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The love of God

Investigation among the images of the Christian tradition

The Bible was born within a patriarchal culture. Even what it says about God and his relationship with man –its theology is written within this socio-cultural background. For this reason, biblical images are essentially male. The Old Testament God is the King, the Lord of hosts, the guardian, the teacher, the judge, the patriarch. However, his designation as the "father of men," the "father of Israel" or "our father" (Isaiah, 64, 7) takes second place, after that of his name: "I am who I am" (Exodus 3, 14). He also exercises his paternity towards the lineage of the King-Messiah of Israel: "I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2 Samuel, 7, 14). The God of the New Testament is the Father, Christ is the Son who teaches the Lord's Prayer. This substrate founds an entire metaphorical register whose most important note is essentially androcentric. In fact, in classical doctrine, the divine does not appear in the form of a woman or of a mother. It is not gynomorphic.

This classical teaching, however, accords an important place to a biblical tradition in which God's action is described with the help of images which are specifically maternal. In the Old Testament, God is like the eagle that flies over its new born and watches over them (Deuteronomy, 32, 11) and carries them on his wings (Exodus 19: 4). He is like the bear that attacks when her children are taken away (Hosea, 13, 8), like the nurse who carries the infant (Numbers, 11, 12). Maternal images are emphasised in Isaiah: “Should a woman forget her own infant, so as to be without tenderness for the child of her womb?" (Isaiah, 49, 15). In the book of Job, the creative action of God is described as a birth, "Who gives birth to the drops of dew? From whose womb has the ice and frost of heaven  come out of and who generated it? "(Job 38: 28-29). The Psalmist rests in God just as a child sleeps in the arms of his mother (Psalms, 131, 2). The Old Testament God is not a God in the feminine sense, that is a goddess, but a maternal God, an implicit message delivered in the context of cults that rendered homage to female pagan divinities. In the New Testament Jesus is compared to a mother who gathers her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23, 37), and in the letters of the New Testament feminine and maternal metaphors abound (cf. 1 Corinthians 3: 1-2, 1 Thessalonians, 2, 7-8, 1 Peter, 2, 2).

Clement of Alexandria seems to have been the first church father to establish a parallel between the fatherhood and the motherhood of God In Quis dives salvetur Clement transfers this fatherhood and motherhood of God onto the level of the relationship between the unknowability of God and the Incarnation " His inexpressiblity makes him Father; his compassion for us makes him mother. "

In this way most of the female metaphors illustrated by the Fathers of the Church are linked to the human nature of the incarnate Word. This is why, when referring to female images in the Bible, Christian authors did not mention God, but above all Christ and the Church. According to the various interpretations, therefore, the use of  female metaphors  classically applies to designate one or the other. The figure of the mother consequently functions as a figure of Christ and of the Church in a whole series of texts. It is on the basis of just such a typology that Clement of Alexandria speaks, for example, of the Church. Quoting Isaiah ("just as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you"; 66, 13), he gives it an ecclesiological interpretation: "The mother draws into her arms her young children and, in the same way, we search for our mother, the Church." In addition, in his writings motherhood indicates divine knowledge and wisdom.

In the same vein, an entire branch of the Fathers see in the woman, the Church, and in the father, God. It is in this way that Matthew’s parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened "(13, 33), is traditionally interpreted. For Ambrose of Milan or Peter Chrysologus, for example, the woman is the image of the Church. But this same scriptural reference is also used to identify the woman with Christ. Roman the Melodist makes use of  this identification: "The woman is, Scripture says, the virtue and wisdom of the Creator, that is, Christ, the wisdom and power of the Father." The parallel between  woman, Christ and  Wisdom is in this way established.

Augustine bequeathed to medieval posterity the figure of Christ as "Mother-Wisdom." At the same time, he transmits the idea of a gynocomorphic humanity because it is vulnerable. He is also the first to consider Christ as together both Father and Mother. Bringing together a series of scriptural quotations, taken from the Pauline corpus in particular, he emphasizes the paternal role in the generation and the maternal role in the birth from the Apostle: you do not have "many fathers, for it is I who generated you in Christ Jesus through the gospel "(1 Corinthians 4: 15). And, he concludes, Christ "has a paternal authority, a maternal feeling: and as Paul says, He is father and he is mother."

