*Note: I thought I would rest for a few hours from Huck-a-Mania and post this, which I typed up in response to a dialog at my alma mater. These are fairly tendentious thoughts that I have been trying to articulate for some time. I would appreciate any feedback you have.*

I don’t pretend to understand the dynamics of graduate school, nor of publishing, where the feminine pronoun has reached the mainstream. I don’t fully grasp the pastoral issues involved, though I have no doubt they are complex. I am still working on seeing how Scripture, theology, history, sociology and psychology all interact on this issue. And I thought I would work it through here.

The central question seems to be whether we should adopt two grammars, and what those grammars should look like. On the one hand, we have the grammar for God, wherein we use masculine names and personal pronouns, while simultaneously acknowleding his purportedly “feminine” attributes. Here, it seems, the masculine name of Father includes within it elements that are not currently a part of our social framework for “masculine.”

On the other hand, we have what we might call our “anthropological grammar,” which divides masculine and feminine asunder and which purports to be “inclusive” only when we use the feminine pronoun as frequently as the masculine.

The difficulty is that we must keep the grammars separate–divine speech is, as best I can tell, not the same as human speech. But we must also keep the grammars united–divine speech is uttered in human speech, lest the Word be unheard.

What, then, is the relationship between the two? The meeting point is obviously the person of Jesus Christ and the testimony of him in Scripture. And there we see God come as a person, and as a male. But is the latter point not instructive not only for our understanding of God, but for our understanding of humanity? Is it simply a historical accident that God came as a man–that is, a male–to redeem the world?

The question of masculinity and femininity, then, is a question of revelation–it is the domain of theology and theological anthropology, which I would argue are inextricable after the Incarnation (with the former governing the latter). It can not be given to the contingencies of history or sociology.

But this is why I am reticent to give up on the masculine pronouns. If the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a male is simply a contingency of history, then it seems we can must understand his humanity through the lens of psychology, sociology, or anthropology.

The revelation of Jesus Christ as a male seems to have been necessitated by the patriarchal structures of his day–would he have been able to have the authority in his own culture had he been a woman? Would he have been recognized as a Messiah had he not come as a male? Presumably not. He would be recognizeable to his own only if he came as a male.

But then his incarnation as a male is tied to his revelation of humanity. His revelation must fit within the patriarchy of his time to be intelligible to his people; his revelation critiques his culture’s patriarchal structures without destroying them, just as he critiqued its religion without dissolving it. If God we dismiss his male-ness as accidental to his culture, we miss the very redemption–which demands both judgment and forgiveness–of the patriarchal nature of that culture. And in doing so, we subordinate the revelation of God to man, of God in man, to the contingencies of history.

Here, then, is justification for using the masculine pronoun to refer to all of humanity. The God-Man is male, and must come as a male. It is a fact upon which the intelligibility of the entire Scriptures depends. It is a theological fact that must inform our anthropology, and which must correct our sociology and psychology.

And lest we refuse to acknowledge the incarnational nature of our speech, it must also inform our grammar. The body of Christ carries theological significance: the body of our speech must do the same. The inclusive masculine pronoun is inevitably painful, for it is inevitably a critique of the world. But to dispense with it is to shift our understanding of humanity away from that which is given to us in Scripture, and toward that which exists in the sin and pain of a fallen world.

***Title updated for clarity’s sake.  Obviously, Christians should use feminine pronouns to refer to women.  But should they use them when the gender of their subject is unknown?  That is the question.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

23 Comments

  1. You seem to be building a stronger case for contingency than necessity–your only claim for the latter seems to be that Christ “must” be male, if only to (via some unknown mechanism) redeem patriarchy. Not sure what this means, or how this works.

    It also seems you are forgetting that language evolves. (For example, the Old English word for “man” used to mean just “human,” and only later became more identified as masculine, so it had to be replaced by a more inclusive word–a delightful irony.)

    In short, your sociological / theological / anthropological analysis needs a strong dose of linguistics.

