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Feminist Christology: The Problem Stated

Feminist Christology: The Problem Stated

by Jacquelyn Grant,

from White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus, Feminist Christology and Womanist Response,
Chapter II, pp. 63-90. Scholars Press, Atlanta Georgia, 1989.

Feminist theologians have not done overwhelmingly substantial amounts of work in the area of Christology. I believe that the reason is due primarily to the problematic nature of the doctrine itself. What is especially problematic for feminists regarding Christology? Why do arguments against women and for their oppression/ subordination tend to be Christological? The latter question provides some insights into the first. The problem has centered in the indisputable fact that the historical Jesus was indeed a male. Some have attempted to retard (and others, with remarkable success, have retarded) the leadership of women, in the church and the larger society, because of this very fact.

What has Jesus Christ to do with the status of women in the church and society? It is this very question which serves as the basis of my Christological inquiry. It is my claim that there is a direct relationship between our perception of Jesus Christ and our perception of ourselves. (The very point can be made of God). Ludwig Feuerbach sheds some light on this relationship. He describes the content of this relationship as one of self-objectification: “The object of any subject is nothing else than the subject’s own nature taken objectively.”(1) With Jesus Christ as the object which the subject projects onto, it is important to discern who represents the subject. From the feminist perspective, Feuerbach unwittingly makes a significant point as he argued “man has given objectivity to himself, but has not recognized the object as his own nature.”(2) Perhaps Feuerbach intended the generic use of the male language. However, it is the argument of feminist theologians that generic language is in fact no more than male language which represents a male perspective.(3) Man has, in fact projected himself as the subject with the authority to say who Jesus Christ is for us (men and women) yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Since man is limited by his social context and interests, Jesus Christ has been defined within the narrow parameters of the male consciousness. That is to say, the social context of the men who have been theologizing has been the normative criterion upon which theological interpretation have been based. What this has meant is that Jesus Christ consistently has been used to give legitimacy to, the customary beliefs regarding the status of women. The critical question to answer at this time is what has the church (male theologian) taught about Jesus and how have these teachings functioned with regard to women? This chapter explores these two questions.

A. The Classical Christological Formulation

What does the church teach about Jesus or Who is Jesus Christ for the Christian Church?

This selfsame one Jesus Christ is perfect [teleion] both in deity [theoteti] and also in human-ness [anthropoteti]; this selfsame one is also actually [alethos] God and actually man, with a rational soul [psyches logikes] and a body. He is of the same reality as God [homoousion to patri] as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we are ourselves [homoousion heroin] as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted (4 )

This excerpt of the christological definition which emerged out of the council of Chalcedon in 451 AD essentially represented what the church taught about Jesus Christ. Though it may appear as a neatly wrapped package, the process towards its formulation was long and rugged.(5) Even though the council of Nicea of 325 AD had settled the question of who Jesus was in relation to God by condemning Arianism,(6) all of the problems were not yet solved. It was established that Jesus was homoousion to Patri. Jesus was not of the created order, but of the same essence or substance as God. Jesus was in fact “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same reality as the Father. . . ? Having settled on the relationship what remained was to clarify how it was possible.

The Council of Chalcedon set about the task of clarifying this issue, for several persons in the years following Nicaea had attempted to articulate this relationship. Three of the major points of views were put forth by Apollinaris,(8) Nestorius,(9) and Eutyches.(l0) These persons, primarily concerned with the unity or purity of God, proposed positions which protected the divine reality. The points of controversy centered around the use of such terms as “rational soul” (against Apollinarius), “theotokos” (against Nestorius) and “in two natures” (against Eutyches), which the Chalcedonian bishops employed. By this action these persons were eventually deemed heretics, because they essentially emphasized one aspect of the two natures to the exclusion of the other. Alan Richardson says the following of these attempts in relation to the Chalcedonian solution:

It is evident that the Chalcedonian Fathers... were... concerned with removing the false limitations of the subject in the one-sided theories of the heretics. It was the heretics who were one-sided, not the Chalcedonians; it was the heretics who emphasized one aspect to the exclusion of the other, whereas the Catholic bishops merely insisted that both aspects should be given full and equal consideration. Thus the Chalcedonian Definition does not prescribe a theory of how Godhead and manhood were united in the one Christ, but contents itself with insisting that they actually were united - a fact which each of the three main types of heresy had denied. The Chalcedonians stand for equal emphasis on both the Godhead and the manhood in Christ as against the heretical emphasis of the one to the exclusion of the other.(11)

The language conveys that Jesus Christ is just as much God as he was man and just as much man as he was God. For the Chalcedonian bishops this was a nonnegotiable claim which was to be a basic presupposition of the Church forever. Fifteen centuries after Chalcedon, Karl Barth puts the same idea this way: “that God’s Son or Word is the man Jesus of Nazareth is the one christological thesis of the New Testament; that the man Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Son or Word is the other.”(12) Indeed, Jesus Christ is vere Deus vere homo.

But unlike Barth, Richardson goes on to describe this statement as the christological principle, as opposed to a theory. Whereas a theory is changeable with time, a principle applies for all times.

