Monday, December 31, 2007

"Sundays" are for Volf - Chapter 4: Gender Identity

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].)


Anonymous said...

I'm interested Dave to know how you approach the apparent hierarchical gender passages, given your rejection of the 'cultural conditioning' view.

I'm sympathetic to 'cultural conditioning' as an explanation, more because as a lay reader it provides an easy way to bridge my personal (and really, just visceral) belief in gender equality and the difficult passages in the NT. I can see where it leads to the proverbial slippery slope, because I also lean to using this method re: the issue of same-sex unions.

I'd be curious to hear your approach, though.

And a happy new year to you!

Suzanne McCarthy said...


The only reason that gender equality leads to a slippery slope is that history has been rewritten. Some Christian women in the 19th century preached and had functional equality with men in order to evangelize, go as missionaries, fight slavery, poverty, injustice in the prison system, alcohol and prostitution, for a start.

These women took the opportunity to preach to mixed groups in order to further God's kingdom. They believed in the full functional equality of men and women. In fact, British Columbia was evangelized and Christianized by women who preached in churches whenever men weren't available, which was a lot of the time.

My neighbour here in Vancouver hasn't gone to church since Monica Storrs" was replaced by a man without the consent of the congregation.

No one needs to bother with the cultural conditioning discussion. It is clear that there was no hierarchy in the garden. In fact, until some time after the reformation, it was believed that women were subordinated by the curse. This was because all Bibles up until Pagnini 1529, said in Gen. 3:16 that "woman will be submitted to man" or "Put under the power of man."

With English translations of Pagnini's Latin, Gen. 3:16 then said that woman would "desire her husband." And now we have Grudem who teaches that Gen. 3:16 says that "woman will attempt to resist the rightful authority of her husband."

But if we go back to the notion that woman is subordinated by the curse, we understand that the submission of women is on the same level as the submission of slaves and should be set right.

There is absolutely no justification in the teaching that one submits only to an authority. Grudem teaches that submission can only be submission to an authority. However, we know very well that Clement said that Christians were to submit each to his neighbour, submission is a reciprocal relationship. Therefore, the wife submits and the husband sacrifices, this is not a hierarchical relationship but describes the nature of the egalitarian reciprocity.

Likewise, 1 Tim. 2:12 contains the word authenteo, which was also translated up until the reformation by "dominate," and then "usurp authority," and then to "have authority."

So we see that Bibles have become progressively more restrictive of women as their has been a concern that women will gain equality. This happened again in Rom. 16:7 with Junia. She was a woman apostle up until the reforamation and still is in the Greek Orthodox tradition. But English translations have made her first into a man, and then into one who was only well known to the apostles. One has to ask why there is an unbroken tradition among native speakers of Greek from Chrysostom until the present for her being a woman apostle.

So actually I have to ask what the hierarchical gender passages are. They are the same ones which include slavery are they not?

Anyway, I like the sounds of this book by Volf and I came to this blog for the post on Judean vs Jews, so I had better get back to work.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

PS Pagnini is 1528. Excuse the typos - I forgot to preview.

d. miller said...

Thanks for the nudge, Andrew. Your comment got me thinking about putting together an explanation for my rejection of the search for timeless principles in a separate post or two. (Essentially I hold that the 'timeless' character of Scripture is incommensurable with its culturally conditioned content. It is both timeless and culturally conditioned; you can't separate the two or extract one from the other.) Perhaps I'll say something about my own approach to the NT gender passages at the same time, although I don't pretend to have resolved everything.

d. miller said...

Hi Suzanne,

Thanks for your detailed comment! I don't want to defend a hierarchical view of gender relations. If I have to think about this further, I will be sure to return to the observations you have made here.

My concern is with the hermeneutical argument that some Biblical passages no longer apply because they are culturally limited. I would respond that the whole Bible is culturally limited. More on this in a separate post.

Volf's book is excellent, by the way.



Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks David,

I think of it on two planes at once. First, there is a lot of variation in interpretation of key verses, especially if one thinks of how often the scriptures teach "each to the other" as reciprocity and not hierarchy.

However, I do think there is movement as well. For example, up until the reformation, it was taught that the one church was the visible church organization on earth, and everyone had to submit to its authority. Then citizens had to submit to an absolute monarchy, and slavery continued until the 19th century. So, since the reformation there has been ongoing negotiation with unilateral power of church, ruler, and master. But women are still told to submit unilaterally in all things. Why should we negotiate a new understanding of the scriptures in all these areas where men are affected but not for women?

Anyway, I take both approaches very seriously, the literal basic grammatical interpretation of any verse, as well as the historic progressive development of how we apply Christ's laws. You cannot ignore history.

Volf's book sounds great. I still have to finish Rough Crossings by Simon Schama. It really shows the philosophical roots of the antislavery movement.