Gender and Theology series: Introduction

Sargent - Black Brook

Here is the table of contents for the series:

1. Introduction

2. Serene Jones and Feminist Theory

3. Karl Barth on Man and Woman

4. Implications for the Homosexuality Debate

5. Implications for Women’s Ordained Ministry (Charlotte von Kirschbaum)


Over the course of this week, I have planned and already written a series of posts on gender. A particular interest of mine has been the way that feminist and queer theology has aligned itself with a liberationist account of human freedom. This is an apparently self-evident account of human freedom and flourishing, over and against “force” (power) that underwrites societal norms.

My interest in this subject goes back several years, while an undergraduate in Religious Studies, working my way energetically through Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a text that I’ve returned to at various points in my intellectual pursuits. Now, Foucault is somewhat passé, as academics have found his reduction-to-power approach a bit limiting, to say the least, for their pursuit of life-giving prescriptive norms that are valid for all. Yet, transcending this problem is tricky, given that the construction of identities (including, perhaps especially, gender) is still demonstrated in feminist/queer literature using the language developed by Foucault and associated post-structuralists and, more broadly, erstwhile Nietzschean existentialists. Here is a taste of Foucault, defining society’s “individualization” and creation of “souls” through techniques of power:

A ‘soul’ inhabits him and brings him to existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body. (p. 30)

We will see echoes of this in Serene Jones, a leading Reformed feminist theologian, who I will use as a foil to argue against. Jones represents a noble, but to my mind flawed, attempt to develop a normative and prescriptive account of gender that appropriates the best insights of feminist critical theory, while warding off the contradiction inherent in critical theory’s attempt to account for moral action. This contradiction is ably summarized by Todd May:

Since what are being criticized are social practices, and since the ground of criticism is also a social practice (the social practice of moral discourse), and since all social practices are products (at least in part) of power relations, what is it about the social practice of moral discourse that renders it capable of passing judgment on other practices? (The Moral Theory of Poststructuralism, pp. 7-8)

Jones is not satisfied with a moral discourse that reduces to nothing other than the process of constructing norms, but I am not persuaded that she is actually able to do otherwise, given her commitment to feminist theory’s baseline conclusions. This leaves us with a hollow account of woman (and man) and an anthropology that is woefully underdetermined by either dogmatics or exegesis. It is clear that, for Jones, feminist theory provides a source and authority for theology that stands beside and in-conjunction with theology proper — a liberationist ethic that is then discovered in Scripture and developed in her Reformed account of sanctification. In other words, she happily discovers common themes in both fields.

Unfortunately, this effectively demotes the authority of Scripture and, as to my thesis, undermines the covenant form of creation that grounds the Pauline construction of gender identity and gender relations. Given that statement, perceptive readers will not be surprised that the hero of my story is Karl Barth and his account of man and woman in Church Dogmatics III.4. This is an unjustly maligned and, often enough, misunderstood piece of dogmatic reflection on the (yes!) liberation of man and woman in the covenant of grace. This takes the form of a definite ordering of man toward woman (super-ordination) and woman toward man (sub-ordination), an ordering which is not reversible or interchangeable. Yet, the material content of these categories (of super- and sub-ordination) are not to be filled by natural typologies, which marks Barth’s account with a tremendous amount of sensitivity toward feminist concerns. The covenant form of creation is the sole authority for a truly Protestant and evangelical doctrine of man and woman (Eph 5, 1 Cor 11, etc.). The exegetical basis for this doctrine makes impossible the sort of “radical equality” commonly offered by those who discover a more normative apocalypticism in Paul which, in this view, he could unfortunately only partially implement (and, in our day, we can wholly implement).

I will have the table of contents for the series at the top of each page, for easy navigation.


Image: “Black Brook” by John Singer Sargent


  1. Are you familiar with St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”? It is a theological anthropology that transcends both traditional patriarchy and extreme forms of secular feminism. Via what he calls “the spousal meaning of the human body,” it may provide a solid foundation to resolve some vexing issues of human sexuality, including the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
    Let us pray that all the Christian churches will be able to discern the difference between patriarchal ideology and revealed truths, and act accordingly.

    • Yes, I’m very familiar with JP2’s theology of the body, and I am very grateful for it. There are ideologies associated with both patriarchy and feminism, which I do believe that revealed truth is able to transcend. I have not done a comparison of JP2 and Karl Barth’s theologies of gender and sexuality, but that would be a fruitful exercise I am sure.

      There will be some differences insofar as Barth eschews “natural theology” and “natural law,” at least the sort that is governed apart from special revelation, but they do read Paul in similar ways — namely, marriage as an icon of Christ and the Church, necessarily differentiated (“gendered”).

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