In my recent Barth reading group (with several Presbyterian pastors in Charlotte), we had a fun discussion about whether Barth has a consistent trinitarian theology. As most of y’all know, Barth rejects the language of “person” as it tends to divide the singular divine subject into three distinct willing agents. Thus, the current push-back against social trinitarianism has hailed Barth’s theology on this point. Yet, the Church Dogmatics is replete with trinitarian language that seems quite serviceable to a social trinitarianism. Here is a very good example:

In Himself He does not will to exist for Himself, to exist alone. On the contrary, He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and therefore alive in His unique being with and for and in another. The unbroken unity of His being, knowledge and will is at the same time an act of deliberation, decision and intercourse. He does not exist in solitude but in fellowship. Therefore what He seeks and creates between Himself and us is in fact nothing else but what He wills and completes and therefore is in Himself. [CD II.1, p. 275]

The context is Barth’s discussion of God’s perfection as the One who loves in freedom. Here, Barth is using God’s immanent and eternal life as a loving fellowship as proof that God has no need to create in order to have the fullness of love. Yet, because his act is always a demonstration of his essence, the fellowship he seeks with us is “nothing else but” the fellowship he has in himself. The remarkable thing is how Barth describes this fellowship (of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as an act of “deliberation, decision, and intercourse.” With these terms — especially “deliberation” (!) — it is no wonder that many leading advocates of social trinitarian models were also avid readers of Barth, working to extend his project (and correct it or radicalize it, as seen fit).

Bruce McCormack will say that this language is metaphorical and not to be taken literally (see, for example, the first of his Kantzer Lectures), and he may be right. After all, that would be consistent with Barth’s rejection of the pactum salutis in classical Reformed theology because, among other reasons, it implied two or three distinct subjects (oh, let’s say, deliberating!). Yet, it is still rather difficult to conceive of a singular divine subject deliberating with himself and loving himself as “another” and making intercourse with the other modes, et cetera, and not use a basically social trinitarian apparatus.

New Header

January 27, 2013

I have created a snazzy new header for the blog! It’s probably been at least 3 years since I changed it.  So, especially for those who read through a feed (Google Reader et al.), be sure to check it out.

W. G. T. Shedd

Few topics introduce more spirited discussion, in systematic theology circles at least, than the question of whether God can suffer without compromising his deity. While not going as far as Moltmann, I have a definite fondness for kenotic christologies and a wariness about impassibility. This puts me out of favor in the current theological climate, where there has been a definite shift back toward classical orthodoxy in all of its Western-Augustinian monotheistic glory! (See Stephen Holme’s latest book for a fine example.) With this debate in mind, I was intrigued upon finding the following in Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology:

Though it was God the Son, and not God the Father, who became incarnate, and suffered, and died, it by no means follows that the first person of the Trinity made no self-sacrifice in this humiliation and crucifixion of the incarnate second person. He gave up to agony and death, his “dear,” and “beloved” son. …No person of the Godhead, even when he works officially, works exclusively of the others. …

And this does not conflict with the doctrine that the Divine essence is incapable of suffering. The Divine impassibility means that the Divine nature cannot be caused to suffer from an external cause. Nothing in the created universe can make God feel pain or mystery. But it does not follow that God cannot himself do an act which he feels to be a sacrifice of feeling and affection, and in so far an inward suffering. When God gave up to humiliation and death his only begotten Son, he was not utterly indifferent, and unaffected by the act. It was as truly a sacrifice for the Father, to surrender the beloved Son, as it was for the Son to surrender himself. [Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2, pp. 386-387; underlining mine]

So, the distinction is between (1) suffering by an external cause or (2) suffering by an internal cause. Shedd rejects the former as incompatible with “impassibility,” a term he wants to uphold, while the latter is deemed compatible with impassibility. Now, I am far from an expert on this topic, but I am sure that many advocates of impassibility would say, “Nope, nice try.” Impassibility means that God cannot suffer — the idea of suffering being utterly incompatible with the idea of God — regardless of whether this suffering is externally caused or self-imposed. Then comes the idea that the Son suffered in his humanity only, not in his deity, and other bizarre distinctions that I don’t understand.

