Female Language for God: Should the Church Adopt it?
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Sun May 20 23:35:54 EDT 2001
FEMALE LANGUAGE FOR GOD: SHOULD THE CHURCH ADOPT IT?
By David W. Virtue
Feminists who attempt to change the biblical language used of the
deity, are in reality exchanging the true God for those deities which
are "no gods," says a woman theologian.
Dr. Elizabeth Achtemeier, author of "Scripture, Feminism and
Faithfulness" writes that despite the fact that women have suffered
discrimination in the church for centuries, been denied leadership
roles and respect for their learning and persons, denied ordination in
the Roman Catholic Church because they do not biologically "resemble
Christ" and labeled by Southern Baptists as the source of sin in the
world, it is not grounds for overthrowing masculine language to
describe God and His activity in the world.
"It is universally recognized by biblical scholars that the God of the
Bible has no sexuality. Sexuality is a structure of creation, confined
within the limits of the creation, and the God of the Bible is
consistently pictured as totally other than all creation. This is what
the Bible means when it says that God is "holy" - set apart., totally
other than anything he has made."
"When feminists insist on female language for God, they simply continue
to emphasize the nonbiblical view concept of the imago dei to say that
God must be female as well as male, since both sexes are made in God's
image (Gen. 1:27). That is a total distortion of the biblical
understanding of God, who is without sexual characteristics."
"The few instances of feminine imagery for God in the Bible all take
the form of a simile and not a metaphor, and that distinction is
crucial. A simile compares one aspect of something to another. For
example in Isaiah 42:14, God will "cry out like a woman in travail,"
but only his crying out is being referred to; he is not being
identified as a whole with the figure of a woman in childbirth. In
metaphors, on the other hand, identity between the subject and the
thing compared to it is assumed. God IS Father, or Jesus IS the Good
Shepherd, or God IS King."
Feminists stretch language to its limit, beyond ordinary usage, to
provide new understanding, says Achtemeier, the author of 20 books and
adjunct professor of Bible and Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary
in Richmond, VA.
The Bible uses masculine language for God because that is the language
with which God has revealed himself, says Achtemeier. "The biblical,
Christian faith is a revealed religion. It claims no knowledge of God
beyond the knowledge. God has given of himself through his words and
deeds in the histories of Israel and of Jesus Christ and his church."
"God is not just like a father; he is THE Father. Jesus is not just
like a son he is THE Son. The divine Fatherhood and Sonship are
absolute, transcendent, and correlative...The relationship between
Christ Jesus and his Father, lived out in the conditions of first-
century Palestine and eternally established in the resurrection and
ascension of our Lord, belongs to the inner life of God."
Achtmeier says that if one believes that Jesus Christ is the Word of
God made flesh, the Son of God incarnate in time and space - a belief
that feminists such as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary
Radford Reuther and a host of others deny - then there is no
contradiction that can be made to the particularity of God's self-
revelation. God is not just any god, capable of being named according
to human fancy. No, God is the one whom Jesus reveals as his Father.
"The same particularity obtains in the Old Testament. God is not to be
identified with just any god. For this reason, the central commandment
in the Bible, first contained in Deut. 6:4, begins with, 'Hear, O
Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord.' That is, the God of Israel is
not identical with the diffuse numina known to other peoples but is one
particular God who has done particular things in particular times and
So, writes Achtemeier, why does God reveal himself primarily in
personal terms? If God has no sexuality, if he is Spirit (cf. John
4:24), then why does he not name himself through the media of
impersonal metaphorical language? Why are not his primary designations
those of Rock, Fire, Living Water, Bread, Way, Door, Refuge, Fortress,
and other such metaphors found throughout the Scriptures?
The answer, says Achtemeier, is that a God named primarily Rock or Way
or Door does not demand that we do anything. All of those impersonal
metaphors for God in the Bible are encompassed within a principal
revelation of God as supremely personal, because the God of the Bible
meets us person to person and asks from us the total commitment of our
personalities. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John
14:15). God asks of us primarily love in return for his love that was
manifested in his dealings with us.
More pressing for the feminists, however, is the question of why God
reveals himself only in masculine terms. Achtemeier says that Elaine
Pagels is quite correct when she states that "the absence of feminine
symbolism of God marks Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in striking
contrast to the world's other religions traditions, whether in Egypt,
Babylonia, Greece and Rome, or Africa, Polynesia, India and North
But why could a personal God not have revealed himself in feminine
metaphors instead? God is never called "Mother" in the Bible and is
never addressed or thought of as a female deity. That was unique in the
ancient Near Eastern world; Israel was surrounded by peoples who
worshipped female deities. Such a masculinizing of the deity is still
unique in our world.
The feminist argument is that the names for God in the Bible have been
determined by the patriarchal cultures out of which the Bible arose,
but the argument founders on the revelation of Jesus Christ. Feminists
have a very difficult time with God the Father and God the Son,
although some of them hold that the feminine element is introduced by
the Holy Spirit, even though the Spirit too proceeds from the Father
and the Son and is one with them. No, the Bible's language for God is
masculine, a unique revelation of God in the world.
The basic reason for the designation of God is that the God of the
Bible will not let himself be identified with his creation, and
therefore human beings are to worship not the creation but the creator
(cf. Rom. 1:25).
