The God of Empire Versus the God of Passion

There is something of an endless debate about God within the major branches of the Christian faith – What role for Greek conceptions of God? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father or from the Father and the Son? How is the Father involved in the work of the Son and how do we conceive their difference, etc. etc.? East, West, Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, are largely defined by the perceived differences (real and imagined) in regard to fundamental issues about how and what we know about God. These divisions though, may be shaped by more subtle sociological concerns. Sarah Coakley, following Ernst Troeltsch, divides the sociological contexts between church, sect, and mysticism and sees the sociological as throwing additional light on theological emphasis. She sees certain forms of trinitarianism as cohering with particular types of ecclesiastical organization. For example, focus on pneumatology is unlikely to accompany strong patriarchal social and political contexts – given the individualistic, mystical, and “feminine” role of the Spirit. [1] Throughout the history of the church, the more settled the institution (the church type), the more unmoved, settled, and distant, the conception and perceived experience of God. The focus on the Spirit and the experientialism of mysticism have tended to be segregated from the theology of the church type. The adaptation of the Aristotelian concept of God (the Unmoved Mover), came with adaptation to empire, hierarchy, and institutions meant to endure by dint of their alignment with worldly power.

Giorgio Agamben describes the rise of two orders of church, each consisting of its own conceptual and experiential reality. In the biblical mandate, the church is to dwell on the earth as an exile or sojourner captured in the Greek verb paroikein, as in the description of I Peter 1:17 – “the time of sojourning.” In this imagery truth is discovered along the way – or truth is the way (viatorum). The sojourner church stands in contrast to the settled church, which takes on the look of a city, state, kingdom, or empire – captured in the Greek verb katoikein. The katoikia church is built to last, and as opposed to the paroikein church, is not geared to the parousia or the coming of Christ, as it has put down roots in the world. The parousia, in Agamben’s conception, is not in the future or deferred but speaks of the immediate experience of time (fundamental human experience).  In the true church (Agamben counts the institution as we have it an imposter), every moment bears the possibility of the inbreaking of the Messiah, made impossible by the katoikia church.[2]

Agamben locates the point of departure from the biblical church within early debates about the Trinity. The distinction between the immanent (ad intra – or God’s self-relation) and economic (God’s relation to creation) Trinity accounts for the development of western politics and economics. However, according to Agamben, this secularizes theology even before there is a secular order: “from the beginning theology conceives divine life and the history of humanity as an oikonomia (economy), that is, that theology is itself ‘economic’ and did not simply become so at a later time through secularization.” Where the political order can lay claim to a first order power relation (an extension or reflection of God’s self-relation), Christian’s (through this theological maneuvering) only have to do with an economy (a second order of experience).[3] While one may not agree with the sweep of Agamben’s critique, his depiction parallels Coakley’s sociological contextualization of theology.  

In the 20th century there have been a variety of attempts to correct this theological failure precisely where it had the greatest impact. Where the church (at least the church type, with its institutions) failed in Germany with National Socialism, this gave rise to striking theological innovation. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer turn from the characteristic church type dogmatic speculation to a Christocentric point of departure.

 Bonhoeffer in his lectures on Christology locates the Logos, not in the realm of the transcendent. He claims “this will inevitably constitute that Logos as an object for human logos, locating it within the territory of things about which we can ask ‘how is it possible?’ or ‘how does it work?'” As Bonhoeffer puts it, “the question is no longer ‘how?’ but ‘who?’ Who is it that I confront when I look at Jesus? But also, and equally importantly, ‘Who am I?'”[4]

Bonhoeffer depicts the question of the person of Christ as challenging his self-understanding: “When a human being confronts Jesus, the human being must either die or kill Jesus.”[5] The reality of Jesus creates its own context and terms of engagement. Jesus is not Socrates, reminding us of what we already know, but he creates the conditions for knowing him as these conditions do not otherwise exist. He is what he teaches.

