If I were to guess, I’d say many Christians’ vision of God the Father is a grandfatherly figure with a beard who lives in the sky. Or maybe he has a deep, soothing voice like Morgan Freeman.
We remember that God the Father sent his Son to the earth. Jesus the Son was born as a Jewish man.
All these “pictures” of God make us think, maybe implicitly, that God is male or he privileges males. Maybe Christianity even has a masculine feel that tends to exclude females.
Women and the Gender of God
Through a deep reading of the incarnation narratives of the New Testament and other relevant scriptural texts, Amy Peeler shows how the Bible depicts a God beyond gender and a savior who, while embodied as a man, is the unification in one person of the image of God that resides in both male and female.
While acknowledging the significance of the Bible’s frequent use of “Father” language to represent God as a caring parent, Peeler goes beneath the surface of this metaphor to show how God is never sexualized by biblical writers or described as being physically involved in procreation—making the concept of a masculine God dubious, at best. From these doctrinal centers of Christianity, Peeler leads the way in reasserting the value of women in the church and prophetically speaking out against the destructive idolatry of masculinity.
Amy Peeler, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, argues in her new book Women and the Gender of God that God is not male. And she argues even more––God doesn’t have certain “male qualities.”
Peeler affirms that while orthodox Christians have sustained God is beyond gender, his “maleness has always existed alongside its denial,” creating what some have called a “masculine feel” to Christianity (3).
Considering the Incarnation
Peeler begins with a discussion of God as male. God isn’t sexualized even in the account of Mary’s pregnancy. Some scholars have argued for a form of “divine rape” in correspondence with how other Greek and Roman gods interacted with humans. Peeler ably shows this isn’t the case in the Gospel accounts; God comes to Mary in a nonsexualized way as a good and sustaining God.
Her second chapter concerns the female body and the shocking way in which God the Son came. Though Judaism had impurity laws for women who gave birth, the Son of God by being born “reveals unparalleled divine proximity to Mary” (42). This act emphasizes the holiness of the female body. Chapter 3 affirms this reality when God honors Mary’s agency by coming to her and allowing her to freely accept this role in salvation history.
Chapters 4 and 5 then proceed to argue God isn’t masculine and Jesus embodies both males and females. While many affirm God isn’t male, some assert he still has a masculine feel. In chapter 5, Peeler argues against the idea that Jesus had to be male because that’s a better reflection of God. She affirms Jesus was a male, but he was a male who became embodied like no other. Jesus is different from all other men because he had no earthly father. Jesus took his flesh from Mary. Mary supplies her genes, body, food, energy, and blood. Because of this, “Jesus is a male-embodied Savior with female-provided flesh” who can represent and save all (133).
In the final chapter, Peeler runs through the rest of Mary’s life and argues she’s not only a passive vessel but a virtuous mother and gospel proclaimer. God isn’t opposed to the ministry of women. He actually encourages it through the example of Mary.
Able and Orthodox
There’s much to commend about Peeler’s book. First, I haven’t read such a thoroughgoing work on Mary from a Protestant perspective. I’m considering writing a book on the virgin birth, and Peeler has done valuable work on Mary by interacting with a wide range of scholarship from the more critical to the Catholic perspective. If you want to read more about Mary that doesn’t elevate her unnecessarily or completely ignore her, this is a great place to start. Peeler deals carefully with the biblical text and first-century Judaism.
Second, Peeler is to be applauded for contributing important arguments denying that God is male. While this might seem obvious to some and not even worth arguing for, providing scholarly and nuanced arguments along these lines is vital. Even the way God comes to Mary is distinct from how other gods during the New Testament era would reportedly interact with women. Peeler does excellent work on denying God as a sexed being.
Third, Peeler ably interacts with three fields: New Testament scholarship, theology proper (doctrine of God), and gender scholarship. These are usually separate fields, but Peeler interacts commendably with the traditional and historic understanding of God’s nature, modern conversations around gender, and the most recent research on Jewish purity rituals.
Fourth, Peeler, while challenging some modern notions of God, is convictionally and happily orthodox (not that I would expect anything less!). She denies God is male. She affirms the eternal generation of the Son. She concludes we should call the Father “Father” and the Son “Son.” She sustains the uniqueness and importance of the incarnation. She argues convincingly for the virgin birth. While some readers might focus on certain disagreements with her work, they would have to admit Peeler is with the Christian tradition on the most important matters.
Peeler’s book is provocative in the best sense. Any careful reader will come away with questions or even disagreements. To further the conversation, I’ll simply register some of my reservations or counterarguments.
While some readers might focus on certain disagreements with her work, they would have to admit Peeler is with the Christian tradition on the most important matters.