I like Shedd’s parsing of the term. It reminds me of something Barth would do (e.g., God is unconditional in his essence, but he chooses to be conditioned by his creature — as in prayer).


Image: William G. T. Shedd (image source: wikipedia)

Rosaria Butterfield

January 19, 2013

It is not very often that you hear a conversion story of a feminist-lesbian professor, at a major research university, who converts to evangelical Christianity and marries a Reformed Presbyterian pastor. I’m especially heartened that her talk is filled with obvious integrity, warmth, and intelligence. Here it is:

I really appreciate her comments (beginning at the 53 minute mark) that Christians need to be willing to learn from those outside the church — not pretending that we are the only ones who “have the goods” to offer to others; instead, “we need to be willing to be in a reciprocal relationship with people who scare us, and we need to be willing to really think through whether we are scared for good reasons or whether we just have been telling each other a bunch of ghost stories.”

Axel Haig - Burgos

Philip Nielsen has a nice article on Balthasar’s aesthetics:

“Depicting the Whole Christ: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sacred Architecture”

Here are a couple of my favorite points:

For Balthasar, a Church totally devoid of images is not something that could concentrate the eyes of the congregation purely on Christ (as many Protestant and even some Catholic thinkers would assert), but is rather much more akin to a Gospel in which half the parables of Christ were removed.


…sacred art and architecture should avoid taking on merely human dimensions, seeking rather to preserve the “dissimilarity” between God and his creatures. Sacred architecture’s first duty is to create a sense of “spacing” between God and man. The church, but especially its sanctuary, must clearly depict a distance between God and his creatures. A church that looks like a living room makes an awareness of the difference between Creator and creature more difficult to perceive—it makes it an act of near heroic virtue. “Spacing” can be achieved first and foremost by scale, ornamentation, art, and architectural cues such as rails, screens, stairs, or curtains. All of these elements, insofar as they make the glory of God more clear to the participant, express true beauty. This beauty must lead to God, however, not simply to an aesthetic experience. “The awareness of inherent glory,” writes Balthasar, “gave inspiration to works of incomparable earthly beauty in the great tradition of the Church. But these works become suitable for today’s liturgy only if, in and beyond their beauty, those who take part are not merely moved to aesthetic sentiments but are able to encounter that glory of God.” [Balthasar, New Elucidations, 136.]

Nielsen is a Phd candidate in architecture at Texas A&M and previously studied theology and architecture at the graduate level at the University of Notre Dame.


Image: Catedral de Burgos, by Axel Haig (1835-1921)

Of Monsters and Men

January 16, 2013

It’s nice to hear Of Monsters and Men getting considerable airplay. As I am always propagating music in order to make the world a better place, here you go:

This is live from the KEXP studio in Seattle. Click here for the official music video.

In order to change the video quality, click the sprocket on the lower right.


Kirschbaum and Barth

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)


Charlotte von Kirschbaum assisted Karl Barth for decades in the production of his Church Dogmatics. She provided much of the research necessary for the frequent excursus on historical and exegetical matters. Perhaps most importantly, she provided a deep friendship and encouragement for Barth in this massive task of writing the Church Dogmatics. Kirschbaum devoted her life to this project, remaining unmarried and living in the Barth household. She was fully committed to its importance in the life of the church.

Her own writings that have been translated into English deal with, as given in the title, The Question of Woman.  It would be fascinating to know how much she influenced Barth’s writing of “Man and Woman” in Church Dogmatics III.4. Based upon her own writings, they were in profound agreement, and the reader will notice several emphases from CD III. 4 repeated in The Question of Woman:

  • Man is not solitary but essentially male and female.[1]
  • The validity of “earthly patterns of order” insofar as they are understood as “permission” (grace) and not as law abstracted from grace.[2]
  • The exegesis of Paul’s use of “headship.”[3]
  • Woman is not “passive” but freely acting.[4]
  • There is no “neutrality” beyond male and female, for the single person is also shaped by this encounter with the “partner,” and indeed the single person experiences it more.[5]
  • Love is defined as seeing the other as “a condition of one’s own existence.”[6]

