Thursday, September 11, 2008

God the Father or She the Fellow-Traveller



NOTE: This paper was originally written in 1994 in the wake of the WCC-sponsored "Re-imagining God Conference". Subsequently, I updated and web-published the paper in 2000 in answer to a second such conference that was being held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That said, this paper is as relevant today to our theological problems and considerations as it was then. The issues then -- as now -- revolve around heterodox or heretical understandings of the Doctrine of God. These issues are very much the subject that must be considered as we in the PC(USA) read, study and evaluate the Trinisty Study paper.
Grace & Peace to you. Soli Deo Gloria.
+Rusty Stuart

the Rev. Albert Rhodes Stuart (Rusty) is now the pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. He is a minister-member of Beaver Butler Presbytery in the Synod of the Trinity.


SEVEN YEARS AGO THE ramparts and battlements of traditional Christian Orthodoxy came under the first serious, renewed and sustained attack from the Process Theology juggernaut that it had received in the last quarter-century.

The attack began in full in the Spring of 1993 when a group composed primarily of disaffected feminist, womanist and mujerista theologians held the World Council of Churches sponsored Re-Imagining God theological conference, whose stated purpose was to examine new models for visioning the existence, attributes and work of God.

Now, in 2000, it is likely that we shall hear more of the same within the Presbyterian Church (USA). Thanks to this year's General Assembly passage of Commissioner Resolution 00-2 (which will reverse policy set by former interim General Assembly Council executive Frank Diaz) General Assembly staffers will be entitled to paid study leave to attend a similar conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota this Fall.

Further buttressing this contention are recent comments made by incoming Women's Ministry Division head June Parker Huber during an interview with the Presbyterian Outlook ("Debate over women's programs continues as Presbyterian Women gather in Louisville") that attempts to argue against the Re-Imagining Movement are nothing short of attempts to control women and make them subservient. This was a line of argument further articulated in the same article by Judy Strausz-Clement, an Illinois pastor who said, "We're challenging the good old boys and the way it's always been done before. It's a threat to the power structure. It's a power and control issue."

And one of the chief assertions consistently made by proponents of this movement has been precisely the point made and articulated by Strausz-Clement. Orthodox Reformed Theology has consistently been used as a power and control apparatus to keep women silent and beholden. Because of this, they contend, it is necessary for us to take a new and more proper look at the feminine attribute Sophia (or wisdom). The express goal of such re-evaluation is to force people to see that God is really more of a Goddess who is all inclusive of all creation and who suffers along with creation in all of its travails.

That such assertions are from any orthodox understandings of the Doctrines of God, Creation, Sin, Redemption and Eschatology pure poppycock loaded with a virulent panentheism that blows away notions of God's immutability and impassability cannot be denied either in full or in part. The Revs. Strausz-Clement and Huber may call them issues of power and control (and indeed they may be, but not in the ways that they evaluate control), but in truth they are more fundamentally issues of Christian orthodoxy and heresy. And from the perspective of reformed theology, this movement, by-and-large, postulates an utterly heretical views of God, Creation, humanity, depravity and salvation.

And in order to defend ourselves from such heresies, we must look not so much at the gender assertions of the feminists as we must look at their philosophical and epistemological worldviews. This is so because such a critical look will show that their conclusions are insupportable by their system which crumbles in on itself under its own weight.

As a system that began with the philosophical investigations of Alfred North Whitehead, Process Theology essentially became one of the myriad brands of designer theologies with a five to 10 year life-span in the liberal seminaries of the 1960s and 70s.

Strict Process Theology died as much from the boredom of its adherents as it did from major gaps in its system. However it was to this system that many of the feminist, womanist and mujerista theologians and writers of the 1970s and 80s turned for use as a vehicle for making new base assertions about God; assertions for which, hitherto, they had had little or no support.

Under the tutelage of such writers as Rosemary Radford Reuther, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott and Sallie McFague, the feminists welded their agenda onto the back of Process Philosophy and came up with a new model for Christian theology which they have primarily called either Feminist-Process Theology or Ecological Theology.

