A recent article by Laura Nelson (ET May) pointed out that although the Bible refers to God overwhelmingly in male terms, God is not male in the sense of being physically male. But if there is no physical sexuality in God, why does the Bible describe him in male language? My purpose here is to argue that God is male but in a higher sense than man.
We read concerning man’s origin: ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them and God said unto them be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it’ (Genesis 1:27-28). One reason God made both male and female was so that, by sexual reproduction, the earth might be filled.
In Jesus’ family tree we read, ‘Abraham begat Isaac’ (Matthew 1:2) but we also know that Sarah bore him. The male function of begetting in reproduction is distinguished from the female function ofbearing the child in the womb.
God’s only begotten Son
The eternal relationship of God the Father to God the Son is thus revealed to us in terms of male generation. This is striking. It is not femalebearing that is referred to but malegeneration or begetting. We know that there is nothing physical in this, since God is a Spirit without body or parts (John 4:24).
This sublime male generation is, of course, beyond our comprehension and we cannot penetrate the mystery involved. But the Bible refers repeatedly to the Saviour as God’s eternally begotten Son (John 1:18; 3:16; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5; 1 John 4:9). We cannot avoid the conclusion that what God is in himself is also revealed in terms of the male side of the human race – namely, that God is the one who begets.
Eternal generation an active work
The Nicene Creed states the biblical doctrine as follows: ‘I believe in … one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father…’
There are two main truths here: (1) the Father and Son are of one substance or essence; and (2) the Son is of the Father by generation, eternally begotten of him. These are distinct.
The eternal generation is not merely a metaphor or code for the Father and Son being of one identical substance. The Reformed faith rightly recognises eternal generation as an activity, not a static relationship or state of being.
Professor Louis Berkhof explains: ‘Strictly speaking, the only work that is peculiar to the Father exclusively is that of active generation’ (L. Berkof, Systematic Theology, p.91; emphasis added) – though he goes on to emphasise that the act of generation necessarily involves the sharing of essence with the one generated.
Thus Berkhof defines the generation of the Son as follows: ‘It is that eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity whereby he, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like his own and puts the second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation or change’ (p.94).
Clearly, this is some higher, non-physical male generation that is beyond our comprehension yet nevertheless real. Francis Turretin explains that whatever may be the analogy between human generations and this supernatural generation, the divine generation is not to be measured or tried by human generations ‘because they greatly differ…’ (Institutes of Elenctic Theology Vol. 1 (P&R Publishing, p.293).
Scripture requires us to maintain more than the idea that God takes a masculine role or exhibits masculine qualities in dealing with us. We must also maintain that the Father begetting the Son is a non-physical male ‘work’ of generation in his own eternal being. It is unscriptural to drop this male emphasis just because there is no physical activity in God.
Furthermore, we must take care not to try to replicate the perfection of Scripture by humanly devised analogies. Consider, for example, the attempt to illustrate ‘oneness of essence’ by reference to H2O, which exists as water vapour, liquid water and solid ice.
This shows the hazard of human illustrations. The idea of oneness of essence is contained in the analogy, but so is one substance in three forms – which could be used to support the heretical notion that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three successive forms in which the one God appeared.
Man’s analogies cannot capture the full doctrine of the Bible’s inspired statements, and we have to take the latter as they are (including their mystery) – whether the statement is that God is three persons in one essence; or that he is male but not physical; or that the Son is eternally begotten.
Regarding ‘begetting’, Turretin (loc. cit.) accepts the parallel with human male generation but distinguishes the Divine generation from human generation by stating their differences. This objective theological method, starting from revealed truth rather than our analogies, is sound and consistent with the Reformed faith.