I am particularly interested by her thoughts on the ministry of women, where she creatively applies this understanding of gender to the question of women’s ministry. Kirschbaum will argue in favor of women’s ordained ministry, but not on any grounds that would erase the differentiation of male and female or their particular ordering. She begins with a look at the priesthood of all believers:

In the New Testament we do not find any concept of office [as in Roman Catholicism and some Lutheran teaching]….There is no priestly “profession” in the primitive church: the official priesthood of the old covenant, with its monopoly of access to the holy, has been abolished through the unique sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Now everyone who belongs to the church enjoys the same access to the Lord. They are all of them “taught by God” (1 Thess 4:9), they have all “received the Spirit” (Gal 6:1).[7]

This, by the way, would be a proper interpretation of Gal 3:28. Yet, how is this reception of the Holy Spirit to be manifest in the church, given the headship of the male and the subordination of the female? Before this can be answered, we must understand Kirschbaum’s understanding of subordination. It is to be determined by Christ, just as the headship of the male is to be determined by Christ. Christ in relation to the Father “is the very essence of subjection,” but as “the Lord to whom everything is subject” he “exists in unqualified superiority” as the head. Christ is therefore the model for both super-ordination and sub-ordination. For the woman, this means:

Within the framework of earthly order woman stands over against man in obedience, that is, within this framework she is the subordinate partner, determined by the other. In the apostle’s eyes this position is certainly no less valuable and no more disadvantaged a position: it is Christ’s position in relation to the Father; it is his, the apostle’s — and the church’s — place in relation to the Lord. …On the one hand, Christ is the model of all obedience and subjection bears witness to the obedience of women and their position of subjection; on the other hand, as exalted Lord and the head of all power and dominion, he determines the higher position of men. It is true: man is the head of the woman; but it is true within this crucially important set of brackets that transforms everything. Christians should know this.[8]

Kirschbaum reads this (in 1 Cor 11) as a necessary corrective by Paul to a misunderstanding in Corinth — a misunderstanding arising from the Spirit’s bestowal equally upon all, male and female. The Corinthians had spiritualized marriage and wanted to dissolve the earthly distinctions between man and woman. In the strongest terms, Paul re-asserts the significance of the body and of the created order, while giving it a thoroughly christological interpretation.

The “subjection” of the woman, Kirschbaum rightly complains, has been “loaded with preconceptions that do not correspond with the apostle’s intentions,” and these can take either a progressive or a reactionary determination:

In both cases one “knows” from the outset who the men and the women are, and the framework of order in which both have been placed. In both cases one has one’s agenda, whether an aggressive or a passive one. It is therefore understandable if some experience the exhortation to subjection as an outrageous unreasonable demand, while others claim it as confirmation of their clueless, and to a considerable extent, ripely bourgeois, indolence.[9]

By contrast, the natural order (in the duality of male and female) only “reveals its true meaning and ultimate justification” as a “parable” of grace and, therefore, receives its determination — its command — in the one Lord, Jesus Christ.[10] Thus, the command to women to be subject to men is a command that they receive, not from men, but directly from Christ. Likewise, the command to men to have the “priority” in this ordering is not a command that they receive from women (or from themselves!), but directly from Christ.  Therefore, the form or model in which each, in their distinct commands, discern their activity as male and female is Christ alone — not any other model of “masculinity” or “femininity” (not even “Marian woman”).[11]

Thus, the ordained ministry of woman is likewise to retain the significance of this duality, of this analogue, to the covenant of grace. Woman is not to think of herself as taking the place of a man, as if their identities as male and female could be dissolved or interchanged in ministry; rather, she is to minister as woman (though not necessarily as “feminine” understood as “an enhanced contribution of a psychological nature!”).[12] Yet, it is precisely this ministry of women that has been absent in the church (especially keeping in mind the time of Kirschbaum’s writing: 1940’s and 1950’s). Kirschbaum looks at how “the richness of earlier voices has disappeared,” as the polyphony of gifts that flowed freely in the earliest apostolic congregations, in both male and female, has now been replaced by the lone voice of the ordained (male) minister. Whereas it once made sense for woman to witness to her subordination through “keeping silent,” in response to the spiritualizing of sexuality; her voice, as once given in prophecy and tongues and hymns, has been significantly lost. As she asks, “Can silence still be a form of witness among people who do nothing but remain silent?”[13]