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  2. […] The church and particularities of sex in language at Mere Orthodoxy. […]

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  3. Matthew Lee Anderson October 24, 2007 at 8:46 am

    Jim,

    To clarify the argument, I think that viewing the maleness of Christ as a historical accident, and not a theological necessity, undercuts the revelation of Scripture. If he incarnated in that culture, he necessarily incarnated as a male. In incarnating in that culture he reveals himself and redeems the structures of that culture (and through THAT culture, every culture). Hence, his redemption of the world is tied to–necessarily–that particular culture and its institutions. The revelation of Jesus Christ is only intelligible as *Jesus Christ* in the framework of the Old Testament and the Jewish people. “Salvation is from the Jews.” Hence, it is impossible to view the patriarchal structures as accidental without undercutting revelation and imposing upon it a standard that is extrinsic to it.

    When you talk about “how that works,” it’s quite simple. He redeems patriarchy like he redeems the rest of the structures of the world: through his death and resurrection. Paul in Ephesians 5 is instructive on this point.

    Finally, I am not ignoring the fact that language evolves. In this case, it is a question of whether the language *should* evolve in that direction. I am, in other words, not a linguistic relativist–I want my grammar to reflect the structure of the world, and if it does not, I will resist that “evolution.”

    Note, the inclusive feminine pronoun isn’t even a natural language development. Paul Mankowski argues persuasively that it is driven by an agenda at the link below.

    This means that my analysis doesn’t need a dose of linguistics. It, too, must be subordinate to revelation.

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  4. The move away from “man” and “mankind” and “men” has also been agenda-driven–but, as I point out, in an ironic direction, away from the word’s original meaning. Every time you say “human” (such as “humanity” above) you’re not resisting that same evolution.

    My point is that, to be entirely consistent, you should advocate for the abolition of “man.”

    (CS Lewis on ya.)

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  5. Matthew Lee Anderson October 24, 2007 at 9:27 am

    Okay, maybe I’m not familiar enough with the evolution of the word “human.” I’ll look into it. I am comfortable with it, however, and don’t see it as (necessarily) a departure from a correct anthropology. It points to what men and women have in common, while ‘man’ includes both within it in a different way.

    Also, shouldn’t I advocate for the preservation of “man”?

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  6. Another few points to bolster your case Matt, although I think they’re somewhat implicit in your thinking. The patriarchy of the Jews is not historical accident either, unless we believe Moses et al. invented the Old Testament scriptures (which explicitly undercuts revelation). And we hold the Christ’s incarnation came at the fullness of time, meaning particularly that He could have come to any culture but He explicitly chose the time/cutlure He did. If we think of it as historical accident, then perhaps we are also insinuating that we know better than God and that He should have actually been incarnate as a she in our more enlightened age.

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  7. You should advocate for the preservation of original “man,” but not its current masculinized incarnation. We should all speak Old English anyhow, standing in the gap for true Language. None of this modern nonsense.

    If “humanity” is a “comfortable” substitute for “mankind,” then why not “they” for “he” or “he or she?” “They” isn’t a “departure from a correct anthropology” any more than “human” is, since it “includes both.” (Every day, “they” becomes more and more grammatically accepted. Once a person realizes this, they can relax and write without losing sleep.)

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  8. Good thing you speak English, and not, say, Bengali or Filipino.

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  9. Matthew Lee Anderson October 24, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    Brant,

    I think those are exactly what I was trying to get out, and failed to.

    Jim,

    I’m aware that there are other languages that are gender neutral. It’s a non-issue for the points I’m making, as I would argue that they too should submit their grammar to theology.

    Humanity expresses something different than “man.” I am comfortable with it, but not if it is going to require that we jettison the masculine. I realize that “they” is increasingly common (slip into it myself, sometimes); frankly, I don’t like it. I think it is a sign of the devolution of language. The real question is, Why can’t we keep using “he”? It works just fine…

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  10. “They too should submit their grammar to theology.”

    Does that mean that their language, in using gender-neutral pronouns, is morally deficient?

    “I think it is a sign of the devolution of language.”

    Some would say this is inevitable. Language refuses to sit still.

    A question: which features of Jesus’s time on earth, even if necessary, are *morally* significant? Perhaps it was necessary for Jesus to be a Jew, and thus to speak Aramaic. Does that mean we should work to adopt Aramaisms into English?

    I see at least four steps on a continuum:

    Accidental–Necessary/Incidental–Necessary/Significant–Necessary/Normative.

    How do you get from 2 to 4, or from 3 to 4? And what separates 2 from 3?

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  11. Matthew Lee Anderson October 25, 2007 at 9:22 am

    Jim,

    It does mean that it doesn’t reflect reality as well as others. Why should we be language relativists?

