The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, February 20, 2023

It’s Monday, February 20, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Gender-Neutral Language for God?: Church of England Deliberates Shift in Use of Language for God in Worship Services

Day-by-day on The Briefing, we often look headline by headline, trying to sift what is most important, not just in terms of news value or even just in terms of moral value, but what is most important as we try to think in terms of the Christian worldview. What do we need to think about and talk about in order to be intelligent Christians seeking to live as faithful Christians in a very convoluted age? But every once in a while the headline comes along that’s different than the rest. And even though theology is often, as we say, just beneath the headlines, every once in a while, it leaps right into the headlines themselves. That’s exactly what happened just in recent days with a headline like this.

This one’s from the New York Times, and I quote, “Gender term used for God is considered by church.” Amanda Holpuch is the reporter on the story. The headline on the online edition was this way, “Church of England Considers Gender-Neutral Language for God.” Now that clarifies things. It’s not just any church, it’s the Church of England. And what is being considered here is what is identified as gender-neutral language for God. The article begins with this statement, “The Church of England is considering whether to use gender-neutral terms to refer to God,” a spokesperson said, adding that there are “no plans to abolish or substantially revise the existing liturgy.” Holpuch went on to report the church said in an emailed statement that Christians have recognized “since ancient times that God is neither male nor female.” It’s then explained, “The clergy is now weighing whether it could better reflect that in language used in its services.”

Now this is a statement sent to the New York Times. That’s why we have to cite it that way. And the statement says, “The variety of ways of addressing and describing God found in Scripture has not always been reflected in our worship.” Further, “there has been greater interest in exploring new language since the introduction of our current forms of service in contemporary language more than 20 years ago.”

Now on the one hand, this is just one church, even though it’s a major historic church in Protestant Christianity, and for that matter, not altogether all that Protestant, at least in some parts of its history and present. But nonetheless, this is just one church you might say, it’s the Church of England. And this is just one question about revising the language of worship, but here’s where we need to underline that there is no more basic question for Christians to consider than who is God, and how do we refer to God?

And I explained that just in terms that we’re as neutral as possible, but that is not possible if we are going to constrain ourselves by Scripture and if we are going to conform our language to the language of Scripture. There is so much going on here. Now, this is the very same church that has been in so much hot water and deservedly so because of its attempt to try to create something of a halfway house between the full acknowledgement of same-sex unions and something short of that. So just in recent times, the bishops of this same church have announced that the church will bless same-sex unions but not conduct them.

That is the kind of theological two-step for which no Christian should have any respect. It will please neither the traditionalists in the church seeking to stand on scripture, nor will it please the progressives in the church and the larger progressivist culture that will never be satisfied until the church is not only performing same-sex weddings, but frankly, celebrating them right at the top of the liturgical schedule. In this particular announcement, the New York Times summarizes it this way. The church did not provide specifics on how the commission would work, and did not provide a timeline for its findings.

But the statement from the Church of England was very clear, “There are absolutely no plans to abolish or substantially revise currently authorized liturgies, and no such changes could be made without extensive legislation.” Now, this is a huge issue. You sense that. Because as we’re talking about God, one of the most fundamental questions in Scripture itself is how is the one true and living God to be named?

Now, just think about a passage as crucial to scriptural history as when Moses was standing before the bush that burned and was not consumed and God called him. This is one of the great moments in covenantal history. This is one of the most constitutive moments in the history of Israel, and theologically, it is a determinative moment because when Moses says, and this is the question he asked, “Who shall I say has sent me?” And he is asking for God’s name, God answers, “I am that I am.” The formula, I am becoming the most basic of God’s names.

But we also know that God has named himself in Scripture over and over and over again, and one of the most common names for Scripture, one of the most common ways scripture refers to God. And by the time we come to understand Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, the very Son of the Father, and when we come to understand the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity, we come to understand that even as the son is only a son because of the Father, God names himself as Father over and over and over again in Scripture. So much so that it is the primary metaphor or name by which we refer to God. And yes, it is a metaphor which just means it’s a comparison.

And as you look at this, you recognize that Jesus himself, even in the passage we know as the Lord’s Prayer, when he said, when you pray, pray like this, he named his Father our Father, our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. But we also need to affirm that even as God has condescended to reveal himself to us and has revealed himself to us as a father, which means yes, it’s a comparison word. We understand what it means for God to be our heavenly Father because we have a notion of what it means to have an earthly father. But you’ll also notice that in the Scripture, this is not merely comparison language. It’s not merely analogical language, because in this language that is found in Scripture, God is not described as merely like a father. He is actually named as our Father.

