Gender of God in Christianity

God in Christianity is represented by the Trinity of three hypostases or “persons” described as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. While “Father” and “Son” implicitly invoke masculine sex, the gender of the Holy Spirit from earliest times was also represented as including feminine aspects (partly due to grammatical gender, especially in the Syriac church). Furthermore, the (feminine) concept of Holy Wisdom was identified with Christ the Logos and thus with God the Son from earliest times. Even the ostensibly masculine terms “Father” and “Son” were explicitly stated to be taken as metaphorical, and not as representing divine essence, by Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century).[1] The same position is still held in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.[2] [3][4]

Grammatical gender in the Bible

An image of God the Father by Julius Schnorr, 1860

The first words of the Old Testament are B’reshit bara Elohim—”In the beginning God created.”[5] The verb bara (created) agrees with a masculine singular subject. Elohim is used to refer to both genders and is plural; it has been used to refer to both Goddess (in 1 Kings 11:33), and God (1 Kings 11:31;). The masculine gender in Hebrew can be used for objects with no inherent gender, as well as objects with masculine natural gender, and so it is widely used, attributing the masculine gender to most things. However, the noun used for the Spirit of God in Genesis—”Ruach”—is distinctly feminine, as is the verb used to describe Her activity during creation—”rachaph”—translated as “fluttereth”. This verb is used only one other place in the Bible (Deuteronomy 32:11) where it describes the action of a mother eagle towards her nest. The consistent use of feminine nouns and verbs to refer to the Spirit of God in the Torah, as well as the rest of the Jewish Scriptures, indicates that at least this aspect of Elohim was consistently perceived as Feminine.[6] Genesis 1:26-27 says that the elohim were male and female,[7] and humans were made in their image.[8]

Two of the most common phrases in the Tanakh are vayomer Elohim and vayomer YHWH—”and God said”. Again, the verb vayomer (he said) is masculine; it is never vatomer, the feminine of the same verb form. The personal name of God, YHWH, is presented in Exodus 3 as if the Y (Hebrew yod) is the masculine subjective prefix to the verb to be.

In Psalms 89:26 God is referred to as Father. “He shall cry unto me, Thou art my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation.”[9]

Some literary approaches to the Old Testament have argued that parallels between Biblical stories and earlier Sumerian, Akkadian and Canaanite creation myths show a matriarchal substratum that has been overlaid by a patriarchal approach.[10] “In the Bible, the earth is the feminine complement of God: the two combined to form man, who articulates their relationship, for example, in sacrifice.”[11]

The New Testament also refers to the Holy Spirit in masculine terminology,[vague] most clearly in the Gospel of John 14-16.

Denominational views

Roman Catholic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) #239 states, in reference to the Father: “God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God.”[3][4] The CCC discusses the traditional imagery and language of God as Father.[4] It notes, however, that God is not limited to this role alone—maternal imagery are also used in the Bible.[4] It also notes that human fatherhood only imperfectly reflects God’s archetypal fatherhood.[4] God is referred to as masculine in Catholic teaching and practice.[12]

Though Church teaching, in line with its Doctors, holds that God has no literal sex because he has no body (a prerequisite of sex),[13][14] classical and scriptural understanding states that God should be referred to (in most contexts) as masculine by analogy. It justifies this by pointing to God’s relationship with the world as begetter of the world and revelation.[15]

National Council of Churches

The Inclusive Language Lectionary published by the American National Council of Churches, to which many Protestant churches belong, states in its introduction “The God worshiped by the biblical authors and worshiped in the Church today cannot be regarded as having gender, race, or color.” [16]

LDS Church

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) differs from most churches in that they believe that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are separate and male as well as masculine.[17][18] The LDS Church also teaches that God the Father is married to a divine woman, referred to as “Heavenly Mother”.[19] Humans are considered to be spirit children of these heavenly parents.[20]

Inclusive language

A common source of confusion on this issue is the continued use of masculine language to describe God by many Christian groups. Such language does not necessarily imply a belief in the masculinity of God, although it is sometimes taken as such. For example the Catholic Church continues to describe God using masculine terms, in spite of the clear doctrinal statement that God “transcends gender”.[3][4] For most groups this language is traditional, though it also reflects a belief that some gender-neutral language (such as referring to God as “it”) does not adequately reflect the personhood of God. Devices such as invented gender-neutral terms and alternating masculine/feminine terms are seen as clumsy.

