5. I'll Level With You

The Hebrew parallelism of Gen.1:27 is an intriguing one. The first line reads: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him." That line we already have seen to be a paradigm of Level-1 anthropological discourse. The line itself includes a doubling--probably as a means of emphasizing its priority. Yet the second, antiphonal line (which normally functions as a parallel, a repetition of the first line's idea) in this case reads: "Male and female he created them."

Although referring to the same creation of the same subject, the antiphon uses a plural pronoun where the phon (if that's the word I want) had used a singular one. We seem to have a contradiction and/or a grammatical error. For instance, when we find written, "Everyone should do their part," it is an error, although not because it is wrong to refer to a human grouping in the plural. The error comes when, in one and the same statement, the sentence tries to operate on two different language levels. When the antecedent is identifying the group as singular, the pronoun dare not call it plural. But Genesis 1:27 does not have this problem. It consists of two different (although very similar) statements, each of which functions properly on its own language level. Thus it is a repetition which is much more than just a repetition. Each of the two statements is equally true; no one is being forced to decide whether the race actually is singular or whether it is plural. Indeed, the full truth is all the fuller for being able to include both statements; the truth-seeker is more truth-finding for being able to converse on both (or all) language levels.

Yet it becomes plain that "male and female" should not be taken to represent Level 2; there are other levels that come in between. Let's take time to get them in the picture.

Level 2:

The key terms here are: "the human race," "humanity," "mankind," "humankind" (this last being a flag word, invented to escape the gender implications of "mankind," which, functionally, had no gender implications to begin with).

As with Level 1, each of these words is total in reference and singular (simple) in treating the race as an integer. But the difference now is that Level 2 sees the race as impersonal rather than as a person; each of our words calls for the pronoun "it." We are not implying that this language level is in any way improper or unnecessary. In many contexts, impersonally is the only accurate way to describe the race--even though there are also many true things that can be said on Level 1 that simply are not possible to Level 2. By the way, this Level 2 is the equivalent of water's Level-1 "water." Because there would be no particular truth function involved, water does not want the possibility of being spoken of as a person.)
An interesting speculation is whether any of the terms on Level 2 is actually a collective. It is quite possible to arrive at a total by adding up parts and yet treat that resultant as though you had created a singular (an integer). If we do have a collective, "mankind" would be the most likely suspect. Yet it seems right that even this word should be understood as being derived downward from Level-1 "man as a whole" rather than upward from a lower level, "man as a human individual." It is probabl correct that--with Level-2 "mankind," as with Level-1 "water"--the language does not betray (actually, cannot betray) even the possibility of analyzing the race into components.
There is one term that might appear to belong here (if not on Level 1) but which, instead, falls clear outside our scheme. The term simply is not used the way it looks as though it should be. "Everyone/everybody" would appear to be total (but is not), is singular calling for singular pronouns), and is personal personal pronouns). Yet, at best, the word denotes "people in general" rather than "the totality of people." And more precisely, it is a synonym of "anyone" or "whoever"--thus signifying "any person chosen at random" rather than a grouping of any sort. "Everyone" is in no way total; and even its singularity and person reference apply to that random individual rather than to the character of the race.

