Engendered Female by the Spirit of Thanksgiving

The primary issue in relating God and gender pertains to God’s engendering qualities, which necessarily refers to both male and female characteristics. The issue is not God’s gender but whether God begets, brings about, catalyzes, creates, effectuates, generates, produces, spawns, or breeds or whether he primarily impedes, limits, restricts, squelches, quashes, represses, smothers, stifles, punishes, and arrests. There is a gendered quality to the two sets of actions but the word is deployed differently in each instance. Gender in the first instance refers literally to producing and propagating and in the second instance the words are metaphorically gendered masculine as these are connected to qualities associated with a father or with God perceived primarily as lawgiver.

The problem in trying to speak of God without gender or in terms of a singular gender is that the engendering quality of God tends to be traded for what is death dealing rather than life giving. That is, God viewed simply as Father or as law giver will be primarily perceived in negative terms of punishing and restricting. God perceived as female, apart from the masculine, does not engender in others but enfolds all multiplication and propagation within herself. In the first instance (God as male), God might be perceived as absolutely transcendent on the order of the Aristotelian unmoved mover. In the second instance (God as female), God is completely immanent and perceived in a pantheistic monism as the womb and consumer of all things. God as purely male or female loses engendering power.

The contrast between Romans 7 and 8 might be characterized, as I have pointed out (here), as a contrast between male and female but this is not entirely accurate. Romans 7:7-25 is about sin and the law and the implication is that God perceived through the law will take on masculine characteristics of dividing, punishing, alienating, and ultimately of being a cold, inaccessible, transcendent figure. Of course, this is not God in reality but God misperceived (due to the deception of sin) as equated with the law. Romans 8 displaces this law of sin and death or this false understanding of God (the law of sin and death) with the reality of God (the law of life in the Spirit). The feminine qualities of the Spirit are accentuated in this exchange, but it is only with this accentuation that the proper role of God as Abba – Father is realized.

The real issue is the receptivity and openness of those who are the objects of God’s engendering activity. Should they take the law as the orienting factor in their relationship to God, then theirs will be a Romans 7, and not an engendering, sort of experience. To conceive this as an experience of God is to miss Paul’s point, as experience of the self is the focus. Where God is presumed to be known through the law what occurs is a relationship to the law which alienates, proscribes, and punishes – God does not really enter into the picture. It is not simply that God is excluded or that the law is felt as an outside and oppressive force, but the force of the law excludes one part of the self from another part of the self. The “I” experiences his own body as if he has a body rather than as if he is his body. The opposite of engendering occurs.

Where God’s birthing, engendering, fructifying activity is realized, the recipient of this activity takes on a feminine openness. Christians become metaphorically female as the bride of Christ, as they become impregnated with life from God and give birth to the fruits of the Spirit (Romans 8:23). The indwelling Spirit engenders life and peace (8:6), and is equated with the indwelling of the Son (vs.9-11). The Spirit incorporates into the familial relation with the Father and Son (vs.15-17), and the believer becomes womb-like in bearing fruit for God (v. 23). As each of the persons of the Trinity converge upon her, with the Father searching the mind of the Spirit who has interpenetrated the mind of the believer (vs. 26-27) as it is being conformed to Christ (v. 29), the believer groans in the Spirit in the pangs of childbirth (v. 23).

I am not sure we need go so far as Gregory of Nyssa who imagines that prior to the fall humans were non-sexed and angelic like, and that in redemption they will no longer bear sexualized bodies but will all become quasi-female in relation to God. The imagery of becoming the bride of Christ, of bearing fruit for Christ, of being the subjects of the incorporating activity of God, may not literally involve the sexual organs but it does refer to a feminine receptivity. This receptivity however, may simply contrast with the impenetrability of one oriented to the law. This masculine sort of orientation is not subject to being conformed, shaped, or reoriented or re-conceptualized. The possibility of being conformed to Christ and of receiving the indwelling of the Spirit may simply reference gender in that there is a feminine receptivity to the character of Christ.

In both Romans and Thessalonians, the shape of this reception is described in terms of a reversal of the way in which we may conceive of prayer. We often picture prayer as an articulation, originating in our own minds, directed at a distant deity, who may or may not hear or answer. Paul pictures prayer as a dynamic exchange in which the persons of the Trinity intermingle, converge, and bring about the incorporation of the believer into the life of God. Even this imagery may be too weak, if we are simply thinking of the cold breath of speech. Prayer, for Paul, is a constant, which already indicates it is not a constant articulation but a constant openness giving rise to a characteristic emotion calling for and flowing out of a continual gratitude.

In I Thessalonians (5:16-18) Paul describes the Spirit as a flame which is not to be quenched, but if allowed to burn, rather than consuming oxygen, produces the breath of life. If the flame is not quenched or suppressed, or stilled, or restrained – that is if the flame of life is not doused by the death dealing law – it lights up the various seats of human personality – the will, the mind, the emotions, the character. Paul aligns a series of exhortations regarding one’s continual state of mind which fold into a singular command, not to quench the Spirit. The way to let the Spirit flow in life is to “rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.”  The engendering reality of life in the Spirit shows itself as one is caught up in a continual dynamic of life flowing through the individual – receiving and gratefully acknowledging life.

