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

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