If the place of woman in the church is to serve the church and edify the church, as with all members of the church, then the call to ministry by a woman must follow this test:

The test of this calling will be that her participation is seen as being necessary for the sake of building up the church, as was woman’s willingness to remain silent in the time of the early church.[14]

The particular form this will take, for the woman, is her “divinely appointed” position as corresponding to that of the church and, therefore, “less liable to usurp authority” or “to cast their ministry in an authoritarian mold, meaning, moreover, that they will be less inclined than men to be tempted to allow the authority of the Word to be overshadowed by the authority of their person.”[15] For Kirschbaum, what this ordained ministry of woman will look like is still to be charted, but it is clear that grasping for authority or seeking “anxiously to safeguard a ‘monopoly’ of the proclamation of the Word” is not the form it should take.[16] She looks to the widows of 1 Tim 5:10 as a model of working in charity, expanding our conception of ministry of the Word beyond merely preaching, thereby “bridging the gap that has opened up between church and clergy.”[17] Kirschbaum offers other ideas but is careful to note that these are “suggestions” and not a strictly delineated “program of action.”

In closing, I think it is instructive to consider how women’s ordination was actually approved in the mainline churches from the 1950’s to 1970’s. It is safe to say that for many proponents of women’s ordination, a model of liberation and equal rights was dominant. Given this model, it is not surprising that this same model has now served the arguments for gay marriage in our churches. With Kirschbaum, we have a different model for understanding gender and the grounds upon which women’s ordination could be affirmed, and these are in opposition to any of the current “rights” models (or “apocalyptic” models for that matter). A failure to make this distinction — between the good (Kirschbaum) and the bad (Jones) grounds for affirming women’s ordained ministry — has left the “traditionalists” in the mainline churches without a sufficient gender model that would allow for women’s ordination yet oppose gay marriage. As such, we are left picking-apart Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Cor 6:9, while practically ignoring Eph 5 and 1 Cor 11, where we actually have the christological and covenant model for gender identity and gender relations that underwrite the traditional view of marriage.

[1] Charlotte von Kirschbaum, The Question of Woman: The Collected Writings of Charlotte von Kirschbaum (trans. John Shepherd, ed. Eleanor Jackson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 56.

[2] Ibid., 63.

[3] Ibid., 64-65.

[4] Ibid., 66.

[5] Ibid., 67-68.

[6] Ibid., 69.

[7] Ibid., 95-96. See also pp. 175-183.

[8] Ibid., 101.

[9] Ibid., 193.

[10] Ibid., 193-194.

[11] Ibid., 196.

[12] Ibid., 198.

[13] Ibid., 197.

[14] Ibid., 198.

[15] Ibid., 199.

[16] Ibid., 200.

[17] Ibid., 201.


Image: Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth (source)

oil lamp

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)


According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman.”[1] The Confession of 1967 relates this union to the purposes of God in creation: “The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind.”[2] The current controversy dividing the Presbyterian Church is a question of whether the ordering of these two persons, in marital fidelity, is predicated upon a necessary and intrinsic ordering of persons by their gender. Is the gender binary of male and female of the essence of marital and sexual union? Given the significance of this question of gender, it is peculiar that fellow “traditionalists” (not my favorite term) in our denomination have focused so intensely over the biblical passages that explicitly reference homoerotic unions, to the relative neglect of Paul’s model of a covenant ordering in our creation as male and female. As we argued with the help of Barth, this is an ordering established by God, as a similitude of his covenant purposes for creation. It is here, in dogmatic reflection on the nature of God and his creation, that we understand the purpose of our differentiated and irreversible ordering as male and female.

