The nature of God has always been a difficult issue to address, precisely
because, as we are finite and God is infinite, we can never hope to fully
understand the mysterious Being we worship. But there are certain things he
has revealed to us, and it is these I would like to encourage each of you to
consider, both with each other and during your private time with God.
Feminism, in the form espoused by the Voices of Sophia, has garnered the
attention of many Christians. Their goals are admirable: to ensure that no
one is excluded from the church, either consciously or unconsciously, and to
be a voice for those groups which have experienced oppression at the hands
of the church in the past. However, some of the theology put forth by either
the Voices of Sophia themselves or the groups with which they are affiliated
is unsettling, and I would like to take this opportunity to show you what I
have found so that you can make an educated decision regarding this group. I
would encourage each of you to prayerfully consider the arguments I bring up
Sophia, of course, is the Greek word for wisdom, and the Voices of Sophia
are right in saying that the Wisdom/Sophia language comes from a strong
biblical tradition ( Voices of Sophia ). In the New Testament, the word
sophia appears over 50 times; in the Old Testament, various forms of
wisdom appear almost 200 times. However, wisdom is portrayed as a part of
God’s character which he freely gives to his children, not as another name
for God. In the one instance where God and wisdom are equated, 1 Corinthians
1:24-30, a closer reading of verse 30 shows that Sophia is still not an
appropriate name for God. It says, He [God] is the source of your life in
Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom [sophia] from God, and righteousness
and sanctification and redemption (New Revised Standard Version, 1 Cor.
1:30). Here we must apply the reformation principle of allowing Scripture to
interpret Scripture: while Jesus became sophia from God, he also became
righteousness and sanctification and redemption. No one suggests that we
begin calling God Dikaiosune¯ (righteousness), Hagiasmos
(sanctification) or Apolutro¯sis (redemption). These are all, of course,
essential characteristics or functions of the Godhead, but they are not
alternative names for God.
Proverbs 8, another passage often cited when referring to Sophia (although
it is written in Hebrew, and therefore contains no mention of the Greek word
sophia ), also gives an essential distinction between God and his wisdom.
In this chapter, wisdom is personified as a woman, calling to the people to
come and learn from her. Beginning in verse 22, she describes her history,
beginning with, The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the
first of his acts of long ago (NRSV, Prv. 8:22, emphasis mine). She makes
it clear from the very first that she is a part of God’s creation, not a
part of God. She was created before anything else, but she was still
created, and as Elizabeth Achtemeier says, human beings are to worship not
the creation but the Creator (Achtemeier 4).
Sophia-worship, as it is currently practiced, seems often to lead to worship
of creation. Take, for example, the prayers of Terry Tempest Williams, as
quoted in Spahr’s speech posted on the Voices of Sophia website
l): My prayers no longer bear the proper masculine salutation. If we could
introduce the Mother body as a spiritual counterpoint to the Godhead,
perhaps our inspiration and devotions would no longer be directed to the
stars, but our worship could return to the earth. The problem with this, of
course, is that our worship and prayers should not be directed to the stars
or to the earth or to any other aspect of the created world, but to God. To
worship anything other than God is idolatry. And we are not to make for
[ourselves] an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven
above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the
earth (NRSV, Exo. 20:4), for God wants us to worship him and him alone.
In addition, God has chosen a few, very specific names for himself
throughout the scriptures, and selecting others invites confusion and,
eventually, idolatry. Indeed, as Dustin Eshelman, who served as a Youth
Advisory Delegate on the General Assembly Council Review in 1994 (charged
with reviewing the controversial RE-Imagining conference of 1993 that fueled
the Sophia movement), says, we can never, ever truly understand the
vastness of God; therefore Re-Naming God, RE-Imagining this great I AM is
irrelevant and uncalled-for (Eshelman 3).
It is not as though God has neglected to give us many different ways to
address him. Indeed, once I sat down and, as a way to bring myself closer to
God, wrote down all the names I could think of for him off the top of my
head. I was able to come up with a page full of names before I had to start
slowing down and looking things up in my Bible. There are five principle
metaphors with which God has chosen to reveal himself, though: King,
Father, Judge, Husband, and Master, and finally, decisively, as the God and
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Achtemeier 3). This final metaphor is
given extra emphasis because it was the name revealed to us by God himself,
in the person of Jesus Christ. If we believe, as all Christians do, that
Jesus is the incarnate God, how can we seek to alter the name with which he
instructed us to address God? He was not ambiguous about it. His
instructions regarding how to pray specifically tell us to speak to Our
Father, who art in heaven (NRSV, Mtt. 6:9b). The Greek here is pate¯r,
which is translated as father. In fact, the root pate¯r is still used
in many of our words today to designate a father; take paternal, for
example. This is not news to any of us, but it bears repeating. Jesus is
God. If we, as Christians, have sworn to follow God, obeying in all things,
how can we refuse to call him by the name he has given himself? The Triune
God has , says Kimel, and he likes his name (Kimel 8).
This, I realize, is uncomfortable for some women. Perhaps they have had
horrible experiences with the father figures in their lives, or perhaps they
have never had a father figure and find the idea foreign and frightening.
These women may find it more comfortable to address God with less personal
terms, such as Rock, Way, Refuge, Fortress, or others. And such names are
all metaphors used in the Bible to describe God. Certainly it is not wrong
to think of God in these terms. But the Scriptures are very clear about
God’s character, and they ultimately depict a father figure who is the
epitome of all things good. The God of the Bible is intensely personal, and
it is this essential personal-ness which is lost in such metaphors as those
listed above. In God, a woman finds love, peace, encouragement, rest,
salvation, strength, identity, hope, and everything she could possibly need.
God does challenge us, as all good relationships will do. He expects more of
us than anyone else ever could, but his forgiveness when we fall short of
those expectations surpasses human understanding. He calls us to be his
companions, his partners, his very bride! Only a woman can fully relate to
the joys of being wife to a worthy partner. How much more joy, then, can be
found in being the wife of a worthy God? No impersonal designations of
God, says Achtemeier, except they be explained by the Bible’s personal
names for him, can adequately express that gracious and demanding
relationship of love with himself into which God woos and calls us (3).
There is no need to let our relationships with fallible human men sully our
relationship with the greatest Father and Husband, the God who calls each of
us into a loving and intimate relationship with him.
So what about substituting male imagery for female imagery? Surely there can
be nothing wrong with simply replacing Father with Mother. But God is
never called Mother in the Bible, and the few instances in which God is
referred to in feminine imagery are in the forms of similies, not metaphors,
lending a greater level of separation between the signifier and the
signified. This is one of the things which makes Christianity unique, for
the early Christians (and before them, the Israelites) were surrounded by
cultures which participated in goddess worship. In fact, Elaine Pagels made
a very astute observation when she noted, the absence of feminine
symbolism of God marks Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in striking contrast
to the world’s other religious traditions, whether in Egypt, Babylonia,
Greece and Rome, or Africa, Polynesia, India, and North America (qtd in
Achtemeier 3). This sets YHWH apart, distinguishing him from the other
religions with which his people were (and are) surrounded.
There is, however, another reason for God to have deliberately omitted
feminine language from his Word to us. A female Creator is much more
difficult to distinguish from her creation, for a woman gives birth to what
she has created. In all the goddess religions, the goddess birthed the world
from her body. By contrast, our God spoke it into being. If God is
portrayed in feminine language, the figures of carrying in the womb, of
giving birth, and of suckling immediately come into play (Achtemeier 4),
and the images move from God creating a world separate from himself to a
goddess who gives birth to a world which is a part of her. This opens up
everything in creation as potentially something to be worshiped?and that is
frightening! With a masculine God, however, there is less chance for such
connections to be made, and the idolatry which is so easily accessed through
the feminine imagery is avoided.
These are all important issues, and must be considered prayerfully by all
Christians. However, there is one further claim which some members of the
Voices of Sophia have made that I think speaks most eloquently about why
their theology has come under question, and it regards the theory of
This is a difficult and emotional topic for any Christian. As Eshelman says,
when someone who claims to be a Christian comes along and tries to take
away that atonement for which I live… I get angry (3). I think this is
the reaction of many Christians when they hear that the purpose of Christ’s
death is being called into question. The atonement, the idea that Jesus’
death on the cross holds the power to save every human being who has lived,
is living, or will live, is central to the Christian faith. It is what
countless people have staked their lives on, and to suggest that it is a
misconception has some very far-reaching consequences.
Yet that is just what such women as Inna Ray, writing for The Journal of
Women and Religion (a link to which is on the Voices of Sophia website),
have claimed. By renewing and developing soteriological theories and
metaphors alternative to the substitutionary Atonement theory of salvation
by justification, says Ray, women can reject it as one of many theories
of salvation and still consider themselves to be orthodox Christians (117).
This is not the case. The Scriptures are clear: Jesus’ death is the only
thing that saves us. As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, May I
never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which
the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (NRSV, Gal. 6.14).
And again in his second letter to the Corinthians, For just as the
sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is
abundant through Christ (NRSV, 2 Cor. 1.5). He expresses similar sentiments
in nearly every letter he writes. For Paul, the Atonement is the reason for
faith; without Jesus’ saving death, he has nothing.
Ray’s argument is typical of the arguments against atonement. She says that
the atonement has been used to control, denigrate and exploit women (94),
and that it paints a picture of God as an abusive parent. In the first, she
has a very good point: the atonement has given some people an excuse to
cause others to suffer, and to excuse their complaints with a comparison to
the sufferings of Christ. This, however, does not mean that atonement
theology is flawed. All it means is that humans, with our great capacity for
evil, have distorted God’s plan for us and used the gospel to enslave
others, when it was meant to free us. In other words, it is not the
atonement theology which is flawed, but the men who have used it to further
their own personal agendas who are flawed. It is a fallacy to try to project
their failings onto God’s work, especially when the Scriptures are so clear
about the saving power of Christ’s death. Even our church’s constitution
proclaims the atonement; in Chapter VIII of the Scots Confession, it affirms
it behooved the Messiah and Redeemer to be true God and true man, because he
was able to undergo the punishment of our transgressions and to present
himself in the presence of his Father’s judgment, as in our stead, to suffer
for our transgression and disobedience, and by death to overcome him that
was the author of death. But because the Godhead alone could not suffer
death, and neither could manhood overcome death, he joined both together in
one person, that the weakness of one should suffer and be subject to death -
which we had deserved – and the infinite and invincible power of the other,
that is, of the Godhead, should triumph, and purchase for us life, liberty,
and perpetual victory. So we confess, and most undoubtedly believe. (Book of
Similar sentiments are expressed in the Confession of 1967. This condemns no
one; rather, it frees everyone from the punishment we would otherwise
deserve. This is not a story of oppression or slavery, but of freedom and
life! The suffering is necessary to procure our salvation, and so far it is
good. But it does not say that all should suffer, nor does it suggest that
human suffering is something to strive for. On the contrary, Christ suffered
so that we would not have to. What suffering we do experience is not
something that God rejoices in, nor is it something we should rejoice in.
However, we can take comfort in knowing that he, too, has suffered greatly.
The second part of Ray’s argument, that Atonement theology paints a picture
of God as an abusive parent, is more complicated. God’s plan for Jesus was
that he must suffer to satisfy the damaged honor of God, she explains.
This casts God in the role of an abusive parent who says things like: ‘This
hurts me more than it hurts you,’ and ‘It hurts me to have to punish you
like this?but you have forced me to punish you’ (Ray 102). This is simply
not so. First of all, just because a father says such things does not make
him abusive. Indeed, it is probably true that any punishment, even if it is
only the revoking of privileges, hurts the parents more than it hurts the
child. But more importantly, Ray has missed the entire point of the
atonement. God’s plan for Jesus was not that he must suffer to satisfy the
damaged honor of God, but that he would suffer and die to make us
acceptable in his sight. Love can forbear, and Love can forgive… but
Love can never be reconciled to an unlovely object, says Traherne (qtd.
Problem of Pain 28). And our sin makes us unlovely objects. If God is Love,
how can he be reconciled to us while we are still sinful? The only way to
make us lovely objects is to remove the sin in which we live, since all
have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God (NRSV, Rom. 3:23). God did
not demand Christ’s death because his honor was damaged, or because it was
pleasing to him, but because he loves us and he wants to be with us. But his
Love cannot be reconciled to us while we remain unlovely, and the only way
to make us pleasing in his sight is for someone to interfere and cover our
imperfections. The worse you are, explains C. S. Lewis, the more you
need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it
perfectly would be a perfect person?and he would not need to do it (Mere
Christianity 57). God’s solution requires someone fully God and fully
human?someone who can be perfect, but who can still take on the punishment
we have earned.
Ray is mistaking God’s justice for his mercy. Pure justice is not merciful;
on the contrary, it is harsh, unrelenting. Were God only just, we would all
be damned. As it is, though, God is a merciful God, and his mercy tempers
his judgment. He sent Christ to take our punishment for us, because Jesus
can handle the punishment we deserve, and we cannot. That is not an abusive
parent, that is a Father who tries to ease our suffering out of love for us.
Paul warns us, Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings
(Heb. 13:9a). If the things that I have brought forth here are the kinds of
theology that the Voices of Sophia advocates, then it is time to take a step
back and prayerfully reassess what the Gospel says. This has the potential
to change the very way we worship God, and that is not something to be taken
lightly. I pray that each of us has the courage to stand up for the God who
stands up for us, and to boldly proclaim his true Gospel throughout the
Annotated Bibliography and Works Cited
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. Exchanging God for ‘No Gods’: A Discussion of
Female Language for God. Theology Matters 12.3 (2006): 1-7. Theology
Matters. 1 November 2006. http://www.theologymatters.com. Achtemeier was
adjunct professor of Bible and Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in
Richmond, VA. Her article discusses the feminist re-naming (or RE-Imagining)
of God and the repercussions of doing so. She also talks about the way God
has named himself in the Bible and why he did so.
