Calling God "Mother" Is a Rejection of God's Special Revelation:
The Scriptures and His Son Jesus Christ
By Bradley R. Brandon
A Paper Presented to Dr. Russell D. Moore - The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
The use of the word “Mother” to refer to God is hot topic today among Christians from both liberal and conservative sides of the religious fence. Mother God terminology has several sources from which it springs such as liberal feminist theologians, male liberation theologians, African tribal religions, ancient goddess worship, and the non-related Roman Catholic understanding of Mary as the Mother of God. For the most part, the most common and vocal supporters for referring to God as Mother are the feminist theologians.
The danger of designating or calling God “Mother” is that it denies the special revelation of God, which is composed of His word the Bible and His fullest revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. The relevancy of calling God “Mother” has to do with how we treat and understand God’s disclosure of Himself to humankind first in His word and finally in His Son. What we believe about calling God Mother says a lot about what we believe about the Bible and ultimately what we believe about God. Nowhere in Scripture has God revealed Himself or called Himself “Mother.” The Bible does contain descriptive feminine language about God, but it never addresses God as “Mother” nor does it address God in feminine language.
Defending the biblical teaching and revelation of God as Father is important because the Fatherhood of God is tied to several other important truths. It is tied to God’s relationship with His people through covenant, inheritance, provision, protection, nurturing, and discipline (tied to Sonship). All of these truths are revealed in the Bible and they all reveal to us parts of the overall character and nature of God.
Positions for calling God “Mother”
Two positions that seem to be more adamant in calling God “Mother” are the African Traditional conceptions of a Father-Mother God, and the more radical feminist use of this language. This writing will focus more on the feminist argument than with the African.
African Christian Usage of Father-Mother God
In an article by George Kwami Kumi, the concept of calling God “Mother” or more specifically in this case, Father-Mother God is explained from his disbelief that this term is not widely used in the U.S. As an Akan Ghanaian Christian, Kumi is accustomed to referring to God as Father-Mother God, and it is surprising to him that such a practice is seen as a strange one in the United States. He explains that the Akan Africans have a complimentary understanding of God as Father and Mother, but that God does not have a gender whatsoever.
They see the Fatherhood of God as being over all of creation and therefore, all men have a Father God whether they are Christian or not. They also believe that God the Father is the Father of lesser deities, and He is of course the personal God of the individual believer. The concept of God as Mother is simply one that compliments the concept of God’s Fatherhood. The motherly aspect of God is one that is caring, nurturing, etc…. There are only three groups in all of Africa that use this feminine terminology when referring to God, and the Akan are one of those. The majority of other African Christians do not refer to God in Mother language.1
Female Liberation Theologians’ Use of the Term “Mother”
The second group to favor using Mother God terminology is the feminist liberation theologians. It seems this group by far has the loudest voice among those arguing for the use of gender inclusive language when referring to God the Father.
This group differs from the African group for instance because their reasons have no cultural roots whatsoever (even the roots are wrong). Feminists argue for gender inclusive language for a variety of reasons, while at the heart of those reasons lies the desire to ignore the special revelation of God in favor of general revelation only. However, they appeal to Scripture as one of the main supports for their use of gender inclusive language to refer to God.
Biblical-Grammatical Argument for “Mother God”
The loudest argument heard from the feminists concerning the use of gender inclusive language to address God the Father may be that the Bible itself supports their view. The texts most commonly appealed to are found in Proverbs 8, Isaiah 42,49, 66, and others, but none from the New Testament are used. There is a lot of discussion concerning the role that the literary devices of simile and metaphor play in supporting the concept of calling God “Mother.”
Similes are not appealed to because it seems to be understood that by using the words “like” or “as” to link to things together, one is only making a comparison of things to illumine the meaning of one or the other. The definition of metaphor however seems to cause a bit of disagreement between liberals and biblical inerrantists.
