Rachel Held Evans and What “God Herself” Means

(This is a lengthy piece featuring a good bit of theological engagement. For ease of reading, follow the main sections.)

Rachel Held Evans has achieved a measure of recognition among evangelicals, appearing on the cover of Christianity Today, speaking at Q, and giving talks at churches. In recent days, her glowing endorsement of Matthew Vines’s book-length legitimation of “gay Christianity” caught my eye (see the Southern Seminary response, 96 packed pages of dense scholarship, here).

Evans has acted in surprising ways before. On April 6, 2012, Evans used startling language to describe God. I missed this post when it came out, as did many others. At the end of a short spiritual reflection on Mary, Evans gave an unexpected description of God:

Mary was not the first, nor the last, mother to hold the broken body of her child in her arms. … And, because of today, because of the cross, it is a pain that God Herself understands.

It’s just two words: “God Herself,” written in the context of motherhood. Despite the brevity of this description, this is a show-stopper. It’s genuine “God as mother” language, the kind we haven’t seen in some time. The heyday of this discourse, of feminist theology, was decades ago. The movement gradually faded as many of its exemplars came to champion homosexuality, transgender identity, a rejection of inerrancy, and other unbiblical views and practices. In large part because of these deviations, it’s been years since this particular challenge to biblical truth arose. As we’ll see below, Evans seems to this point to be following this well-worn course.

Some will read Evans’s words and think of how Scripture occasionally uses metaphors with feminine connotations to describe the character and qualities of God; in Isaiah 66:13, for example, Yahweh says to his covenant people, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (See Evans’s follow-up post.) This is a gloriously true verse, and there is no hedge in our affirmation of it or others like it. We love the world-rearranging comfort of God. It belongs to the people of God.

But as numerous theologians and the broader Christian tradition have recognized, there is a massive gap between the kind of metaphorical language referenced in Isaiah 66:13 and Hosea 11:3-4 and Matthew 23:37 on the one hand and identifying God as a woman on the other. The gap, in fact, is the difference between fidelity and falsehood, truth and heresy.

1. For Evans to identify God as a woman is wrong in biblical and theological terms. There is abundant biblical substantiation of this claim. In the Old Testament, there’s strong emphasis on the creative action of God’s Word, unlike in other Ancient Near East religions that pictured creation in gynecological terms. The OT’s stress on God’s Word-based creation (see Genesis 1) is altogether different (and thus our names for God are different). In the OT, we find awe-inspiring importance ascribed to the name of God. It is, in sum, his very identity, as we see in Exodus 3:13-15, which reads:

[13] Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” [14] God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” [15] God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. 

The name of God is held in similar reverence and continues to be carefully guarded and given throughout the Scripture. In the New Testament, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he began the model petition with the words “Our Father,” for example, guiding them in addressing the first person of the Godhead (Matthew 6:9). The intra-Trinitarian Father-Son relationship is of crucial significance both to high Christology and John’s argument in his Gospel, and the names of each signify much more than just what they would wear on a nametag (see John 10, 13-17). At no point did Jesus or any of the apostles address God the Father with a womanly name. At no point does anyone is Scripture do so.

For the significance of this unbroken pattern with relation to the divine name, see the words of systematic theologian Bruce Ware in the book God Under Fire:

[T]he Bible never employs feminine metaphorical language to name God.  True, God is sometimes said to be or to act in ways like a mother (or some other feminine image), but never is God called ‘Mother’ as he is often called ‘Father.’  Respect for God’s self-portrayal in Scripture requires that we respect this distinction.  While we have every right (and responsibility) to employ feminine images of God, as is done often in Scripture itself, no biblical example or precedence would lead us to go further and to name God in ways he has not named himself (266-67).

Ware’s analysis speaks well to the consensus of orthodox and evangelical theologians over the centuries. His biblical reflection is corroborated by James Kimel, who wrote the following in the edited volume Speaking the Christian God (1992):

Within Christian usage “Father” is not just one of many metaphors imported by fallen sinners onto the screen of eternity. It is a filial, denominating title of address revealed in the person of the eternal Son. “On the lips of Jesus,” Wolfhart Pannenberg states, “‘Father’ became a proper name for God. It thus ceased to be simply one designation among others” (204; Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1:262).

These are notable words, and we should not miss that Wolfhart Pannenberg—no fire-breathing fundamentalist, he—gets this tricky matter exactly right. The title “Father” is the supreme disclosure of the identity of the first person of the Trinity. We consider also the matter of the Holy Spirit and the pronouns used to describe him. On this, Donald Bloesch (by no means a hard-right conservative theologian) comments in The Battle for the Trinity (1985) that “While the Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, is grammatically feminine in gender, its meaning is either neuter or masculine….To assert on the basis of the feminine gender of ruach that the Bible therefore provides support for referring to the Holy Spirit as “she” and “her” shows a lack of both solid biblical scholarship and linguistic understanding” (33).