In the eleventh century, Anselm again takes up this passage which becomes a  breeding ground for an entire field of monastic and franciscan exploration into the image of Christ as father and as mother: "But you Jesus, the Good Lord, are you not also a mother? Is not He a mother who, as a hen, gathers her young under her wings? ". At the same time, Jerome had made use of another exegetical network on parenting, in particular a verse from Matthew: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" (10, 37). This shows then that Christ is both father, brother, husband, friend, sister and mother. The medieval continuity of this metaphorical network  is, again in this case, worthy of note.

At the end of the fourth century, however, Gregory of Nazianzus emphasizes, the limitations of metaphorical usage: "Since that time we believe it to be absolutely necessary to apply to the deity (...) the words of this world, in particular those designating parenthood. In this regard, do you perhaps imagine that God is male because he is called God and Father; or that the divinity is of the female sex, in conformity with the gender of words; and the Spirit, neither the one nor the other, since the Spirit does not generate". These words, pronounced in Constantinople between 379 and 381 in opposition to the Arians, refer in particular to the Gnostic conceptions on  God as  masculine-feminine.
Jerome, his Latin contemporary, outlined with one stroke the orthodox line on the doctrine: "In the divinity, in fact, there is no sex." God therefore is neither male nor female. The grammatical genders cannot circumscribe the divine incommensurability that has become commensurability. Referring to the Trinity, Jerome deliberately recalls the diversity of genres in different languages to indicate the Holy Spirit: in Hebrew, feminine in Latin, masculine and neutral in Greek! The Gnostic sources, unlike Christian writings, in fact, continue to use a sexual symbolism in the representation of God, in a principle which is fundamentally dualistic.

Three forms of representation of this duality prevail in Gnostic circles of Christian antiquity. The first representation - coming from sources close to the gnostic Valentinus in the second century - presents the idea of a fundamentally ineffable God but who, at the same time, consists, on the one hand of "the ineffable source, the depth, of the primordial father; on the other, of the grace and the silence of the womb and of the "mother of all". " In this component, the male is the "father", the female is the "silence". Just as in human sexuality, silence receives the seed from the ineffable source. The fruit of this union is the emanation of the divine being arranged in pairs of male and female powers. The second representation treats God as a triune father-mother-child relationship, such as, for example, in the Book of the Secrets of John (late second century). The feminine "person"  reunited with father and son is called "mother", and the Holy Spirit is then treated as a divine mother. Finally, a third gnostic representation is properly androgynous. In the Protennoia trimorfica discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, a divine personage says, "I am both mother and father (...). I am the Beginning and the End. " God here is a dyad.

The twentieth century is in a similar way a witness to the birth of a theology of the feminine. What characterizes it, in all its diversity, is a new questioning of the foundations of the Christian tradition: "God the Father must share power with God the Mother." In their clash with classical theology, feminist theologies are above all focused on adding a feminine dimension to the God-man inherited from the Fathers and tradition, in order to renew the way we speak about and therefore think about him. These theologies aim in this way to bring about a corrective to the patriarchal view of God, showing that the Bible itself contains this corrective under the form of maternal and feminine metaphors. The newly derived theological formulations, particularly in Anglo-Saxon ambients, are quite devastating. Of course, reflection on the Trinity presupposes an analogical language that necessarily bears the imprint of its time. But the whole question is whether you can replace the Trinitarian formula with other formulas, a common practice in feminist ambients, for example by putting in place of the formula "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" the formula "The power of creation, the power of deliverance and sanctification. "

The most recent explorations of psychoanalysis tend to agree with the traditional doctrine. As the psychoanalyst Marie Balmary underlines, the father-mother God, which takes over every place as a "phallic mother," is not far from an omnipotent God or a false God. Balmary shows on the contrary how the Bible "is opposed to the identification of the Creator God as mother." And, she concludes, "God as masculine and divine fatherhood does not originate in a contempt for women, but quite the contrary, in a divine humility."




St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 20, 2019