However, not all feminists agree that the Bible can be used to support this view of God as Mother. Many feel that the Bible is simply wrong in that it was written by males who were living in a patriarchal society and that colored everything they said and most assuredly it colored their addressing God as Father. Reverend M. James Divis of the Catholic Church writes “Some feminists claim that the Bible is biased since it was copied through the many centuries by male scribes.”2
Experience Appealed to in Relating to God as Mother
Another source of those who support addressing God as Mother instead of or in conjunction with addressing Him as Father is human, personal experience. In an article entitled “My Mother and My God” in the May-June 1996 The Christian Ministry, Douglas J. Williamson describes how he has an accurate understanding of the attributes of God through the experience of his mother. He and many others like him do not necessarily believe that addressing God as Father is wrong or that it needs to be done away with, but as he says in his article, “for some of us the male image of God simply does not have as much meaning as the female, and we do not wish to be left out of the worship community because a different metaphor, a metaphor of God as mother, makes God real to us.”3
Position for Calling God Father and not Mother
The reason why the subheading includes the statement “and not Mother” is that without it, it would include those who support calling God both Father and/or Mother. This position sets forth the claim that God is properly referred to as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and that the first person of the Trinity should be addressed as Father and not Mother. The witness of Scripture, the Lord Jesus Christ, and a proper understanding of simile and metaphor guide us in understanding why God should be referred to as Father and not Mother.
The Inerrant Witness of Scripture and Jesus in Addressing God as Father
The reason that Father should be used to address God and not Mother is that God has revealed Himself as Father in His Word of Scripture, and although it is commonly known that God has no gender, He has chosen to reveal Himself most fully in His Son whom He calls Son. The fullest revelation of God the Father is in His Son Jesus, and Jesus was not female. God simply chose to reveal Himself to man and He can be personally known only through special revelation which is composed of His Word and His Son.
How one understands and sees the Word of God is the key issue in this debate. If biblical inerrancy and infallibility are held to then the Bible is sufficient today to inform of about God. If those things are not held to, then the Bible is something else than the Word of God. Feminists who use the Word of God to support their concept of God as Mother while claiming that it has errors due to a patriarchal society are in essence damaging their own source of evidence. If the Bible is not without error at all then it is an untrustworthy witness.
Concerning the reliability and sufficiency of the Bible, Jesus attests in John 17:17 that “Your (God the Father) word is truth.” Also concerning the Person of Jesus as God’s revelation He says of Himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6, NASB). Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 2:9 both clearly affirm the fact that God is most fully revealed in His Son Jesus Christ, and although God does not have gender, Jesus does and therefore God cannot be addressed as Mother.
Another support for God as Father is the fact that Jesus refers to God as His Father and the Father of those who are in Christ. There are numerous places in the Scriptures where Jesus does this. The book of John is complete with them (John 10:30; 14:6; Matthew 6:9ff). The uses of “Father” by Jesus to address God are too numerous to count, but it can be seen from Jesus’ use of the term Father that it is the correct way to relate to God the Father. In John 10:30 Jesus plainly states that He and the Father are one. He is not saying that they are one in the same person, but that Jesus is in perfect communion with the Father and that He is the exact representation of His Father. Also in John 12:28 Jesus address God as Father and God answers Him. Although Jesus is not bound by words or even certain words in His relation with the Father, He models what it means to properly address and understand God. We must be willing to listen to the Word of God in Scripture and the revelation of the Son Jesus Christ for the proper guidance we need in relating to God.
In leading up to a detailed discussion about the use of simile and metaphor in the Bible, Andrew J. Dell’Olio supports the use of Mother language in reference to God and he appeals to General Revelation in support for his belief. He is correct in that we can know some things about God in General Revelation, but ultimately we have to rely in Special Revelation to reveal God to us. He claims that those who reject using gender-neutral terms on the basis of the fact that the term “Mother” is nowhere used in Scripture are disregarding the witness of General Revelation. He states it this way:
Implicit in this view is what we might call the appeal to Biblical explicitness. This is the claim that
only those terms that are explicitly used in the Bible may count as legitimate metaphors for God….It
seems to me that there are a number of problems with this line of thinking. First, it is not true that
Christianity is a religion which claims that nothing can be known about God outside of the Biblical
revelation. There is a long standing tradition in Christianity of believing that God can be known,
at least in some sense, through the world that God has created….(Aquinas) taught that we can know
something about God by analogy to the things God has made…
What this author goes on to imply is that the image of an earthly mother is a valid metaphor for God. In an article previously referenced by Douglas J. Williamson, he described being in the setting of his dissertation and the question being asked of him to tell the committee how he came to experience and believe the message of the gospel. He goes on to state that it was the experience of her love and care. Did she share the Biblical gospel message with him too or simply model it for him and that is how he came to “know” God?
