Wednesday, August 15, 2018

David Wheeler-Reed and God’s Gender

Last week I ran across online What the early church thought about God’s gender by David Wheeler-Reed of Albertus Magnus College.[i] At first I chose to ignore it, but then it also showed up in a local newspaper.[ii] In his article, Wheeler-Reed purports to tell us what the early church thought about God’s gender. Ultimately, he tells us what David Wheeler-Reed thinks about God’s gender.

The setup concerns the Episcopal Church decision “to revise its 1979 prayer book, so that God is no longer referred to by masculine pronouns.” He says, “religious leaders at the denomination’s recent triennial conference in Austin have agreed to a demand to replace the masculine terms for God such as ‘He’ and ‘King’ and “Father’.” From that setup, he jumps to tell us that The Old Testament, The New Testament, and early Christian writings “all refer to God in feminine terms.” See the linked article for examples.

In most cases Wheeler-Reed glosses over figures of speech in his race to prove a point – whether in the biblical examples or from the church fathers. Jesus says he would have gathered the children of Jerusalem “even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). A literalistic reading of this figure of speech would as well make Jesus a chicken as a woman. Strangely, Wheeler-Reed even proposes Paul’s figure of speech about Paul himself (yes, Paul, who is obviously male, who is not God, but on the other hand often viewed as a maniacal misogynist by modern feminists) travailing in birth as proof of the feminine gender of God (Galatians 4:19).

Preliminary conclusions
  • The fact that church fathers used metaphors and similes to explain certain aspects of God’s nature falls short of what the early church thought about God’s gender. What they thought is pretty much what the churches have always thought both then and up to the present before a radical departure set on proving God is our Father/Mother. Wheeler-Reed probably could have found some “Church Fathers” and “Church Mothers” from the vast array of non-biblical writings who plainly spoke of God as a woman or our Mother in heaven. But, if so, he choose to leave these records in a vague dark place so none would know who they were. The ones he identified were using figures of speech.
  • Wheeler-Reed implies that the book of Proverbs teaches “Wisdom,” Sophia, was a goddess who assisted God in creating of the world. Sophia (σοφία) is, of course, the Greek word for wisdom, and somewhat irrelevant to a text originally written in Hebrew.[iii]
  • Wheeler-Reed says “Yahweh is a combination of both female and male grammatical endings” and suggests the word is “genderless” and this somehow proves God was male and female. Yet the author of Genesis, who probably knew his own language as well as or better than Wheeler-Reed, uses masculine pronouns when referring to Yahweh (Jehovah/Lord God).
  • Man is not created in the image of God in the sense that God has flesh and blood, or male and female body parts. Man was an unique “God-like” culminating point of creation – unlike any other part of God’s creation.
Primary conclusions
  • The Bible is not afraid to apply a feminine figure of speech to some aspect of God’s character, such as a woman giving birth to Israel (Deuteronomy 32:18) or a mother comforting children (Isaiah 49:15; Isaiah 66:13). No Bible believer should fear it. We use and explain these figures of speech when properly exegeting the verses wherein they are contained.
  • I suppose no orthodox Christian believes the “gender” of God corresponds to the human male gender.[iv] “God is not a man” and “God is a Spirit.” We should not think of the gender of God in human terms, yet must reject the world’s gender confusion which they intend to apply to the Bible. If God chose to inspire his word and refer to himself in masculine terms (e.g. “father”) and masculine pronouns (i.e. he, him) then the simple Bible believer should be satisfied with that rather than run after the ways of the world.
An article like “What the early church thought about God’s gender” is not really about God’s gender (which orthodox Christians have never exactly equated with human gender) or even about what the early church thought. It is about creating confusion concerning gender, presenting human gender as a social construct (as opposed to a physical characteristic), and promoting a society that finds gender dysphoria not just morally neutral but totally acceptable. God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33).

[i] Apparently Wheeler-Reed is a lecturer at Albertus Magnus, a Catholic College in New Haven, Connecticut. He is not listed on the faculty page. The article was originally published on The Conversation.
[ii] Longview News-Journal, Saturday, August 4, 2018, page 5B
[iii] The term philosophy (philosophia, φῐλοσοφῐ́ᾱ), meaning “love of wisdom,” is a compound word built on this root.
[iv] Yet I expect there are some unorthodox who believe this.

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