Is God Male?
For the last forty years, the traditional way of speaking and thinking of God as a man – as “he” – has been under fire in our cultural setting. Today, the prevailing view is that men and women are of the same dignity, ability and leadership potential, and most Christians now believe this is what the Bible teaches in principle. Thus, for them thinking of God as literally male and not female is objectionable. As a consequence, many churches encourage the use of inclusive language when addressing in prayer or speaking of God. This has met with a hostile response by some evangelicals, especially those who self-designate themselves “complementarians.” They say the Bible speaks of God in male terms, specifically and frequently as “Father.” We cannot and should not reject what is revealed in Scripture.
The importance of this debate is seen in its consequences. Those who seek to use inclusive language of God wherever possible begin with the premise that God values equally men and women, and delights to see women in leadership in the world and the church. Those who insist that God is male and not female, in contrast, argue that God is delighted and honoured when men and women accept their creation-given different “roles’. In plain English, when men take the lead and women obey. The radical Roman Catholic theologian, some years ago, accurately captured the logic of this argument when she said, “If God is male, then male is God.”
In past times, most Christians implicitly assumed God was male but almost universally across the ages theologians have been of another opinion. They have agreed God is neither male nor female. He is Spirit (Jn 4:24). Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas all argued against speaking or thinking of God as a man/male. This closed the debate for theologians until very recently. The liberation of women, reopen this question, as I have just noted above. But it has not just reopened the question, it has put it high on the theological agenda. The English evangelical theologian, Alister McGrath, significantly makes it the first question he addresses in discussing the doctrine of God.
The three options.
Broadly speaking there are three options. 1. The Bible depicts God in male terms and we must accept this. God is literally male not female. 2. In direct opposition, others argue, yes, the Bible depicts God as male but this must be change. No longer can we accept that God is male and not female. It is fully acceptable to pray, “Our Mother in heaven.” 3. The Bible predominantly uses male language of God yet not exclusively. The names “Father” and “Son” tell us something basic about God and whatever this is it is not that God is literally male and not female. Let me now elaborate on these three alternatives.
- The Bible tells us that God is male and we should submit to the authority of scripture.
Although Christian theologians in the past have agreed that the God revealed in scripture is not literally a male the implicit and almost universal belief has been that God represents the male in his ruling responsibilities in the world. In post 1970’s conservative evangelical theology this traditional way of thinking about God has been reformulated in a trinitarian form by those who today call themselves “complementarians.” They argue that when the Bible uses the names “Father” and “Son” of the first two persons of the Trinity these words are to be taken literally. The Father is a real father and the Son is a real son. Neither names are metaphorical. Until very recently, this was affirmed by almost every complementarian theologian. None made the argument more starkly than Wayne Grudem. Quoting 1 Corinthians 11:3 he says Paul makes this point emphatically.
I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Here is a distinction in authority. …
Just as God the Father has authority over the Son, though the two are equal in deity, so in marriage, the husband has authority over his wife, though they are equal in personhood. In this case, the man’s role is like that of God the Father, and the woman’s role is parallel to that of God to the Son.
The Father and the Son relate to one another as a father and a son relate to one another in a human family; the Father directs and has authority over the Son, and the son obeys and is responsive to the directions of the father. The Holy Spirit is obedient to the directives of both the Father and the Son.
And then pushing the human analogy even further he says,
The gift of children within a marriage, coming from both the father and the mother, and subject to the authority of the father and the mother, is analogous to the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son in the Trinity. 
This literal identification of God as male was accepted by most evangelicals on the world scene for about 20 years until in 2016 when complementarian theologians suddenly woke up, recognising this practice was idolatrous. God was being depicted literally in human terms. Responding to these quotes, the complementarian, confessional Reformed theologian, Todd Pruit wrote,
This parallel between the Father and the Son, to a husband and wife is worse than troubling. We can see from the passage cited above, it leads to the inevitable comparison of the Holt Spirit to a child of the divine husband (the Father) and wife (the Son) These parallels have more in common with pagan mythology than Biblical Theology.
