Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“God & the Genesis of Gender” first appeared in the September 2001 issue of Touchstone.
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:
The author dismisses the widespread scholarly opinion of today that this Christological picture emerged in congregations of the first and second generation of the Christian movement as a result of a complicated process of interpretation and speculation, for there are far too many difficulties involved in this hypothesis. These difficulties could, however, be resolved if the exegetes were prepared to ask the basic question again: “whether a bulk of these sayings—all of them attributed exclusively to Jesus in the gospel tradition—have in fact been pronounced, as it is described in our sources, by Jesus himself.”
Historic Christianity holds that Jesus himself, and not some unknown creative theologians in anonymous congregations in the early Church, is the originator of this basic code. A characteristic feature of this Christological structure is also that it is firmly grounded and rooted in the Old Testament. This is and has always been the belief of the Church.
In stark contrast to this understanding of a basic code stand the opinions of the American Jesus Seminar, which contends that most Christians’ picture of Jesus Christ is, in fact, radically mistaken, because it “is an imaginative theological construct, into which have been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth—traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the firm grip of those whose faith overpowered their memories” (“The Gospel Truth,” Time, April 8, 1996). If one believes, as the members of the Jesus Seminar do, that only 18 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels may have actually been spoken by him, the picture of Jesus in the end dissolves in the acid of distrust. If the Church loses her trust in the basic code, she will eventually lose her identity by being wide open to all the projects and agendas of the secularized world and society.
Trusting the basic code is another way of saying that the Church should retain a fundamental and permanent trust in that which makes her understand reality. God’s revelation in his Word, which at the most profound level is the Incarnation, is the basic code for an adequate understanding of the world as God’s creation. The world is not simply there. It is created. The Incarnation represents as a pars pro toto the whole of God’s action in Christ, which is the revelatory code to an adequate understanding of all reality. The Incarnation, God becoming man, means a final divine yes and amen to the whole created order. As Christians we have to take “all things visible” seriously.
If we have in mind the double aspect of the Word of God, signifying both the revelation given in Scripture and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Logos by whom all things were made, the Word made flesh, we shall be able to approach the protohistory contained in the first three chapters of Genesis in a theologically appropriate way.
As Christians we have a basic trust in the Word who became flesh. As Christians we also have a basic trust in the word of Scripture, which echoes and resonates to the Logos. The first three chapters of the Bible are a part of the divine revelation. The creation is not something you can understand apart from this revelation. In these chapters, man, by God’s teaching, learns something that he would not have known otherwise. The Word of God focuses our attention on the creation of mankind, what it means to be human—man and woman—and what it means to be human—man and woman—in relationship to the divine. Here we encounter the basic design.
With a basic attitude of trust toward Scripture, we do not play different stories against one another. What the Bible tells in different stories forms a whole to be embraced and welcomed rather than deemed suspect and discarded.
Genesis & the Sexes
In the first chapter of Genesis, after a Trinitarian counsel (v. 26), man is created in the image and likeness of God, and that God created mankind male and female. There is in this statement an obvious equality between male and female as God’s image. Sexual differentiation is there from the very beginning as a part of the goodness of creation, standing under God’s original blessing. The two sexes belong to the essential createdness of man, the basic design.
In the second chapter, another story is told, which in a wonderful way completes the other. Man, adam, is created from the dust of the earth, adama, and becomes a living creature when the Creator breathes his Spirit into him. But man is alone. As God’s representative he has the God-given power to name things, categorize, grasp reality, and assume authority over it, but something is missing. The revelatory story goes on to tell how God causes a deep sleep to fall over Adam. It is a mysterious, ecstatic sleep. And out of Adam’s, the earth-ling’s side, God makes him someone to meet him, to help him.
It is deeply significant that this wonderful new creature is taken from his side, not from his head, his hips, or his feet, but from the side where his heart is. She is in the deepest sense of the word his part-ner. And as Adam has assumed authority over God’s creatures by calling them by name, he now gives his helper the name woman, because she is taken from man. This is both an act of taking authority over and an expression of the most intimate relatedness. In this story there is an equality between man and woman as they have the same nature and belong to the same kind. Yet, there is also an apparent hierarchy: a headship and a submission.