The aim of this study is to show that what they, in fact, created is a worldview that is distinctly non- or anti-christian and epistemologically untenable.


To begin such a study we should first understand that orthodoxy holds that God is the transcendent and immanent, immutable, impassible uncreated Creator Who, for reasons known only to Himself, decided to create all that exists ex nihilo. Everything else that orthodoxy holds and understands devolves from this root presupposition derived from Scripture.

Process Theology, on the other hand, holds that we are all part and parcel of the evolutionarily superior being who gains existential fulfillment through creation. The minds involved in Process thought reject God's transcendence in favor of a more personable deity who is wholly immanent.

Such a conception of God flies in the face of broad based orthodox Christian theology, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed or Arminian. It is also, at root, an understanding loaded with crucial epistemological statements that effect any and all attempted dialogue between process theology and classical Nicene or Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

At the heart of any such discussion are three interconnected doctrines without which Christianity as faith or system makes no sense: [1] The Doctrine of God; [2] The Doctrine of Creation; and [3] The Doctrine of Inspiration, Revelation and/or Authority. Some fundamental understandings of these three must exist on all sides of the argument in order for it to proceed at all. And the variances in understanding make all of the difference in the world.

We will briefly examine what each camp holds with regard to the above in order that we may proceed in any fashion with the discussion at hand.

Classical orthodoxy holds that God is the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Hypostatic or Personal being who exists from and to eternity above and apart from all matter, energy or any other thing that He Himself has created. This God, according to "the most wise and holy counsel of his own will" determined and decreed the creation of the universe [that is to say, all that exists]. This creation took place in a void where only God existed and it was accomplished through the agency of God's direct Word over some period of time. That which was created in no wise shares any substance with God and was entirely created by Him from nothing.

Any definitive knowledge we possess about God, or the genesis of that creation, comes from Him to us by verbal communication with humans who have passed it on in oral and written form. This information is contained for us primarily and authoritatively in the scriptures which we acknowledge as the Old and New Testaments.

These documents, which are viewed as authoritative (though with some differences in emphasis -- some view the texts as being inerrant, some as infallible, some as simply authoritative) are seen as reliable in their own right by virtue of the Holy Spirit's inspiration and preservation of them in order that they may tell us everything we need to know about the nature od God, the creation, the Fall, sin and our redemption by Christ through faith.

Process Theology holds that God is the focal point of creativity. An eternal force, or spirit, this God is an evolutionary one who expands [along with] His/Her/Its creation. Inherent in much of process thought is some greater or lesser form of panentheism which holds that creation is incorporated within yet not contiguous with the greater totality of God. This notion, then, means that all of creation is, in some fashion or other, divine. This ties in with the evolutionary nature of God. If the cosmos, as a lesser portion of God, is evolving, then so too must the totality of God be evolving toward some zenith, "Omega Point" (DeChardin) or "Cosmic Christ" (Fox).

In fact, in much of process thought -- particularly as it has been employed as a vehicle for feminist theology -- God is the One who suffers with humans in creation and gains some measure of existential fulfillment from our existence and travail.

Creation, then, is not static and dependent upon God as an outside Person or Force. Rather, Creation, as a part of God, is in a state of perpetual expansion or flux. Creation and God are mutually interdependent; much in the same way as the organs of the human body and the autonomic nervous system only function when in synch.

Further at issue in this discussion is the nature of revelation and/or authority within Process Thought. If this system has any serious central understanding of the inspiration and authority of scripture, then it is one obscured to those who cling to either orthodox or neo-orthodox models.

In a relatively contemporaneous essay comparing the merits of process and reformed theologies, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary professor Donald Bloesch noted that Process would seem to take the authority of Scripture with much less seriousness than traditional and neo-orthodox Reformed theologies. He grounds this assertion on his study of the number of direct and indirect citations and allusions to actual Scriptural references of authority in support of theological claims staked and stated.

As he notes, Luther and Calvin through Barth and even Brunner are fairly loaded with references while many Process works run virtually from beginning to end with none or only rudimentary ones.1

Sallie McFague's model holds to the same essential presuppositions as does the more broad-based Process model, but with the added twist that it is explicitly based upon an epistemology of deconstruction. Deconstruction holds, essentially, that all knowledge is fleeting and is truly mere human construct.

This makes for a poor epistemology that cascades in upon itself in short order because if all knowledge is mere human construct and people cannot truly know anything, then all attempts to re-value, re-mythologize or re-imagine are in vain for they are every bit as inherently flawed as any- or everything else.

Therefore, in this system, whether intentionally or not, all revelation is viewed critically as farce. In short, "it just 'ain't' gonna happen"

Now, with the epistemological problems "in hand" we may proceed to a critical look at the initial proposition of the movement: God is the eternal She who subsumes all creation within Herself and suffers along with it. And working from a classical reformed understanding it is quickly evident that Feminist-Process models are fundamentally impossible on several grounds if one is consistent with one's fundamental presuppositions.

If this view is taken at all seriously, then one must wholly embrace the notion that God is totally immanent and never transcendent because God is everywhere and everything exists within God. This sentiment is radically opposed to the Christian notion that we live "in God" when we are Christian solely because He has adopted us as His children in a soteriological and eschatological form. Rather, according to the Feminist / Ecological theologians, we exist "in God" because we are, in fact, part of Her being like some spiritual internal organ.

Transcendence as such, then, would mean that the God/ess would have to physically reach inside Him/Her/Itself to have discourse with humanity. But because Process metaphysics holds that Creator and creation are in some symbiotic relationship, God is seen as always immanent and therefore as ubiquitous.

From the standpoint of any reformed metaphysics, God as the uncreated creator whose work is done ex nihilo in a closed system is seen as being both immanent and transcendent simultaneously. In short, God is always present, even if not always accessible in two-way dialogue the way humans understand it.

The next point of contention is the feminist insistence that God is the Goddess within whom all creation has its literal existential being. This line of argument stems from the concept that classical theology is outmoded and bad, so that we must needs come up with new visions for and valuations of God. This is best stated by Sallie McFague when she says:

How are we naming reality in the twilight years of the twentieth century? I would suggest that we live most of the time, and in most ways, by outmoded, anachronistic names. We are not naming ourselves, one another, and our earth in ways commensurate with our own times [sic] but are using names from a bygone time. However helpful and healing these names may have been once upon a time, they are hurtful now. And Christian theology that is done on the basis of anachronistic naming is also hurtful.2
The argument that God is She is derived almost wholly from McFague's (and other Process visionaries') model inasmuch as neither Whitehead, nor any strictly Process-based philosopher or theologian, ever held that God was she.

We can see here that McFague has bought into the worldview and thought trajectory of the multi-culturalists holding that any western thought is automatically outmoded, patriarchal, sexists, bigoted and no longer worthy of consideration in a pluralist world because no truth can ever be seen to be unilateral or absolute. To assert that truth could be either unilateral and/or absolute is divisive, hurtful, and non-productive.

McFague and others like her, see all theology as being purely metaphorical. And while most orthodox theologians would agree that there is metaphor involved in theology, they see it as resting on absolute truth so that the metaphors remain constant without need for perennial or perpetual re-imagining.

As mentioned above, even strict Process thought would find McFague's valuation of God as She to be aberrant because they would most probably hold God to be [1] androgynous, [2] beyond gender, or [3] neuter. This is an argument McFague derives from her deconstructionalist-metaphorical approach to theology Because she holds that all knowledge is of human origin and construction, we must continually update or upgrade our conceptions or metaphors for God to bring them into accord with contemporary cultural understandings. In the process, McFague would very much like us to scrap all previous (and therefore unhealthy and unhelpful) conceptions of God, creation, revelation, and salvation.

As discussed above, this is a dangerous epistemology on logical grounds because it cuts itself off at its own knees. If all knowledge is truly unknowable, and if all truth claims are relative (and quite possibly/probably) spurious, then there is no good reason to re-value one myth for another than personal preference and comfort. One myth is just as untruthful and unhealthy 10 minutes after it is articulated as the one that was replaced 10 minutes prior. Unfortunately this renders any serious discussion of metaphysics (or anything else) as unimportant and subjective as whether one likes chocolate or vanilla ice cream. It also cuts off its own rationale for existence in the process because if it is unimportant and subjective then there is absolutely no good reason for changing the model.