Do Not Give Way on Your Desire: Comprehending Sexuality Through the Trinity

The Church, in its various institutional forms, is in the midst of a sexual crisis in which both married and supposed celibate clerics are not keeping their vows. Could it be that the ordering of desire around a misconstrued image of ultimate reality (God and human) is playing into this crisis?

At the heart of what is considered the most theologically developed portion of the New Testament, Paul brings together sexuality, desire, and Trinity that depicts the deepest “groanings” of human longing as a direct communion with the Holy Spirit. Desire gone bad and then rightly channeled is the substance of Paul’s depiction of redemption. For a variety of reasons, this economy of desire once developed and appreciated in the early church, is often no longer accounted for in standard depictions of salvation, God, and what it means to be human.

The extra-biblical discourse on the Trinity, for example, is typically abstract and esoteric or it is presumed that God’s inner life is completely closed off to us (apophaticism). But in passages like Romans 8, which most clearly depicts God as Trinity, there is also a depiction of human entry into the divine life on the basis of this intra-triune relation. Here there is no clear demarcation between immanent (who God is in himself) and economic (and who God is for others) Trinity.  In fact, it is not clear that these categories are adequate, as what is being depicted is that who God is for himself opens his life to others.

 At the same time, the God who is become man incorporates humankind into his life on the basis of who he is but also on the basis of what it means to be human. That is, prayer “groanings” (Ro 8:26), inclusive of the depth of human desire and need are the point of communion with God through the Spirit. It is not the setting aside or thwarting of desire but the mediation of desire which opens into participation in the inner life of God. God’s desiring love, his incorporating communion, is the ontological ground and fulfillment of human desire.

In this use of the word desire, we have passed beyond gender, though human desire is always initiated in gender. It is engendered bodily, but to limit it to gender is on the order of explaining thought as a mere product of the brain. The embodied and enabling factor of thought and desire, for all but the crudest reductionist, is not its ultimate explanation. Paul accounts for this tendency to reduce desire to gender as the law of sin and death (a law of desire – Ro 7:7). A “married woman is bound by law to her husband” so that her husband, representative of the law, constricts her desire.

Paul is not advocating adultery or celibacy but he is describing how desire can be ordered and channeled, such that one becomes a slave to law/desire (“I did not know desire apart from the law” 7:7). That is, both things (desire and law) arise simultaneously as a form of bondage in which all that one is and does is defined by this dynamic. Those who channel their desire into gender alone are on the order of those who have made the law the ultimate point of mediating relationship to God. The law bound are also the gender bound, so that one is controlled by their relationship to the law/husband. To state it in different terms, one’s love is constricted by the marks of maleness or femaleness.

Becoming united with Christ amounts to a breaking free of this dynamic: “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another” (7:4). The love of God experienced in Christ is a release from the slavery to the law: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Ro 7:6). Gender and with it, desire, is not an end in itself but is the medium to a relationship which transcends gender and erotic love. In the words of Sarah Coakley, “desire is more fundamental than gender, and the desiring, trinitarian God ultimately ambushes all attempts to fix and constrain gender in worldly terms.”[1]

It is on this basis of a transcendent desire that Paul describes a communion with God through the direct intervention of the Spirit in prayer. Prayer, the expression of “eager longing,” is the occasion in which there is evoked and realized adoption into the family of God: “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (8:15). All three persons of the Trinity enable this communion. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him” (8:16-17). Prayer is both the entry point and defined by the communion with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.

This realization of Trinitarian agape love is not on the basis of a sublimation or refusal of erotic or gendered desire but the realization that gender, desire, and marriage, are a human economy which is to be conjoined with the divine communion in which the Spirit engenders Sonship. The divine communion opened to humanity through the Son links all of creations groanings in a cosmic sort of childbirth in which human desire is drawn into the divine economy so as to bring about the full adoption of humanity into the life of the Trinity (8:22-23).

Sex, gender, and desire, disconnected from this life in the Spirit, is on the order of a disembodied agape love or a prayer life that always seems to be speaking into the void. Prayer as a monologue to a distant patriarch is like an empty eroticism or a desire defined by gender and law.  The communication, the groaning, the desire is not answered by God but is left to itself – which describes life in the law; relationship, not to a person, but to an impersonal and mechanical-like symbolic order.

 In describing the Trinitarian communion Paul also describes a world participating in the purposes of God in which the deepest human “eager longing” is not closed in on itself. Primordial desire left to itself becomes the law of sin and death, but this same primordial desire opened to Christian hope is channeled beyond “life in the flesh” to hope of adoption as “children of God.”

