Terms and their meanings have always shifted as cultures change. Over the last several years, some of the most significant controversies in the public square have hinged on the use and meaning of words, whether in reference to sexuality, gender, political convictions, or many other examples.
At present one of the liveliest language debates in our culture centers on personal pronouns. As a part of that conversation, some groups are expanding the semantic range of they to include a singular subject rather than only a plural subject—a linguistic leap previously nonexistent in the English language.
Many Christians (including myself) disapprove of this semantic expansion on legitimate and significant anthropological grounds. There is no such thing as a nongendered human and therefore no need to use a nongendered pronoun in reference to a person. Even so, since they is now being popularly used in English as a singular pronoun, I was recently asked about the implications for Christian theological language. If they can take a singular subject, is it appropriate to use they in reference to the triune God?
Put simply, the answer is no. Introducing a nongendered, personal, singular pronoun into our theological discourse isn’t orthodox, in my opinion. The primary reason: God has revealed himself in the words of Scripture, and Christians should use biblical language to refer to him whenever possible.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into why.
First of all, God is holy. In his eternal being, he is wholly separate from everything and everyone he has created. This divide between God and creation presents a quandary for theological terminology. Every word we use in reference to God—whether a noun, verb, or pronoun—already has a meaning from our context within creation.
For example, when we say God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we already have a preconceived notion of what the word Son means from our understanding of human sonship. If we take that human meaning and apply it by direct analogy to the divine Son, we will make grave, heterodox errors.
Instead, we can allow our words and concepts to be conformed out of reverence for God’s holiness. We can approach God with openhanded humility and allow him to define himself for us, as he reveals himself to us in his Word.
Christian theological language is entirely dependent on God’s self-revelation in Scripture. That means all theological speech should emerge from the biblical text wherein he has made himself known. God’s revelation is inseparably personal and articulate. Through the words of the Bible God gives himself personally to us.
As such, biblical terminology is not arbitrary to God’s eternal being. He willingly chose to reveal himself through those particular terms, as the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture to pen them (2 Pet. 1:21). In our theology, then, Christians should use the same language in reference to God. We should speak of God using the words he has spoken of himself.
We can apply this principle to God’s pronouns. The biblical witness uses a masculine, singular pronoun to refer to God with absolute consistency in both Greek and Hebrew. While God’s being and essence are not gendered, the use of masculine terminology is not arbitrary. God is Father and Son, and those terms are linguistically masculine. Thus, masculine pronouns are proper to use in reference to God.
While divine Fatherhood and Sonship are altogether different from human fatherhood and sonship, God chose these creaturely linguistic concepts to reveal himself. He takes hold of these human terms and transforms them. Christians are meant to interpret the meaning of those words in the context of the gospel of Christ and in accordance with Scripture.
We can no more replace the masculine pronoun in reference to God than we can replace the terms Father and Son. Unilaterally substituting those words—and the ideas behind them—would have a significant impact on our understanding of God’s eternal being. We cannot separate the personal content of God’s self-revelation from the linguistic form of the biblical text. We are not the lords of theological language; God alone is. For through it, he saw fit to reveal himself.
I can think of two potential counterarguments to rejecting they as an appropriate singular pronoun in reference to God.
First, no nongendered, singular, personal pronoun is used in the biblical languages to refer to people. If the biblical authors had the option, would they have used it? There is no way for us to answer a hypothetical question about the minds of the biblical authors. We can know their minds only as inscribed in the text.
Nevertheless, God specifically chose these languages, these authors, and these historical times to reveal himself. His actions were not random or haphazard. We can trust his good purposes in the words he chose.
Second, we routinely use extrabiblical terminology in our theological discourse, such as the term Trinity. How is using they any more problematic than using Trinity to refer to God?
The pronoun is different from terms like Trinity in three ways.
First, the historical development of these extrabiblical theological terms occurred because there was no biblical alternative. As the early church recognized the need to clarify the gospel according to Scripture, they developed terms like Trinity or hypostatic union to help Christians understand God in their context.
Second, using they in reference to God does not develop a new term; it replaces a biblical term. The Bible already uses a masculine personal pronoun in reference to God. We have no warrant to search for new terminology.
Finally, using they introduces an unnecessary and harmful lack of clarity into our theological discourse. Even if it becomes culturally normative to use they as a singular subject, using they as a plural subject will continue. That means if a person used this pronoun routinely, some hearers would be unable to differentiate whether the subject (God) was singular or plural without clarification.
The theological stakes here are high. Our triune God is one being in three persons. He is not a collective of three beings. So the terms we use in reference to God are immensely important.
God has revealed himself through the words of Scripture. Even as our contemporary language shifts, Christians should look to the unchangeable nature of God’s Word so that we might behold him as he is.
Christy Thornton holds a PhD in systematic theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where she serves as the director of the ThM program and associate director of the PhD program. She lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is a member of The Summit Church.