Why We Call God ‘Father’: A Hopeful Response to Simon Chan’s CT article

“He [God] chose to liken himself to a mother…”[1]

-John Calvin

In a recent post on Christianity Today, Professor Simon Chan wrote an interesting piece on the importance of God’s name of Father. Chan also sought to correct certain Christian circles who claim that God’s name of Father must be removed from our theological vocabularies altogether. With a close eye on the Scriptures, the author passionately defended the Bible’s use of the name Father and contended that the great tradition of Christianity has likewise upheld Father as the primary name by which we know and speak about God. According to Chan the importance of this subject is deeper than semantics. In fact, the author worries that what’s at stake in the debate is “the Trinitarian identity, which inevitably affects the church’s identity.”

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Simon Chan’s article, while concise and fervent, left me scratching my head in wonder. The more I read of the article, the more I began to realize that he and I have very different understandings of metaphors, feminists, and of inclusivity of language. Chan spent much time making sure to point out the fallacies and foolishness of those on the “other” side. Yet, as someone who is a student of the Bible, an Evangelical feminist, and a person seeking inclusivity in the Church–the three identities Chan calls into question–I felt poorly represented and somewhat caricatured.  Furthermore, I would submit that the Bible teaches that we have something to gain in embracing a broad variety of metaphors for God. And so with these thoughts in mind, I decided it was worth sitting down and attempting to communicate how I have come to embrace God with all of the fascinating and beautiful names and metaphors Scripture has to offer.

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As A Student of the Bible…

Father is not a culturally conditioned term but the proper name of God given by divine revelation” says Chan. As a student of the Bible, I think it is worth mentioning that there is much scholarly opposition to Simon Chan’s understanding of both metaphors and names for God. Many scholars believe it is worth asking, “Does God use names in the same way humans do?” After all, Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not a human being…” God’s divinity while certainly being  relatable to humanity—both male and female are made in His image after all—is still at least somewhat distinct from our human categories. Why do we desire to insert God into one particular category? Is not each gender a purposeful reflection of a multifaceted Creator?

The idea of a strong dichotomy between God’s names and metaphors also seems unfounded when one considers that the Bible gives plenty of examples of a person’s name being metaphorical while also remaining an actual/personal name. One only has to look at the many times individuals are given or adopt new meaningful and metaphorical names. Yahweh names Jacob called Israel, Naomi asks to be called Marta which means bitter, and Simon Peter is given the very metaphorical name Rock. Maybe the best example of a name being both personal and metaphorical is Jesus himself who is also called Immanuel, the Alpha and Omega, the Lamb, the Good Shepherd and many more. In the book Discovering Biblical Equality Biblical scholar R.K. McGregor Wright concludes that each of these names are in fact metaphors. Furthermore, according to McGregor Wright, while “none of them is a literal description; each is true of Christ in some sense yet not true of Christ in another sense. Likewise with the metaphorical name of ‘Father’ for God.’”[2]

I appreciate Simon Chan’s interest in the Ancient Near East (ANE) and Israel’s distinction from other nations who served false gods. However, I felt that the author left out some important aspects to this element of the conversation.  It is important to note that the Israelites used metaphors for Yahweh for a reason—to avoid the idolatrous act of claiming that their God could be described by a single human word. World renowned Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann concludes that Israel talked about God “imaginatively without any claim to being descriptive. At best, Israel’s speech concerning YHWH is elusive and suggestive…”[3]

It is also important to not neglect the many texts where God is both implicitly and explicitly described and depicted through feminine metaphors (ISA. 42:14, 49:14-15a, 49:14-15a, 66:13; Hosea 13:8; PS. 90:2 (NASB), 131:2 22:9-10).  Chan rightly says that, “It’s important to note that God is never addressed as Mother.” This is true—the name mother is only implied through symbolism such as God’s “giving birth” to the world (PS 90:2 NASB). Yet, it is important to note that neither is God ever actually said to be male! R.K. McGregor Wright shows clearly that the Hebrew word for “Male” (zakar) is never used to describe God in the Hebrew Bible.[4] Indeed this scenario is not unlike the term “Trinity” which is also never used to describe God. Yet, as we re-read the Bible today, we happily see that metaphor hidden underneath the surface. It seems that God is neither male nor female according to the Bible. It seems God transcends both categories.

As An Evangelical Feminist…

logo3Before you close this tab in your browser, let me define what I mean by “Evangelical Feminist.” In her book, Women Caught in the Conflict Evangelical author Rebecca Groothuis defines the group by saying, “Evangelical feminist believe simply that sexuality does not determine role prescriptions for women and men in every area of life; they do not maintain that sexuality makes no difference at all.”[5] In simpler words, I am simply someone who thinks the genders complement one another but without hierarchy.

