A few months back I listened to a podcast hosted by Lynn Cohick featuring Amy Peeler about the release of Women and the Gender of God. I found her thesis compelling, so I ordered the book and read it when it became available.
Numerous curiosities were raised for me as I listened to the podcast. In this post I offer two key questions to frame what I believe are crucial points to Peeler’s overall argument. Though the book provides generous answers, gleanings below are meant to pique interest and urge a wide and thoughtful readership of Women and the Gender of God. It is no exaggeration that this is ground-breaking work for Protestants, especially those who have marginalized Mary, the virgin birth, and a theology of women. At the very least, many (most?) will come away with a deeper appreciation for what God has done through a woman and for all humanity.
Question #1: If God is not male, then in what sense can Christians call God “Father?”
Chapter 4, “God is Not Masculine” helps in answering. Without equivocation she asserts, “it is both right and good to call God ‘Father’” (p 109). Theologically, it is right in terms of God parenting the Son through eternal generation.
Followers of Christ relate to God as Father as they do because of the eternal relationship between God and the Son; along with the Holy Spirit, such a relationship constitutes the triune God’s eternal being. As the tradition has envisioned the eternal begetting of the Son, it has deemed both fatherly and motherly language and processes as fitting descriptions of a mystery no human language could ever fully describe. (pp 98-99)
Biblical data show that “God ‘nursed’ Israel (Isa 49:15), and God comforts Israel as mother would (Isa 66:12-13) … God is the woman searching for the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), and Jesus as the Son of God describes himself as the mother hen who longs to gather Jerusalem under her wings (Matt 23:37 // Luke 13:34)” (pp 101-102).
Importantly, the type of relationship between human parents and child should be distinguished from the type of relationship between God the Father and creation. To be sure there are parallels where familial language seeks to capture those analogous touch-points, but striking the balance in accord with orthodoxy is no easy task. I find Peeler’s explanation illuminating and convincing.
God made (ποίησις [poiēsis]) creation; but the Son is begotten (γέννηθεις, [gennētheis], not made. Hence this language connects the Son to God at the same time that it distinguishes the Son from all created things … Unlike creation, the Son does come from the very being of God. Parental language, therefore, is fitting for this relationship. God has given a signpost for it. In the very process of life in which all humans participate, namely, birth, they are given the embodied picture that points toward the spiritual reality at the very fount of life itself, the begetting of the Son. (p 111)
She offers a way forward in affirming God as Father by stating the obvious: “Christians call God ‘Father’ because, according to the documents of the New Testament, Jesus did so” (p 112, emphasis mine). And, “when Christians call God ‘Father,’ it is always shorthand for ‘the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ In other words, Christians are not referring generally to God as a father but rather are addressing him in solidarity with Jesus as ‘our Father'” (p 112, n 71, emphasis original).
Finally, calling God “Father” is no mere naming convention steeped in tradition. It is the proclamation of a profound mystery that is at the heart of the Christian faith.
Jesus does not call God ‘Mother’ because he already has one …. Christians can and should address God, the first person, as “Father” not because God is male and not because God is more masculine than feminine but because God the Father as an expression of the triune will sent forth his Son born of a woman. There is no God apart from the one who willed to dwell in the womb of Mary. Jesus of Nazareth, with his form of address for God, born out of his unique experience [of the incarnation], reveals who God is. This God is indeed Father. (p 115)
Jesus’s language for God, Jesus’s address, “Abba, Father,” asserts the mode of the incarnation. When Christians call God “Father” as he did, they invoke the revelation of the particular way the Son came. This Father is not male. This Father is not masculine. This Father through the work of the Holy Spirit partnered with one human, a woman, to achieve the salvation of all things. Calling God “Father” proclaims the unparalleled role played by the young Jewish girl named Mary, the Mother of God. (pp 116-117)
Question #2: How might Jesus’s biological sex factor into a non-gendered God? Put differently, what are some theological and practical implications for a male, incarnate God?
At the outset of chapter 5, “The Male Savior,” Peeler challenges the notion that “because Jesus is male, only males can represent him” (p 119). There is no doubt Jesus is male, but she argues he “became embodied like no other” and that the unique process whereby Jesus entered the world should color how we view Jesus (and God the Father). After all, Peeler insists, “the incarnation, and particularly the way in which it came to be, should impact everything — Christology, theology, and anthropology, including Christianity’s view of women” (p 121).
