God and Jesus and a question of gender

Intro

I am sitting down to write this on the evening of Monday the 24th of February. Earlier today, @helen_a13 posed a question on Twitter.

“I get ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ confused sometimes. Totally get Jesus was male. But often ‘father’ is used so is that referring to Jesus or God?”

I am here only going to respond with a few thoughts. As @richardclarkson sagely pointed out, “I suspect it’s the kind of thing that either needs 140 characters or 1400 pages to do it justice.” So here I cannot pretend to give a satisfactory answer. Where I hope to shed a little light, I acknowledge that additional shadows may be formed. Others may choose different emphases and scriptures to look at. Much more of this may be dealt with as I continue my ‘A Personal Catechism‘ which is going far slower than I had hoped for, even though my initial plan was to spend 3 years on it.

Attempting to answer an ancient question

From the outset, it has to be said it’s a fantastic question and one that has been asked in various forms for centuries. It’s of particular interest to me as it sort of coincides with some reading I’ve been doing recently (in Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God) and it also taps into something I have been meaning to make explicit on this blog for some time.

Another form the question has been asked in is, “Was Jesus divine?” or “What does it mean for God to be referred to as ‘Son of God’ or ‘Son of Man’?” It is the differing answers to these questions that gave rise to, for example, the term in the Nicene Creed, “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God…begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” – here I would remind readers of my view of the creeds as products of the disputes of their time, not as normative statements which define christianity. That is not to denigrate the creed or falsify it.

Indeed, referring to Jesus as ‘Son’ may be found in several scriptures, but I would choose to highlight the narratives of his baptism (“And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased“, Matt 3:17, NRSV – see also Luke 3:21) and transfiguration (“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!'”, Mark 9:7, NRSV). In these cases, we note the word translated as ‘Beloved’ is the Greek agapetos, which my concordance fleshes out as: dearly loved one, the object of special affection and of special relationship. A footnote in the Luke passage reads: “Other ancient authorities read You are my Son, today I have begotten you. This latter note makes explicit an allusion that could have been read in the other passages: Psalm 2.

Here, we have a poem which states “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations you heritage…” – just prior to this is a statement about setting a king on Zion. So when we read these declarations of Jesus as a begotten Son, this is not meant to say that he is the offspring of God. The term begotten is not meant to denote a genealogical relationship; it is a metaphor for being specially designated. But designated as what? As the king who sits on Zion. This identifies Jesus firmly within the royal line of David.

We might also note Peter’s confession whereby he says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:16, NRSV). And who revealed this to Peter? Jesus answers, “…flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

So we cannot escape the notion of a father-son relationship. It’s then a question of how we interpret this.

Yet none of this in and of itself points to Jesus actually being God. As mentioned above, a form of Helen’s question that has been posed before is, “Was Jesus divine?” Yet, and with further apologies to Wright for following his line of thought, this seems to be slightly the wrong question. It’s not that it’s a bad question, but it’s not the question that pressed the early church. Rather, what they were asking was, “Who was Jesus?” The shocking answer that Jesus was one and the same as God that was developed in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection.

This can be seen in, for example, Paul’s poem in Philippians 2:1-11. At the end of this, we see the attribution “Jesus Christ is Lord”. The word translated as ‘Lord’ here is the Greek kyrios. This is also used as a euphemism to translate YHWH, or the name of God, in Greek translations of the Old Testament. So to label Jesus as ‘Lord’ is to declare that he is God.

This is made most explicit in in 1 Corinthians 8:6 where Paul writes: “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” This is not a statement which says, “[there is God, and now in addition to this we have a new figure.]” This is a reworking of the Jewish Shema, a statement of monotheism, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one”. It is putting Jesus at the heart of this new form of modified/fulfilled Judaism which eventually became known as christianity.

This gets us as far as binitarianism: the idea that Jesus is God. For a full-blown trinitarianism, we’d need to look at the person of the Holy Spirit, but I haven’t the time or space here for that. Of course, as soon as you answer in a way such as this, lots more questions spring up. For example, one could take the lead from Jürgen Moltmann and ask, “If Jesus is God, then doesn’t that mean that God died?” as asked in The Crucified God.

