Why is God a he, not a she or an it? Could Jesus have been a woman? What if the Lord’s Prayer began not with “Our Father,” but with “Our Mother”? Reading modern commentaries, you’d think a female goddess invited Sarah out under the stars and promised she would be the mother of a great nation … but then Abraham hit her over the head with a club and said, “I’m the man of the house! It’s my covenant now!” and the Judeo-Christian God has been known by the masculine pronoun he ever since. The only reason the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate of the Virgin Mary as a man was to capitulate to this misogynistic mishap.
Whether it’s male “headship,” birth control, or the question of ordaining women—there are so many controversies where the Church is accused of sexism, even misogyny. But every controversy eventually comes back to our basic presuppositions about the nature of God’s triune self-disclosure as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; John 14:26; 15:26). If God is “Spirit” (John 4:24), why does God reveal himself in masculine terms? Why is God a “he” and not a “she” or an “it”? My experience has been that Christians receive the Bible’s masculine names for God with skepticism, if they receive them at all. The Trinity might be a paradox, but what the Bible teaches about God and gender seems murky and frightening.
Do we have to bow before all those texts that refer to God in masculine terms mindlessly and with resentment, or can we affirm them happily? I would like to suggest to you that God is a he, and that this is a cause of joy. The maleness of Jesus and the masculinity of Jesus’ name for God—“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”—is not a misogynistic mind-game but mystagogy, an initiation into the mysteries of the most adorable Trinity.
Open your Bible to the pages where Jesus Christ is hanging on a bloody cross, asking this simple question: is Jesus on a power trip, or a love trip? Behold the God-Man who takes away the sins of the world. This is not misogyny; this is mystagogy. This is the story of God who is love (1 John 4:8).
The Son Loves His Father
Three key steps can help us appreciate why God reveals himself in masculine terms.
First, we start with Jesus. “No one comes to the Father except through me…. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:6, 9).
As the eternal Son of the Father now incarnate of the Virgin Mary, Jesus wants to make the Father known to us: “Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known” (John 17:25-26). It was because the Father loved the world so much that he sent his only Son into the world so that whoever believes in him might have everlasting life (John 3:16). It was for the Father’s glory that Jesus was obedient unto death: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you” (John 17:1). Jesus loves the Father (John 14:31).
We understand the Father through the Son, who loves the Father, obeys the Father, and was sent by the Father to us to reveal the Father to us—and all for the Father’s ultimate praise.
Second, we trust words. God uses words to make himself known. Although words do not describe God in his entirety, we can trust words to describe him accurately.
Have you ever screwed in a light bulb? It’s a great way to see electricity without having to see all of it. If you could see raw electricity, you’d need sunglasses and rubber gloves. The raw light. The unmediated power. It would zap you dead. But you can handle a light bulb. Divinity is beyond the wattage of language. But language is a viable way to see divinity without dying. The Light has shone in the darkness. The Word has spoken. So why is it that when we talk about God, we assume rolling blackouts ought to darken our brains?
Words are a great way to see God without seeing all of God. When Jesus calls God “Father,” he is using God’s words for God. “The words I say to you are not my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:10). The Bible only uses words “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16). When Paul talks of God, he speaks “words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:12-13). And the words the Spirit uses to describe God are: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So “Father” is not a metaphor. We do not baptize people into the metaphor of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus commands us to baptize “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). God by any other name would not be God.
These are not just words. These are God’s words, God’s words for God. We did not name God. So we do not get to change the words God uses to make himself known to us. “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6).
Third, we admit it’s a mystery. Even though God the Father does not have male body parts, he is still supremely Father. Although “God is Spirit” (John 4:24), he is “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:3). He would be Father even if he never created the world. His Fatherhood is not a borrowed idea from his creation. It is essential to his eternal Person, and that’s a mystery.
Gerard Manley Hopkins notices that by mystery most people mean an “interesting uncertainty,” but for the Christian, a mystery means an “incomprehensible certainty.” God’s Fatherhood is a mystery that hides more than it reveals, but it still reveals a lot. His Fatherhood communicates his self-existence, independence, self-sufficiency, eternality, and unchanging character. There is no one like him. He is in a class all by himself. God is Father in his absolute uniqueness. Everything else belongs to creation. He alone creates. All else begins. He alone always was. He alone is self-sufficient. All else depends on him.
