Saturday, April 21, 2012

Femininity, Masculinity, and the Trinity

Below are two questions that arose during IBC's 'Man Night.' Since these two questions are related, lets consider them together.
1. We are told that we are created in the image of God – “man (sic) and female He created them.” Which part of the Trinity is masculine? Which part of the Trinity is feminine? Should a man have both qualities? Should a female?
2. In what ways should a husband treat his wife as his equal? In what ways should he not?
Let's take that first question first. There are no 'parts' to the Trinity that are masculine and feminine. Humanity's masculinity and femininity corresponds in a finite, creaturely way to aspects of the infinite, uncreated Creator (qualities like strength and beauty - cf. Ps. 96.6). We cannot simply read our gender observations back into God. 1.) He is unutterably transcendent, which necessitates our keeping in mind an illimitably vast Creator/creature distinction. 2.) However, he has graciously revealed himself to us in his creation, in the Bible (which authoritatively interprets our observations of the creation), and especially (and ultimately, c.f. Heb. 1.1ff) in sending his Son to become a creature without ceasing to be God. Therefore the only legitimate way of using gender language to speak of God is to do so by depending wholly on his revelation of himself. We must rely on Biblical inspiration, not intuition or inference; on special revelation, not speculation.
There are plenty of places where the Bible refers to God with gender language. It even refers to him with feminine metaphors. It's possible that God's name, El Shaddai, refers to the nurturing care of a breastfeeding mother. King David referred to his relationship with God "like a weaned child with its mother" (Ps. 131.2). Jesus even compared himself to a hen gathering Jerusalem's kids under her wings (Lk. 13.34).
But God is not a woman. Nor is he a man (Ps. 50.21; Hos. 11.9), even though the majority of the language God uses of himself is masculine. So what are we to make of the fact that God refers to himself in both masculine and feminine terms? I think it helps to note that gendered language for God is both symbolic and human. It's symbolic in the sense that it stands for something about God. Each gender symbolizes or images God in a different way. Men and women are gendered image-bearers of God (Gen. 1.26-27). Each gendered person is the image of God in his or her own God-given right, but he or she images God differently than the other and does so best in loving fellowship with the other.
So this language is symbolic, but we must bear in mind that it is also human. It's Almighty God graciously communicating to us lowly creatures. To borrow John Calvin's verbiage, it is God 'lisping' to us in our own baby talk, using categories we understand in order to show us that which 'surpasses knowledge' (Eph. 3.19). God is like a strong man and cares for his children like a nurturing mother. Or, more accurately, we should put that the other way round. God isn't like them, they are in some way like him.
We do best not to adhere too strongly to any particular metaphor or image of God. If we choose a favorite symbol for him we may end up worshiping an image rather than the true God. But insofar as the Bible gives us leave to think of God as strong like a warrior or an impenetrable refuge, or as beautiful as a fountain or a breath-taking sunrise, we should treat them as merely helpful gifts and turn and thank the Giver, who is in no way limited even to the sum total of Biblical metaphors multiplied by infinity. He is not limited by the metaphors, rather, he is so amazingly gracious that he uses even our pitiful words to enlighten us with himself. He is so great that he cares enough to use our imperfect words to point us to himself, to shine millions of colorful rays into our dark minds to help us see him who is unseen.
These metaphors tell us true things about God, but God is not like these things. Let me try to show you what I'm saying. The Grand Canyon bears witness to God's grandeur. But God is not like the Grand Canyon. Rather, he is the definition of grandeur, and he dug that little hole in the ground so that we his creatures might praise him - because it really is grand to us! So masculinity and femininity bear witness to aspects in their Creator. But, strictly speaking, God is not like a man or like a woman. He created us so that each sex would be like a mirror, tilted 45 degrees that reflects his light in distinct but equally valuable shades. We should make use of all the Biblical images for God that we can, employing them in our fight against sin so that we trust in his power and believe the truth of all the glorious promises summed up in Christ over against the fake beauty of temptation's allurements. So we should cherish him through both the feminine and masculine language.
But I do not believe that this permits us to think of God as either he or she. We really need to be careful about playing fast and loose with our theology. Ideas have consequences. And Ideas about God have the greatest consequences. We cannot rightly pray to 'Our [Mother] which art in heaven...' That would be to stray from the verdant fields of Biblical revelation. Even though God can use feminine imagery to describe himself, the consistent way that he directly refers to himself is in masculine terms. None of the Biblical writers refer to him as she or her, and so, neither should we. (Whether we know exactly why this is the case is beside the point. For if we prefer to think of God according to the spirit of this overly inclusive age rather than letting the Bible shape our thoughts, we will be found worshiping a 21st century god and not the Biblical, living and holy One. So we would do well to take seriously the Apostle Paul's insistence 'not to go beyond what is written,' 1 Cor. 4.6.)
I hope this helps us think about using human gender language for God. And as far as whether a man or woman should have both qualities, the answer is yes and no. Men should not act like women (cf. Deut. 22.5), but men should still be in touch with their emotions and have relationships that they take pains to nurture (1 Thes. 2.7).
Now on to question number 2: In what ways should a husband treat his wife as his equal? In what ways should he not?