On general theological grounds, within the context of Christian faith, this epistemology is even more suspect than it is on logical ones. With no inherent authority upon which to base truth, morality and ethics claims (the entire essence of McFague's work and her raison d'ĂȘtre) Christianity makes no sense whatsoever; and certainly not on the basis of any solid understanding of Scripture as the primary or foundational text. And if one does seriously believe that scripture has some inherent authority as having originated as normative revelation of God by Godself then the concept of God as She is, at best, problematic.

Bloesch, Elizabeth Achtemeier and Alister McGrath have dealt extensively with this subject and have shown with some dexterity that the attributive language regarding God is divided into two categories: [1] metaphor, and [2] simile.

Metaphor is that linguistic function which describes one item, person or quantity by the use of another item, person or quantity. With such a description there is no comparison between the items. The first item is understood to possess the qualities of the second item while not actually being that second item. This is a vertical-linear descriptive that uses the minor quantity to describe the major. For instance, a fisherman from Martha's Vineyard might describe the now fabled "Perfect Storm" thusly, "That storm was a real bitch." The reader or listener, however, understands that the storm is not diminutive, is not feminine (though storms have historically been identified that way), and is not a dog. What that read or listener actually perceives and understands the speaker to be saying is that the storm possess the same qualities of persistence, longevity and ferocity as a canine mother who is protecting her puppies.

The simile is a device used for parallel contrasts between two different objects and is always introduced by the use of the word "like" in order to set up a similarity or parallel comparison between and among objects. This, however, is significantly different from the vertical linear connectedness of the metaphor. In Scripture, as all of the above three scholars have pointed out, anthropomorphic parental metaphors for God always utilize "Father" or "He" for God. Mother is never used in metaphor, but only in simile with God being referred to as being "like a mother."

All of this is important in the discussion of authority of Scripture because those who follow orthodox models believe God revealed Himself in certain specific ways He wished us to understand fundamentally. When one views theology in this fashion -- that is, normatively as revealed and inspired via a study of God-revealed Scripture-- then one is forced to say, "God told me to do it this way, so I had better ought to do it that way."

And, this is no merely simplistic and child-like understanding of the command, but rather it is a well-reasoned and pre-meditated surrender to what is honestly and intellectually perceived, understood and believed to be God's clear command and will. God clearly tells us that He possesses feminine attributes of motherhood, but that we are to view Him normatively as Father. From the broadly Reformed perspective, the "why" for God's self-revelation is either unknown or not fully apprehended, but the imperative for it clearly exists, in any case.

That this sentiment is prevalent and well held by academics as well as "simple folks" is seen in the decision of the NRSV translation committee to translate all generic references to anthropos as human or people. But, and this is an important BUT, Bruce Metzger and his team deliberately left all gender specific references to the deity as they were in the original texts for the same reasons as those articulated above. In essence, the argument over changing metaphors for the Almighty amounts to deciding whether or not Christianity is a revealed religion. And if it is, then one must determine whether it is revealed by God or by humankind.

The use of She as referent for God by the adherents of the Feminist/Ecologist Process model brings up another important, though ancillary, issue. And this is directly tied into the inherent panentheism of McFague, her compatriots and their followers. If God is SHE, and if this SHE is inclusive of all creation then we humans, as part of the Body of God, are aberrant cells in the cosmic/divine body. Whether one possesses a Doctrine of the Fall or not (and it can be successfully argued that McFague and other Feminist Process thinkers do not) the human race as it is now constituted amounts to a cancerous growth within the divine body. And if humanity is a cancer for God then logically we cannot be redeemed, but only eradicated or exterminated. Once a cell is cancerous, it is so deformed as to make it impossible to transform it into something benign. IT MUST BE DESTROYED!

Here the model breaks down irreparably because [1] if we are part of God and are so distorted then God is also fundamentally and irremediably flawed; and [2] if God gains existential fulfillment from such depraved humanity, and humanity must be extirpated for God's health, then God will not and cannot survive. Ergo the universe will amount to one gigantic cosmic fizzle.

