August 2008 Issue
by Terry L. Wilder
Nineteenth-century Protestant liberal
theologian Adolf von Harnack described the Christian faith as
"the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man."
But today even this liberal theologian would be accused of using
sexist language and pressed to revise his statement to something
like "the motherhood/parenthood of God and the family of
A growing trend seeks to redefine God's character in feminine
terms as "mother," or at the very least, in gender-inclusive
language. The ever-increasing evidence leaves no doubt
our culture is growing increasingly hostile to the fatherhood
As people who base our faith and practice on God's authoritative
inerrant Word, such a trend compels us to ask: What does the Bible
say about God the Father? Does it ever describe God in feminine
or gender-inclusive language and instruct us to address Him in
such terms? Should we speak to God as 'mother?' Many would suggest
there is nothing wrong with such a practice, offering the following
three points as their rationale: (1) Scripture ascribes feminine
characteristics to God; (2) God is spirit (John 4:24), and thus,
referring to Him with feminine language like "mother"
or heavenly parent is of little or no consequence; and (3) we
both male and female were created in God's image,
and thus, His image is gender-inclusive, enabling us to address
Him in ways like "heavenly parent." But is this what
Scripture teaches? Let's consider the biblical data.1
Appreciating Our Biblical
The Bible teaches that God the Father is the first person of
the Trinity.2 The Old Testament establishes
the concept of God as "Father," referring to Him as
such about twelve times (e.g. Isaiah 64:8-9; Jeremiah 31:9; Deuteronomy
32:6). References to God as Father also can be found in Jewish
literature from the era following Israel's exile to about AD 70.3
Jews understandably considered God as "Father" because
He created the world, gave the Law to them, and maintained a unique
covenantal Father-children relationship with them. Moreover, He
was viewed as their protector, guarantor of justice, and the Father
of the poor, orphans, and widows (e.g. Jeremiah 49:11; Psalm 68:5).
Further, Old Testament references to Israel (e.g. Hosea 11:1)
and the Messiah (e.g. Psalm 2:7) as "My son" certainly
reflect the fatherhood of God, even if they did not specifically
identify Him as such.4
Addressing the Cultural
First, the Bible without question uses feminine language and
similes to describe God. For example, Isaiah 42:14 says that God
will groan like a woman in travail, gasping breathlessly
(emphasis mine). Note, however, that this passage does not say
that God is "a woman in travail" there is a difference.
The verse simply describes His cry like that of a woman.
The statement is not a definition of who God is.
Even though the Bible sometimes uses feminine terminology to describe
God, the principal language and imagery used to portray Him throughout
is consistently and overwhelmingly masculine there simply
is no getting around this fact. Also, when Scripture does apply
feminine imagery or language to God, it certainly never calls
Him "mother," "she," or "her." In
his book entitled Calling God "Father," John
W. Miller correctly states, "Not once in the Bible is God
addressed as mother, said to be mother, or referred to with feminine
pronouns. On the contrary, gender usage throughout clearly specifies
that the root metaphor is masculine father."5
In addition, while it was not common, the Bible ascribed feminine
traits to male figures such as Moses, Jesus, and Paul. For example,
in Numbers 11:12, Moses asked, Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them
birth? Likewise, in Matthew 23:37, Jesus lamented over Jerusalem's
rejection of Him with the words: Jerusalem, Jerusalem! ...
How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen
gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing!
Similarly, in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul described himself and
his associates as not being burdensome to the church at Thessalonica,
but rather, gentle as a nursing mother nurtures her own children
We certainly don't conclude from these images that Moses, Jesus,
and Paul were female; we understand that they were merely using
maternal metaphors to describe themselves, rather than addressing
their actual gender. Notably, this practice is no different than
when the biblical writers use feminine metaphors to describe God.
Second, we need to consider briefly the statement "God
is spirit" and any ramifications it might have for addressing
Him in feminine or gender inclusive terms. One might counter the
previous discussion by arguing that there is a major disparity
between God the Father and Moses, the incarnate Jesus, and Paul.
They would point to the fact that God is without gender because
He is spirit (John 4:24), while the others were fully human males.
But does the fact that "God is spirit" really
indicate that we should address Him in terms like "heavenly
parent" or "mother"? There is absolutely no support
for such a claim.
