it is appropriate for geologists to enquire about the origin of God!

2) Jesus is wrong, for He Himself was referred to as male, and He was male with male anatomy, and He referred to both God the Father as male (John 14:16-17);

OK, we are all agreed, Jesus was male. But does that mean God is male? We are also agreed that Jesus had eyes of a certain colour. (We don’t know what colour, but we agree he had eyes, and if so they must have had some colour ;)  Does that mean God has (for the sake of argument, and taking the most likely option) dark brown eyes? Jesus was a practicing Jew. Does that mean God is Jewish?

You get the point. In theological terms there is a distinction to be made between the logos ensarkos (the Word made flesh) and the logos asarkos (the second person of the Trinity as such) not every quality of one is a quality of the other, there are requirements and limitations to becoming flesh. So, the fact that Jesus was male does NOT mean that the Son (second person of the Trinity) is male.

3) God must be neuter metaphysically.

Again NO. If God were neuter, just as would be true if God were female or male, then God would be part of one genre or class of beings in distinction to others. If that were true then God would not be incomparable, God would merely be “a god”, something less than the maker and sustainer of all.

You see, William, my trouble with your arguments all boil down to one thing. Your God is too small!

That title of a fine book from my childhood2 has always stuck with me, and I am convinced it is always true, and that we must continually battle with our human desire to reduce God to manageable proportions ;) Part of that battle is affirming with the great theologians of the ages that “God is not of any genre”, God is not one member of any kind or class. This includes the classes of male, female and even neuter. On a form asking “Gender?” God would reply “None of the above!”

  1. Torjesen, Karen Jo. When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity. [San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. []
  2. Phillips, J. B. Your God Is Too Small. London: Epworth Press, 1952. []