Thus far, we have spent considerable time discerning a proper theological paradigm for understanding gender. If our account of gender is successful, and is faithful to the apostolic authority that must underwrite such an account, then it is a serious question of whether homosexual unions can model the marital union exhibited by Paul in Eph 5, 1 Cor. 11, and other passages. This would not be a difficulty if we were to discover a “radical equality” in Paul, understood as an identity of the genders, but Paul does no such thing. The same Paul who wrote Gal. 3.28 is the same Paul who patterned the relations of male and female on the headship of Christ in the church (not, by the way, on Mosaic or levitical law). To make things concrete — as Paul always does — a marital union of male-male or female-female would pose the question of who is head and who is body, or who is bridegroom and who is bride, or who is to model the self-donation of Christ and who is to model the receptivity of the church (i.e., the covenant). This is the ordering that makes the union of male and female a beautiful witness to the covenant of God. It also, as we argued along with Barth, protects against the sort of self-dependency of the male that dominates in machismo cultures — so long as the male pattern is the sacrifice of Christ for the sake his bride, not for his own sake. In this covenant, and here alone, we know τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν of male and female, to use the language of Romans 1:26-27, is not merely the complementarity of their sexual organs (although important as a witness to God’s command). It is also an ordered union of super- and sub-ordination for the mutual fulfillment of both because, as Barth states, “It is the order of freedom for both.”[3]

[1] Chapter 24. Likewise, the Second Helvetic Confession, chapter 29.

[2] 9.44 in The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This statement is likely influenced by Karl Barth’s account of man and woman in Church Dogmatics III.4.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 (eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), 173.


Image: An oil lamp, recalling the parable in Matthew 25:1-13.

Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth

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)


[I had originally planned to divide the material on Barth into two posts, but I have opted to condense it into one post.]

Karl Barth identifies man (humanity) as essentially male and female. We have no access to a common human nature, beyond male and female. Thus, there is no man who is not “necessarily and totally man or woman,” which also requires us to say that there is no man who is not “necessarily and totally man and woman.”[1] This follows for Barth because “structurally and functionally it [male/female binary] is too clear and serious to be a mere variation upon a theme common to both – a neutral and abstract humanity which exists and can be considered independently. Man never exists as such, but always as the human male or the human female.”[2] In reference to Gen. 2:18, Barth grounds this differentiation within the created order as a revelation of the covenant unity of man and woman, whereby the woman is created as “helpmeet” for man, through whom and for whom he discovers himself as male and both together as human:

He can only be an I through and for this Thou. The Thou which is not an I and is therefore constitutive for the I is woman. Thus man in his divinely created sexuality is a similitude of the covenant, which rests upon the fact that God Himself does not will to be alone but with man and for him, with and for His people….[3]

As a differentiation that is grounded in the covenant work of God, Barth is then careful to distinguish this ordering of the sexes from any natural typologies that go beyond what Scripture prescribes for male and female. As an example, Barth uses Emil Brunner’s elaborate statement of masculine versus feminine types:

The man has to go forth and make the earth subject to him, the woman looks within and guards the hidden unity….the man must build, the woman adorns; the man must conquer, the woman must tend; the man must comprehend all with his mind, the woman must impregnate all with the life of her soul.[4]

The problem with such a statement is that the formal categories of masculine and feminine, and thereby male and female, have been given material content based upon natural observations and wholly underwritten by such observations, not by the self-disclosure of God in covenant relationship. The result is “a rather malicious caricature” that is “quite impossible.”[5] Exhibiting some feminist sentiment, Barth affirms that the protest against this caricature – man is rational, woman is intuitive and emotional, etc. – is justified because it is based upon the false authority of a natural theology. It is here that Barth would agree with much of what Serene Jones and other feminists have targeted as oppressive modes of gendered identities, limiting the full capacities for which both men and women are gifted by their Creator. As long as “masculine” is defined in terms of power and domination, and as long as these terms are defined through natural typologies of what it means to conquer and subdue, then the command of God is wholly lost and substituted for a false idol. Yet, is it necessarily the case that any gendered differentiation must be defined in oppressive terms? Are binary gendered identities reducible to social forces and cultural mores and, thereby, reducible to power structures that enfranchise one over the other? That is the challenge. The goal in feminist strategies is not really toward a distinct male and female identity but, rather, toward a liberated human identity beyond male and female (or where male and female are accidental phenomena of self-expression and techniques of power). The value of Barth’s approach, as it is rooted in covenant relationship, is that we are given a means to challenge both the false idol of socially constructed male/female identities, in large agreement with feminists, and the equally false idol of a liberated and autonomous human nature beyond gender, in large disagreement with feminists. The result is a differentiated ordering of male and female, yet in opposition to the natural typologies that fail to communicate the love and common mission of God’s covenant – the archetype for marital union.

