On God’s Mother – Lucy Peppiatt

Lucy Peppiatt - On God's Mother

*This is an updated re-post from December 2015*

When one of my boys was little he announced, ‘I know why God was mean in the Old Testament and nice in the New Testament.’ ‘Why’s that?’ I asked. ‘Because in the Old Testament, he didn’t have a mummy.’ Interesting thought…

Putting aside the fact that he was highlighting the problematic OT/NT distinctions, and the fact that it sounds funny to put it like that, I liked his expression—God had a mummy. I’m sad that I come from a Christian tradition where Mary mostly gets sidelined. The way that it’s always framed is in relation to a fear of compromising a strictly christological focus. I’m not entirely convinced it’s just that. 

I do know that I’m grateful to have studied theology to find wider and richer traditions, I’m grateful that my mother, who was brought up by a Catholic stepmother, talked a lot about Mary, and I know that every Christmas I think of Mary in a particular way. 

I think of her as a woman who went through the process of childbirth; a process that is raw, powerful, emotional, potentially frightening, and awe-inspiring. It’s exhausting and elating at the same time – and it is kind of icky – but in a way that nobody cares, because there are much bigger things to think about. There are no squeamish women at a birth, only practical ones, and the mother’s body is the centre of everyone’s attention. 

The reality that a messy, bloody, female-centred, bodily birth is at the heart of our salvation story never ceases to amaze me. It doesn’t really surprise me either that it’s always been a problem for some people.

Maybe we don’t like to dwell on the reality of God in a womb, but maybe we should. Maybe it would change the way we see God if we did. It might even change the way we see women. And doesn’t it make you wonder whether that might have been part of the plan all along—to change the way we see God and the way we see women?

Tertullian on Mary

Tertullian, a second century African bishop writes about the Mary giving birth in his treatise, On the Flesh of Christ, and it’s so interesting to me that he isn’t at all squeamish about Mary’s body here. Admittedly, his main aim is to form an argument for the very human flesh of Christ against Marcion and others, but on his way, he makes some extraordinary claims about Mary. 

First he addresses the heretics’ charges of the uncleanness and filth of the womb (which they claim is obviously an unfitting home for God). Secondly, he addresses the perceived shame of childbirth. His view, instead, is that childbirth should be ‘honoured in consideration of that peril’, and ‘held sacred in respect of (the mystery of) nature.’ This is just the beginning.  

For Tertullian, as he elucidates, the real human existence of Jesus Christ hangs entirely on his physical, fleshly connection with Mary’s body. 

Pray, tell me, why the Spirit of God descended into a woman’s womb at all, if He did not do so for the purpose of partaking of flesh from the womb. For He could have become spiritual flesh without such a process—much more simply, indeed, without the womb than in it. He had no reason for enclosing Himself within one, if He was to bear forth nothing from it. Not without reason, however, did He descend into a womb. Therefore He received (flesh) therefrom; else, if He received nothing therefrom, His descent into it would have been without a reason, especially if He meant to become flesh of that sort which was not derived from a womb, that is to say, a spiritual one. (Chapter 19) 

Jesus is made ‘of her’, not just ‘in her’. He is made from her and not just through her. She is not only a receptacle of the Divine, she contributes from her own body. It is her blood that forms him, her food that nourishes him, her breasts that feed him. Tertullian even has a fairly lengthy explanation of the link between the physical process of pregnancy and childbirth to the production of milk. 

But if the Word was made flesh of Himself without any communication with a womb, no mother’s womb operating upon Him with its usual function and support, how could the lacteal fountain have been conveyed (from the womb) to the breasts, since (the womb) can only effect the change by actual possession of the proper substance? But it could not possibly have had blood for transformation into milk, unless it possessed the causes of blood also, that is to say, the severance (by birth) of its own flesh from the mother’s womb. (Chapter 20) 

Not squeamish at all. 

He carries on proving his point making the connection of Jesus’ birth to OT prophecies. How else would he be connected to the line of David through Mary, unless the baby was truly hers, albeit born of the Spirit? 

This physical connection to Mary is the basis of the story of salvation, the proof that our own flesh, our souls and bodies, can be redeemed, and cleansed, and resurrected—and this through a woman. The fact that she is a woman is important. Eve’s first catastrophic sin is reversed. 

