For at least the past 40 years, traditional language for God has come under fire. While formal feminist theologians disagree about what language to use instead, they are unanimous that masculine words for God, especially Father, must be expunged from our theological vocabulary. For the church to be inclusive, they argue, it must replace man-centered language with language that accounts for both male and female. Furthermore, since our human words cannot adequately portray God's fullness, no single characterization will suffice. God could be addressed as father and/or mother in order to bring out his multifaceted nature.
Underlying this view is a belief that terms like father and mother are mere human characterizations of God, shaped by specific cultural and backgrounds. The predominantly masculine images of God in the Bible reflect an ancient patriarchal society. As a consequence, critics say, biblical religion has absorbed patriarchal values, which in turn are used to justify beliefs and institutions that harm or subjugate women. Theology, therefore, must be reconstructed to yield a valid religion for women based on women's experience.
The quest for gender-inclusive language has been a preoccupation of many mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics for decades. Some evangelicals also make compromises to accommodate these concerns. But before we jump onto the theological bandwagon, we need to reexamine the reasons for the use of masculine terms for God in Scripture and throughout the Christian tradition.
Not an Invention
Feminine images are used throughout Scripture to describe God's compassionate and loving nature. Examples include the frequent images of God protecting and comforting his children (Isa. 66:12–13; Hos. 11:1–4). But it's important to note that God is never addressed as Mother. This phenomenon is unique compared with the cultures surrounding the original biblical writers. Most ancient Near Eastern societies had a goddess as the main cult figure or at least to complement a male god—Asherah in Canaan, Isis in Egypt, Tiamat in Babylon. If patriarchy is responsible for cultures portraying God as male, then we would expect goddess worship to reflect a matriarchal society—one in which women are given superior status or at least are equal to men. But this is not the case. Even today, many societies devoted to goddess worship remain oppressive toward women. Devotion to the goddess Kali in Hinduism, for instance, has never resulted in better treatment of women, even among Kali devotees.
We could even say that Israel succumbed to an idea of God that was rather against her natural disposition. Left to themselves, the Israelites would have ended up worshiping the Baals and Asherahs—Canaanite fertility gods and goddesses. Israel's prophets singled out idolatry for fierce denunciation because its people were constantly tempted to do just that. But Israel's idea of God's fatherhood bucked a common trend in the ancient world. Hence, it could not have been an Israelite invention, but rather the result of a long history of living under the revelation of God. It is the church's continuity with this narrative of Israel that would lead eventually to the uniquely Christian doctrine of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the New Testament, God's fatherhood conveys two distinct ideas. First, it refers primarily to the internal relationship within the Trinity. This is how the first article of the Apostles' Creed puts it: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord." Even as early as Paul's writings, the phrase "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" had become commonplace. God is first and foremost the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not an invention of later church leaders, but comes directly from Christ, who refers to God as "Father." In doing so, Jesus reveals a unique relationship between the Father and Son that constitutes the beginning of the Trinitarian doctrine.
Jesus taught his disciples to call God "our heavenly Father." Therefore, the loving relationship he has with the Father from eternity now extends to those adopted into God's family (Rom. 8:15). The father-son relationship is the most intimate personal relationship, one marked by reciprocal love and respect, and it is God's supremely personal and loving nature that the term father is meant to underscore.
To claim, as many feminist theologians do, that the very presence of masculine metaphors for God excludes women simply does not square with the way Scripture uses them. Masculine images of God do not always convey exclusively "masculine" qualities. For example, Isaiah 54:5–7 refers to God as the Husband who with "deep compassion" (a stereotypically "feminine" quality) called estranged Israel back to himself (see also Isa. 49:13). The term father, then, excludes not feminine qualities, but rather the idea of a distant and impersonal deity, which is precisely the picture of the supreme being still seen in many primal religions.
Second, the father metaphor points to God as the Creator (e.g., Isa. 64:8; Mal. 2:10) "from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name" (Eph. 3:15). Father captures in one word two seemingly contrasting characteristics: God's love for his creatures and his lordship over all creation. Here again, we see the difference between Israel and ancient Near Eastern cultures. In the Judeo-Christian faith, God the Father created the world as something separate from himself, whereas in Near Eastern societies, the mother metaphor pictures the mother-goddess giving birth to the world (which makes it an extension of the deity's body). Calling God Mother undermines the Christian doctrine of creation by implying that God and the world are made of the same stuff and virtually indistinguishable. So, we need Father in order to get to the right doctrine of creation.
