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Fall 2000 · Vol. 29 No. 2 · pp. 169–84 

God-Language and Gender: Some Trinitarian Reflections

Shirley Isaac

According to the first article of the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith, the church confesses God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This language is biblical. It is also trinitarian. The significance of this second statement, however, requires examination. In what way does the doctrine of the Trinity, as it is symbolized and communicated in the faith and life of the church, impact our understanding of God? And how does this doctrine reflect a proper understanding of our own identity, as male and female, created in the image of God?

Can we substitute other more inclusive words for “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” or would this mean a denial of the Trinity? That we do substitute other words on occasion is evident in hymns such as “The Lord Is My Shepherd” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” However, can God also be our Mother, or is God only our Fortress and our Father?

Inclusive and female God-language might serve as a corrective to a faulty and neglected trinitarianism.

The battle regarding inclusive language for God is being waged on more than one front. In this essay I will focus on the trinitarian debate. Donald Bloesch maintains that both gender-inclusive and female language for God threaten to undermine the doctrine of the Trinity. I will challenge his position on the grounds that it does not reflect a biblical trinitarianism. I will also address the implications for human male-female relations that derive from his trinitarian analysis.


According to Donald Bloesch, inclusive God-language undermines {170} the doctrine of the Trinity in two ways. First, it tends to substitute functional terms for ontological symbols, thus implying a resurgence of modalism. This can be seen in the words “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier,” which have sometimes been used in an attempt to avoid male language. Second, it portrays God in a manner that is incompatible with the biblical understanding of God as transcendent Creator, for example, by referring to God as “Primal Matrix,” or “Womb of Being.” As Bloesch writes in The Battle for the Trinity, God “exists as an absolute being” who is not dependent on the world since he “also coexists as a fellowship within himself.” 1 Attempts to substitute other words for “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” can only result in the demise of the biblical revelation of God as a Trinity of persons.

The argument that inclusive God-language undermines this biblical revelation depends largely on an understanding of the Trinity that Bloesch takes over from Karl Barth. According to Barth, there is an “above” and a “below” within God himself, a superordination and subordination that is reflected in the relation of the man to the woman. 2 Thus, it is not simply on account of patriarchy that the Bible has a preponderance of male images for God. As Bloesch writes, the biblical God is the “Almighty Creator and Lord of the universe” and is therefore most appropriately spoken of in the masculine gender. 3

God is not male, but according to Bloesch neither is the name “God the Father” a metaphor, as Paul Ricoeur, Sallie McFague, and other proponents of the metaphorical approach to theology have argued. On the contrary, it is analogical language, Bloesch maintains, and here he makes reference to the understanding of analogy in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Analogical language is neither equivocal nor univocal, but rather “there is a partial resemblance between our words and the transcendent reality to which they point.” 4 While such language must remain incomplete, it nevertheless allows for “real knowledge” that, according to Bloesch, is the same as conceptual knowledge, which metaphorical language does not permit. 5 He concludes that reference to God as Father is ontological and cannot be changed without implying a change of meaning.


This argument does not imply that God cannot be referred to as “holy Mother” on occasion, as Bloesch also writes. 6 Since God includes within himself both masculine and feminine characteristics, female imagery may at times be appropriate, for example, when referring to the Spirit of God within the church. However, the feminine characteristics— {171} which include “receptivity, openness, spontaneity and intuitiveness”—take a secondary place to the masculine characteristics—which are “creativeness, initiative, aggressiveness.” 7 Thus, in his active roles as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, God must always be referred to in masculine terms.

The implications of Bloesch’s trinitarian analysis for human male-female relations are seen in “covenantalism,” which refers to a certain interdependence of the man and the woman. According to Bloesch, this interdependence is found in neither patriarchy nor feminism. However, insofar as covenantalism implies a priority that must be given to the man who is the head of the woman, this position might also be referred to as “benevolent patriarchy” or, as Bloesch writes, a “transformed patriarchalism.” 8 The subordination of the woman to the man is of a different kind than that of the man to the woman, he maintains. Just as we see the principle of superordination and subordination in the Trinity, we also observe this principle in the family.