Cashing out this uniqueness, Peeler argues it is the particularity of the incarnation and the means whereby it came to be that serves as a model of and basis for Jesus representing all of humanity. How so? Peeler explains:
In the mystery of the incarnation, it seems correct to say that God has treated “male DNA differently from female.” In so doing, God has elevated women, but not to the detriment of men. Rather than exclusion of one side or the other, there is an unparalleled inclusivity precisely in this process of the incarnation. The virginal conception reveals that the Messiah, whose body was crucified and resurrected, embraces male and female, and therefore can in a powerfully and beautifully inclusive way save all humans. In short, a male-embodied Savior with female-provided flesh saves all.” (pp 136-137)
In other words, Jesus did not have a biological father because “one was not needed.” God miraculously supplies what the male normally provides. It was Mary’s humanity that was passed on to Jesus — just as all mothers pass on their humanity. However, because Jesus’s humanity encompasses both male and female he equally represents humanity in toto.
Add to this the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is God’s image, then it does not seem plausible for Jesus to be born a woman. From the basics Peeler argues:
To be a human is to be born, born of a woman. The only way it is possible within the system of human procreation for God to involve both sexes in the revelation of divine embodiment is to have the image of God born as a male from the flesh of a female. (p 141)
Put differently, the male side of humanity would be left out if Jesus were born a woman from a woman. Instead, God’s plan is comprehensive. Jesus was “born of a woman” (and not a man) as an embodied male who is the image of God. By his embodied presence he represents all of humanity; in his heavenly parentage he represents all of God. This is precisely what was accomplished in the virginal conception of God the Son in Jesus of Nazareth. And, “because of that unparalleled conception, he is a male like no other, a male who received his body from God’s partnering with a female alone” (p 141). To miss (or dismiss) this is to exclude something vitally important because “all humans suffer when God is more like some than others” (p 92).
Taking all of this under consideration regarding the mode of the incarnation, namely, Jesus’s virginal conception, it follows that men and women can sufficiently and equally represent Christ (in persona Christi). That only men can do so because Christ is male is not only a dubious position but christologically weak, since it fails to take into account the fullness of Christ’s humanity. To be clear — and to stress Peeler’s argument — Christ’s maleness does not represent males only but females also. If one adheres to the virginal conception and its uniqueness as outlined by Peeler (which is in full alignment with orthodoxy), then it is an elementary maneuver to connect the dots that Christ’s humanity represents both male and female.
Indeed, if he is the Savior of all, then all who are joined to him in faith can and do represent him without distinction (on the principle, “that which is not assumed is not healed”; Gregory of Nazianzus). Though Peeler does not loop in Galatians 3:28, the notion of comprehensive representation is closely aligned to it. Those major traditions of Christianity throughout the centuries who have adhered to male-only leadership on the principle of Christ’s biological sex have not a little to consider and quite a lot to answer for, or so it seems.
Still, this is not to say that Jesus’s maleness is of no import. Rather, it has to do with everything! Listen to Peeler:
The maleness of Jesus Christ, in my estimation, has everything to do not just with Christian ministry but with Christian life. If Jesus were not birthed as a male, he would not include male bodies in his recapitulation. If he were not birthed and conceived from a woman alone, he would not include female bodies in his recapitulation. I seek not to erode but to emphasize his maleness, the way it came about, to show its unique particularity specifically as it regards male and female. No woman can be excluded from imaging God because his male body came only from a woman. (p 145, emphases original)
My highest commendation goes to Women and the Gender of God. The research is thorough, the arguments cogent, and her conclusions courageously orthodox. The book is exceedingly helpful in responding to the pernicious and seemingly ubiquitous belief that God is male or male-like. Although largely about Mary, the mother of Jesus, this is not a crusade for feminism. Instead, this is a steady and bold crescendo toward viewing the Father’s works through the lens of the Son’s incarnation by the Spirit’s invitation to unite with a single woman who willingly and literally becomes the means of salvation for all. It is my hope (in the words of Christa McKirland) that everyone “born of a woman would be challenged and encouraged by this powerful work” (back cover endorsement).
I found Peeler’s book not only intriguing but wonderfully provoking. My core beliefs were enriched as I was moved not only to marvel over the depth of Christ’s humanity but to exult in its breadth. Through the astonishing and unique event of the virginal conception I discovered the vital importance of Mary, mother of Jesus. I also recognized how little significance I have placed on her. Naturally, growth is vital to my maturing in Christ. But growth necessitates I embrace change. So to my Protestant siblings in Christ who are courageous enough to take up and read: prepare for change and brace yourselves for growth. I’m confident that, like me, you will end where the book begins: “God values women.”