Is God Gender Fluid? Part II

When I arrived at divinity school in the late 90’s, there was a strong push at Yale to adopt inclusive language for God.  So, for example, instead of calling the Trinity “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, we were encouraged to say “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer (or Sanctifier)”.  Instead of referring to God as “He” or “Father”, to substitute the generic “God” or “Godself”. 

At the time, Brevard Childs was one of the most revered professors at Yale.  To this day, he remains one of the most important and revered Old Testament scholars of the Twentieth Century.  I missed out on having him as my Old Testament professor by one cruddy year!  He happened to be near retirement and one of his former students--who was an excellent professor in his own right--had taken over teaching his famous “Introduction to the Old Testament” class. 

A number of students who were a year or two ahead of me, however, had taken his class.  And, much to my chagrin, they wouldn’t stop raving about it.  They kept rubbing in how amazing that class was, how it was unlike any other class they had ever taken.  His lectures---they kept repeating--were so moving and inspiring that they routinely left most of the class in tears.  His lectures, they said, were so good that, at the end of each and every one, the entire lecture hall--full of several hundred students--would rise in unison to give him a resounding round of applause.  After each and every lecture.  That’s how amazing, they emphasized, his lectures were!

Childs was so beloved that his popularity wasn’t affected by the fact that he took a very unpopular position: He vigorously resisted the inclusive language tide.  As one of the preeminent Biblical scholars of our time, he strongly cautioned against the use of inclusive language, arguing that it wasn’t faithful to the Biblical witness.  He warned that inclusive language seriously risked distorting Who God has revealed Himself to be in the Scriptures.

Childs wasn’t arguing that God is male.  Not even close.  He enthusiastically acknowledged that the Bible portrays God as transcending gender.  No question about it.  But he insisted that we should retain the historic language for God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Inclusive language, he warned, misrepresents the true identity of God as revealed in Scripture. 

In particular, inclusive language loses all touch with God’s Personal nature—or, to be more precise, God’s Tri-Personal nature.  Inclusive language, he argued, leads us to adopt heretical notions, namely, that the real God is a fourth and totally separate entity hidden behind the three “modes” of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Developing the habit of calling God Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer inevitably leads us to think of the three Persons merely as three roles God plays, three masks the One True God, who is hidden behind them, wears.  It reduces the Three Persons of the Trinity to three functions God performs.  Three forms God takes.  Three modes God only appears in—the specific heresy Childs refers to, rejected by the Church in the Third Century, was called Modalism.  This, in turn, leads us to think of the True God as existing “behind” these different manifestions.  The True God, we are led to conclude, remains hidden behind these three “masks”.  The True God, we are led to suspect, is an altogether different entity. 

Kind of like the Wizard of Oz.  The “Real Wizard” remained behind the curtain.  The Real Wizard turned out to be an entirely different entity than all the “fanfare” would have led people to believe.  The Real Wizard was a massive disappointment. 

Similarly, substituting inclusive language for the Trinity masks the true identity of God which, like the Wizard of Oz, remains hidden behind the “curtain” of all their fanfare.  Thus, inclusive language obscures, and even distorts, the true identity of God.  It creates the impression that the true God hasn’t really been revealed to us in the Bible after all.  If, in our minds, God’s true identity still remains hidden, then we don’t really know Who God is.  We can’t trust God.  We can’t entrust ourselves to God.  We can’t relate to God in an authentic way, in love.  (You can find more of what Childs thought about this in his classic text Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, especially pages 376-378.)  

For all its positive benefits, using inclusive language for God, or thinking of God as gender fluid or gender neutral, radically distorts Who God is.  It undermines the most important aspect of God’s identity: that God is essentially—profoundly--Personal.  While obviously not a person in the limited sense we human beings are, the deepest truth about God’s nature is that “He” is Personal. 

This is massively important to keep in mind.  When the Bible says that God is transcendent, it does not mean God is simply an impersonal spirit, force, or energy of some kind.  An unmoved mover.  A generic creator.  A faceless redeemer.  It means that God is a transcendent Person, or more accurately, Three Divine Persons who exist eternally in a perfect unity of love.  Three Divine Persons who have created us for personal relationship.  Three Divine Persons who have specifically made us to share in their Divine Life, the love that the Father, Son, and Spirit have shared throughout all eternity. 

