Imaging God by Patrick Henry Reardon

Imaging God

by Patrick Henry Reardon

About a decade ago I had the opportunity to sit in on an interesting session of a conference on Christian Education being conducted in Evergreen, Colorado. The conference I recall was an annual affair back then, well attended by Christian educators from around the country, both diocesan personnel and parochial Sunday School people, of both sexes and all ages.

Well, in the particular session that I attended, the task assigned to the participants was that of drawing a picture of God. Crayons, chalks, felt tip markers and sundry similar implements were apportioned to the assembly, along with generous sheets of newsprint, and for some thirty minutes the group proceeded to make unto itself the likeness of things in heaven and on earth and under the earth, though not going quite so far as to bow down unto them nor to worship them. Not being a true participant, I was permitted to sit quietly while the great exercise was in process.

At the end of a half-hour or so, each of the participants in the experiment was in turn called to the front of the hall to display his or her picture of God and to explain the image to the rest of us. Most of the efforts were very abstract, with lots of angled and radiant lines, circles, various geometric shapes and designs. The colors were largely pastel. Only one of the pictures, I remember, conveyed something alive. Well, almost alive; it was a small, cut rose, entirely black. The craftsman of this portrait was a young priest, a diocesan director of Christian education, who kept referring to his little, black, divine flower as “she.” Hoping to receive Holy Communion the next day without first going to Confession, I resisted the urge to comment.

Well, the whole experience I found bewildering, let me say, and I left Evergreen somewhat jarred and disoriented. I knew those folks were all regular reciters of the Nicene Creed, sharers in the same Sacraments that nourished me, but it seemed that they worshipped a different divinity than I. At this I was less offended than stunned; the experience was more paralyzing than painful. My sensation, or lack of it, would have been much the same if I were suddenly to learn that my wife, whom I fancied to be the very soul of virtue and modesty, was really a pirate’s paramour or the secret convener of a coven. For months I staggered around muttering that I did not want my kids getting their Christian education from any flower-worshipper.

The memory of that event comes back to me now and then, particularly when I read feminist theology and that sort of thing. Recently I thought of it again when a friend showed me an article in the October 22, 1989 issue of The Living Church, a denominational weekly. Written by the Reverend David Holsinger, a clergyman from Honolulu, the piece was called “Struggling to Imagine God.” Actually, I am indebted to the author, for he spoke more truly and reprensentatively of the drift in modern American theology than perhaps he knew, and his article helped to focus thoughts and reactions which have been for some time coming together in my mind.

The thesis of the article was straightforward enough: “We have not yet discovered who God is, and never will in this life. But if we could, God would be neither woman nor man, of that you can be sure. The words man and woman, father or mother, are simply terms to help imagine the unimaginable, to explain the unexplainable, and to try to define the undefinable.” After thus identifying the hopeless job of talking adequately about God, Mr. Holsinger proceeded to argue that masculine and feminine language descriptive of God are of pretty much equal value, both suggesting certain points of analogy that are somewhat useful. In closing he asked us to “thank God for inclusive language, that it will help us to bring about a fuller and more adequate understanding of what we mean when we make reference to the Divine Reality, for some, ‘God our Father’, and for others, ‘God our Mother’.”

I commend Mr. Holsinger for speaking of the Divine Reality beyond all words. Indeed let us insist on the point. “The act of the believer,” wrote Thomas Aquinas, “does not terminate at a proposition (enuntiabile) but at the very Reality (ipsam Rem)” (Summa Theologica II II 1.2.ad2). Mr. Holsinger is apparently no theologian of the mirror, no disciple of Feuerbach, who taught that the divine is only a reflection of the human; nor does he, like Freud, attempt to “transform metaphysics into metapsychology.” He happily professes a God quite distinct from our concepts and imaginings about God.

On three critical points, however, I take issue with Mr. Holsinger. And I believe these points are very cogent to a far greater argument being advanced in our day—a dangerous drift in contemporary theology.

First, in asserting that the names of God “are simply terms,” our Hawaiian clergyman is plainly enunciating the classical thesis of nominalism, for neither Roscellinus nor Ockham would have put the matter differently. Now let me say that I am among those today burdened with the suspicion that a deeply embedded nominalism is at the root of the present Trinitarian and christological crises of Western Christianity.

To me nominalism seems to be only another example of that Western subjectivity of which Eastern theologians are always complaining. Nominalism is a mental prison, allowing the mind to apprehend only its own terms, not the ontological realities beyond those terms, and contemporary experience is showing that it is open to all manner of manipulation. To root all of Creation and Redemption in the sovereign divine will, apart from and metaphysically independent of the divine wisdom, has in our times seemed to evoke a like willfulness and caprice from those who hold such a view.