    It is certainly significant that Jesus is a Jew, and hence spoke Aramaic. “Salvation is from the Jews.” If he weren’t a Jew, he wouldn’t be the God of the universe, who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

    Do we need to adopt Aramaisms? I don’t think so, but we should look carefully at their anthropology and fashion our own after it. That is, I think, as much as I have argued for, with the additional premise that grammar stems from and reinforces our anthropology.

    If you see those four steps, shouldn’t you be able to answer your own questions? : ) I’m not sure I understand where you’re headed with that…

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  12. Matt,
    Forgive me, for this comment has nothing to do with the ontology of the incarnation or the necessity for Christ’s masculinity. But I couldn’t hold back a rather ambiguous and intriguing thought in the back of my mind about Christian feminine ontology when the masculine pronoun is used in general and the feminine reserved for speaking specifically of women. It would seem that in the evolution of a language so influenced by Christianity as English is, the general use of the masculine pronoun in former times indicated somehow that men wanted to see women as separate, distinct and perhaps even mysterious when compared with themselves. I have a feeling that the general use of the masculine pronoun came from the orthodoxy that described the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as male, like you said. But rather than having the effect of degrading women, like feminists believe today, it placed the woman in a special class and addressed her specifically with almost a note of care. Politically correct gender neutral speech destroys that distinction so men rarely sing of a woman’s mysterious beauty “as the night” and women, who want to be just like men, rarely deserve the song.

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  13. I’m trying to see how you can avoid a version of the naturalistic fallacy in your reasoning. I’m looking for the warrant that takes us from “Jesus had property X” or “In Jesus’s time, people believed in Z” to “Property X is normative” or “we should believe in Z.”

    Remember those believers who thought they first had to become circumcised in order to convert to Christianity? Paul says “nuh-uh.” No need to go back to old rules, once the new have replaced them.

    I’ll admit I’m also confused by this: “If God we [sic] dismiss his male-ness as accidental to his culture, we miss the very redemption–which demands both judgment and forgiveness–of the patriarchal nature of that culture.”

    It seems that you are attempting to preserve something–patriarchy reflected in language–that is supposed to be redeemed by Christ’s coming. That Christ came to redeem sinners would not make it obligatory to continue in sin; why, similarly, should we continue in patriarchy, if Christ came to redeem it?

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  14. I’m not a full-blown linguistic relativist–I teach English, after all–but I’m fully comfortable leaving Filipinos to their ungendered pronouns. Similarly, I won’t tell the Spaniards to de-genderize nouns like “el burro” or “la cucaracha.” (Donkeys are male, and roaches are female. Now that’s an anthropologically-informed language.)

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  15. Matthew Lee Anderson October 25, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    Jim,

    I am not convinced that the “naturalistic fallacy” is a fallacy. See the second post in the O’Donovan series.

    That said, I’m not arguing that we should believe everything the Jews believed (many of them rejected Jesus as the Messiah). Rather, I am arguing for those ideas that are contained within revelation–the grammar of revelation is included in the content of revelation. The anthropology of the Old Testament is continuous–and discontinuous–with the anthropology of the New. However, there is almost no reason to think that patriarchal approaches to the world are eliminated in the New, given that Jesus is incarnate as a male, he calls God “Father,” (which builds it into the center of the universe!), etc. It’s a question not of historical anthropology (what did the Jews at the time of Jesus believe?) but of theological revelation.

    That said, have you been reading through the O’Donovan posts? You should. I think an answer to your “redemption” question is buried in there. To put it briefly, I think “redemption” involves an affirmation and a negation–it restores creation as it should have been, and it critiques that which it is not. Hence, redemption does not dissolve the law (“heaven and earth may pass away!”) but perfects it (teleion) from within.

    Does that help at all?

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  16. It helps somewhat–but doesn’t elucidate the criterion I’m seeking. How to distinguish significant from insignificant features of a practice or system. What gets forgiven, what gets critiqued, what gets shelved.

    At what point does it get ridiculous? I could argue that because humans are subservient to God, we should never use capital letters for any names other than His, because that honor should be reserved for the Deity–to “reflect reality” and a proper view of our relation to the Divine.

    To put it as Beth might, “De-capitalizing names places humans in a special class and addresses them specifically with almost a note of care. Capitalization of names destroys that distinction.”