The context of this statement is Jesus' conversation with the
woman at the well in Samaria, and the discussion is about the
place where people should worship God. Jesus informs the woman
that one need not be present either in Jerusalem or in Samaria
truly to worship God (John 4:21). True worship really has nothing
to do with the place that one worships but rather with "one's
inner spiritual condition."6
The phrase "God is spirit" suggests that "God
is in no way limited to a spatial location."7
From this phrase we may also conclude that God the Father has
no physical body. Indeed, His existence is unlike anything else
in creation. But none of this in any way means that we need to
refer to Him as "mother" or "heavenly parent."
That specific claim is clearly without any biblical support. God
is referred to as "Father" in Scripture.
Third, what does it mean when we say God created us in His
image? What implications might this concept have regarding using
feminine or gender inclusive language to refer to God? Because
both male and female were created in God's image should we speak
of Him as "mother" or "heavenly parent?" Interpreters
differ on what is meant by man created in the "image of God"
Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr. offers a summary of what God intended
when He created man in His image. He maintains that God created
humans to bear His image or likeness. Considering the whole of
Scripture, he thinks it likely that "the image of God in
man is the soul's personal reflection of God's righteous character.
To image God is to mirror His holiness."8
Others interpret the imago Dei more generally, "including
human rationality, conscience, creativity, relationships, and
everything we are as man."9
In any case, God uniquely shared the imago Dei with humanity;
thus, humanity find its identity in Him. So, we see that the "image
of God" concept really has nothing specifically to do with
the so-called need to refer to or address Him in feminine or gender-inclusive
terminology. Again, that specific claim is without any biblical
support whatsoever. Indeed, these claims are unbiblical inferences
that have been artificially attached to biblical concepts which
are actually unrelated to the issue of recognizing God as Father.
Submitting to Our Foundational
When we consider the fatherhood of God and how to address Him
under the New Covenant, we need to look ultimately at Jesus' words
on the subject. Why? Because God the Father reveals Himself through
the Son (John 1:1, 14, 18; 14:9; Hebrews 1:1-3). Jesus taught
this concept in Matthew 11:27 when He declared, No one knows
the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except
the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal Him.
He also said about God's revelation in the Son, The one who
has seen Me has seen the Father; and I am in the Father and the
Father is in Me; and The words I speak to you I do not
speak on My own (cf. John 14:9-11). In other words, to know
Jesus is to know the Father. Consequently, Christ's teaching on
the fatherhood of God should not be considered tangential to God's
revelation of Himself. He is (and thus, also His teaching is)
the revelation of the Father.
What else did Christ have to say about God the Father and how
to address Him?
In Matthew 6:9-13 Jesus gave His disciples the "Lord's
Prayer" (probably better titled the "Disciples' Prayer")
in which He taught His disciples to call God "our Father"
(6:9). The Greek word for "Father" (pater) likely
translates the Aramaic term Abba. This term of intimacy
for God (almost like the English word "Daddy") was practically
unparalleled in first-century Judaism.10
The word should not be taken to indicate that God has gender or
sexuality.11 But it does mean that believers
are privileged to be able to address the Almighty Sovereign God
in such warm and intimate terms.
Jesus refers to God as "Father" in each of the Gospels.
In Mark 14:36, He specifically uses the word Abba when
praying to His Father. Joachim Jeremias has shown that "abba
was a term of familial intimacy ... and points to Jesus' unique
sonship." He indicates that the word also became a part of
the early church's prayer life (cf. Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6),
"signifying Jesus' salvific role in opening up the heart
of the Father to all believers."12
God is also the Father of believers in Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:45;
6:6-15; John 1:12-13; Galatians 4:4-6; Romans 8:15-16). He sent
His Son to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive
adoption as sons (Galatians 4:5). Believers in Jesus are the
adopted children of God!
In Romans 8:14-16 Paul provides his readers assurance of this
adoption. First, all of those who are led by the Spirit are God's
sons (Romans 8:14). Second, when they are converted to Christ
they do not receive "a spirit of slavery" which produces
fear, but "the Spirit of adoption" which leads them
to cry, "Abba, Father" (8:15). Third, the Spirit bears
witness with their spirit that they are God's children (8:16).