Dell’Olio is saying something similar. What if I had a great experience with my dog growing up as a young boy? My dog was created by God (general revelation), and she followed me wherever I went. She was my companion. Does that mean that I have a right to now refer to God as “dog”? I don’t think so! General revelation is inadequate to bring us into in intimate relationship with God. The idea of Fatherhood and the term Father God relate something to His people about His intimate, covenantal relationship with them. Father is a term that God has chosen to use in Special Revelation and Mother is not.
A Proper Understanding of Simile and Metaphor to inform us About God
Both simile and metaphor must be regarded as literary tools first and foremost. They do not relate didactic teaching. They are however relevant and powerful tools in helping the human mind understand something. Although feminine metaphors are used in the Bible to describe God, they are not used in conjunction with one of the revealed names of God found in Scripture, and feminine metaphors are always used to describe the action of God. The way God cares for His people (Isaiah 66:12-13) or the way Jesus cares for His people (Matthew 23:37).4
Andrew J. Dell’Olio confuses or rather fuses image and revelation together. He uses the concepts of image and revelation interchangeably.5 God chose to use images in the Scriptures from General Revelation such as mothers, rocks, and animals to describe something about Him. However, God’s revelation of Himself is more concrete. He has chosen to reveal ways in which we are to address Him and one of those is Father.
Objections to addressing God as Father only
The African tribal understandings of God would claim that even though we as Americans and Westerners would recognize that God has no gender, we are hung up on calling God Father rather than Mother. Kuni would say that although we affirm that God is not male nor female, but wholly Spirit, yet we can call God Father and not Mother we have a problem with our denial of the feminine attributes of God in relation to His/Her creation.
The radical feminists would claim many things about those who are committed to calling God Father only. The feminist believes that Biblical inerrantists are simply carrying on the patriarchal domination that has existed for ages. For some who believe that the Bible reveals an affirmation of a Mother Sophia (lady wisdom who evolved into Jesus) from the time of Jesus all the way back to creation. (I chose not to address Sophia because this seems to be a feminist alternative for God and His Son and it did not really revolve around Mother vs. Father language.)
Feminists are across the board it seems when it comes to their perspective on using Father or excluding it. For those who claim no allegiance to the inerrancy of Scripture, the Bible is simply full of errors and those who hold to it are trying to use it to support a power structure against women. Not only are women being held back but homosexuals also. They would claim that we are ignoring the relevancy of the feminine language in the Bible and that we are misinterpreting it. They would also say that what is good for gander is good for the goose. If conservatives and Biblical inerrantists can affirm that God has no gender whatsoever and still refer to God as Father and not Mother, then we are blatantly showing the signs of those who are power hungry. I believe they would also claim that we have a misunderstanding of the value and relevance of General Revelation. This understanding of General Revelation goes hand-in-hand with the thinking that the gospel and Christianity are not exclusive in nature.
As I stated just previously, those who hold to the value of God’s Self-disclosure as Father would be labeled as mishandling Scripture. Mother God advocates would claim that Scriptures like Isaiah 66:12-13; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34; Isaiah 42:14; 49:15; Proverbs 8; Psalm 103 have all been ignored or mishandled patriarchal inerrantists.
Support for addressing God as Father only
The primary support for addressing God as Father only and not Mother is the self- disclosure that God has chosen through Special Revelation. The Fatherhood of God is tied to and informs the children of God about His relationship to His Son, our relationship to Him, and Him to us through the Son. The Fatherhood of God gives definition to and is understood in light of these Biblical themes: the example of Patriarchy established in the creation of Adam in God’s image, and the subsequent, continual pattern seen the having of sons in the image of the fathers (Gen. 5:3); the theme of the Sonship of Israel (Exodus 4:21ff); God the Father of Messiah (II Samuel 7:13-15; Psalm 89:20-37) through which His eternal purpose is the bringing in of many sons through the Eternal Son Jesus Christ.
