Some Rambling Thoughts On Amy Peeler, Women and the Gender of God

Abjan van Meerten
10 min readApr 11, 2023

Amy Peeler’s recent book (Eerdmans 2022) is one of the best books in recent years on, well, women and the gender of God. It is very well-researched and well-documented (in extensive endnotes); it displays expertise in the fields of both New Testament studies and gender studies; it is sensitive to all the right issues, and makes clear arguments (among others) that God is not male; God is not masculine, and God values women. However, on some points I would like to take it a step further. This article, then, is not so much a discussion of her arguments as a development of my own views while reading her book.

By the way: for a great conversation on the recent stir surrounding Josh Buttler, listen to this podcast, involving Amy Peeler as well as other experts: Where Do We Go From Here, episode 120: “Ephesians 5 Gone Wrong in the Latest Evangelical Take on Sex”.

The baseline of this conversation is: God has no gender. ‘He’ is not male or female. Nor is ‘he’ more masculine than feminine. Accordingly, men are not more like God than women. (Of course, you might intuitively disagree, but that says more about your cultural ideas of manhood and womanhood and the way you arguably project those onto God.) As a result, gender-neutral language for God has this going for it from the get-go: it’s simply more accurate theologically. It keeps us from (subconsciously) making illegitimate assumptions about God from our pre-existing notions of fatherhood, manhood, etc. (which would amount to what Douglas Campbell calls ‘foundationalism’).

God’s ‘Fatherhood’

Let me first focus on fatherhood as a metaphor for God. From everything that is associated with fatherhood, one thing stands out in theological discussions: bringing forth children. However, Peeler argues convincingly that there is nothing particularly masculine about bringing forth children. The basic biological situation is clear: a part of the man unites, externally to himself, with a part of the woman, internal to herself, which then grows inside of her, before being separated from her body. Now, we can consider one-by-one the possible applications of the male role in this process as a metaphor for God:

1. God in Relation to Creation

One might think that God as creator is more similar to a male than a female parent since creation is brought forth by God, externally to God, on God’s initiative. However, every part of that last sentence is problematic. First, a child grows from a part of both man and woman, whereas creation does not grow from a part of God. Put more technically, creation is wholly external to ‘his’ ousia, namely ex nihilo. Second, God does not need some agent outside of ‘him’ to bring creation about, as men so clearly do. (Indeed, women do most of the work!) Lastly, men are not any more ‘initiators’ of conception than women; indeed, the only scenario for which this is true is, well, … rape. (Good point, Peeler.) In sum, neither the male nor the female metaphor is an accurate and therefore useful image for God as creator! God is father nor mother in relation to creation. He is simply creator.

2. ‘The Father’ in Relation to ‘the Son’

Now, creation was a good warm-up; the Trinity is the real deal, namely the relationship between the first and second person of the Trinity. Here too the conventional terms seem misleading. Most importantly, the second person, contrary to creation, is brought forth from the ousia of the first person, so that s/he is homo-ousia (‘of the same substance’). However, this goes just as much for fathers as for mothers in relation to their children! Children are brought forth from both the substance of the man and the woman. For the rest, all the same arguments go as for creation (God does not need a partner; men do not initiate any more than women). Therefore, a better image of the relationship between the first and second person of the Trinity is Parent—Child. No dogmatic truth is lost by this terminological change, while accuracy is gained. ‘Parent’ comes from the Latin parere, ‘to bring forth’, and this is very much to the point. Moreover, it has the advantage of being genderless.

3. ‘The Father’ in Relation to Jesus

The incarnation is a big topic for Peeler. Of course, Mary is the human mother of Jesus, and God, so Scripture seems to imply, provided the part a father would normally provide in the conception of Jesus. However, does this mean that God should be called ‘Father’ in relation to the human Jesus? At the very least, there is ample precedence in Scripture and in tradition for this.

However, first of all, it should be noted that God does the father part wholly unlike males normally do, that is, he does not have sex with Mary, who therefore remains a virgin. (If he would have, it would almost certainly have been rape due to the immense power differential. Also, it would have made Mary an adulteress, as some outsiders regarded her anyway.) Accordingly, Jesus simply does not have a human father. His birth is a miracle. God provided what was needed for Mary to conceive, but did so as God, not as a human father.

Still, if you would insist on therefore calling God ‘Father’ (as Peeler ultimately does), then it is the Holy Spirit that should be called Jesus’ ‘Father’ since it is s/he who does the conceiving! (Unless you see the Holy Spirit as merely an extension of the first person, with the first person being the ‘real’ agent, thus devolving into some weird kind of pneumatological modalism — a heresy, just to be sure.) However, nobody seriously thinks of doing this.

Still, the role of God in Jesus’ conception needs to be acknowledged. However, parent (‘one who brings forth’) works just as well and arguably better, as it is a genderless term. Moreover, if someone had the role of human father in Jesus’ life (excepting the miraculous conception of course) it is the man who married his mother and adopted him, raising him together with her— Joseph. In sum, the human Jesus has a human mother, a divine ‘parent’, and a human adoptive father.

Short excursus
What about Jesus’ title ‘Son of God’, you might ask? Firstly, it must be recognised that this is a Messianic title of the human Jesus, not a Trinitarian label. As such, it corresponds to his human maleness, so it is accurate in that regard. But what is actually meant by this title? If we take Psalm 2 as our guide, we see that this Messianic title mainly denotes two things: (1) Jesus as ruler is installed by God, the ruler of all, and as such metaphorically ‘begotten’ by God (Ps 2:7; cf. 2 Sam 7:14; Rom 1:4); (2) Jesus as ruler receives all the earth from God, the metaphorical ‘inheritance’ (Ps 2:8). However, both these things can just as well be communicated by the genderless language of parent and child! (Unless, that is, one holds to patriarchal structures; see conclusion below.)

