(Part 3 of 4)
(continued from Part 2, “The Biblical Data on God and Sexuality”)

The previous post refuted the incorrect claim that the Bible teaches all three persons of the Trinity as quintessentially male. But what about Jesus Christ? After all, the fact that he was incarnated as a man had to mean something, right? In recent years, arguments against women’s ordination have come to rely more and more heavily on Jesus’ human gender.

Such arguments overlook the entire nature of who Christ is. More importantly, they overlook the fact that the early Christians undeniably associated Jesus with the female person of Wisdom in the Old Testament and other Jewish intertestamental literature.

In both the Greek and the Hebrew, the word for wisdom (σοφία / חָכְמָה) is feminine. In numerous places in the Old Testament, this feminine concept of wisdom is personified as a woman, sometimes with majestic and powerful language wherein Wisdom makes divine claims of herself. For example:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always[.] [1]

Wisdom was also a regular fixture of intertestamental Jewish literature such as Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom of Solomon, the result being that Wisdom as a personified divine aspect of and authorized assistant to YHWH was already an important philosophical and theological concept among the Jewish community at the time of the birth of Christ.

Throughout Christian history, Wisdom has received significant attention from figures and movements in search of a feminine understanding of God. Tina J. Ostrander summarizes:

In Gnosticism, a heresy in the early Christian church, Sophia is sometimes portrayed as a divine being superior to God, who reprimands God for arrogance. In other Gnostic texts, Sophia is a mischievous spirit who indirectly creates a world so evil that God has to rescue it by sending another emanation named Jesus . . . More recently, the Shakers have understood Sophia as the fourth person of the Godhead. Sergei Bulgakov, a Russian Orthodox priest, has taught that Sophia is the essence of the Trinity, the glue that binds Father, Son and Spirit together. Thus Sophia has been gaining popularity in Christian circles for many years. [2]

What many Christian authors who debate this question seem to neglect is that the New Testament itself firmly establishes the identity of Wisdom. Clear and intentional parallels between New Testament statements on Christ and literature describing the person of Wisdom may be found in abundance. Listed below are some of the parallels as provided by James D. G. Dunn:

In some passages, Christ’s identification with Wisdom is even more direct. Paul speaks to the Corinthian church on “Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God.” [8] Similarly, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is quoted as teaching the people: “Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” However, the parallel teaching in Luke’s gospel is attributed directly to the “Wisdom of God.” [9]

These passages reflect traces of the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the feminine person of Wisdom. Thus Dunn summarizes:

It is clear therefore that the tradition of (pre-existent) Wisdom has been influential at many points in NT christology. In some earlier (i.e. Pauline) passages it may be no more than that language or exegesis has been prompted by specific language or some particular exegesis used in the Wisdom tradition. But in other cases there can be little doubt that the role of Wisdom is being attributed to Christ . . . What pre-Christian Judaism said of Wisdom and Philo also of the Logos, Paul and the others say of Jesus. The role that Proverbs, ben Sira, etc. ascribe to Wisdom, these earliest Christians ascribe to Jesus. That is to say, for those who were familiar with this obviously widespread cosmological speculation, the implication was presumably clear: Jesus was being identified as Wisdom. [10]

The biblical evidence clearly favors an identification of Sophia as Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity.

The identification of Jesus with the feminine figure of Wisdom adds an entirely new dimension to the debate on God and sexuality, effectively refuting the assertion that the God of the Bible is never personified as a woman as well as the conclusion that the Scriptures exclusively use masculine titles and pronouns for God. Male headship advocates [11] are fond of arguing that “[b]iblical, masculine language for God . . . is God’s chosen self-revelation of his identity” [12] and that “[i]f one maintains a high view of the inspiration of Scripture, he or she is compelled to acknowledge that the way the Scriptures present God and His character must be consistent with the way He desired to make Himself known.” [13] If male headship advocates wish to be consistent in their views, they must now acknowledge that the biblical revelation of Christ as the feminine figure of Wisdom is as much a part of how God has chosen to make himself known as any of the masculine pronouns or titles. [14] They must retreat from the position that God is exclusively masculine.

Given the depth and variety of opinions among biblical egalitarians and feminist theologians concerning the identity of Wisdom, it is important to clarify the nuances of this position. While this argument does advocate for a literal understanding of Jesus Christ as the person of Wisdom while in his pre-incarnate form, it does not follow that “Jesus is the incarnation of some female deity.” [15] In his divine, pre-incarnate state, the Second Person of the Trinity was neither exclusively masculine nor exclusively feminine, so New Testament writers do not err when they describe the pre-incarnate Christ as both the feminine Wisdom (σοφία) and masculine Word (λόγος) of God. In those cases—as with all of the masculine and feminine descriptions for God in the Bible—gender is not the issue; function is. Sexuality is little more than a secondary tool employed by biblical writers as part of the task of relating an infinite, transcendent God into terms and concepts that can be grasped by temporal, limited human beings. [16]

This leaves Jesus’ maleness as a function of his human nature, not his divine one, and so we return to the argument that women cannot serve as pastors or priests because they do not reflect Jesus’ gender. But if sharing in Jesus’ human attributes is a requirement for pastoral leadership, why should “male” be the only attribute that matters? Why not require pastors and priests to be Jewish, just as Jesus was? Why not require them to be carpenters by trade, or Palestinian? If sharing in Jesus’ human attributes is a necessity for church leadership, the only humans who could ever serve as pastors and priests would be first century Palestinian Jewish carpenters born in Bethlehem and descended from the tribe of Judah. The absurdity of this position quickly becomes transparent.