Into a virgin’s soul, in like manner, must be introduced that Word of God which was to raise the fabric of life; so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation. As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced. (Chapter 17)

The blame-game is finished. It’s over. 

New Creation

There are three creation stories of the creation of humanity in the Bible. The first one is that male and female together are made in the image and likeness of God. The second is that a human is formed from the dust of the earth and woman is taken from man. She is flesh of his flesh. The third is that humanity is reborn through a Saviour, who is born of a woman, and He is flesh of her flesh.

When God chose to come to earth, he chose the hiddenness of a woman’s womb. When God chose to take on flesh, he chose to unite himself to a woman’s flesh.

When God chose to appear, he chose to come as a baby, entrusting himself to a woman’s body to be born. 

Mary cleaned him, changed him, cuddled him, fed him, sang to him, and whispered the story of his birth to him. This Advent we look forward to the coming of our Saviour into the darkness of the world. Let’s remember his condescension began in the hidden darkness of a womb, surrounded by Mary’s blood, preparing him for life among us.

Lucy Peppiatt WTC PrincipalDr. Lucy Peppiatt has been Principal at WTC since 2013. She teaches courses in Christian doctrine and in spiritual formation. She holds bachelor’s degrees in both English and Theology. She completed her MA in Systematic Theology at King’s College, London, and her PhD through the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Lucy’s research interests are Christ and the Spirit, Charismatic theology, theological anthropology, discipleship, 1 Corinthians, and women in the Bible. Lucy is part of Crossnet Anglican Church in Bristol, which is led by her husband, Nick Crawley. They have four sons and four daughters-in-law.

Get her latest book here.


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How to Burn Down Your House

How to Burn Down Your House

(on fixing the problems of violence and wrath in the Bible)

When preparing to teach on violence in the Old Testament recently I was reminded of a book review I once read. The reviewer recounted his neighbour’s efforts to remove a grease stain from his garage floor. The neighbour dumped a few gallons of gasoline on the floor and scrubbed. It worked beautifully. The stain disappeared completely. Job done!

However, there was a slight problem. The gasoline fumes filled the garage and were eventually ignited by his boiler’s pilot light. The great conflagration that ensued ended up burning his entire house to its foundations.

This story offered a warning that stuck with me: Turn off your mobile phone at the pump, you ask? Yes, but also, beware of solutions that too easily resolve. They might be highly combustible!

This is a basic, but often missed, principle that applies to thinking through all sorts of knotty problems in theology. Answers that resolve problems too neatly and easily usually have hidden costs or trade-offs that don’t surface at first glance. Only by prodding and testing do they begin to emerge.

Two of the most common problems on which interpreters reach for the gas can are divinely sanctioned violence and divine wrath (I can see you reaching for it already!).


Easy resolutions to the problem of violence often look like one of the following two approaches:

The first looks at an issue like the Canaanite genocide and says, ‘Sin is sin, so of course God is justified in his command to destroy every man, woman, child, and infant in Canaan without mercy!’ The assumption here is that the one asking the question might not take seriously enough the problem of sin, or they do not have a sufficiently high view of God’s holiness and sovereignty. If they did, the problem would disappear. I’ve even heard one person ‘resolve’ the issue using eschatology, suggesting that Joshua is a case of ‘intrusion ethics.’ God’s eschatological judgment had broken into history and wiped out a few thousand as a foretaste of the billions he would destroy at the end of time. This displaced and augmented the problem.

The second easy resolution says, ‘Well of course the Canaanite genocide never happened,’ or, ‘The conquest story is the projected fantasy of a primitive tribalistic people.’

fireball-422746_1280Both approaches pour gasoline on the problem … often with unintended consequences. The first approach ignores (or destroys) the rich tradition of protest against divine judgment that we see demonstrated in individuals like Abraham (Gen 18) and Moses (Exod 34; Num 12, 14, 16, 21). It also misses out on the rich complexity of Joshua’s message, which seems to question the fundamental division between ‘us/good’ and ‘them/bad’ that a surface reading of the book suggests (e.g., Josh 5:13-14). The second, which states the non-historicity of the Canaanite genocide, pretends to remove the problem but only shifts it. Now we’re saying that this is how God wants to be portrayed, even if it didn’t happen. And calling the ancient Israelites ‘primitive’ is just arrogant, and like the first approach, leads readers to miss much of Joshua’s theological depth.