The argument that female language for God must take a secondary place to male language is intended to maintain a certain priority not only within the Trinity, but also between God and humanity, and between husband and wife. Stated in this way, there would seem to be some validity to this thesis, especially concerning the “priority” that God has in relation to humanity. But the argument is faulty and owes more to philosophical speculation regarding the nature of God than to biblical revelation. This can be seen in the following statement by Bloesch: “He [God] is not simply the power of being (Tillich) but the act of being (actus purus) that is prior to all being. . . . He is being in act rather than either static being or sheer becoming.” 9

According to this statement, God is not only absolute being, but dynamic, self-existent being, yet not in a way that implies personal communion or divine life. This is not a statement about the Trinity; thus it is not a proper statement about God. Certainly there is a sense in which it is proper to say that God is self-sufficient and therefore does not require our fellowship. This understanding is based on Exodus 3:14 where God reveals himself as “I am who I am.” However, the reference to God as actus purus is borrowed from Thomas Aquinas whose understanding of God is closer to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover than Bloesch would want to admit. For Aquinas, God has no real relations with the world, but only logical relations. God acts but cannot be acted upon. The essence of God is unknowable, and God can be known only from his creatures. {172}

Bloesch wants to move away from this understanding of an unknowable and impassible God toward a more personal understanding of God who interacts with his creation. Whether he succeeds, however, is another question. He rejects the approach of classical theism that presumes to name God from creation; at the same time he acknowledges this approach by assuming a model of God based on the negation of all human attributes. This is nowhere more evident than in his dismissal of the statement “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity” (Karl Rahner). Bloesch rejects this axiom presumably to safeguard the freedom and aseity of God. 10 What he achieves, however, is the marginalization of the Trinity brought about by the radical separation of the immanent Trinity (God himself) from God’s saving acts in history. 11 Here, the tension in Karl Barth’s trinitarian theology between an emphasis on God’s self-revelation and the revelation of Christ is apparent also in the trinitarianism of Bloesch.

The Unknown God in Bloesch’s Trinitarian Theology

The implication of this bifurcation between the immanent and economic Trinity is that no language can even begin to reveal the God who remains essentially unknown. According to Aquinas, analogical language is closer to equivocation than it would seem to be for Bloesch, who argues that analogical language provides a knowledge of God that metaphor does not. According to Bloesch, the title “God the Father” is analogical since it is based on an “underlying similarity” between God and the creature that at the same time permits “real difference.” 12

However, for Aquinas, the dissimilarity between the symbol and the reality it signifies is always greater than any conceivable similarity. For this reason a double process of negation is required whereby the positive content of the word is first negated and then also the negation of the negative. Assuming the validity of this approach, it is possible to legitimately speak of God, yet not attribute positive content to the nature of God himself, which remains inconceivable. Some real knowledge of God is possible, but this is not the same as conceptual knowledge, a distinction that Bloesch overlooks. Moreover, according to Aquinas, the word Father is not an ontological term that can be identified with the divine essence, but it indicates a relation only. 13 This understanding goes back to Gregory of Nazianzen who said that the word Father is not the name of a nature or essence but a relation, and even then it is metaphorical pertaining not to procreation but indicating only a relation of origin. 14

One might conclude from this brief analysis of analogical language that the terms Father and Son are neither arbitrary nor ontological, that, {173} on the contrary, this language is metaphorical. 15 However, if the assumption of a metaphorical approach to God-language is a certain apophaticism regarding the nature of God, then this approach does not take the incarnation seriously. God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. God has also revealed himself as Father. 16 This is revelational language, as Bloesch contends. What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that revelation always presupposes a historical context that gives shape to the revelation itself; therefore, there is no revelatory language that is not also human language.

