On the use of Pronouns

One of the issues which is likely to become pressing for Anglicans and other Christians in the years to come is the issue of which pronouns to use when referring either to God or human beings. In this blog post I want to explore why the use of pronouns matters theologically in both cases and to argue that we should continue to use ‘he’ when referring to God and ‘he’ and ‘she’ when referring to other human beings.

Why we should use the masculine pronoun for God.

In terms of the use of pronouns to refer to God, the suggestion that has been made by some feminist writers is that the traditional use of male pronouns for God (he, him etc.) should be balanced up by the use of female pronouns (she, her etc.) or by the use of gender neutral terms such as ‘Godself’ instead of ‘himself.’

When thinking about how to respond to this proposal the first thing we have to realise is that nearly all the language we use about God is analogical. I say ‘nearly all’ because there are some things that are said about God the Son in relation to his human nature that are literally true. Thus it is literally true that God the Son was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified and rose again from the dead.

However, with this one exception all language about God uses analogy. That is to say, it describes God by comparing him with things that are not God. To use a familiar example, the 23 Psalm describes God as follows:

‘The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.’

This is not literal but analogical language. God is not literally a shepherd, nor does he have a rod and staff, nor does he literally anoint our heads with oil, nor does he inhabit a house in the same way that human beings do. However, in using this analogical language the Bible gives a truthful picture of God’s care for and protection of his people in ways that we can understand.

The reason that nearly all the language we use about God is analogical in this way is because our language is designed to describe our experience of the created order and, with the one exception of the human nature of God the Son, God is not a creature. It follows that we either have to use language analogically when we refer to God or say nothing at all.

If for this reason we need to use analogical language how do we decide which forms of analogical language it is right to use? The answer is that we need to follow the lead of Scripture. In Scripture as a whole, as in Psalm 23, God gives us a truthful picture, inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21), of what he is like. It follows that our language about God needs to be in accordance with what the Bible says.

In the Bible there are a range of analogical feminine images that are used to describe God. For example in Deuteronomy 32:18 God is referred to in terms of the mother who gave Israel birth, in Isaiah 49:15, God is described in terms of a mother who has borne a child in her womb and then subsequently breast fed it, and in Luke 15:8-10 God is described in terms of a housewife sweeping her house in search of a lost coin. On the other hand God is also referred to with a range of male images, the names of the first two persons of the Trinity are Father and Son and throughout Scripture all three persons of the Trinity are always referred to by masculine pronouns. God is always he and never she. Furthermore, at the incarnation God the Son took upon himself a male human nature. He became not only God the Son, but also the son of Mary, and so male pronouns are always used to refer to him.

What this means is that if our language about God is to remain in line with biblical teaching it is legitimate to use female images for God as a number of theologians down the centuries have done and say, for instance, that God cares for us as a mother cares for her children. However, it would not be legitimate to refer to the first two persons of the Trinity as Mother and Daughter rather than Father and Son, or to use female pronouns when referring to God. It would also obviously be wrong to use female pronouns to describe the human nature of the incarnate Christ in the same way that it would be wrong to refer to St. Peter as ‘she.’

It is also important to note, however, that the use of male pronouns for God does not mean that God is male, except when these pronouns are used to refer to the male humanity of the incarnate Christ. In terms of his divine nature God is neither male nor female, but transcends both. When we say that a human being is male we mean that he has certain physical and psychological characteristics that distinguish him from a human female. As a purely spiritual being without a female counterpart with different sexual characteristics the God described in the Bible cannot be male in this sense and neither can he be female. In the words of Stephen Sapp ‘the distinction between the sexes is a creation by God since there is no such distinction on the divine level; the polarity of the sexes belongs to the created order and not to God.’

To begin to use female pronouns for God in order to balance out male ones would thus not only depart from the language that God himself has given us to describe him, but it would also misrepresent the nature of this language. As we have just noted, the use of male pronouns in the Bible does not imply that God is male and so it would be foolish to object to the use of these pronouns on the grounds that they do. The use of male pronouns is analogical and tell us that God is personal, not that he is a man, just as the language of God as a shepherd tells us that God care for us not that he has a flock of Blue Faced Leicesters.

