What are the limits of language when we speak of God’s person and essence? What can we say definitively about God that does not lapse into sentimental anthropomorphizing? These questions aren’t new, but they are recent news due to the remarks of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby stated that it is wrong to think of God as male or female.
“God is not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father. God is not male or female. God is not definable. It is extraordinarily important as Christians that we remember that the definitive revelation of who God is was not in words, but in the word of God who we call Jesus Christ. We can’t pin God down.”
Welby is is correct that our human comprehension is limited, and thus our understanding of the infinite God is limited. And yes, God is not a father in the same sense as any human being is a father. But we should be careful that we don’t reject those places where God has given us a clear revelation about his person and work, telling us who he is and what he has done. Welby is on shakier ground in stating that God is not definable.
God has revealed himself in the Scriptures and given us warrant to use those metaphors that Scripture itself uses to refer to God. God is Spirit, we read in John 4:24. He does not have a body as we have, yet Scripture refers to him as a father, as he. That these are metaphors is beside the point. They are the metaphors he has chosen and recorded in Scripture. For many, this is the crux of the argument. As historian Diarmaid McCullough has argued,
“The reason God has been seen as male is simply the patriarchal assumptions of those societies . . . They reached for male terms as the people with power in that Greco-Roman world were male, so we use words like lord and king. The world is now different and we have to show that our view of God is wider than that and not get stuck with archaic terms.”
In other words, times have changed, and to refer to God as he or as a father just promotes the patriarchy. That’s entirely consistent with a view of Christianity that doesn’t see Scripture as authoritative. But for those who do, the sentiment can’t be squared with the revelation we have in both testaments.
Welby also goes down this road when he says that the definitive revelation of God was not in words, but in the person of Jesus. But how does the archbishop know anything about the person of Christ apart from the words of Scripture? He does not, nor can any of us. We have God’s record of his Son, his life, death, and resurrection recorded there for us. Scripture uses these metaphors of God as our father, our king, and that Jesus, the second person in the Trinity, came to earth as a man. Jesus referred to God as his Father, as “he.” The Holy Spirit chose to record the New Testament in Greek, where the pronoun αὐτος means he and αὐτὴ means she. The New Testament refers to God using the former. This is not an accident of history or a reinforcement of the patriarchy. This is the sovereign working of God to record his Word.
It is likewise a mistake to think that unless we use both “he” and “she” to describe God, our language is inadequate. Welby does not say this, but those who seize upon his words do, and that is part of the danger here. This is the language of accommodation, of demotion. It is imposing upon the infinite what fits into our interpretation, not of who he is, but of who we want him to be.
In short, it achieves just the opposite of what advocates of such language claim they want. If you are comfortable referring to God as “she” you’re not displaying a broad-minded and liberated understanding of the infinite God. You’re domesticating him to your own whims and ignoring the language Scripture itself has given us to comprehend him. If you struggle to understand the love of God unless you are able to refer to him as both father and mother, the problem is not with Scripture, but with your failure to grasp the richness of what the Bible has provided about him. Scripture teaches us how to refer to God. As with everything about him, our challenge and responsibility is to accomodate ourselves to his Word, not the Word to us.