1997-11-3 Christology and Feminism

Eric Paul Lemonholm

November 3, 1997

TH 222: Systematic Theology II

Professors Ellen Charry and Bruce McCormack

Christology and Feminism

The theologians Elizabeth A. Johnson and Rosemary Radford Ruether develop powerful critiques of classical Christology, and they reformulate Christology in the light of feminist thought.  I will argue that Johnson and Ruether develop a necessary corrective for Christology.

“The basic problem,” as articulated by Johnson, is that “Jesus Christ has been interpreted within a patriarchal framework.”[i]  Jesus Christ is seen through the lens of “the patriarchal household and imperial empire,” and thus “the powerful symbol of the liberating Christ” loses “its subversive significance.”[ii]  When Christ is understood from within an androcentric anthropology, the maleness of the person Jesus is taken as a sign that men are more fully created in God’s image than women, and thus that men are superior to, even more fully human than, women.  In addition, this androcentric view, if correct, would mean that women’s salvation is in doubt, for as is stated in the Christian theological tradition, “What is not assumed is not redeemed.”[iii]  That is, if Jesus’ male sexuality is intrinsic to his being fully human, fully expressing the image of God, and redeeming all humankind, then women are not saved, because Christ does not assume their sexuality. 

Ruether clearly articulates the contours of the androcentric Christology.  The Logos (Word) was the Greek term used for expressing both “the immanence of God and the ground of the visible cosmos.”[iv]  Hellenistic Jewish thinkers spoke of “The Logos of Sophia (Wisdom)” as “God’s self-manifestation by which God created the world, providentially guided it, was revealed to it, and through whom the world was reconciled to God.”[v]  According to Ruether, early Christians linked the Logos with the Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One, identified as Jesus of Nazareth).  While it is natural to see the Logos of Sophia in inclusive terms, early Christian theology took shape within its patriarchal Greco-Roman cultural context.  Logos is tied to the notion of Christ as Son, and the term “Sophia” is virtually abandoned (repressed, suppressed) in favor of God as Father.  In themselves, Father (especially, perhaps, as Abba), and Son (a male child-in-relation with parent) are appropriate theological symbols, in my judgment.  Used exclusively, in an androcentric context, however, the terms reinforce the heretical tendency to think of God as male. 

Many early church fathers (itself a revealing term) held the “idea of woman as body,” which presupposes the notion of “the male as the one who ‘looks at’ woman, controlling and defining her as bodily object.  The male is ‘mind’ or subject, and the woman is body or object.”[vi]  In this dualistic schema, men represent rationality, divinity, ethical purity, the good, Form, spirit; while women are seen to embody irrationality, evil, moral weakness, matter, flesh.  Woman as body is the image of all that a dualistic spirituality seeks to dispense with: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” asks Paul, who elsewhere wrote that man “is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.” [vii]  Thankfully, these passages are not Paul’s only thoughts about embodiment and women.  The important question is, are we to go with an androcentric (dualistic) or an egalitarian anthropology?  How one answers that question makes all the difference.  What is the alternative outlined by Johnson and Ruether?

Jesus’ maleness, argues Johnson, is as important to Jesus’ identity as “his race, class, ethnic heritage, culture, his Jewish religious faith, his Galilean village roots, and so forth,” but not more important than these other factors.[viii]  Every element of Jesus’ embodied life is important for who Jesus is, but Jesus’ sexual identity is not essentially connected with his role as Savior.  That Jesus had a Y chromosome is essential to Jesus being Jesus, but not to Jesus being the Christ

Johnson makes the same connection as Ruether between Jesus and Sophia.  She stresses that Wisdom is (or was) the fundamental idea that guides theological reflection on Jesus’ ontological status vis-à-vis God.  “None of the other biblical symbols used—Son of Man, Messiah, Son of God—connotes divinity in its original context, nor does the Word.  But Wisdom does,” writes Johnson.[ix]  The doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity find their source in (and today ought to be informed by) the Jewish understanding of Divine Wisdom.  Johnson looks at Jesus through a hermeneutical lens informed by Sophia, with her “characteristic gracious goodness, life-giving creativity, and passion for justice.”[x]   

Jesus is the “child” of Sophia, embodying the message that “God is the God of all-inclusive love who wills the wholeness and humanity of everyone, especially the poor and heavy burdened.”[xi] As the incarnate Wisdom of God, Jesus’ life and work reveals “new possibilities of relationships patterned according to the mutual services of friendship.”[xii]  A new way of being in the world emerges, a community in which both women and men share equally.  Jesus crucified is, moreover, “the exact opposite of the patriarchal ideal.”[xiii]  Johnson rejects the idea that the crucifixion is “required by God in repayment for sin.”[xiv]  Instead, she understands the crucifixion as a sinful act by men in the context of patriarchy, in reaction to Jesus’ message of good news for the poor and oppressed.  Jesus’ execution is “a dialectic of disaster and powerful human love through which the gracious God of Jesus enters into solidarity with all those who suffer and are lost.”[xv]  The resurrection of Jesus is itself a divine mystery that ­elicits faith that in the end all is not lost, that “overwhelming evil does not have the last word,” but that the Spirit of life will bring life where there is death, relief where there is suffering, justice where there is oppression.[xvi]  Finally, those who are in Christ, the followers of the risen Christ in the world, are now, by the Spirit, the body of Christ as men and women, slave and free, from all nations. 

Ruether refutes the “new church-world split,” an indefensible division made between the church and its cultural context.[xvii]  John Paul II, for example, understands women’s status as created in the image of God to merit equality in the secular realm, while at the same time denying that women “image Christ,” and thus should not be allowed to be ministers in the Church.[xviii]  Ruether argues that this kind of dualism obscures the connection between Christ and creation in our theology, a connection seen when one holds to a consistent egalitarian anthropology.