In the second assurance, the intimate terms Abba and "Father"
(pater) are used side-by-side which seems to go back to
Jesus' agonizing experience in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36) when He
prayed the same.13 Just think! Christians
may address God in the same terms that Jesus Himself did
as "Abba, Father."
The New Testament also teaches that God is the Father of all
creation (1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:2; Ephesians 3:14-15).
For example, Paul teaches in Ephesians that God, in His grace,
has brought together lost Gentiles and Jews, peoples from different
backgrounds, and is building them into one people, members of
God's household (2:19). The apostle begins to pray in 3:16 that
God might strengthen his readers inwardly through His Spirit.
But in 3:14-15, he addresses God as "Father" and further
identifies Him as the one from whom every family in heaven
and on earth is named. The phrase "from whom" (ex
hou) in verse 14 indicates "origin" and refers back
to the Father. The word translated "family" (patria)
in verse 15 is a play on the word "Father" (patera)
in verse 14 and denotes "any group derived from a single
ancestor," in this case, families with a father as head.14 Since God is Father of humanity in a general
sense (Acts 17:29), He is the Father to Whom all fathers owe their
existence. Every family whether in heaven or earth
owes its origination to Him.
Though God is the Father of all humanity, He is not the Father
in the same way to unbelievers as He is to those who are justified
by His grace through faith. But God, this loving heavenly Father,
gladly welcomes lost sinners who repent (cf. Luke 15:11-31). He
desires salvation of everyone (1 Timothy 2:4). Thus, He commands
His children to share the Gospel and make disciples of people
in every nation (Matthew 28:19-20).
To summarize: The first person of the Trinity has revealed
Himself in Scripture as God the "Father." God the Father
has revealed Himself through the Son. Jesus has instructed us
to call His Father "our Father." He is truly the Father
of believers in Christ. God is also the Father of all humanity.
For whatever reason, God clearly expects to be understood primarily
in masculine terms. Thus, that is how we should speak of Him as
well. To do so does not mean that men are superior to women or
godlier than they are. But to address or refer to God the Father
in other than masculine terms is to go against what the Bible
teaches and what historic biblical Christianity has always taught
1. I have found Mark Brumley's articles quite
helpful and adopted some of the approaches from "Why God
is Father and Not Mother: Parts I and II" found at the following
Web sites: http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/mbrumley_father1_nov05.asp,
Accessed: 5 July 2008.
2. That is, one God who expresses Himself in three persons: God
the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
3. Daniel L. Akin, ed., A Theology of the Church (Nashville:
B&H Academic, 2007), p. 203.
4. So also in the New Testament when Jesus is called God's Son.
5. John W. Miller, Calling God "Father": Essays on
the Bible, Fatherhood & Culture (New York/Mahwah, NJ:
Paulist Press, 1999), p. 51.
6. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1994), p. 186.
8. Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr. "Male-Female Equality and Male
Headship," Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood
(eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem; Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991),
10. Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew: New American Commentary 22,
(Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), p. 119. So also W.D. Davies
and Dale C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew:
International Critical Commentary, Vol. I, (Edinburgh: T&T
Clark, 1988), p. 601.
12. Timothy George in A Theology of the Church (ed. Daniel
L. Akin; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), p. 203.
13. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: The Bible Speaks
Today, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1994), p. 233.
14. Peter T. O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians: Pillar New
Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 255.
See also Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary
(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), p. 474.
Terry L. Wilder is Research Professor of
New Testament and Greek at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
in Kansas City, Missouri. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where
he is also Academic Acquisitions Editor for B&H Publishing
Group and a member of Thompson Station Baptist Church in Thompson
God The Father:
Rewards His children
Knows the needs of His children, and
how best to meet those needs
Forgives His children
Matthew 6:14, 15
Provides for His children
Matthew 6:26, 32
Gives good gifts to His children
Matthew 7:11; James 1:17
Shows mercy to His children
Gives the Kingdom to His children
Receives and fully restores repentant
Bestows full rights to His children
Blesses His children with every spiritual
Bestows grace and peace upon His children
Loves His children, giving them eternal
comfort and good hope
2 Thessalonians 2:16
Lovingly disciplines His children
Does not show partiality to His children
1 Peter 1:17
Has fellowship with His children
1 John 1:3, 6
Has provided the Perfect Advocate
for His children
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