Even more important is the content of this biblical revelation. Whereas Bloesch assumes such a radical distinction between God and God’s self-revelation that female God-language can only threaten the distinction, I will argue that biblical revelation points to a triune God who is more involved in creation than the Christian tradition itself has most often acknowledged.

The Revelation of God in Scripture

It is widely recognized that the religion of ancient Israel was monotheistic, unlike other ancient Near Eastern religions that participated in the worship of gods and goddesses with their fertility rites. In contrast to these Canaanite deities, Yahweh demanded exclusive loyalty. The primary name for God was a non-name (“I am”), indicating neither male nor female sexuality, nor even grammatical gender. 17 Yet the imagery for God was predominantly masculine, which reflected the patriarchal culture.

The writers of the New Testament inherited this patriarchy, although this may not be the immediate explanation for their use of the word Father, infrequently used as a title for God in the Old Testament. According to Gail Ramshaw, it is more likely that the use of Father in the New Testament period derives from the patriarchal rule of Caesar Augustus who adopted the title Pater patraie, “father of the fatherland.” In protest, devout Jews began calling Yahweh their Father. 18

Sometimes the argument is made that Jesus’ use of the word abba was unprecedented and points to an understanding of God as “Father” that cannot be attributed to the influence of patriarchy. However, this argument has been challenged along several lines. 19 Whether the challenge to this argument can be adequately supported does not determine the issue of God-language. If the way that Jesus used abba implies such discontinuity with the usual understanding of God as “Father” that it cannot be seen as a reflection of patriarchy, then the discontinuity is probably due to a level of intimacy that Jesus assumed between himself {174} and his Father, a level of intimacy that also implies a subversion of the male pattern of authority. 20

Sophia and Shekinah

While male language predominates in Scripture, female imagery for God is not altogether absent. This is particularly evident in the image of personified Wisdom, or sophia, which is not only grammatically feminine in gender, but as Elizabeth Johnson writes, is consistently depicted as female in a myriad of roles. 21 Contrary to the argument that female language symbolizes receptivity and openness, whereas male language represents transcendent power and aggression, omnipotence is ascribed to Wisdom as well as creative and recreative energy. 22

Moreover, in the New Testament Jesus is described as Wisdom, the embodiment of Sophia herself. 23 As Sophia was depicted in Judaism, so Jesus was spoken of among first-century Christians. 24 Eventually the image of Sophia was repressed, Johnson writes, probably because of a budding gnosticism with its dualistic way of thinking. Thus, the word logos began to substitute for sophia, as is evident in the prologue to the Gospel of John. 25 But this dualism is not inherent to Sophia herself who is not only immanent in this world, but transcends the world and orders it along the right path.

Another example of female imagery is the shekinah (“glory”) of God. Found in post-Old Testament Jewish writings, it points even more closely to God’s involvement with the world. Through his shekinah, God dwells among his people; wherever they go, the shekinah goes, into slavery and even into exile. As Moltmann writes, the image of God’s shekinah suggests a picture of God as one whose fate is tied up with Israel. 26 Thus, Abraham Heschel refers to the God of Israel as a “bipolar God.” God is transcendent, but through his Spirit (ruah) God is present in all things (Wis. 12:1). 27

As Terence Fretheim writes, while the God of the Old Testament is “immune from the ravages of time . . . , God is not above the flow of time and history.” 28 He adds, “The OT witnesses to a God who truly shares in human history as past, present, and future.” 29 This portrayal of God seems quite removed from the philosophical definition of absolute being that Bloesch wants to retain. If the objection to female language for God is that this language brings God too close to this world, then the objection is one that requires questioning. God is transcendent, but God is also immanent, and while the God of the Bible might be closer to the Unmoved Mover than to the Primal Matrix or Womb of Being, this is only from the standpoint of fallen humanity. Even so, God has bridged {175} this barrier. Through his self-humiliation God has brought himself into relation with this world in an irreversible way. The biblical God is a God who acts, but who is also acted upon—a God who suffers the fate of his people. 30

The Suffering of God in Christ

This shared suffering is most evident in the incarnation. Here God has shown himself to be for us: not removed or impassible, but the God who befriends sinners, the God of the poor and the outcast. 31 As Moltmann writes, any attempt to still hold to the assertion “God always greater” in relation to Jesus Christ misses the centrality of the incarnation. 32 Instead of interpreting the word God through God’s own self-revelation, the assumption “God always greater” presupposes a hidden God who by his very absence overshadows the revelation of God in Jesus Christ!