Thus the Definition stands .for a principle rather than a theory; and it permits the formulation of theories provided that the principle is safeguarded in them. We are free to suggest any theory about the mode of the Incarnation which commends itself to us, provided that we do not lose sight of the fundamental truth that God and man are brought together in the Person of Jesus Christ. The Definition provides us with the postulates or data of Christological theory: it does not attempt to give us a theory of its own. This is the reason why the Definition may remain for those who accept the fundamental claim of the Church - that God himself is incarnate in Jesus Christ - the classic expression of Christological truth; had the Chalcedonian Fathers attempted to formulate a theory, their work would by now be out of date, for theories must be altered by each generation as the bounds of our knowledge extend. But because they were content merely to enunciate a principle, the Chalcedonians handed down to all succeeding ages a standard by which every theory might be tested and judged. It is in this sense, and this sense only, that the Chalcedonian formula may be said to be “final.”(13)

The principle then lives forever. In Richardson’s view herein lies the once-and-for-allness of the Chalcedonian definition. Richard Norris sees this once-and-for-allness in a different way. He speaks of the significance of this definition as having established a “rule of christological language.” The formula of a definition does not give us the intricate and technical details of how, in the sense of the way Jesus Christ is “put together;” but it explains the proper way to speak of Jesus Christ. The value in the Council of Chalcedon then lies not in the notion that it provides a Christology, but rather that it provides “formal outlines of an adequate christological language.

Their differences not withstanding, both Richardson and Norris speak of a certain finality of the Chalcedonian definition. In more traditional terms, Jesus Christ represents a decisive and definitive event of all Christianity. As acknowledged by one thinker, this traditional view holds that “. . . to speak of the meaning of Jesus Christ is to speak of what is most distinctive and most decisive in Christian life and faith. The Christian religion . . . finds its center and . . . its circumference also in Christ.”(15) Without this Jesus Christ who is both divine and human, Christianity would have no content. With this Jesus Christ, as affirmed at Chalcedon, Christians have both a Lord and a Saviour.

Grillmeier observed that the (Nicene and) Chalcedon creeds clarified “only one, albeit the decisive, point of belief in Christ: that in Jesus Christ, God really entered into human history and thus achieved our salvation.”(16)

What could it mean to say that God became incarnate in the man, Jesus? In no other human being did this miraculous event occur. This occurrence was not one only to be marvelled at by Jesus’ contemporaries, but it is the critical event (reality) in all of Christian history. This being the case, feminists ask what can be said about a religious expression which make its supreme deity totally represented in one male figure through whom everyone must pass in order to be saved? The social context in which this religious perspective emerged provides some insights into this question.

B. Christology and its Social Context as Related to Women

What is this social context in which Christology emerged and developed? More specifically, what has Christology to do with the status of women within this social context? First of all, the social context in which orthodox theology arose can be characterized by the term “patriarchy.”

Patriarchy represents a condition in which men dominate women. In it reality is defined from the perspective of men and women are always relegated to secondary subordinate roles. But patriarchy “refers to more than a socially prescribed hierarchy of sex roles,” says Sheila Collins. The term connotes “the whole complex of sentiments, the patterns of cognition and behavior, and the assumptions about human nature and the nature of the cosmos that have grown out of a culture in which men have dominated women.”(17) Patriarchalism apparently is a way of looking at all of reality so that roles are not assigned to women and men arbitrarily but they represent “systematic,” “objective,” “ordered,” “logical,” and “rational” analyses. In Collins’ words, “Patriarchalism, then, refers to a metaphysical world view, a mindset, a way of ordering reality which has more often been associated with the male than with the female in Western culture.”(18) It is a “social system maintaining male dominance and privilege based on female submission and marginality.”(19)

Having been described as a conceptual trap(20) which is pervasive, patriarchy is evidenced not only throughout history,(21) but also within all aspects of our existence. “The fact is evident at once if one recalls that the military, industry, technology, universities, science, political office, and finance - in short, every avenue of power within the society, including the coercive force of the police, is entirely in male hands . . . .the Deity, “His” ministry, together with the ethics and values, the philosophy and art of our culture - its very civilization . . . is of male manifestation.”(22) It is only consistent then that Patriarchy is undergirded by ideology, biology, sociology, education, economics, force, psychology, anthropology, myth and religion.(23)

What has been the effect of patriarchy upon women? In the “95 Theses on Patriarchal Oppression of Women;” Judy Gere and Virginia Mills described what happens to women in patriarchy (tradition) in the following manner:

The experience and contributions of women throughout history [italics mine] have been ignored, distorted, and repressed, and a patriarchal bias substituted?(24)

Further, and more directly,

The experience and contributions of women to Christianity and Church History [italics mine] have been ignored, distorted and repressed with a patriarchal bias substituted.(25)

Concretely, this means that in patriarchy women’s lives are carefully controlled and contained so that, though socialization, human personality is guided along lines of sex category (the masculine and the feminine) producing sex roles that are virtually mutually exclusive.

Theology and Christology have developed in this context. Characteristically then, in theology and Christology, the male-masculine is projected as the valued entity and the female-feminine is projected as devalued entity. In effect, there is the institutionalization of dual existence.