It therefore follows that Mary Daly’s condemnation of male deity has no power over the Christian who rejects the idea that God is a divinely masculine being. Jesus’ sexuality was a function of his humanity, not his divinity. Women do not need to share a gender with him in order to be liberated by him or image him any more than they need him to share a race or an eye color. Rather, he liberates us by being the God who liberates us, and we can image him because in his image we are wonderfully made.

(To Be Concluded in Part 4, “Does Jesus’ Gender Role Limit His Omnipotence?”)

Part 1 — The Shack and the Gender of God
Part 2 — The Biblical Data on God and Sexuality
Part 4 — Does Jesus’ Gender Role Limit His Omnipotence?
Note: This blog series is being adapted from a paper that I wrote for Dr. Thomas McCall’s “Theology II: Christ, Man, Sin, Salvation” class in May 2010, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The paper was called, “Does Jesus’ Gender Role Limit His Omnipotence?: A Study of Sexuality and the Incarnation.” Limited parts were also used in my 2016 master’s thesis on Mormonism, gender, and theology.

[1] Proverbs 8:22-30, New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Tina J. Ostrander, “Who is Sophia?,” Priscilla Papers 8.2 (Spring 1994): 29. In addition to the examples provided by Ostrander, in recent years, Mormons scholars have attempted to identify Sophia with their own concept of Heavenly Mother. See Kevin L. Barney, “How to Worship Our Mother in Heaven (Without Getting Excommunicated),” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 41.4 (Winter 2008): 134.

[3] James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996), 164.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 165.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 166.

[8] 1 Cor. 1:20, NRSV.

[9] Matt. 23:34-35, NRSV; cf. Luke 11:49-51a.

[10] Dunn, 167.

[11] Christians who oppose the ordination of women do not all call themselves by the same homogenous term. Evangelicals who take this position currently tend to identify as “complementarians,” but that label is a fairly recent innovation, having been adopted c. 1986. Prior to that they were known simply as “traditionalists” or “hierarchists.” Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and a good number of Anglican Christians who oppose the ordination of women tend to identify as none of the above; for them, advocacy for female ordination represents a feminist incursion into what is or has been their standard position and there is no need to create a special category for what they consider to be historic orthodoxy. For the purpose of this series, I have identified those who oppose the ordination of women as “male headship advocates.”

[12] Randy Stinson and Christopher W. Cowan, “How Shall We Speak of God? Seven Reasons Why We Cannot Call God ‘Mother,’” Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 13.2 (Fall 2008): 20.

[13] Mark David Walton, “What We Shall Be: A Look at Gender and the New Creation,” JBMW 9.1 (Spring 2004): 25.

[14] When I wrote this paper in 2010, I searched and was able to locate at least two attempts by male headship advocates at responding to the problems that Wisdom Christology poses for their theology, neither of which adequately engaged the depth of the scholarship on the matter. See Micah Daniel Carter, “Reconsidering the Maleness of Jesus,” JBMW 13.1 (Spring 2008):34-36 as well as Jack Cottrell, “The Gender of Jesus and the Incarnation: A Case Study in Feminist Hermeneutics,” in Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood [electronic PDF file] (cited 12 May 2010), 8. Carter seems genuinely aware of the issues surrounding egalitarian usage of Wisdom Christology, offers a decent summary of their arguments, and acknowledges that he cannot cover the scope of the issue in the space of his article. He then lays out some brief objections to their position, namely: (1) that Wisdom Christology advocates disagree among themselves on the extent of their conclusions, which is true but quite beside the point. Disagreement on the specifics among scholars who agree on a general theory is hardly a noteworthy phenomenon in the academic world, and it’s precarious for evangelical complementarians—who can’t even agree on things like whether women can serve as deacons or Sunday school teachers—to cite disagreement as cause for dismissal; (2) that Wisdom Christology “cannot sustain itself under proper biblical exegesis and sound hermeneutics,” but he fails to offer any clear engagement showing how Wisdom Christology has missed the mark on these grounds. Cottrell fares much worse. He spends several paragraphs issuing blustery dismissals of a few key Wisdom Christology passages while openly stating that he thinks the idea is too ridiculous to warrant serious engagement, then likewise waves off the extra-biblical Jewish Wisdom literature altogether—as if cultural context is not an important principle of sound exegesis (!). Having offered only mild interactions with all of two scholars on the matter, he then denounces Wisdom Christology as “flimsy” and moves on. The field was wide open for male headship advocates to offer a thorough, robust engagement with egalitarian usage of Wisdom Christology when I wrote the paper in 2010, but I have not revisited the topic since.

[15] Carter, 35.

[16] It is also of note that theories to the effect that Christ is somehow feminine are hardly the exclusive domain of feminist theologians. The late Elisabeth Elliot, an outspoken complementarian who was regularly cited favorably by Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood authors, also took the position that Jesus Christ was the feminine member of the Trinity. See Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be A Woman (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1982), 60. And Julian of Norwich (AD 1342 – 1416) taught, “Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him ­ and this is where His Maternity starts ­ And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us. Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.”

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