Gendering God

I’ve appreciated reading everyone’s thoughts on this subject. At risk of moving our conversation a little off its original course, the following are a few reflections on Hannah Malcolm’s remarks on ‘(re)gendering’ the Trinity, specifically addressing the issue of how gendered language is used in relation to God.

  1. There is a widespread assumption that sex and gender are accidental features of biblical names and imagery: ‘Father’ could be replaced by ‘Parent’ or switched for ‘Mother’ without loss or change of meaning. However, fathers and mothers have different forms of relationship to their children, irrespective of their personalities or traits. These different forms of relation arise from their sexual differences, but aren’t reducible to them. A mother bears her child in and feeds the child from her own body; there is a material bodily continuity between her and her offspring that characterizes their personal relation. A father, by contrast, does not have the same direct material connection to his offspring. He fathers children by an act of love by which they are conceived and gestated outside of his being. He is materially ‘other’ from his offspring and stands over against them in a way that a mother does not. Switching masculine pronouns and male imagery for feminine pronouns and female imagery can have unhelpful implications for our understanding of the Creator-creature distinction and relation. It is not accidental that biblical and cultural images for sovereignty and transcendence are overwhelmingly masculine. This most definitely doesn’t mean that feminine images shouldn’t be explored or developed (quite the opposite, in fact: carefully deployed feminine images and themes highlight that, despite the priority of transcendence, God’s relationship to his creation is also characterized by immanence of presence). Rather, it means that they must be governed by the logic of revelation and deployed with care and precision. We can’t merely project a God in our chosen image or use feminine and masculine imagery interchangeably.
  1. God’s particular personal identity—revealed in the Tetragrammaton (his personal proper name, YHWH)—is consistently referred to in grammatically masculine ways in Scripture (God isn’t a man or a male). This consistency of usage reflects the fact that God’s self-designation is not just another human metaphor or title for God, but functions as a self-revealed personal proper name. It doesn’t compare God to any human entity, but simply refers to him. The consistent use of masculine pronouns corresponds to the fixity in reference of a personal proper name in contrast to a cloud of metaphors. The consistent use of masculine pronouns relates, I believe, to the biblical precedent for such consistent usage and to the fact that such masculine personal pronouns are the most apt to express the transcendence of the One to whom we refer. It also has to do a resistance to relativizing God’s self-revelation as ‘Father, Son, and Spirit’ in Jesus Christ. We share in the Sonship of Christ in relation to his Father.
  1. Introducing feminine personal pronouns for the Spirit creates a discontinuity within the Trinity, risking pushing us in the direction of conceiving of God in terms of three distinct centres of self-consciousness. The likely use of masculine pronouns for the Spirit in places such as John 16:13 maintains the use of the same pronoun to refer to the one Triune God.
  1. With such caveats in place, however, it is important that we recognize that, within, the linguistic discipline established by the Tetragrammaton and the revelation of Father, Son, and Spirit in the gospel, there is considerable room for the exploration of feminine imagery and themes within the pneumatological form of naming identified by R. Kendall Soulen. While God is identified using masculine pronouns, any identification of God as male is constantly unsettled by biblical revelation, which frequently yet subtly brings feminine imagery into play. This makes clear that, although God can analogically and truly reveal himself in the language and reality of gender, God is beyond gender.
  1. Here it is appropriate to recognize the intense association of the Spirit with the feminine, as this is part of divine revelation. The Spirit and the Bride are associated in several ways (e.g. Revelation 22:17). Both descend from heaven to Christ. The Spirit’s association with love and the dove is also significant here. The Spirit forms communion, fills, gives life, the future, (re)generation, glory, groans within us with the birth pangs of new creation, is associated with conception in the womb of Mary, etc. all things that are associated with women in Scripture. The Spirit is the Spirit of Wisdom (personified as feminine in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere in Scripture), God’s Glory, and God’s immanent presence within his creation. Women represent dimensions of God’s divine activity (especially that of days 4-6) in ways that men cannot.