The weakness of a liberationist imagining of the human person, as Jones advocates, is that it merely seeks to “emancipate” the female, enjoying heretofore “male” privileges, and therefore is still operating on a basically natural typology of the sexes. In other words, the feminist critique fails to transcend the problem, because it still wants to play the roles of liberation and autonomy, as if these are readily understood human values. For Barth, the freedom of each person, male and female, is not readily understood apart from the revelation of Jesus Christ in covenant fidelity. Here, and only here, is the true freedom in which the human is fulfilled. The command of God is not addressed to each person, male and female, with the same task or the same privilege, and thereby interchangeable; rather, each is distinctly tasked and differently related in the covenant ordering of male and female. Barth defines this in terms of “openness to the opposite,” which is a “mutual orientation” with “each being for the other a center and source.”[6] Each finds in the other the fulfillment of the human image in God insofar as each is oriented to overcome this opposition – this otherness – in a union of perfected love and fidelity. Barth explicitly identifies this gendered identity of the human as the image of God in man: “That God created man as male and female, and therefore as His image and the likeness of the covenant of grace, of the relationship between Himself and His people, between Christ and His community, is something which can never lead to a neutral It….”[7] As the covenant of grace, the image of God in man involves a distinct sequence, an A and a B, where A is wholly self-gift and B is wholly receptive of this gift. This is the “definite order” in which male and female is comprehended along covenant lines. As Barth explains:

They stand in sequence. Man and woman are not an A and a second A whose being and relationship can be described like the two halves of an hour glass, which are obviously two, but absolutely equal and therefore interchangeable. Man and woman are an A and a B, and cannot, therefore, be equated. In inner dignity and right, and therefore in human dignity and right, A has not the slightest advantage over B, nor does it suffer the slightest disadvantage. …A precedes B, and B follows A. It means preceding and following. It means super- and sub-ordination.[8]

This ordering of preceding and following is not something that male and female discern for themselves; therefore, the common task to which this ordering is oriented is not something that they discover but, rather, is revealed to them in the love of Jesus Christ for his bride, the Church. It is here that we comprehend the scope and orientation of A and B, preceding and following, male and female. Thus, the position which the male occupies is not one of privileged dominance over the female for his own gain. Rather, as Barth states, “This order simply points him to the position which, if he is obedient, he can occupy only in humility…taking the lead as the inspirer, leader and initiator in their common being and action. He cannot occupy it, then, for himself, let alone against her, or in self-exaltation, let alone in exaltation over her and therefore to her degradation….”[9] This precedence is a “primacy of service,” and therefore any exploitation of this primacy, whereby the woman is degraded or abused, is a form of disorder and a failure to serve their joint witness to the covenant love of Christ for his Church.[10] For the woman in this ordering, she is called to “actualize the fellowship” through her reception of this self-donation of the male, following him in their common mission. “To wish to replace him in this, or to do it with him, would be to wish to not be a woman.”[11]