Rosemary Ruether discusses the matter in the following way:

The psychic organization of consciousness, the dualistic view of the self and the world, the hierarchical concept of society, the relation of humanity and nature, and of God and creation all these relationships have been modeled on sexual dualism. Therefore the liberation of women attacks the basic stereotypes of authority, identity and the structural relation of “reality.” The male ideology of the “feminine” that we have inherited in the West seems to be rooted in a self-alienated experience of the body and the world, projecting upon the sexual other the lower half of these dualisms. As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out many years ago in her classic study, The Second Sex, in male-dominated societies, it is always woman who is the “other,” the antithesis over against which one defines “authentic” (male) selfhood.(26)

More concretely, some feminists explicitly are locating the problem as patriarchy and its inherent dualisms and identifying them as a primary source of human sinfulness. In doing just that, Collins discovers that “we are able to find metaphors which help to explain and to connect the various manifestations of sin, both personal and corporate, in a way that was not possible before.”(27)

Collins continues:

Such metaphors are summed up in a series of dualisms, the two halves of which are related to each other as superior to inferior, superordinate to subordinate. Male/female, mind/body, subject/ object, man/nature, inner/outer, white/black, rational /irrational, civilized /primitive - all serve to explain the way in which the patriarchy has ordered reality. As we have seen, the left-hand side of each equation has assumed a kind of right of ownership over the right. The relationship is one of owner to owned, oppressor to oppressed rather than one of mutuality.(28)

In other words, the active, strong, independent traits are associated with men and the passive, weak, dependent traits are associated with women.

This dualism or dichotomy is carried over and maintained in theology proper. In the eyes of some feminists, for example, Karl Barth’s theological system represents the epitome of theological (and social) dualism. The qualitative distinction between God and man which he borrows from Soren Kierkegaard is transferred to the qualitative (sexual) distinction (differentiation) between man and woman. This is essentially Joan Romero’s critique of Barth’s theology.(29) According to Barth, any attempt to eradicate this basic inherent sexual differentiation is to engage in “gnosis” - false spirituality.(30)

Barth’s concept of “Ordnung” (order) further illustrates the qualitative distinction.

The disjunction and the conjunction of man and woman, of their sexual independence and sexual interrelationship, is controlled by a definite order. As the attitude and function of the man and those of the woman must not be confused and interchanged but faithfully maintained, and as on the other hand they must not be divorced and played off against each other but grasped and realized in their mutual relatedness, so they are not to be equated, nor their relationship reversed. They stand in a sequence. It is in this that man has his allotted place and woman hers. It is in this that they are orientated on each other. It is in this that they are individually and together the human creature as created by God. Man and woman are not an A and a second A whose being and relationship can be described like the two halves of an hour glass, which are obviously two, but absolutely equal and therefore interchangeable. Man and woman are an A and a B, and cannot, therefore, be equated. In inner dignity and right, and therefore in human dignity and right, A has not the slightest advantage over B, nor does it suffer the slightest disadvantage. What is more, when we say A we must with equal emphasis say B also, and when we say B we must with equal emphasis have said A . . . . [Italics mine.](31)

Note that although man and woman are not the same, they are equal. Yet they are not equal as we simplistically understand equality, but they are equal in a deeper sense.(32) However, two critical words for understanding Barth’s meaning are order and sequence. It seems clear that order here is used in the sense of sequence. Because man and woman are not both A’s there must be some order in the relationship of A and B. Man and woman are not the same and sequentially man comes before woman. However, because one is not better than the other, there is mutual human dignity and right.

Next, Barth proceeds to explain the notion of order in the relationship which he has just described.

Man and woman are fully-equal [italics mine] before God and therefore as men in respect of the meaning and determination, the imperilling, but also the promise, of their human existence. They are also equal in regard to the necessity of their mutual relationship and orientation. They stand or fall together. They become and are free or unfree together. They are claimed and sanctified by the command of God together, at the same time, with equal seriousness by the same free grace, to the same obedience and the reception of the same benefits. Yet the fact remains - and in this respect there is no simple equality - that they are claimed and sanctified as man and woman, each for himself, each in relation to the other in his own particular place, and therefore in such a way that A is not B but A, and B is not another A but B. It is here that we see the order outside which man cannot be man nor woman be woman, either in themselves or in their mutual orientation and relationship.( 33)

One writer explains in Barth’s behalf that “Ordnung” has significance of sequence, not hierarchy. Clifford Green, after explaining the idea of “Ordnung” as “sequence” in terms of the superordination of man and the subordination of woman; the initiative of man and the responding of woman; the Christ-like nature of man; and the disciple-like nature of woman, finally admits “the sequence, male-female, initiative-following, simply will not do, no matter how many qualifications Barth offers.”(34) If sequence rather than hierarchy is intended, these strong/weak dualisms simply are inadequate or inappropriate because they in fact do promote hierarchy.

In light of the foregoing explanations, it is the feeling of some feminists that this kind of qualitative distinction and the idea of orders (of creation) flow naturally into a hierarchy which is simple and rigid. The order of creation is as follows according to Sheila Collins:

God = Goodness, order
Evil, Chaos.(35)

Collins locates the origin of this scheme in the period following the death of Christ. Her analysis follows the line of Romero’s argument regarding the interrelationship between God, Man and Woman. Collins puts it this way: “God is the ruler and creator of his world so man is to rule woman who is beneath him. She, in turn, rules children who are beneath her.”(36) The hierarchical images of the ruler as the superior over against the ruled as the subordinate are clearly demonstrated in Paul’s letter, to the Corinthians and Ephesians.(37) This hierarchy is a peculiar characteristic of patriarchalism.