Rather than rushing toward either resolution, perhaps we should explore the cost of doing business with them, avoid representing the biblical writers as our intellectual and moral inferiors, and adopt a posture of empathetic listening and faithful questioning. Perhaps we should read Joshua slowly. Let it disturb, surprise, and unsettle. As someone who has done this, I can only say that it repays such efforts abundantly.


Divine wrath is also a problem on which many want to pour gasoline … and they have for a long time, going back at least as far as the early 2nd century heretic Marcion (not a fan of Yahweh). Marcion wanted to do away with divine wrath, and with it, the Old Testament. He found it unbecoming of God’s goodness. In his critique of Marcion, Tertullian writes: ‘A better god has been discovered, who never takes offense, is never angry, never inflicts punishment, who has prepared no fire in hell, no gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness! He is purely and simply good’ (1.27).

But here’s Tertullian’s insight—there are always hidden costs to pictures of God that eliminate challenging tensions. In this instance, Tertullian claims that Marcion eliminates God’s ability to act as judge: ‘You allow indeed that God is a judge, but at the same time destroy those operations and dispositions by which He discharges His judicial functions’ (Adv. Mar. 2.16). For Tertullian (and many biblical texts), wrath is the emotion that animates God’s active concern for justice. Criticizing his wrath was like criticizing the instruments of a doctor. Wrath, in Tertullian’s formulation—and arguably in the Bible itself—is tied intimately to God’s exercise of justice.

Tertullian is highlighting the inseparability—or at least the complex interaction—of wrath and justice in God. In Exodus 22:21-24 for instance, God warns Israel that if his people cause the orphan or widow to cry out, ‘my anger will blaze.’ He would come in judgment upon those who cause such an outcry just as he came against Egypt. The point of these verses is not to be precise about the exact penalty for oppressing the weak, but to express the pathos of God in the face of injustice. For Israel, Mark Smith points out, God’s wrath was bound up in the idea that he was the protective father of the vulnerable—whether they be individuals or his people Israel. Wrath—like jealousy—was seen as a sign of concern for the weak against any who would put them at risk or threaten his legitimate claim to parentage. In this sense, God’s wrath toward the nations (e.g., for their mistreatment of Israel) was a deep expression of his love over and for his people.[1]

For many of us, associating wrath with love is strange. But love in the Old Testament is grounded in the idea of Israel as God’s covenant people (Deut 6:4-5). Love was the relational glue between covenant partners. And if we think of covenant in terms of ‘family substitute,’[2] love was the trusting loyalty required for healthy family cohesion, while God’s wrath was his protective rage aimed at threats to that family (internal or external).

But we can’t swing the pendulum away from mercy toward wrath, as if wrath could never become a problem. Abraham and Moses certainly recognized this on many occasions—and even challenged God to exercise mercy! Tertullian, who defended God’s wrath against Marcion, urges us to weigh God’s ‘severity’ against his gentleness and observe the imbalance (Adv. Mar. 2.17). As I tell my students at WTC, God’s character is wildly imbalanced. The coexistence of wrath and mercy is not that of equals. If we take the language of mercy vs. wrath in Exod. 34:6-7 in strictly mathematical terms (love to ‘thousands of generations’ : ‘3-4 generations’ of judgment) God’s mercy outweighs by at least 500:1!

But for important reasons, these verses—which are central to an Old Testament portrait of God—keep God’s mercy and judgment sit together, even if they are imbalanced. Perhaps we lose something when we lose judgment and wrath, and perhaps we lose something when we toss aside violent texts as purely human projections. Maybe there is an understanding of God’s character that only comes by exploring the revelatory value of the most troublesome texts and by teasing out the complex characterization of Israel’s God that Scripture offers.

The subjects of wrath and violence are uncomfortable. But I suggest that how we handle them, and not just the topics themselves, is what poses the greatest danger. We will not all land in the same place on these topics, but what if we at least stop and explore the cost of doing business with easy resolutions? Let’s keep the roof over our heads.

[1] Smith, How Human is God? Seven Questions About God and Humanity in the Bible (Liturgical Press, 2014), 46.

[2] Smith, How Human is God? 48.