Was the Incarnation Sexist?

False Assumptions

In the highly charged feminist atmosphere of our times it is often mistakenly assumed that questions regarding sexism and God’s action in the Incarnation are contemporary concerns that have not hitherto been considered. So an ex-RC nun, twice-married, turned Anglican woman priest writes her own DIY baptismal liturgy in a language that displaces the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for a god in her own image and invalidates the action it claims to be. Like all heresies this merely reflects contemporary fashion. The underlying arrogance is that our predecessors did not address the possible question that God showed sexist bias or partiality against females or males in the birth of the incarnate Lord.

Classical Exegesis

A glance at classical exegesis demonstrates that these exegetes reasoned that both maleness and femaleness were honoured equally in the incarnation: God’s “temporal plan ennobled each sex, both male and female. By possessing a male nature and being born of a woman, Jesus further showed by this plan that God has concern not only for the sex He represented but also for the one through which He took upon Himself our nature.” Augustine, On Faith and the Creed 4.9,wrote, “that dispensation has honoured both sexes, at once the male and the female, and has made it plain that not only that sex which He assumed pertains to God’s care, but also that sex by which He did assume this other, in that He bore [the nature of] the man [virum gerendo], [and] in that He was born of the woman”.

This implies that a renewed emphasis on Mary the blessed virgin mother is due in a contemporary theology of the incarnation that is attentive to sexist bias. Mary is female, Jesus is male. God’s way of coming involves both genders in a particular way fitting to those genders: female, for the conception and birth of the God-man without human father, and male, for the mission of the anointed messianic servant, according to the Jewish expectation of a male of David’s line. In Letter 3, Augustine wrote that: “He did not despise the male, for he assumed the nature of a man, nor the female, for he was born of a woman’. The essence of this classic feminine-masculine incarnational balance is found in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law” (Gal. 4:4). Paul says, born of a woman, a particular woman without male assistance, not born of woman and man.

If the incarnation required a birth that is physiologically impossible for males to perform, it is therefore plausible for the Saviour of the world to be a male. If the mother of the Saviour has of necessity to be female, then the Saviour must be male, if both sexes are to be rightly and equally involved in the salvation event. This is the classical interpretation. This hypothesis reverses the sexism argument by making the female, as necessary for the birth, the primary basis upon which the incarnate Lord was more plausibly to be male; alongside the Hebraic assumption that the Messiah would be of the male line of David.

God is not Ashamed

This makes it patently obvious that God is not averse to, nor ashamed of, female and male bodies, nor of human embodiment, or of human sexuality. In a light-hearted spirit Augustine wrote, in The Christian Combat: “Now the reason why the Holy Spirit was not born of a dove, whereas Christ was born of a woman, is this: the Holy Spirit did not come to liberate doves, but to declare unto man innocence and spiritual love, which were outwardly symbolised in the form of a dove. The Lord Jesus Christ, having come to liberate human beings, including both men and women destined for salvation, was not ashamed of the male nature, for He took it upon Himself; or of the female, for He was born of a woman.”

Thomas Oden claims that Augustine delighted in imagining that the ancient tempter was exasperated by the thought that both the female and male sex were being decisively used by God for human salvation. For, “there is a profound mystery that, as death had befallen us through a woman, Life should be born to us through a woman. By this defeat, the Devil would be tormented over the thought of both sexes, male and female, because he had taken delight in the defection of them both. The freeing of both sexes would not have been so severe a penalty for the Devil, unless we were also liberated by the agency of both sexes” (Augustine, The Christian Combat, 22, Fathers of the Church 21, pp. 338-39, italics added). Both sexes can be confident that the Bishop of Hippo in the fifth-century, believed in this divine equity.

The deeper conflict being dealt with in the incarnation is not the difference between the sexes, however, but the, divine-human Controversy resulting from sin. The mediation of this post-Adam, post-Eve controversy required a mediator who was fully human. Julian of Norwich envisioned in Christ, a humanity that both encompasses and transcends sexual differentiation: ” … by our Lord’s gracious enlightenment that came subsequently I saw that he meant mankind in general: that is to say, Everyman, who is and will be sinful to the very end. I am included in that man, I hope, by the mercy of God. The blessed comfort that I saw is large enough to embrace us all.” (Revelations, ch.79. pp. 202ff (Penguin)).

These thoughts come from Thomas Oden’s Systematic Theology Vol. II. P.117.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, Hon Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St. Chad’s College Durham.