In this fourth chapter of Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf applies his discussion of exclusion and embrace in the previous chapters to the test-case of gender identity: "the decisive question will be how the nature of God ought to inform relations between men and women as well as their construction of 'feminity' and 'masculinity' (169).
Over against some, such as Karl Barth, who argue that Scripture's use of masculine images for God means that God is primarily a model for human fathers, and others who argue as a result that we need to construct or focus on feminine metaphors for God, Volf insists that "Since God is beyond sexual difference, there is nothing in God that can correspond to the specifically fatherly relation that a man has toward his progeny....what a father can learn from God are his responsibilities as a human being who happens to be a father....Whether we use masculine or feminine metaphors for God, God models our common humanity, not our gender specificity" (171-2).
Volf then proposes a normative model for the relationship between male and female based on a relational model of the Trinity. With regard to the Trinity, the Father is first in constitution because "he is the source of divinity," but the different members are co-equal and their relationship is egalitarian rather than hierarchical. The members of the Trinity are distinct, but through self-giving they mutually indwell each other. God's purposes for humankind flow out of this relationship: "God came into the world so as to make human beings, created in the image of God, live with one another and with God in the kind of communion in which divine persons live with one another" (181).
What does this mean for gender identity? "What is normative is not some 'essence' of femininity and masculinity, but the procedures, modeled on the life of the triune God, through which women and men in specific cultural settings should negotiate their mutual relations and their constructions of femininity and masculinity" (182).
What, you ask, about the passages in the New Testament that seem to present a hierarchical pattern for male-female relations (at least in marriage)? Volf "will simply disregard the subordinationism as culturally conditioned and interpret the statements from within the framework of an egalitarian understanding of the Trinitarian relations and from the perspective of the egalitarian thrust of such central biblical assertions as the one found in Galatians 3:28" (182-3).
I am sympathetic towards Volf's egalitarian perspective, but disregarding passages as culturally relative is not, in my view, a useful way forward. This is because I reject the idea--which originated in classic liberalism but is now very popular in evangelical circles--that one can extract timeless truth and discard the culturally conditioned husk. As one of my students put it last year, the Bible is timeless in the same way that we speak of Shakespeare being timeless, even though it is obvious that one can't understand Shakespeare without knowing something about Shakespeare's historical context. (I am influenced here by Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament [HarperSanFrancisco, 1996].)