4. ‘The Father’ in Relation to ‘Sons’

We can be short about this one. Besides the fact that those in Christ are created by God (see point 1 above), they are adopted as children by God. Obviously, both fathers and mothers play an equally important role in adopting a child, and the inheritance is in principle not tied anymore to fathers than to mothers. There is therefore no reason to insist on ‘Father’ as a designation for God in relation to those adopted in Christ.

Moreover, the term ‘sons’ does not correspond to the embodied gender of all those in Christ, which is why many translations have already switched to the genderless term ‘children’. Still, some translations maintain the term ‘sons’ because of its original connection in antiquity to inheritance (see point 3 above). However, obviously, that connection has now been lost (or at least should be lost!).

Accordingly, for the sake of accuracy and avoiding misunderstandings, we should switch to the terms ‘Adoptive Parent — adopted child’. As this is a bit cumbersome, simply ‘parent — child’ will also do, as long as the notion of adoption is always kept in mind, constituting the all-important difference between those in Christ and Christ (as God) himself (see point 2 above).

Jesus’ Maleness

Then, what about the fact that Jesus was male?

  • At first glance, this seems to privilege men: God chose to be a male and not a female. However, this apparent imbalance is countered by the fact that Jesus came singularly from a woman (seemingly privileging women). The role of Mary is inestimable: she provides Jesus with human ‘flesh’, enabling the salvation of the world. As such, the incarnation involves both men and women without elevating either one of them over the other. This is one of Peeler’s best arguments (see ch. 5). She writes: “The only way it is possible within the system of human procreation for God to involve both sexes in the revelation of divine embodiment is to have the image of God born as a male from the flesh of a female.” And: “God’s choice to incarnate as a male through a woman sets the precedent for the embodied inclusion of both men and women, all, in the body of Christ. God cannot be limited to the male, or represented by males alone, because the incarnate body of the image of God embraces both male and female.”
  • But, one counters, wasn’t Jesus, as a male, well, masculine? And doesn’t that favor masculinity? However, if one defines masculinity and femininity in terms of power — namely ‘men lead and women submit’ —(the most popular complementarian definition), then Christ defies categorization: he led by submitting. “For the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus’ cruciform life and death redefined the very notion of power, namely as weakness: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:23–25). Any argument from biology, history, etc. that masculinity is wound up with strength or power, and that Jesus was this kind of masculine, is negated by the cross (cf. ch. 5, n96).
  • Moreover, if one ties one’s definition of masculinity to family, Jesus again is an outlier: he did not marry, did not have sex, did not have children, and even explicitly redefined or broadened the notion of family (Matt 12:46–50). He was the most human ever, indeed the true human, the image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15)—without being a husband or a father. This should give us pause about what it means to be human — apparently it is not contingent on our constructions of gender. As Jesus himself said: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mat 22:30). And Paul: “There is neither … ‘male and female’ [quoting Gen 1:27 ], for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). [1]
  • Still, it must be admitted that Jesus as a male cannot empathise, in the proper sense, with uniquely female experiences. This imbalance remains. (And this is where the intercession of female saints could be introduced, notably of Mary.) However, as a small caveat, neither can Jesus empathise with a lot of contemporary male experiences, simply because of the huge timespan. (And this is where modern saints can come in.) And there remains a lot with which Jesus can empathise, things having to do with the universal human experience as well as the particular experience of life with God.

Concluding Thoughts

When it comes down to it, there are two important considerations to make. Our language about God should be theologically accurate, and a failure in that regard is harmful and has been harmful, as history shows (call it a prescriptive and descriptive consideration).

And of course, I get it, I get it, there is all the masculine language for God in Scripture and tradition, and ideally, we would derive our terminology as directly as possible from those sources. However, all that language could be attributed to the patriarchal cultures in which they were composed, and until someone can show me on Christological grounds how patriarchy is not just pagan culture but God’s eschatological (i.e. new creation) purpose, and thus his true purpose, I will not be joining the patriarchy train. (The same goes for all other gender matters.)

Some practicalities: to avoid referring to God as ‘he’/‘him’/‘his’, there are two easy solutions. First, one can just use ‘God’ a lot more often, as well as the rest of God’s many other scriptural titles. Secondly, one can use the neuter singular pronouns ‘they’/‘them’/‘their’. This is theologically accurate in that it is both gender-neutral and singular (for God is one).

Just remember: God is not more like men or fathers than like women or mothers (nor should those categories be conflated!). As creator, they is utterly different than both. They loves both men and women equally. They has given men and women the same calling: created in their image, to be co-regents with God (Gen 1:27–28) and conformed to God’s image, to rule with Christ (cf. Rom 5:17; 8:17, 29-30). [2]

PS: If you want to know why Genesis 1–2 does not contain any hints of patriarchy but rather emphasizes male-female equality, read my (old) paper: ‘Together on God’s Mission: An Egalitarian Reading of Genesis 1–2'.

Endnotes

[1] For an erudite treatment of why the latter text is not merely talking about equality but about the abolishment of the very distinction male-female, as part of the ‘elements of the cosmos’, see J. Louis Martyn, Galatians, in loco.

[2] For a good treatment of ‘glory’ in Paul and its connection to royal status, see Haley Goranson Jacob, Conformed to the Image of His Son (IVP Academic 2018). In my mind, this is one of the most under-explored arguments for female empowerment in the Bible: they are made to rule, just as much as men are (again, keeping in mind that ‘ruling’ or sharing power with Christ is cruciform).

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Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God