As such language functions in Scripture and most of the tradition, men and women are not interchangeable, but are different ‘genres’ of human persons, who symbolize and relate in manners peculiar to their gender. Many modern attempts to advance feminine language and imagery for God want to recover biblical and traditional examples of such language while rejecting the more established structural understanding of gender that informed them. Gendered language in such contexts is informed, I believe, not by a notion of gender as ‘hierarchy’, but by a notion of gender as mutually constitutive difference in relation and of such difference as symbolically meaningful.

The benefit of such an understanding is found, I believe, in: 1) its refusal to map human gender onto God, while appreciating the revelatory potential of gendered language in a theological context in an analogical manner; 2) its close attention to the biblical witness and to its ‘grammar’ of gendered language; 3) its refusal to reduce gender difference to indifference and interchangeability or to frame it in terms of hierarchy, privileging man over woman or vice versa. Rather, significance is given to the difference in relation itself, both men and women being valued for their peculiar symbolic and relational potential, a potential created by God and apt for expressing and reflecting his creative rule in the world.

(Re)gendering the Trinity

Thank you to all of the comments below – all very helpful, and I’m not sure I have a great deal to add directly!

However – reflecting on the recent discussion in the media over masculine and feminine terms for God, I have found it interesting to reflect on the fact that certain church traditions have, at various points, referred to the Holy Spirit in the feminine. At risk of entering into counter-factual theology, if such a tradition were a mainstream practice (and if indeed it becomes more mainstream in the future) does this impact one’s view of the relations of the Trinity? Is it then more instinctive to have a ‘subordinationist’ view of the Trinity – that, somehow, calling God the Holy Spirit ‘she’ is less controversial not only because the Holy Spirit doesn’t have another gendered name, but because this still appears to uphold a kind of hierarchy? And how much might it affect our view of intra-trinitarian relationships if they are not all addressed with male pronouns? Basically – and more broadly – how might regendering the Trinity impact Trinitarian theology, or our perceptions of Trinitarian relationships? Would it be damaging? Would it be helpful for some people? Obviously, this is a very broad question, and far more speculative than anything else. But I’m curious to hear reactions to it.

C’Mon Patrick

Thrilled that Alastair kicked off this discussion of Trinity and gender. I have many thoughts, so I’m glad he framed this in specific questions. I won’t even attempt to answer all 7. But before I jump into several, I think it’s important to recognize that no matter how we understand the Trinity, as the great Irish philosophical duo has told us, any and all attempts to produce an analogy or metaphor for the Trinity ultimately leads into some very problematic thinking. So, on to Alastair’s questions:

1. Should we abandon social Trinitarianism, despite the prominent role that it has played in both complementarian and egalitarian theologies?

No. Even though, as our Irish friends have pointed out, analogies will come up short, and possibly lead us into some newly articulated form of an old heresy, I think social Trinitarianism, if we understand it’s limitations, can actually be helpful. It may get us frightfully close to tritheism, but I think understanding the relational connections between the three persons of the one God can actually bring an element of truth to the table. How this plays out in discussions of gender is something still being fleshed out by theologians. But my own take, is that it isn’t useful equally for both sides of the debate. It certainly provides an image far more in line with an egalitarian view of gender.

Several of Alastair’s questions are interrelated, so I’ll group together these: 2. Can our doctrine of the Trinity illuminate and inform our accounts of society or gender relations? // 4. How should we handle verses such as 1 Corinthians 11:3? // 5. How do we relate the earthly obedience of Christ to his Father’s command to the life of the Trinity? //6. Can a doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son be theologically justified or squared with the orthodox tradition of Trinitarian theology?

In response to the first of those; Paul seemed to think so. The fact the 1 Cor. 11:3 draws a very obvious connection between the relationship of man to woman and the Father to the Son, means that in Paul’s thinking there is (or perhaps that there ought to be) in some sense a reflection of one in the other. But what is that connection? Is “head” (kephale) meant to suggest the male’s position of authority over the woman? Or, as many egalitarians have pointed out, kephale (and its Hebrew rough equivalent rosh) can refer to “origin” or “source” (e.g. the “head” of a river). I would tend towards the latter, since I am not at all comfortable with the subordination of the son (at least not in any ontological sense, but the notion of kenosis which Paul uses to depict Christ’s work, and the attitude his people ought to imitate, is applied to all Christian relationships [see Gal. 5:13-14, Phil. 2:3-8, Eph. 5:21] not just of the wife to the husband [e.g. Eph. 5:22]). The Son, in the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection, is doing the will of the Father (e.g. John 5:30, 6:38-39, Gal. 1:4), but does this mean the Son is subordinate? I would argue no, this makes the Son kenotic not subordinate. Since Christ was in very nature God, there is no ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. Perhaps we can distinguish a functional subordination, but even that is something I’m not entirely comfortable with. But I would certainly not accept the eternal subordination of the Son, since I find this subordinationism pushing its toes right up to (but not quite over) the line with bitheism and/or some form of Arianism.