I fully embrace Ruether and Johnson’s critiques of androcentrism, and I embrace an egalitarian anthropology.  The maleness of Christ, therefore, ought to give me, as a man, no soteriological, ecclesiastical, or societal advantage over women.  To the extent that classical Christology is patriarchal, it needs to be reformulated.   Johnson’s understanding of Jesus as the child and prophet of Sophia is a helpful recovery and reformulation of the biblical Wisdom tradition.

When I compare these authors’ work with, as an example, Dr. McCormack’s lectures on Christology, it is not so much that his work and theirs contradict one another, as that they are involved in different conversations.  In Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, she reworks Christian theology from a feminist perspective.  The basic understanding that theology is faith seeking understanding, says Johnson, “must be rooted in the seed-bed of practice and must lead in turn to salvation in the concrete.”[xix]  The understanding aimed for is not divorced from the world but engaged in it.  Johnson’s theological stance explicitly “makes an a priori option for the human flourishing of women” in the face of the evils of patriarchy.[xx]  I accept her starting point in theology, inasmuch as one must always do theology in, through, and for one’s context, in conversation and solidarity with others, especially the poor and marginalized.  Johnson’s option for women’s concerns is analogous to Luther’s hermeneutical key to reading the New Testament: the reader “must be shown what to expect in this volume, lest he search it for commandments and laws, when he should be looking for gospel and promises.”[xxi]  Luther’s option for the good news, like Johnson’s option for women’s flourishing, is both grounded in Scripture and an interpretive key to Scripture.

Thus, when I listen to and read Dr. McCormack’s lectures, I find them compelling and coherent, and yet he seems to be in a different world than Johnson and Ruether.  He has explored Christological issues for a semester, in conversation with the great classical theologians, and yet he has not, according to my memory, mentioned the significance of the Wisdom tradition for Christology.  I cannot imagine Johnson doing so.  Moreover, while I think Johnson tries hard to remain orthodox vis-à-vis Scripture and the creeds, her interests do not seem to include McCormack’s: thus the lack of attention to the doctrine of the atonement. The option or interpretive key underlying McCormack’s Christology seems to be the basic systematic option for logical coherence in the context of his theological tradition.  This is not a criticism, in that coherence is an important goal of theology.  Coherence is not, moreover, McCormack’s only interest, as his lectures on justification by grace and sanctification make clear.

I am not convinced, therefore, that these perspectives are mutually exclusive.  For example, McCormack’s exposition and defense of Barth’s Christology[xxii] could be reformulated in the light of the biblical Wisdom tradition.  There is nothing essentially androcentric in Barth’s Christology, as outlined by McCormack.  In addition, Johnson’s reformulation of the Trinity in terms of Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Mother-Sophia can be compatible with Barth’s notion of God as the “Self-determined” God who “chooses Himself for us.”[xxiii]  Similarly, Barth’s notion that in Christ “God has chosen wrath, judgment, rejection for Himself so that He might choose us for Himself in grace and mercy”[xxiv] does not necessarily contradict a feminist understanding of the atonement.  While it is true that Aquinas’ notion of the divine “unity of operation” eliminates the possibility of “cosmic child abuse,”[xxv] one must also avoid the possibility of cosmic suicide.  Therefore, one must take seriously Johnson’s contention that the crucifixion itself was an evil act by people in the context of imperial patriarchy.  God chose wrath for Godself, but responsible humans carried out the evil act.  Thus, one can speak of the “Crucified God” (Moltmann), but not the crucifying God.

In conclusion, a major corrective to classical Christology provided by Ruether and Johnson is similar to the corrective found in Dr. Charry’s lectures on the incarnation of Christ.[xxvi]  To focus on the doctrine of the atonement and classical Christology is often, it seems, to ignore the biblical witness to the life of Jesus.  The doctrine of the incarnation can at least focus one on the question, “Who is this God revealed in Jesus?”  Similarly, Johnson and Ruether clarify the character of Sophia, who is revealed (and concealed) in Jesus Christ.


[i] Elizabeth Johnson, “Redeeming the Name of Christ,” in Freeing Theology, ed. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, San Francisco: Harper, 1993, p. 118.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., p. 119.

[iv] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Can Christology be Liberated from Patriarchy?” in Reconstructing the Christ Symbol, ed. Maryanne Stevens, New York: Paulist, 1993, p. 8.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., p. 11.

[vii] Rom. 7:24; I Cor. 11:7.

[viii] Johnson, “Redeeming the Name of Christ,” p. 119.

[ix] Ibid., p. 121.

[x] Ibid., p. 122.

[xi] Ibid., p. 123.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid., pp. 126-7.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 124.

[xv] Ibid., pp. 124-5.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 125.

[xvii] Ruether, “Can Christology be Liberated from Patriarchy?” p. 22.

[xviii] Ibid., footnotes 1, 35, pp. 25, 29.

[xix] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is, New York: Crossroad, 1992, p. 17.

[xx] Ibid., pp. 17, 18.

[xxi] Martin Luther, “Preface [to the New Testament],” in Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, New York: Anchor, 1962, p. 14.

[xxii] Bruce McCormack, “Alexandrianism of a Higher Order: the Christology of Karl Barth,” lecture, Princeton Theological Seminary, September 24, 1997.

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 32.

[xxiv] McCormack, “The Meaning of the Cross: A Typology of Atonement Theories,” lecture, Princeton Theological Seminary, October 6, 1997, p. 44.

[xxv] Ibid., p. 43.

[xxvi] Ellen T. Charry, “The Person of Christ is the Work of Christ,” two lectures, Princeton Theological Seminary, September 29 and October 1, 1997.

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