And this is why he is not “Mother.” Motherhood depends on an outside source to conceive. In order to be fruitful, a woman’s body is passive in its receptivity of an outside action. But the processions of the Trinity need no outside source. God the Father does not “give birth” to the God the Son. He does not receive seed from some external spring into himself. He generates the Son from within the processions of the Trinity.
Jesus says we have one true Father in Heaven (Matt. 23:9). God is not like a human father. If that were the case, his Fatherhood would get more real if he imitated your dad. But it’s the other way around. Our dads get more real when they imitate God. From eternity, God alone possesses the essential attributes of Fatherhood.
So “Father” is not a metaphor because God is not firstly our Father: he is first and foremost the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Col. 1:3). Paul says all paternity in heaven and on earth comes from God: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood (patria) in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Eph. 3:14-15). God’s Fatherhood is not an “anthropomorphic expression.” God is the deeper, prior reality to all earthly fathers. God is first and foremost “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:3; John 3:35; Mark 1:11). So God’s Fatherhood is not a metaphor, but our human fathers are.
Have you ever heard a cell phone ringtone of your favorite song? The ringtone is simpler, but it’s still the song. You wouldn’t recognize it if it wasn’t. Our human fathers are like a cell phone ringtone of the real song, which is God the Father. God might not have physical parts, like a man, but God’s Fatherhood is “masculine” enough for the author of Hebrews to say that Jesus is “the exact imprint of [God’s] nature” (Heb. 1:2-3). As a male human being Jesus was still “in the form of God” (Phil. 2:6). When we see the new Adam and Last Man, we see the glory of the Father (John 10:38), and the image of the Father, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).
We Can Love Our Father
Why is it important to be stunned by the Fatherhood of God? Why are God’s masculine names not the byproduct of a misogynistic culture but mystagogy? God’s Fatherhood is the great ground of the Gospel. It is the foundation of his deity, the means of the Son and the Holy Spirit, who both proceed from the Father.
God is not a blob somewhere in the sky. God is not simply the Great Spirit, the Gitchi Manitou, the First Mover, the Ultimate Force. He has a name. He is personal. And he invites us to personally know him. “Those who know your name put their trust in you” (Ps. 9:10). To know God’s name is to know … God. And his name is Abba, Father. “Father” is God’s name for God.
This is not misogyny.
This is mytagogy.
In Christ, we can call God “our Father who art in Heaven” (Matt. 6:9).“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are … Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1). This is the love story that’s been coming for you since the very beginning:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son an heir (Gal. 4:4-7; cf. Rom. 8:15-16).
Jesus died for you so that he might live in you. He doesn’t just put a fresh coat of paint over your old nature. He imparts an entirely new nature—one that is completely united with his. Even if you are a woman, you are a “son in the Son” because you are participating in the eternal Son’s Sonship. You’ve been totally renovated, re-made, “born again.”
God is not a dead white bigot from the late Bronze Age. This is the audacity of Christianity: in the Son, the Holy Spirit fills our hearts with a prayer to the God we can know as Father. In so many ways and in so many settings we have relegated the Fatherhood of God to just another choice in the cafeteria line of world religions—mother goddesses, blob gods without names, Allah instead of Abba. But God is committed with all his infinite and eternal might to display his Fatherhood and to preserve the honor of his name. The audacity of Christianity is that we can know God’s name.
What an incalculable gift! To call God by name? To call him our Abba? As sons in the Son, we are made heirs of God’s Kingdom and the hope of everlasting enjoyment of God (John 14:2-3; Tit. 3:5-7)! The eternal Son calls us “brethren” (Heb. 2:11-17). By grace, we are one family in the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15). It is all grace that we may say, as the Son to the Father, Our Father who art in Heaven.
I, too, have been afraid biblical sexuality would turn out to be misogynistic and disgusting. But when I turn the pages of the Bible, I catch a glimpse of eternity. I am invited to savor the aroma of the God who has revealed himself as love (1 John 4:8). Although no human words describe God entirely, the words given to us by the Lord are the most adequate and loving that can be found. When we discuss male “headship,” birth control, the masculinity of the priestly office, we must keep this basic presupposition in the back of our minds: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit—all of it is love.
Knowing God as “Father” and “Son” is not the result of a misogynistic sub-culture. God’s invitation to call him Father is the fresh invitation your soul is looking for. Whatever security or happiness you have ever known elsewhere—it is nothing compared to the utter freedom of knowing God as Father. For our Father is gracious hearted and bending low: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “God Almighty,” the altarpiece in the Ghent cathedral, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1426-27.