Level 3:
At this point we are going to complicate by speaking of
  • Level 3+: "people";
  • Level 3: "man (plural), men"; and
  • Level 3-: "persons."
With the exception of "man (plural)," these terms normally function with the adjective "all" ("all people," "all men," etc.). Each term, of course, calls for personal pronouns. This level has distinguished itself from Level 2 by leaving behind both the singular race and the impersonal one. Level 3 corresponds to the "droplet" level of water and is marked by the discovery that the race can be approached by analyzing it into its constituents, namely, human individuals. Each of the words is plural, and each is a collective.
The word "people" ("all people") is a unique case-and unique in a way that qualifies it for a plus sign. "People" is plural but plural with a difference. It is not constructed over a singular by giving one a plural ending or form. One "person" plus another "person" equals "persons." But what equals "people"? One "peep" plus another "peep"? "People" does have a singular, namely "a people." Yet, although the plural is a collective (of "peeps"), the singular docs not refer to a constituent individual but to a community. "All people" manages to refer to the race collectively but without accentuating the individuality of that which is collected--and thus it stands a notch above the rest of Level 3.
With "persons" ("all persons")--in addition to being rhetorically "blah!"--the movement is in precisely the opposite direction. The word obviously is constructed by giving the singular a plural ending--which has the effect of keeping each "droplet" individual. "Persons" may get collected; but they do very little combining. And this linguistic feature is, of course, further emphasized by the contemporary philosophical overtones of "person"--namely autonomy, self-containedness, liberation, and resistance to subordination. In consequence, "persons" speaks of the most loosely knit collective possible, a passel of strangers.
It must be said that this "stranger" aspect of the word "persons" does have its proper function. That is why the newspaper report tells us that seventeen persons (read: "units") were killed in a certain disaster. We are being told that the only thing those individuals had in common was that they chanced to die at the same time--a very loose collective indeed. Consequently, I have been completely unable to figure the rationale for the switch to "persons" where the word "people" had been serving very well. Certainly no considerations of sexism are involved. Yet "persons" clearly is a flag word of mod-speak (and perhaps of mod-church-speak in particular). But I do not understand why, in a worship litany, the congregation should be called "persons" when they are "people"--perhaps even people on the way to becoming "a people." No, "all persons is definitely Level 3-. And again, linguistic "accident"(?) has the effect of skewing our discourse away from its biblical parameters.
Back, then, to Level 3 (straight). It is intriguing to discover that, in Gen. 1:26 (the verse immediately preceding the one we have been addressing), the text reads: "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image ... and let them have dominion.... '"
Here is a "man" that is collective; the collected sum is given a plural pronoun. Thus, although both are spelled "m-a-n," this is not at all the same word as the "man" of the succeeding verse. There, recall, rather than being a collective, "man" was an integer of such integrity that there was no hint of even the possibility of addressing "him" in terms of component individuals. Although spelled the same and appearing in consecutive verses, the two words function differently enough to make it apparent that they are in no way the same word.
It needs to be noted, also, that the component analysis of Level-3 "man" is not that of Level-4 "male and female" (even though both come within verses 26-27). The "them" of verse 26 recognizes a plurality of human individuals without suspecting that they can be separated into two different categories; only the "them" of verse 27 finally discovers that there are both male individuals and female individuals. It turns out that the biblical writers were most adept at playing Wittgenstein long before Ludwig even invented the game.
Actually, Level-3 "man" is a rather rare usage. Its partner "men" ("all men") is much more common even as it displays a construction that is more common to this level. "Man" may imply a somewhat tighter collective than does "all men"--in that it looks like a singular and does not require the assistance of the adjective "all." Nevertheless, "people" is the most powerful word on this level and probably the one most frequently used.
(Notice that on none of these three levels can either man or "men" have any sort of gender implication. On these levels there is as yet no Knowledge of gender and no means of expressing such. And it is essential to purposes of human discourse to be able to speak of the race without dragging gender into the conversation.)
Level 4:
"Male and female [read also: "man and woman or "men and women"] he created them."
This language level is biblical; it is true; it is essential to a full-truth anthropology-there are no questions on that score. This is the equivalent of the H2O level regarding water. As it was there discovered that water could be described in terms of its atomic constituents (hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms), here it is discovered that humanity can be described in terms of its constituent male atoms and female atoms. Yet there is a difference--or at least the possibility of a difference.
The H2O game and the Bible game are both very much committed to molecular theory. Water is not just a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen atoms; it is a proper bonding of those atoms into molecules.
The Bible has it: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one [molecule]" (Gen. 2:24).
(And here, by the way, where for the first time we have said "a man, we have a new "m-a-n" word which is entirely different from what we have seen heretofore. By itself it identifies just one gender and thus cannot denote the totality of the race. It falls entirely outside our scheme.)
But notice that the biblical thought is molecular throughout. We did not start with an independent "man-atom" which then, along with a "woman-atom," decided to form a molecule. No, the "man-atom" left his "parents-children molecule" in order to form a "husband-wife molecule"--which itself in time became another "parents-children molecule." Scripture knows nothing of a theory that makes atomic existence normative, with the atoms exercising the freedom to form molecules only if and when they promise to give atomic satisfaction and the freedom to dissolve molecules whenever they fail to satisfy. Rather, "the LORD God said 'It is not good that the [atom] should be alone'" (Gen. 2:18); and he proceeded to get his creation "right" by thoroughly molecularizing it.

Thus, the Bible. Yet the custom of our day is to read "Male and female he created them" in terms of "atomic physiques," i.e., the priority and independence of atoms--and this, apparently, out of hatred for the mutual subordination necessarily involved in molecular existence.

Plainly, it is here on Level 4 that the feminist grammar centers in--to the detriment of any higher levels of discourse and to the actual exclusion of Level 1. But the feminists are not alone in this, for the very tendency of our world is toward an atomistic anthropology: "I am a woman"/"I am black"/"I am a person in my own right"... this rather than "No man is an island." And such a philosophy as much as demands that Level 4 be the primary language game.

The basic principle of this grammar is inclusiveness--and feminist terminology has that word just exactly right. But consider what the term means: it means being careful to name every single constituent, so that not one is excluded from the end result. Miss one and the language now is "exclusive" rather than "inclusive." Yes, it is true that none of our higher-level games was inclusive (in this sense); yet none of them was exclusive, either. They couldn't be. Because they didn't even recognize that the total integer consists of components, they didn't have the language that could exclude any. (Level 3 did recognize components--yet all of one sort, namely, human being and so still didn't have the language that could exclude any.) You can't be "sexist" on Levels 1-3, because their sex doesn't even exist. Rather than "inclusive," these levels would have to be characterized as "sexually ignorant, or non-differentiating."

Now if the important thing is that our language be "non-excluding," these higher levels are the safe and sure way to go. But go the way of Level-4 inclusiveness, and there will always be questions: Does "men and women" do justice to the children in our midst? Does "male and female" properly include our eunuchs, transsexuals, transvestites, bisexuals, and homosexuals? Have we overlooked anyone? And as with H2O, when we go to still lower language levels, the list of components invariably lengthens. Thus, if we choose what we might as well call Level 5, an old Sunday school song represents the big try:

Red and yellow, black and white--
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

But will just four colors add up to "all"? How about the gray children that are always underfoot--or the mottled ones? And does the song mean to imply that Jesus doesn't love big kids? Try the inclusive method of writing, and the nitpickers will get you every time.