What we learn from Dr Grudem is that the minute we take words used of God literally we depict God in human terms. This is idolatry. For this reason, theologians in past times have agreed that language about God should not be understood literally, or more technically “univocally.” Human language used of God is metaphorical, or again to use the technical term, “analogical.” An analogy is one kind of metaphor. Metaphorical, or more specifically, analogical language, conveys truth but what that truth is must be established. For evangelical Christians, the content of words used of God should be found by appeal to Scripture, not by appeal to fallen human relationships. Thus, to say God is love is certainly true but we cannot define divine love in human terms or by in terms of fallen human relationships. What God’s love involves is revealed in Scripture. It is here that it is given content. In the Bible, God’s love is most profoundly revealed in his giving of his only Son in death for our salvation.
It is the same with the human terms, “Father” and “Son” when used of God. They certainly convey truth about God, but our human understanding of these terms does not give them content, as Grudem believes. In the Bible the Father-Son relationship speaks of mutual love, intimacy and oneness, not of the subordination of the Son. The title “the Son” speaks of Jesus Christ as the messianic Son of the King of King who rules for ever and ever (2 Sam 7:2-4; Isa. 9:7; Lk1:33; 2 Peter 1:11; Rev. 7:10-12; 11:15; c.f. Eph 1:20). What is more, to argue by way human analogy that the Son that the Son of God is eternally subordinated in authority to the Father is a denial of the primary Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.”
We must agree with the great theologians across the centuries who almost with one voice have argued God is nether male nor female. He is not literally male.
- Yes, the Bible does depict God as male and not female but we can do better today.
In today’s world we can no longer accept that God is male and not female. This is a conclusion many Christians assume today. Among those who opt for this answer there are many different opinions and to be fair to any one of them much more would need to be said than is possible in this short article. Most who take what might be called the radical solution to the question we are discussing argue that the only way forward is to reject or transcend what is given in the Bible. We should no longer speak of God as the Father or as a male, or of the Trinity as Father, Son and Spirit.
One much quoted example of this approach is seen in the book by the Roman Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. Her work is important because she unashamedly and openly argues that in today’s world, women should understand God in feminine terms. She argues that all human language used of God, including the language of the Bible, is “symbolic.” By this she means it is beyond human understanding. Its content is “utterly incomprehensible.” In a patriarchal society people gave content to the Bible’s “symbolic”’ language in terms of their cultural experience where men were preeminent. We are free to give content in terms of our cultural experience, specifically in the light of women’s experience. Making this the “lens” through which language used of God is interpreted is essential, she argues, for women to flourish. The Bible, she insists, suggests this answer when it speaks of God as personified Wisdom. She argues for this title because in Hebrew and Greek, Hokmah/Sophia (wisdom) is a grammatical feminine noun. The three persons of the Trinity she thus renames, “Mother-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia and Spirit-Sophia, one living God – SHE WHO IS.” This last title is her rendering in feminine language of God’s self-revelation of himself to Moses in the story of the burning bush (Ex 3:14).
There have been other attempts to rename the Trinity in non-male language. For example, “Source, Word and Spirit;” “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier;” “Parent, Child and Paraclete;” “Mother, Daughter and Spirit,” and “Mother, Lover and Friend.”
In repose to her renaming of God in feminine terms, specifically as “Mother,” or “Mother-Sophia, we may ask, are feminine names for God less problematic than male ones? In most churches, it is true, there are more women than men but the mother-daughter relationship it is both the closest and most complex of all family relationships. It could be possible that more women find thinking of God as like their mother more difficult than thinking of God as like their father! However, the major objection raised by orthodox Christians of all persuasion to such renaming of God is that it speaks of another God than that the one revealed in scripture. The many names given to God in scripture tell us who God is and what he is like. If we rename God in terms taken from our culture, or from our experience, we create God in our own image. This is most clearly seen when the name Father is replaced by Mother or by Mother and Father.
