Women and the Gender of God
by amy peeler
eerdmans, 286 pages, $24.99
“If God is Male, the Male is God.”
—Mary Daly, 1973
Twentieth-century feminist theology sought to recover the agency of Mary, which feminists claimed had been lost in a tradition that privileged the maleness of Jesus. In local churches, this unbalanced system of value depreciated women’s participation in worship. But by deemphasizing an overly patriarchal God in favor of a powerful virgin, the church could correct course and elevate women. Such were the arguments made in the feminist theology of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Amy Peeler’s Women and the Gender of God likewise seeks to restore women’s authority through the language of women’s agency.
Peeler, an associate professor in New Testament at Wheaton College, has two primary concerns in this book. The first is how gender relates to God—whether God is male, whether God is masculine, and whether “Father” language is exclusively applied and necessary. The second concern is with Mary’s agency and whether God strengthens or undermines it. In this way Peeler adds contemporary questions of power and consent to the shopworn themes of feminist theology.
The Western theological tradition has unequivocally affirmed that God is neither male nor female, the Incarnation notwithstanding. Biological sex is a constituent fact of creatures, not of their Creator. According to Peeler, however, the Church is rife with thinkers who shirk this consensus. But examples evade her. She mentions Paul Mankowski and John Piper as culprits, but is otherwise content to tilt against imaginary interlocutors. Still, she feels the problem acutely: If God is male, then women are valued less than men. If Jesus is male, his maleness must not be seen to image God the Father, so as not to exclude women.
God’s maleness becomes of critical significance when Peeler turns to Mary’s agency. She notes that for “a number of interpreters on opposite sides of the theological spectrum” (more unnamed interlocutors), the “similar caricature” is a concern: “God is cast as the strong male opposite Mary the coerced female. She plays the negative gender stereotype of femininity.” Later feminist theorists questioned such flat-footed views of patriarchy, arguing that women’s agency often looked like the power to coerce and persuade. They conceptualized “soft power” as a foil to top-down, “patriarchal” authority. If Peeler is familiar with variants of feminism that emphasized the power inherent in pregnancy, nurture, and care, she does not let on. Instead, she tasks herself with demonstrating that God is not male and that Mary is not coerced.
The gravest problem with Peeler’s work is that she misunderstands the theological categories at stake in her analysis. Peeler seeks to match God’s power in Christ with Mary’s power in her feminine body. But God’s relation to the world is not competitive, as if God acted as a human agent. God is not a creature and so human language when applied to God only applies by way of analogy. Thomas Aquinas’s claim that “we speak of God as we know him” follows the biblical claim that we see “through a glass darkly.” Early in her book, Peeler acknowledges that divine reality warrants a different form of human speech, but she fails to heed her own caveat, especially when interpreting the Incarnation.
For did God request permission in creating the world? Did the Son consent to his sending within the Triune economy? Must God, in becoming human, also become subject to our cultural assumptions? Instead of addressing the true boundary that is miraculously violated—that between heaven and earth—Peeler extols God as a gentleman:
The narrative comprises only twelve verses (Luke 1:26-30), but even in brevity, it offers seemingly inexhaustible riches to contemplate the character of both God and Mary. The powerful God approaches Mary with honor and blessing and waits for her response. She, the young circumspect female, with grit and self-respect, accepts. The exchange then is not between one strong and one weak, one forceful male and one forced female, but between one God and one human woman, who both act for her honor from the place of strength.
Peeler sets out to demonstrate that God is not a man but succeeds merely in arguing that if he were, the Zeitgeist would approve of him. She wants to say that God is Boaz with Ruth instead of David with Bathsheba. But God is neither. It is true that Christians should be concerned not to worship a God who forces himself on women. But this is because Christians do not worship a creature among creatures, but the very ground of being, of consciousness, of agency.
Theology subordinated to modern sensibilities yields all manner of absurdities. For example, Peeler claims that the conjunction of Jesus’s “virginally conceived body” with his biological maleness makes his body “inclusive” of both genders. Because Jesus was male, had his conception been biological, women would be excluded from identifying with the incarnate Christ. But because Christ is “born as a male from the flesh of a female,” both women and men are represented in Christ’s male flesh. Peeler’s view mimics Gregory of Nazianzus’s axiom that “what is not assumed is not redeemed.” Gregory’s concern, however, was not for identification with Christ but for the actual redemption of the person. Indeed, mere inclusion in Christ’s particularity doesn’t concern the earliest Christian theologians, who were worried much more about how God could become man than with how man might resemble God.
Peeler also posits gender and its expression as essential to our humanity and yet rejects its teleology. She treats Mary’s ability to conceive and carry a child to term as only incidental to her femaleness. Her dismissal of motherhood as the quintessential female vocation makes nonsense of her claim that female nature is essential. Worse, what matters most to Peeler is Mary’s agency, her choosing, her strength—qualities more associated with the “patriarchal” maleness constructed by feminists. But there are things that a man cannot do, and these are the things that Mary through the power of the Spirit does—conceive and bear a Son.
Mary’s “be it unto me” was an act of faith in something she could not understand. By “treasuring these things in her heart,” she bore not only the Son of God but the promise that all would be revealed to her in time, even as a sword would pierce her heart. She consented to the will of God because she knew God and accepted the mystery that so often attends his works. Even raising the question of agency or consent betrays a reader inattentive to the text’s core theological claims.
Amy Peeler is to be commended for her attempt to demonstrate that the gospel is good for women. But she lacks the theological imagination needed to understand that the God who is “good for women” moves our expectation from agency and consent to submission, holiness, and praise. God came to Mary as a lowly woman and elevated her status—and, yes, her agency—making her the Blessed One. Mary treasured all these things in her heart. There has since been no creature like her. Must we ask for more?
Kirsten Sanders is a theologian and writer.
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Image by The Met at Wikimedia Commons licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.