Women, Theology and the Christian Tradition.
by Janet Martin Soskice
Published by Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990
The collection falls into three sections on a historical basis: Biblical, Patristic/Medieval, and Modern.
Paul Joyce provides an introduction to feminist reading of the Old Testament, both its goals and its pitfalls. He guides one clearly through the central literature and makes particular reference to the issue of biblical authority.
Robert Morgan shows, with reference to the New Testament, that interpretations of the Bible are aspects of the wider task of 'doing theology'; that all interpretations of Scripture are theological interpretations. He discusses the relationship between belief and values, particularly in the case of feminist interpretation, although he insists that his own is not a piece of feminist theology. Special attention is devoted to Paul.
Leonie Archer's essay is an example of a critical scholarly approach to some difficult biblical material on the relation in Judaism between blood and purity. She charts, within Judaism of her period, a developing exclusion of women, both social and religious, and makes an original connection between the shedding of blood in circumcision and in menstruation.
Timothy Radcliffe has written a clear and delightful exposition of 1 Corinthians 11.2-6, a passage focused on bodiliness, sexual identity and grace, using recent New Testament material. The article is an excellent example of how a scholar can bring the fruits of scholarship to a non-scholarly audience.
The same can be said lor Sebastian Brock, The word for 'spirit' is feminine in Semitic language, a grammatical fact that had theological repercussions for the Syriac churches of the first four Christian centuries. Notably, the third person of the Trinity was regularly personified in female terms. Dr Brock discusses this, and the reasons for change in practice in the fifth and sixth centuries.
Jane Ban gives a useful and sympathetic account of one of the most influential and misogynistic of the Church Fathers, Jerome. Jerome was the translator of the Vulgate, the chief version of the Bible in use throughout medieval Europe. He made a few mistakes, but a disproportionately large number of these come in passages dealing with women where inevitably Jerome's direction was to make the text harsher. His embellishment of Genesis 3.16 is of 'almost unquantifiable importance' to subsequent Catholic discussions of female subordination.
None the less, as Benedicta Ward's paper illustrates, the medieval period saw a number of outstanding women mystics and religious. Such female 'visionaries' were often contrasted to male 'theologians'. Sr Benedicta contrasts one such visionary, Hildegard of Bingen, with the more analytic mysticism of Teresa of Avila four hundred years later, and asks what accounts for the changes.
mRichard Hooker wrote his influential works in the sixteenth century from within the newly reformed English Church, yet his works have continuing importance, especially within Anglicanism. The Bishop of Ely, Stephen Sykes discusses directions Hooker provides for a distinctly Anglican way forward on the ordination of women. Hooker, despite the negative views on women he would have shared with Elizabethan contemporaries, shows a vision of a 'discipleship of equals' to be at the heart of the nature of the Church.
Paul Fiddes brings us to the twentieth century with discussion of the Reformed theologian, Karl Barth, some would say the most important theologian of the century. Barth is (in)famous for remarks on the subordination of women, but Fiddes shows that Earth's views are not crudely hierarchical, and that much of value remains with his use of the category of 'covenant' between male and female, God and man. This more positive assessment of Barth is welcome although certain to be controversial.
Ann Loades writes about 'Mary' and the cult of Mary from a feminist and detached perspective. Her discussion, however, is both ecumenical and judicious, considering Papal Encyclicals and recent Catholic texts, before discussing the feminist literature on Mary and reaching her own conclusions.
Women are writing about theology - this much many people know. But what have theologians written about women? A glib answer would be that, in nearly two thousand years of Christian history, women have been discussed relatively rarely. While great theologians of the past might have written volumes on the Trinity or atonement, or the inspiration of scripture, 'woman' arises only incidentally as a topic in their works. And this one might expect, for the important focus when talking specifically about human beings has been on what has been called until recently, 'the Christian doctrine of Man', with 'man' understood as a term embracing both sexes. What goes for men in theology then would seem to go for women and there is no need to discuss women separately.
But does what goes for men, go for women? Not always, apparently. Where one finds 'woman' discussed in the historical literature it is often to express the view that although jot the most part men and women are the same 'in the sight of God', in some important ways they are not. As to why women are different, or how they are different, or how they should be different there is much disagreement - not least today. What then does it mean to be a woman in the Jewish or Christian tradition, a woman 'after Eve'?
The essays in this collection are not for the most part essays in feminist theology, at least not in the sense of overtly advancing the cause of women. They are, however, essays by scholars persuaded of the importance of the issues raised by modern feminist thought, and able to display some of the richness and ambiguity of the western religious traditions to which we, whether we be religious or not, are heirs.
The essays are arranged in a loosely historical order, but need not necessarily be read in that order. Indeed, the first two essays, by Paul Joyce and Robert Morgan, might as easily have been last since both deal with contemporary feminist biblical interpretation.
Readers unfamiliar with the topics under discussion may wish to start with the essays of Jane Barr or Timothy Radcliffe, both of whom with a light yet scholarly touch, help to show the problems unavoidably present in our inherited traditions of reading and even of translating the biblical books.
The historically inclined may look to the essays of Leonie Archer, Sebastian Brock and Benedicta Ward which show, in one way or another, that far from being a constant, the place of women and the appraisal of the feminine within the Jewish and Christian religious traditions varies considerably over time - sometimes in directions hostile to women's equality, and sometimes in directions favouring it.
Those interested in contemporary responses, and in ways in which a modern theologian might try to re-evaluate (and even challenge) the tradition in which she or he stands, will find in Stephen Syke's essay a lively defence of the Anglican tradition as grounded in the past but free to act in ways fitting to new circumstances; free for instance to ordain women. Paul Fiddes pushes Karl Barth further down an egalitarian road than that author might have intended or wishes, basing his argument on Barth's own doctrine of the Trinity. And Ann Loades, in an amusing and perceptive essay, looks through non-Roman Catholic feminist eyes at the place of Mary in Christian thought and devotion, and comes to the conclusion that, with certain caveats, Mary may still have something to offer to the feminist quest.
I very much hope that those readers who are not students or teachers of theology may enjoy this opportunity to join the historian, or linguist, or theologian in their work shops and see how unexpected areas of academic expertise may be brought to bear on contemporary problems and especially our chosen one of women after Eve.
Janet Martin Soskice Jesus College, Cambridge
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