This assumption does not do justice to the anguished prayer of Jesus to his Father in the hours before his death, nor to the Spirit who gives witness to Jesus Christ, and who can be grieved, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:30. God’s relationship with the world is not one way but goes two ways. What this means is that God has a history. The death and resurrection of Christ demonstrates this history. If the Son of God himself did not cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46 NRSV, passim; cf. Mark 15:34), the death and resurrection of Christ holds no saving significance. 33

Bloesch argues against this understanding of God evident in the theology of Moltmann, since it would seem to imply a God who creates out of necessity, instead of creation ex nihilo. 34 But this assumption is wrong, and here again Bloesch has too quickly arrived at a conclusion. 35 God does not create out of necessity, but neither can we say that creation is the work of a capricious God. The freedom of God is not an arbitrary freedom, and to think that we can even conceive of the implications that such freedom would entail is a distortion of biblical faith. 36 That God might not have created must always remain a formal possibility insofar as it safeguards the aseity of God. But here we must note that in fact God has defined himself, and the implications of this statement are underscored by Moltmann. 37

God is love (1 John 4:16). This is the closest statement we have to an ontological definition of God in the New Testament. Only because God is love in himself can God also be self-sacrificing love for us. According to Moltmann, creation implies a self-differentiation within God, whereby a space for creation is opened up—a space that is within God, yet {176} radically other than God on account of God’s own self-humiliation. 38 “In him we live and move and have our being,” as Paul says in Acts 17:28. Female language for God might sound uncomfortably intimate and close, but to deny this intimacy of God with us implies not only a denial of the incarnation, but a weakening of the doctrine of the Trinity, which is nothing other than the affirmation that God is love.

Subordinationism versus Trinitarianism

This marginalization of the Trinity is evident not only in the radical disruption Bloesch assumes between the immanent and economic Trinity, but in the assumption he borrows from Karl Barth that there is an above and below within God himself. This statement is not only unwarranted biblically, but it comes very close to the heresy of subordinationism which was condemned at the Council of Nicaea by Athanasius in his argument against the Arians. 39 The orthodox response to this heresy is underscored by the doctrine of perichoresis, which was the work of John of Damascus in the eighth century. According to this teaching, there is a mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity that makes impossible any suggestion of subordinationism.

Sadly, the Christian tradition has not always realized the implications of its own trinitarian doctrine, preferring to give priority to the Father, as the title “first person” of the Trinity suggests. The Father “begets” a Son and “breathes” or “spirates” the Spirit. As Elizabeth Johnson notes, this processional language carries an implicit subordinationism that she traces to the influence of Neoplatonism on early orthodox formulations. 40

A corrective to this subordinationist tendency in orthodox trinitarianism, however, is found within the tradition itself, which asserts that the three persons are equal in nature (homoousious) and distinguished only by their internal relations. A further corrective to this subordinationist tendency latent within the Christian tradition pertains to the role of the Spirit in the consummation of all things. As Moltmann has been among the first to recognize, here the order is reversed. Whereas the Father creates, reconciles and redeems through the Son and in the power of the Spirit, after the resurrection all thanksgiving, intercession, praise and adoration of God in the redeemed community proceed from the Spirit, through the Son and to the Father, who is purely receptive. 41

