Two books published last year by Wm. B. Eerdmans are attempting to confront our assumptions about the gender of God from two different angles.
God Is, by Mallory Wyckoff, is more personal and more expansive in its role casting of the divine, while Women and the Gender of God, by Amy Peeler, is more scholarly, systematic, and orthodox in its claims about God’s nature.
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To be candid, I nearly wrote the foreword for Wyckoff’s book because I was so excited by its approach to the topic. God Is counters the “default notion of God as an old male figure in the skies” by showing God is, as one chapter title intimates, “more than we’ve been led to believe.”
Wyckoff addresses a dozen-plus potentially new “God is” statements: “Mother,” “Midwife,” “Hostess,” “Home.” It is a brave book with more to learn from than to disagree with. However, I was not merely uncomfortable with the chapters where God is “Sexual Trauma Survivor” and “Wisdom Within”; I found them heterodox. The former pushes the boundary of analogy in a way that doesn’t fit, and the latter is the title of a heresy.
For Wyckoff, the more you learn about yourself, the more your conceptions of God change. In part, this observation rings true. As we grow in life and faith, we should move from milk to meat, as the apostle Paul implies (1 Cor. 3:2–6). Wyckoff notes that aging moved her into new ways of imagining God: “In each season of life, with each iteration of myself, I have seen God reflected in multiple lights. I have encountered various images of the God who is all and none of them.” Likewise, she wants to expand our notions of God and move us from “a small God—a small you” to an abundance of metaphors.
While I appreciate how Wyckoff expands on the Deity’s personhood beyond the “one or two metaphors for God—all decidedly masculine,” she ignores some important boundaries. Her lack of parameters around God’s identity allows her to absorb non-Christian mysticism as sources of truth, while asserting that “Christians don’t own the concept of God.” More egregiously, Wyckoff integrates her knowledge of God with her own self-concept, like “two waves in a rhythmic dance, separate from one another but moving as one,” neglecting their separate realities.
A good dose of G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy could weed out the untenable claims of this book from the real blooms. Chesterton discerns that someone with arms open too wide is not capable of holding everything but instead holds on to nothing. In refuting what he calls “the god within” heresy, Chesterton writes, “That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.”
In contrast to consulting the god within, he explains, Christianity asserts that “one had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.”
And while we should magnify our imagination of God beyond masculine images, this amplification of the divine nature should not also increase the size of our ego. “If a man would make his world large,” Chesterton advised, “he must be always making himself small.” Likewise, if we desire a great and holy God, we must recognize our creaturely nature.
Peeler agrees with Wyckoff that God is misidentified as strictly male and that this image has led to the diminishment of women. In fact, she opens with two grand assertions that are repeated throughout her book: “God does indeed value women” and “God the Father is not male.”
Because of the gendered connotations of Father, many people assume the masculinity of God. This assumption leads to an inaccurate hierarchy of being between men and women. Wyckoff lists misogynist quotes from church tradition and then quips, “The reality is these men remain some of the most lauded and influential thinkers who fundamentally shaped what we know as Christianity.” For this reason, Wyckoff chooses new sources for her metaphors.
However, Peeler remains within the church tradition to refute our incorrect assertions about God’s masculinity. In no way does Peeler attempt to make God into a feminist icon—nor does she overturn the gender hierarchy to favor women over men. Instead, she uses logic and Scripture to correct certain claims about God that have gained prominence despite their error. As Peeler rightly asserts, “All humans suffer when God is more like some than others.” She dismantles insufficient arguments for God’s maleness and exalts the prominence of women in the Christian narrative, all while upholding orthodox theological positions and credal affirmations.
Before reading Peeler’s book, I had never reckoned with the reality that God is incarnated through female flesh. For while Jesus is fully male, his human composition was supplied by the body of a woman through his mother, Mary. “The incarnation says a clear and singular no to misogyny,” Peeler writes. God appears to a woman, requests her permission for a divine assignment, deigns to reside within her womb, and uplifts her body as a holy place.
Peeler delineates how Jesus’ incarnate body intimately relied on Mary: “This is the body that the Holy Spirit prepared from the flesh of Mary alone and the body that entered the world through Mary, the body that was sustained by Mary’s milk and handled by Mary arms.” In this way, the Eucharist is given through Mary’s flesh—for out of her comes the body of Christ.
Although Peeler denounces the heresy of God as male or masculine and uplifts women, she argues for Christians to continue to employ the language of Father and Son, as instituted by the Scriptures and Jesus. While “God does exhibit both masculine and feminine characteristics,” the language found in Scripture, ecclesial tradition, and Jesus’ own words emphasizes his sonship and God’s fatherhood. Peeler believes that Christians should submit to how God names himself—but that “all God-language” should be “interpreted through the lens of the incarnation.”
In her exploration of Jesus as “The Male Savior,” Peeler again resists the temptation to stray outside orthodoxy. She acknowledges misinterpretations in church tradition of what Jesus’ maleness means for Christian men and women. For instance, C. S. Lewis and other theologians have mistakenly asserted that women cannot “represent God” in church leadership because it would confuse congregants into thinking “God is like a good woman” and thus lead to believing in a “religion other than the Christian one.”
By contrast, Peeler seeks to remind the church at large that Jesus is “a male-embodied Savior with female-provided flesh.” Woman was first created from man, but the new man is created from woman. Peeler draws on Augustine to bolster her argument: “He was born of a woman; don’t despair, men; Christ was happy to be a man. Don’t despair, women; Christ was happy to be born of a woman.” Whether readers agree with Peeler’s claims regarding women’s role in the church, she makes a compelling argument to reckon with.
Before she concludes, Peeler moves on from assertions about God’s gender to implications for women’s vocation. Peeler first exalts the example of Mary, through whom God “provides inestimable honor to motherhood.” She then walks through the ways that God called Mary to serve on behalf of his kingdom by listing other roles she filled—including singing to Elizabeth, instructing servants at Cana, and testifying to crowds at Pentecost. According to Peeler, “the God of the New Testament does not silence the verbal ministry of women.”
Something I admire in Wyckoff’s book is her reassurance that using feminine images of God does not mean having a feminist agenda. Women are granted permission—and even applauded—for finding ways that we image God in the world. Wyckoff’s book seeks to empower women’s voices in the church, which are too often neglected or silenced. On top of that, her book is also funny and refreshing.
What I like most about Peeler’s book is how she demonstrates that a systematic interpretation of God’s Word supports our intuitions about the beauty of womanhood. Rather than merely trusting our personal experience, which can lead us awry, Peeler backs up her assertions with evidence from the Scriptures and church tradition. With her expert authority as a biblical scholar, Peeler shows us that women matter and that—thankfully—God is not a mere man.
Jessica Hooten Wilson is the inaugural Seaver College Scholar of Liberal Arts at Pepperdine University and a senior fellow at The Trinity Forum. She is the author of several books, most recently Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice.