God & the Genesis of Gender by Folke T. Olofsson

God & the Genesis of Gender

The Trustworthy Biblical Design of Man & Woman

by Folke T. Olofsson

In the Swedish National Gallery in Stockholm there are two monumental paintings that meet the eye of the visitor. They are painted by the same artist, Carl Larsson, and they both portray a king in the center of the picture. Triumphal lordship is the theme of the first. The victorious King Gustav Vasa, riding a magnificent white stallion over a drawbridge adorned with flowers, is about to enter his capital through its gates amid the cheers of his subjects.

The other painting shows a man standing naked on a sled. The sled is being pulled to the entrance of a wooden Nordic temple. Two priests are waiting for the naked man. The first one, dressed in a white robe, holds the god Thor’s hammer in his uplifted hands. The other one, clad in crimson garb, keeps a dagger hidden behind his back. The theme of this picture is sacrifice. The king of the Swedes is about to be sacrificed at the temple of Old Uppsala to secure the survival of his people, stricken by famine.

In a brilliant but far from uncontroversial way, the artist has portrayed two aspects of power, indeed, male power: lordship and sacrifice. Most would acknowledge the triumphant power. Far fewer would recognize sacrifice as an integral part of power and specifically of male power. Not surprisingly, some Swedish politicians and intellectuals did not want this painting to be on public display in the Main Hall of the National Gallery. It is easy to understand why. Its message is far too threatening, not only to those invested in the machinery of power, but also to those mistrustful of the fundamental design of the human race, to which the Christian faith attests.

But modern man no longer trusts traditional religious beliefs. In Sweden only six percent of the population still identify with traditional Christian belief and attend services regularly. Nor does modern man trust traditional social patterns. Marriage has become optional, and people of the same sex can have their partnership registered officially. He does not even trust the obvious order of nature. Male and female are “social constructions” that may be deconstructed.

Many Christian churches also reflect this loss of trust. Instead of trust in God, distrust has become the hermeneutical principle by which the churches approach God’s revelation both in the orders of creation and in the Bible.

Trust, however, lies at the heart of life. In order to live I must trust that the ground will carry me and not devour me. Every step I take is an affirmative act of a basic trust. The ground carries me. There is an abiding stability. There is a basic trustworthiness of reality that inspires trust. Why should not the Church embrace the convictions about the nature of reality, that is, the basic code and the basic design of its own faith, with the same confidence?

The Basic Code

In an article published some years ago, Harald Riesenfeld, a former New Testament professor at Uppsala University, argues that there is a characteristic Christological structure to be found more or less explicitly developed not only in the Pauline letters but in the majority of writings in the New Testament. In his view it is therefore appropriate to speak of a basic code of Christian belief—a distinctly Christological controlling paradigm of the meaning of reality.

According to Riesenfeld, the Christological belief in Jesus being the Christ in the early Church had five characteristic features:


Folke T. Olofsson is docent of theological and ideological studies at Uppsala University, and is rector of Rasbo parish in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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