One of the books that we are critically reading through in my systematic theology colloquium class is Classic Christianity [Thomas Oden (2009) New York: Harper One Publishing] In the introductory section of Book 3 – Life in the Spirit, he takes a blow at modern revisions that want to eliminate masculine language in reference to God.
Grammatical heroics that attempt a complete withdrawal from masculine language are often rhetorically awkward, especially when nouns are repeated to avoid whatever gender pronoun might be regarded as offensive. Similar absurdities arise when verbs are preferred that require no object, where the odd repetition of the word ‘God’ is used to substitute for ‘he’, and direct address is shifted to ‘you’. The enthusiast is sorely tempted to rewrite scripture to gain a hearing with a particular audience.
But no one prays to an ‘it’, even if steeped in modernity. Liturgical ‘reforms’ that systematically expunge the name Father from all acts of Christian worship are unacceptable to most worshipping communities. The reason is deeper than egalitarian motivations, for Jesus repeatedly called God Father (Abba). This became a defining feature of his teaching (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Augustine, Epis. to Gal. 18.104.22.168).
It is God the Spirit who teaches us to cry out ‘Abba’ (Rom. 8:16; Ambrosiaster, Epis. to Gal. 2.4.7). If Christian worshipers are reluctant to address God by the name Jesus specifically taught them to speak, they hardly can be said to have learned to pray… (505-506)
He then goes on to explain that eliminating gender specific language actually undermines that both genders are honored by God even though “neither male nor female language adequately grasps the fullness of divine reality (Gregory Nazianzus, Orat. 27; John of Damascus, OF 1.4-8)”.
If both sexes are to be honored in the incarnation, and if the one giving birth must be female, then the one born would in fairness be male (Augustine, EDQ 11). This is the decisive line of reasoning as we have seen in the incarnation: If the mother of the Savior must of necessity be female, since only females are mothers, the Savior would as a consequence have to be male if both sexes are to be significantly involved in the salvation event.
The only alternative would be to have a female mother of the Savior and a female Savior. For an androgynous or hermaphroditic Savior would fail to share in the specific nature of our sexual condition. The female birth-enabler is an intrinsic part of the divine economy in the coming of the Messiah as prophesied in the male line of David. Augustine summed up that God ‘was not ashamed of a woman.’ Hence we are ‘liberated by the agency of both sexes’ (The Christian Combat 22).
But where does that leave the language of God the Spirit? To denude language of all gender reference is quixotic and disrespectful of human sexuality. This alternative reveals a narrow ideological bias reflecting an antihistorical frame of mind. It is also a denial of our very created nature as engendered beings.
No woman or man I know wishes to be called an ‘it’. If so, how can one be satisfied with ‘it’ language addressed to God?…To back away wholly from gender reference is to stand offended at the gospel of a man born of a woman (Marius Victorinus, Epis. to Gal, 2.4.3-4), and of the Spirit who transcends the gender differences between ruach and pneuma. (506)
Oden is no patriarchalist or sexist. His arguments just make good sense.