As Christians we must recognize that God is represented by ALL of the attributes that classical orthodoxy has seen and held from Scripture. And we must understand that McFague is correct when she says that our normative doxological understanding of God will and must affect our praexilogical understanding and action as Christians in the world. That she takes such a correct assertion and extends it to its most illogical extreme in no way negates the truth of the initial assumption.

Cincinnati Christian Seminary Professor Jack Cotrell argues at this point with a salvo which should be decisive for all of us when he says:

In Human terms, we will attempt to describe the question of God's essence insofar as Scripture has enlightened us on the subject. We realize that there is a great deal of objection to the very concept of the being of God, especially by those who feel that metaphysical terminology is a relic of the dead past. We believe that such objections ignore the clear teaching of the Bible, however, which tells much more about the nature of God.3
Our problems with the Feminist Process thinkers come, not in their understanding that faith affects practice, but in what is done with it. Reformed thinker Francis Schaeffer makes this abundantly clear in most of his 22 books as he points out from a presuppositional framework that our problems with theological liberalism and secularism come because thought always translates into practice at some point.

This is what Christian theology is all about and the reason it exists. If we do not have a proper view of the Doctrine of God, then we will not have a proper view of the nature of humanity. Schaeffer put it this way in an oft used quotation from Martin Luther:

If I profess Christ with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.4


[1] BLOESCH, Donald G. "Process Theology & Reformed Theology". Major Themes in the
Reformed Tradition. Donald McKim, ed. Erdmanns. (Grand Rapids; 1992)
Pp. 386 - 99.

[2] McFAGUE, Sallie. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological Nuclear Age.
Fortress Press. (Philadelphia, PA; 1987). Pg. 3.

[3] COTTRELL, Jack C. What the Bible Says About God the Creator. College Press
Publishing Company. (Joplin, MO.; 1983). Pg. 209.

[4] SCHAEFFER, Francis The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer: Vol. I.
"The God Who Is There." Crossway Books. (Wheaton, IL; 1982). Pg 11.


COTTRELL, Jack C. What the Bible Says About God the Creator. College Press
Publishing Company. (Joplin, MO.; 1983).

BLOESCH, Donald G. A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority & Method in Thelogy.
Inter-Varsity Press. (Downers Grove, IL; 1992). Chaps. Intro, 3, 4, 6 & 7.

"Process Theology & Reformed Theology". Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition.
Donald McKim, ed. Erdmanns. (Grand Rapids; 1992) Pp. 386 - 99.

FROELICH, Karlfried, ed. & Trans. Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church. "Against
Heresies," Ireaneas of Lyon. (Fortress Press; 1984). Pp. 44-7.

JUSTIN Martyr. Ante-Nicene Fathers; Vol. I. (American Reprint of the Edinburgh Edition).
"Justin's Hortatory Address to the Greeks." the Rev. M. Dods, M.A., Trans.
AGES Software. (Albany, OR; 1997) The Master's Christian Library: Version 5.
Chaps. 20-27. Pp. 559-65.

McFAGUE, Sallie. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological Nuclear Age.
Fortress Press. (Philadelphia, PA; 1987).

The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Fortress Press. (Philadelphia, PA; 1993).

McGRATH, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Blackwell. (Oxford: 1994)
Chaps. 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12 & 15.

SCHAEFFER, Francis The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer: Vol. I.
"The God Who Is There."
"Escape From Reason."
"He Is There & He Is Not Silent."
Crossway Books. (Wheaton, IL.: 1982).

SMITH, Stephen. Mission & Ministry Journal. (Journal of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry).
"God's Body or His Creation? A Review of Sallie McFague's Models of God."

Copyright © July 2000 by The Rev. Albert Rhodes Stuart

The Rev. Albert Rhodes Stuart
Rock Stream Presbyterian Church &
Lakemont Congregational Christian Church
Yates County, New York

1 comment:

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

Exclusive Pslamody...hmmmm.

Sounds good to me...