On Monday, my fellow Contrarian Andrew posted a piece provocatively titled “God our Mother?” In it he argues quite persuasively that elements of the biblical testimony regarding God’s character and acts are in some sense motherly--that is, they seem to use language and evoke imagery that is maternal: God is he who bore Israel and gave birth to his people in Deuteronomy 32, Jesus sorrows over Jerusalem and remarks how he would have gathered his people as a hen gathers her chicks in Matthew 23, and in Isaiah maternal analogies are used more than once. Andrew points us to many other places with similar language in his post, and he is at his most compelling when presenting, from theologian Teresa Berger, a view of the crucifixion as at the same time both the execution of sin and the agonistic birth of a new creation.
So I must say I appreciated Andrew’s post, and found it helpful. It had many of the things I enjoy about his writing--personality, clarity, a touch of edginess--but I think he goes too far in saying that because the scriptures use language of God that is motherly we may on that account think of God as Mother. This may seem like grasping at straws for a kerfuffle among the Contrarians, but I think the language we use of God is important (and I’m sure Andrew does too) so this is worth teasing out somewhat.
What I want primarily to push back on is Andrew’s dismissal of what he calls the “Regulative Hermeneutic”--the notion that “we must only talk about God the way the Bible talks about God.” Provided we understand it rightly, I think that the regulative hermeneutic is the best way for Christians to read the Bible. But I would caveat it thus: the regulative hermeneutic does not bind us to the altar of using all-and-only the biblical words any time we speak about God (this would tend to obviate even the task of translating the Bible into new languages, far more so theology as an academic and ecclesiastic discipline). Rather the regulative hermeneutic demands that we speak about God in a way that is faithful to the language and biblical-theological grammar of scripture. So, for example--scripture never explicitly calls God Triune, and yet confession of the Triune God captures the whole sweep of scripture and the grammar of redemption. Indeed, it captures it so fully that we rightly place anyone who denies the Trinity outside of the church. A regulative hermeneutic as I have defined it then does not require absolute adherence to the vocabulary of scripture, but it does require adherence to the language and grammar of scripture.
We must speak of God as he has revealed himself, neither innovating new things contrary to what he has said (which I do not think Andrew is doing) nor extrapolating too much from the things he has said (which, in this case, I think Andrew is doing). This is in many ways like the common courtesy we extend to all friends and acquaintances. We do not speak of a friend’s character in a way contrary to how he has spoken and acted--to do so is to bear false witness about that friend. Neither do we extrapolate too much from the things our friend has said and done to assert things about our friend that may not be true. For example, if a friend told me he can readily commiserate with the deep-seated discontent of many working class Americans that contributed to the election of Donald Trump, I would not on that account begin telling others that he is a dedicated Trump supporter. To do so would be at the very least to speak where I have no sure knowledge, and at worst may be calumny.
I hold that to speak of God explicitly as Mother falls into this second category. That is, extrapolating from the biblical observation that maternal language is sometimes used of God’s divine tenderness towards his people to an appellation of God as Mother is at the very least to speak where we have no knowledge, and at worst may be bearing false witness about God. The reason I say this is because the nature of the language used when the scriptures speak of God in explicitly maternal terms is nearly always analogous or comparative. God’s faithfulness to Israel is greater than the faithfulness of a mother, for while a mother might possibly forget the child of her womb, the Lord will surely never forget his people. Jesus would gather his people as a hen gathers her chicks. The anguish of the cross is in some sense like the anguish of childbirth, as Christ implies in John 16. The analogy is helpful, but only if it remains analogous and not predicative.
By contrast, the language used in scripture regarding God the Father is not merely analogous, but predicative: God truly is our Father through Jesus Christ his Son--he is not like a father to us, but by the adoption we have in Christ he is in reality our Father, such that we can boldly pray as we are taught, “Our Father, who art in heaven...” He is one eternal person of the Divine Trinity, sharing all attributes of divinity and yet distinguished from the eternally begotten Son and the eternally proceeding Spirit. To call God “our Mother” is, simply, to introduce confusion. Is God the Mother a previously unknown member of the Godhead? Or is God the Father in fact a Father/Mother? Both of these are inappropriate at best and potentially blasphemous at worst, and I don’t think they are what Andrew means to imply. But they are, nonetheless, implications of his post that we would do well to carefully consider, and think how we may rightly speak with the maternal language of scripture without using “Mother” as an appellation for God.