Driscoll's God: only metaphorically Father?

Wayne, Henry and I myself have all had a few things to say about Mark Driscoll’s article Theological reasons for why Mars Hill preaches out of the ESV. But I want to express my agreement with him on part of what he writes, near the end:

Theologically speaking, God does not have a biological gender because God is Spirit, without physical anatomy (John 4:24), and is therefore not a man (Numbers 23:19). In using the word “He,” the Bible is not saying that God is merely a man, but rather that God is a unique person who reveals Himself with terms such as “Father” when speaking about Himself. … we acknowledge that Scripture does infrequently refer to God in terms that are more feminine in nature, such as a hen who cares for her chicks (Matthew 23:37). Nonetheless, such language is both infrequent and metaphorical because God is no more a woman than God is a chicken.

This is a good argument (although of course the word “He” is in translations rather than the original). But since, as Driscoll agrees, God is not a man, God is no more a man than God is a chicken. Therefore we must say that masculine language about God, just like feminine language about him, is metaphorical. Thus, by Driscoll’s own argument, God is only metaphorically Father. Indeed, Driscoll seems to confirm that this is his view with the following:

John Calvin said that God uses terms such as “Father” to speak to us in baby talk, much like a parent uses words that their young child can understand in order to effectively communicate with them.

Now I have no problem at all with the statement that God is only metaphorically Father. But I wonder how acceptable this position would be among the Reformed theologians and preachers with whom Driscoll keeps company. For the implication of this being only a metaphor is that it is not an attribute of God, not a part of his actual being, but only a convenient way of talking about him. The Trinity is no longer “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, but “One who is like a father, One who is like a son, and …”. How acceptable is that kind of reformulation?

Also, if there is no essential way in which God is male or masculine, there is also no way in which human males resemble him more closely than human females do. Indeed this is clear from Genesis 1:27, from the very words “male and female” which (as Henry points out) Driscoll wrongly accuses some translations of omitting.

At this point Driscoll’s position is completely opposite to that of Philip Lancaster, author of Family Man, Family Leader, as quoted at Adventures of Mercy (see also here and here, thanks again to Henry for these links, which I found only as I was well into writing this post):

God is masculine. He is not feminine. He is not an androgyny, a mixture of masculine and feminine.

Lancaster seems to base his generally complementarian teaching about the family on this position. Well, at least he is consistent, but his position does not seem to be the theologically orthodox one, at least if the following from Wikipedia (quoted here) is reliable:

Christianity does not regard the omnipotent God as being male, God the Father is genderless

Driscoll, however, is orthodox on this point:

God does not have a biological gender

but his logic is faulty. In the same article he writes:

Scripture states that God made us “male and female” (for example, Genesis 1:27). Consequently, in God’s created order, there is both equality between men and women (because both are His image-bearers) and distinction (because men and women have differing roles).

Indeed this equality is a consequence of this scripture. But the distinction is not a consequence. Indeed, while “differing roles” may not be contradicted by a shared image of God (and differing gender roles in reproduction are indisputable), the kind of view which Lancaster has, in which leadership is a male attribute, is certainly contradicted by Genesis 1:27.

The previously mentioned Wikipedia article also quotes the radical feminist Mary Daly:

If God is male, then the male is God.

Lancaster’s arguments seem to confirm this. I am glad that Driscoll avoids going down this wrong road. But I fear for some of his complementarian friends. Lancaster already seems to have moved into ideas contradicted by Scripture and rejected as unorthodox. But it seems that these wrong ideas are the only ones logically compatible with complementarianism. So will other complementarians follow? Driscoll manages to be orthodox and a complementarian only because he doesn’t notice that this is a contradiction at the heart of his theology.

0 thoughts on “Driscoll's God: only metaphorically Father?

  1. I’ve always thought Daly’s argument was a straw man for exactly these reasons.

    I would prefer to think of some of the anthropomorphic language for God as analogical rather than metaphorical, even though some is clearly metaphorical. A metaphor is a statement that is literally false but that expresses something true because of common features. Analogical language, in the sense Thomas Aquinas had in mind, is when the same term can apply to two things literally but not because it’s true in the same sense but rather because there’s something similar going on in both cases. I think of statements about God’s nostrils as metaphorical. I’d put God’s love in the analogical category. I’m not sure which one I’d put God’s Fatherhood in, but I think it’s worth keeping that distinction in mind, because I’m not sure which one it should count as.

