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What do you think about the idea of a “Mother God”?


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Some people say that there is a Mother God. What is your view of this question?

Genesis 1:26 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.’” Since God created us “male and female” (Genesis 1:28), one could infer that there is a female aspect to God. Others interpret these plurals as referring to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jesus says in Matthew 23:23-33 that in heaven we (they) “do not marry nor are given in marriage.” We are like angels of God. This seems to indicate that there is no sex designation in heaven. What do you think? (5/16/08)
Introduction

Those of you who have been part of this study group for a while know that I tell you two things over and over:

1. Don’t take my word for this – read the scripture for yourself!

2. If you disagree with me, fine; it’s not worth breaking communion over.

This question, however, is by far the most theologically important one we’ve had. It goes to the heart of one of the most fundamental Christian doctrines, held from ancient times to the present by ALL non-heretical denominations. So in this particular case, if you are unwilling to take my word for it, you need to do some careful and comprehensive study. If you disagree with me, you need to make an immediate appointment with your pastor to discuss it.

The answer to this question will come in three parts:

1. The linguistic issue.

2. The Doctrine of the Trinity.

3. Maternal attributes of God.

This is going to be a long answer. Hang in there.

The Linguistic Issue

Let me just briefly consider the idea that the “we” in Genesis includes the “Mother God.” I’ve heard and read many explanations for the use of “we.” This is the first time I’ve ever heard the suggestion that “we” might include a “Mother God.” Although no one really knows for certain, the explanation that seems the most logical to me is that it is the “royal we” or “we of majesty.” (I gave you some of the other explanations once that you may find here).

Sometimes I think that some points of theology would be easier to understand if English had gender, like Greek and Hebrew (and many other languages). It is apparently difficult for native English speakers to understand that “gender” is a grammatical thing, not a sexual thing. Most of you live here in the Southwest, so you probably have a smattering of Spanish. Spanish has two genders, masculine and feminine. Every noun – man, woman, table, elephant – has a gender. For the vast majority of nouns, the gender is not related to the sex of the object, either because the object has no sex (la mesa, feminine, table), or because that’s just because how Spanish is (el elefante, masculine, which refers to either a male or female elephant; similar words are ant, snail, snake, and coyote).

It helped me a lot to understand gender when I learned from my Greek teacher that some languages have more than two or three genders. According to Wikipedia, Polish has five genders: “personal masculine (referring to male humans), animate non-personal masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine, and neuter.” The Australian Aboriginal language Dyirbal has four: animate objects and men; women and dangerous things like water or fire; edible fruit and vegetables; and miscellaneous. The African language Luganda has ten genders: “often characterized as people, long objects, animals, miscellaneous objects, large objects and liquids, small objects, languages, pejoratives, infinitives, [and] mass nouns.”

In languages with genders, other words in a sentence must agree with whatever word they are attached to. That’s what genders are for – to allow the listener to understand what the speaker is talking about by associating related words. (In English, we achieve this end by means of gallons of red ink in high school.) If you’ve had a smattering of Spanish, you know that you must say, “la mesa blanca” (the white table), not “la mesa blanco” (also the white table, but grammatically incorrect). Mesa is feminine, and it must have a feminine adjective, blanca, not a masculine adjective, blanco. No native Spanish speaker over the age of about five would make this kind of mistake except by a slip of the tongue. It would be roughly equivalent to “I goed to church.”

Many linguists say that English does not have gender at all; others say that that English has “pronominal gender.” The distinction is whether our pronouns, he, she, and it are always used to refer to things with the appropriate “natural gender” and thus act like they have gender or whether the pronouns actually have gender. Either way, no native English speaker would say, “A man came into the room. She was bald.” We also would not say, “A man came into the room. It was bald.” We might very well say, “A baby crawled into the room. It was bald.” This is important: in English, the ONLY time you can use “it” to describe a person is when that person is a very small child. (Notice that most people also refer to their own pets as “he” or “she,” even when they call other people’s pets “it.” Our pets are persons to us.)