A common theme of the church fathers is that the incorporation of the believer into the life of the Trinity through the Spirit is on the order of being incorporated into marriage through sex. As Sarah Coakley describes it, “For Origen, agape simply is Eros, by another name; whereas for his rather different successor in the Song-commentary tradition, Gregory of Nyssa, Eros is agape “stretched out in longing” toward the divine goal.” Just as the sexual bond makes of the two one flesh, so too the binding together in the Spirit is a fulfillment and ordering of desire. As Dionysius the Areopagite describes it, “’desire’ becomes an ontological force inherent to the divine life itself, an ecstatic capacity of God to go out and return, always ‘carried outside of himself’ whilst also “remaining within himself.”[2] Just as one is incorporated into the marriage relationship through the fulfillment of desire, so too the desire of God (the desire originating in God) describes this same self-transcendence or going outside of himself in an overflowing love.

Gregory of Nyssa, in Homilies on the Song of Songs describes the kinsman/Christ as drawing his lover/disciples through a reflected beauty in which desire is the power of the Spirit: “the Bride has dedicated herself to her kinsman and in her own form has taken on the beauty of her Beloved.” Andrew was led to the Lamb by the reflected attraction in the voice of John. Nathanael attracts Philip through the same allure that the maidens find in the kinsman’s lover – perfect in her comeliness. This reflected “’glory’ means the Holy Spirit, if account is taken of the Lord’s words; he says, after all, ‘The glory that you have given me, I have given to them.’” That is, the eroticism of sexual attraction in the Song translates directly into the attraction of Christ through the Spirit (Homily 15). “For it is obvious that where she is concerned the Word is pointing to this: that the soul, through the upward journey she has completed, has been exalted to the point where she is straining forward toward the wonders of the Lord and Master.”

There is a passage into desire in which “childishness” is left behind as the “disposition shaped by erotic love” is joined to God – “such were the souls of David and Paul.” David says, “But for me it is a good thing to cleave to God” and Paul says, “None shall separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, not life or death or what is present or what is future, or anything else.” Gregory calls those who stifle this desire through a misbegotten virtue, “concubines” (as they do not share in the divine Spirit of kingship) as it is out of fear, rather than by rightly directed desire, that they refuse evil: “by drawing near to the good through servile fear rather than through a bride’s love—she becomes a concubine rather than a queen because of her fear.”

Gregory, unlike Augustine, in no way denigrates marriage or sex. “We are well aware that it is not a stranger to God’s blessing” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). As Gregory describes it, however, one can either be a “Pleasure-lover” or a “God-lover.” The problem is not desire per se but whether desire is rightly ordered or given its proper telos (as a God-lover). It is not a matter of setting aside desire but of channeling it and even preserving it. That is, one should not spend desire solely on the earthly but channel it toward the heavenly.

Imagine a stream flowing from a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose of agriculture, the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow. But if one were to mass these wandering and widely dispersed rivulets again into one single channel, he would have a full and collected stream for the supplies which life demands. Just so the human mind (so it seems to me), as long as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power that is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good; but once call it back and collect it upon itself, so that it may begin to move without scattering and wandering towards the activity which is congenital and natural to it, it will find no obstacle in mounting to higher things, and in grasping realities. Gregory of Nyssa (de virginitate, chapter VII)

He goes on to explain, desire rightly regulated and channeled will burst upward against the constraining force of gravity: “in the same way, the mind of man, enclosed in the compact channel of an habitual continence, and not having any side issues, will be raised by virtue of its natural powers of motion to an exalted love.” This is the way God ordained “that it should always move, and to stop it is impossible.” Thus, to spend desire on “trifles” is to introduce a leak into a stream which would otherwise speed one “toward the truth.” This does not entail setting aside sex and marriage. “That in the cases where it is possible at once to be true to the diviner love, and to embrace wedlock, there is no reason for setting aside this dispensation of nature and misrepresenting as abominable that which is honorable” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). It is a matter of arriving at “due proportion.”

Purity is not a matter of ridding oneself of desire but of not dissipating desire on trifling rivulets. Much as in a Lacanian frame, Gregory equates desire with the life force. Lacan’s singular ethical imperative (“Do not give way on your desire”), understood in this light is the empowerment to remain in the right channel of life. “If, as an inexperienced and easy-going steward, he opens too wide a channel, there will be danger of the whole stream quitting its direct bed and pouring itself sideways” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). So, the sexual passion, which he compares to a “trifling debt of nature” need not and should not consume one in “over-calculating.” Rather, through “the long hours of his prayers [he] will secure the purity which is the key-note of his life” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). This purity is a desire preserved and propelled by the Spirit, bent not on sexual union alone, but on the ultimate “blending” by “sharing in the place the Spirit holds between Father and Son.”[3]

William of St Thierry, reflecting Gregory of Nyssa, in his Exposition on the Song of Songs freely depicts an erotic spiritual love: “his left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me” (Song 2:6): “This embrace extends to man, but it surpasses man. For this embrace is the Holy Spirit. He is the Communion, the Charity, the Friendship, the Embrace of the Father and of the Son of God; and he himself is all things in the love of Bridegroom and Bride.” He describes the full consummation of this desire in union with God: “Then, I say, it will be the full kiss and the full embrace, the power of which is the wisdom of God; its sweetness the Holy Spirit; and its perfection, the full fruition of the Divinity, and God all in all.”[4]

This understanding of the Trinity leaves behind the apophatic and lifts up the human condition as preparation and mediation for participation in the inner life of God. God is known through an empirical order, rearranged and redirected by its inclusion in the love of God.