The story about the creation of man and woman is not something that remains in the past. The relationship between the sexes in creation is actualized and manifested in every marriage. The union between a man and a woman in marriage belongs to the original and basic design.
Some people find this story of the creation of woman from man highly discriminating and want to ban it from the Bible. The fact is, however, that this story is presented throughout the scriptural record as fundamental, having God’s own sanction and attestation. Together with the text in Genesis 1, it gives some of the basic features of God’s revelation on the nature of man, male and female, and their relationship to one another and to God. In the first story, the likeness with God and their mutual equality in relation to God are emphasized. In the other story, the difference between male and female is accentuated. Woman is defined in her relation to man, and there is a hierarchy in the relationship between man and woman. It is important to keep both aspects in mind when trying to understand biblical anthropology.
Without taking the third chapter of Genesis into account, any presentation of the biblical understanding of man would be incomplete. The Fall changes the conditions for the whole creation. Becoming like God without God was the goal of man’s sinful action. He was destined to become like God. That was according to God’s will and not sinful per se. Here man tried to seize this godlikeness for himself on his own terms, without God, violating the divine will as expressed in his command.
Some theologians have also suggested that the Fall means an upsetting of the God-given hierarchy of creation. Original sin is understood as “the woman taking over authority from the man, and the man saying and doing nothing to stop it” (Michael Harper, Equal and Different, London, 1994). This may well be so. Knowing good and evil in the Old Testament sense means setting one’s own standards, like God. Upsetting the God-given order in creation may well be a part of this. The doctrine of original sin, however, has a wider scope, and this violation of a divine order is rather a symptom than the whole cause.
When God declares his judgment upon sinful man, it is highly significant that the consequences of sin affect man in his manhood and woman in her womanhood, as well as the relationship between man and woman. Man’s God-given creativity, which is a part of his being created in the image of God, is affected both in its aspect of work and in the aspect of procreation. Work becomes onerous and unproductive. Procreation in the sense of giving birth becomes painful. The harmonious hierarchical order, the original partnership between man and woman, already given in creation, will now lapse into man’s domineering over women.
Man & Woman in Christ
Jesus Christ, the Incarnated Word of God, does not in any way abrogate the orders of creation. He rather strengthens them, as with marriage. In his teachings he also sets new standards and deepens significant Old Testament themes—e.g., the use of wedding imagery in his teaching—which is clearly reflected in the apostolic writings. St. Paul especially binds together orders of creation with orders of salvation and places Christ as the intermediary and the one who keeps them together. This is particularly evident in his understanding of the Church and the relationship between man and wife in marriage.
In dealing with decorum in public worship in the church in Corinth, St. Paul makes reference to the order of creation. He wants the Corinthian Christians to understand that “Christ is the head of every man, man is the head of woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3), and he establishes his argument by referrring to the story about the creation of woman. For Paul there is a given hierarchy: God, Christ, man, woman. But this hierarchy of headship and submission must not be understood in any repressive sense. The tenderness in the relationship between man and woman and the fundamental interdependence—“she is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”—are clearly reflected in this passage: “Woman cannot do without man, neither can man do without woman . . . woman may come from man, but man is born of woman—both come from God.”
Life in Christ does not mean that the God-given hierarchy between man and woman, established in the story about the creation of woman from man, is abrogated. This hierarchy remains and is even tied to the relationship between the Father and the Son. Thus, the relationship between man and woman is patterned after Christ and his example. This is particularly obvious in the passage in Ephesians 5, in which the author pointedly makes a connection between the relationship between man and wife and the relation between Christ and the Church, Christ being the Bridegroom and the Church being his Bride.
“Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of [belief in] Christ” (v. 21).1 Man and wife are admonished “to go under the order [taxis] which exists in the belief in Christ.” There is an order to submit to, which has been there since creation and which still remains in Christ. Wives are exhorted to submit themselves to their husbands as their heads, just as the husbands, and the Church, submit to Christ, the Head. This is traditional language. But when it comes to the husband’s relation to his wife, the language of mutual submission is no longer used. Now, there is a very specific language of sacrificial love and self-giving. Man in marriage in relation to his wife has Christ in his sacrifice on the cross as pattern and prototype.
