A Gender-Neutral God in Hymns

by Matthew W. Bassford

The other day, I found myself going through some hymns of hope and comfort that a hymn blogger has been posting daily through the coronavirus pandemic. The style (organ plus choir) isn’t my thing; from my perspective, you’ve got a nasty instrument drowning out the good parts. However, the hymns themselves were generally quite good, even the ones we don’t sing, like “All My Hope on God Is Founded.”

In time, I came to a version of “How Firm a Foundation.” I was particularly interested in it; after all, the very title of my blog comes from the hymn! Rather than the lyrics I’ve known all my life, though, here’s how the first verse went:

How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in God’s excellent word;
What more can be said than to you God has said,
You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

My first thought was, “Ewww! Were the hymnal editors allergic to pronouns?” My second thought was, “No; they’re only allergic to masculine pronouns.”

Gender-neutrality in hymns has been a topic of discussion for several decades if not more. I find some forms of it to be utterly unobjectionable (writing hymns that refer to both men and women) and others to be mildly so (rewriting older hymns to refer to both men and women). However, I have serious problems with taking hymns that refer to God as Father and King and rewriting them so that God is no longer even masculine.

First, the only way to justify such a change is to perform some dramatic surgery on the Bible too. How many times in Scripture is God a He or a Him? How many times in the New Testament is He the Father? How many times in the Psalms is He King? Reading out of a Bible that says such things on the one hand and singing hymns that deny their truth on the other creates massive cognitive dissonance.

(Yes; I am aware that there are Scriptural texts -- Isaiah 49:15, for instance -- that compare God to a woman. In I Thessalonians 2:7, Paul compares himself to a woman. That doesn’t mean that Paul was feminine.)

To be quite frank, we live in a society that needs to spend more time considering the patriarchal authority of God, not less. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the same folks who deny God’s masculinity also reject what the word of God has to say about sex and gender roles (and many other things). At that point, regardless of what they might think about their “worship”, they are not prostrating themselves before Him in any meaningful sense. We don’t need hymnals that encourage us to abandon reverence and subjection. We need the opposite.

Finally, it shows a great deal of disdain for the hymnists of earlier eras, their convictions, and their work. I’m as sure as I can be that if I had asked Robert Keene (the probable author of “How Firm a Foundation”) if God was masculine, he would have replied incredulously, “Of course!”, and he certainly would not have approved stripping out the evidence of His masculinity from his hymn.

Such lack of respect is par for the course for our amnesiac society. We are very concerned about diversity and honoring the views of people from the different cultures of our time, but we have zero interest in (dead white male) voices from the cultures of the past. In fact, we’re so willing to stifle them that we’ll do a hack job on a great hymn, rendering a beautiful line ugly and graceless, just to make sure that it expresses our viewpoint rather than the author’s. Diversity that ain’t.

In Romans 8:15, Paul notes that we have received a spirit of adoption as sons, by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” If, on the other hand, we no longer are willing to cry out, “Abba, Father!”, well, that too reveals a great deal about the spirit that is in us.

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