This reversal in the order of procession from “Father — Son — Holy Spirit” to “Holy Spirit—Son—Father” implies a mutual giving and receiving among the three persons of the Trinity that is obscured by the emphasis of Bloesch on the one God who is understood as both God the {177} Father and Lord over all. This statement not only subordinates the distinction of persons within the Trinity to the one God, but it does not do justice to the way these terms are used in Scripture. As Moltmann observes, God the Father is always the Father of Jesus Christ, not Zeus, or the Father of the gods. 42 And Jesus never refers to the kingdom as the “kingdom of God the Lord, but the kingdom of God his Father.” 43

Lordship is attributed to Jesus Christ, who emptied himself and made himself nothing (Phil. 2:5-11). This implies a subversive understanding of lordship that is easily distorted by patriarchy’s emphasis on the monarchy of God, even a “benevolent patriarchy” such as Bloesch wants to retain. Self-emptying love does not only refer to the second person of the Trinity, but to God himself. Failing to recognize this implies a distortion of the biblical revelation of God in Christ.

In God the Almighty, Bloesch qualifies this preeminence he gives to the Father by speaking of a mutual interdependence or indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity. While he does not locate the unity of the Trinity in the person of the Father, his model of the Trinity gives unmistakable precedence to the Father as the initiator of all activity and the one to whom all activity returns. 44 A proper understanding of the Trinity that takes the mutual indwelling of the Father, Son and Spirit seriously points in a different direction. As Moltmann writes, the divine life

cannot be consummated by merely one subject at all. It is bound to consist of the living fellowship of three Persons who are related to one another and exist in one another. Their unity does not lie in the one lordship of God; it is found in the unity of their tri-unity. 45


The previous statement implies an equality among the three persons of the Trinity that the trinitarian baptismal formula itself is unable to convey. While the baptismal formula is both biblical and revelatory, it is also human language and, as such, it implies certain limitations on meaning. The issue is not whether God has spoken; we assume that God has done so. However, to the extent that all language suggests a range of meaning that tends to exclude other available meaning, the language of Scripture does also. 46

The argument that female imagery for God undermines the biblical revelation of God as Father does not take into account this limitation on meaning that all language presents. Moreover, the argument serves to sanction a form of trinitarian subordinationism that can hardly be {178} considered orthodox. From a biblical perspective, it is evident that an unqualified subordination of the Son to the Father cannot be sustained.

Maintaining that the Son is defined by God in a way that makes the Father the sole principle of deity within the Godhead is a form of subordinationism that fails to give Jesus Christ the glory and honor that is due to him as God. 47 The same can be said in regard to the Spirit, who is not only passive in relation to the other members of the Trinity, but active both in relation to the church and the world, and within the divine life. 48 One might conclude from some of Bloesch’s statements regarding masculine and feminine imagery for God that there is only one fully active subject within the Trinity, namely the Father who is designated by masculine symbols. 49 This is patently untenable since it implies that the Son and the Spirit are not only less than fully personal, but less than fully God.

Implications for Male-Female Relations

The implications that Bloesch derives from this faulty trinitarianism for male-female relations are biblically and theologically unwarranted. The woman is not subordinate to the man nor the man to the woman, but there is a mutual submission of one to another that is patterned after Christ, who embodies the entire rule of God.

The argument is sometimes made that 1 Corinthians 11:3 implies a chain of command, though this cannot be easily sustained. Although the word head (kephale) is sometimes translated as “authority,” the word does not usually carry this meaning. Also, the sequence in this verse does not indicate a chain of command. Thus, according to Bilezikian, a better translation might be “source.” 50

Ephesians 5:23 is another text in which “head” is better translated “source” according to Bilezikian, although here there is less agreement. However, even if the more accurate translation is “authority,” our model is Christ who is both the head of the church and the one who gave his life for us so that we might follow in his path. When headship is viewed in light of Christ, hierarchical dualisms are overturned. As John Toews has said, headship is redefined as “taking the lead in self-sacrifice.” 51 This is not only an expression of submission, but the first step toward mutual love.