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  17. Matthew Lee Anderson October 25, 2007 at 11:37 pm

    Beth,

    Sorry, I meant to respond to your comment earlier but I’ve been in a hurry of late and a response to Jim’s came to mind first. : )

    That said, I think your point about preserving the distinction between the genders is excellent. I don’t know how to argue from the language that there was a sense of specialness (mystery?) about women (feminine pronouns don’t take us that far, I think), but there are other ways to argue for that understanding of the sexes. The eradication of difference, weirdly, doesn’t lead to better relationships between the sexes, but worse!

    Jim,

    I certainly understand the desire for a criterion. I’m not sure that we can articulate one in abstract, or at least that I can articulate one at this point in my theological career. The criterion, after all, is clarified in engagement with particular issues like this one.

    I’m not sure where the “ridiculous” line is, either. For the Jews, what you are suggesting still kind of exists–they won’t spell out Yahweh’s name for reverence’s sake. Such a position is a different application, I think, of the same principle that you are talking about–preserving linguistically the difference between God and man. Christians have, I think, not continued that tradition because of the incarnation, which unites God and Man together.

    I think I have a review of “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals” on here somewhere. I think that attempts to address the problem of the criterion.

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  18. Incarnation unites God and man; yet so does idolatry. Thus with a paradox, bed.

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  19. […] Jim Anderson: Should Christians Use Feminine Inclusive Pronouns? […]

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  20. If Christ was somehow born female, you would not today be a Christian. Patriarchy would have required the ignorance and denigration of a female claiming to be the Messiah. I know you’re claiming that Christ was necessarily born male but, even if that is so, how exactly is patriarchy redeemed by that? It continued to oppress women on religious grounds, albeit a different religion, but it is apparent that Christ’s supposed critique of patriarchy did little to change its dismissive attitude toward the rights of women.

    Finally, if Scripture is actually unintelligible, your justification for use of the masculine pronoun is groundless but that conclusion is not one that you could conceivably accept. Your justification rests on an premise that you subjectively believe cannot be untrue.

    And how many angels can dance on the point of a pin?

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  21. Matthew Lee Anderson October 29, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    Prufrock,

    Not surprisingly, I hardly think Christianity (or Judaism, for that matter) denigrated or repressed women. In fact, a strong case can be made for the liberation of women within Christianity (after all, remember that it was women whom first saw Jesus and who reported to the disciples–and they believed them!). It was, after all, a women who is considered theotokos–the God bearer. Women were involved in founding churches, and as virgins were venerated for the purity of their devotion to God. So I don’t think it has a dismissive attitude toward women at all.

    As for your last point, I agree–kind of–that the argument is a theological argument. I was pretty explicit about that. However, I would quibble that I “subjectively believe [that premise] cannot be untrue.” I believe the premise is true–that isn’t to say it can’t be false. Scripture might be false, but that’s a very different argument. If your point is simply that you have to accept the Bible is true to agree with my argument……I agree. That’s why the title of the post limits the query to Christians.

    The question is hardly irrelevant. Language is shaped by–and shapes–our understanding of the world. For someone who wants to be thoroughly consistent in their beliefs, I think the inquiry worthwhile (one of these days I’m going to defend the medievals for asking the question you use to mock). : )

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  22. I’m sure there’s something defensible about the debate surrounding those tiny angels. I type that without a trace of insincerity.

    “Wives, be ye subject to your husbands” means something very different to a Christian living in our day and age but I would venture that Scriptural injunctions such as these have had a negative impact on the status of women throughout history. Islam makes it explicit, though.

    Language is powerful and, when it’s in a holy book, people ascribe it supernatural power, even when it may be misinterpreted or misapplied.

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  23. Matthew Lee Anderson October 30, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    I think we’ll end up simply disagreeing over the net effect of Scripture on the history of women. From my vantage point, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. (The ascension of women in the middle ages and the subsequent courtly love movement was buttressed by ridiculously high views of the Virgin Mary, for instance. The social reformers of the early 1900s were, as I understand it, devout Christians who saw their reforms as stemming from the gospel.) Even more pertinent, we probably disagree over what “liberty” for women actually looks like–if modern feminism is it, then I’ll pass (and most sane women will as well, as a number of feminist reformers are starting to see).

    The problem isn’t in the holy book or its language, but in the appropriations. It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting–it’s that it’s never been tried at all. Oddly, the very misappropriations point to the starting point of the gospel, namely, the inescapable presence of sin in a fallen world.

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