Feminist Theology


(excerpted from God,
Reason, and the Evangelicals
, chapter 12)

(See the text itself
for footnotes)


In her elaboration of
the conditions under which the rich can enter the kingdom,
Reuther contends that we must avoid the idea that "God loves the
rich and poor alike…. Such thinking does not entertain the possibility that
God’s redemptive love might be experienced differently by poor and rich,
oppressed and oppressors, battered women and macho men."50 Reuther
should have seen that her own Sophia Christology must eliminate this judgmental
distinction, no matter how natural it comes to all of us. It was Yahweh,
the patriarchal God,
who declared that one son was more worthy than
another. In contrast mother Sophia accepts all of her
children on an equal and nonjudgmental basis.


Reuther has
acknowledged that process theology anticipated feminist insights in many areas,
and this particular aspect of Christology is the most important contribution of
Christian dipolar theism.  John Cobb calls Whitehead’s primordial nature God’s
"creative" love (Christ as Logos) while the consequent nature is called
God’s "redemptive" love (Christ as Redeemer).  According to Whitehead’s doctrine
of God, the consequent nature automatically takes all completed experience into
itself, symbolizing in religious terms God’s
unconditional grace.  With the process God there is no judgment between rich and
poor, macho man and feminist, Khomeni and Gandhi.  All created value and
disvalue is taken into the divine nature for the creative transformation of the


    Although some feminist
theologians like Mary Daly intensify the instinct to discriminate, Reuther and
Elisabeth S. Fiorenza are models of self-restraint.  Instead of using the
oppression of women as basis for a new ideology, these two realize that the
major lesson from their heritage is that no one of any race, gender, social
status or creed should be treated the way women have been.  (Especially
commendable is their sensitivity to the anti-Judaism that lurks just below the
surface of even the most scholarly reconstructions of Christian origins.)  As
opposed to ideological feminists, Reuther and Fiorenza have no problems with a
male Christ.  This concession is made of course on the condition that Jesus the
man is taken as a representative of a universal humanity and not as a means of
forcing patriarchal structures on women.  Although both of them refer to God as
Mother (and Father, too), this does not mean that they have made any concessions
to the "goddess" movement.  As Fiorenza explains: 

Although Jewish (and
Christian) theology speaks about God in male
language and images, it nevertheless insists that
these are not adequate "pictures" of the divine, and
that human language and experience are not capable
of beholding or expressing God’s reality….To fix
God to a definite form and man-made image would mean
idolatry….The prophets rejected the myth of the
"divine couple," and thus repudiated masculinity and
femininity as ultimate, absolute principles.52

Fiorenza believes that
there is no harm in continuing to use Mother and/or Father for God as long as we
keep her point always in mind.  The problem with this solution is that most
people will continue to name God in their old unenlightened
centric ways.  This is why I prefer to use strictly neuter
God-talk.  Reuther agrees with Fiorenza’s argument above and suggests that we
use the term "God-ess" so that our attempt at inclusive language will not become
too abstract (male).53


This judgment that
abstract language and reasoning are exclusively masculine is common in many
feminist circles.  The most radical expression of this sentiment is found among
feminist literary critics who have been influenced by the deconstructionist
theory of Jacques Derrida.  For Luce Irigaray all writing is "phallocratic" and
"phallogocentric" and any attempt by a woman to write as a woman is "senseless,
inappropriate, indecent."54  The result, explains Denis Donoghue, is
that "women are condemned either to adopt the masculine discourse that leaves
them essentially unexpressed, or to engage in a masquerade by which they mime
the masculine syntax and take upon themselves, speciously of course, the signs
of presence and power."55  As males both Donoghue and I believe that
this is patent nonsense, but we can be comforted that at least one feminist
thinker, Janet R. Richards, agrees.  She believes that it is both natural and
necessary for women to use abstract reasoning and theorizing.  Richards believes
that it is one of the principal tools by which women will finally win their
proper place in the world.


There seems to be some
exclusivism in Fiorenza’s claim that the new society will not contain any
fathers.  I am certain, however, that she means patriarchal, not biological
fathers.  Feminist theologians are convinced that Jesus was thoroughly
egalitarian and insisted that every form of male power and dominance would pass
away with the coming of the kingdom.  Fiorenza takes issue with scholars like
Gerd Theissen who describe early Christians as agapeists rather than
egalitarians.  Fiorenza rejects this "love patriarchalism" and insists that
Jesus’ call for self-sacrificial love included both social and spiritual
equality.  Repudiating centuries of tradition about the status of women in
earliest Christianity, Fiorenza shows that Christian women, as opposed to their
Jewish counterparts, were not only allowed to sit with men during Eucharistic
fellowship but that they were also accepted as equals in missionary work.  In
addition to Jesus’ own views, Fiorenza believes that another important auxiliary
catalyst was the presence of Greco-Roman women who drew on the egalitarian
tradition of the mystery religions.