A symbol of mutual love that dates back to antiquity is the family: father, mother, and child. The child becomes a parent, and so the symbol acts as a living model. Relations of origin cannot account for the ongoing life of the family—the symbol of hope is the child. In the same way, relations of origin within the Trinity do not mirror the trinitarian life. {179} There is mutual giving and receiving, and in the end the Father receives all things that have been brought to their fullness in Christ through the work and activity of the Spirit. The Spirit glorifies the Son and brings glory to the Father through him (Phil. 2:10-11). All activity begins with the Father and returns to him, but the movement takes place in the Spirit, and the goal is that God might be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).

This statement refers to the triune God, and not only to the first person of the Trinity. Conflating “God” and “Father” here does not take into account the sense of completion implied. 52 And it leads to a misunderstanding regarding the nature of God as love. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,” Jesus prays in his high priestly prayer (John 17:21). Fellowship, not domination, is the model that Jesus embodied.

Implications for God-Language

Does male language for God communicate the fellowship? To the extent that the word Father has functioned to imply distance and male domination, inclusive and female God-language can serve as a corrective. “Father, Son, and Spirit” is biblical language. However, this does not mean that other language cannot sometimes be used. In fact, other words have already been used, and many of these are found in Scripture.

While Bloesch maintains that we must use particular caution in regard to female imagery, I disagree with this statement. Female God-language suggests a more intimate understanding of our relation to God than we might feel comfortable in assuming, but this is not an argument against such language. 53 Furthermore, male language has its own potential for misunderstanding, as the patriarchy and subordinationism that has dominated much of the Christian tradition demonstrates.

However, language that collapses the distinction of persons within the Trinity is not a corrective if it leads to the assumption of a unipersonal God, as Bloesch rightly emphasizes in his opposition to some recent attempts at inclusive language. 54 What Bloesch does not realize is that the marginalization of the Trinity in Western Christianity has already led to this assumption in the piety of many people within the church. What is the difference to Christian faith that Jesus Christ is not only the “way” to the Father, but also the “truth and the life,” and that the Holy Spirit is not only the power of God, but the eschatological goal of history and the presupposition of this goal in the form of trinitarian doxology? If these questions do not seem significant, this only points to the need for the biblical doctrine of the Trinity to occupy a more central place in both our faith and worship. {180}

The implications of this biblical doctrine point in a different direction than Bloesch assumes. While I agree that the trinitarian baptismal formula itself cannot be changed without raising more difficulties than it resolves, this does not entail a prohibition on inclusive and female God-language. Such language is not only compatible with God’s self-revelation, but might serve as a corrective to a faulty and neglected trinitarianism.