Now the Bible, operating out of a high-level anthropology in the interests of a human being theology (and thus, I would think, not particularly excited about black theology, feminist theology, and other exclusivist theologies), tends generally to use sexually ignorant terms. Speaking only for myself, in by far the greater part of what I write, I want to be as sexually ignorant as possible. At the typewriter, I am willing to forget what sex I am. Nor am I interested in knowing the sexual status of my reader; that shouldn't make any difference at all to the hearing of what I have to say. When, for instance, I talk about "the Christian" who believes this or that, I don't want readers trying to guess whether he is male or female. At this language level we don't even know what sex is. He (the Christian) is a representative personification of the entire Christian community and nothing else. (And those pronouns do not change the case one iota. They are part of the same language level as their antecedents; and if the antecedents are sexually ignorant, so are the pronouns.) I use the upper language levels precisely because there is no way they can be excluding of a gender group or of any other human constituency. They can speak--have the words to speak--only of human beings as such or of the race as a whole.

But what happens? I write: "The Christian must find his role in society"--a perfectly correct, sexually ignorant sentence. There comes along a copyeditor with a Level 4 fixation and changes it to "The Christian must find his or her role in society."

"What did you do to my sentence?" I cry.

"Nothing," says the copyeditor, "I just added two little words to make it inclusive."

But I wasn't even thinking or talking "Inclusive"; I was clear up on the level of "Sexually Ignorant." Now gender has reared its ugly head in the midst of my simon-pure prose-although gender was the last thing in the world I wanted my reader thinking about. My sentence has been jerked down into the Level-4 language-game, whether or not that is where I wanted it. My pronoun now has been completely ruined; this was not simply the adding of an "or her." My "his" was sexually ignorant. Although still spelled the same, it is now a different word of precisely opposite function-anything but sexually ignorant.

And what about my representative individual? Do we now have a double image-an ideal female Christian alongside an ideal male Christian? (There is no doubt but that the feminist grammar does require sexual segregation where none is needed or called for.) But no, I don't think that is how the "his or her" pronoun is meant to operate. More probably it works like this: When the reader hits "his or her," he or she is to be reminded that he or she is a sexual creature, check it out real quick, and then choose the mental image that corresponds to his or her own sexuality. Now that is a cumbersome enough way of reading, to be sure; but the only alternative is the rejected one of letting us--at least for the nonce--forget all about sex (and feminism).

And who is actually more deserving of the charge of "sexism"? Me, for whom in such a case sex is the farthest thing from my mind, or the copy editor that proceeds to impose a sexual reference upon everything I write? Once more, of course, the feminist intent was innocent (comparatively). The aim was to make the language "inclusive," not force anthropology into an inherent dualism. But also once more, the accidental side effect has been to join the philosophy of the world in its Level-4 partitioning of the race.

6. The Eve of Adam (rather than The Dawn of Man)

Now that we have developed the requisite language levels, we are ready to see that Gen. 1:27 is a mustard seed version of the great shrub of biblical anthropology:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; Male and female he created them. (Gen. 1.27)

In summary, here are two levels of discourse: Level 1 with man as an indivisible integer, and Level 4 with mankind constituted of males and females. Both levels are true and both essential to a proper understanding of the passage. Yet even though both are necessary, the verse creates a clear priority between them. However, that priority is not here expressed in terms of chronology; only one act of creation is being described. Yet priority there most certainly is; the order of the two statements could not be reversed. Not only does the first statement come first; it is doubled for emphasis; and the "image of God" is ascribed to it alone. Man always is to be thought of as an undifferentiated unity before he is analyzed into constituents (of whatever sort). And although it is not explicit in this verse, we have seen that very quickly to be made explicit is the idea that, even on Level 4, the male and female constituents are to represent a molecular bonding rather than separated atoms. However the account is read, the unity of the race takes precedence over any of the constituencies of which it is composed.

Thus far the first creation account of Gen. 1:1-2:4a. However, many people have read the second, narrativeaccount of Gen. 2:4b-25 quite differently. I want to argue that the two accounts can and should be read as speaking with one voice.

If the common understanding of the Genesis 2 story were put into Genesis 1 terminology (that in itself being a poor move) it would read something as follows: Now there is no creation of a Level-1, undifferentiated "man." And rather than creating them "male and female" in one action, God first created a male "in his image" and then later--as something of an afterthought, in a subordinate action--he created a female to go with the first-created male. (Be aware that Genesis 2 does not attribute an "image of God" to anyone--although people tend to correlate the two accounts just as we have done here.)

The question is whether there is a grammar that will even allow us to say what the preceding paragraph just undertook to say. Before the entrance of the female Eve into the story, it should be just as impossible to call Adam a "male" as it would be to speak or think of a "father" before there was a concept "child." There can't be a "father" without a "child"; no more can there be a "male" without a "female." To call the pre-Eve Adam a "male" actually is to get ahead of the story, to have moved into a language game that does not and cannot yet exist at that point.