The exegetical basis in which Barth grounds his understanding of this ordering of male and female finds explicit christological support, beyond (though including) the creation narratives, in Paul’s discussion of headship in 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5. In his first letter to the Corinthians (11:3), Paul declares that “the head [κεφαλὴ] of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (NIV), which is followed by a discussion of head coverings and hair lengths that witness to this gendered differentiation. Barth comments, “What is the κεφαλὴ apart from that of which it is the κεφαλὴ? But it is still the κεφαλὴ, so that in this relation there obtains an order, and indeed an irreversible order, in which the other is subordinated to this κεφαλὴ.”[12] Barth then notes that κεφαλὴ can also indicate the source or cornerstone, and not merely authority, yet the ordering still obtains as the one is placed in a sequence of precedence to the other. A fuller expression of this headship is given in Ephesians 5:21-33, which begins with a call to mutual submission (as he does in 1 Cor 7:3-5 and 33-34), yet immediately followed by a nonetheless clear statement of headship, whereby mutual submission is not understood as interchangeable roles but, rather, as deference to the needs and desires of the other, in common service to God: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…. In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.” This is followed by a call to marital union (one flesh) — “a profound mystery” that witnesses to the union of Christ and the church (vv. 31-33). In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul illustrates this care which a husband must have toward his wife, and vice versa, which Barth describes as “reciprocal adaptation and obligation.”[13] At this level, there is indeed a mutual subordination within the super- and sub-ordination that orders their common life toward God. This distinction requires us to define “subordination” and “submission” in each context: as mutual, it involves adaptation and obligation of each to the other; as ordered in terms of headship, it involves the obedience (subordination) of one to the other, as the church to Christ. For Paul, the former does not exclude the latter, or vice versa. This distinction will clearly not satisfy those who find all ordering of super- and sub-ordination along gendered lines as inherently oppressive. Yet, as long as super-ordination is defined in terms of self-sacrifice and self-donation on the part of the male, with Christ’s sacrifice for his bride as the archetype, then Barth (and Paul) can hardly be called a defender of a machismo patriarchy where the male is exalted and self-sufficient in his dominance over woman (sexually and otherwise).

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 (eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), 118.

[2] Ibid., 117.

[3] Ibid., 149.

[4] Ibid., 152. Original citation in Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt (trans. Olive Wyon; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1947), 358-359.

[5] Ibid., 153.

[6] Ibid., 163.

[7] Ibid., 158.

[8] Ibid., 169.

[9] Ibid., 170.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 171.

[12] Ibid., 173.

[13] Ibid., 147.


Image: Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum

Sargent, Street in Venice

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)


Serene Jones, currently the president of Union Theological Seminary, will be our guide for understanding the categories at play in the feminist critique of gender norms. But first, here is a quick note about the term, “norms.” It is a much-debated term and can bear either a descriptive meaning or a prescriptive meaning, and often both at once. As descriptive, it can be used to define merely what is the case in most circumstances; as prescriptive, it is used to define what ought to be the case. For feminist critics of gender norms, the target is prescriptive norms, especially as they are manifest at the descriptive level and either enslave (limit) or marginalize those who do not benefit from the norms. Through the eyes of feminist historiography, it is the male who has benefited, the female who is limited, and the queer who are marginalized.

This concern is at the heart of the feminist critique of “gender essentialism.” Essentialism believes that there is an “essence” of what it means to be male and what it means to be female, and these essences are distinct and cannot be interchanged. As an “essence,” each gender is a part of nature which we discover and is, thereby, irreducible to anything other than itself. As irreducible, it cannot be said that social, cultural, political, or economic forces are the creators of these essences; rather, they exist prior to any such social forces. As Jones explains, “Essentialist views of women historically appeal to a ‘natural state of affairs’ as the basis for claims about universal features. These features are believed to be inherent in all women, meaning that they are not produced by cultural training, learned conventions, or social expectations but are natural.”[1]

This understanding of a “natural state of affairs” involves what feminists call the “sex-gender scheme,” wherein the gender of a person is determined by his or her sex. Gender is defined as the self-understanding of the individual as male or female, whereas sex is defined as the biological determination of male or female. Jones defines the sex-gender scheme as “a tendency in Western thought to identify sexual difference with both biological/physiological dimensions (sex), and dispositional/psychological and social characteristics (gender).”[2] From the perspective of most feminists, this scheme marginalizes, therefore oppresses, those who do not exhibit either the psychological traits of their sex-assigned gender or the biological traits of their gender (especially with the variations in intersex physiology). Lastly, essentialism involves a complementarity in the gender binary of male and female: “Women and men are also differentiated by complementary traits: women are emotional and men rational, or men are assertive and women receptive.”[3] It is here that feminist criticisms are most acute because it is here that the “essences” of male and female are given material content.

