Masculine God, Feminine Spirit?

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John Piper, at a recent pastors conference, declared, "God has given Christianity a masculine feel." This is based, for Piper, on several things: God is revealed in the Bible in male images (king and father). The second person of the Trinity is named as "Son" and is incarnated as a man. The 12 apostles were men, and men are declared to be the heads of the church and home.

But has God really "given Christianity a masculine feel"? Or has Christianity given God a masculine feel?

Granted,there are plenty of male-oriented images, allusions, and references in Scripture that are male-oriented. (And it doesn't surprise anyone to learn that the Bible's authors are mostly if not exclusively men writing in mainly patriarchal contexts). "Father" and "Son" are unmistakably male references. The term "masculine," however, is an ambiguous, socially constructed, and culturally dependent concept.  As Scot McKnight points out, the Greek word for "masculine" (andreia) never properly appears in the New Testament.

But I want to focus on another issue. Piper rests his argument on the idea that God is revealed in male terms and images. God (Yahweh) is the eternal "Father" and the eternal "Son of God" becomes incarnate as a human male in Jesus of Nazareth. What do we make of this language? Is "Father" and "Son" supposed to be interpreted literally, or do these terms denote the familiarity and intimacy of the relationship itself? Here we are flung headlong into a debate regarding the nature of religious language. Piper's literalistic hermeneutic involves a univocal view of language, whereby "Father" becomes exclusive of anything "feminine" and is used to prioritize the male over the female. It's a handy move if you want to retain patriarchy.

But is God actually gendered as male and therefore exclusively or primarily masculine (whatever that might actually mean)? Any literal ascription of gender to the eternal divine being (think "ontological Trinity") has generally been ruled quite out of bounds in Christian orthodoxy. Notions like divine simplicity, unboundedness, and incorporeality, long have prevented theologians from taking gender references to God literally.

In the incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity quite literally becomes in-fleshed in the Jewish, male body of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians rightly take joy and comfort in the particularity of the incarnation for, in Jesus, God was and is healing and reconciling the world. What is not assumed is not healed; therefore God becomes a particular human being in order to redeem humanity. The Jewish flesh of Jesus makes sense given that Jesus was to be the Messiah and his mission was to announce and embody the kingdom for Israel and on behalf of the world. But nothing suggests that the incarnation required male flesh for our salvation. Perhaps, as some have suggested, the Logos became a man because, to become incarnate as a woman, and to sacrifice oneself for the world as a woman, would have been rather unsurprising and unremarkable to first-century observers. That's just what women do. But when this Jewish Rabbi willingly set aside his "rights" and his power for the salvation of humanity, he made quite an impression (Phil 2:1-11).

Furthermore, according to orthodox theology, we must be careful when conceptually transferring from the human particularity of Jesus to his divine nature. The Council of Chalcedon asserts the two natures of Jesus are related "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence." The human nature of Jesus, having the particularity of male humanity, does not imply that the divine nature of Jesus became distinctively male -- or most certainly—"masculine." The incarnation, by the logic of the creed, does not imply that "God is male." Furthermore, we should keep in mind that Jesus' male body was resurrected and ascended to God. Do we have any idea what bodily resurrection and ascension imply for gender particularity?

Also, has Piper forgotten the Holy Spirit? Irenaeus suggested memorably that the Son and the Spirit are the two hands of God in the world. If the Son causes us to think of God in terms of maleness and "masculinity" (which, again, is a constructed notion), then the Spirit might draw our attention to more "feminine" aspects of God. The Spirit (ruach in the Old Testament and pneuma in the New) suggests creative and re-creative (nurturing, sustaining, and life-giving) activities. "Ruach," in fact, is grammatically feminine. In Genesis 1, the Spirit hovers over the waters and gives life to human and animals. The Spirit re-creates the earth (Isaiah 44:3), the Spirit comforts (Jn. 14), teaches (Lk. 12:12) and heals. Images of the Spirit in the Bible include breath, wind, and wisdom (the latter is often personified in Scripture as female).

2/8/2012 5:00:00 AM
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  • Kyle Roberts
    About Kyle Roberts
    Kyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Lead Faculty of Christian Thought, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN). He researches and writes on issues related to the intersection of theology, philosophy, and culture. Follow Kyle Roberts' reflections on faith and culture at his blog or via Twitter.