It is precisely the introduction of female language for God that opens
the door to such identification of God with the world. If God is
portrayed in feminine language, the figures of carrying in the womb, of
giving birth, and of suckling, immediately come into play. Feminist
Virginia Mollenkott writes of the God of Naomi in the book of Ruth as
"the God with Breasts," "the undivided One God who births and breast-
feeds the universe." The United church of Christ's Book of Worship
prays, "You have brought us forth from the womb of your being." A
feminine goddess has given birth to the world! But if the creation has
issued forth from the body of the deity, it shares in deity's
substance; deity is in, through, and under all things, and therefore
everything is divine.
"If God is identified with his creation, we finally make ourselves gods
and goddesses - the ultimate and primeval sin, according to Genesis 3
and the rest of the Scriptures."
But, Achtmeier argues, "We can never rightly understand ourselves and
our place in the universe, the Bible tells us, until we realize that we
are not gods and goddesses. Rather, we are creatures, wondrously and
lovingly made by a sovereign Creator: "It is he that made us, and not
we ourselves" (Ps. 100:3). The Bible will use no language, which
undermines that confession. It therefore eschews all feminine language
for God that might open the door to such error, and it is rigorous in
its opposition to every other religion and cultic practice that
identifies creation with creator."
Achtemeier argues that both the prophets and psalmists and the New
Testament are quite certain that the world may pass away, God himself
will not pass away, because God and his world are not one. "No passage
in Scripture more carefully preserve the understanding of God's
otherness from his creation than does Genesis 1, a chapter that is the
product of centuries of theological reflection."
In Babylonian theology nature reflects the life of the divine, gives a
cyclical pattern to human history - the cyclical pattern of its
continual round of birth and life and death. In the Bible, the pattern
for human history is linear, and both human beings and nature are
subject to God's time, to salvation history, which has a beginning and
The feminists, who want to make Creator and creation one, should
realize that there is no meaning to human life if it is patterned after
and subject to nature's round. In India and China, the goal of life is
to escape the cycle of history into the timeless realm of Nirvana, a
solution which implies that our everyday life has no meaning. In the
philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, the escape from history is
rational, and human beings take refuge from the circle of life by
retreating into the realm of pure form. In modern philosophies, such as
those of Nietzsche and Spengler, the only alternative is nobly to
assert individual freedom. In Nietzsche, this leads to suicide, in
Spengler to a form of fatalism. Such meaninglessness results from a
theology that identifies God with his creation. And that identification
almost automatically comes about when feminine language for God is
Achtemeier condemns Rosemary Radford Ruether the leading US feminist
writer because she wants to use female language for God, and she names
the divine God/ess. "Reuther, like all the feminist writers, does not
want her deity to rule over her. Feminists want to get rid of a
hierarchical view in which God is their Lord. God for them must be not
a Sovereign but a "friend" or the "power of love-in-relation" (Isabel
Carter Heyward) a professor at Episcopal Divinity School in
Massachusetts. This God/ess is divine reality: the empowering Matrix;
She, in whom we live and move and have our being...She comes; She is
This is why Reuther can write liturgies for worshipping groups of
females that celebrate cycles of the moon, the solstices and the
seasons, as well as the cycles of menstruation and menopause, and other
changes in women's lives, says Achtemeier.
"The result is that Reuther and all those feminists who want to erase
the distinction between God and his creation finally share with the
most radical feminists, who have abandoned the Christian church and
faith altogether, a view of divinity that is at home in modern witches
When such views are held, meaninglessness haunts human life. This is
seen in Reuther's view of death. There is no eternal life for those of
faith in Reuther's female God/ess religion. Rather, the end she
envisions for all of us and our communities is that we will end up as
"If God and creation are identified with one another, perhaps most
disturbing of all is the feminists' claim to embody the deity within
themselves - in other words, to be divine. "I found God in myself and I
loved her fiercely," exults Carol Christ, another feminist. That is the
logical result of a religion in which the deity is believed to be
contained ion all things and all persons, and feminists who hold such
views then become a law unto themselves. For feminists like I. Carter
Heyward, there is no such thing as original sin, and the "fall" of
Genesis 3 is good, a liberation into knowledge and action and reliance
on one's self.
As feminist Dorothee Solle maintains, "God is in us, as our capacity to
love. We are one with God in a mystical relation. We do not serve God;
we manifest him." And so for Solle, because God is in us, all we need
to love. That is the central idea in the Bible, she maintains.
But this ignores the reality of evil in the world, of gas ovens and
human torture, says Achtemeier. It ignores that fact that we need a
Power greeter than human evil - or, for that matter, a Power then even
the highest human love ad good, for it was the best religion and the
best law that erected the cross on Golgotha. If there is not a God who
is Lord over life, who "intervenes, rescues, judges, and confirms," and
who had given his final judgment and won his decisive victory in the
cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then human evil will always
have the last word and there is no hope for this world.
"The feminists, believing themselves divine, think that by their own
power they can restructure society, restore creation, and overcome
suffering. But the tortured history of humanity testifies to what human
beings do when they think they are a law unto themselves with no
responsibility to God, and those feminists who are claiming that God is
in them will equally fall victim to human sin."
Women suffer discrimination, yes; our world is full of all kinds of
evil. But God is holy, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and
earth, and by faith in him we shall always be more than conquerors, and
nothing shall ever separate us form the love he has for us in Christ
Jesus our Lord.
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