So, when Paul says “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:3 NRSV) he is alluding not to subordination, but to the sequence of the creation narrative. All things, including man, are created through Christ, and woman is from Adam (but unlike many complementarians, I would categorically reject any sense of headship of man over woman in Gen. 1-2; this subordination is something resulting from the fall [Gen. 3:16], which I’m sure Alastair will lambaste me for saying 😉 ). The ensuing conversation in 1 Cor. 11 dealing with head coverings is fascinating, complex, and of course hotly debated. But since Paul authorizes women to prophesy with heads covered (v. 5), I am inclined to read this passage as supporting women’s full participation as women. NT Wright has argued, rightly in my own mind, for seeing Paul affirming differentiation without subordination in this passage. Paul, unlike the Gnostics of the early 2nd century, affirms the equal dignity of male and female, and does not support a strange call for women to become like men, and blur genders (as in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas), but that men and women remained gendered as such, but the Holy Spirit- and not gender- defines the participation in the Church (it is worthy of note, and needing further exploration I think, the mixing of relationships within the marriage in verse 3, and the roles of women in the Church in verse 5).

So, the relationship of man and wife reflects the Father-Son relationship not in terms of authority and subordination, but in terms of different but equally sharing in the image of God, and as I noted above, equally called to kenotic ways of living, which reflect the kenotic life of Christ (e.g. Phil. 2:5-8, Eph. 5:1-2).

The Eternal Subordination of the Son, Social Trinitarianism, and Christian Orthodoxy

Steve Holmes has a post worth reading, reflecting upon the recent book, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life. The book in question seeks to defend the ‘eternal submission of the Son to the Father,’ a controversial theological position that nonetheless plays an important role in many contemporary defences of complementarianism. The book presents an assortment of theological, exegetical, and historical arguments for the position, from a number of writers who advocate various—and occasionally opposing—forms of the doctrine.

Holmes is fairly scathing in his treatment of the book, not merely on account of his principled opposition to complementarianism, but also on account of his theological concerns as a leading Trinitarian scholar (I recommend that anyone interested in Holmes’ perspective on the current state of Trinitarian theology read his book The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity). He concludes that the arguments—even the chastened ones—advanced in support of the eternal submission of the Son fail beyond recovery. He wonders why the eternal submission of the Son argument has passed through so many iterations, when it has been disproved every time; one would presume that after a few versions the doctrine itself would have been condemned as beyond salvage. I won’t summarize his arguments here: I suggest that you read his post yourself.

I have also written a lengthy post on my own blog, within which I unpack some of the issues that I believe are at play in this discussion, most particularly the issue of social Trinitarianism. I observe within it that this is a debate that raises challenges that cut across familiar complementarian/egalitarian divides, creating some surprising allies and antagonists.

Based upon my post on my blog, I would like to raise a few possible questions here.

  1. Should we abandon social Trinitarianism, despite the prominent role that it has played in both complementarian and egalitarian theologies?
  2. Can our doctrine of the Trinity illuminate and inform our accounts of society or gender relations?
  3. Is any connection between the relations of the Trinity and gender relations necessarily ‘projectionist’?
  4. How should we handle verses such as 1 Corinthians 11:3?
  5. How do we relate the earthly obedience of Christ to his Father’s command to the life of the Trinity?
  6. Can a doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son be theologically justified or squared with the orthodox tradition of Trinitarian theology?
  7. Do the shifting and varying theological arguments for a complementarian position suggest that rationalization rather than honest and principled theological reasoning is taking place?

Choose the questions that you would like to answer or suggest your own!