  2. Jeremy, thanks for pointing out the distinction. I need to think about this one more.

    I don’t agree that Daly’s argument is a straw man, or even a straw woman as she might prefer! I think Lancaster’s position vindicates her: a real person who believes that God is male and argues from this that male humans should have a position relative to female humans which in fact only God should have.

    I’m surprised that you say that a metaphor is necessarily literally false. How about “God is a father to the fatherless, but I have a real father to be a father to me”? Here, surely “father to me” is a metaphor which is also literally true. This example is a bit contrived, but I suspect that there are others which are more natural, if not using “father”. Anyway, that’s not the point, because surely God is not literally a Father (unless you interpret Luke 1:35 in a crudely materialistic way), even though he does literally (but analogically) love.

    I suppose that if you could demonstrate that there is a real difference of principle, and not only of frequency, between descriptions of God as a father and as a mother, then there might be some grounds for reconsidering the idea that God is male.

  3. Peter, I think Jeremy raises a good point. I, too, have trouble taking Daly’s suggestion very far.

    I think of the statement in 1 John 4:8, 16: “God is love.”

    But I don’t think that’s a simple A = B statement (which would mean also that B = A). Because surely while John meant that God is love, he did not mean that love is God.

    I, too, might be inclined to think of Daly’s statement as a bit of a straw man. Of course she may have simply been using it for rhetorical effect only and for that, I guess, it’s effective at some level.

  4. Rick, I wonder if you and perhaps also Jeremy are misunderstanding Daly’s statement. Or maybe I am the one misunderstanding it. But I certainly don’t see it as a grammatical point, that she doesn’t know that there is a logical difference between “A is B” and “B is A”. Rather, it seems to me to be a rhetorical way of saying “If we consider that God is male, the logical implication of that is that we attribute divine attributes to male humans”. If that is what she meant, Lancaster has proved her point by arguing in just this way.

    But Daly’s statement is only peripheral to my argument at this point, which is that Lancaster is being unorthodox, and that Driscoll’s orthodoxy is inconsistent with his complementarianism. I thought someone might challenge this latter point. If not, can I take it as agreed that complementarianism implies unorthodoxy?

  5. I would not be so quick to call complementarianism unorthodoxy–especially since I consider myself at the very least a moderate complementarian.

    But I would suggest that both egalitarianism AND complementarianism are within the pail of orthodoxy. And I have good friends on both sides of the issue.

    But you’d have a difficult time calling complementarianism unorthodox since it has been the accepted system for most of the church’s history.

  6. Rick, I would like to clarify that I did not call complementarianism unorthodoxy. It is not, in itself. The basic doctrines of complementarianism, while in my opinion wrong and unbiblical, are not unorthodox in the sense of being outside what has been generally accepted as Christian truth.

    My claim is a different one, that complementarianism logically implies unorthodoxy. In other words, a complementarian position logically implies the position, which is unorthodox in that it has never been generally accepted as Christian truth (and is also clearly unbiblical), that God is male, or at least more male than female.

    Some complementarians, such as Mark Driscoll as far as I know, are completely orthodox in their beliefs. But, it seems to me, they can only be so by having a contradiction at the heart of their belief system. That, not unorthodoxy, is my accusation against Driscoll, and by extension the majority of complementarians. It is probably only a few, like Lancaster, who resolve that contradiction by taking the unorthodox and unbiblical position that God is male.

  7. Rick, I will anticipate your objection by saying that yes, I consider that you, as a “moderate complementarian”, must be either unorthodox or theologically inconsistent – unless your complementarianism is so moderate as hardly to count. I would be interested in how you resolve this. If, as I suspect, you agree with Driscoll and myself that “God does not have a biological gender“, how do you reconcile this with a belief that God reserves leadership roles for men?