Returning to the question

With that rather lengthy preamble, we return to the original question Helen asked earlier.

“I get ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ confused sometimes. Totally get Jesus was male. But often ‘father’ is used so is that referring to Jesus or God?”

I would refer to God as being the whole of the trinity, which are referred to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some would use the term God to denote the “personality” of God the Father. Though each of these terms represent failures in our language. I wouldn’t take “God the Father” to mean that he is Jesus’ daddy. It is an honorific, meant to denote a kind of relationship. The title Son is also an honorific, but in this case denoting kingship.

Where we get into difficulty is using the term ‘father’ where such a word may, due to bad experience, carry negative connotations. I discovered this in my late teens when I worked with younger teens and I remember one of them asking me, “How can God be a good father? Father is the person who hits mum and makes her cry.” In such circumstances, I am in favour of adapting our language to suit the sensibilities (and sensitivities) of those we are talking to.

Addendum: A note on the style of this blog

As referred to above, there was an aspect of this blog which has thus far been demonstrated, but not stated explicitly. Regular readers may have noticed that I will often refer to God as ‘It’. Why use an impersonal pronoun? Again, our language is somewhat deficient. While I would like to be able to use a gender-neutral pronoun that is not impersonal, the English language simply doesn’t have one. Using ‘It’ for God tries to avoid designating a gender role. The stereotype (as aided by some of the language in the bible) is to refer to God generally via male pronouns. While there may be some uses for this, not least in thinking of God as a “person” (if not human) then some kind of gender specification may enforce this. After all, one may tend to think of something as having a personality if it has a gender. One might think in terms of the animal kingdom or even of the tendency to refer to ships using female pronouns (“all who sail in her”). Using “It” may offend some, but my aim is not to offend, merely to ask you think afresh. If we grow too accustomed to reading about God in anthropomorphic terms, then we risk entrenching ourselves in a wrong view.

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7 responses to “God and Jesus and a question of gender

  1. Just an aside to your final point, it have heard ‘Godself’ and similar used in place of him/her/it

    • Did you mean “I have heard…” or was your use of “it have heard” a pun? I’ll mull it over. Can’t decide yet if I like it or not.

  2. One of the interesting things I’ve been learning recently about the debates on the Trinity in the early church touch on this issue: the Arians and the Modalists, for example, ultimately deny that Jesus is a “Son” in a true sense of the word. The argument that Augustine and Hilary of Poitiers made rested on the idea that God was a true Father and Jesus was a true Son (hence, the divinity of Christ and eternal begetting). That’s not to say that God the Father biologically bore Jesus, but he is truly a Father.

    For that reason I wouldn’t be comfortable adapting ‘Father’ to ‘Mother’, as some do – mainly because ‘Father, Son and Spirit’ is how God reveals himself to us in the Bible. These are not titles which are arbitrary but communicate to us real truth. That said, I do sympathise that some people have had very bad fathers; I think there is a place there for seeing God as the perfect father where earthly fathers may have failed.

    For a similar reason I’m uncomfortable using ‘it’ for God, namely because the Bible does use the term ‘Father’ and other masculine pronouns. Of course God is bigger than a gender divide, but ultimately I believe this is how God has revealed Himself.

    • So if there were a personal, but gender-neutral term, would you prefer that to “him/his” or would you prefer to stick with the current convention?

      My personal view is that the use of a masculine pronoun is coloured by the tendencies of the authors rather than forming a theological statement in and of itself. Of course, anyone who holds to the inerrancy of scripture couldn’t agree with me on that. But I don’t think that’s a view you hold to; unless I’m mistaken?

      • For me it goes back to the ‘Father’ language. God could have chosen to reveal himself as ‘Parent’, but instead chose Father-Son. So I’m happy to say ‘he’ etc. I think we would lose something if we used a gender-neutral personal term.

        I have wrestled with inerrancy in the past, but I do now hold to that view of Scripture – although this is probably a discussion for another day!