[1] Sarah Coakley, “Pleasure Principles” in Harvard Divinity School Bulletin Archive (AUTUMN 2005 (VOL. 33, NO. 2) https://bulletin-archive.hds.harvard.edu/articles/autumn2005/pleasure-principles

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quoted from Coakley, Ibid.

The Wrath of God Proceeds from His Love

Christ came to address the problem of sin and not the various consequences of sin, such as the wrath of God, guilt, shame, or the list of consequences spelled out in Romans 1 (degrading passions, greed, unrighteousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossiping, slander, hatred of God, arrogance, boastfulness, etc.). To miss the root problem underlying these consequences is to miss why Christ came and the role of God (he “turns them over to their desires” (Ro 1:24)), in these consequences. Christ did not come to turn away the wrath of God, which would mean he would be turning away God’s love as well. Christ came to do away with what gives rise to wrath. Likewise, he did not come to resolve the problem of guilt but to do away with what causes guilt – and so on down the list. These consequences flow from the root problem of shutting ourselves off from God, and of course in addressing the root problem these consequences are addressed up to and including, particularly, God’s wrath.

To imagine the wrath of God is the primary problem is to miss the way in which it is also a necessary part of the cure. Paul describes sin (the root cause and not the results) as the exchange of the truth for a lie in which the creature displaces the creator as the object of service and worship (Ro 1:25). He seems to be referencing the early chapters of Genesis, but the same prognosis is repeated in each contemporaneous setting Paul addresses. The progression outlined in Ephesians introduces the same sequence of events. People have given themselves over to the “Archon of this world order” (2:2) and as a result they are “godless in the cosmos” (2:12). In other words, they have exchanged creation for the creator, becoming children of wrath (2:3), and this then results in their “being given over to their desire.” The wrath of God is unleashed in sins consequences in both passages, and this results in “walking in darkness” and being “dead in trespasses and sins.” God’s wrath or his vehemence against sin reveals itself in the fact that sin is a despoiling, dying, passing, circumstance.

Romans 1 specifies where the wrath of God is specifically directed: “against all the impiety and injustice of human beings” (Ro 1:18). Paul speaks of an immediate revelation of this wrath from heaven in its unfolding consequences oriented to and deserving of death (Ro 1:32). In Ephesians, walking according to the course of the Prince of this world, and thus being dead in sin, are synonymous with being “children of wrath.” Where love is an enduring state and God’s love endures forever, the experience of his wrath is a passing state (death being, by definition, unenduring) as the dross of sin is burnt away by the wrath which works in sin.

 The wrath is interwoven with being dead in sin but it is also immediately conjoined to the love of God: “because of His great love with which He loved us even when we were dead in our transgressions” (Eph. 2:4-5). The children of wrath are still children and are not simply consigned to wrath as an end point but are destined to pass through wrath to love. Paul is talking about himself and other Christians, who have passed into full experience of the love of God by way of wrath.

 As George McDonald has described it, the passage from wrath to love is not a change in God (from wrath to love) but a passage through a purifying love: “For love loves unto purity,” and this is often experienced as wrath, “as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away.” According to McDonald, “God’s anger is at one with his love.” Mercy and punishment, love and justice, are not opposed, “for punishment—the consuming fire—is a means to an end, that we might be the creatures he intended us to be. God’s punishment, his justice, can be his most merciful act.”[1]

The Hebraism “sons of death” (“sons of wrath” or “sons of stripes”) occurs in several places in the Old Testament, and as in Psalms 102, these children seemingly consigned to death are to be set free so as to constitute “kingdoms to serve the Lord” and to “tell of the name of the Lord in Zion” (Ps. 102:20-21). Ephesians seems to be echoing this tradition of building a kingdom by its purifying passage through the love/wrath of God. The “sons of wrath” are those very ones who will be shown mercy and who “are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). As Hebrews puts it, “Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). This unshakeable kingdom is established in and through this purifying fire. In each instance, the point is to pass from walking in darkness and works of death so as to walk in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph 2:10).

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning kingdom united under Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. That is, the disparate elements of the divided kingdom (split in two by the dividing wall of hostility) will come to constitute the stuff of the united kingdom. “He himself is our peace” and this means that hostility, enmity, hatred, and violence will be burned out to make way for this enduring peace among the objects of his wrath. He “abolished in his flesh the enmity,” which means we might speak of his having passed through the fire of wrath but he has turned it into purified love: “because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, [he] made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). The making alive due to love redirects from within the orientation to death definitive of experience of God’s wrath (i.e. wrath is a passage to love enacted by Christ).

