Scripture and Naming God: Avoiding Heresy
Dale M. Coulter
The motion on titles for God seeks to add another legal criterion to the instructions for ministers. The rationale is that scripture uses specific names for God. I agree with this general assertion. In fact, I would argue that Yahweh is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the name of God and we are not at liberty to change this name.
The problem for me is that the actual motion is really not about the triune name. Instead, it prohibits the use of pronouns and also seemingly all references to mother under the generic term “titles.” This is in violation of Isaiah’s pronouncements of God.
I have already said that the wording of the motion finds a prohibition against articles 1 & 2 of the Declaration of Faith for using feminine pronouns of God or of any person in the Trinity. This is akin to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that found a right in the Constitution that was not there. It sets a dangerous precedent of finding hidden prohibitions like one must believe in a pre-tribulation rapture, which is not explicitly mentioned.
Another concern is that in imposing masculine-only pronouns upon all Church of God ministers the motion, as written, reinforces a hyper-masculine view of God that attributes masculinity to God’s being. Any claim that God in his essence is masculine is borderline heresy. It’s really a form of Mormonism in which God has a body and is a material being. Moreover, this view is rooted in an overly literalist approach to scripture that denies all descriptions of God are analogical.
My own position is to hold to the orthodox interpretation of God found in the creeds and all branches of Christianity. God is beyond male or female, masculine or feminine. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We cannot change God’s name. We must cleave to the language of scripture when describing God in the sense that we never violate scripture in our descriptions of God. As written, the statement goes well beyond the question of feminine pronouns for God.
First, the motion states that Church of God ministers may not use feminine “titles” for God. What is a title? We are not told. Is a title the same as a name? In my view, it is not. Yahweh is the name of God in the OT, which becomes the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the NT. We only baptize into the triune name. This is not a title.
How are we to differentiate between a title and a description? Are Isaiah’s depictions of God as mother titles or descriptions? (Is. 49:15; 66:13). As written, the motion seemingly rules out feminine descriptions of God, which is contrary to clear scripture. At a minimum, it’s up for interpretation, which would require a trial.
Second, all biblical descriptions of God are analogical. What I mean is that they draw an implicit comparison like an analogy. These comparisons are not to be taken in a literal way. When scripture says that God has eyes, we do not interpret that to mean God has a body and thus physical eyes with eyelids, etc.
Imagine if we interpreted Colossians 1:15 (“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”) literally. We would be affirming the ancient heresy of Arianism. It would mean to claim that God gave birth to a Son or that the Son is a creature made by God. This is the literal meaning of “born..”
This principle applies to masculine descriptions of God as well as feminine. In his defense of the Nicene Creed, the great bishop Athanasius wrote, “Accordingly, as in saying ‘offspring,’ we have no human thoughts, and, though we know God to be a Father, we entertain no material ideas concerning Him, but while we listen to these illustrations and terms, we think suitably of God. For God is not like man.” Athanasius is echoing Hosea 11:9: “For I am God and not a man.”
For Athanasius, we cannot think of God as a Father in human terms. We cannot think of the term Father as implying maleness or masculinity. Why? Because it would mean that the Christian understanding of God was just another form of pagan polytheism.
Third, the same applies to scriptural descriptions of God as a mother. God compares himself to a mother several times in the book of Isaiah. In his commentary on Isaiah, John Calvin remarks,
As God did not only begin to act as the father and nurse of his people from the time when they were born, but also “begat them” (James 1:18) spiritually, I do not object to extending the words so far as to mean, that they were brought, as it were, out of the bowels of God into a new life and the hope of an eternal inheritance. If it be objected, that God is everywhere called “a Father,” (Jeremiah 31:9; Malachi 1:6,) and that this title is more appropriate to him, I reply, that no figures of speech can describe God’s extraordinary affection towards us; for it is infinite and various; so that, if all that can be said or imagined about love were brought together into one, yet it would be surpassed by the greatness of the love of God. By no metaphor, therefore, can his incomparable goodness be described. . . . In a word, the intention of the Prophet is to show, that the Jews, if they do not choose to forget their descent, cannot arrive at any other conclusion than that they were not begotten in vain, and that God, who has manifested himself to be both their Father and their Mother, will always assist them; and likewise, that they have known his power by uninterrupted experience so that they ought not to pay homage to idols.”
The point for Calvin is that one cannot take this depiction of God as a mother literally any more than one can take the depiction of God as a father literally. Both are metaphors. This does not mean that Calvin ceases to use the triune name or even masculine pronouns for God. It means that Calvin understands that even the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is analogical and cannot be taken as a literal description. The term Father in no way means God is male or masculine.
Fourth, some individuals may appeal to the incarnation. God is masculine because the Son became a male. However, this claim involves heresy about the incarnation. Scripture affirms that the Incarnate Son is fully God and fully man. There is no mixture between God and humanity in the incarnation. To put it crassly, the incarnation is not a mule, which is a mixture of a horse and a donkey.
How do we know this? Because scripture says that the Incarnate Son does not know the day or the hour (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32-36). God is all-knowing and yet, the Son does not know something. How? The biblical passage concerns the human mind, not the divine mind. This only works if there is no mixture between the human and the divine. This point was settled by the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD).
It would be heresy to claim that Jesus of Nazareth is male, therefore God is masculine. The heresy is not in claiming that the Son became a male. It’s in claiming that Jesus’ masculinity means God is masculine. It would be to claim that God possessed a human attribute stemming from male biology.
Finally, some individuals have tried to separate masculinity from the biological sex of male. Thus, to say that God is masculine is different from claiming God is male. Yet, we know that masculinity is intrinsically connected to male biology. In fact, it flows from male biology and the particular hormonal mixture that comprises male biology. One cannot separate masculinity from male biology. The claim that you can separate masculinity from male biology amounts to an endorsement of the transgender ideology that gender is not related to biological sex. Once again, the end of this road is heresy.
In our efforts to defend orthodoxy, we must be careful not to step off into heresy. Modern Christians always assume heresy can only come from liberalism. In early Christianity, heresy came from the biblical literalists as much as it came from those who denied essential truths of the faith. Mormonism is a return to biblical literalism, which is why the Mormon doctrine of God claims that God is male and masculine. What the Church of God should say is that we cannot change the name of God. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Church of God should also say that all of our statements about God should be in keeping with scripture. Everything else can be dealt with through the process of a trial.