Now, there is a background to this entire controversy and to this development in the Church of England, and among liberal protestants, the Church of England is in some sense just behind the times, it’s catching up with the progressivist imperatives. You need to notice that as you are looking at other denominations and perhaps most famously in the United States, it would be the Episcopal Church U.S. and also it would be the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. The PCUSA as it is known, and by the way, let’s be very clear, that means in contrast to more evangelical groups including the Presbyterian church in America, PCA, that would have nothing to do with this nonsense. When you are looking at the PCUSA, you’re looking at a church that going all the way back to the 70s and to the 80s, and especially after its union between the southern and northern branches in the 1980s, it has been basically propelling itself towards this kind of doctrinal and liturgical innovation. And by this we mean the language of worship. And we really are looking at something since the late 80s and the early 90s that has been really gaining momentum in liberal circles.

Part II

‘Feminism Cannot Be Done from the Existing Base of the Christian Bible’: The Background to Feminist Reconsiderations of Terms Used for God

And you need to ask the question, “Where’s it coming from?” In other words, “Who’s saying we need new language for God?” Well, interestingly, most importantly, of course, it is coming from feminist theologians. It’s coming from feminists who are saying, “Look, it is not possible for women to worship a God who is male. That’s patriarchal, that is oppressive. It is limiting. Women can never be equal with men if God is named as Father or if we use masculine language for God rather than feminine language for God.”

But it’s really, really interesting to note that some of the most classic arguments against that really also emerged at the very same time. So you had the feminist theologians who were saying, “Look, all language about God is merely metaphorical. It’s all merely analogical. It’s all merely symbolic.” And what you have in terms of this ancient language is just the language that represents that ancient prejudiced and patriarchal age. We need to update Christianity.

Now of course, that’s the very argument of theological liberalism. That’s it in its essence. We need to update Christianity. We need to update the names of God because you got to update everything. Now, I was very involved in making the conservative argument for God naming himself in scripture back during that time, and I thought it might be interesting to pull out some witnesses who were very much engaged in that debate in say the 1980s and the 1990s, and let them have their say, even though almost all of these major figures involved in the controversy then are now dead.

On the left, there was the feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and I found myself sitting next to her on an airplane one time. That was an interesting conversation. She said this, and she really is one of the pioneers of feminist theology. She said this, “Feminist theology cannot be done from the existing base of the Christian Bible.” Now, she said that decades ago, and this is what she meant. It is simply impossible to get where feminists want to go if you’re stuck with the text of the scripture. And that’s an amazingly honest statement, and I think it’s accurate. You can’t get where feminist theology wants to go, “from the existing base of the Christian Bible.” You’re going to have to find another authoritative text, or at least you’re going to have to rob the scripture of its authority, and deny that it is in fact the inherent infallible binding word of God.

But you’ll notice she talks about the existing base. She means a textual base. Her argument was someone’s going to have to find a new textual base for Christianity. That’s why the feminists press for modern feminist in this included the so-called inclusive language translations of Scripture.

And yet as you’re looking at this, none of those have actually gone far enough. So most of the feminists have decided effectively that Rosemary Radford Ruether was right, and you simply can’t base your religion on the Bible if you’re going to get where feminists, and of course the feminists have been transcended by others want to go.

But one of the most interesting arguments that was made by the feminist theologians, and they were often referred to rightly as the revisionist theologians back in the 1980s and 90s, one of their most interesting arguments was, look, as you consider all those patriarchs in the Old Testament, they simply were not enlightened enough to know about the possibility of the feminine side of God or of female deities. They were just so stuck in their masculinity and in their patriarchalism that they simply couldn’t consider female God language.

Elizabeth Achtemeier answered this conclusively. Now you probably figured out that Elizabeth Achtemeier was herself a woman, and she was also a very prominent biblical scholar along with her husband Paul Achtemeier. They both taught at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. Neither one of them was an evangelical, but neither one of them went along with the feminist ideology. And when it came to Elizabeth Achtemeier, whom I got to know, one of the most interesting statements she made was simply a corrective even to the historical reality that supposedly the patriarchs in the Old Testament didn’t know anything about feminine language for God.

Her argument is this, “Oh, they knew about it all right, they just categorically rejected it.” Let me read to you her exact words, “It is not that the prophets were slaves to their patriarchal culture as some feminists hold, and it is not that the prophets could not imagine God as female. They were surrounded by people who so imagined their deities. It is rather that the prophets would not use such language because they knew and had ample evidence from the religion surrounding them that female language for the deity results in a basic distortion of the nature of God and of his relation to his creation.”

Now without going into detail, Elizabeth Achtemeier and others just pointed out that if you look at the Pagan deities that are female, they are exaggerated in their function for sexuality and reproduction. The world comes out of the womb. That is simply fundamentally unquestionably irreconcilable with holy Scripture.

It’s also interesting to note here that there were others who were by no means committed to say classical evangelical models of theology. They were liberal in their own way, but they weren’t that liberal. One of them was the German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg. He stated this, “Father became a proper name for God. It thus ceased to be simply one designation among others, it embraces every feature in the understanding of God, which comes to light in the message of Jesus.” In other words, professor Pannenberg was saying Jesus refers to God as father, and father already by that time had become the main way that in prayer and in devotion, believers had named the God to whom they are praying.

And of course, again, Jesus made that absolutely clear for his disciples when he said pray our Father who is in heaven. One of the most fundamental biblical principles we need to keep in mind is that God is sovereign and that means that he gets to name himself. We do not get to name him. We certainly have no right to rename him. Now, sometimes feminist theologians will come along and say, “Well, there are some feminine metaphors in Scripture.” And indeed you can find references in the Old Testament to God being like a hen who harbors and protects her chicks.

But as you’re looking at that, you need to recognize nowhere in Scripture, not once, not even a single time, is there any reference to God as mother. It is merely a picture of God’s love and his graciousness and it’s singular. In other words, it simply stands out because it is unusual compared to the other metaphorical passages in Scripture about God.

Part III

God Gets to Name Himself: Why We Must Never Tamper With God’s Self-Revelation

But God is not again named merely as one who is like a father. He is identified as a father. We are commanded in scripture to know him, to confess him, and to worship him as father. So playing around with the name of God is no small thing. This is something we just need to recognize. If you are proposing any kind of change beyond that which is found explicitly in scripture for the use in your worship in any sort of way, then you are actually doing what the Scripture says we must not do. We have no right to tamper with God’s self-revelation. We have no right to name him. We have no right to rename him.

Now, we don’t know exactly what the Church of England is going to propose, and it’s gone out of its way to say we’re not just getting rid of the existing liturgy. But once you begin to make statements like this, and once you say, maybe we need some new language, well, and we’re looking at a denomination that’s been progressively trying to move itself left as fast as it can get away with, you really are looking at the fact that destiny is in this equation. If you say you might change this language, then guess what? You will. And that language will continue to change, and pretty soon that old language is going to be dismissed as limiting and patriarchal or it will be brought out just on those occasions when you want to say something that sounds elegant and antique.

The New York Times article, by the way, simply repeats some statistical information which is also of interest here. We are told that in 2019, before in-person church services were suspended, the total number of regular worshipers in the Church of England was something like 1.1 million. After COVID, there’s not been a recovery. And we are told that as of 2021, there are only about 966,000 regular worshipers.

But here’s something that makes this more concrete. That means roughly 1.7% of England’s population, 1.7% in England, indeed in Great Britain, and this is the Church of England, which is actually an established official state church. The official state church in England only draws about 1.7% of its population. And recurring headlines like this, whether it’s blessing same sex unions, but not conducting them or looking at potentially adding inclusive language or newly devised language about God, I can just say I am absolutely confident that 1.7% is likely to be followed by even lower numbers.

People go to church because they want to hear the word of God, they want to hear the gospel and they want to hear the truth. If you actually turn your church, as seems to be the case here just over and over again into the church of, we hope we meet the demands of today, but Lord knows what will come tomorrow. Don’t be surprised when people stop coming because they’ve absolutely lost interest.

Now, we’re going to follow that story as it continues to unfold, but as I say, as we begin the week, there’s simply not a more important story out there. We’re talking about God and God’s name, and what Christians are to use in terms of language in referring to God, what names may we use?

You know in the old hymn, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” there is this question, “What language shall I borrow?”

Well the answer is, borrow the language of the Bible. Period.

Part IV

She Who Must Not Be Named: J.K. Rowling Falls Short of the LGBTQ Revolution

But next we’re going to stay in England for another controversy that’s actually global, but England’s kind of the epicenter here, and this has to do with J.K. Rowling.

The game in this case is known as Hogwarts Legacy. And even as it came out, the producers were very, very clear to try to say that even though this is of course based upon the Harry Potter series written by J.K. Rowling, the reality is, she had nothing to do with this. Now, that’s not exactly true, of course, because she’s the one who invented the characters.

And even as this is supposed to be going back decades before the Harry Potter novels began, and of course the movie series as well, the reality is that J.K. Rowling started this entire story even though she borrowed from other sources, and that just means in terms of the literary reading she had done, it was her imagination that brought Harry Potter and the story to life, controversially enough, especially among Christians going back, say 20-something years ago. And J.K. Rowling, who invented Harry Potter in the entire universe of the Harry Potter series, she will gain financially by the sales of this video game. But even as you’re looking at this, you recognize why would there be so much controversy about J.K. Rowling? She did, by the way, become the very first author to become a billionaire merely off the income of the books themselves. That hadn’t been done before. No small feat.

But now J.K. Rowling is primarily known as she who cannot be named. Why? It is because she ran afoul of the transgender revolutionaries. And even those who can’t say exactly what she supposedly did, they know she did something. And whatever she did puts her on the dark side, in the dark side, this case of the LGBTQ revolutionaries. And in particular the transgender revolutionaries. Now, what exactly did J.K. Rowling do? Well, she made some statements, some very limited statements, even if she insists she is basically way pro-LGBTQ. She said that certain facilities such as shelters for abused women should be limited to women. And she went on to name some other specific context in which even though she’s all for LGBTQ, she’s not for T that much that it endangers women. Now before turning to what she actually said or what she actually believes, the point is, she insists herself she’s not anti-trans. She’s not transphobic to use the loaded language of the LGBTQ revolutionaries.

But Brittany Vincent writing for NPR tells us, “This trip to Hogwarts comes with heavy baggage.” While Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was not directly involved in the game’s production, her creative agency was. The controversy over comments she made that have been read by many as transphobic. Isn’t that an interesting way to put it? Oh, some have said, many have said that these comments are transphobic. Nonetheless, the controversy “has led to ongoing calls for a boycott.” Hogwarts legacy, that is the game, this report says, “does feature the franchise’s first trans character, but trans advocates and allies criticize her inclusion as a token attempt to head off backlash.” So, saying that you are not transphobic, that you are not opposed to the transgender revolution, and yet even as one includes a transgender character, the first one in this series that is mere tokenism because after all, you are not sufficiently with the program.

And this is more interesting to me as I think about the worldview significance because of that latter point. And that latter point is this, the left cannot keep up with itself. If you are J.K. Rowling, and you are entirely enthusiastically, LGBTQ-positive, if you have the rainbow flag outside your house, and if basically you pepper all your public comments with all the appropriate affirmations, if you fall short in any way with the LGBTQ ideologues, then guess what? You are now on the dark side. Now, if you need a second witness about this, let’s ask Pamela Paul. She’s an opinion columnist for the New York Times. She dared to write an article last week entitled, “In Defense of J.K. Rowling.” Oh, this sounds risky.

Pamela Paul goes so far as to cite pro-trans statements made by Rowling. “Trans people need and deserve protection. I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable. I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I feel nothing but empathy in solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.” Those are statements by J.K. Rowling. They are statements recited by Pamela Paul in this article in order to say Rowling is not a transphobe, she should not be canceled.

She goes on to say, why would anyone accuse J.K. Rowling of transphobia? Well, she says this. The answer is straightforward “because she has asserted the right to spaces for biological women only, such as domestic abuse shelters and sex-segregated prisons.” Because she has insisted that when it comes to determining a person’s legal gender status, self-declared gender identity is insufficient. And because she’s pressed back on certain language, including language I’m not going to repeat here, she has been herself canceled.

Pamela Paul goes so far as to say, “nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic.” But did she get J.K. Rowling off the hook? No. Guess what? You probably figured this out. She got herself on the hook. In letters to the editor, there’s statements such as this. “This is a distressingly one-sided view of J.K. Rowling’s comments. The outrage towards Ms. Rowling is justified. She is a wealthy, powerful author who is using her far-reaching platform to push the narrative that trans women who exist on the farthest fringes of our societies pose a threat to her. This is the opposite of reality.”

Other letters to the editor argued that it is JK Rowling who is endangering trans women by saying that they should not be in traditional women’s prisons or in abuse shelters. But the point is, J.K. Rowling is now on the dark side according to the powers that be. And you can just say that Pamela Paul is joining her at least temporarily in the same category because she dared to write an article defending J.K. Rowling. And when it comes to J.K. Rowling herself, she insists that she’s absolutely for LGBTQ inclusion and for the agenda in every way except when it comes to spaces in which women, that means biological women need to be protected.

But that little caveat at the end, well, it’s a complete dealbreaker with the sexual engender ideologues and revolutionaries. And by extension, this now has to be applied to everything including a video game that she didn’t even directly write. Now, you are transphobic, and you are invalidated as an ally of the transgender revolution if indeed you dare to play this game, or admit that you do, or even have a little pleasure in doing it.

Now let me be clear. My point here is not to defend Hogwarts Legacy. I don’t know anything about the game, and I can assure you I am not going to play it. But, anyone who thinks that if you do play this game or if you dare to say that you enjoy it, if therefore you are an enemy of all moral progress and you should yourself be put on the dark side, well, if Hogwarts Legacy is supposedly the great dividing line in this society, well that’s not Hogwarts Legacy, that’s hogwash.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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Today I’m in Nashville, Tennessee, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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