 As David Bentley Hart has written, “The wrath of God in Scripture is a metaphor, suitable to our feeble understanding, one which describes not the action of God toward us, but what happens when the inextinguishable fervency of God’s love toward us is rejected.”[2] As Hart notes, this is the understanding passed down from the Church fathers. Origen writes, “If you hear of God’s anger and wrath, do not think of wrath and anger as emotions experienced by God. Accommodations of the use of language like that are designed for the correction and improvement of the little child. We too put on a severe face for children.”[3] In Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor, the wrath of God proceeds from his love, so that “even hell itself is not a divine work, but the reality we have wrought within ourselves by our perverse refusal to open out — as God himself eternally has done — in love, for God and others.” Sin is a shutting ourselves off from God, being lost in the cosmos (in a paraphrase of Paul), or being lost within ourselves such that “the fire of divine love cannot transform or enliven us, but only assail us as an external chastisement” as a hell of our own making. [4]  But what is sinful cannot endure the flame of God’s love. As McDonald puts it, “There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.”[5] Or in Harts phrase, “Our God is a consuming fire, and the pathos of our rage cannot interrupt the apatheia of his love.”[6]


[1] George McDonald, “The Consuming Fire,” from Unspoken Sermonshttp://www.online-literature.com/george-macdonald/unspoken-sermons/2/

[2] David Bentley Hart, “The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics” p. 62

[3] 1. Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer, eds., Documents in Early Christian Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1975), 7–10

[4] Hart Ibid.

[5] McDonald Ibid.

[6] Hart Ibid.

The Logos is the Incarnate Christ – The Openness of God

The implication of John’s and Paul’s focus on Christ incarnate is that we not only identify who God is through the incarnation, but we begin here because this is who God is. As John Behr notes, the early Church did not presume to start with the pre-incarnate Word – in fact he claims, the term “pre-incarnate” is absent from patristic literature.[1] The order of identification in Gregory of Nyssa, for example, begins with the cross and from the cross (in reference to Ephesians 3:18) the height, depth, breadth, and length, of all things unfolds and returns. As Gregory describes it, the cross is divided into four parts because the One upon it binds together in Himself all forms of existence. The apprehension of all things and the reality of all things converge on the cross.[2]

It is not that the Word became incarnate and then suffered on the cross, but rather the One on the cross is the identity of the Word. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm. According to Behr, there has been a serious departure as the subject of Christian theology has changed, from Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord proclaimed by the Gospel, to the narrative of the Word of God somehow devoid of the content of the Gospel. This false narrative pictures an unfolding consecutive order occurring in God. The pre-incarnate Word descends to put on flesh, something like a space-suit, and it is this disembodied Word that is the secret behind the life of the Messiah.

 The simple failure here is to recognize that the Word in the Prologue of John is already, by the time of the writing of the Gospel of John, synonymous with the Gospel. The Word, like the Gospel, is about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The “word of the cross” (I Cor. 1:18) upon which apostolic preaching is centered is precisely the details leading up to the passion, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. The Word is not, for Christians at least, determined by Greek philosophy, the Wisdom of the Old Testament, or even the tetragrammaton (the four-letter name for God which is unpronounceable) which appears under the Aramaic equivalent of Word in the Targums. As Cyril of Alexandria makes clear, Word refers to Jesus Christ: “We say that there is one and the same Jesus Christ, from the God and Father, on the one hand, as the God Word, and, on the other hand, from the seed of the divinely-inspired David according to the flesh.”[3] There is no division in the subject of Christ before and after the incarnation, rather: “One is the Son, one Lord, Jesus Christ, both before the incarnation and after the incarnation.”[4]

Both Cyril and Hippolytus describe a putting on of flesh, but this is not pictured as having been inaugurated from the conception or birth of Jesus but is generated backward in time, having been woven from the sufferings of the cross. Hippolytus, commenting on Revelation 12, pushes the metaphor to suggest this weaving of flesh is an unceasing function of the Church, “bearing from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the World.” The male child she bears is Christ, God and human, as announced by the prophets, “whom the Church continually bears as she teaches all nations.”[5]

The significance of this focus on the incarnate Christ is spelled out by Irenaeus of Lyons in his insistence that each of the major metaphors for God’s entry into the world – Word, Life, Light, etc. – should not be separated out, or reified as a self-constituting entity, but must be taken as referring to Jesus Christ. The Word, the Light, the Life, is the one who became flesh. Jesus Christ is the Word in the beginning.