It was Wittgenstein, again, who pointed out that language comes into being-and can come into being—and can come only as a fruit of human experience. And in human experience there is nothing that properly could be called "male" except in relation to "female"; they exist together or not at all. Until there is Eve, Adam must be considered simply as an undifferentiated human being--undifferentiated sexually, racially, and in every other way. (And once more, people were playing Wittgenstein before Ludwig came out with the game: there is an ancient Jewish tradition that this Adam was androgynous.) I prefer "undifferentiated"; but in any case, such an Adam stands as a very nice representation of Level-1 creation. God created man (not "a male") as a total, singular, personal unity.

Now hear that this does not mean (nor am I asking you to imagine) that this Adam was some sort of non-human monstrosity or that he underwent some sort of physiological transformation with the creation of Eve. Put it that, even before Eve, he was observed to have genitals of the sort we now call "male." There would then have been no way of knowing them to be male sex organs--or even sex organs--for that matter. There would be no way of figuring out why they were formed as they were or what possible function they might have (they indeed having no function until there was Eve). Adam might even be observed to have sperm. But what is sperm? It certainly cannot be understood as an indication of malenessuntil one knows what the sperm itself is. And if one does not know and cannot know "ovum" (there being as yet no Eve), there is no chance of explaining "sperm." This Adam could have acted as he would; but he could not have been called "macho" or "lover" or much of anything else.

Most of our human attributes are relational and have no function and thus no identification apart from their complementary attribute.

Adam became "male" (could become "male") only in Eve's becoming "female." So, even in Genesis 2, it is not "first the male and only later the female." No, just as in Genesis 1, "male and female he created them." Before that moment, genitals, sperm, and all the rest added up to... nothing. Then suddenly, after that moment, "Oh! Her! ... Why, of course... How could we have been so stupid? So that is why everything is as it is. Right on!" "Male and female" makes such very good sense; either one alone makes no sense at all.

So Genesis 2 turns out to be a very good narrative version of Gen. 1:27. And that parthenogenetic bit about Adam's rib being tickled into going female while the rest of him went male is a pretty neat way of affirming that "male and female he created them" is indeed the direct antiphon to "in the image of God he created him." And finally, Genesis 2 takes the prize in making so emphatic what 1:27 had missed, namely, the so very "molecular" design of human males and females.

7. God's Gender and Ours

However, the argument developed here needs also to be applied at a higher level--indeed, at the highest possible level. It will work there--and with very interesting results.

If the concepts "male" and "female" must come into being simultaneously, if the words can enter the language only together, then it follows that God could become "masculine" only in that moment when his "rib" (God-imaged, Level-1 "man" of course) became "feminine." (We are replacing the word "male" with "masculine" so that we can speak of God's gender without ascribing to him anything like physical, biological sexuality.) But we mean exactly what we say and do now seriously intend to argue that the Bible presents the race itself as being essentially "feminine" in relation to the "masculinity" of God. Man is a woman--to put it in a way that is linguistically maddening and yet biblically true.

Biblical usage indicates that the God/man relationship is to be understood primarily under three figures--each of which casts God in a clearly masculine role:

  1. husband and wife (or lover and beloved);
  2. father and child (normally "children" or "son"); and
  3. king and people (never, as I recall, king and an individual subject).

The very terminology immediately commits us to "molecular" rather than "atomic" thought. God-with-man is meant to exist as a "marital molecule," a "family molecule," or a "royal molecule" (and a king cannot be king or be royal unless there is a people). In each case, the molecular implication of mutual subordination is very much present. H2O cannot exist as water without the hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms each being willing to give up their right to independent existence as hydrogen or oxygen. And yes, God did subordinate himself in the creation of man and has continued to subordinate himself ever since--even to death on a cross. Yet, in each case, God is masculine--and must be for the figure to work.

At first glance, there might not seem to be any hint of a "God-with-man molecule" idea in the Genesis anthropology we have been examining; but that glance is wrong. Since in the second, narrative account (Gen. 3:4) being "like God" is the serpent's line, the very phrase used to denote man's negative action of sin, disobedience, and atomism, then the first-account phrase "in the image of God" must intend something quite different from being "like God." What, then? Most obviously, this: To be "in the image of God" means to be in a complementary (not competitive) relationship to him, to be in correspondence. For God and man to "image" each other means that they are to be "correspondents," each answering to the other, man's being the very hydrogen needed to combine with God's oxygen (with God, of course, also being the chemist in charge) if, together, they are to find their high destiny as water.

Obviously, to this day, the hydrogen has not responded very well; but that does not change the fact of what man was created to be. But as we already have seen, in human language "male and female" is perhaps our very best model of personal correspondence; hydrogen and oxygen atoms are hardly personal at all. So, if we reject all masculine language for God, how, pray tell, are we to do any effective exegesis of "created in the image of God"?


