A Q&A with Amy Peeler, whose third book surveys the "idolatry of masculinity" throughout church tradition.
God values women, but is God male? Wheaton Professor Amy Peeler’s new book, “Women and the Gender of God,” aims to lovingly disarm the assumption that God is preferentially male, citing this misperception’s ability to taint the glory of God, making him appear to be part of creation, rather than transcendent of it. Focusing on Mary, the mother of God, Peeler highlights how the annunciation demonstrates both how God empowers women and honors their agency, and also how the virgin birth of Jesus reverses the gendered division enacted in the garden of Eden.
After years of lectures on- and off-campus that present an egalitarian reading of the New Testament, as well as conducting scholarship on theology and gender, Peeler released her first book on the subject, and third overall, on Oct. 4.
After earning her B.A. from Oklahoma Baptist University in biblical languages, Peeler went on to earn her M. Div and Ph.D. in biblical studies from Princeton Theological Seminary. She joined Wheaton’s faculty in 2012.
In an interview with the Record, Peeler emphasized that she wants to honor the convictions of all who read her book, highlighting that she “drank from the well of the whole spectrum of Christian tradition,” including those who hold a different position on women’s roles in the church and God’s relationship with gender.
What has been the most meaningful response to your book?
Probably most significantly, a woman emailed me and said, “You know, I was thinking about leaving Christianity, and I’ve read the first few chapters of your book, and this might allow me to stay.” For those women in particular who look around at the current status of the church, and say, “Yeah, I’m done with this,” if I can call them back to the center of our story and say, “No, there is a place for you here,” and God loves and values you as female, then that would be the highest honor. If just for her, this book is worth it.
Would you talk about your family and what it looks like to write a book while also being a mother?
In some sense I had grieved that it took me so long. I was embarrassed by that at times. I felt that I didn’t honor my sabbatical from Wheaton because I should have done it faster, but the more and more I reflected, I saw that to write this book about the mother of God, I needed to practice . I love that I see glimmers of Mary as I interact with my three children. My son was kind of sick this morning, but he went to school, and as I was praying for him as I walked into class, the thought struck me that there were days where Mary was worried about Jesus. And I had this sense of her reality as a person. As a mother, I feel that I’m more connected to the realities of the Christian story.
How did you approach exploring gender in the book?
In the book, what I focus on are those assumptions that I’ve discovered in theological literature, not necessarily that God is male, nobody really thinks that, but there are often assumptions that God is more masculine, or that there is a preference for masculinity in God, and that’s why I, in this book say, “I don’t think that’s the best reading of the text.” God is creator, God is initiator, God is sovereign, but I think there is no justification for saying those are masculine qualities. And when we do assume or say those are masculine qualities, then naturally that results in a preference for men that I think is unjust and ungrounded in Scripture.
Would you address the biblical pattern of God being referred to as Father, even by Jesus?
Of course! Really the aim of my entire book is to affirm that the use of “Father” for God is scripturally sound and theologically correct. When Christians call God Father as Jesus did, we assert that God chose to send the Son into the world and God did so by deciding that the Son would become incarnate by being born of a woman (Gal 4:4). In short, Jesus called God “Father” and not “Mother” because he already had one.
The Amazon description of your book talks about the idolatry of masculinity, which ties into this belief that God has a preference for masculinity. Would you speak to that?
I intentionally chose the word idolatry, because what happens is, if there is an unhealthy and unjustified assumption that God is more masculine than feminine, or there’s a preference for the masculine in God, then not only is it dangerous to humanity, which I articulated first, but even more egregious, that is a way of bringing God down as part of creation. That’s what I mean by idolatry. Taking God who is beyond gender, or we could say inclusive of all gender expressions, and pigeon-holing God by kind of saying, “No, God is more like this,” is a limitation of how God has revealed God’s self to be in Scripture. That’s what I mean by idolatry.
You’re now a rector (clergy member) of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Geneva, Ill. Looking back when you were a freshman at Oklahoma Baptist University, have you since changed your view regarding the role of women in the church?
What would freshman-year you think if she read your book now?
Oh my gosh, what a question. I would have never thought to ask it. I would probably need to process that in a spiritual direction. That’s such a wonderfully personal question. At that point, I had been trained incredibly well to love Scripture. I had a very solid pastor, I had a wonderful youth pastor with whom I remain close. So I had a good upbringing in the faith. But, also a context in which I never saw women do anything other than sing in the choir and teach. So men and women in leadership were as far apart as I could have imagined.
I think, if freshman-year me read this, I would worry that I wasn’t still within orthodoxy. But I hope that freshman me, if I had the ability to read through this slowly and carefully, would see that I’ve actually come deeper into the center of orthodoxy. Again, hear me, I’m not saying that those who are egalitarian are more orthodox, not at all. That’s a byproduct of other ways I’ve exegeted Scripture more deeply into the revelation of who God is. I think the title, I think even the description , freshman me would be like, “I don’t know.” I would have had to have a faculty member say to me, “It’s okay that you read this.” I would have scared myself. But it wasn’t long after, my junior year, that I started wrestling and asking some questions because I had such good training in college, just awesome professors. And then I was experiencing, although I wouldn’t have had the language for it then, I was experiencing my own call, my own love for scripture. My first question was, how can a woman teach scripture to men? How could I teach college if I’m female? I needed a good decade plus to work through that question. But freshman me hadn’t started asking yet.
Why should Wheaton students study biblical and theological studies?
If we really believe that our God is the God of the universe, that he sustains all of creation, that our God is truth, then everything we study can be tethered to that center. And so when you know that center more fully, and more deeply, you are actually better equipped to study the sciences and the social sciences and the arts, because they really do resonate with, or reside in, the goodness of our God.
I noticed that you used “he” to describe how God sustains all of creation. Would you speak to how you determine which pronouns to use and when?
Great question! When I said “he” in that statement, I had in mind the Son who according to Colossians 1:17 sustains all things. “He” is totally the right pronoun for the Son, who became incarnate as male. I’m not opposed to those who use masculine pronouns for God the Father, there are many good reasons to do so, I just seek to do so sparingly in order not to perpetuate that assumption of God the Father’s maleness.
Why do you think women, specifically, should study theology?
In some sense, I am a big believer in the shared call to men and women to steward creation as revealed with all clarity in Genesis 1, and I believe also Genesis 2. So if we all bear the image of God, then everything I’ve stated is equally true for men and women. I have heard articulation of a narrative claiming that women are only called to get married and bear children, which I think is absolutely unsupportable from all of Scripture. While a beautiful call that many women go into, it’s certainly not the only one. And even if a woman is called to primarily be in service to her family, doesn’t she need to know theology all the more to train up her children? I cannot think of any vocational expression in the life of the woman where she would not need deep theological training.
You co-teach a Core Advanced Integrated Seminar called “Mary, Mother of God,” with Professor Matthew Milliner, and his book about Mary, “Mother of the Lamb,” came out the same day as yours. Was that a coincidence?
Yes! To me, the only explanation I have is that God — and this has been true so much in my life — gives us things not just for survival, but out of delight. As Jesus says, “Don’t you trust that your father knows how to give good gifts?” We had different publishers, and this has been a long and winding path for both of us. The fact that publishers who were not talking to each other would say, “It’s this day” is uncanny. That week and evening of the book reveal party are truly on my top ten if not top five moments of my life thus far.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.