What the ‘Early Church Parents’ said about God’s gender

God the Father by Cima da Conegliano (c 1515)

Scripture appears to present us not just with three divine persons, but with three explicitly masculine ones: three “hes”. This seems problematic to many folks – and understandably so.

True, the second person of the Trinity became (and remains) incarnate as a biological human male. But in what sense can the Father or Spirit – or the Son prior to the Annunciation, for that matter – really be understood in these terms? Let us look at what the Church Fathers – er, Parents – have to say about it.

At first glance, they don’t seem to say much. (Thus Augustine covers a great deal of ground in On the Trinity, and here as elsewhere has much to say on matters sexual, and yet God’s own sex seems not really to have piqued his curiosity.) But on the odd occasion that the divine gender is touched upon, what is said is quite revealing.

St Jerome – no one’s idea of a woolly liberal – happens to mention in his Commentary on Isaiah that the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews refers to “my mother, the Holy Spirit”. Rather than rail against the text as the work of heretics (as he’s perfectly capable of doing), he simply remarks anodynely: “No one ought to be scandalised in this matter because in Hebrew the Spirit is spoken of in the feminine gender, when in [Latin] the masculine gender is applied, and in Greek the neuter; for in the Godhead, there is no gender (in divinitate enim nullus est sexus).”

And then, evidently not feeling that he had dropped any great theological bombshell, he moves on.

Compare also the throwaway remark by St Gregory of Nazianzus, known to later generations simply as “the Theologian”, in Oration 31:
“Do you take it, by the same token, that our God is a male, because of the masculine nouns ‘God’ and ‘Father’? Is the Godhead a female, because in Greek the word is feminine? Is the word ‘Spirit’ neuter in Greek, because the Spirit is sterile?”

Read in context, this functions as a kind of reductio ad absurdum. It’s clear that Gregory doesn’t actually think that anyone – not even those in error about the different matter he’s actually talking about – could seriously believe any of this.

As the Catechism puts it, echoing these two Doctors of the Church: “We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman; he is God” (#239).

Now, that is not quite the end of the story; it is arguably just the beginning. If “in the Godhead, there is no gender”, then why does the Christian tradition – copying, let us not forget, God himself, whose own use of gendered language is amply documented throughout the scriptures – insist on referring to God in such terms?

First of all, eschewing personal pronouns altogether isn’t magnificently satisfactory. It is, after all, very hard to love an it “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).

If “de-sexing” is out, what about re-sexing? Describing God, on occasion, using feminine language or metaphors is on firm enough ground in terms of Scripture and Tradition. Jerome mentions above that the Spirit is, grammatically speaking, transgender (though obviously, grammar does not make the Spirit literally female, any more than it makes the Father literally male). A handful of Old Testament metaphors draw on maternal imagery (eg, Isaiah 42.12, 49.15; Sirach 4.10). So too does Jesus’s desire to “gather [Jerusalem’s] children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Matthew 23.37), evincing, as Augustine somewhere notes, his “maternal love”.

Yet – and, in light of recent discussions, this crucial – this recognition does not mean that the traditionally masculine-specific language of Father and Son is somehow arbitrary or replaceable. Indeed, they are ones which, whatever their deficiencies when pushed too literally, were specially chosen by God himself, not least when speaking to us as “a man among men” (St Irenaeus). Putting it bluntly, and adapting one of Gregory’s very best put-downs, they were “introduced by a better theologian than you, our Saviour”.

All this is most true, of course, in connection with direct commands. Hence when Jesus states plainly, “Pray then in this way: ‘Our Father…'” (Matthew 6:9), it is a brave – or reckless – Christian who feels at liberty to start correcting him within the first couple of words. Likewise, Christ did not give us especially strict rubrics for baptizing. But he did explicitly tell us to do it “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. That is not an especially demanding script. There is no excuse for not sticking to it.

This post is adapted from The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic (Paulist Press, 2015), available in the UK from Alban Books.

Stephen Bullivant is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and is consulting editor of the Catholic Herald.