The theme of Messiah really sheds light on the understanding of the Fatherhood of God, bringing the child of God close to the Father. The theme of the Fatherhood of God involves love, headship, provision (Deut. 8:1), discipline (Heb. 12:3-12), and inheritance (Jer. 3:14-19; Rom. 8)for the believer who is in covenant with God the Father. All of these descriptions of God’s Fatherhood signify a position of privilege for the believer.6
Concerning the use of simile and metaphor to describe “feminine” characteristics of God, I believe that God has revealed that he is caring, loving, nurturing, and merciful along with many other attributes. However, I believe that we have been created by God and that He is the original possessor of all good attributes which would also include His holiness, sovereignty, justice, and all the other typically known “male” characteristics. The point is that God has designated to His creatures certain roles to fulfill here on earth for the purpose of imaging Him and lording over His creation. He has so designated those characteristics some to men and some to women. It is our role to accept them as they have been revealed to us in Scripture and to fulfill them to the glory of God and the good of all of His creation and the exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Those who reject what God has revealed in Scripture are unhappy with the role that God has given them, and therefore they reject Special Revelation in favor of General Revelation from which they can come to their own conclusions about God. They also can have no real concept of yielding to the authority of Christ over their lives (I Cor. 3:22-23; 6:19-20).
Dell’Olio, Andrew J. “Why Not God the Mother?” Faith and Philosophy 15 (1998): 193-209
Douglas, Jane D. “Calvin’s Use of Metaphorical Language for God: God as Enemy and God as Mother.” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 8 (1987): 19-32.
Mawhinney, Allen. “God as Father: Two Popular Theories Reconsidered.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 13 (1988): 181-189.
McGoldrick, James E. “The Christlikeness of God.” Reformation and Revival 7 (1998): 65-77.
Miller, John W. “Rays of Fatherhood Shining Forth.” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 14 (2001): 40-46.
Patrick, Johnstone G. “God, the Mother.” The Expository Times 96 (1984-1985): 244-246.
Spencer, Aida Besancon. “Father-Ruler: The Meaning of the Metaphor “Father” for God in The Bible.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39 (1996): 433-442.
Van Wyk Phillips, Nancy. “Imaging God as Mother.” Reformed Review 40 (1986): 42-50.
Williamson, Douglas J. “My Mother and My God.” The Christian Ministry 27 (1996): 36-39.
Divis, M. James. “Mother God.” [on-line], access16 April, 2005, http://users.binary.net/polycarp/momgod.html; Internet.
Moore, Russell D. “’Mother God’ worshipped at group’s gathering for CBF annual meeting.”
Baptist Press, 29 June 2001. [on-line], access 16 April, 2005, http://www.bpnews.net/Printerfriendly.asp?ID=11230; Internet.
Morris, Grantley. “God as Mother and the Dadda you always needed: Insights into the Tender Love of God.” © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 1999. For much more by the same author, see www.net-burst.net; No part of these writings may (be) copied without citing this entire paragraph. No part may be sold. [on-line], access 16 April, 2005, http://net-burst.net/god/mother.htm#mother; Internet.
Poythress, Vern S. “Small Changes in Meaning Can Matter: The Unacceptability of the TNIV.” [on-line], access 16 April, 2005, http://www.cbmw.org/resources/tniv/articles_tniv/2005_0310_article_vpoythress.php; Internet.
Robinson, Jeff. “New CBMW journal provides biblical perspective on myriad of gender issues.” 29 July, 2004. [on-line], http://www.gender-news.com/article; Internet.
Stinson, Randy, and Christopher W. Cowan. “Seven Reason Why We Cannot Call God Mother.”15 December, 2004. [on-line], http://www.cbmw.org/article.php?id=99; Internet.
1 George Kwami Kuni, “God’s image as equivalently Father and Mother: An African perspective,” AFER 38 (1996): 203-228.
2 M. James Divis, “Mother God,” A Catholic Response to Mother God language, accessed 16 April 2005, http://users.binary.net/polycarp/momgod.html, p. 2.
3 Douglas J. Williamson, “My Mother and My God,” The Christian Ministry, 27 (1996): 39.
4 Randy Stinson, and Christopher W. Cowan, “Seven Reasons Why We Cannot Call God ‘Mother,’ Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, December 15 (2004), http://www.cbmw.org/article.php?id=99.
5 Andrew J. Dell’Olio, “Why Not God the Mother,” Faith and Philosophy, 15 (1998): 195.
6 Russell D. Moore, “Doctrine of God as Father” (classroom lecture notes, 27060 – Systematic Theology I, 11 April 2005, written notes).