  1. Donald Bloesch, The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate over Inclusive God-Language (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1985), 31.
  2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV, I, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), 195.
  3. Battle for the Trinity, 100.
  4. Ibid., 14.
  5. Ibid., 21.
  6. See Is the Bible Sexist? Beyond Feminism and Patriarchalism (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1982), 71.
  7. Battle for the Trinity, 37.
  8. Is the Bible Sexist? 86.
  9. Battle for the Trinity, 100.
  10. Ibid., 91.
  11. Bloesch rejects this axiom too quickly. The statement itself does not imply a strict logical identity between God himself and God’s self-revelation, nor should it be understood in this way. According to Catherine LaCugna, in God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), what this axiom intends in the theology of Rahner is the identity of the historical revelation of Christ and “the reality of God as God is from all eternity” (212). Thus T. F. Torrance explicitly affirms Rahner’s axiom, although with some qualification. As he writes, “God himself is the content of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ,” and to argue otherwise presupposes “only a transient functional and not an ontological relation between the economic self-revelation of God consummated in him and what God is antecedently and eternally in himself.” See The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), 199-200.
  12. Battle for the Trinity, 21.
  13. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Blackfriars ed., vol. 6 (New York: McGraw-Hill; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965), 1a, 29.4. {181}
  14. Gregory Nazianzen, “The Third Theological Oration,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2d ser., vol. 7, trans. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1894; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 301-9 (page citations are to the reprint edition).
  15. Bloesch argues otherwise, maintaining that the term “Father, Son and Spirit” is the “proper name” of God. See Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 76. However, this argument, which has also been put forward by Robert Jenson, owes more to a postmodern narrative approach to theology (that draws on the assumptions of recent metaphorical theory) than either classical statements regarding the Trinity or the biblical material itself. Matt. 28:19 notwithstanding, the evidence of the early church points to baptism in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5), the only name under heaven by which one can be saved (Acts 4:12).
  16. Here the most recent proponents of a metaphorical approach to God-language are met with a contradiction regarding their own understanding of metaphor, as Garret Green observes in “The Gender of God and the Theology of Metaphor,” in Speaking the Christian God, ed. Alvin F. Kimmel, Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 51-53. According to recent language theory, all language is metaphorical. But this does not imply epistemological skepticism. Rather, the usual understanding is that metaphors give access to “real knowledge” and are therefore “unsubstitutable.” The argument for inclusive God-language runs into difficulty precisely with this strong view of metaphor. The difficulty is not immediately resolved by maintaining that a plurality of metaphors is biblically and theologically warranted, as Sallie McFague contends. The fact remains that the Bible most often refers to God in male terms. This is an argument that can be challenged only by a reevaluation of the biblical material itself.
  17. Sandra Schneiders, Woman and the Word: The Gender of God in the New Testament and the Spirituality of Women (New York: Paulist, 1986), 20-25. See also, Gail Ramshaw, God Beyond Gender: Feminist Christian God-Language (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995), 48-50.
  18. Gail Ramshaw, God Beyond Gender, 78. Here Ramshaw writes that the idea of God as Father of the universe was “alien to the Hebrew tradition.” Rather, God was portrayed as the Father of Israel, “because the king of Israel [was] the son of God.” {182}
  19. Ruth Duck, Gender and the Name of God: The Trinitarian Baptismal Formula (New York: Pilgrim, 1991), 64-68.
  20. See Jürgen Moltmann, “The Inviting Unity of the Triune God,” Concilium 177, ed. C. Geffré and J. P. Jossva (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1985), 55. Here Moltmann argues that the political patriarchy implied by the equation of “Father” and “Lord” is undermined by Jesus’ use of the word abba that must be defined in relation to Jesus himself, who overturned the male pattern of authority in both his ministry and his teaching.
  21. Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 87.
  22. See Prov. 1:20-33; 4:13; 8:35; 9:1-6. See also Wis. 7:12, 27.
  23. See Matt. 11:19; 12:42; 1 Cor. 1:24, 30.
  24. See, for example, 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15-16; Heb. 1:3. Parallels are found in Prov. 3:19; 8:22-31; and Wis. 7:25-26; 8:3-4. See also Wis. 9:18 and chapter 10 where redeeming power elsewhere associated with Yahweh is here attributed to Sophia. As Elizabeth Johnson argues, given the assumption of Jewish monotheism, the most reasonable interpretation of this personification of Wisdom is that “Sophia is Israel’s God in female imagery” (She Who Is, 91).
  25. She Who Is, 96-100.
  26. Jürgen Moltmann, “The Inviting Unity of the Triune God,” 52.
  27. Quoted in “The Inviting Unity of the Triune God,” 53.