  8. You’ll have to understand that none of this is a primary issue for me. Although I would consider myself a complementarian, a lot of the rhetoric from groups like the CBMW is disturbing to me. You’ll have to admit I’m much more reasonable and comfortable with those who disagree with me than some folks you might run across 🙂

    For what it’s worth, I can’t remember ever hearing anyone in complementarian circles suggest that God is actually male. I wonder if that’s a bit of a straw man, too. Maybe there are those folks out there, but I’ve not come across them. Rather, I would agree with the idea that God has chosen how we are to refer to him by primarily (but not exclusively) using male imagery in the Scriptures. Goddess worship was explicitely pagan in the OT. And references to God as father in the NT would rule out referring to him as “mother” such as in the Oxford Inclusive Translation (1995) which read “Our Father-Mother who is in heaven…” for the Lord’s prayer.

  9. Rick, you are certainly much more reasonable than many of the complementarians out there! That’s one reason why I challenged you a little about your theological consistency, hoping for a reasonable answer. But if you prefer not to, that’s fine!

    I agree that most complementarians don’t actually say that God is male. But this is not a straw man, for Molly actually came across and quoted someone, Philip Lancaster, who does say: “God is masculine. He is not feminine.” I certainly hope Lancaster is in a small minority, but I don’t know how small, or how orthodox his theology is in other ways. His work is published by Vision Forum. And in fact I find exactly the same words in an article on biblical patriarchy, drafted by Phil Lancaster, which is listed as one of Vision Forum’s statements of doctrine. Vision Forum, according to Adventures in Mercy, is “an attractively packaged (excellent marketing skills!) increasingly popular force in the homeschooling/conservative world” – although something they did was very controversial on the Adventures of Mercy blog. They also seem to be associated with R.C. Sproul Jr. Since this is apparently the doctrinal position of Vision Forum, that is potentially very serious, and not a straw man at all. In the name of “timeless truth”, this false teaching is very likely being propagated to large numbers of young people. It is time to take a stand against this heresy.

    Goddess worship was explicitely pagan in the OT.” And so was worship of any divinity other than Yahweh. Although admittedly Yahweh is referred to with masculine pronouns, and masculine words for “god” such as elohim, it is the generally agreed (except by Vision Forum etc) that Yahweh is not male. So worship of male gods is just as pagan as worship of female gods. Yes, Jesus called God “Father” and encouraged us to do so as well, but he also used female imagery for God, so he was not teaching that God is male and so is literally more a father than a mother. While I don’t encourage the kind of linguistic mess of the Oxford Inclusive Translation’s “Father-Mother”, I don’t see anything theologically wrong with it.

  10. Rick, sorry for the slow reply, but Blogger has been down. I did not mean to suggest that your response was in any way unreasonable, only that it was not the full answer which I was rather hoping for.

  11. It’s really not a discussion I like to get into, so I may have been a bit more brief in my response than what you wanted. I’ve read a good bit on the egalitarian side of things, and even sat under some teachers who were egalitarian. Although I don’t agree with some conclusions, I am respectful. But I’m speaking mainly about gender roles. I don’t have much use for discussions of “mother-god.”

  12. Peter, I don’t know about most complementarians, but many do insist that God is purely masculine, and not at all feminine. One of these is a Rev. William Mouser, who has written Bible study materials on gender roles. Some of it is pretty far out stuff – such as God is masculine, and all of Creation is feminine (which is, actually, a pagan concept). (See http://www.fiveaspects.org) Mouser also states quite clearly in his materials that men image God moreso than women do. I can look up the exact page and quote if you like.

    It should also be noted that Mouser is on record as saying CBMW is too soft in its stance on complementarianism.

  13. Light, thanks for letting me know about Mouser and his group, the International Council for Gender Studies. It is interesting that according to their doctrinal statement “The image of God … is equally present in both men and women.” but also, contradictorily, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are masculine in names, roles, and nature… There is no femininity in the Godhead.” If God is masculine in nature (an unorthodox statement), how can men and women be equally in his image? But this also seems to contradict your claim that “Mouser also states quite clearly in his materials that men image God moreso than women do.” Or has Mouser changed his opinion? Or perhaps you are referring to this, at the same page: “Man and woman share the same divine image, but their glories differ” – but different glory is a different issue. ICGS also quotes and affirms the Danvers Statement issued in 1987 by CBMW, which does not state that God is masculine.