When it comes to renaming the persons of the Trinity this is equally problematic. Some of these renamed trinities eliminate personal names altogether, and others radically redefine the Trinity by replacing male terms for female ones. Replacing the titles Father, Son and Spirit with Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier or other similar gender-neutral terms eliminates the imagery of personal relationship and love. Replacing them with Mother, Daughter and Child or similar non-male titles simply changes one sex for another.
The titles used of God in the Bible certainly raise profound questions in our modern egalitarian world but I would argue that God in his infinite wisdom has chosen names that are the best option when all human language is inadequate for the task of speaking of him. This comment takes us right to the heart of this interesting debate. I am arguing that the God we worship as Christians has revealed himself and his character; we have not created him in our own image writ large. For this reason, the Bible directs us to ways in which we are encouraged to think and speak of God and ways in which we are discouraged to think and speak of God. Radical feminists in contrast believe God can be renamed and redefined, drawing on the rich source of women’s experience.
- Yes, the Bible does depict God predominantly in male terms but not literally as a male and not exclusively as a male.
I now outline my own position. This involves a number of interlocking arguments.
- We should believe that God is not male or female. He is “Spirit.” (Jn 4:24). For this reason, God can make man and woman in his image and likeness (Gen 1:27), not only man. Indeed, we should believe God is more unlike than like any man. He does not have a father and mother, or a wife, he does not procreate by sexual union, he does not have a body that can identify him as male or female, and like no male he does not grow old and die. Thus, the titles Father and Son should not be taken literally. The Father is like a human father in some ways and in others not like a human father.
- We cannot simply rename God. In the New Testament God is called “Father” some 254 times. We cannot exclude this name. A better approach is to study how the Bible uses this title and other titles used of God. On doing this we immediately see that the Bible is at pains to exclude all sexual and gender overtones when speaking of God as Father, Son, or Spirit. God the Father, most fully revealed in the Son and present in the Spirit, is consistently depicted as a God who loves deeply, cares profoundly, feels intensely and stoops to serve. These are often called today “feminine qualities.” We are thus not surprised that there are many examples in the Bible of God the Father and God the Son being likened to a woman, or spoken of in feminine imagery, as I am about to explain.
- We may concede that in a patriarchal culture male names for God did predominate and, in our culture, more balance is needed. In the Bible besides the title, Father, God is addressed as the Almighty, the King, and the Lord but also as a rock, a fortress, a shepherd, a light, a friend, and a potter among other names. What is more God is often described in motherly terms. He is said to comfort and nurture “her” children (Hos 11:3-14; Deut 32:18, Is. 42:14, 49:15; 66:13). There are also about a dozen verses where God is said to gather his children under his wing like a mother bird (Ps 91:4; Lk 13:34; Matt. 23:37 etc). All these titles and descriptions of God should be used today and highlighted in our culture.
- We are not limited to using titles or descriptions of God found in Scripture. There is no problem in addressing God in terms not explicitly given in the Bible so long as they do negate or contradict clear biblical teaching or totally replace biblical ones. For example, a prayer could begin, God of Abraham and Sarah, or God of Joseph and Mary, or God of Aquila and Priscilla, or in any of innumerable ways. John Calvin allows that God may be addressed as “Mother. In commentating on Isaiah 46:3, the great Reformer says, “It is the intention of the Prophet to show … the Jews … that God, has manifested himself to be both their Father and their Mother,” because he “will always assist them.” In In regard to the Trinity there is also nothing wrong with speaking from time to time of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, or one of several other gender-neutral triads. However, triads like Father, Mother, Child, or Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, Mother-Sophia, that completely redefine the Trinity, seem to me to be very problematic.
The maleness of Jesus.
Some feminists have also made the maleness of Jesus an issue and many complementarians argue that the fact that Jesus is a man proves God has given precedence to men. For example, Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger argue the fact that Jesus was a man, not a woman, is of profound theological significance. It infers male headship. This inference or deduction is not endorsed by orthodox theologians writing on Christology. Paradoxically the Köstenbergers acknowledge this last point in a sentence that stands counter to their thesis. They say, “It was Jesus’ humanity, not his maleness that was essential for our salvation.” When it comes to the title, “Son” (of God) this identifies Jesus as s the long–awaited messianic Son of the King of Kings, who is destined to rule for ever in all might majesty and authority. In the classical account of the Trinity, first articulated by Athanasius, he argues that Jesus is designated “the Son” because a son implies a father and sons and fathers are of the same natureor being.