First, Peeler affirmed Jesus can uniquely represent all of humanity because Jesus is “different from all other humans . . . by virtue of his singular maternity” (133). She contends the unique nature of his body, by virtue of the virginal conception, makes it possible for him to be in solidarity with all (male and female). In other words, while Jesus was male, his human flesh came from Mary––this makes him uniquely able to represent all.
While I don’t deny the uniqueness of Jesus’s incarnation, nor do I negate that Jesus represents all, I don’t think this is how Scripture maintains the doctrine of representation. The Bible puts various figures forward as “representative” of all people without virgin births. Kings, prophets, and priests didn’t have “spectacular births,” yet they represented nations and peoples.
To put it more pointedly, a man can represent a woman without a virgin birth. And I think a good argument can be made that it goes the other way too: woman can represent man because woman is also human. Look no further than the reality that all God’s people are described as a Bride (Rev. 21:9).
All this means that men and women, while distinct in gender, have a certain congruent nature. In scientific language, we’re all the same species, so we can represent one another. In a way, Peeler’s argument undermines the unity of humanity. God made humanity (adam) in his image, male and female he created them (Gen. 1:26–27).
Second, Peeler didn’t integrate the concept of federal headship or recapitulation in her analysis of Jesus standing in the place of all (cf. Rom. 5:12–21). Jesus’s federal headship doesn’t mean Jesus can’t represent women or that males are more in the image of God. However, it does mean Jesus stands as a representative of the new humanity. Jesus represents all humanity by recapitulation appropriately as a male—he’s the last Adam.
Jesus can represent all humanity because, as the early confession says, he is “truly man.” Peeler’s argument is right in that the Creed’s original meaning is that Jesus is “truly human” (the translation “man” stands for humanity). However, she’s wrong in that it doesn’t argue Jesus can stand in our place because he’s a unique man by the virgin birth but because he’s “truly” man. Peeler seems to diverge from the traditional understanding here, or at least challenge it, if not explicitly then implicitly. Irenaeus puts recapitulation this way: “The Word of the Father and the Spirit of God, having become united with the ancient substance of Adam’s formation, rendered man living and perfect, receptive of the perfect Father, in order that as in the natural [Adam] we all were dead, so in the spiritual we may all be made alive.”
Third, while we must affirm God isn’t male or female, it’s more difficult to argue that our language of God doesn’t represent both masculinity and femininity. Peeler argues strongly against the reality that “Christianity has a masculine feel.” However, could we say Christianity has both a masculine and a feminine feel?
All our language is analogical; God speaks to us about himself in a way we can understand. Therefore, Peeler is utterly right to affirm there’s some slippage between God as masculine and God as male. However, certain negative and unintended consequences sneak in if we can’t affirm that God acts sometimes in more masculine and feminine ways (without being sexed). I think Peeler would agree here.
Jesus can represent all humanity because, as the early confession says, he is ‘truly man.’
If human beings are made in the image of God, maybe it’s proper for God to act in a way that mirrors both genders. This actually teaches us something about him, though of course all our language about God is incomplete and he’s simply condescending to communicate with us. To erase this distinction might put us more in the modern ethos of denying any difference between males and females. Peeler argues strongly against God being “more” masculine. But if humanity is viewed as a whole yet with distinctions, maybe this idea isn’t as threatening.
Finally, there were a few times when Peeler made statements that were at least confusing in light of other assertions in the book. At one point she says, “Addressing the personal and eternal divine source of the Son as ‘Parent’ rather than ‘Father’ may more correctly name this relationship” (101). But then later, Peeler affirms (on multiple pages) that we should privilege addressing God as “Father” (112–17). At another point, she says the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t necessitate paternal language for the first person (103). Yet she later affirms God the Father sent forth his Son born of a woman (115). Peeler focused on the economy of God when she could have pressed more into the eternal relations of origin.
God Isn’t Male
I began by noting that some think of God as a grandfather in the sky. Peeler is right to argue God is not male. He is spirit. Pastors need to teach their congregations about God’s nature and even address topics like this. These misconceptions easily slip into our thinking, and they can have destructive consequences.
We might begin viewing God as simply a better or more powerful version of ourselves. I’m strong, but God is really strong. I love sometimes, but God loves all the time. I know some things, but God knows all things. But God is wholly other. He is a being unlike us. Remembering he’s not sexed helps us hold on to the otherness of God.
Additionally, this sort of thinking has destructive consequences for how we perceive males and females. Maybe there are some in our congregation who don’t value females because they think God is male or even “more masculine.”
Yet, at the same time, we must think carefully about how the Scriptures employ language to describe God and the differences between and unity of men and women. Rather than pushing away from masculine and feminine language (even when referring to God), maybe we need to press more deeply into them without making the mistakes of which Peeler warns.