These Evangelical feminists according to former Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw are evidence that Christianity does have a “thoroughly evangelical feminism that is grounded in a deep commitment to the truth of God’s Word.”[6] Yet, this is certainly not the feminism that Chan is reacting against when he says that feminists are unanimous in their conviction “that masculine words for God, especially Father, must be expunged from our theological vocabulary.” In my time at University, I have read dozens of Christian feminist and not one of them have articulated such a conviction; rather, they simply call for recognition and articulation of the variety of metaphors for God which are already peppered throughout the Biblical text. For me, this means that Chan has misrepresented Evangelical Feminism as a whole and unintentionally and unnecessarily grouped many faithful believers into the fold of  modern liberal feminism (here I do not intend a judgment-call, only clear distinction). For the sake of our Evangelical and feminist brothers and sisters, it is certainly worth taking the time to note which feminists you disagree with and why all feminists are not the same in their philosophy. Not all feminists want to be rid of Father-language—they actually want to work by your side to keep Father as an important name and metaphor for God.

As A Person Seeking Inclusivity in the Church…

rembrant-prodigal-son-detailAs a person seeking inclusivity in the Church, I wonder how using both Father and Mother does any significant damage to the Church as Chan seems to suggest.  Chan concludes, “Avoiding the use of personal pronouns for God unwittingly downplays God’s personal nature.” Yet, I wonder if it is actually more personal to use someone’s given name—like Yahweh/LORD for example—rather than a pronoun. Furthermore, Chan contests that Father “is how God is primarily identified or named in relation to his Son.” Here I wonder if there is a clear reason why Father is the primary metaphor for Chan besides the fact that it appears the most often. Does number of uses really tell us the primary metaphor by which Jesus knows God?

Chan communicates that what makes Christianity unique is its dependence on Father. However, I might submit that Christianity might show its uniqueness through its insistence that our God is incapable of being place into the box of a gender particularity. The gods of the ANE–many of which predate Israel’s encounters with Yahweh–were almost exclusively gendered as either male or female. To have a monotheism built around a God who represents Father  may be somewhat unique, but it is not particular only to Israel. And a God who is Male only is certainly not a progression in humanity’s long history of understanding of the divine.

I also think it is important to seek gender inclusivity in the Church because I think gender is a beautiful thing which should be realized and celebrated for all of its complexity and otherness. Women and men are beautifully made in the very image of the same God; yet they are unlike one another in so many fascinating ways. Why then, should the Church seek to use language particular to one gender when both are representations of God’s image? Why should the Church talk about God in one particular gender when God is revealed through both feminine and masculine metaphors? If God is neither male nor female but transcends both, our language in Church should reflect such a God.

Why We Call God ‘Father’ ultimately assumes that God’s very being is best described by Father—or in other (and more nerdish) words, God is Father at an ontological level. This assumption may be correct to a certain extent. Yet one still has to then leave room for other descriptors other than Father when they present in the Biblical text. God cannot have a gender for the same reason why Jesus–who is called Lamb–does not have a fluffy tail. The Bible uses a variety of genres filled with a variety of metaphors and names for a reason—because none of them can accurately describe God. God is not domesticated by human categories or limitations—not even by the wonderful name of Father.

In the end, I might actually have more in common with Simon Chan than I do difference. It is clear that Chan loves the Church and wishes to protect her from those who might call for removal of important theological language and liturgy. Even more, I deeply resonate with Chan’s implicit connection to a God who is a loving , protecting, and forgiving Father. Personally, I find great solace in a Father God, perhaps even more than any other metaphor I can think of. However, I am left to conclude that in order to respect both the Church and my own affection toward my heavenly Father, I must consider that God is personal enough to liken Himself to both genders, while remaining transcendent enough to be bound to neither.

-Michael Wiltshire


 [1] John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah: Chapters 49-66. Vol. 4. Wheaton: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d. 22.
[2] R. K. McGregor Wright, “God, Metaphor and Gender.” In Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Gordon D. Fee Ronald W. Pierce, 287-300. Downers Grove: IVP, 2005. 294-295.
[3] Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008. 89.
[4] R. K. McGregor Wright, “God, Metaphor and Gender.”289.
[5] Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Women Caught in the Conflict . Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1997. 118.
[6] Ibid. Mouw’s quote can be found on the back cover of Groothuis’ book.
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