God’s Pronouns

The Revd Naomi Gardom


How do we refer to God? The standard answer to this is ‘he’ – it has become automatic for us to refer to God, both God in Trinity and in the person of Jesus Christ, as masculine, male. For many centuries, it has been understood that God’s being transcends human notions of gender, and yet ‘he’ has stuck around as the default pronoun for God. 


In the first of her Cadbury lectures of 2024 at the University of Birmingham this week, Professor Wil Gafney began to speak on exactly this topic – what gender or genders does God have in the Bible? She pointed out that the words used for God in Hebrew are very varied, right from the beginning of Scripture: Elohim, the first word used for God in Genesis, is in fact masculine plural, although it uses a singular verb indicating unity. The next word used for God, weruah, meaning Spirit or Breath, is female. The question of God’s gender becomes more and more complex as we journey through the Bible, a rich range of possibilities which defy the limits of English translation. God is a rock that gave birth to us (Deut. 32.18); Jesus is a mother hen gathering her chicks (Matt. 23.37); the Spirit in the New Testament is referred to by the gender neutral noun Pneuma.


Pronouns have become yet another talking point in the endless culture wars over trans and nonbinary people’s right to exist. It’s not uncommon now to find social media biographies proudly proclaiming ‘no pronouns’, as a statement of ‘anti-wokeness’, as if any of us can get by using the English language, without these useful little grammatical building blocks. The desire to be addressed and referred to in a way that aligns with one’s sense of self threatens no one, and yet it can have people up in arms about the degeneracy of society. There is such a strong urge to categorise people into boxes – male on one side, female on the other – and keep them there.


But we believe that human beings have been created in God’s image, and if we believe this, we have to recognise the glorious kaleidoscope of possibilities contained in that image. God is beyond our human conceptions of gender, but not in a blank sterile way. We do not have to attempt to put all thoughts of gender from our minds when we think of God. Instead, we recognise that ‘now we see only a reflection as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face.’ (1 Cor. 13.12). We know that we cannot grasp any aspect of God, gender included, but we can reach endlessly towards God, and in doing so, discover more about ourselves. As Paul goes on to say, ‘now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.’