The use of gender neutral terms such as ‘Godself’ is not only linguistically clumsy, but it too is a departure from biblical language and if used as a replacement for male pronouns would wrongly tend to imply that God is impersonal. Persons are ‘he’ or ‘she’ and we need to go on using ‘he’ in order to testify to the fact that God is personal.

If it is argued that the use of male pronouns for God is confusing to ordinary people in the pew because it leads them to think that God is male then the answer is that what is required is not a change of pronouns, but better teaching about the nature of God and the nature of the language we use to describe him.

Why we should use masculine and feminine pronouns for human beings

Although God is neither male nor female this is not true of human beings. To use the words of Stephen Sapp again, ‘the distinction between the sexes is a creation by God.’ God has created human beings as male and female. We learn this in Genesis 1:27 where we read ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.’ The same theological point is made in the creation story in Genesis 2 where Eve is created as the female counterpart to the male Adam and the point is reiterated in Genesis 5:1-2 where we are told ‘When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.’

In line with its account of God’s creation of human beings the rest of the Bible uniformly describes the people to whom it refers as either male or female and uniformly uses male or female pronouns. There is no example in the entire Bible of someone being described as having a sexual identity that is neither male nor female, nor is there any use of gender neutral pronouns.

In traditional English, too, human beings are seen as either male or female and are therefore referred to by either male or female pronouns.

However, it has now been suggested by a number of American universities such as Harvard University, the University of Vermont, the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and the American University, Washington DC, that new pronouns such as ze, hir, hirs, zir, xe, xem or xyr should be used in order to be welcoming and inclusive to transgender students who do not wish to identify as either male or female.

This linguistic innovation matters because experience shows that this sort of linguistic usage tends to percolate down from elite academic institutions and become more widely used in society as a whole. Furthermore American usage tends to cross the Atlantic and become adopted into British English as with use of the term Ms to replace Miss or Mrs.

It therefore seems likely that in the years to come Christians in this country as well as in the United States may well face pressure to use some form of gender neutral pronouns. In my view they need to resist this pressure.

This is because accepting the Biblical testimony to God’s creation of the human race means accepting that there are no human beings to whom such gender neutral pronouns can rightly apply. Because of the way that God has created the human race there are no human beings who are not either male or female, so pronouns such as ze, hir and hirs are linguistically redundant.

It is true that there are a very small number of people who suffer from what are known as ‘intersex’ conditions which mean that there is a degree of ambiguity about which sex they are, either in terms of their chromosomes or in terms of the sexual characteristics of their bodies. It is also true that there are other people whose biological sexual identity is perfectly clear, but who feel that their bodies do not represent their true sexual identity, which is in fact that of the opposite sex.

In both cases Christian compassion means that we should feel enormous sympathy for the situations in which such people find themselves, through no fault of their own. It is obviously hugely difficult to live either with congenital sexual ambiguity or with the conviction that one was born with a body of the wrong sex.

However, this proper sense of compassion cannot mean that it is right to suggest that such people are not either male or female, even if in the first case it is not easy to determine what their sex is and even if in the second case they find it hard to reconcile the sex of their bodies with their sense of their own identity. As members of the human race they have a sexual identity as male or female given to them by God himself and it is the calling of their fellow human beings to help them to discover this identity and to live it out, even when doing so can be very hard.

Suggesting that they are neither male nor female by the use of gender neutral pronouns is to deny them their proper dignity as human beings and this is something we should never do. By God’s decree they are sons of Adam or daughters of Eve and we should not refer to them as if they were anything else.

In the dark years of segregation and apartheid white people use to refer to grown black men as ‘boy.’ This was not only linguistically inaccurate, but, more importantly, it was denial of their proper human dignity. We should not allow the growth of a similar linguistic error with regard to people’s sex.

In Conclusion…

In conclusion, the pronouns we use to describe God and our fellow human beings matter. They matter because it is important that we refer to God in accordance with the language he has chosen to use to describe himself and because it is important that we refer to other people in accordance with the male or female identity in which God created them. In both cases we need to show proper humility by accepting the decision that God has made. In our linguistic usage as in everything else we need to let God be God.

M B Davie 14.9.15