Branch, Craig. Sophia Worship. The Watchman Expositor (1995). 23 April
Byfield, Ted, and Virginia Byfield. “A church seminar at Minneapolis shows
the old baals may be back in business.” Alberta Report / Newsmagazine 21.16
(1994): 37. Academic Search Premier. 12 October 2006.
Chase, Dottie. United Methodist Women Get Taste of Sophia Worship. Good
News Magazine. 23 April 1998. http://www.goodnewsmag.org/reimagin.htm.
Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The Office of the General
Assembly. Louisville, KY 1999.
Dooling, Sylvia. “Voices of Orthodox Women.” Voices of Orthodox Women. 14
Sept. 2006. http://layman.wpengine.com/.
Eshelman, Dustin. Collected Works of DJ Eshelman. DBA Starving Guitarist
Eshelman was a Youth Advisory Delegate on the General Assembly Council
Review in 1994, which dealt with the RE-imagining conference and the Sophia
movement in general. He graduated from Hastings College with a degree in
psychology and religion. He is also one of my good friends. I am indebted to
him for his help in researching this project (he gave me all the research he
had done on Sophia and any article cited here from 1998 is from the
collection he gave me), as well as the prayerful support he gave me as I
worked. The writings I cite here are his responses to the General Assembly,
though his other works have helped me in organizing my thoughts and I’m sure
that more of his ideas have worked their way into this paper.
Finger, Thomas N. In the Name of Sophia. Christianity Today 38 (1994):
44. WilsonSelect. 27 April 1994. http://gilligan.prod.oclc.org.
Grace, Kevin Michael. “The rise of WomanChurch.” Alberta Report /
Newsmagazine 21.16 (1994): 36. Academic Search Premier. 12 October 2006.
Kimel, Alvin F., Jr. The God Who Likes His Name: Holy Trinity, Feminism,
and the Language of Faith. Theology Matters 12.3 (2006): 8-15.
TheologyMatters.com. 1 November 2006. http://www.theologymatters.com.
Lefebure, Leo D. The wisdom of God: Sophia and Christian theology. (Cover
Story). The Christian Century 111.29 (1994): 951. Academic Search Premier.
12 October 2006. http://search.ebscohost.com.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.. The
Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.
McDougall, Joy Ann. Sin No More? A Feminist Re-Visioning of a Christian
Theology of Sin. Anglican Theological Review 88.2 (2006): 215-235. Academic
Search Premier. 12 October 2006. http://search.ebscohost.com.
Meehan, Brenda. Wisdom/Sophia, Russian identity, and Western feminist
theology. Cross Currents 46 (1996): 149. WilsonSelect. 27 April 1998.
New Revised Standard Version: Holy Bible. Nashville, Tennessee, 1989.
Ray, Inna. “The Feminist Critique on Atonement Theology.” Journal of Women
and Religion 15 (1997) 93. Acacdemic Search Premier. 12 October 2006.
Ray argues that the theory that Christ’s death on the cross had salvational
qualities is fundamentally flawed and inadequate for an accurate view of the
Christian faith. It addresses a central claim of the Sophia movement, and
the Journal of Women and Religion is linked to from the Voices of Sophia
Small, Joseph D and John P Burgess. Evaluating ‘Re-Imagining.’ The
Christian Century 111 (1994): 342. WilsonSelect. 27 April 1998.
“Voices of Sophia.” Voices of Sophia. 2005. 29 July 2006.
http://www.voicesofsophia.org  .
Additionally, I would like to thank the following people for their time,
their ideas, their support and their prayers, without which this paper would
never have been written:
Ashley Birk, Latonya Frank, Troy Gulbrandson, Rev. Rich McDermott, Rev.
Andrew Davies, Evan Dowdy, Kristen Dowdy, Sarah Weiger, Yael Yund, Sylvia
Dooling, Viola Larson, Peg Mussard, Don Mussard, Erin Lothringer, Stephanie
Jebsen, Pam Gensen, Don Gensen, Tessa Fiamengo, and the entire congregation
of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Collins, CO. May God bless you all!
* In 2006 when this article was written, Brittany Dowdy was a junior English
major at Colorado State University and a member of the First Presbyterian
Church of Fort Collins, CO. She grew up attending the First Presbyterian
Church of Brighton, CO, where feminist theology has a strong support base.
Having seen firsthand the effects of such theology, she felt called to
spread awareness of its presence in the church and to call her fellow
Christians into action against it. Brittany is now enrolled at Fuller
Theological Seminary in the MDiv program.