It regularly is argued that, although the masculine and feminine together certainly have always constituted the nature of God, the cultural biases and limitations of the era made it impossible fully to express that truth in scripture. Yet such a suggestion is just the opposite of the truth. In the religio-cultural world of Bible times, Yahwism (the worship of one God, the Old Testament Yahweh) was perhaps the only religion that did not have both the masculine and the feminine principle represented in deity--and these customarily in explicitly sexual pairings. In the chronological consequence of their impact upon biblical thought, the religions that included both male and female deities within their pantheons would be: the Sumerian, the Egyptian, the Canaanite, the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek (including the mystery. cults), and the Roman.

The fact that most, if not all, of these cultures were even more strongly male dominated than was Israel shows that Israel's so-called "patriarchalism" certainly was no bar to attributing femininity to Yahweh. And the later Christian development of Trinitarian doctrine shows that Israel's "monotheism" was no bar to feminizing God, either; multifacetedness and variety can be attributed to God without compromising his oneness. Culturally, at any time in its history, Israel could have come up with the concept which currently is being advanced among us, namely, a God incorporating equally the masculine and feminine in one Person. Indeed, what is culturally inexplicable is that, particularly under the pressures of Canaanite Baalism, Israel failed (or refused) to accept any hint or tinge of such dual-gendered deity.

Far from admitting cultural explanation, this anomaly calls for theological explanation. It is not that Yahwism denies any place or standing to the feminine; not at all. It is, rather, that Yahweh does not need or want a female consort, because he already has one. Man is that consort (already is in the sense that God loves us and has covenanted with us; is called to be in the sense that we have yet to respond as the true and faithful consort). But Hosea was willing to go so far as to say that our greatest need is to "know" Yahweh, using at that point the very Hebrew term that also denotes sexual union. And most telling to me is the discovery--right in the middle of Jeremiah's famous "new covenant" passage (Jer. 31:31-34)--of the completely casual, unsignaled phrase, "my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband." Obviously, Jeremiah's hearers didn't need any explanation. How else had they ever under-stood "covenant," how else could it be understood, except as the marriage between Husband Yahweh and Wife Israel? It is not wide the mark to say that, in Yahwism, the human race plays the role that goddesses play in the religions of dual-gendered deity.

This means that the biblical faith has built into it a much higher anthropology than is possible to any of the pagan faith--and let it be said, an anthropology that not only fully includes women but actually is biased toward the feminine. Consequently, we ought to be very cautious about falling for the temptation our biblical predecessors so valiantly resisted, namely, moving the feminine principle into the godhead and thus jeopardizing the great anthropological (and feminist) advantage scripture had already given us.

Yet even apart from the Genesis "image of God," when we look at the total biblical witness the gender implications of the God/man relationship become all the more explicit. The "Father/child" model is, of course, very pervasive. But also pervasive is the model of the male/female lovers. In the Old Testament, Yahweh/Israel as husband/wife (or wooer/wooed) is prominent. In the New Testament, Christ/church is bridegroom/bride is just as prominent. And in both cases, certainly, the model of what Israel or the church is to be is also the model of what the race itself should be.

However, to refuse to speak of God as masculine (out of whatever motives) is necessarily to lose these models and their understanding of the God/man relationship. It is for our sake that God has deigned to reveal himself to us as "masculine," to aid us in coming "feminine" in response. Yet we would reject that approach, choosing rather to treat him as "beyond gender." And why? The mentality of the age would indicate that we resent the intimacy and self-giving that "femininity" would require of us.

The rebuttal, of course, is that these models are only analogies or metaphors of God--with the implication that, consequently, they are to be understood sheerly as cultural creations which we do not need to take seriously, which we are free to exchange for imagery of our own choosing or to drop in favor of speaking directly of things in themselves. In this regard, however, it should be noted that the feminist grammar has not proposed any different models that come anywhere close to approximating the biblical ones.

Very true, these are "analogies"--but the adjective "only" does not follow. As Wittgenstein has told us, language is created solely out of human experience and is expressive solely of human experience. Further, as human beings, we are incapable of any direct, unmediated apprehension of God. Therefore, whatever we say about God will have to be analogy. Indeed, Dorothy Sayers went so far as to suggest that all human speech is analogical and can't be any other way. Thus, discovering our models to be analogical cannot be made an excuse for dismissing them as peripheral. The masculinity of God is as thoroughly rooted in the totality of scripture as is any idea one could name. Of course, no one can presume to say who or what God in himself is. But if the Bible is taken as incorporating God's self-revelation in any sense, then it reveals that God wants us to relate to him as one who is "masculine personal." Whatever he may be in himself, for us he is Husband, Father, and King.

However, there is more that follows. Wittgenstein established that language grows out of human experience. That implies that all of our gender and sexual terminology has proceeded out of our human gender and sexual experience. But although that is undoubtedly true linguistically, it does not follow that the same order holds theologically. Biblically, "human sexuality" is not the first great fact of our existence (as the world would have it). Linguistically, yes, but theologically it is not true that God's gender is nothing more than a backward cultural projection of our own human sexuality. Quite the contrary, our human sexuality is itself an imperfect derivative of that perfect gender relationship established when the in-that-moment-becoming-masculine God created a feminine humanity in his own image. There is where we must look to see what it really means to be "male and female."