I reject the epistemology of nominalism as incompatible with Holy Scripture and the ancient tradition of the Church. When in so many places, too numerous to list, the Bible speaks concretely and powerfully about our “knowing” God, I do not for the life of me see how those texts can mean simply that we have been given a superior God-talk, an enhanced set of theological terms. Better words about God are not the same thing as the knowledge of God. The nominalist thesis does not permit the possibility of knowing God in the ways that Holy Scripture indicates.

Secondly, by his own admission and avowal, Mr. Holsinger’s proposals for a feminization of theological language are based on the ignorance of God. This is not a mere conclusion I draw from his nominalism; he says it explicitly and without qualification: “We have not yet discovered who God is, and never will in this life.” Then, exactly on that foundation of prior and admitted nescience, he goes on to propose a new vocabulary for talking about God.

From the very beginning the Church has demanded certain precise theological words because of her knowledge of the Unknown God. A concern for exact theological vocabulary was never regarded as inimical to the mysterious, apophatic1 experience of the Christian God. Now I submit that Mr. Holsinger’s approach is not apophatic theology; it is incomprehension followed by guesswork. One may recall how those great apophatic doctors, the Cappadocian Fathers, became very hot and bothered about one too many iotas in a single word.2

In this regard Mr. Holsinger seems to me to be saying something along these lines: “I have never seen a pin; a pin is incomprehensible. One may as well call it a pan or a pen or a pun.” To me, Mr. Holsinger would respond of course: “Don’t be silly; indeed I know what a pin is; I would never confuse it with those other things.” And that, frankly is the point of the pin. Does Mr. Holsinger know the Father and the Son? I do not mean the words; I mean the Father and the Son, the very Persons of God. If he does not know the Father and the Son, then a glance at the rough words in 1 John 2:22 may serve to sober him up a bit: “He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son.” If he answers that he does know the Father and the Son, I will insist on asking why he still feels free to call Them the Mother and the Daughter. He would not, after all, call a pin a pan. If I know only the word “pin,” then I can call the thing whatever I want. But if I know the rest, the pin itself, I will call it by its right name.

Mr. Holsinger cannot have it both ways. If he knows God, let him talk about the God he knows. If he does not know God, . . . well, that’s another matter.

And that thought brings me to my third and final objection. When Mr. Holsinger exhorts us, at the end of his article, to “thank God,” I am grateful for the summons to prayer but a bit puzzled as to which deity I should thank. It is not at all obvious to me that the author and I are worshippers of the same God. Mr. Holsinger has not identified his divinity beyond mentioning a certain indifference as to how that divinity may be addressed. I will tell you exactly what God I pray to; He is the Father, not just Someone I happen to address by that name. He is the One “who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6) Now gazing in faith, as best a sinner can, at what I perceive of the glory of God shining on the face of Christ, I espy there no more of “God our Mother” than of a little black rose. “God our Mother” comes from feminist ideology and has not a blessed thing to do with the Christian Revelation.

Before Mr. Holsinger began his unnecessary and truly frustrating enterprise of “struggling to imagine God,” Dr. Donald G. Bloesch, one of the grander Evangelical thinkers of our time, very ably entered the lists in what I believe is a more profitable skirmish, The Battle for the Trinity. In the course of that remarkable book, Dr. Bloesch articulates what I take to be the faith once handed down to the saints, and I presume to borrow his own words as a more adequate response to Mr. Holsinger:

But Father, Son and Holy Spirit are symbols corresponding not to inner feelings and experiences, but to ontological realities. Their dominant reference is objective rather than subjective. . . . To put this another way, the Trinitarian names are ontological symbols based on divine revelation rather than personal metaphors having their origin in cultural experience. (p. 36)

The clarity and precision of Dr. Bloesch in these and similar statements are much appreciated. I hope, however, that his ample mind will not think it ungenerous of me to become critical of him, too. Having eaten of his bread, it is only with reluctance that I lift up my heel against him, but a couple of pages in his book seem to me something less than perfect.

A first example of Dr. Bloesch’s remark that “too often in the past we have confused the patriarchal garb in which divine revelation comes to us with the truth of revelation itself.” (p. 65) Well, I am not so sure about that. I would argue that patriarchy is of the substance of revelation in two senses. First, revelation identifies the Pater with the Arche; the Father is the Origin. In the measure that the Holy Trinity is patriarchal—that God the Father is pege theotetos, the “Fount of Divinity” (Maximus the Confessor)—all of the Christian Revelation is patriarchal. Secondly, this patriarchy is reflected in God’s institution of paternal headship3 in the family and in the worshipping Church. The biblical texts that sustain this latter thesis are well-known.

