Gender of God in Christianity

Gender of God in Christianity is a hot topic for centuries. The book of Genesis explains God made human beings both male and female in His image, but, throughout the biblical narrative God is revealed as a Father who refers to Himself in male terms.

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). The same position is still held in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Wall Painting in Georgia's ancient Monastery, Shio-Mghvime

Wall Painting in Georgia’s ancient Monastery, Shio-Mghvime

Grammatical gender in the Bible

The first words of the Old Testament are B’reshit bara Elohim—”In the beginning God created.” 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. Genesis 1:26-27 says that the elohim were male and female, and humans were made in their image.

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.”

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. “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.”

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

Denominational views

See also Gender of the Holy Spirit 

Roman Catholic Church

An image of God the Father by Julius Schnorr, 1860

An image of God the Father by Julius Schnorr, 1860

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.” The CCC discusses the traditional imagery and language of God as Father. It notes, however, that God is not limited to this role alone—maternal imagery are also used in the Bible. It also notes that human fatherhood only imperfectly reflects God’s archetypal fatherhood. God is referred to as masculine in Catholic teaching and practice.

Though Church teaching, in line with its Doctors, holds that God has no literal sex because he has no body (a prerequisite of sex), 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.

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.”

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. The LDS Church also teaches that God the Father is married to a divine woman, referred to as “Heavenly Mother“. Humans are considered to be spirit children of these heavenly parents.

Inclusive language

Christian Jesus Painting Great Viborg Cathedral

God the Father on his throne

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”. 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 and the Metropolitan Community Church.

United Church of Christ

God the Father, Cima da Conegliano, c. 1510–1517

God the Father, Cima da Conegliano, c. 1510–1517

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 and Ohio) 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.

Metropolitan Community Church

The Metropolitan Community Church encourages inclusive language 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.

References

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Scroll Up