So it is not that the prophet Hosea pulled off a heroic act of marital fidelity and then presented that as a paradigm for understanding Yahweh's relationship to Israel. Rather, because Yahweh always had been the sort of husband he was to Israel, Hosea was inspired to act as he did toward Gomer. In Eph. 5:25, Paul asks husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church; he does not tell husbands to take note of how they treat their wives and from that learn how Christ loved the church. It is not our human ideas and experience that define true "masculinity" and "femininity"; we stand as very poor models of those. No, those are to be "read out of" the God/man relationship and accordingly "lived into" our experience as human males and females.

But when the feminist grammar would forbid us to think of God as masculine and thus know him as lover or father, this is not only to reject God in his chosen approach, the way he chose for revealing himself; it is also to rob ourselves of the one model by which there was any chance of our understanding our own sexuality and learning to use it for its intended purposes and blessings. Our refusing to address him according to his express preference may insult him, but it certainly cannot change or harm him. The irreparable harm comes to ourselves. Out of distaste for distinguishing between the sexes in any way, for us to deny his masculinity inevitably is to deny the call that we be feminine in relation to him. And what hope is there that we ever can come to be "in the image of God" if we refuse to hear what that means?


We have established that God has revealed himself to us as "masculine" precisely in order to invoke our (humanity's) "feminine" response--and we have no desire to back off on that point. However, we never meant to suggest that God is nothing but masculine, that "masculinity" can serve as his total characterization. No, if we may put it so, God equals "masculinity" plus "deity"--and those two are not the same thing. As masculine, he is Father (to us as children) and Wooer-Husband (to us as beloved-bride). But as divine, he is also Deity (to our humanity), Lord (to our liege), and Creator (to our creature).

However, to confuse God's masculinity with his deity is disastrous. As masculine, he is not only the object of humanity's feminine response; he is also the model of how human males should be masculine in relation to human females. Yet God's deity is no part of that package. His deity is without analogy at any level of inter-human relations. Some humans are in-deed called to be father or wooer-husband to other humans. But no male (or female) is to be god to anyone else; the divine roles of lord and creator are unique to God. Recall that it was the serpent who suggested that man eat the fruit and become "like God" (in this sense); and that of course was a bad move that didn't work very well at all.

Yes, it is true that the male animal very often has wanted to make his masculinity toward the female include his being god over her. And in one sense contemporary feminism is correct in asserting that women have just as much right to play god as men do. Yet, biblically, this is a very poor way of putting the matter: there the word is that no one is right in wanting to be "like God," not that men and women should have equal rights in being so!

Granted, I have addressed only the linguistic matter of why the Bible's consistently masculine reference to God is proper, is theologically constructive, humanly helpful, and in no way threatening or disparaging to any segment of the race. I have not gone on to explore the specifics of what the masculine God's relationship to a feminine humanity has to say about the male-female relationships of human beings. In this book, we are trying to stick to the topic of language." The broader topic, although admittedly crucial, must await later treatment.

Yet another implication follows from what we have been saying. If "God created man in his own image" comes before "male and female he created them"; if man represents Level-1 discourse and "male and female" Level-4; and if "sexually undifferentiated Adam" stands prior to "male Adam and female Eve"--it follows that a gender-undifferentiated God would outrank the masculinized one of the creation. So the feminists are right. Assuming that their "God beyond gender" is the equivalent of our "gender-undifferentiated God," theirs is a commendable effort to lift our God-talk to the highest possible level. Glory to God in the highest!

Theoretically that may be true--but it is also to forget whose is the language with which we are dealing, who are the speakers of it, and what is our own place in the scheme of things. Whoever or whatever God may have been before the creation, before he made us and addressed us, before he became masculine in relation to our femininity, surely it is not for us to make language claims there. After all, we are of the creation, of God's rib that became wife. How, then, do we presume to step out of that status to speak as definer and describer of the God that was before, to address him (it) as though that is God pro nobis, for us, to us, with us?

We can possibly know of God only as much as he has chosen to reveal of himself. And he has revealed himself to us only in, by, and through our own history, by way of that which is relevant to our own historical existence. He has addressed us only as his beloved, only as feminine co-respondent to his own masculinity, not as confidant to his existence before the worlds began. But we try to go God one better by approaching him on a level higher than the one he has assigned us. We think to improve upon Jesus' "Pray then like this: 'Our Father..."' (Mt. 6:9) or upon Paul's "When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" Rom. 8:15-16).

But this cannot pass as a human honoringof God. It is rather the presumption of the serpent's invitation to become "like God," of wanting to be more than he has made us to be and offering him more than he has asked of us. And the situation is even worse when we must suspect that the real interest in "the God beyond gender" is not that of speaking as truly of God as is possible but of evading the subordination attendant upon confessing him as husband or father or lord.

Again (and for the last time), I do not mean to suggest that the feminist grammar was designed with the intent of presuming against God and evading the self-abasement he rightfully requires of us. No, I think it represents, rather, the tunnel vision of Zealotry--a quite thoughtless move to enhance the status of women without giving consideration to the consequences for theology and faith. It is not surprising that secular feminism should see no further and do no better. It is a great tragedy that Christian feminism got swept up in the process.