In response to this gender essentialism of complementary traits, feminists have responded with the project of gender “constructivism.” This constructivism discerns the ways in which norms have been determined (constructed) by various historical and inter-personal forces. Society determines gender, and therefore gender is ultimately reducible to this power wielded by society, family, and peers. Jones explains:

What these [feminist] theorists share is a profound appreciation for the constitutive role of nurture or socialization in the construction of “women.” Feminist constructivism can be defined as a theory that focuses on the social, cultural, and linguistic sources of our views of women and women’s nature.[4]


For feminist constructivists, “selves” are no longer assessed and measured by universals but are viewed as dynamic products of vast cultural forces. To emphasize this, feminists refer to the self not as a stable entity but as a kind of “site,” “terrain,” “territory,” or “space” through which cultural constructs move, often settle, and are frequently contested and changed.[5]

By identifying the manifold ways in which gender has been constructed, and continues to be constructed, feminists can discern the ways in which women have been limited by predetermined possibilities for them as women. For example, as long as women are intuitive and not rational, the expectations for them are to be nurturers and not educators. Since these possibilities are constructed and not inherent in them as women, they can be challenged as the forces of power and oppression, not justice and liberty. However, this constructivism has its limits, as Jones recognizes: “If no single description of women’s lives is correct and all are equally valid, what standards are available for assessing harm or the nature of justice and injustice in women’s lives?”[6] In order to countenance harm or injustice, moral relativism proves woefully inadequate. The solution which Jones offers, borrowing from Luce Irigaray, is a project of “strategic essentialism.” The concern here is to have something positive to say to women as women in order to facilitate the emancipation of women from oppressive prescriptive norms. This strategic essentialism still uses the tools of constructivism to identify modes of oppression and their sources, yet there can only be emancipation if women have something normative by which to judge their oppressors. The “strategy” is therefore thoroughly pragmatist in its orientation toward liberation, as Jones recognizes: “The strategic essentialist is a ‘pragmatist’ or ‘functionalist,’ because she uses ‘practical effect’ as the measure of theory. …she asks: Will their view of women’s nature advance the struggle for women’s empowerment?”[7] Jones continues with clear statements that women “must make strong normative judgments…[finding] positive value in making essentialist claims about human nature in general and women’s nature in particular.”[8]

But, what are these essentialist claims? The difficulty for Jones is that she is never actually able to make essentialist claims about “women’s nature in particular.” Rather, the only normative (prescriptive) claims that she makes are applicable to human nature in general, not women in particular, because her ethic is thoroughly oriented to the emancipation of the individual from oppressive norms. This liberation is a human value, not peculiar to women. Jones favorably describes Irigaray’s depiction of woman as “needing to be enveloped in a structure of identity that enables autonomy and thereby contests the fragmenting relationality that Western discourse has imposed upon her.”[9] Yet, surely Jones would argue that men likewise need to have a liberating self-identity, not determined by the “desires” or machinations of others. The dilemma, from a feminist perspective, is that any essentialist claim of differentiation between men and women can only serve to devalue the one over the other, as long as liberation is the chief end and value underwriting the moral prescriptions. The goal, therefore, for both strict constructivism and for strategic essentialism is the reducibility of gender identity to a liberated and common human nature, yielding empowerment. Thus, human nature is not essentially gendered but essentially androgynous and necessarily so for the sake of emancipation.

Up next, we will look at Karl Barth’s account of gender identity, arguing that Barth is (contra feminist theory) able to give material content to the gender categories of male and female, as modeled on the covenant form of creation, while (pro feminist theory) questioning many of the “natural” types that have been used to secure conceptual clarity on gender.

[1] Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid., 36-37.

[6] Ibid., 41.

[7] Ibid., 44.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Ibid., 42.


Image: “Street in Venice” by John Singer Sargent