Here we can clearly see the pictures in the hall of the National Gallery in Stockholm portraying male power understood in a Christian way. In one picture, man is greeted in his triumphal power and lordship; in the other, man is about to give his life literally in sacrifice. Both are true, but together they represent the Truth we see in Christ.
The hierarchical order given in creation, restated in Christ in salvation, is the Christian understanding totally determined by a self-sacrificing love. In Philippians 2 we can clearly discern this pattern. Christ is depicted as the one who does not try to grasp likeness to and equality with God, as Eve and Adam, representing fallen humanity, once tried to do. They tried to ascend to heaven and become gods. Christ is the one who reverses this movement of human hybris by relinquishing his godlikeness. He descends; he empties himself (kenosis); he is obedient even unto death on the cross. Here we encounter the kenotic pattern, fundamental and essential to all Christian life and discipleship.
Headship and submission between man and wife within the kenotic pattern open up vast theological horizons. Together, they have someting important to tell us about the relationship between man and God.
It is not possible to understand the Christian view of man’s grandeur and misery if one does not focus on Mary, the Mother of God, as contrasted with Eve. Mary is the representative of mankind, as is also Eve, and in a human sense Mary reverses the disobedience of the Fall. She is more like Christ and unlike Eve when she does not try to grasp equality with God on her own terms. Mary does not set her own life projects and personal plans for self-fulfillment before the will of God. She listens to the word and promise of God, she is willing to become God’s servant, and she believes. Eve, by her actions, said no to God. She did not accept her position in the God-given hierarchy; she perverted her role as a helper by luring her husband to transgress God’s command and thereby brought ruin upon herself and mankind.
Mary is God’s partner and helper as she declares herself to be the handmaiden of the Lord. She accepts this role according to the order of creation, and in this submission she brings the greatest of all blessings into the world by becoming the Mother of God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. Christ is born like any other man, but he is conceived in Mary’s womb by an immediate creative act of God through the Holy Spirit.
No human being ever before met God in such a wondrous way as Mary. And yet, this conception is, in a way, what happens every time faith is kindled in a human heart. Through the word and promise of God, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, is conceived in Mary. God is growing as a fetus and as a child in her womb. Mary said yes to God and believed. She could have used her human freedom by saying no. But she, being “highly favored,” enters into the realm of total freedom by saying yes to being God’s servant. She is, without any reservation, open to God’s action in and through her.
She serves as an example for both men and women, encouraging them to take their right positions in God’s order of creation and salvation. Therefore, she also shall be called blessed by all generations. By her own life, she serves as a model, inspiring men and women to open up their lives in trust and belief in God’s action, offering themselves as servants of the Lord for the blessing of mankind.
Husband, Wife & the Trinity
Headship and submission between man and wife and the kenotic pattern of self-giving and service belong to an even greater theological complex, as they also touch our very understanding of the Holy Trinity.
The Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware writes:
In the Orthodox understanding of God, there is a strong emphasis on the unknowability of God in se. God dwells in a light unapproachable to man. Any attempt at defining God in God’s essence is futile. Yet, there is also a strong emphasis on God’s self-disclosure. Man can only hope to attain an understanding of God from what God has been pleased to reveal about himself in his economy of salvation. And God has made himself known from what he has done.