Tbe End of the Matter

The end of the matter is as Barth began it--that the gospel, the biblical message, requires the language of Canaan. That, of course, is not to suggest that it can be spoken only in Hebrew and Greek. It is to say that it must have a grammar powerful enough to enable us to think and say what the biblical languages were intent to communicate in the first place. And as seems clear, the grammar of contemporary humanism (whether feminist or otherwise) simply has not that capability. So unless we first go to the Bible for some language training, there is no chance of the gospel's being truly spoken or heard among us.

An Afterword

Afterwards (i.e., after the events recounted in our Foreword and thus after the writing of this volume), Karl Barth's The Christian Life, a fragment-construction of Volume IV, Part 4, of his Church Dogmatics came to hand. And wouldn't you know, reading Barth opened my eyes to another prime characteristic, not simply of the feminist grammar, but more generally of the entire theological fashion of which the grammar is but a symptom.

What follows here is just one, early (p.6), brief paragraph out of Barth's long- and many-paragraphed book. I intend someday to read the rest of it (a remark regularly found upon the lips of Barth-readers). Yet just this one paragraph is typical enough to make our point.

Who is the God who commands in royal freedom? If we hold fast to God's self-declaration in Jesus Christ, then we may resolutely answer in the negative: he is not in any case a general or neutral god, however, lofty, who owes his closer definition to the intrinsically nonobligatory surmising or thinking of some human religion or metaphysics, even though it be that of the Christian faith. He is not in any case empty transcendence whose possible filling out can be provided only by human existence. And we may no less resolutely answer in the positive: in any case, no matter how it may he with faith or unbelief, the obedience or disobedience of the man who confronts him, he is the one without whom this man would not even be. He is the one who has created him. No matter what many may think of it, God is the one who has reconciled man to himself when as a sinner man became his enemy. He is the one who in the concluding manifestation of his love wills to redeem man, and will redeem him from the discord in which he now exists. He is the partner of man as the Initiator and Lord of this history of his dealings with him. It is with him, with this one as outlined thus, that acting man comes to have and has dealings in that event of his encounter with God's command. The encounter is in any case determined and limited by the work and therefore by the manner of this Lord. It takes place in the sphere of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who is man's Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer.
  1. It is clearly the case that Barth's language can qualify only as what is regularly (if unfairly) called "sexist." It follows that Barth himself is guilty of "sexism," of ignoring and belittling women. His language is in no way "inclusive," in that he fails to make any specific reference to females or to use any specifically feminine pronouns or other such terminology.
  2. At the same time, it is obvious that any reader proficient enough in the English language (or the original German) to be reading Barth in the first place can understand this paragraph perfectly and know for certain that Barth is not discriminating against women or anyone else. He properly uses generic terminology as a means of affirming that, in relation to God (and thus on all major points of Christian terminology of our human distinctions even merit notice. One and all, we are human beings, members of one race, each a full and equal participant in "man" and "men." There is not the slightest doubt hut that this is what Barth has in mind; and any honest reader can know it for a fact. On the other hand, for Barth, at this point, to have said anything that would call attention to distinctions of gender, race, age, creed, piety, or anything else, at best would be to detract from the truth to which he was witnessing and at worst actually to deny it.
  3. If, as is done as a matter of course by many authors and editors, this paragraph had been written or edited to conform to feminist, "inclusive" usage--e.g., doubling nouns and pronouns to "women and men and "he or she," changing "mankind" to "human-kind," avoiding all pronouns in reference to God--this would be to make trivial Barth's whole effort. (I will now be using that word "trivial" with some frequency; upon it hinges the point I want to make.) The paragraph would no longer be Karl Barth speaking; it would no longer say what he wanted to say. He would no longer be speaking grandly upon his grand theme. He would have been preempted by trivial-mindedness.

    But to try to make Karl Barth speak in inclusive language would be a lost cause in any case. Down the line a bit, because this particular volume happens to be structured over the Lord's Prayer, a chapter is devoted to a treatment of God as Father. (For us, that is, it would be a "chapter." On Barth's own scale, the entire volume is simply Chapter XVII and this merely a "section.") But therein (p.51) he writes: "Father as a vocative, whether expressed or not, is the primal form of the thinking, the primal sound of the speaking, and the primal act of the obedience demanded of Christians."

    Later (p.53), he explains why "Father" is essential to our speaking of God and to God:
    Father! Understood as a vocative and used in Christian thought and speech, this word gives the required precision, the appropriate fullness, and the authentic interpretation to a word that in itself is indefinite, empty, and ambivalent, namely, the word "God." God himself, the one true and real God, obviously does not need this in order to avoid indistinctness, emptiness, and ambivalence. But the word "God" in all human languages does need it, for it can mean everything for some, this or that for others, and even nothing at all, or a mere illusion, for others."
    Surely Barth himself never anticipated that there soon would be Christians who explicitly would defy God's command that he be invoked as "Father"; but he has put his finger on the heart of the matter even so. We are to see that much more is involved than simply an aversion to God's "masculinity." Quite beyond this specifically feminist concern, the theological bent of our day is toward moving God away from the specific and concrete and into what Barth calls "indistinctness, emptiness, and ambivalence"--and this, rather apparently, out of a desire to evade the specificities of God's judgment that many of our actions are "sins" and we ourselves "sinners," that there is One to whom we are subordinate, upon whom we are dependent, apart from whom we are nothing, in relation to whom we are to be self-forgetful, and in obedience to whom we must live or else in disobedience die. The questioning of God's "masculinity" is but a single symptom of our deeper and more pervasive sickness.