  14. Peter, here’s an exact quote from “Five Aspects of Woman” bible study materials written by Mouser and published by ICGS.

    P. 334
    Man can picture God more fully in his roles than woman can. But he can also picture Satan more fully than woman can.

    Let’s turn to the dictionary and see what the definition of “picture” is, from the 10th edition Merriam Webster on my bookshelf:
    picture, vt 1: to paint or draw a representation, image, or visual conception of: depict: illustrate 2: to describe graphically in words 3: to form a mental image of: imagine

    If that isn’t talking about imaging, I don’t know what is. He can claim man and woman share the same divine image, but then he makes a statement like the one above, which contradicts his earlier statement. And the part about Satan – pretty strange. There’s certainly no biblical support for that statement.

  15. Hello Peter,

    If memory serves, C.S. Lewis argued that masculinity and the fatherhood of God were not about sexuality. The masculine is something transcendent and in fact God is more masculine than any man and more father than any human father. The human male is just a weak replica of the true masculine. For Lewis, the equation of gender with sexuality was both a logical and factual error.

    Following Lewis, I think if we are going to talk about metaphors (not the best word) then we should say that human males are only metaphorically masculine and human fathers are only fathers in a manner of speaking and God is the true maculine and the true father. All others are faint shadows.

  16. There’s a problem with ascribing masculinity to God, however. Whether you consider masculinity part of the image of God or not, if men are masculine and God is masculine, but women are not, men are in some way more like God than women.

  17. Clay, thanks for what you have written about CS Lewis’ view. But I share Light’s problem with it, that it inevitably implies that male humans are more like God than female humans are. Also, I am not equating gender with sexuality. In fact I don’t think sexuality comes into the discussion at all, except in that this is the one indisputable difference between males and females. But I am perhaps denying the existence of gender as a category, except in a purely grammatical sense. I would suggest that any systematic differences between male and female humans are matters of sexuality, at least in an indirect way, such as that the leading role of women in looking after young children is a consequence of sex-related anatomical differences.

    I can accept, as a useful way of putting things, that God is the true parent and that human parents are faint shadows of his parenthood. (Ephesians 3:15 implies something like this.) But, since God is non-sexual (as I think even Lancaster and Mouser would agree), to change this from “parent” to “father”, as a matter of real substance rather than a linguistic convention, implies acceptance of a non-linguistic category of gender separate from sexuality. Is there any evidence for such a category, in the Bible or elsewhere? I don’t immediately know of any.

  18. I wrote “since God is non-sexual (as I think even Lancaster and Mouser would agree)“. Well, maybe I will have to take back this parenthesis, at least concerning Mouser. In comments on a post at Adventures in Mercy, Psalmist described Mouser’s position as that “the relationship between God and creation is all about sex.” Psalmist also wrote: “Really, his “God’s cosmic sex” notions are bizarre.” Indeed!

  19. Hi, Peter. I got here by following a link from another blog, “Adventures in Mercy”, where you said, “I note that the words “God reveals Himself as masculine, not feminine” are also found in an article The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy, drafted by Phil Lancaster, which is listed as one of Vision Forum’s statements of doctrine. Thus this is more than a personal position, it is the doctrinal position of a significant ministry, which makes it all the more a cause for concern.”

    And I agree with you. Of even greater concern are some of the OTHER things that Lancaster, Philips, et al are preaching, especially since they are in the business of writing and publishing homeschooling curriculum.

    Lately I’ve been reading about a still darker side to the Reconstructionist/Patriarchy movement. What I have learned is scary, and bad enough that my conscience demands I warn folks about it.
    Quite simply, it is this:
    There are those among the movement who claim that since SLAVERY is not condemned in the Bible, it is a perfectly legitimate thing, and advocate a return to the same.
    J.R. Rushdooney, the father of Reconstructionism, advocated a return to debtor slavery. So does his son-in-law, Gary North.
    And so do a number of patriarchal neo-Confederate “religious” groups in the Southern US today.
    Lancaster, Phillips, and other Patriarchalists link to the leaders of those groups, and sell their materials.

