Gender and Theology series: Karl Barth on Man and Woman

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


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