What John and the New Testament are conveying is that God has no story but that of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ is the only Son of God. It is not that the pre-existent Christ and God have a life story, a secret divine story, other than the story of the incarnation or that the Son of God had spent a very long time in eternity – before the incarnation – doing God knows what. Eternity is not a very long time during which God was otherwise preoccupied. Eternity is not time at all and time (an unfolding story) and eternity only intersect in the Son. So, to speak of the Son of God as coming down from heaven is a metaphor that cannot be literally true. The Creator is not subject to spatial (up and down) or temporal (before and after) movement as these are created realms that do not refer to the divine reality.[6]

There are multiple implications to recognizing that the cross and the incarnation are eternal facts about God. Time and eternity, the human and divine, intersect in Christ. History’s center is open to the immanent Trinity and all of history is an unfolding of this intersection in the incarnation and the Church. Jesus Christ is not one episode among many in the story of the Word but is the singular story of God.[7] To imagine God as primarily apophatic, impassive, or apathetic, may be a way of speaking of some God we do not and cannot know, but it is by definition not the God we know through the Word.

This in turn, lends a profound significance to our interaction with the Word through our participation in this story, our continuation of the incarnation as the body of Christ. The specific connections and connectedness we develop in the body of Christ are a participation in who God is, giving our communion, our relationship, our interconnectedness an enduring eternal significance.


[1] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 15.

[2] Gregory of Nyssa (c 335 – after 394): The Great Catechism, 32

[3] Cyril of Alexandria, That Christ is One (ed. Pusey, 371.12–14) quoted from Behr, 16.

[4] Cyril of Alexandria, First Letter to Succensus, 4. Quoted from Behr, 17.

[5] Hippolytus, Antichrist 4, Behr, 18.

[6] Behr, 19 ff.

[7] See Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” in McCabe, God Matters (London:Continuum, 2012), 39–51. Noted in Behr, 19.

Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath

The predominant New Testament and early Church picture of atonement, Christus Victor, is that the death of Christ defeated the powers of evil and brought about liberation from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. For a variety of reasons Christus Victor was displaced.  The rise of Constantinian Christianity left no room for identifying state powers, the emperor, the principalities and powers, with real world evil as the archon or ruling prince, which would have normally been identified as a minion of the world archon (the Prince of this World), was now a Christian. Maybe it was simply that Christus Victor was sometimes ill conceived and poorly illustrated. Origen presumes that if we were bought with a price then it was the devil who demanded and received the payment of the blood of Christ. Gregory of Nyssa pictures the devil as a “greedy fish” and Jesus as the bait; “For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature.” God “made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined.” Augustine’s original sin mystified sin (see here) and opened the way for a semi-mysterious theory of atonement (divine satisfaction). The crude depiction of a too powerful devil and a deceitful God, the political and sociological shift with the rise of Christianity as the state religion, the development of a competing notion of sin (original sin), resulted, in the West, with a displacement of Christus Victor.

Anselm’s notion of divine satisfaction bears the allure of reasoned argument couched in the implicit metaphor of Roman law.  Anselm’s genius is often overlooked, coming as he does between the giants, Augustine and Aquinas. However, it is Anselm who marks the shift to a philosophical-like argument which, like his ontological argument and his cosmological argument, functions in a necessarily closed system (pure reason).  Both divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on an exchange between the Father and Son: an infinite offence against the infinite honor of God requiring an infinite payment so as to avoid infinite punishment. The infinite and divine exchange (between the Father and Son) is such that it tends to leave out finite human concerns, lived reality, and permits no further insight but it succeeds in shifting focus to pure reason. Instead of being ransomed from sin, death, and the devil, the focus shifted to reasoned abstractions – law, the mind of God, justice – so that we are saved from transcendent categories rather than pressing realities. Salvation becomes an exchange removed from the sickness unto death, as the wrath of God (certainly in Calvin but wrath and anger play a key role also for Anselm) is presumed to be the real problem.

As Gustaf Aulén has noted, penal substitution and Christus Victor present opposed views: the Son bears the anger of the Father (the focus of the Cross) in penal substitution, but in Christus Victor the Father and Son are united in the work of the Cross in defeating evil, death, and the devil. Where the resurrection is a natural consequence as the sign of this accomplished defeat, the resurrection seems to be an addendum to the main event in penal substitution. Instead of a ransom price paid to the devil, it is now God who requires and receives payment – a failed or mistaken notion compounded. Though Satan is depicted as “the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” and deciding upon who administrates his power (Lk 4:5-6) as “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4), penal substitution seems to leave this power in place. The state (including legal, political, and administrative apparatuses) is now part of the divine order rather than minion of the prince (archon) of this world.  Roman law and Mosaic law are so integral to the logic of both systems that rather than displacing the law (summed up by Paul as the law of sin and death) both divine satisfaction and penal substitution leave the law in place as it is the logic of these legal systems which called for the death of Christ, rather than the death of Christ suspending, displacing, or rendering the law unnecessary. In Paul’s language this would amount to a continuation of the rule of the law of sin and death.