    I don’t want to monopolze your thread any further, so I won’t go on about it here, but you might be interested in reading further; if so, here’s a link:


  20. Cynthia, thanks for the link to your CommonSense blog. These possible links between VF and advocates of slavery are very worrying, although I am not sure if they are proved; you need more than to find people who link to both VF and Wilkins, you need to find Phillips and Lancaster themselves endorsing Wilkins. I hadn’t looked into this aspect, but it doesn’t surprise me. As soon as people let go of the essential truth that in Christ all humans are of equal status and value, you soon fall into discrimination based not just on gender but on race, class etc etc. As Christians this is something we should never tolerate.

  21. I’ll try to find you that proof.

    Phillips doesn’t link to Wilkins or to Doug Wilson* directly, or sell their books through Vision Forum, but his very close associates do.
    (*Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins co-authored numerous works and are described, in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center, as having “essentially constructed the ruling theology of the neo-Confederate movement.”)

    Jennie Chancey is a personal friend of the Phillips family. She is an author, whose books are sold by Vision Forum, and who has lectured at Doug Phillips church, the Bourne Christian Assembly; Chancey sells Wilkins’ and Wilson’s books on HER site, Ladies Against Feminism:


    …as do James and Stacey MacDonald, who also have both written books sold by VisionForum. Their website is the Patriarch’s Path:


    … and features articles written by both Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins; as well as articles written by Jennie Chancey and Doug Phillips.

    And then there’s Doug Phillip’s father, Howard Phillips, who helped found the Constitution Party and ran as that party’s presidential candidate in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 elections for President of the United States. Phillips courted various neo-Confederate groups, including the League of the South, in his presidential effort, and Doug Phillips is reported to have preached from the pulpit that it was a sin not to vote for the elder Phillips.

    You can read all about Howard Phillips at Wikipedia:


    and the Southern Poverty Law Center, who writes that the Constitution Party’s party’s “official “key race” for 2003 (was) is a gubernatorial bid by Mississippi’s most virulent Confederate flag defender, John Thomas Cripps, a long-time member of the white-supremacist hate group, League of the South.”


    And, Doug Phillips (as well as Wilkins, Wilson, the McDonalds and Chancey) are ALL followers of John Rousas Rushdooney, the father of Reconstructionism. Vision Forum sells Rushdooney’s books, (including a revisionist history of the United States.)
    Rushdooney (and Reconstructionism in general) advocated a return to debtor slavery and saw slavery as practiced in the antebellum South as being a fairly benevolent institution: “The private ownership of slave labor in the American South has been the subject of extensive distortion. The Negroes were slaves to their tribal heads in Africa, or prisoner-slaves of other tribes. The monetary unit in black Africa was man, the slave. The Negro moved from an especially harsh slavery, which included cannibalism, to a milder form.”

    And then there’s Doug Phillips’ own blog, where he wrote this:
    “My messages included “6,000 Years of Home Education and Covenant Faithfulness,” “Christian Controversies in American History,” “What’s a Girl to Do?,” and “Rebuilding a Culture of Virtuous Boyhood.” During my talk on controversies in American history, I reminded the Kansans that their community had once been ravaged by one of the most evil men in American history, John Brown, a terrorist who shot children on account of their parentage.
    From Doug’s Bookshelf: The Secret Six by Otto Scott is the best book on the evil movement known as abolitionism which funded America’s first terrorist, John Brown, and did so in the name of anti-Christian Unitarianism. Christians should be aware that being anti-slavery and being anti-abolitionist were not incompatable sentiments for both Southerners and Northerners in the years leading up to the Civil War.”

    Posted by Doug Phillips on May 31, 2003 | Permalink


    But, it’s getting late, and my bed is calling, LOL. More later.

  22. Thanks, Cynthia. Phillips and VF certainly have some very undesirable links. Thank you for clarifying them. It is worrying that many families lacking proper discernment may get these materials for their children without realising what the underlying philosophy is.

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