Speaking the Christian God:
The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism
edited by Alvin J. Kimel
Eerdmans, 334 pages, $21.95
It is an index of the success of this volume that one could read it with profit even if one were not very interested in the issue that provoked it, the gender-feminist critique of Trinitarian language. That is to say, the authors, with very few exceptions, do not rely on denunciation and defensive generalizations, but take the current controversy as an occasion for renewed and deepened reflection on the specific theological issues at stake. The result is a volume that elevates the whole discussion to a new plane of seriousness, and makes a genuine contribution to theological understanding.
The essays themselves fall roughly into three groups. The first focuses on the questions of language and hermeneutics raised by the gender-feminist critique. Elizabeth Achtemeier and Roland M. Frye deal specifically with issues of biblical interpretation, while Garrett Green, Colin Gunton, and Janet Martin Soskice explore larger questions of metaphor and religious language. Not surprisingly, two of the essays (Green and Gunton) take aim effectively at the influential work of Sally MacFague.
A second group focuses directly on the Trinitarian doctrine and its implications. Robert W. Jenson provides a powerful sketch of the “Trinitarian understanding of theological language” called for by editor Alvin J. Kimel in his essay. Gerhard O. Forde employs the resources of a Lutheran theology of the cross to argue the futility of attempting to reconcile ourselves to the hidden God by linguistic manipulation. Thomas F. Torrance gives a magisterial account of the theology of God the Father and the mystery of our knowledge of God, drawing on his profound appropriation of Athanasian theology. Thomas Hopko presents an Orthodox perspective, exploring the implications of the Cappadocian distinction between the unknowable divine essence and the three concrete persons of the Trinity. Joseph A. DiNoia applies the insights of Thomas Aquinas to provide a sophisticated and illuminating discussion of the grammar of Trinitarian language. Editor Kimel and Geoffrey Wainwright offer careful accounts of the grounds for traditional Trinitarian discourse, Kimel focusing on the implications of the biblical narrative, and Wainwright on the logic of Christian worship.
The third group of essays explores a variety of further issues at stake in the contemporary controversy. Elizabeth A. Morelli subjects the notion of a distinctive “women’s experience of God” to philosophical critique, and finds it wanting. David A. Scott and Ray S. Anderson discuss the implications of feminist proposals for the doctrine of creation (Scott) and Christology (Anderson). Blanche A. Jenson meditates on the losses, precisely for women, entailed in the subjection of the biblical narrative, in all its hard-edged oddity, to the demands of feminist theory. And Stephen M. Smith and Leslie Zeigler argue that there is a systematic and structural incompatibility between historic Christianity and radical feminism.
All the essays are competent and interesting, but for my money the heart of the book is the second group, the contributions that address the Trinitarian doctrine directly. It is here that the profound issues at stake, which are more difficult to specify than knee-jerk polemicists on either side often assume, come most clearly into view. What is especially intriguing, moreover, is the observable convergence of these essays, despite incidental disagreements and the very different strata of Christian tradition on which they draw, towards a point of intersection that is difficult to describe but seems to be very near the heart of the mystery whose herald and sign the historic church has claimed to be.
A few examples will give a sense of this convergence. Jenson describes the church’s “primary Trinitarian talk” as “dense signs,” sacramental gifts that enable a present participation in the heavenly liturgy: “It is throughout eternity that we will be initiated into the pattern of the life among the divine Three; if we are now able to shape our liturgy by the ‘begetting’ and ‘sending’ constitutive of that life, it can only be that we are permitted to trace a life not yet of this world.”
For Torrance, our knowledge of God is only possible by “sharing in some way in the knowledge which God has of himself”:
Thus our knowing of God rests not on a center in ourselves but on a center in God, not on the ground of our own being, but on the ground of God’s being. Our ability to know him is grounded not in some capacity of our own but in the activity of God in opening himself to our knowing and actually making himself known to us through his Word.
This becomes definitively actual in the historical particularity of Jesus of Nazareth: “In Jesus we encounter the very EGO EIMI of God, so that in him we are summoned to know God in accordance with the way in which he has actually objectified himself in our human existence and communicated himself within the structure and modes of our human knowing and speaking.”
Hopko argues that the Trinitarian name is never transcended in the Greek Patristic tradition, even in its most severely apophatic representatives, because that name marks precisely the point at which the God who is unknowable in his essence has made himself known as person through his co-essential Son and Spirit.
By contemplating, participating in, and imitating the saving activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the oikonomia of creation, salvation, and deification, human persons can discover what it means for them to be men and women, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters in the image and likeness of God the Father revealed through Christ the Son in the Holy Spirit, who makes creation to be God’s bride, the wife of the Lamb, and whose presence in the church is already the anticipatory pledge … of the “Jerusalem above” which is “free” and is “our mother” (Gal. 4:26).