Many churches have however adopted inclusive language in the description of God. In recent history, many liberal and mainline Protestant denominations have adopted or encouraged the use of inclusive language (such as both feminine and masculine language, or non-gendered language) when referring to God; these include the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America[21] and the Metropolitan Community Church.

United Church of Christ

The New Century Hymnal, the hymnal of the United Church of Christ (UCC), uses inclusive language; one of its concerns while being authored was reducing the solely-masculine use of language for God, and/or balancing masculine images with feminine and non-gendered images, while retaining masculine imagery for Jesus regarding his earthly life.

At least two UCC conferences (Massachusetts[22] and Ohio[23]) have adopted guidelines for using inclusive language, and the majority of clergy and laity in the UCC report using inclusive language when referring to God during worship.[24]

Metropolitan Community Church

The Metropolitan Community Church encourages inclusive language[25] and uses “God—our Parent-Creator”, “Jesus Christ the only begotten son of God”, and “the Holy Spirit” in its Statement of Faith to refer to the three persons of the Trinity.[26]

References

  1.  Dennis O’Neill, Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive Peoples (2010), p. 8.
  2.  “In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective ‘perfections’ of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband.” CCC 370.
  3. David Bordwell, 2002, Catechism of the Catholic Church,Continuum International Publishing ISBN978-0-86012-324-8 page 84
  4. “Deum humanam sexuum transcendere distinctionem. Ille nec vir est nec femina, Ille est Deus.” From “Pater per Filium revelatus”, Catechismus Catholicae Ecclesiae. (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993): 1-2-1-1-2 ¶ 239. (Official English translationArchived March 3, 2013, at the Wayback Machine)
  5.  Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1990), p. 1.
  6.  (Sexism is a Sin, by J.R. Hyland).
  7.  Coogan, Michael (October 2010). “6. Fire in Divine Loins: God’s Wives in Myth and Metaphor”. God and Sex. What the Bible Really Says (1st ed.). New York, Boston: Twelve. Hachette Book Group. p. 175. ISBN978-0-446-54525-9. Retrieved May 5, 2011humans are modeled on elohim, specifically in their sexual differences.
  8.  Coogan (2010:176)
  9.  ASV 1901, Public Domain
  10.  Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness pages 177-178.
  11.  Francis Landy, The Song of Songs chapter of The Literary Guide to the Bible, page 314.
  12.  Liturgiam AuthenticamArchived January 18, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  13.  Aquinas, Thomas (1274). Summa Theologica. Part 1, Question 3, Article 1.
  14.  of Hippo, Augustine (c. 397). Confessions. Book 7.
  15.  Lang, David; Peter Kreeft (2002). Why Matter Matters: Philosophical and Scriptural Reflections on the Sacraments. Chapter Five: Why Male Priests?: Our Sunday Visitor. ISBN978-1931709347.
  16.  An inclusive-language lectionary: Readings for Year B (Revised ed.). National Council of Churches. 1987. p. 12. ISBN978-0-664-24059-2.
  17.  “Lesson 1: The Godhead”, Aaronic Priesthood Manual 3, LDS Church, 1995
  18.  Cannon, Donald Q.; Dahl, Larry; Welch, John (January 1989), “The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith: The Godhead, Mankind, and Creation”Ensign, LDS Church
  19.  Hinckley, Gordon B. (November 1991), “Daughters of God”Ensign, LDS Church
  20.  First PresidencyCouncil of the Twelve Apostles (September 23, 1995), “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”LDS Church, retrieved 2013-12-11. See also: The Family: A Proclamation to the World
  21.  ELCA Publishing StandardsArchived 2008-10-16 at the Wayback Machine (2003), Section on “Terms for God: Inclusive language”
  22.  “Inclusive Language Guidelines”. Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ. Archived from the original on 2008-05-11. Retrieved 2008-07-09.
  23.  “Inclusive Language Guidelines”. Ohio Conference – United Church of Chris. Archived from the original on 2008-05-13. Retrieved 2008-07-09.
  24.  Worshipping into God’s Future: Summary and Strategies 2005, United Church of Christ.
  25.  Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Pulling. “Study Guide To Inclusive Language”. UFMCC. Retrieved 2008-07-09.[permanent dead link]
  26.  “Metropolitan Community Church Statement of Faith”. Archived from the original on 2007-10-11. Retrieved 2008-07-09.

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