Rescripting the Christian Story
If fatherhood implies lordship over creation and intimate, personal love, couldn't gender-neutral terms communicate the same ideas? To answer this question, we need to understand the nature of the Christian story. The Christian story is not merely an illustration. It is not just one example of a more basic universal principle or value, such that the story becomes dispensable once the principle is grasped. Rather, the Christian story is what actually shapes our Christian identity. To paraphrase the theologian George Lindbeck, Christians are a people who are absorbed into the Christian story. And central to that story is the Trinitarian identity of God as Father of our Lord Jesus.
The term Trinity is simply shorthand for the Christian story of God the Father, who sent his Son Jesus Christ and gave us his Holy Spirit. Who is the God that Christians encounter at worship? He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To quote Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the proper name of God. Relating to the triune God is what makes Christian experience truly Christian. Simply using the name God, even with many qualifiers (compassionate, gracious, loving, almighty, and so on), does not sufficiently distinguish the God of Christian revelation from other monotheistic faiths. If we leave out God's nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we risk turning the Christian story into another story.
While Christians in some progressive circles are trying to downplay the name of God as Father, Muslims, ironically, understand what is at stake. This is highlighted in the recent Allah controversy in Malaysia. Some Muslims tried to prohibit Christians from translating the word God as Allah in the Malay Bible, claiming that it would confuse simple-minded Muslims. Their action might appear ludicrous, but underlying their concern is a valid theological claim. Although Allah is a generic name (the Arabic equivalent of El), for Muslims it has over time acquired the status of a proper name. As such, it carries a theological freight distinct from Allah as understood by Jews and Christians. Allah is uniquely identified with Islam in a way that it is not with Judaism and Christianity.
Christians make a similar claim when they say that the name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is unique and proper to the God they worship. By using this divine name in its liturgy, the church is saying that this story, and no other, creates and shapes her unique identity as the people of Jesus Christ. A generic name, even with many descriptive adjectives, does not adequately distinguish the Christian identity from the Muslim one. Jews or Muslims could just as well say that they worship a God who is gracious, compassionate, holy, and so on. Adjectives could be endlessly multiplied, but they don't add up to the name of the Trinity. Muslims may even acknowledge a special relationship in identifying Jesus as a prophet of God. But only the Christian church can confess to worshiping the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. When divine fatherhood is muted, the church loses her distinct identity.
Both at Once
The abandonment of father-language, then, leaves a void at the heart of the Christian story. And this abandonment has consequences for the public worship rituals that in many church traditions teach believers to understand this story and invite their participation in it. These rituals, especially in high-church traditions, tend to include the recitation, by all present, of certain creeds or common readings. But without the language of fatherhood, public recitations can no longer avail themselves of divine names that juxtapose two or more paradoxical terms, such as "Father almighty." Derived from the Apostles' Creed, the phrase is used in the concluding doxology to the Catholic Church's eucharistic prayer: "Through him, with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever." The Anglican Alternative Service Book (1980) addresses God as "Almighty God, our heavenly Father," and its Eucharistic prayers invoke a "holy Father, heavenly King, almighty and eternal God."
Such juxtapositions, as scholar Gordon Lathrop says, reveal the mystery of God as powerful yet loving, holy yet intimate. It is not that God is sometimes one and sometimes the other, but that he is both at once. In contrast, modern liturgies tend to address God either as "almighty God" or "gracious God" but rarely as both together. When such juxtapositions become a rarity, worship loses its sense of divine mystery. We start to get the feeling that God is either too remote or too nice.
Another strategy for eliminating what's been called sexist language is to simply avoid using masculine pronouns for God. The problem, however, is that one has to resort to repeating the word God again and again, or else use the ungainly neologism "Godself" instead of "he," "himself," and "his." Even some conservative Protestants are warming to this innovation. But avoiding the use of personal pronouns for God unwittingly downplays God's personal nature. This might not seem like a major concession in the West, where a "Christian" discourse is still assumed. When God is mentioned, people generally assume that it's the Christian God. But in Asia, where there are "gods many, and lords many" (1 Cor. 8:5, KJV), and where the ultimate reality may not be personal at all, we need to speak of God in personal terms. Not to do so, for fear of offending weak consciences, is simply disastrous.
Christians have good reasons to insist on addressing God as Father, especially in the liturgy, where the Christian story is reenacted. Father is not a culturally conditioned term but the proper name of God given by divine revelation. It is how God is primarily identified or named in relation to his Son. At stake is the Trinitarian identity, which inevitably affects the church's identity. Playing the inclusive language game has a high theological cost that far outweighs any gains.
Simon Chan is Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore. He is the author of Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (InterVarsity Press).
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