C. S. Lewis on Gender Language in the Bible
by Wayne Martindale
For most Americans, the issue of gender language in the Bible seems quite contemporary. For example, a professional association of homiletics professors decided a few months ago that they would dispense with gender language when referring to God and the Bible in their own meetings. But C. S. Lewis, so often perceptive about the way the wind of ideas is blowing, wrote about this and a related concern as early as 1948 in his God in the Dock article “Priestesses in the Church?” To those who wish to tamper with the biblical imagery referring to God as “He” and “Father,” Lewis issues a caution.
But first, to give them their due, Lewis states the opposition well and fairly:
Perhaps the prior question is why we wish to change. Is our concern to purify our conception of God? When we approach the issue, as Lewis points out, we must first agree with those who say we err when we allow our language about God to confine our concept of Him. If our use of masculine words to refer to God causes us to reduce our conception to an anthropomorphic finitude, then we are in trouble. Lewis is often working to expand our ideas of the vastness of God. The very universe demands an expansive view and was perhaps created on such a mind-boggling scale to communicate the greatness of God, as suggested by this passage of exalted praise from the end of Perelandra:
We must acknowledge at the outset that any attempt to name or describe God is fraught with problems. What shall we try? If we cease to refer to God as either male or female, we must stop referring to God as a person at all. Lewis illustrates the problem of using abstract terms: “‘Bright blur’ is not a very good description. In fact,” Lewis laments, “you can’t have a good description of anything so vague. If the description became good it would become false.”3 If we think of God in terms of abstractions, we will be further from the truth, not nearer. As Lewis explains in Miracles:
If we accept the biblical view at all, then we must agree with Lewis that “God . . . has purposes and performs particular actions, . . . does one thing and not another, [is] a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character.”5 Does it not then follow that one who “purposes and performs particular actions” is more like a person than anything else we can think of? That God is, in fact, a person—an entity with self-conscious personhood, feelings, intentionality and so on—seems unavoidable. Lewis has argued the point brilliantly in the first two books of Mere Christianity without making any reference to Scripture. And for those that claim any authority for Scripture at all, personhood is evident. How else may the words of Jesus about his coming be understood (say in John)? What could the Incarnation mean? What does it mean for us to be “in His image”? On this point, Lewis concludes:
Try as we may, it is impossible for human beings to think of God without personhood, and it is equally impossible to think of a person without gender. Did this problem of knowing God and how human beings would refer to Him and think of Him escape God in the creation of gender? Or did He create a system which would adequately allow for us to conceptualize and talk about Him, and did He give us a divine revelation of the imagery we should use? Is it not more credible, given the supreme importance of knowing God rightly, that He should, in fact, create gender for the purpose of revelation? Lewis suggests that “one of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God.”7
In Lewis’s view, gender is more than just male and female, and much more than sexuality. He gives his view through both the narrator and Ransom, the chief character in Perelandra. As Ransom relates his having seen the Oyarsa or ruling angels of Malacandra (Mars) and Perelandra (Venus), the language becomes rhapsodic in describing Masculine and Feminine as the larger reality of which male and female sexuality are a small part:
This greater truth includes the fact that, to the returning Christ, we all have a feminine relationship: we are His bride. The implications of such language include the following: He is our protector; He initiates the relationship; He provides for our needs.
But the main issue is the nature of revelation. Is the biblical revelation flawed on the point of gender language? Then the consequences are clear and radical. What Lewis says of women in the priesthood applies equally to gender language:
With merely human constructs, we may change terms and cultural ideas as often as we like. Where revelation and divinity is concerned, however, “We cannot shuffle or tamper so much. With the Church, we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but (as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us.”10
If the reason for wishing a change in gender language is to accommodate cultural changes in attitude, then we have a clear answer from Scripture already: “If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal. 1:9–10). The question ought to be, “What pleases God?” And would not the warning of John apply? “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Rev. 22:18–19) Those are strong warnings about tampering with Scripture.
Apparently, many think they have the liberty to change the way we refer to God to suit their sense or what is right and fair and just. And no one need doubt that their motives are less than pure in these terms. But right and just by what standard? A cultural norm? Shall we put culture ahead of inspiration? That is to jettison the authority of Scripture altogether. Be honest and throw out the idea of the Bible as having any special authority at all. But that is, of course, to cease being a Christian. If we accept biblical authority, however, we arrive with Lewis at this conclusion:
Some are concerned that using masculine language denigrates women. But surely not, for with respect to God, we are all feminine (the bride of Christ). Should we be scandalized that Jesus came as a man? How could we be when the honor of bringing his physical body into the world fell to a woman? Or when we remember that His first appearance after his resurrection was to women? Or when Paul says that in Christ there is neither male nor female (which means the we are equal, not that we cease having gender)? In light of this, are those for gender changes in the Bible not guilty of reverse prudishness?
If the modern sensibility is troubled by gender language, Lewis’s advice to one of his correspondents who is worried about a confusing passage will serve very well. Lewis writes that baffling, even shocking passages in the Bible must be allowed to stand. He explains that our responsibility, when we don’t understand certain passages is to let them alone until a greater person will come along who knows how to read them rightly. When a person does come to understand such passages, Lewis explains, the result will be that God will appear “good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of.”12
And what should our attitude be when, all about, the voices of theologians go up in a demand for changes in gender language in the Bible? Can we afford to ignore the experts? Here is a final caution from Lewis: “When you turn from the New Testament to modern scholars, remember that you go among them as a sheep among wolves. Naturalistic assumptions, beggings of the question . . . will meet you on every side—even from the pens of clergymen.”13 There is only one safe course: let us not try to conform the Word of God to suit our own standards, but let us conform our standards to suit the Word of God.
1. “Priestesses in the Church?” (1948), God in the Dock, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 237.
2. Perelandra, (New York: Macmillan), p. 218.
3. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, (New York: Harcourt, 1964), p. 83.
4. Miracles, (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 87.
5. Miracles, p. 81.
6. “On Obstinacy in Belief” (1955), The World's Last Night and Other Essays, (New York: Harcourt, 1960), p. 26.
7. “Priestesses,” p. 238.
8. Perelandra, p. 200.
9. “Priestesses,” p. 238.
10. “Priestesses,” p. 239.
11. “Priestesses,” p. 237.
12. Letters of C. S. Lewis (8 August 1953), ed. W. H. Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, 1966), p. 253.
13. Miracles, (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 164.
Dr. Wayne Martindale is Professor of English at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, and co-editor of The Quotable Lewis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).
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