The Church’s Language About God -- By: Elouise Renrtich Fraser

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 06:3 (Summer 1992)
Article: The Church’s Language About God
Author: Elouise Renrtich Fraser

The Church’s Language About God

Elouise Renrtich Fraser

Elouise Rennich Fraser has a B.A. in Bible from Columbia Bible College (South Carolina), an MA. in Biblical and Theological Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Religion from Vanderbilt University. She is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her article was first printed in “The Other Side,” December 1987, and is reprinted by permission.

For some years now, Christians have struggled with the nature of our language about humanity. Are the nouns man and mankind or the pronouns he and him inclusive of women or not? Acknowledgement that they are not inclusive has often been difficult, and the actual switch to gender-inclusive terms has always been awkward, particularly in the beginning. Nonetheless, more and more Christians are finding inclusive language an almost automatic part of their vocabularies when speaking of human beings.

But what about God? If emotions have run high over language about human begins, they have virtually exploded in the debate over language about God. Those who argue that the church must retain its predominantly masculine imagery for God and those who want to introduce into the church’s vocabulary female imagery for God are in agreement at only one point: both are convinced that the integrity of Christian faith is at stake. In many circles, liberal as well as conservative, the test of orthodoxy has become the nouns and pronouns one uses in speaking of God.

For several years, I have resisted invitations to enter the discussion. In part, I have feared being branded a one-issue theologian. I have also resisted being identified as an expert on this issue, someone who can clarify all the issues, or worse, give out all the right answers. This is not my debate. It is the church’s debate. This is not a technical problem to be handed over to the church’s theologians. The problem belongs to all of us. And though it may seem at first glance to be a narrowly focused and even trivial debate, it is not. The way we reflect on this issue has implications for everything we believe about God and about ourselves.

The Need for a Nondefensive Approach

All appearances to the contrary, this is hardly a new problem. The sense of panic I hear from some quarters cannot be justified on either historical or theological grounds. Questions regarding the church’s language about God have been with us for centuries. They are central to theological reflection, not in spite of God’s self-revelation to us but precisely because of the nature of that revelation. To think that we must, in our generation, resolve this issue is to d...

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