Now, here’s the point of all this. Hebrew and Greek have gender. Every noun is either masculine or feminine in Hebrew or masculine, feminine, or neuter in Greek. There is NO WAY to speak about God in Hebrew or Greek without attaching a linguistic gender to the noun “God.” It happens that the gender attached to the noun “God” in Hebrew and Greek is masculine, and thus all pronouns and adjectives associated with that noun must also be masculine. This does NOT mean that God is male. In fact, it’s a good bet that the Hebrews did not consider God to be male. Years ago, I read somewhere (Biblical Archeology Review, maybe?) that no human male image had ever been found at an ancient Jewish archeological site. It’s hard to know what all the Greek-speaking Gentile converts thought, because most of them came from places where male gods and female gods and animal gods were believed to have quite lively sex lives. Even so, you can’t prove what they thought about anything from the gender of the word describing it.

For good or ill, the pronouns referring to God in the Hebrew and Greek texts have come into English as masculine pronouns, i.e., “he,” “him,” and “his.” This happens for two reasons: So now that we know that we can’t prove anything about the “Mother God” or any other aspect of God on linguistic grounds – either the “we” or the “he” – let’s consider the Trinity.

The Doctrine of the Trinity

Briefly, there is no Mother God. There is also no Father God, no Son God, and no Holy Spirit God. Who there is, is the Lord your God, whose name is YHWH, also known as the Christ or the Advocate. There is only one God, who has manifested Himself to us in the Trinity. (I’m going to continue to use masculine pronouns for God. It just gets too cumbersome in English to use phrases like “God manifested God’s self.”)

The Doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery. The Western mind (e.g., ours) is not comfortable with mysteries. We view a mystery as a problem to be solved. The Biblical view is that a mystery is more akin to a secret, which may be revealed but which cannot be “solved.” The Doctrine of the Trinity is, to me and many others, the most difficult of the Christian theological mysteries. The problem is that our poor human minds are too small, too ignorant, and too immature to understand God. Try explaining the Theory of Relativity to a three-year-old. The child doesn’t have its brain totally wired up yet, it doesn’t know any math, and it doesn’t have the required attention span. The child can’t understand the Theory of Relatively. When it comes to understanding God, I’m in the same condition as that child, so God has given me some simple stuff that I can understand.

The Doctrine of the Trinity is that God has been revealed to us in three Persons: God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth; Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, through whom all things were made; and the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who spoke through the prophets. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it comes from the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.) God has revealed Himself in Persons that are – sort of, don’t take this literally – smaller and less complicated than God really is, so that we can have some hope of understanding Him in part at least.

But what does that mean, “God in three Persons”? The best book I’ve read on the Trinity is The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. (Occasionally you can get this book from the Cokesbury catalog. Sayers, whom you may know from the Lord Peter Wimsey series on A&E, translated Dante and wrote a number of Christian plays and books.) Sayers describes the Trinity like this. God the Father Almighty is like a playwright. He has a vision of how He wants things to be, without regard, really, to any practical considerations. Say He is writing a play about Christmas. His vision of the angel choir is that glorious beings of light hover above the stable, singing with ethereal voices. God the Son, Jesus Christ, is the director. He creates everything the audience is going to see on stage. He perfectly understands the playwright’s vision, but – and this is an important but – he is implementing the vision with actors and physical materials. So the angels have voices that are pretty good, and they are dressed in shiny white cloth, and their wings are covered with soft, fluffy feathers, and they are held up by ropes and pulleys. The Holy Spirit is sitting with us in the audience. He is here with us to help us, the audience, understand and respond to the vision through its implementation – both of which He understands perfectly, by the way – and to provide feedback to God the Father and God the Son about how the vision and the implementation are being received by the audience.

(So maybe you think that’s not a very good description of the Trinity. OK. How about an egg? It has a shell, a white, and a yolk: three distinct parts. But it’s all the same egg! This description of the Trinity is good for kids, and I think it’s pretty good for adults, too.)

Sayers thinks that when God made us in His own “image and likeness,” it is this three-fold essence of creativity (“making”) that is important. All normal human beings make things. When we do that, we have a vision of how the thing should turn out. Then we have the practical problem of using real materials and tools and skills to carry out the vision. Then we stand back and look to see how it turned out.

