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Balancing the Theological Past: Male and Female Imagery from 'Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective: Workbook for the Church's Future edited by Constance F. Parvey. Faith and Order Paper 105 World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1980

Balancing the Theological Past: Male and Female Imagery

from Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective:
Workbook for the Church's Future

edited by Constance F. Parvey
Faith and Order Paper 105
World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1980, pp. 43-47


The discussion of theological issues began with an attempt to find points that could reflect a modest consensus. The two starting points revolved around (a) the language about God and the need to restore to this language its female imagery, and (b) the new experience of partnership in ministry now being lived by women and men, ordained and lay, in many cultural and church contexts.

For some, the topic of the language of God was new and they could not see its relevance for the discussion on the ordination of women. For others, it was seen as central in the task of reflecting a theology of God that was inclusive of both masculine and feminine experience. It was also considered as important for describing a theological anthropology that manifested the fullness of human personhood for both women and men. For some, the maleness of Christ was a stumbling block to the priesthood of women. For others, the image of Christ was deepened and enriched by the involvement of both women and men in priesthood.

This topic was chosen as a starting point for practical reasons. As the group began to reflect on the implications of the ordination of women for the community of women and men in the Church, it quickly discovered that there were major areas of significant disagreement. Each of these areas required extensive study and dialogue before any agreement could even be approached. Hence it was decided that the wisest way to proceed was to seek some meaningful theological and ecclesial areas which held reasonable promise for dialogue — areas in which the group, so diverse in church traditions and cultures, might be able to reach a limited consensus. It was hoped that such a consensus would provide a stepping stone along the ecumenical path to the more central, formidable problems.

A number of possible areas surfaced in the initial discussion, but it was realized that not all of them could be pursued at this initial consultation. A choice had to be made. The group felt that it could make its most helpful contribution by dealing with those areas of possible consensus to which its members could bring the greatest academic and experiential expertise. Hence it was decided to discuss the issue of how God is spoken of by Christians — in female or male terms, or both. It was thought that there are important connections between God language and women’s and men’s self-understanding and relationships with one another. It was hoped that if an agreement could be reached in this area, the more difficult issues of Christian doctrine might later be approached with more confidence.

A. The language about God: the tension between divine and human expression

The way one speaks about God raises fundamental problems of meaning and interpretation. All words are human, and yet God has been revealed as the Word. One lives with the paradox that human words about God bear in certain times and places the revelatory presence of God. How one discerns and distinguishes the human from the divine in the words of Scripture, Tradition and everyday living is a difficult question. It has been much discussed in the Christian community, but no consensus has been reached. Also unclear is the question of the authority of the language of spiritual experience relative to the language of critical theology. This is crucial in the area of language for God and the Holy. Religious language carries the dangers of:

i) anthropomorphism — that one makes God in a human image and worships that image (word) instead of God; and

ii) historical confusion — as time erases memories and thought-worlds, one ceases to understand the words of ancient texts as they were originally meant.

Further, one recognizes that the Transcendent God is beyond all human words. Silence, as many of the Fathers taught, is the best response to God. Yet a sound doctrine of creation provides the basis for knowing and speaking of God. Human beings are bound to reflect and adore with words. These words are not arbitrary; one cannot use any word for God — one must choose some words as more adequate than others as expressions of the truth, which is God.

Therefore, some would say, because words are human creations one must take care that no one part of humanity and human experience is consistently excluded from the words used to point towards God. If our human reality is, among other things, female or male, our language for God should reflect the full range of this reality. Otherwise one runs the double risk of denying God’s image in the totality of creation, and failing to communicate the Good News at symbolic levels to all God’s creation, women as well as men.

On the other hand, others would say that people of faith move from the heavenly reality to the definition of the perfected human life. They would hold that one must look to the Godhead to define our human way of life. Being human in this view is best understood by the modality of the Persons in the Trinity, not by sexual stereotypes or biology.