Where penal substitution renders the teaching of Christ pre-Christian and thus not an integral part of the salvation of the main event – the Cross, Christus Victor joins the narrative of the Gospels as Jesus casts out demons displacing the Satanic (Math 12:22-29), challenges the principalities and powers at every turn – Roman and Jewish, heals the physically and spiritually sick under the power of evil. This is the inauguration of the displacement and defeat of the dark kingdom with the kingdom of light (continued in the Church). Gospels and epistles are joined in a singular narrative movement of the defeat of evil, death, and sin through Christ and the Church. Instead of sin being a mysterious guilt posing a problem in the inaccessible reaches of the mind of God, sin is here understood to pertain to enslavement to death and evil as administered by the Evil One. We can witness and explain the hold evil has upon us as the Cross exposes the working of the sin system.

Paul describes sin as a fearful slavery from which Christ defeats and frees us (Ro. 8:15). As Hebrews puts it, he freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:15).  The Gospels picture Jesus confronting this enslavement in myriad forms: for Nicodemus and the Pharisees the security of their religion provides life (life in the law); for the woman at the well the security of sexual love is life (looking for love and life in all the wrong places); for Pilate security is provided by Rome (life through state identity). All have entered into a covenant with death in which pride of place, of identity, or of association, wards off death (death as the loss of pride (shame), the loss of place, the loss of identity). In each instance, the encounter with Christ exposes the emptiness of the covenant with death.

In his life and death Christ continually enters that place or circumstance violently resisted by all. His is the poverty of no place (Nazareth, a peasant, a Jew), the humility of being a nobody servant, the shame of associating with social outcasts. As he enters the jaws of death by walking into Jerusalem his walk of death acceptance overcomes and defeats the myriad forms of death denial that would kill him. Peter’s denial is precisely a refusal of death, but so is the betrayal of Judas who most obviously illustrates denial of death as a succumbing to evil.

The Cross is a confrontation, not between the Father and the Son, but the forces of evil (the Jews, the Romans, Judas, and the Judas in all the disciples) which killed him. It is a defeat of the death resistance which would kill the one (the scapegoat) that the Nation might be saved. It is precisely a defeat of nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, egocentrism, and all forms of evil that would deal out violence and death as salvation.

It is not God’s violence that kills Jesus but the violence of evil. His death confronts and defeats evil and binds the evil one whose singular weapon is exposed as empty by the empty tomb.

The Treatment of Women as a Test of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

The male/female nature of the image in Genesis, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 11, is necessarily plural and pertains directly to gender in that the two are interdependent in both origin and relational integrity (the woman is from the man and the man from the woman and separated from one another they are nothing, v. 11). That is, image bearing pertains to relationship between the two, with God, with the world, and within the self, and this multidirectional relational capacity is interwoven within all these spheres. We might say the Fall of humankind is a failure of gendered identity but of course this pertains to the deep psychology of the individual, relationship to God, or simply the capacity for relationship. The New Testament brings this out most sharply (it is present already in the Old Testament) in that salvation and final redemption are depicted in terms of restored gendered relations: the Church is depicted as bride and Christ as groom, the Kingdom is celebrated as a marriage feast, and the most abiding mystery, male/female unity, is either the vehicle for or analogy of the unity between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5).

Even Paul’s depiction of individual failure in regard to the law is sexualized (in Ro. 7:1-4) in that a woman’s marital status and relational fidelity (adulterous or not) serve to get at the deep psychology of self-estrangement. One can have sexual relations but the status of this act is universally predetermined by the Fall, and of course Paul is not talking about actual sex and marriage but an individual’s internal orientation. Love (of the Christian sort) cannot be coordinated with the body and sex, in Paul’s illustration, apart from the marital-like fusion with the body of Christ. There is a fruitful coordination of love with the body only in being joined to the body of Christ (vs. 4), such that gender fulfillment is salvation.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender relations but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) is to be realized “in the Lord.” In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

In the case of Romans, Paul is demonstrating that an understanding of God, apart from Christ, will result in a two-fold failure – internal failure within the “I” (“I do what I do not want . . .”) and a failure to know God except as he is wrongly perceived through the law. The sexualized failure of 7:1-3 is more fully depicted from verse 7. It is depicted as an internal antagonism due to a deceived orientation to the law, spelling out the meaning of the adulterous, transgressive, failed relationship described at the opening of the chapter.  Ro. 8 fills out Paul’s sexualized success (of 7:4), in that salvation is depicted as participation in the Trinity in which knowing God takes on the Hebraic sense of knowing (knowing bodily or holistically) in that it is a holistic participation in the Trinity. Through being incorporated into the body of Christ, the Father is apprehended as Abba as one is adopted into His new family and the Spirit enables a new sort of intimate relationship with God. The deep psychology of chapter 8 contrasts with that of chapter 7 in that union with God and others (in the body of Christ) displaces alienation, hope displaces desire, life in the Spirit displaces death, the body of Christ displaces the ego, and God as Father displaces the law (the law of sin and death is replaced with the law of life in the Spirit).  Paul sums all of this up at the end of the chapter as the full realization of love. Love can be coordinated with the body (no more mind body antagonism) through incorporation into the body of Christ, as the rightly gendered relation finally and completely overcomes alienation: nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39, NASB).