Picturing the Logos as on the order of the Aristotelian difference (the apathetic God) is simply to accommodate divine revelation to the human word. “The divine revealed as overwhelming power or unconstrained agency as we understand those things will not recreate us, re-beget us; it will not require the death of our logos.” This sort of God simply accommodates our instincts about the absolute Other, the humanly conceived difference of divinity. If we do not accept the death of the human logos, we will deploy it in defeat of the divine Logos.[6]

Of course Christ allows for his death. He is not a rival to my will or my word. It is precisely his kenotic humility – “taking the form of a slave” (not just being incarnate) that challenges the foundation (foundationalism) of my selfhood. Though it is not as if there is any actually existing foundation – this is simply the “poisonous fiction” that must die or the pride that must fail.[7]

 One of the sharpest German attempts at a revisionist understanding came from Jurgen Moltmann, who begins his book on the Trinity by recounting how Greek notions of God effectively corrupted the Christian faith. He suggests that where Greek philosophy has been deployed in conceiving of God, “then we have to exclude difference, diversity, movement and suffering from the divine nature.” He names the resultant heresy of nominalism (God cannot be known in his essence) as giving us a God that is so far from us (impassible and immovable in his remoteness), such that apathetic portrayal of God has trumped the importance of the person and work of Christ. He concludes that, “down to the present-day Christian theology has failed to develop a consistent Christian concept of God? And that instead . . . it has rather adopted the metaphysical tradition of Greek philosophy, which it understood as ‘natural theology’ and saw as its own foundation.” By allowing the “apathetic axiom” to prevail over the person and work of Christ, God became “the cold, silent and unloved heavenly power.”[8]

Moltmann poses the following choice: either the apathetic God prevails and the passion of Christ is seen as “the suffering of the good man from Nazareth,” or the passion of Christ prevails and divine apatheia is no longer determinative. Within this second alternative, Moltmann points out that his depiction of suffering entails a two-fold rejection: the Greek depiction of the divine incapacity for suffering, and suffering defined as incapacity or deficiency. “But there is a third form of suffering: active suffering – the voluntary laying oneself open to another and allowing oneself to be intimately affected by him; that is to say, the suffering of passionate love.”

Without passion God would be incapable of love. Moltmann develops the two-fold meaning of passion – inclusive of passionate desire and the suffering passion of Christ. If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of any form of passion or love. As Aristotle puts it, he would at most be capable of loving himself, but not of loving another as himself. But if he is capable of loving something else, then he lays himself open to the suffering which love for another brings; yet, by virtue of his love, he remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer. “God does not suffer out of deficiency of being, like created beings. To this extent he is ‘apathetic’. But he suffers from the love which is the superabundance and overflowing of his being. In so far he is ‘pathetic’.” [9] God is love and his is not a cold love (as if there is such a thing), but the passionate love revealed in Christ.

Sarah Coakley cites Moltmann as an influence in her turn to desire, sex and gender in conceptualization of the Trinity.[10] However, what Coakley avoids and Moltmann spells out, is the historical and theological challenge to notions of divine apathy entailed in discussions of passion. Moltmann finds in Jewish theology and Origen precedent for his depiction of the suffering of the Father as a necessary part of the love of God.

Origen describes the suffering of God in his exposition of Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”  “In his mercy God suffers with us, for he is not heartless.” In his explanation, Origen equates the love of God with the necessity of suffering:

He (the Redeemer) descended to earth out of sympathy for the human race. He took our sufferings upon Himself before He endured the cross – indeed before He even deigned to take our flesh upon Himself; for if He had not felt these sufferings [beforehand] He would not have come to partake of our human life. First of all He suffered, then He descended and became visible to us. What is this passion which He suffered for us? It is the passion of love {Caritas est passio). And the Father Himself, the God of the universe, ‘slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy’ (Ps. 103.8), does He not also suffer in a certain way? Or know you not that He, when He condescends to men, suffers human suffering? For the Lord thy God has taken thy ways upon Him ‘as a man doth bear his son’ (Deut. 1.31). So God suffers our ways as the Son of God bears our sufferings. Even the Father is not incapable of suffering {Ipse pater non est itnpassibilis). When we call upon him, He is merciful and feels our pain with us. He suffers a suffering of love, becoming something which because of the greatness of his nature He cannot be, and endures human suffering for our sakes.[11]