For this question we need help from both the OT and the NT. The apostle Peter refers to the wife as 'the weaker vessel' (1Pet. 3.7). But he doesn't say that we should belittle them accordingly, rather, he says that husbands should 'honor' them accordingly. It's like he's saying, 'Women aren't made like you roughnecks. They must be handled with care like fine china.' But this doesn't mean they're more valuable than us. We are both equal in value as God's precious images (Gen. 1.26-27). When we say that men and women are different, we do not mean to imply by that statement that one gender is better than the other. Although distinct in gender and functions, we are equal in worth as God's images.
We are equal, but we are different. Sara is strong in areas where I am weak, and vice versa. Just the physical structure of our different bodies testifies to things one gender can do that the other cannot. Since the Bible is so in touch with the reality of our differences, it commands that we relate with one another according to those distinctions. So in the church, men can take the responsibility as elders (1Tim. 3.1ff) but women cannot (1Tim. 2.12). In marriage, the buck stops with the men not the women to be the head, and so, wives are commanded to submit to their husbands and husbands are commanded to love their wives (Eph. 5.22-33).
This headship language is really helpful in understanding both our differences and our equality, because it doesn't terminate in its usefulness in the marriage relationship. It is crucial to accept in order to have a consistent and clear vision of God and salvation. The first head of humanity, Adam, failed miserably at his responsibility and alienated the entire human race after him from the life of God. But God the Father sent God the Son to become the last Adam. He became the head of a new humanity through his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. He is the faithful husband who has claimed all our debt as his own and given to us all of his riches as our own (even his own relationship with God the Father!). As our head, Jesus represents us before God. So everything he is and does and has is reckoned by God as what we are and do and have!
Let's go deeper and we'll discover even more buried treasure here. 1 Corinthians 11.3 says, 'I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.' So headship doesn't refer to something in marriage or salvation only; it actually refers to something in the Trinity! The Father is the head of the Son. 
So if you think that headship makes some sort of inequality in marriage, let the headship within the Trinity correct your assumption. The Father is not more important than the Son, even though the Father sends and the Son gladly submits (cf. Jn. 5.19ff). They are equal even though they're different (Jn. 5.18). Therefore husband and wife are equal even though they're different.
We can draw the above conclusion because interpersonal human relationships are meant to reflect interpersonal divine relationships. We see this applied not only to marriage, but also to other relationships in Ephesians. The last descriptor Paul uses for a church that is filled with the Spirit is, 'submitting to one another.' He then gives examples of what this submission looks like: Wives submit to husbands (Eph. 5.22). Children obey their parents (Eph. 6.1). Slaves obey their masters (Eph. 6.5). The ESV says this submission is to be done 'out of reverence for Christ' (Eph. 5.21). Christ is worthy of all reverence, but I think we can see what Paul is actually saying here better with a more literal translation. This submission is to be done, literally, 'in the fear of Christ.'
What is 'the fear of Christ' that submission is to be done in? Let's define that phrase to get the answer. 'Christ' here is to be taken as the subject, not the object. He is the one fearing, not the one being feared in this phrase. So you could say that submission is to be done in his fear. But what is this fear? It is what the Bible calls 'the fear of the Lord.' Here then, submission is to be done in Christ's fear of God. It is not a servile fear that shrinks back from God (Exod. 20.20). It's a familial fear, the good kind of awe we are to have of God. It includes things like admiration, reverence, respect, and even submission, like that which a son reserves for his father, or, as the case may be here, like what God the Son has for God the Father.
So let me try to bring this all together and clarify what I'm asserting here. The submission of a Christian wife for her husband is nothing less than a participation in and reflection of God the Son's relationship with God the Father. One more look at Ephesians should support this. In Eph. 5.18 Paul commands us to be filled with the Spirit. The submission we've been looking at is a descriptor of this in Eph. 5.21. But before that, in Eph. 5.20, Paul says the Spirit-filled church is one that's 'giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.' To summarize, then: Filled with the Spirit, everything is about relating to the Father in the name of his Son (cf. Eph. 2.18). All our human interactions reflect this Father/Son relationship one way or another. In some relationships, we lead and send; in others we submit and are sent. The Son submits in everything to his Father in holy reverence or fear, but that does not mean he's in any way inferior to God. They are equal in divinity. Likewise, a wife who submits to her husband is in no way inferior to him. They are equals.
We are different, but we are equal. And that equality is very important to assert, especially for its theological ramifications. Humans are not genders who have God's image; we are image-bearers who have different genders. Our basic identity as humans is not man or woman. Our basic definition is that we have each been equally created in the image of God.

For more info on the things above, check out the things below: It seems a little reactionary but, it might be a good place to begin thinking about such things. has better stuff than this, so I encourage you to take a look at it.

For an amazing treatment of how the main stuff of the Bible has to do with our participation in God the Son's relationship with God the Father, check out Donald Fairbairn's book: Life in the Trinity. (If you just want to borrow it, I can lend you my Kindle eBook. I think you can borrow it for 15ish days, and you don't even need a Kindle to do so. Let me know!) He also has some fantastic lectures on theology here. And I just found out that he's started blogging! Yes! I love his stuff because it's so essential, and he writes in such a clear and nontechnical way.