According to the orthodox, traditional Christian understanding of the Trinity, the Son is born of the Father before all times; he has also been born into the world by the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The Spirit proceeds from all eternity from the Father and is sent into the world by the Father through the Son. The Father is neither born nor proceeding. Although the Father and the Son are of the same substance (homoousios) and the Spirit is worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, which is another way of saying that the Spirit is also of the same substance, the Father is yet the source and head of the Holy Trinity. Thus, there is a unity and an equality of Persons within the godhead, Father, Son, and Spirit, as well as a diversity and submission of functions or roles between the Divine Persons.3
If manhood and womanhood are to be apprehended in the light of our understanding of the Trinity, it should not, then, be surprising if we shall find that there exists an essential equality between man and woman, grounded in the economy of the Trinity, as well as “a functional inequality,” a differentiation of roles, also grounded in this economy. God is one, and God’s action is one, but within this one action there is the economy of the Son and that of the Holy Spirit. Man and woman are one in equality, but there is “an economy of the man” and “an economy of the woman” that have to be lived out in the family and in the Church. Manhood and womanhood are not simply identical and interchangeable, but together under the conditions of the created order, man and woman reflect and represent the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
It would be quite off the mark to suggest that this “hierarchy,” which the Christian faith recognizes in the Trinity between the Father and the Son and the Spirit, would be oppressive or degrading. Self-giving love lies at the heart of the Trinity, and this pattern of unity and yet diversity, equality and yet submission, permeated by an outgoing and self-giving love—the basic code—which we have seen in the Trinity, can readily be understood as the basic design of the relation between man and woman in the Church and in marriage.
The Questions We Face
Nothing so far has been said about the ordination of women to the priesthood or to the episcopacy. Would such ordination be in accord with the biblical testimony? Is there any biblical testimony pertaining to this much disputed question?
If one reads the biblical texts about the relationship between man and woman (and does not shun “hierarchical” statements about headship and submission, for example), it should be obvious to the unbiased reader that the plain sense of the texts and the overall picture that emerges from these texts speak against the ordination of women.4 Thus, exegetically the case is clear. The first issue is whether the texts will be allowed to speak for themselves as they are. Related to this issue is, of course, the question of how we put these texts into practice in the Church and in the family.
The next issue is whether these texts are at all relevant, applicable, and binding for the Church today. This is another way of asking questions about the authority of Scripture and the nature of God’s revelation. If one decides that the texts about the relationship between man and woman in the family and in the Church are irrelevant and obsolete, one has the obligation to present the principles and the criteria for one’s interpretion of Scripture and to demonstrate that they are legitimate and justifiable. That is not an exegetical but a hermeneutical issue, and it involves the fundamental questions about the identity of Christian belief.
In many respects, it seems as if the contemporary Church is confronted with the same question that Jesus once asked his disciples: “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29). Is the New Testament a result of a complicated process by which the majority of the words and actions ascribed to Jesus in reality turn out to be the products of anonymous, creative theologians and, thus, can be molded anew in new contexts? Or does the New Testament resound with the words of him who is the Incarnate Word of God? That is not a hermeneutical but an existential religious issue, which calls for decision and commitment.
In the end, the issue about the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopacy seems to be whether one has a trust in the basic code and design or not.
Thus, there is an important theological task of ecumenical dimensions lying before us. Together, we need to rediscover and vindicate, especially among those who claim to be Christians, the biblical understanding of manhood and womanhood. Christians who have lived in countries dominated by ideologies with conscious and programmatic attempts to enforce equality and interchangeability between men and women, replacing family, marriage, and the upbringing of children within the family with new institutions, values, and ideals, may have a special competence and prophetic calling to contribute to this theological work involving doctrinal aspects of women’s status in the Church, historical aspects of women’s ministry, and principles to be used in establishing women in ministries other than the priesthood and episcopate.
If this work is carried out with a trust in the basic code and the basic design, it will no doubt guide and strengthen local churches and individual Christians of good will around the world in their encounter with and witness to a secularized, egalitarian society.
1. For a detailed exegesis of this passage, see Bertil Gärtner: Das Amt, der Mann und die Frau im Neuen Testament (1963), p. 21ff. Also in English (private print without date), Didaskolos: The Office, Man and Woman in the New Testament, translated by John E. Halborg.
2. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 216.
3. In Equal and Different: Male and Female in the Church and Family (1994), Michael Harper, following Kallistos Ware, op. cit., points out very strongly and convincingly that the Orthodox understanding of the Trinity will help to clarify the relationship between man and wife and their roles in the Church and in the family.
4. E.g., 1 Cor. 14:34–38; 1 Tim. 2:11–15; Gen. 3:16; 1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:22ff.; Col. 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1. The way Jesus acted in choosing his apostles from among men conforms entirely with these texts.
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.
“God & the Genesis of Gender” first appeared in the September 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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