As Moltmann explains, Origen’s talk of God’s suffering means the suffering of love; the compassion of mercy and pity. The merciful person taking pity on another participates in the suffering of the one he pities, “he takes the other’s sufferings on himself, he suffers for others.” For Origen this is the suffering of God, “the suffering of the Father who in giving up his ‘own Son’ (Rom. 8.32) suffers the pain of redemption.” The Father is not removed from the suffering of the Son, anymore than he can be said to be removed from the passion or desire of God. Origen depicts the divine passion of Christ as inclusive of the divine passion between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. “The suffering of love does not only affect the redeeming acts of God outwards; it also affects the trinitarian fellowship in God himself.”[12]

Origen predates the distinction and Moltmann and Coakley, in varying forms, would equate the economic and immanent Trinity. Moltmann notices in Origen what Coakley notices in Romans 8, that it is precisely in conjunction with suffering that the Trinitarian nature of God is most clearly delineated.  Like Coakley and Paul, Moltmann also locates the apprehension and participation in the suffering of God in prayer.

Moltmann though, references a Jewish mystical tradition in which praying the Shema is the uniting of God: “To acknowledge God’s unity – the Jew calls it uniting God. For this unity is, in that it becomes; it is a Becoming Unity. And this Becoming is laid on the soul of man and in his hands.”

Franz Rosenzweig takes up this notion to describe an Old Testament and Jewish conception of the suffering of God:

Mysticism builds its bridge between ‘the God of our fathers’ and ‘the remnant of Israel’ with the help of the doctrine of the Shekinah. The Shekinah, the descent of God to man and his dwelling among them, is thought of as a divorce which takes place in God himself. God himself cuts himself off from himself, he gives himself away to his people, he suffers with their sufferings, he goes with them into the misery of the foreign land, he wanders with their wanderings . . . God himself, by ‘selling himself to Israel – and what should be more natural for ‘the God of our Fathers’! – and by suffering her fate with her, makes himself in need of redemption. In this way, in this suffering, the relationship between God and the remnant points beyond itself.”[13]

Just as in Romans 8, so too in the Jewish conception, prayer inserts the one praying within the communion of God. The Jewish depiction is an estrangement or suffering into which God enters, and the estrangement is overcome through those reflecting the Shekinah to God through prayer. Moltmann explains, estrangement is also overcome “through the acts of the good, which are directed towards the overcoming of evil and the establishment of the future harmony of the one world. That is the meaning of the Hebrew word tikkun (world repair).”[14]

Theology proper (talk of God) cannot begin in the abstract, which inevitably depends upon the human logos, but in the fact that God has opened himself to human experience and human suffering, becoming human that humans might participate in the divine. But it is the primacy of God’s love and not human suffering that determines the course of God’s suffering love. The passion of Christ as point of departure suspends talk of an economic and immanent Trinity, with the first order (the ontological reality) of God removed from the contingencies of the second order (the economic). The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, though as Coakley notes, this does not mean that God is reduced to what is revealed, as “there must be that which God is which eternally ‘precedes’ God’s manifestation to us.”[15] However, speculation about what “precedes” Christ cannot be given precedent over the revealed truth given in Christ.


[1] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (p. 156-157). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom, trans. by Leland de la Durantaye (Seagull Books, 2012).

[3] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) (p. 3). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] The Bonhoeffer Reader, ed. Clifford]. Green and Michael P. Dejonge, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. Cited in Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), 185.

[5] Reader, 268.

[6] Williams, 187-188.

[7] Williams, 190-191.

[8] Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (First Fortress Press edition, 1993) 21-22.

[9] Moltmann, 22-23.

[10] Sarah Coakley, “The Trinity and gender reconsidered,” in God’s Life in Trinity (ed. Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[11] Homilia VI in Ezechielem (MPG XIII, 714 f). Cited in Moltmann, 24.

[12] Moltmann, 24.

[13] F. Rosenzweig, Der Stern der Erlösung, III, 3rd ed., Heidelberg 1954, pp. 192ff. Cited in Moltmann, 29.

[14] Moltmann, 29.

[15] Coakley

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 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.