Lose sight of this, and you lose the ability to relate to God in an authentically personal way.  Lose sight of this, and you lose any way of understanding how God could actually take a personal interest in us.  Lose sight of this, and you lose any way that love can be central to God’s identity--that, in other words, “God is love”. 

In fact, the historic, Trinitarian language the Bible uses for God isn’t meant to merely be metaphorical.  Unlike all the other “playful” images the Bible uses, the Trinity is the deepest insight we finite humans can have into the actual reality of God’s identity, in particular, God’s Tri-Personal identity.  God really is Three Divine Persons, whose love for one another actually best resembles the absolutely unique bond of warm, intimate, personal love a father and son share, albeit perfectly so. 

In eternity, we will discover that the Trinity is so much more than this, so much more than we can conceive.  But God is no less than this.  God actually is a Trinity.  The dynamic love of the Trinity is what stands at the core of all reality, including ultimate reality.  This is the deepest truth about God’s transcendent nature, the most profound insight into God’s identity.  And the best way for finite beings like us to comprehend, and more importantly, enter into this Divine Life, is through the Biblical revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.       

But wait, there’s more.  Not only does the historic Biblical language for God keep us mindful of God’s transcendently personal nature; not only does it give us the truest insight into God’s transcendent nature as Three Persons who exist eternally in a perfect union of love--a Divine Life they have created us to share in--it enables us to understand in the fullest way possible, who God is in relation to us—in other words, the true nature of God’s love for us.  Because God’s transcendent nature is most like that of an Abba; because the way the Divine Persons of the Trinity love one another is most like that of a Father and a Son, an Abba and their dear child, we best understand our relationship to God, the way God loves us, as being children of our Divine Abba.  Abba expresses how Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity actually relates, in Filial love, to the Frist Person and thus reveals the inner life of the Trinity.  And this, in turn, is what enables us to relate to God with the same sweet intimacy. 

Jesus shocked His contemporaries by addressing God as Abba.  Abba was the Aramaic expression a Jewish child used for their father.  Roughly translated as “pop”, “papa”, “dad”, “daddy”, it was a warm, affectionate, term of endearment.  It signaled the closest and most intimate relationship of devotion, trust, and adoration.  To dare to address the Holy One of Israel Who is Aeon upon Aeon beyond us in every way, as our own dear Abba, would have been scandalous at best, blasphemous at worst. 

But Abba is the perfect way to capture the transcendent nature of a God Who is all-powerful; Whose sovereign will is absolute; Whose providence is perfectly trustworthy; Whose protective care is all encompassing; Whose love for us is as unconditional as a perfect parent’s; Whose presence is more intimate than we are to ourselves.  In Jesus’ first century Jewish context, an Abba was the most powerful and poignant image for the all-powerful, providential, protective love of God.  A father was the highest authority, the head of the household, the most powerful person most had a personal connection to.  As such, Abba remains the best way to express God’s identity and relationship to us: Just as a little child feels perfectly safe and secure in the arms of their utterly strong but gently loving Abba, so we can feel perfectly safe and secure in the loving presence and embrace of our heavenly Abba.  Abba captures the attributes most central to God’s transcendent personal identity, namely His Absolute Power and His Perfect Love. 

This is what it means most to say that God is love.  That God, the awesome, almighty creator of all that is desires, above all else, to have a close, intimate, warm, loving relationship with us, His own dear children.  Abba best combines these two aspects of who God is and who He is to us.  To the extent that we can understand God from this side of eternity, Abba is the deepest insight we can have into His eternal nature.  Abba truly is what God’s transcendent nature is most like. 

As Childs would say, God truly is as he has revealed himself to be.  In a real sense—obviously not gender—God is our Abba.  Through this historic language, God is truly mediated to us as He is.  He really is our perfect father.  The ideal dad.  We can trust that this is His character.  That we can entrust ourselves to His sovereignly strong but exquisitely gentle “fatherly” love.  That we will never be disappointed by finding some other entity hidden behind the curtain of His transcendence.

Love like this is the furthest thing from patriarchal dominance.  Ideas truly do have consequences.  But the most disastrous consequence of all would be to lose sight of God’s perfect, unconditional love for us.

That’s why Jesus told us to call God our Abba.   

Do you think using inclusive language for God is a good thing or a bad thing?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  You can go to the “Contact E. J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave you comments there.  I look forward to hearing from you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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