Women and the Gender of God

Written by Amy Peeler Reviewed By Marcus Johnson

Amy Peeler, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, has written a book with an ostensibly obvious thesis: “God does indeed value women” (p. 7). This thesis, which she calls “audacious,” has a lurking theme present throughout the book that is intended to strengthen its point: God is not male. To understand the impetus for Peeler’s book, we refer to the Conclusion, where she relates a story about her son’s eight-year-old birthday party. When one of the male attendees expressed he likes boys better than girls, Peeler asked him why. The child’s response? “Because God is a boy.” As Peeler puts it, “I could not have articulated the problem this book seeks to address with any greater clarity” (p. 187).

With this thesis and motivation clearly in view, we have a way forward to reviewing the book’s contents. Peeler’s first chapter, “The Father Who Is Not Male,” is designed to counter the possible assumption that the biblical attribution of fatherhood implies that God is male, or that he is more masculine than feminine. She indicates that, besides the name “Father,” God is also referred to as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. As such, to conceive God as gender-transcendent, “that God is Parent or Mother and not only Father, helps to work against the ‘phallacy’ that God is male” (p. 17). While it is important to refer to God as Father, she readily admits, it is equally important not to project merely humanly conceived notions of masculinity onto God as a result.

Chapters 2 and 3 are dedicated to Jesus’s mother, Mary, who has a significant role in the book. Peeler seeks to demonstrate the significance of this particular woman in the story of God’s redemption of humanity. Chapter 2, “Holiness and the Female Body,” works decidedly against any assumption that God disdains the female human body. After all, the birth of Jesus shows that “God has decided that women’s bodies are deemed worthy to receive the ultimate expression of holiness, the very body of God” (p. 33). This puts to shame, she believes, “the seemingly unending examples of misogynistic patriarchy” in the history of the Christian Church (p. 59). Chapter 3, “Honor and Agency,” is written to oppose the assumption that Mary was prevailed upon by a masculine, male God (e.g., “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son”) in her conception of Jesus. Peeler insists that Mary freely consented to the “offer” and “invitation” from God to bear the Christ-child. The miracle of the incarnation, in other words, is contingent upon Mary’s agential consent.

Chapter 4, “God Is Not Masculine,” follows from Peeler’s thesis that God is not male, and that God does not act in an obviously male or masculine way when he conceives Jesus in the womb of Mary. Indeed, apart from the incarnation, Christ might have referred to God as “Father,” “Mother,” or “Parent.” It is the nature of the incarnation, Peeler asserts, which provides the “fitting choice for divine address. Jesus does not call God ‘Mother’ because he already has one” (p. 115). This strange assertion seems at odds with Jesus’s pre-incarnate relationship to his Father.

Surely the most provocative and theologically eccentric chapter of this work is chapter 5, “The Male Savior.” Given Peeler’s thesis that God values women, and that God is neither male nor masculine, the fact that God definitively reveals himself in Jesus Christ as male, rather than female, might appear to contradict the book’s thesis. Peeler has a ready solution: while she grants Jesus is certainly male, he is nevertheless male like no other male has ever been (p. 141); not because Jesus is fully divine, but because Jesus is a male conceived from a female alone, with no contribution from a human male. Jesus, in other words, is a female-only derived male. “In short, a male-embodied Savior with female-provided flesh saves all” (p. 137).

It is important to state plainly the book’s genre: it is quite obviously a feminist theology. Whether such a book ought to find commendation among Protestant evangelicals—who have historically understood feminist theology as a species of liberal theology—may be left to the reader. But the fact that we have before us a contemporary iteration of feminist theology cannot be in dispute. Predictably, Peeler sounds several of the notes that are common to feminist theology. First, the determinative hermeneutical starting point is that God values women. Second, she typically avoids masculine imagery and language regarding God and rarely uses masculine pronouns to refer to God throughout the book, despite her admission that it is the overwhelming preference of God’s written word. Third, Peeler seeks to qualify, to one degree or another, God’s revelation of himself as Father given that he is neither male nor masculine. As Peeler puts it, “Masculine conceptions of God are deeply problematic” (p. 112). And, finally, she reflects on why God becoming male—rather than female—in the incarnation is not a problem for the salvation of females.

It is on this last point that Peeler’s book presents the most disturbing and, quite frankly, bizarre and disquieting conclusions. Her female-flesh-only Jesus—a Jesus she believes secures the significance and value of women—leads her to consider the “intriguing and often fruitful speculation” among feminists that Jesus may have been “intersex” (p. 140). This speculation, we must assume, is derived from her insistence that, although it has been commonly assumed that theological and gender studies may be “kept neatly apart … this assumption is false” (p. 188). Given Peeler’s assumption that theological and gender studies are inextricable—a historically unprecedented theological claim if there ever was one—it is not surprising that she has discovered a male Jesus that is female-only derived to account for the value of women. One may well wonder: does Jesus also need to be derived from Gentile-provided flesh to account for the value of Gentiles? Does Jesus need to be derived from black-provided (or white-provided) flesh to account for the value of black or white people? Such questions could multiply. Perhaps that is why, contra Peeler’s special pleading, the Christian tradition has maintained that Jesus is consubstantial with us according to his humanity (e.g., the Chalcedonian Creed). This accounts sufficiently for the eternal value of all humans, irrespective of any other identity—sexual, ethnic, or otherwise. God values women, in other words, for the simple reason than he values all human beings.

Editor’s Note: This review should have disclosed that the reviewer serves on the same church staff as the author. The editors acknowledge that this is an unusual situation and apologize for the unintentional oversight.

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson
Moody Bible Institute
Chicago, Illinois, USA

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