It is not surprising then that the development of theology and Christology in this context of patriarchalism has meant that Jesus Christ has been interpreted to fit into the weltanschauung of patriarchy. Because of this, much of Christological interpretations have undergirded the oppression of women in the church and society. The question posed at the beginning of this section, “what has Jesus Christ to do with the status of women in church and society”, can be answered tentatively at this point. For some theologians, Jesus Christ provided normative evidence for legitimation of the oppression of women,(38) as we shall see in the following section.

C. Christology and the Oppression of Women

The second question must be taken up and examined. Why do many arguments supporting the oppression of women tend to be Christological? Because Jesus Christ represents the essence of the Christian faith, it is important that theologians ground their interpretations in the very nature of the faith. In this way, their analysis is believed to have greatest authenticity and authority for defining the meaning of Christianity. If we could determine that the status of women in the society was condoned by Jesus, then we could believe that the same status must be maintained now, henceforth and forevermore.

How have Christological arguments been used to support the subordinate status of women in contemporary church and society? This question can best be answered by focussing on the issue of leadership. If we look at the question of leadership in the society in general, we discover that women have been and still are systematically excluded from leadership positions in the society.(39) It is reasoned that women are the weaker sex and are psychologically, not to mention politically, unequipped for leadership. The “woman’s sphere” traditionally has been defined as the family, her roles being those of mother, wife and housekeeper. Women serve as the support structure for the leadership of men, be it in the areas of business, politics or religion.

The struggles described in Chapter I indicate that this argument is also operative in the church. Women are systematically excluded from positions of leadership for basically the same reasons as in the larger society, but with historical, biblical, and theological justifications. Although the issue of leadership is a broader one, the arguments against women in leadership are similar, if not the same, as those specifically against the ordination of women. There are churches who allow and provide for the ordination of women, yet their overall leadership privileges are stifled by various means and for the same or similar reasons that other churches do not ordain them.(40) Reginald Fuller, in discussing the pros and cons of the ordination issue, gives one argument which is often used by antagonists:

The recorded calls of disciples were all of men .... Jesus in his earthly life choose Twelve for a particular role - to be signs of the New Israel that would come into being with the advent of God’s Kingdom. The Twelve were men. If Jesus intended his church to have women ministers (leaders), it is argued, he would have included women among the Twelve.(41)

An episcopal priest writing under the pseudonym David R. Stuart brings together the Christological, the historical, the psychological, the secular and the ecclesiastical arguments against the leadership of women:

Christ himself chose men to be apostles, the early church ordained men to be priests and consecrated men to be bishops. For generations the worshipper has heard the sounds of a male voice reading the prayers of consecration, for centuries the priest-confessor has been a man. Men were and continue to be the leaders, the initiators, the heads of households familial and eccelesiastical and it would be psychologically confusing as well as historically disruptive to substitute women for that office. The long history of the Holy Catholic Church has been that of a male priesthood - this tradition is not hastily or lightly to be broken.(42)

Implicit in this argument is not only the primary question of whom Jesus chose, but who or what he, Jesus was. The political question of Jesus’ choice of twelve male disciples and later apostolic succession, is magnified by the ontological question of who/what Jesus was. As John Paul Boyer aptly puts it:

Being a Jew, being a Palestinian, being a first century man - all these are what we might call, in the language of Aristotelian metaphysics, the “accidents of Christ’s humanity”; but his being a man rather than a woman is of the “substance” of his humanity. He could have been a twentieth-century Chinese and been, cultural differences notwithstanding, much the same person he was; but he could not have been a woman without having been a different sort of personality altogether.(43)

Taking this idea a bit further, some scholars and church leaders have used the doctrine in persona Christi and the sacramental nature of the office of priest to concretize the issue.

Perhaps the most significant use of this argument comes from or through Rome. Pope Paul VI, on October 15, 1976, approved and ordered published a declaration on the question of women and the priesthood, which was presented by Franjo Cardinal Seper. In the declaration, Seper made it perfectly clear that the imago dei is a central issue in the ordination question:

The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, or symbols imprinted upon the human psychology: “Sacramental signs”, says Saint Thomas, “represent what they signify by natural resemblance.” The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally there would not be this “natural resemblance” which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man. In such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains man .(44)

Later the Catholic Church declared that because the priest represents Christ himself, he is actually in persona Christi.(45) As applied here, the argument is that because Jesus was male, his representatives, in turn, must be male also. Women do not represent that image. This is a nonnegotiable item. As Stuart asserts, “To change the sex of the priest alters the image of God . . . .”(46) With varying theological sophistication, the same line of argument has undergirded the resistance to the leadership of women in other churches as well.(47)

As we can see in this ecclesiastical controversy, the question of leadership or ordination of women is directly related to the maleness of Jesus. Theologians and Christians alike utilize christological arguments encouched in larger theological concepts as mechanism for legitimating the primacy of the maleness of Jesus. It has become critical not only that God became human, or Jesus Christ was both divine and human, but more importantly that functionally God became man, therefore Jesus was both divine and man. Consequently, it is Jesus’ maleness which is the primary characteristic which defines who is Jesus Christ - the Christology question. For this reason, Ruether is on target when she asks the question, “Can a male Jesus help woman?”(48) If it is primarily the male Jesus which has been used as the criterion for oppressing women, can women look to this same male Jesus as the source of their salvation?

