Spitting Image


The Archbishop of Canterbury has been flexing his theological muscles recently.

‘God is not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father. God is not male or female. God is not definable…. It is extraordinarily important as Christians that we remember that the definitive revelation of who God is was not in words, but in the word of God who we call Jesus Christ. We can’t pin God down.’

Such language is commonplace among the advocates of the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood, which is presumably why he used it. These people never miss an opportunity. But it is hard to see how it advances their argument.

  1. The fact that language is analogical does not licence or sanction the equivalent use of other analogies, even when both analogies are draw from the same group or set. For example: if someone describes something as ‘like an oak tree’, that does not entitle me to assert that it is equally ‘like a magnolia’. More often than not, analogies are intended to be exclusive; that is to say they exist to indicate that something is more like one thing than the other: that God, for example is more like a man than a woman, or, more specifically, more like a father than a mother. If this were not the case analogical language would collapse into nonsense.
  2. The biblical attribution of fatherhood to God is, moreover, not merely analogical. It is grounded in the language of Jesus himself. When Christians pray ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name’, they are (on his insistence) appropriating Jesus’s name for God to themselves. ‘Father’, in the Paternoster, is not a generic term (such as might be applied to any deity thought to have created the cosmos), but a proper name, such as I use when I refer to my own father, knowing that in the nature of the case there is only one person to whom it can refer.) In Christ the unspeakable name of YHWH has been supplanted by the intimate name of ‘Father’. It is the relationship of the incarnate Son to the Father which breathes life into the analogy.
  3. The prime difficulty for those who seek to embrace genderless language about God is the incarnation. In the iconoclast controversy of the eighth century the opponents of icons based their arguments on the ineffability of God. He could not, they claimed, be described (perigraphein – circumscribed, drawn, held in a pattern of words). The iconodules countered with the observation that such could not be the case, since God was made flesh in Jesus. To deny that he could be described or represented would be to deny his individuality, and so to deny the incarnation itself. They went as far as to insist that the incarnation required graphic representation.
  4. When the slippery and doubtful connection is made between the supposed ‘genderlessness’ of God and the maleness of the ministerial priesthood (often with the careless assertion that the priest ’represents the people to God and God to the people’ – with an unspoken  assumption that neither party is gender specific), it is routinely forgotten that in Catholic theology the priest represents neither side in this essentially Protestant formula. On the contrary, he represents Christ, the only mediator between God and man, the Head of the Body, the Church (in persona Christi capitis).
  5. Whilst, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, we should never let go the awareness that theological language is always analogical, there is no excuse for basing upon that important fact speculations which impinge upon cardinal doctrines of the faith and the constitution of the sacraments. The iconodules of the eighth century very rightly pointed out that the maleness of the incarnation adds an imponderable depth to our language about God. Our task is not to question or to wrangle with that revelation but, in the words of Milton, to seek ‘to justify the ways of God to man’.

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