I think it’s completely clear that the male/female thing is not the image. Millions of species are sexed – lots of trees are sexed – and God created them all, but only human beings were created in God’s image and likeness. So Sayers makes sense to me, because making is how human beings differ from all the millions of other species. (And don’t write to me about chimpanzees. Let me know when one of them makes a quilt.) But notice that neither Sayers nor I can tell you what the Trinity is, because it’s a mystery. All we can do is to come up with an description that works for us.

The best description that the Church has been able to come up with for God’s creative and almighty aspect is as “the Father,” which is the term that Jesus used. “Father” is a masculine noun in both Hebrew and Greek. Nevertheless, this does not mean that God’s creative and almighty aspect is male. What it mainly means is that neither Hebrew nor Greek can talk about “fathers” without using a noun that has a gender. This noun-with-a-gender has come over into English as a noun-with-a-connotation-of-“maleness,” because all of our earthly fathers are male.

The Church’s best description of God’s creative and saving aspect is as “the Son.” This one was fairly easy, because, in addition to being God, Jesus was an ordinary human being. He pretty much had to be born male or female. Given the job He had to do in first-century Palestine in the Jewish culture, female was not a realistic option. So God the Son really was a male while He was on the earth. But do you suppose He was a male human being when he existed with God and was God from the beginning?

The Church’s best description of God’s creative and indwelling aspect is as “the Holy Spirit.” Remember how Hebrew has masculine and feminine genders, and Greek has masculine, feminine, and neuter genders? “Spirit” is a feminine noun in Hebrew, and a neuter noun in Greek. When the Holy Spirit is mentioned by means of a pronoun, the pronoun must agree in gender with the noun. For example, John 14:17 clearly refers to the Spirit as “it” three times in Greek. But remember how English has trouble referring to a person as “it”? When we translate the pronoun, we normally use “He.” Furthermore, Greek, like Spanish, usually uses no pronoun at all – just the verb – and the verb says “he/she/it speaks.” Most often in the Greek there is no word “he” or “it” or “she” used as a subject in the sentence. There is only the verb. But in English we can’t do that. We have to put in a pronoun, and the translators, for better or worse, have routinely put in “he.” (So when we read the Bible in translation, we get a false impression about gender usage in the original. This is why the new “gender-neutral” translations are actually a good thing.)

So the point of all this is that the “Father” and the “Holy Spirit” are not sexed beings in the first place, as far as we know. They aren’t even separate beings, strictly speaking. They are Persons in the Trinity, i.e., two aspects of one unified God. And while Jesus was a sexed being, this could have been a coincidental result of being born human, while His real nature is the third Person in the Trinity.

The Bible doesn’t explain or describe the Trinity. The Doctrine of the Trinity is an exceedingly old concept that the Church developed in order to give us poor, confused mortals some idea of who it is that we worship. There are, however, quite a number of verses that support the Doctrine of the Trinity, and only three Persons are ever mentioned: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is nothing in the Bible that I can think of – specifically including the “we” verses in Genesis mentioned in the question – that supports the idea of a forth Person of God.

Maternal Characteristics of God

Even though no female Person of God has been revealed to us, that does not mean that God has no “maternal” characteristics. (I use quotation marks here because various cultures’ ideas about maternal characteristics may differ.)

Here are some of the verses that display maternal characteristics of God: The highest and best attributes of any person come from God, so we should not be surprised to see that God has characteristics that we admire and call “maternal.” This does not mean that God is female, any more than masculine pronouns mean that God is male.

Conclusion

Neither the “we” verses in Genesis nor the existence of sexed species suggest that God is by nature a sexed being.

There is no scriptural basis for the idea of “God the Mother,” let alone a “Mother God.”

In a few verses of the Bible, God displays attributes that we would characterize as “maternal,” although “maternal” characteristics probably vary from culture to culture.

Most importantly, the idea that there might be a fourth Person, co-equal with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not only unsupported by scripture, but is also heretical, that is, it departs from the established belief of the holy and universal Church.


Copyright 2008, 2013 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by RPB.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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