To be the incarnate Son of God Jesus had to be a man or a woman, and for reasons not revealed, he was a man. This fact does not infer God prefers men.
The word, “incarnation,” we should note, literally means “in fleshed” (c.f. Jn 1:14). Human flesh can be either male or female. Thus, we may rightly also speak of the eternal Son becoming “human.” Nevertheless, despite the appeal of this non-sexist language, it is more accurate to speak of him becoming “man” for this is what he did. He became a man and not a woman. What can be said in answer to this sexual particularity? I give my answer.
We may presume that the Son could have become incarnate as man or woman as both sexes are made in God’s image and likeness. One suggestion as to why he became a man is that this was necessary because to be the counterpart of Adam he had to be a man. In Romans 5:12-21 Bible commentators invariably tell us that Paul is depicting the first Adam as representative “man” disobedient to God and Christ as representative “man” obedient to God. However, if women are saved by Christ the second Adam, and they are, then Adam and Christ in this theological juxtaposing are representative humankind in sin and grace respectively. From this it follows it is not Christ’s maleness that is theologically significant but his humanness.
Another suggestion I have heard more than once is that if the Son of God was to demonstrate the powerful renunciating power for the salvation of others then he had to be a man. Self-chosen humiliation and renunciation imply giving up what you have. In the incarnation the all-powerful God lays aside all his privileges, becomes a servant and dies on the cross for men and women. A woman could not demonstrate this because she represents the powerless and the humbled in the world.
Another suggestion often made is that the Son had to be male to be the revelation of the Father. A son in Biblical times represented his father and Jesus is called the Father’s “only Son” (Jn 1:18). A daughter did not represent her father. When married she became part of another family.
Other reasons have been suggested as to why God became incarnate as a man and not a woman but all suggestions are conjecture. God has not revealed his mind on this matter. Some argue that because Adam was a man, his counterpart, the Son of God must be a man. This too is difficult. In Gen 2:18-23 Adam is first of all humankind, neither male nor female. Adam is only male in distinction and in relation to woman when woman stands at his side (Gen 2:23). It is impossible to be male in distinction and in relation to woman if there is no sexual differentiation.
When we turn to the Gospels, what we note is that in the incarnate Son sexual identity or gender are not an issue. Jesus was a man and not a woman but the Gospels never suggest that he had romantic attachments let alone that he married. He related as well to men as to women and valued them in the same way. He saw them alike in sin and alike in need of salvation. He stood in opposition to the characteristic sins of men that drive them to want to set themselves over others, especially women. He extolled the virtues of humility, forgiveness, gentleness, self-sacrifice and practical love. Men and women across the centuries have sensed that they can relate to this man like no other. They have rightly understood that the Son of God took “the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” and died on the cross not to oppress them but to set them free.
Finally, I point out that if God had become incarnate as a woman we would be asking, why it was a woman and not a man?
What we have discovered is that there an no easy answers to the profound and pressing contemporary question, is God male and not female? We should agree, nevertheless, we cannot and must not think and speak of God purely in male terms. He is not a man writ large. He is God almighty who has created the universe and man and woman in his image and likeness.
 The Church and the Second Sex, London: G Chapman, 1968, 40.
 Christian Theology, an Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990, 205-207.
 Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994, 459-60
 Ibid., 249.
 Ibid., 257.
 Todd Pruitt, “A mythological Godhead,” July 9, 2016, http://www.alliancenet.org/
 A very fine academic discussion of the nature of human language used of God is found in Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor in Religious Language, Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.
 New York, Herder and Herder, 1992.
 Ibid., 10.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, trans. William Pringle, 4 Vols (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 3:436-37.
 God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical–Theological Survey, Wheaton: Crossway, 2014, 82–83.
 Ibid., 83.
 Giles, Jesus and the Father, 136.