Next, I take gentle issue with Dr. Bloesch’s tolerance for addressing God as “mother” on certain occasions, especially in private prayer (p. 54). Correctly he recognizes that such invocations would be purely metaphorical, much as we call God a rock and a shield. Baalism and Gnosticism, however, are still very much with us, rendering such invocations almost inevitably heretical within the contemporary hermeneutic context.

Thomas Aquinas helpfully reminds us that metaphors for God are appropriate only if there is no danger of their being misunderstood (Summa Theologica I 1.9.ad3), but the metaphor of motherhood is most certainly ajar to an evil draft nowadays. In fact, the present return to feminist nature worship is no gentle breeze but a very fierce gale. I invite those who imagine that Spinoza (1632–77) was the last thinker to say “God or Nature” (Deus sive Natura) to look into contemporary religious feminism. They may want to start with something like Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, written over a decade ago, and work their way to more recent examples, such as Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade. The identification of God as a feminine personification of nature is currently a very serious business, and I think it differs not a whit from the sort against which strove the biblical prophets and the second-century Apologists.

Now Dr. Bloesch is not one of those who need to be reminded that speaking of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is vastly more than metaphor. As Athanasius tried so carefully to explain to the Arians, and then the Cappadocians to Eunomius some 1600 years ago, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the proper and eternal names of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. While such titles as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier pertain to God in His relationship to his creatures, the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit refer to God in Himself. Even if nothing had ever been created and we were not now discussing the matter, God would still and eternally be the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But when a person says this nowadays, he is very likely going to be answered with the following objection: “Ah, but you are making God a male. We insist that God is beyond gender. God is neither male nor female. The masculine designations of God need to be balanced by some of the more feminine ways in which the Bible speaks of God, such as that of the hen gathering her chicks under her wings. In this way, combining male and female language about God, we will arrive at a more ample concept of the Divinity.”

That objection is shallow. First of all, it is desperately searching Holy Scripture for proof-texts to support an essentially pagan ideology. Secondly, it misses the point of God’s transcendence. Of course God is beyond gender. As Gregory of Nyssa (Against Eunomius 1.39) and Gregory Nanzianzen (Homily 31.7) took such meticulous care to explain, well in advance of the contemporary theological crisis, the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit have nothing to do with the categories of gender.

The transcendent God is not only beyond gender; He is beyond the denial of gender. Those who say that God is genderless (in the way they mean it) are simply putting Him into another classification, a humanly devised category where Divine Revelation never places Him. God must be permitted to say Who God is, and He has said in an emphatic way that He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

None of this is new. What is at stake right now is the Creed itself. Those who want to be the heirs of Nicaea would do well to ponder, I believe, this thought from Gregory of Nyssa (Against Eunomius 2.2):

For while there are many other names by which the Deity is indicated in the Historical Books, in the Prophets and in the Law, our Master Christ passes by all those and commits us to these titles as better able to bring us to the faith about the Self-Existent, declaring that it suffices us to cling to the titles “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” in order to attain to the apprehension of Him Who is absolutely Existent, Who is one and yet not one.4

The names Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not need our apology to those women who feel “left out” of Christian worship, nor do they require some “balancing” by feminine metaphors for God. The Holy Trinity is not an ideology imposed on the unwilling; this is the faith once handed over to the saints, nonnegotiable in any worship that wants to be Christian. After receiving Holy Communion in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, those whose lips are still moist with the Sacrament chant the antiphon that recapitulates the Mystery: “We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity, which hath saved us.”

There remains, of course, the pastoral problem of how to minister to those (men or women) who find all this offensive and “very unfair.” However this be done (and I doubt that a sincere call to conversion and repentance would be always out of order), the means should never include some alteration of the truth as we know it in Christ. The problem should be regarded as pastoral, and I wonder if its proper liturgical expression should not be found in the Sacrament of Confession.

On the other hand I do not for a moment deny that there are feminine qualities in God’s relationship to us. Certainly there are, and Holy Scripture says so. My objection to calling God “mother” has to do with theological propriety. By way of analogy, let me avow that there are feminine qualities in my relationship to my own children, but Connie and Jeremy would and should feel very strange to call me “mother.” Now I have been summoned by them with such high and solemn names as “teddy bear” and “horsey,” which I trust they understand in some metaphorical sense. But even were I a single parent, it would never occur to my children to call me “mommie,” because to do so would cross some important and instinctive bourn of propriety. Whatever of the feminine there is in me would not justify such a metaphor, any more than it would sanction my occasionally wearing a skirt or toting a handbag or delicately powdering my unseemly and implausible nose.