This question focuses us on the discussion of the relationship between Christology and Soteriology. When Christology is done in the context of patriarchy, can this person of Jesus Christ (Christology), maleness and all, provide women with a fair share of the “benefits” of the work of Jesus Christ (Soteriology)?

D. Christology, Soteriology and Women

Reginald Fuller is consistent with traditional belief when he says that:

Christology is the doctrine of the ‘person’ of Jesus Christ. In traditional dogmatics, Christology (the doctrine of Christ’s person) precedes soteriology (the doctrine of Christ’s work). Logically this is true order. It was because he was who he was that Jesus Christ did what he did.”(49)

Theologians are often unclear on the relationship between Soteriology and Christology. While trying to claim equal importance of both, Christology so defined, seems to gain an edge on Soteriology. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that Christology is not Soteriology, and Soteriology can not lead us to Christology.(50) He explains that “The attempt to understand the person from the work is doomed to failure because of the ambiguity of the work.”(51) Bonhoeffer makes an important point when he observes that the work can only be understood in light of the person - Soteriology can be understood in the light of Christology. If the “who” is known the “what” follows. Yet, after making the separation, Bonhoeffer affirms that it would be incorrect “to conclude from this that the Person and the Work can be separated.” Still the one-sided importance which Bonhoeffer has placed on Christology as reflected in the earlier part of his discussion makes it impossible not to separate the Person from the Work of Christ. It is clear that the Person holds primary importance for some theologians who make this dichotomy, even though it is claimed that the dichotomy is for the sake of convenience. George Hendry writes that “It is convenient for purposes of inquiry to distinguish the question, who he is, from the question, what he does.(52)

The traditional split between Christology and Soteriology accents other such dichotomies, as for example, the separation between being and doing, faith and action, theory and practice. The basic question regarding the separation is, can we know the being apart from the doing? or, can we know the “who” apart from the “what”?

In a little book entitled, What Are They Saying About Jesus? Gerald O’Collins, in discussing the Christology of several contemporary theologians, located this split between Christology and Soteriology at the point of Chalcedon: “. . . Much theology that took its inspiration from Chalcedon managed to separate Christology from Soteriology, and felt happy to consider the person of Christ apart from his saving ‘work’.”(53) Chalcedon seemingly “represents Christ to us merely as an object of knowledge,” even though careful study will reveal soteriological themes undergirding the christological statements. Many theologians today would argue that there needs to be a bridging of the person and the work of Jesus Christ or what O’Collins calls ontological and functional Christology.(54) That is to say, speculations about the person of Jesus Christ have to be related directly to the historical work of Jesus.

Wolfhart Pannenberg also attempts to address this in his christological method. In Pannenberg’s view, there are two approaches to Christology "Christology from above" and “Christology from below-.” Christology from above is the type of Christology which is described earlier and which O’Collins criticizes.(55) Indeed, this was the approach to Christology which was prevalent at the Council of Chalcedon, through the position of Cyril of Alexandria. Pannenberg thinks that this method is not feasible for three reasons. First, this approach to Christology presupposes the divinity of Jesus. However, it is Christology which must present the reason for confessing the divinity of Jesus. Second, in this approach the historical Jesus is not as important as he should be. Third, this approach is possible only if the theologian is able to “stand in the position of God in order to follow the way of God’s Son into the world.”(56) Pannenberg’s designation, “Christology from below,” emphasizes the historical Jesus. This does not mean that the divinity of Christ is ignored. Though Pannenberg attempts to make a close connection between the christological question and the soteriological question, for him the christological question, that is, the “person” of Christ, is a prior one: “. . . The relationship of Jesus to God must be discussed first, and only then can Jesus as man and as the fulfillment of human existence in general be discussed.”(57) In the “total characterization of (Jesus’s) appearance, the decisive point lies in his relationship to God.”(58)

Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino acknowledges that Pannenberg’s intention “is to understand Christ in his divinity so that one may better understand the whole of reality. In the actual working out, of course, the two aspects interact with each other.”(59) Sobrino more consistently emphasizes Christology from below as he develops a Christology in the context of Latin American theology of liberation. Here, he defines Jesus as a part of the historical reality in the struggle of poor people for liberation. In employing this approach, he uses the historical Jesus as the primary focus. Early in his work, Sobrino explains why he and the Latin American liberation theologians choose to adopt the historical Jesus as the starting point for doing Christology:

Our Christology will (by starting with the historical Jesus) avoid abstractionism, and the attendant danger of manipulating the Christ event. This history of the church shows, from its very beginnings as we shall see, that any focusing on the Christ of faith will jeopardize the very essence of the Christian faith if it neglects the historical Jesus. Finally, we feel that the historical Jesus is the hermeneutic principle that enables us to draw closer to the totality of Christ both in terms of knowledge and in terms of reallife praxis. It is there that we will find the unity of Christology and soteriology.(60)

As reflected in Sobrino’s work, we see that liberation theology has brought about a shift in the approach of Christology. Christology and Soteriology are seen as inseparable. What Jesus did is inseparable from who he was in first-century Palestine. How, then, can the specific aspects of Jesus Christ be separated from claims regarding who Jesus was? For women involved in liberation, the implication of this question is far-reaching. Since Christology has been done in the context of patriarchy, what is the significance of the person of Christ, that is the maleness of Jesus, in a patriarchal society?(61) Does the person assume male personality as we understand what it means to be male in a patriarchal society?