Likewise for DiNoia, the concrete Trinitarian language is bound up with the gift of the triune God’s very self, “the incorporation of created persons into personal communion with the uncreated Trinity.” Only God himself can provide language appropriate to this mystery:
Just as God is the first teacher of Trinitarian truth, so also is it God who provides the first lesson in Trinitarian grammar: “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15–16).… The speakability of the otherwise unspeakable mystery of the triune God presupposes the gift of God’s very self and depends on resources that come with that gift.
“No considerations of any kind,” he writes, after a lengthy and sympathetic critique of various revisionist proposals, “can be advanced that would warrant the revision of the language in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit invite us to speak with them.”
The point toward which the essays converge, therefore, is the mystery of the concrete, contingent, and radical self-giving of the Trinitarian God who is utterly beyond us, a self-giving accomplished in the life and destiny of a particular first-century Palestinian Jew and made accessible to us in “sacramental” language and rite that are themselves an integral part of that self-giving. The doctrine of the Trinity is itself the attempt to articulate the structure of this mystery, whose distinctive logic is evoked by talk of incarnation and sacrament, self-giving and self-revelation. Christian identity, the essayists all suggest, is most deeply constituted by orientation to this central mystery, and this is what is at stake in the contemporary debate.
Cumulatively, these essays suggest two related insights about that debate: first, that it has very little to do, in a certain sense, with feminism, and second, that it is perhaps best understood as only one particular battle in a conflict that has been going on for quite a long time.
The book as a whole can be read as a demonstration that the revision of Trinitarian language has no intrinsic relationship to the core ethical and political concerns of feminism. Its authors show no signs of harboring reactionary views of the ontological and social status of women (Jenson, indeed, has argued elsewhere for the ontological superiority of women), and there is every reason to believe that feminist moral and cultural concerns could be creatively accommodated within the classical Christianity that they defend. In this light, contemporary theological gender-feminism comes to seem, not the inevitable theological expression of feminist concerns, but rather the co-option of those concerns by something else, by a distinct religious and philosophical agenda that could in principle stand on its own, with or without the feminist connection.
Several contributors note the close similarity of gender-feminist accounts of religious language to the projection-theory of Ludwig Feuerbach, and others point out the similarities between certain feminist theologians and the Hellenistic and Gnostic critics of Christianity in late antiquity. The real confrontation in this book, it would seem, is not between Christian orthodoxy and the moral and social concerns of feminism, but rather between the Christian orientation to the concrete self-giving of the wholly other God and a very different religious orientation that regards the very idea of divine concreteness, particularity, and contingent givenness as inevitably oppressive to the human spirit.
It might be worth pointing out that it is precisely at this point that orthodox Christianity and traditional Judaism agree most deeply at the formal level even while they disagree at the material level. Christians and Jews agree, that is, that the God of Abraham enters into contingent relations with human beings through concrete elections at particular times and particular places. Israel is chosen, and not, say, the Edomites; the Lord is available to his worshippers on Mt. Zion, and not on the high places; the particular books of the Torah are his word, to be pondered day and night, and not just any uplifting literature. The single important disagreement between Christians and Jews has to do, of course, with the material claim that Christians make concerning the role of Jesus of Nazareth in the Lord God’s contingent relations with humanity—and that is, to be sure, quite a disagreement. But the agreement on the formal level means that orthodox Christianity and traditional Judaism fall under gender-feminist critique for much the same reasons and in much the same way. There is room for significant Christian-Jewish theological conversation here.
This observation leads up to the second insight suggested by Speaking the Christian God: that the present controversy is simply the latest stage in a debate that has been going on in the Western world for quite some time. It seems quite probable that when the tale of this debate is told in time to come, it will be seen as one more episode in the story of the one great debate at the heart of modern Western theological history, a story whose earlier chapters include the Deist and Idealist rejection of “positive religion,” Newman’s search for an alternative to “liberalism,” the Modernist controversy in Roman Catholicism, Barth’s lifelong conflict with the heritage of neo-Protestantism, the German Church-Struggle of the 1930s—and so on.
Speaking the Christian God is evidence that this protracted controversy has at least brought increasing clarity. The authors of these essays have all profited from the lessons of the last two or three centuries, not least from the great renewal of Trinitarian reflection that has been perhaps the greatest achievement of twentieth-century theology. The mystery that is the focal point of Christian identity seems to be coming ever more clearly into view, beyond the sterile defensive strategies to which an alarmed orthodoxy has too often resorted. The present volume thus offers an ecumenical dividend: in our context, what divides the Cappadocians, Aquinas, Luther, and Barth begins to seem less interesting and significant than what unites them, perhaps best summed up in the prayer of St. Catherine of Siena to the Trinity, cited by DiNoia: “O abyss! O eternal Godhead! O deep sea! What more could you have given me than the gift of your very self!”
David S. Yeago, a new contributor to First Things, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.