The guiding star is Christology. Eastern Christians from the earliest times have spoken of “Christ our God” (Cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Ephesians, Inscr.; 15.3; 18.2; Romans Inscr.; 3.3; Polycarp 8.3), a liturgical expression indicating that Christians have no God apart from Jesus, outside of Jesus, in essence (ousia) distinct from Jesus. He and the Father are so much One that Christians do not look elsewhere for the Father; anything outside of Jesus is a distraction. Indeed, all of the others are thieves and robbers. The Christian God stands or falls with Jesus. We acknowledge no Deus in genere (no “God-in-general”—no generic quality of “godness” prior to the Persons of the Trinity), no cut-rate, all-purpose, all-season, back-up deity. There is no higher “truth” of which Jesus is a species, and that was the burden of Dostoyevsky’s enigmatic statement that, if forced to the choice, he would stand rather with Christ than with the truth.

Although a resolution to the effect recently failed to get a majority of votes in the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, no one comes to the Father except by Jesus. He is the One in whom “the whole fullness of the godhead dwells bodily.” (Colossians 2:9)

So, instead of “struggling to imagine God,” let me rather suggest a humbler, more realistic fantasy. Come and let us conjure up together a group of, say, third-century Christians just sitting around somewhere—anywhere you like; the Roman catacombs come to mind as a possibility, or perhaps the church building at Dura-Europos. Next let us suppose that some inventive, especially ebullient soul among them were suddenly to spring up with the invitation: “I say there, why don’t we all sit down and draw pictures of God.” And let us suppose, finally, that they did just that, reaching down deep into the pockets of their tunics and togas to grab those bits of crayon and sheets of newsprint that they doubtless carried around for such occasions.

Now I ask you, what would those pictures of God look like? To answer this question it will not be necessary any longer to use our imaginations; we may set fantasy aside. It will suffice simply to inspect the actual Christian art extant at Dura-Europos or in the Roman catacombs. Invited to draw a picture of God, all of those Christians would have done his or her best to effect a picture of Jesus; they would have experienced no struggle at all except of a purely technical sort. For the time being we may leave aside the curiosity of how they knew what Jesus looked like. For our present purposes it is enough to realize that the face of Jesus was, for those Christians, the only possible picture of God. We need not guess about this; it is a plain, documented, historical fact.

While we will agree with Mr. Holsinger that “no one has seen God at any time,” we should go on to insist that “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made Him known.” (John 1:18)

Jesus does not make God known simply by calling Him Father and instructing us to do so. The words are consequent to a vision: “He who sees me sees Him who sent me.” (John 12:45) Let us avoid receiving the benign reprimand given at the Last Supper: “Have I been with you so long and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

The reason that Christians should not struggle to imagine God is, first, that it is sinful. It is what Tertullian called philosophical idolatry (Cf. Ad Nationes 2.1), not really different from the old Golden Calf routine. Secondly, it is superfluous. God has already granted us the only true image of Himself, even “the glory of Christ who is the Icon of God” (2 Cor. 4:4), “the Icon of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15)

Divine revelation has a language, but it is a great deal more than new and improved God-talk. The words of the faith, finally, are not words about words but words about the Divine Reality: “and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14); “and we all, with face unveiled, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same Icon, from glory to glory. . . ” (2 Cor. 3:18).


1. Recognizing that human language is always relatively inexact and can easily be misleading when it seeks to describe God, the Fathers of the Eastern Church developed apophatic theology (also called “the way of negation”) as a way to describe God more reliably by stating what he is not.

2. At the time of the Arian controversy in the fourth century, the watchwords of the orthodox and heterodox camps differed by only a single iota. The orthodox held that Jesus Christ was omoousios—of the same nature as God; their opponents would only allow that he was of similar (omoiousios) nature to God. For some, like the historian Gibbon, the difference between the two was inconsequential as the letter itself, but for orthodox Christians the meaning lies at the heart of our understanding of the Person of Christ and the nature of deity.

3. The Apostle Paul says: “. . . I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family [patria, which denotes those in a “family” descended or derived from a common father or origin] in heaven and on earth is named.” (Eph. 3:15) The fatherhood of God here is archetypal; man’s fatherhood and both the reality and biblical concept of family derive from this fact. My point here is that headship or fatherhood in the Church has the function of an icon and is not simply an executive office. This point, often ignored today, is central to grasping the historic theology of the Church. (For a fuller treatment see Thomas Hopko’s Women in the Priesthood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1983.)

4. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. V, p. 102.

Donald Bloesch responds to Reardon’s “Imaging God” in the Summer 1990 issue.

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).

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