In the light of feminist questions about patriarchy itself, feminist Christology has two tasks. First, feminist Christology must show how traditional male articulated christologies have been used “to keep women in their place,” rather than to save women. And second, feminist Christology must provide constructive means for the liberation of women by way of the liberation of Jesus from oppressive and distorted interpretations.

In executing these tasks, I would suggest that Christology and Soteriology must be held in dialectical tension; one cannot be conceived without the other. To talk about salvation or deliverance of human beings (Soteriology) apart from God’s action in Jesus (Çhristology) leads to total secularization. Conversely, to talk about Christology apart from Soteriology leads to total spiritualization (abstract God-talk).

The soteriological question remains before us: “How shall humans (and women in particular) be saved”? Since I concur with liberation theologians that Christology and Soteriology are inseparable, a given Christology must function to answer this question. Feminist Christology functions to answer this question with particular reference to women. Feminist theologians, holding that “experience is the crucible for doing theology”(62) would argue that women’s experience is the crucible for doing feminist Christology. It is as Jesus (Christology) acted (Soteriology) in the lives /experiences of women that we are able to know the salvific significance of Jesus Christ for women today.(63) The new question, a variation of the old, is, “who do [wo]men say that I am”? (Mark 8:27) Because for the most part men’s responses to the question, “whom do men say that I am”? have been tainted by patriarchalism, women must respond to the question in light of their critique of patriarchalism. Their critique has taken them back to re-thinking, reevaluating and re-writing their own experiences as women. It is only when Christology is grounded in the experience of women that we can arrive at a perspective which is equally salvific for women and for men.

E. Summary

The doctrine of Christology, from its initial formulated inception has been problematic for women. Whether taken as a basic christological principle (Grillmeier), or as “outlines of christological language” (Norris), the fact that the church teaches that God’s incarnation is uniquely represented in the historical male figure Jesus, provided for the predominance of the one-sided christological interpretation throughout the history of theology. Providing the social context for the development of Christology, patriarchy virtually insured that women’s questions would be irrelevant to christological concerns. If women are indeed to be saved they must begin to re-articulate Christology starting from the questions which arise out of their experiences. Some women have begun the process of rethinking Christology. I turn now to examine three emergent perspectives.


1. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1975), p. 12.

2. Ibid., p. 13.

3 The language issue has attracted much attention over the past few years. It is the feminist belief that language is political. Some churches have demonstrated concern for this through study on the matter (cf. Presbyterian Church, “Opening the Door.”) The National Council of Christian Churches has published Inclusive Language Lectionary: Readings for Year A (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983). The Consultation on Church Union has participated in this study (cf. “Consultation on Liturgy and Language” held at Scarritt Seminary, Nashville, Tennessee, Nov. 1981). Also see Letty Russell, ed., The Liberating Word: A Guide to Non-Sexist Interpretation on the Bible (Philadelphia: The Westiminster Press, 1976), passim. Certainly this is related to the earlier discussion in Chapter I on male experience as universal experience. As women challenge that general category so also they challenge the specific issue of language.

4. From “The Definition of Chalcedon (451)” in John Leith’s Creeds of the Churches (New York: Anchor Books, 1963), pp. 35-36.

5. For brief histories of the developments see Richard A. Norris, Jr., The Christological Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980) and Bernhard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine: From the First Century to the Present (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966). For more extensive histories see Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964); J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine (New York: Harper and Row, 1960) and R. V. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon: A Historical and Doctrinal Survey (London: S.P.C.K., 1953).

6. Arianism was named for its leader Arian, an Alexandrian presbyter, who (primarily concerned with the unity, the uniqueness and the transcendence of God) argued that Jesus Christ was among the created order, superior to other creatures but inferior to God. See Norris, Christological Controversy, pp. 17-21 and Lohse, Christian Doctrine, pp. 48-50. Arius said: “we confess one God who alone is unbegotten, alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone immortal, alone wise, alone good, alone Lord, alone the judge of all.” (quoted in Lohse, Christian Doctrine, p. 48).

The Nicene Creed not only condemned Arianism, but it also condemned other heresies which advocated any form of subordinationism or inequality - the notion that Jesus was less than or different from God, e.g., Marcionism, Originism, Dynamic Monarchianism, and Docetism. See Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition and Lohse, Christian Doctrine, p. 265.

7. From “The Creed of Nicaea (325) in John Leith, Creeds of the Churches, pp. 30-31.

8. Apollinaris of Laodicea in an early period taught that Jesus did not have a human soul, yet he was a mixture of God and man (Lohse, Christian Doctrine, p.83).

9. An Antiochene Monk and Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius challenged the use of Theotokos and proposed that it should be supplemented with the term Anthropotokos but preferred the term Christotokos in reference to Mary (Lohse, Christian Doctrine, pp.87-88).

