How many straw men is Welby trying to knock down with one ping-pong ball?
You don’t need the Archbishop of Canterbury to deliver a fatwa on God’s genitals. Even the Koran-burning pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t believe God actually has gonads. God is Spirit, says the Bible. God also has smoke streaming out of his nostrils, says the Bible. Not even a hyper-literalist reader of the Bible imagines God puffing through a bowl of luxuriant Kentucky flake.
Handel didn’t think God actually has a glottis when, in Messiah, he sets music to words from Isaiah declaring: “the mouth of the Lord has spoken it”. When Michelangelo painted The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he wasn’t Googling for Bible verses to ascertain the colour of God’s beard. In Rembrandt’s painting of The Prodigal Son, the father’s hands are gnarled with the stiffness of old age. God isn’t suffering from arthritis, is he?
Welby, who at some stage surely must have studied theology, knows the word “anthropomorphism”—attributing human characteristics to God. Seven-year-old Talitha in my Sunday School will shyly but sweetly explain to Archbishop Welby why she doesn’t think God has a face, hands, feet, eyes, ears, or backside to sit on his throne, even though the Bible ascribes human body parts to God.
So why is Welby setting up a straw man and knocking it down with the breath of his nostrils? Is it because in the latest YouGov survey 36% still think of God as male and only 1% imagine God as female? Do the respondents believe God has male, female or inter-sex genitalia? Or are the respondents simply using the language of anthropomorphism to describe how they picture God?
The church fathers weren’t stupid. They didn’t think God has gonads just because the Bible depicts him as male. “No thoughtless person may raise a false accusation against us, as though we believed God to be male … when we speak of Him we use a masculine word—let him understand that it is not sex which is expressed…. For the Deity is not male, but His name is of the masculine gender,” writes Arnobius in the third century (Against the Heathen, 3.8).
Welby and his feminist bishops know this. What infuriates them is not that many Christians think God is anatomically or ontologically male; what incenses them is the indefatigable persistence of masculine anthropomorphic language for God. They can’t understand why more people aren’t resisting the language of so-called toxic masculinity and pathological patriarchy.
By inventing the mythical bogeyman of patriarchy, feminism has succeeded in emasculating Western men. It has yet to succeed in castrating the biblical God—by poisoning with its hermeneutic of suspicion every masculine title for God—Father, Lord, King, Son of God or Son of Man. This is the equivalent of a tarantula crawling up the cassocks of feminist clergy in the Church of England.
Unsurprisingly, Welby hacks at God’s gonads with his feminist machete when asked what it means to describe God as father at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, earlier this week. He agrees that all “human language about God is inadequate and to some degree metaphorical”. Our Father, who art in heaven, is not a father in the human sense and should not even be seen as a male figure, he thunders.Human language is inadequate to describe God, he warns.
How many straw men is Welby trying to knock down with one ping-pong ball? Only a duff Christian would regard God as a father in “exactly the same way” as a human father; or would consider God gendered in the biological sense; or would regard language as adequate to describe an ineffable mystery. This is one reason we use symbols in liturgy and in everyday relationships, because we know language is limited even in communicating our love for one another.
Or has the Archbishop, who is in the business of the Word, lost confidence in language as the vehicle of revelation? Is he parroting the feminist twaddle of his women clerics? A couple of months ago, Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, provoked a blizzard of social media abuse when said she didn’t want young people “hear us constantly refer to God as He”. Last week, A Voice for Men re-published the column I’d written on her intemperate ejaculation. A bishop told me Welby was most likely defending this feminist Hermione against the Rebel Priest who must not be named.
Yes Justin, God is transgender, in the sense that God is above and beyond gender, i.e. as God is transcendent. But one of the foundational doctrines of Christianity is special revelation: God has chosen to reveal himself in history and if his interventions were not announced, explained, interpreted, and recorded in human language, we would be lost in the mists of speculation.
As sinners we dare not approach a holy God; as finite beings we cannot figure out an infinite God—unless God condescends to become incarnate (flesh) in our world and limit himself to our language. Otherwise, we’d be like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there.