In the chapters leading up to I Cor. 11, Paul has been attempting to dispossess the Corinthian elite of a domineering, cruel, authoritarian, treatment of the weak in regard to sex, finances, visiting pagan temples, and eating meat. The Corinthians’ conclusion that the idol is nothing is indirectly countered by Paul’s depiction of male/female interdependence. Woman is nothing apart from man and man is nothing apart from woman and it is this separation and alienation commonly portrayed in idolatry.  As in Ezekiel, the idol as male or phallic and the worshiper as a female adulterer depicts an impossibility of relationship. The horse sized phallus (of 23:20), serving in place of God, is not describing intense eroticism but an impossibility of relationship (leading to heightened desire and child sacrifice) created by a false image. The restored image, as a direct counter to the failed image (as nothing), draws a direct correlate between men and women and God and Christ. Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man. The very notion of self-identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations – relations which are extended to include human participation. The unity of the Godhead is reduplicated or repeated in male/female unity (v. 3) – not just analogously but, as with Romans, through direct participation (as depicted in the language of “headship” and interdependence). As with the Trinity, to say that one is not without the other is to preserve the individual identity of each (male and female distinction is Paul’s point in regard to hair length and head coverings) while positing each as internal to, or interdependent with, the other (through the Lord).

The meaning of God’s image in humankind cannot be abstracted or removed from Trinity, as the created image repeats the reality of the relation of God to himself (in the Trinity), and this repetition is the unifying factor of human relationship. This means our practical and lived out comprehension of God (a unity containing difference) will be first and foremost realized in male/female relationship. In turn, our understanding of these relationships (as expressed in both theology and practice) in marriage and, as in Corinthians, in ministry (praying, preaching, prophesying) will be a test of our understanding of God. Thus, I mean my above title to carry a double meaning: (1.) we can see how orthodox our Trinitarian belief might be in the practices (particularly involving our understanding of personhood) to which this belief gives rise and (2.) we can test orthodoxy itself (which I explain below) in its views of gender and in its treatment of women.

In a sort of crude illustration of part (1.): male/female oppositional difference might be extrapolated from tritheism (the persons of the Trinity are separate), the reduction of the genders to a singular substantial humanity (e.g. androgyny, soul body duality) might be connected to modalism (the persons of the Trinity are simply a manifestation of a singular essence), and as in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men finds support in the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). With traditional Trinitarian doctrine as a guide, notions of maleness and femaleness as separate principles, as manifestations of a singular essence, or as one subordinate to the other (e.g. women subordinated to men), should be ruled out of court.

While it is clear that heretical Trinitarian theology has helped produce oppression of women (e.g. primary focus on God as Father connected to patriarchalism, complementarianism connected to subordinationism), can orthodoxy claim to have done better? So to part (2.): Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, shows up an inherent weakness in his understanding, if not in his formulation, of God’s Trinitarian personhood. Is the weakness, as with the Eastern criticism, that he allows for subordinationism? Clearly there is a failure in what he extrapolates from his Trinitarian formula (which seems to protect against subordinationism). Gregory of Nyssa (representative of the East) posits a double creation: the first is non-sexual and purely spiritual and the second is bodily and includes male and female. His Trinitarian formulations, like his view of men and women, is more egalitarian but so too the union (devoid of sex in the case of humans) is left a mystery. As Sarah Coakley notes, the apophaticism of the East may mask and make room for the hierarchical and subordinationist tendencies manifest in the abysmal treatment of women in the Eastern Church.[1]

Personhood as understood through orthodox traditions surrounding the Trinity and applied (as in I Cor. 11 and Ro. 6-8) to humankind should give rise to difference-in-unity in male/female relationship (something on the order of egalitarianism in marriage and ministry).  Why has this not been the case? Maybe because people are sinful, they simply do not live out their beliefs. Perhaps, it is simply not the case that orthodoxy produces orthopraxy? Yet, doesn’t John suggest that belief and practice are necessarily related (those that practice righteousness do so because they know the righteous One, I Jn. 2:29)? Isn’t this the whole point of Christianity – transformation of the mind and transformation of lives? Or is it simply, as Tolstoy would have it along with revisionist feminists, that the Trinitarian formulas as we have them are wrong?

Mine is a more moderate suggestion: I believe there is progress to be made in theology and orthodox theology provides a foundation upon which we continue to build our understanding of faith and practice. The failure of practice does not necessarily indicate an error in theory. However, in the case of Trinitarian theology as applied to gender (a biblical correlate central to Fall and redemption, as I have argued), it indicates a failed apprehension and understanding and shows the work that has yet to be done.


[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Blackwell, 2002) 63-65.