There are times when something is said at an event that makes you shift a bit in your seat. And there are times when things are said that make you get up and leave your seat. This article is about the latter.
I was at a college graduation in Washington D.C. when I heard the phrase, “Our Mother” during a prayer before the invocation.
“Lord, I didn’t hear that.” I hadn’t realized that I had vocalized my thoughts. I opened my eyes. I lifted my head — acutely aware that I could not participate in her prayer — and watched the cleric read her manuscript, unfailingly but consistently, referencing her deity with female pronouns. She concluded the invocation by citing her spiritual authority: “In the name of our great mother we pray. Amen.” My wife stared at me and mouthed a voiceless question in a single word, “Wha-a-at?”
Can God Be Mother?
The short answer — the unequivocal response — is “no.” However, the university chaplain’s reference to God (or god) as mother was not new. After all, the European Union celebrated the goddess Europa (namesake for a continent) by engraving the Greek mythological consort of Zeus on the Euro in 2013. Europa was seduced by Zeus taking the form of a bull, carried away and raped. How the EU thought that it was a good idea to revive that story as an inspirational image on money is stranger than the myth. But deities as mothers were quite fashionable in the pre-Christian West.
While it has been at least two millennia since Westerners referred to a deity as female (e.g., Diana), there has been a revival of sorts. The Bible, for instance, in Romans 1, teaches us that there is a fallen urge in unregenerate man to appropriate Almighty God into a deity of one’s own preferences. To reject God our Father, incarnate in the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, and to replace Him with an imaginary goddess, is nothing if not heretical; and inevitable.
The Motherhood of God in the Bible
Does God reveal Himself as a mother or as a woman? No. But before considering why we should honor God as He reveals Himself, let us slightly adjust the question before us. Let us put it like this: Does the Lord use maternal qualities in self-revelation?
Yes, He does. Indeed, the references are many and are touchingly beautiful: God as a nurturing hen, a mother eagle, a mother bear; and Jesus likening Himself to a disconsolate mother hen longing for her wayward chicks. Let’s review the key passages in both New and Old Testaments about how the Lord’s care of His children is similar to a mother’s caring, protective love. Let ‘s start with the Old Testament and go to the New.
God as a Mother in the Old Testament
Holy Scripture is replete with comparisons to maternal qualities. Let’s list some of them and consider our God who is, indeed, like the beautiful motherly qualities He created:
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the LORD alone guided him, no foreign god was with him (Deuteronomy 32:11-12).
You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth (Deuteronomy 32:18).
For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant. I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their vegetation; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools (Isaiah 42:14-15).
Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you (Isaiah 49:14).
May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge (Ruth 2:12).
Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings (Psalm 17:8).
…I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed (Psalm 57:1).
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings, you will find refuge… (Psalm 91:4).
Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt (Psalm 123:2-3).
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me (Psalm 131:2).
Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder… (Hosea 13:8).
God as a Mother in the New Testament
Perhaps, the most moving use of motherhood in the Lord’s self-disclosure, as He prepares to enter Jerusalem for the climactic scenes of the Passion in those days we recall as “Holy Week.” I quote Matthew’s account of that tender scene, using the Elizabethan English of the Geneva and King James versions of the Holy Bible:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not (Matthew 23:37-39); see, also, Luke 13:34).
How tender. How touching. How divine.
Literary Device in Scripture
It is important to attend to the most obvious feature of these Scriptures: The Almighty God, or a biblical writer speaking of God, says that He is “like” a mother. To be clear, the Bible never says that the Lord God is Mother God. The Bible declares that the Lord is like the universally admired maternal instincts. The Lord uses similitudes to help us understand His “instinctive” loving, nurturing, and compassionate attitude towards humankind and the Church.
These highly expressive similitudes — being like a mother — are divinely placed so that we can understand God by familiar things around us. However, in Scripture, the comparisons to mothers or a maternal instinct are not transformed into declarations of divine identity. God is like a mother. Never is God revealed as female or as a motherly being.
The Eastern and Western Churches have many things in common. One significant difference is the Filioque (Latin, tr. “and from the Son”) clause of the Nicene Creed AD 38. The Western Church insisted on retaining this clause in the Creed while Eastern Orthodox church leaders denied it. What is it? This is the clause that was introduced:
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.
The disagreement was a significant one, indeed. The Western Church has maintained that the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son is key to the doctrine of the Trinity.
In a similar way, words matter in the case of naming God's self-revealed identity.
So, to identify God as Mother not only assaults the inerrancy and infallibility of the Holy Bible but does damage to the Trinity, the Covenant of Grace, and, ultimately, to Creation itself. God is Father. He is not the recipient of another’s initial movement. He is the first movement. The forever presence. Words have meaning. And doctrine has consequences.
What Does This Mean?
We have seen that there are many places in Scripture where the Holy Spirit uses the literary device of similitude to help us understand the love and nurture and intense protection of God’s children. Scripture declares that God “is like” a mother eagle, a mother hen, or a mother bear. But a simile is not identity. A simile is a comparison. There is absolutely no place in Scripture or in the confessions of the one, holy universal church, that denies the fatherhood of God. To do so is to deny Scripture itself and is to distort the person of Christ and the self-revelation of the Triune God.
God’s identity is revealed in Christ as male, and in the Godhead as our Father. Yet, Jesus condescends to His children with a motherly love we can understand:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!
All things exist in Him and by Him and through Him and He is before all things (Colossians 1:17-19). Jesus is the image of the Father. If we have seen Christ, we have seen the Father. He is our eternal Father who “begat” us in love before the world began.
Thus, we were able to sing, with Biblical and theological precision: “This is my Father’s world.” And the Father who made us sustains us: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13).
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Bowman, Marion. “Understanding Glastonbury as a Site of Consumption.”
Edwards, Richard M. Scriptural Perspicuity in the Early English Reformation
Grudem, Wayne. “The Perspicuity of Scripture.”
Kelly, Douglas F., Hugh McClure, and Philip B. Rollinson. The Westminster Confession of Faith
McNamer, Sarah. “The Exploratory Image: God as Mother in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/20716905.
Milton, Michael A. From Flanders Fields to the Moviegoer: Philosophical Foundations for a Transcendent Ethical Framework.
Pugliese, Marc A. “How Important Is The Filioque For Reformed Orthodoxy?”
Roller, Lynn E. In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele.
Ryken, L., and T. Longman. The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. https://books.google.com/books?id=A2GCDsFC3XMC.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. https://books.google.com/books?id=tLLx3hfc6UYC.
“‘Similitude’ Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/similitude.
“The Order for Holy Communion (1928 BCP).” http://www.episcopalnet.org/1928bcp/communion.html.
“Westminster Confession.” PCA Administrative Committee. https://www.pcaac.org/bco/westminster-confession/.
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MICHAEL A. MILTON (Ph.D., University of Wales; MPA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; MDIV, Knox Theological Seminary; Cert. in Higher Education Teaching, Harvard University) serves as the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine College and Seminary. A Presbyterian minister (PCA, ARP), Milton has penned more than thirty books, hundreds of articles in journals, magazines, opinion columns, and newspapers. As president of the D. James Kennedy Institute and Faith for Living, Milton has served as a public theologian. His work has been cited on numerous national media outlets as he provides historic Christian insights into faith and life in a changing world. Dr. Milton's record of ministry includes seminary chancellor, president of three seminaries, senior minister of one of America's historic churches, founder of three congregations, and a Christian academy. A composer and artist, Mike and Mae Milton reside in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Learn more at michaelmilton.org/about. [from a press release by McCain& Associates.]