B. Female images and names for God: some examples from the literature of Scripture and Tradition (spirituality and theology)

There is abundant evidence that the language and imagery of the Christian tradition have been confined primarily to male terms. There are, however, many female images and names for God to be found in certain areas of tradition, especially the literature of spirituality. Because the issue of ordination raises for some Christians the question of whether a female human being can image God in the congregation, it is helpful to give some examples of female naming and metaphors for God from both Scripture and Tradition. The following range from the Old Testament to seventeenth century piety.

In the sixth century B.C. God is described through the mouth of Isaiah as a mother crying out in labour pains:

“Yahweh God goes forth... ‘But now, I cry out as a woman in labour, gasping and panting.’” (Is. 42:13-14) Again in Isaiah God is likened to a mother, describing her concern for exiled Israel as that of a mother for her own baby: “Listen to me, home of Jacob and all the remnant of the house of Israel who have been borne by me from the belly, carried from the womb (racham), even until old age I am the one, and to gray hairs am I carrying you. Since I have made, I will bear, carry and save.” (Is. 46:3-4)

In the Psalms there is the image of a motherly Yahweh who comforts her weaned child, the psalmist, on her divine motherly lap:

“O Yahweh... I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child, like a weaned child on its mother’s lap.” (Ps. 131:1-2)

In the New Testament, Jesus refers to himself using a female image, that of a hen gathering her chicks:

“How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings." (Luke 13:34)

This biblical tradition of female God language was continued into the Christian tradition, starting early in the patristic writings:

“God is love,

And for love of us has become woman.

The ineffable being of the Father has out of compassion with

us become mother.

By loving the Father has become woman."

(Clement of Alexandria, Patrologia Graeca, 9.641)

In the third century A.D. Orthodox Christian document, the Didascalia, the imagery moved in the other direction. There a woman, the woman deacon (he diakonos), was likened to the Holy Spirit:

“And the woman deacon shall be honoured by you as a type of

the Holy Spirit." (Didascalia II.26.4)

The spirituality of the medieval Church further developed the patristic inheritance of female God naming.

St Anselm’s prayer to St Paul is one of the earliest instances in which the monk-theologian reflects on Matthew 23:37, saying:

“Christ, my mother, you gather your children under your wings."

Jesus’ motherhood is associated with the whole ministry of the Church by which the Christian is birthed in faith, laboured over, and nourished by instruction.

Gregory Palamas, a fourteenth century Greek mystic, wrote of Jesus’ nurturing love:

“Christ... nurses us from his own breast, as a mother, filled

with tenderness, does with her babies."

By the fourteenth century, the tradition flowers in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. She is compelled to call God the Source of Creation, Mother by whom all is made. Above all, God is “Mother, also in mercy”.

What happened to this mother naming of God after the sixteenth century? This is not yet fully known. It is possible that after the western Church was severed in the sixteenth century, the cross-fertilization of religious experience and theological reflection was weakened. In addition, the Protestant recovery of the Word lessened the role of physicality and sacramentality which, historically, had supported the presence of female imagery. There is, however, some evidence of direct continuity as for example in Martin Luther’s use of hymns to the Virgin Mary which are without change except for the substitution of “Father” and “Lord” for “Mary” and “Virgin”. In general, however, the Reformers, especially Calvin and Zwingli, moved towards Old Testament imagery with a patriarchal cast. It is later, in seventeenth century Protestantism with its tradition of affective piety, that female metaphors for God again appear. Also, Anglican sacramental devotion retains some hint of a God whose intimacy and nearness demands female metaphors.

More research is necessary to discover the richness of this spiritual tradition in the literature of Lutheran pietism, Methodist and Baptist hymnody, and in the black churches of the US and Caribbean. There is need to explore the female aspect of the doctrine of God which exists in Orthodoxy with its important tradition of Holy Wisdom. The riches of popular devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism may also reveal continuities with the ancient tradition which gives more wholeness to the female aspects of the Holy.

The language used about God is not an issue of words, but one of communication, of seeing and describing the Divine — having available the full, daily experience of the human, male and female.

In Asia, eastern religions such as Hinduism hold the male/female closely together in the divine. More of what this means needs to be explored and understood. In Africa and the Pacific the new churches contribute yet another dimension to theology and anthropology as corporate identity that warrants further theological research and reflection.

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