Feminist Bible
scholars like Fiorenza do not dispute the fact that many biblical passages
support patriarchal practices and institutions.  This challenge raises basic
hermenueutical questions which we can view first from the perspective of the "contextualist"
principle.  With regard to Paul’s famous sexism, the apocryphal epistle of
Phoebe (written by one of Fiorenza’s graduate students) makes the point in a
striking way.  Phoebe reports this response from Paul:  "If any of my letters do
survive, only someone bewitched will fail to see the difference between my
preaching of the Good News and my ramblings about cultural problems and
situations.  People from another age will easily disregard the cultural
trappings and get to the heart of the message."56  Phoebe is given a
marvelous aside:  "If only that distinction were as clear to the rest of us as
it is to Paul!"


Not only does the
preceding passage confirm the truth of the contextualist principle, it is also a
good reminder of a previous discussion about biblical authority.  There is no
indication that Paul himself considered his own letters divinely inspired.  If
this is correct then it also undermines the authority of the catholic epistles,
which contain much of the sexism and hierarchical church structure.  It is
interesting to note that many discourses on Christian politics begin with Paul
and not with Jesus.  Fiorenza and others argue that Paul betrayed an early
commitment to women’s equality and reverted to rabbinic discrimination against


Reuther’s "prophetic"
principle, which uses equality and justice as basic hermeneutical axioms,
constitutes a clean break with traditional views of biblical authority.  As
Reuther states: "This rediscovery of prophetic content, and its discerning
reapplication to new social situations, is precisely what the Bible calls "The
Word of God."58  This dynamic scriptural principle looks forward to a
liberated future rather than back to fossilized texts.  Although James Barr does
not apply the point to social justice, he uses the "prophetic paradigm" as a way
of countering the evangelical emphasis on historical, astronomical, and
geographical accuracy.  Quite different was the prophets’ judgment against those
who had forgotten the plight of the poor and the oppressed.  Reuther’s prophetic
principle is a powerful hermeneutical device that enables Christians to
distinguish between the Gospel and the Bible and criticize the latter in terms
of the former. Reuther’s principle allows us to criticize any religion that has
become an ideology of power and domination.  At the same time it permits us to
appropriate those elements of sacred scripture which nourish a theology of


It is an illuminating
exercise to see how the feminist and conservative evangelical scriptural
principles are applied in biblical interpretation.  Let us take as an example
the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-6).  In the context of
Harold Lindsell’s political theology, the clear
message of this parable is that employers have the exclusive right to determine
the conditions of employment and to pay whatever wages they wish.59 
The main problem with Lindsell’s interpretation is that he overlooks the
eschatological setting of the parables.  This is why it is always risky to apply
the parables to existing social institutions, unless one is reflecting about
their demise.  (There is something apocalyptic about Lindsell’s power "trip":
any capitalist who consistently runs a business like this farm boss would soon
have to file for bankruptcy.) Fiorenza’s reading is obviously nearer the truth: 
"Jesus’ parable thus startles his hearers into the recognition that God’s
gracious goodness establishes equality among all of us, righteous and sinner,
rich and poor, men and women, Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples.  It challenges the
hearer to solidarity and equality with ‘the last’ in Israel."60 
Feminists do not exaggerate in the least when they observe that there is one
indisputable candidate for the last of the last, the oppressed of the
oppressed:  the poor women of the world.


I believe that
Fiorenza and Reuther are some of the best liberation theologians writing today;
and I believe that Reuther’s "Jesus and the Revolutionaries" (in To Change the
World) is the best summary statement of this revolutionary development.  There
are, however, weaknesses in their presentations.  Although I have limited
expertise in New Testament studies, it seems to me that the so-called "Sophia"
Christology is not well documented.  The feminist hermeneutic of "suspicion" has
a plausible answer to challenges like this:  a patriarchal church would, as much
as possible, eliminate gospel narratives which had strong feminist elements. 
Indeed, the very fact that these passages survived proves that women played a
very important role in the Jesus movement.  In contrast to Jesus’ partiality to
women in the Gospel accounts, which is so unmistakable that Fiorenza is led,
perhaps incautiously, to propose the possibility of female authors for both Mark
and John, the evidence for the Sophia Christology is not nearly as pervasive. 
There is not enough evidence to support Fiorenza’s claim that "Jesus probably
understood himself as the prophet and child of Sophia."61 
Nevertheless, the prominence of Wisdom motifs in the Q material (e.g., Lk.
7:35;11:49;13:34) and the early christological hymns (Col. 1:15-20; Philip.
2:6-11) firmly establishes a feminine Sophia as an important theme in early
Christian self-understanding.  Quite apart from its biblical basis, sophialogy
is to be praised for its doctrine of power sharing, its rejection of the idea of
blood atonement, and the elimination of traditional concepts of judgment and

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