  28. Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1989), 43.
  29. Ibid., 44.
  30. While Bloesch is also concerned to preserve God’s personhood and immanence, this is impossible apart from a trinitarian understanding of God that is soteriologically and economically motivated. As T. F. Torrance notes, this soteriological emphasis is obscured in the theology of Bloesch not only by his dependence on Barth, for whom the doctrine of the Trinity is an “analytical development of the central act of divine revelation,” but by his own understanding of the Trinity as a second-order reflection based on this revelation. See T. F. Torrance, “Bloesch’s Doctrine of God,” in Evangelical Theology in Transition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 144.
  31. Matt. 11:19; Luke 1:46-55; 4:18-19.
  32. Jürgen Moltmann, History and the Triune God, trans. John Bowden (New York: SCM, 1991), 39.
  33. Note that this is Moltmann’s emphasis in The Crucified God, trans. John Bowden (New York: SCM, 1974). See esp. 190-93 and 200-207. {183}
  34. Battle for the Trinity, 6-7.
  35. That Moltmann does affirm the doctrine of creation out of nothing in distinction from process theology is evident in God in Creation, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), 72-103.
  36. 2 Tim. 2:13; Titus 1:2.
  37. While Barth must be credited for giving priority to God’s de facto decision over against philosophical speculation regarding the nature of God, the tension between this decision and the possibility of “choosing otherwise” remains unresolved in the theology of Barth. Consequently, “choosing otherwise” is conceived as an actual possibility from which implications can be inferred, a statement that only serves to mitigate against the revelation of God in Christ.
  38. See Col. 1:16. Here creation might be viewed as the gift of the Father to the Son, for whom all things were created.
  39. It is sometimes argued that this statement does not imply christological heresy, since it is only ontological subordinationism that was overruled by Nicaea. However, this argument misses the purpose of Nicaea which was to establish the full equality of the Son with the Father such that they are both “equally worshipped and equally adored.” Any attempt to establish a hierarchy among the persons of the Trinity does not permit their equal worship. Denying this statement implies moving in the direction of modalism, a trinitarian heresy.
  40. She Who Is, 194.
  41. See Rom. 8:15-16, 22-23, 26-27; Eph. 2:18; Rev. 19:6.
  42. Jürgen Moltmann, “Some Reflections on the Social Doctrine of the Trinity,” in The Christian Understanding of God Today, ed. James M. Byrne (Dublin: Columbia, 1993), 107.
  43. The Trinity and the Kingdom, 70.
  44. God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 188-204. In comparison to the trinitarian theology of Robert Jenson, to whom Bloesch refers in a footnote, his own trinitarianism can be faulted for giving precedence to relations of origin within the Trinity that result in an eclipse of the Spirit as the eschatological goal.
  45. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), 175. While this “social doctrine” has been charged with tritheism (Walter Kasper), this determination cannot be so easily inferred from the social doctrine itself. Moltmann is not alone in maintaining that the biblical narrative points to three persons of the Trinity in a fuller sense of the {184} word person than the Western tradition has most often assumed. According to T. F. Torrance, there is a sense in which divine consciousness is proper not only to the one God, but to the Trinity of persons in what would seem to be a similar respect (The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity, 161). Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. goes even further than Torrance when he advocates a “full sense of the term.” See “Social Trinity and Tritheism,” in Trinity and Incarnation: Philosophical and Theological Essays, ed. Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 42.
  46. To ignore this argument implies an uncritical awareness of language and how language functions. While one might also maintain that there is no restriction on meaning that the biblical language itself is unable to overcome, the more important issue is how this biblical language has tended to function within the Christian tradition.
  47. See especially Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 2:9; John 1:14; 8:58; 12:44-5; 16:15; Rev. 1:17-18; 5:11-14; 19:6-10; 21:6-7.
  48. See 1 Cor. 2:10; Matt. 4:1; 12:28; John 6:63; 14:26; 15:26.
  49. See, for example, Is the Bible Sexist? 66. Here Bloesch writes that “God as the initiator and determiner is the ground of the masculine,” and that “The difference between masculine and feminine is closely tied to the conception of God as a Trinitarian being.” See also, Battle for the Trinity, 32, 37.
  50. Gilbert G. Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985), 137-39.
  51. John E. Toews, “The Husband Is the Head of the Wife,” in Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Women in Ministry in the Church, ed. John E. Toews, Valerie Rempel, and Katie Funk Wiebe (Winnipeg, MB, and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1992), 134.
  52. Note that the word spirit can also refer both to the Holy Spirit and to God who is Spirit (John 4:24).
  53. See John 3:4-5.
  54. This is probably the strongest reason for retaining the trinitarian baptismal formula.
Shirley Isaac is an instructor at Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn, Saskatchewan.

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