    So, Barth's language is irremediably sexist. Yet, Karl Barth being Karl Barth, I suppose that most publishers would make an exception to their editorial rule and let his stuff through the way he wrote it. However, if the same manuscript bore the name of some lesser light (say, "Vernard Eller," whom many consider so lesser as to be no light at all), it might very well be rejected for its failure--or the author's refusal--to conform to the feminist usage. And this is trivial-mindedness.

    Undoubtedly there are quarters of the theological world in which Barth's witness will not be read nor given consideration--merely because his language is found to be offensive. And that is a trivial-mindedness that spells nothing but the deprivation both of potential reader and of contemporary theology.
  4. Barth's paragraph is entirely biblical. Its grammar is that of the Bible itself (whether in Hebrew, Greek, or English, as we have seen--and German in Barth's case). But more, each of Barth's ideas can be supported from scripture--and will be, with a small-print section, when Karl Barth is doing it.
  5. Even more, Barth's paragraph is gospel. In addition simply to having scriptural support, what he has to say reiterates the priority, emphasis, and inflection of the biblical gospel. What scripture makes basic (thus, that both "man" as a unity and "men" as every single individual are commanded by a God on whom they are utterly dependent), Barth makes basic. What the gospel does not emphasize (thus, the priority of our sex roles and gender distinctions), Barth does not make central.
I am not arguing that Barth is infallible, above criticism, or a teacher of the only true theology. Personally, I have not even considered him as my own favorite, most essential theologian. Yet this much must be said: If "the Christian gospel" has any specific reference and a definable content, and if the scriptures carry any authority in our locating that content, then Barth's paragraph and his theology as a whole are in the ballpark--something that definitely cannot be said about just every paragraph and every theology, and particularly those of current fashion. But the one thing of which Karl Barth will be the last to be accused is being trivial or of trivializing the gospel.

Yet I can well imagine someone commenting upon our paradigmatic paragraph, "Dr. Barth, I must say that I found your words very offensive!"

To which I can also imagine Barth responding, "Yes, just so! It is offensive to learn that, before God, we all stand together to such an extent that he cannot and will not distinguish between the righteous and the unrighteous; between male chauvinist pigs and their innocent female victims; between a liberated, self-actualizing woman and her toadying, boot-licking counterpart; between humanity's heroic spirits and its unwashed philistines. It is offensive that God should be so blind as to ask us each to pray, 'Lord (and Father), be merciful to me, a sinner.' In fact, it is offensive that God should come on as 'Initiator and Lord,' suggesting that we are utterly dependent upon him, that human authenticity can be found only in our subordinating ourselves in obedience to his command. Yes, it is offensive--which is why the Rock of Offense himself said, 'Blessed is he or she who is not offended in me."'

"But, Dr. Barth, that isn't what I meant! I didn't read that far--and I don't care about those things. I am offended that you talked about men and didn't once mention women--as though they don't even exist!"

"What? I didn't mention women? But I didn't say anything that wasn't about women--and everybody else. My dear sister, you didn't hear a word I said, did you? And you didn't really want to, did you?"

Could it be that, perhaps subconsciously, we use this trivial offense about the spelling of the language's generic terminology as a self-protective means of avoiding the essential offense with which the gospel would confront us?

I am not ready to go so far as to argue that a Barthian sort of in-the-ballpark presentation of the gospel absolutely cannot be stated in the grammar of feminism. However, I would opine that, wherever you do find literature being done in this grammar, it is odds-on that the theology involved is outside the ballpark, centering on what the gospel treats as secondary if not trivial. This is partly because the language does itself encourage such focus upon the human condition rather than upon God. It serves the situation that Christoph Blumhardt described even before Barth learned it from him:

Everyone sighs over himself, looks for something in himself and for himself--and doesn't himself know what it is. One would like to call out to them all: "People, forget yourselves! Think of God's cause. Start to do something for it. Don't be sorry for yourself; or at least be sorry that you have nothing to do but worry about your own petty concerns.

Yet our final word must accent what we have said before. Because this hook is about language, we have focused there. However, we have not meant to suggest that the feminist grammar is itself the villain of the piece, that it has caused the shift away from an objective, Barthian-type, God-centered theology to a subjective, liberationist, human-centered one. Plainly, the theology has created the language rather than the other way around. The contrast between Barth's language and that of the feminists is but an indicator of the contrast between his theology and theirs. Yet this suggests that not even the feminist ideology is the particular villain. It is but one expression of today's trivialized theology that downplays the Father in an attempt to play up the children.

This hook has stayed "little" by confining itself to the question of language. Yet it wants to be thought of as "big" (in the same sense though hardly to the extent of Barth) in that it treats the feminist grammar, not as an issue in itself, but as a means of exposing the smallness (triviality) of the human-locked world of and for which it would speak.

Copyright (c) 1982