In his landmark book Our Father in Heaven, John Cooper observed that “There are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term, even a metaphorical predicate noun. In other words, God is never directly said to be a mother, mistress, or female bird in the way he is said to be a father, king, judge, or shepherd” (89). Furthermore, the Christian church has not historically identified God in womanly terms. The first four major ecumenical creeds, after all, do not name the first person of the Trinity in feminine terms, but as God the Father. In broader church history, there are a few scattered exceptions–Julian of Norwich, for example, widely considered a “proto-universalist”–but the use of feminine language for God simply is not part of the orthodox church’s practice over two millennia.

God, of course, is not a man or a woman. He is spirit (John 4:24). There is no room for Great White American Jesus in our theology. But having made this rather obvious caveat that countless evangelical theologians have made, we note that God’s name is his identity. In the Bible, his name is unswervingly masculine. So, while God is not literally male, the Bible only directs us to address him in masculine terminology. If we do not, we do not only obscure God’s name, but the corresponding pattern of manly leadership in Scripture, which itself derives, ultimately, from God’s imprint. Divine Fatherhood profoundly informs human fatherhood, for example.

To address God the Father as a woman is to speak in tones the Scripture never uses, and to collapse the long-understood and essential distinction in theological linguistics between metaphor and analogy. These are technical theological distinctions, to be sure. Not everyone walks around their workplace turning over the difference between theological metaphors and analogies. But before we write off technical doctrinal work, we should consider its importance. The difference, for example, between God the Father and God the Son being homoiousios (like substance or essence per the 4th-century Arians) and homoousios (same essence per Athanasius and the 4th-century orthodox) is grammatically a dipthong. Spiritually, the difference is heaven and hell.

In a very similar way, speaking of God, and speaking to God, is a matter that calls for the sharpest precision, the greatest reverence. God is likened to a mother eagle, for example, in Deuteronomy 32:11. It is right to find greater understanding of God through this metaphor. But this comparison does not enfranchise us calling God “mother eagle.” Using God’s proper name, the name he has given, is a matter of obedience to biblical authority. We do not have the freedom to make up our own names for God, for to do so would be to remake him and therefore blaspheme him. This is why, in sum, theologian R. Albert Mohler, Jr. recently said to me: “To call God by the wrong name is to worship the wrong God.”

2. Evans’ use of this kind of language does not occur in a vacuum. The larger theological context of her remarks is the embrace of feminine God language among egalitarians and feminists. As Randy Stinson made clear in a prescient 2003 article in the Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, advocates of “God as woman” language do not stop there. Jann Eldredge-Clanton, an outspoken proponent of addressing God in expressly supra-biblical terms, publicly prayed not simply to God as “Sister,” but as “Mother Eagle,” “Black Madonna,” and “Mother Hen.” Paul R. Smith, author of Is It Okay to Call God “Mother”? (1993), is an openly homosexual pastor who not only has a “female Jesus hanging on the cross” on his office wall but has opined that “The church must stop forbidding gay unions if we are to take Paul seriously.”

These examples show a disconcerting link between using unbiblical language to describe God and subsequent adoption of other unbiblical views and practices. But all this only makes sense, as Mary Kassian has pointed out in The Feminist Mistake (2005): “Feminists took a quantum leap…when they moved from observing the feminine characteristics of God to the practice of addressing God with feminine pronouns. When feminists changed biblical language about God, they changed the biblical image of God.” To rename God is to commit blasphemy against him, and in so doing, begin a pattern of doctrinal and ethical deviation from Scripture.

This relates to why Evans’s two-year-old post caught my eye. I was frankly surprised to see her so strongly endorse Vines’s book a few weeks ago. Then her “God as woman” language was pointed out to me, and things started to click. Though Evans has not extensively used “God as woman” language, her hermeneutics and theology seem to this point to be following a well-charted course. One thinks of the example of feminist activist Virginia Mollenkott, like Evans from a strongly conservative background (Bob Jones University for Mollenkott, Bryan College for Evans). Mollenkott championed “God as woman” language, affirmed homosexual behavior as legitimate for a Christian, and endorsed transgender identity. All these Evans has now done: she’s used the language of “God herself,” she’s endorsed and promoted Vines’s book and noted her lack of opposition to “gay rights,” and she’s written that “We want our LGBT [“T” being transgender] friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.”

We should yearn and pray for persons with disordered sexual desires and gender identities to be gloriously saved in our churches. We cry out to God for this to happen, especially in this confused culture! But this, unfortunately, is not what Evans means. She wants “LGBT” folks accepted without regard to necessary repentance. There is a radicalism in Evans’s sexual ethics that emerges when you connect the dots: like the feminist theologians of prior generations, Evans has used God-as-woman language, approved of homosexuality, and approved of transgender identity.  This is a disastrous trajectory, for these are not biblical views, and they are not historically Christian or evangelical views. Indeed, when one considers Evans’s sexual ethics, it is difficult to tell where queer theory ends and biblical doctrine begins.

This sad sequence is not surprising, however, when you remember that Evans chafes at inerrancy, the exclusivity of Christ (“exclusivism”), and the apostolic rightness of Paul. If you reject the cardinal doctrines of evangelicalism, how long can you be considered and treated as an evangelical?

Why engage the views of Rachel Held Evans?