“By revelation is meant, then, not some vague, inarticulate awareness of God projected out of the human consciousness, but an intelligible, articulate revealing of God by God whom we are enabled to apprehend through the creative power of his Word addressed to us, yet a revealing of God by God which is actualized within … the medium of our human thought and speech,” writes T. F. Torrance.
God has chosen to reveal himself through exclusively masculine titles for God. “He” is God’s preferred pronoun for God’s preferred gender. “God never reveals himself with a feminine title in Scripture,” writes Joshua D. Jones in Elijah Men Eat Meat (full disclosure—I had the privilege of writing a blurb for the book). Jones agrees that there are a number of metaphors for God “that have feminine connotations—but that is quite a different thing”. Jesus calls God “Father” 174 times in the gospels. Not once does Jesus call God “Mother”.
Feminists blast biblical language as “patriarchal” and culturally conditioned. Their argument fails, as in the cultures in which the Bible was written people worshipped both female and male deities. Feminine titles for the deity were the norm, not the exception. St Paul’s listeners would have felt at home if he’d referred to God as “she” when preaching in Ephesus where the cult of Artemis (Diana) was situated.
Welby, however, has a quasi-Oedipal tension with the idea of God as Father. “So, what does it mean for me to call God father, having had a rather confusing experience of fathers?” asks Welby. Theologically, his response is as shallow as a puddle: “It means that here is one that is perfect, that loves me unconditionally, that reaches out to me and knows me better than I know myself and yet still loves me profoundly.”
This is the jargon of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is not a biblical apologia for God as “Father”. The Bible calls God “Father” not because it wants to promote patriarchy but because the fatherhood of God is inextricably linked to Israel’s salvation history. God’s fatherhood is basic to the theme of Israel as the elect “son” of God. By denigrating God as father, Welby is downgrading Israel as God’s elect “son”.
In the Old Testament God is called “father” 14 times. What is remarkable is that each time the Old Testament calls God “father” it has to do almost exclusively with the Exodus and the new Exodus—the first Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the new Exodus that the prophets were hoping for—the new Exodus that would ultimately usher in a new heavens and a new earth.
When Jesus teaches us to call God “our Father” he is not referring to a cuddly relationship with God you find inscribed in a quote on a Father’s Day mug. Jesus is drawing on Exodus language to alert his disciples that the new exodus is about to be inaugurated. As God delivered Israel from slavery in the first Exodus, God is delivering us from slavery to sin through the new exodus brought about by Jesus.
Welby doesn’t get the basic plot and so loses his way before reaching the climax. When we come to Jesus in the gospels, God’s fatherhood and God’s sonship are rooted not only in his election of Israel but in his divine being since “Father” and “Son” designate the first and second persons of the Trinity in relation to one another. “In God fatherhood is not extrinsic to the being of God. In him ‘Father’ is not a title; it designates and specifies God’s personal/hypostatic reality as Father who eternally begets his Son,” notes a Lutheran Church report.
“Since the Arian crisis of the fourth century the church has insisted that the names ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ perfectly and truly correspond to the reality of the first and second persons of the Trinity. God is not merely called ‘Father’ and ‘Son’; God is Father and God is Son. The trinitarian theology of the Scriptures confessed in the creeds of the ecumenical councils requires that God be named ‘Father’ and ‘Son’,” states the report.
Our society mocks and despises fatherhood, sonship and anything that smacks of masculinity. David Blankenhorn in Fatherless America called fatherlessness “the most harmful demographic trend of this generation” and “the engine driving our most urgent social problems”. He predicted that the “primary fault line” dividing us into two groups would not be race or religion but patrimony. One group will consist of those who grew up with fathers; the other group will consist of those who did not.
The least Welby could do in response to the question at St Martin-in-the-Fields is to exhort men to be good fathers on earth in imitation of “our Father in heaven”; explain the theology of revelation; and invite his listeners to consider the Father’s plan of salvation in Jesus the Son. Instead, like Esau, Welby despises his birthright and sells it for a mess of feminist pottage.
The ultimate irony is that Archbishop Justin Welby, Champion of Transgender Rights, says God is transgender, but won’t let God choose either his gender or his preferred pronoun.
(Originally published in Republic Standard)