10. Eutyches argued that there were two natures before the union and one nature after the union (Norris, Christological Controversy, p. 28).

11. Alan Richardson, Creeds in the Making: A Short Introduction to the History of Christian Doctrine (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1951, first printed in 1935), p. 84.

12. Karl Barth, “Church Dogmatics”, Vol. 1/2, p. 15, quoted in William Anderson’s Aspects of the Theory of Karl Barth (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981), p. 119.

13. Richardson, Creeds in the Making, pp. 84-85.

14. Norris, Christological Controversy, pp. 30-31.

15. John Knox, Jesus Lord and Christ (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1958), p.193.

16. Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, p.493.

17. Sheila Collins, A Different Heaven and Earth, p. 51.

18. Ibid., p. 52.

19 Elizabeth S. Fiorenza, ‘To Comfort or to Challenge. . .," p. 43n.

20. Elizabeth Dodson Gray, Patriarchy as a Conceptual Trap (Wellesley, Massachusetts: Roundtable Press, 1982). For Gray, “a conceptual trap is a way of thinking that is like a room which - once inside - you cannot imagine a world outside.” (p. 17)

21. See Ibid. for a discussion of the pervasiveness of patriarchy (pp. 19ff). Also note that several feminist anthropologists are arguing not only for the contemporary, but also for the historical pervasiveness of patriarchy. See Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, editors, Women, Culture and Society (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1974). See especially Sherry B. Ortner’s “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture”? and Joan Bamberger’s “The Myth of Matriarchy.” Ortner argues that the second-class status of women is a universal fact and the devaluation of women is associated with the devaluation of nature. Bamberger argues that “a clearcut and indisputable case of matriarchy” cannot be made given current evidence. (p. 265)

22. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (New York: Equinox Books Published by Avon, 1970), p. 25.

23. Ibid., pp. 23ff. In Public Man, Private Woman Jean Bethke Elshtain challenges the existence of an actual patriarchy particularly as employed by radical feminists. She explains the conditions of patriarchy.

The following were conditions for patriarchy historically:

1. The father’s power was absolute and, sanctioned by religion or official authority, “political” in its essence;

2. Women and children were (said) to be dutiful and obedient subjects;

3. Male children alone could inherit property, be educated, and have a public role;

4. Female children were told when they could be married, and to whom, even as they were kept uneducated, disinherited, and privatized;

5. This patriarchal structure was kept in place through a reinforcing ideology which permeated all levels of society, up to and including its absolutist monarchy.

It is Elshtain’s view that not one of these conditions exist in contemporary American society. One must then distinguish between absolute patriarchy and male dominance. However, each may be a concomitant of the other. Contrarily, others argue not only that patriarchy exists, but also that it is inevitable. Steven Goldberg posits that because of biological determinism, women are forever doomed to submission, and men are forever bearer of authority and domination over women. Steven Goldberg, The Inevitability of Patriarchy (New York: William Morrow Co. Inc.,1973/74), passim.

24. Judy Gere and Virginia Mills, “95 Theses on Patriarchal Oppression of Women,” compiled by the Task Force on Women in the Presbyterian Church, Moving Toward Full Personhood: A six-session seminar on the Changing status of women.

25. Ibid.

26. Rosemary Reuther, New Woman/New Earth (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), pp. 3-4.

27. Collins, A Different Heaven and Earth, p. 166.

28. Ibid., pp. 166-167.

29. Joan Romero, “The Protestant Principle: A Woman’s-Eye View of Barth and Tillich,” in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), pp. 319-340.

30. Ibid., p. 324, cited in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. III part 4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), p. 157. In his Church Dogmatics Barth comments on the move to change this basic reality. Attempted violations have not only been at the level of assuming the characteristic of the opposite sex but have moved to another level - “a third and supposedly higher mode of being, possible to both sexes and indifferent to both.” He continues: What is sought is a purely human being which in itself and properly is semisexual and therefore, in relation to its apparent bio-sexuality, sexless, abstractly human, and to that extent a third and distinctive being as compared with male and female. There can be no doubt that what we have here is a more sublime and lofty and spiritualized form of that movement of escape. It is no accident that this type of consciousness has been traditionally impregnated with the magic gnosis. It is a movement in which man and woman aspire to overcome their sexual and separated mode of existence and to transcend it by a humanity which is neither distinctively male nor female but both at once, or neither. Barth goes further to state: “Outside their common relationship to God, there is no point in the encounter and fellowship of man and woman at which even as man and woman they can also transcend their sexuality” (Barth, p. 157). Clearly, for Barth, neither women nor men have any way of moving beyond socially prescribed roles, which for him are divinely ordained.

31. Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/4, pp. 168-169.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Clifford Green, “Liberation Theology: Karl Barth on Women and Men,” Union Theological Seminary Quarterly, XXIX (Spring/Summer, 1974), pp. 228-229.

35. Collins, Different Heaven, p. 66. See also Elizabeth Dodson Gray, Green Paradise Lost (Wellesley, Massachusetts: Roundtable Press, 1979). In chapter one she graphs a pyramid of dominance and status which begins with God above the pyramid, followed within the pyramid from top to bottom, by men, women, children, animals, and plants. Nature appears below the pyramid. (p. 4).