Many years ago, Paul told young Timothy that he had to “guard the good deposit” and instructed him to oppose “Hymenaeus and Philetus,” who had swerved from the truth (2 Tim. 1:14; 2 Tim. 2:17). You must risk your solitude to defend the truth, as I’ve written about, and I am thankful for outspoken Christians like Kathy KellerJustin TaylorTim ChalliesAimee Byrd, and Kevin DeYoung, who have clearly spoken against biblical compromise in the last several years so that others might flourish.

I want good for Evans. I want her to thrive in Christ. I do not relish engaging her. I’ve done so only a few times in my writings, though I—as with many other conservative evangelical leaders and institutions—have served ably as a not-infrequent target of her ire. Grounding her attacks in an oft-cited instinct for justice, Evans has—by my count—mocked and opposed the following in just the last few years: The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Seminary, Desiring God Ministries, Al Mohler, John Piper, Russell Moore, Tim Challies, Mark Driscoll, myself, Denny Burk, Andrew Walker, Doug Wilson, Jared Wilson, and the list goes on. In April alone, I watched with surprise as, unbidden, she Twitter-crashed not one, not two, but three conservative evangelical conferences in a two-week span: the CBMW National Conference, T4G, and the ERLC Leadership Summit.

In short, Rachel shows no hesitation in scrutinizing the views of others. You could say it this way: for a prophetess of light, Evans sure seems to throw a lot of shade.

With her uninvited Twitter-crashing and public calls for repentance on the part of conservative leaders, Evans is not put-upon, as it might appear. She seeks out conflict when she believes things need correcting. No one has asked her to identify God as a woman. No one has asked her to work to legitimize “gay Christianity.” These are choices, very public choices, that she has made. She certainly does not hold back from engaging those she disagrees with, and she often does so strongly. If she takes a seat at the table of theological discussion and disputation, others will join her there.

Conclusion

As has been made clear, Rachel Held Evans deviates from biblical doctrine in several places. I grieve over this. I hope it changes, because I want Evans to use her abilities–her humor, her obvious and commendable instinct for justice, her heart for the downtrodden–to build up the church. Praise God, if she will turn away from falsehood, God will immediately receive her. What a miracle. Grace, suffice it to say, is awesome. It has saved a wretch like me.

I write this post in hope–shining, shimmering, glistening, world-and-sin-defying hope. I genuinely believe that Rachel Held Evans may well turn away away from her unbiblical teaching. I have no desire to wound her, but as one convicted of the biblical need to oppose false teaching (see 2 Peter 2) and to “contend for the faith” (Jude 1:3), I want to pull her back. Foul-mouthed social media attacks against me to the contrary, I love God and his reputation, I love the church, and I love her. I care for her, in fact, enough to speak up. I know that unbiblical doctrine, never biblical truth, always brings pain and disorder as Denny Burk astutely said some weeks back.

So, as a fellow sinner who is no stranger to fallenness, and who is in need of continual correction, I hope and pray that she will leave her unbiblical doctrine behind and taste the goodness of repentance. That is language that we all may speak, and we all must speak, if we will have God for our Father.

**********************

1. Further Reading on “God as Woman” Language:

Donald Bloesch, The Battle for the Trinity

John W. Cooper, Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God

Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth, 509-13

Mary Kassian, The Feminist Mistake (very valuable)

Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., ed.,  Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism

Two pieces by R. Albert Mohler, Jr.–see here and here

Bruce Ware, “How Now Shall We Think About the Trinity?” in God Under Fire

 

2. Brief excursus on the term “heresy” and “God as woman” language

The first four councils did not consider this issue, and so “God as woman” language is not heretical in what one could call the historical sense, the way that Sabellianism, for example, is heretical. But Al Mohler, working off of Harold O. J. Brown (author of the noteworthy book Heresies) and the broader confessional tradition, has identified a second kind of heresy, that which is a “gospel-negating teaching.” This usage builds off of 2 Peter 2:1, which references aireseis apoleias, “destructive heresies” (the translation of the KJV, NIV ’84, ESV). The sense here is that the person adopting these views is choosing them to their own destruction.

We see, then, that the term “heresy” has a broader meaning than just “those specific teachings declared out of bounds by the early church.” The connotation of “gospel-negating teaching” is consistent with numerous dictionary definitions, including the New Dictionary of Theology (ed. J. I. Packer & Sinclair Ferguson) and both the American Heritage Dictionary and the Random House dictionary, to name two secular sources. It is in this manner that John Piper recently used the word to speak of unbiblical soteriology, for example.

Clearly we should not be quick to use the term. If, for example, we’re talking about whether we should greet one another with a holy kiss, those who differ with us aren’t acting heretically! There are many other issues of which this is true as well, and we use the word “heresy” with great judiciousness. The term does apply, though, when a false teaching, a doctrinal error, reaches the level of effectively denying the gospel if received and believed. So it is with “God as woman” language, which remakes God in a feminist image. As stated several times above, I tremble for Evans when she uses this term, and I very much hope that she will renounce it and her other aberrant views, not so that a point can be won, but for the good of her soul.


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