36. Ibid. Romero in the previously cited article also relates this line of argument to the church’s leadership. The preacher (man) is to the church (woman) what God is to Man. As God is the highest leader, man, the preacher is the leader of woman (the congregation). The same idea is expressed by Tine Govaart-Halkes as he criticizes the argument of opponents of the ordination of women saying: They derive from the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a man and from his mandating twelve Jewish men to continue his task, that only the men of all ages can express the ministry of Jesus Christ in a more or less official and recognized way .... Woman expresses the congregation, the parish; and the man may express the minister, and so Jesus Christ. Tine Govaart-Halkes, “Developments in the Roman Catholic Church Regarding the Question of the Ordination of Women,” in What is Ordination Coming to?, edited by Brigalia Bam (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1971).

37. “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (I Corinthians 11:3). “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church his body, and is himself its Savior.” (Ephesians 5:22-23).

38. The Maleness of Jesus as normative will be discussed later.

39. This exclusion can be seen as we look at the numbers of women in leadership in both areas. In the society it is still virtually unheard of that a woman could be leader of a country (with few exceptions, India, Israel, England). Within countries, as for example the United States it is still an oddity when women are Governors, U.S. Congresspersons and Mayors, and more recently a serious VicePresidential candidate. Within the Church, unless founded by women, they are generally not in the top leadership. In both arenas, women make up a majority of the populace and a minority of leadership.

40. See Chapter I for an account of struggles towards ordination or full participation, usually meaning leadership in various churches.

41. Reginald Fuller, “Pro and Con: The Ordination of Women in the New Testament” in Toward a New Theology of Ordination: Essays on the Ordination of Women, eds. Marianna H. Micks and Charles P. Price (Somerville, Massachusetts: Greeno, Hadden & Company LTD, 1976), p.1.

42. The Rev. David R. Stuart (Pseud.), “My Objections to Ordaining Women,” in The Ordination of Women: Pro and Con, eds. Michael P. Hamilton and Nancy S. Montgomery (New York: Morehouse-Barlow Co.,1975), pp. 47-48.

43. John Paul Boyer, “Some thoughts on the Ordination of Women,” A Monthly Bulletin of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City, vol. XLI, No. 5 (May 1972), p. 73, quoted in Emily C. Hewitt and Suzanne R. Hiatt, Women Priests: Yes or No? (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), p. 62.

44. Franjo Cardinal Seper, “Vatican Declaration,” Origins, N.C. Documentary Service (February 3, 1977):6.

45. The Order of Priesthood, Nine Commentaries on the Vatican Decree Inter Insigniores, pp. 14-15. Referred to in Jewett, The Ordination of Women (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 80-81.

46. Stuart, “My Objections. . .,” p. 48.

47. For discussions of the leadership /ordination issue from interdenominational, interdisciplinary and international perspective see the following sources: Brigalia Bam, ed., What is Ordination Coming to? (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1971); See also Margaret Sittler Ermarth, Adams Fractured Rib (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970); For an episcopal view, Emily C. Hewitt and Suzanne R. Hiatt, Women Priests: Yes or No? (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973); for a Catholic view with theological and historical perspectives, see Haye van der Geer, SJ, Women Priests in the Catholic Church? (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973), translated and with a foreword and afterword by Arlene and Leonard Swidler; for objections to the ordination of women, see Michael Bruce and G. E. Duffield, eds., Why Not? Priesthood and the Ministry of Women: A Theological Study (Sutton Courtenay: Marcham Manor Press, 1972); for objections to women’s ordination based on the social roles of men and women see Stephen Clark, Man and Women in Christ, An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and Social Science (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books, 1980).

48. Rosemary Ruether, “Christology and Feminism: Can a Male Savior Help Women,” An Occasional Paper of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church, I (December 25, 1976).

49. Reginald Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1965), p. 15.

50. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), p. 37.

51. Ibid., p. 38.

52. George Hendry, “Christology” in The Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1976), p. 51.

53. Gerald O’Collins, What Are They Saying About Jesus? (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), p.10.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid., p. 12.

56. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus, God and Man (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), p. 33.

57. Ibid., p. 49.

58. Ibid., p. 56.

59. Jon Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroad (New York: Orbis Books, 1978), p. 27.

60. Ibid., p. 9.

61. It should be noted that the term used in the Chalcedon definition with respect to the human-ness of Jesus is anthropoteti. However feminists charge that functionally (and ontologically) the church has come to understand this as man (rather than human).

62. Sheila Collins, A Different Heaven and Earth, Chapter 1, Passim.

63. Just how Jesus acted in the lives of women will be discussed later, especially in Chapter 3.

Table of Contents

Preface ix
Acknowlegements xi
Introduction 1
I. Women’s Experience as the Context and a Source for Doing Theology 9
II. Feminist Christology: The Problem Stated 63
III. Biblical Feminist Christology: Jesus, the Feminist 91
IV. Liberation Feminist Christology: Jesus, The Liberator 115
V. The Rejectionist Feminist Perspective In Christology: Beyond Christolatry 151
VI. An Analysis Of Feminist Christology 177
VII. Women’s Experience Revisited: The Challenge Of The Darker Sister 195
Bibliography 231
Precis 261
Curriculum Vitae 263

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