The Maleness of Jesus

At the heart of the arguments of those in favour of the ordination of women is the problem of the maleness of Jesus. Why was the incarnation male?

More moderate proponents, as often as not, try to make the problem go away. To save humankind, they say, God had to become human. Human beings come in two kinds; in consequence he had to be one or the other. Which kind he became does not much matter. ‘The maleness of Jesus’, they say, ‘is not soteriologically significant.’ What matters is that God became human. This assertion is often bolstered by the (completely accurate) observation that the Fathers never address the significance of the maleness of the incarnation. For them it is simply not an issue.

Ardent feminist proponents are obliged to take a rather different line. For them the maleness of the incarnation is an extension of the maleness of the deity – which in itself is offensive. ‘If God is male, the Male is god’ in Mary Daly’s lapidary formula. And that formula proved to be whatever is the feminist equivalent of seminal. A female priesthood is for them a way of defacing the masculine image of God.

A paradox

The paradox in all this, of course, is that the extremists among the proponents tend to have more in common with traditionalists than do the moderates. Feminists agree with traditional Christians that the ‘maleness’ of both the deity and the incarnation is significant. They differ in that Christians receive that imagery as a ‘given’, and feminists take it as axiomatic that it must be changed. Liberal moderates disagree with both on the grounds that the ‘maleness’ of God the Father is a naïve pre-theological misunderstanding, and the maleness of God the Son is a matter of indifference in the work of salvation.

Despite the paradoxical agreement on first principles, there is, however, little the traditional Christians and the feminists have to say to one another. The Christians are content to remain faithful to their religion; the feminists are intent on inventing another one. The prospects for rapprochement are slender.

The real dialogue, then, is between traditionalists and the liberal ‘moderates’. What does it mean to say that the maleness of Jesus is soteriologically insignificant? Does it mean anything at all? And if it does mean something, is that compatible with the Christian revelation as proffered in scripture and mediated by the tradition?

Nothing will come of nothing

The strong suit of the liberals, as we have seen, is an argument from silence: from the fact that the Fathers make nothing of the maleness of Jesus in their account of his saving work. But arguments from silence are notoriously vulnerable, and this one is particularly so.

It can plausibly be argued that the Fathers make no reference to the ‘maleness’ of Jesus for the simple reason that they took it (and the male sex as appropriately representative of the whole of humanity) for granted. They existed in a society and culture in which the representative role of the male was so much the norm that it was embedded in the very structures of language. Anthropos and homo, for example, are both terms for humankind which have an in-built male bias. They are seldom, if ever, used as collective nouns for exclusively female groups or gatherings (and even then much as ‘guy’ is used in modern American and ‘man’ in colloquial Jamaican). The rule, moreover, in both Latin and Greek, is that a male noun is used for groups of males and for mixed groups; a female noun for groups of women: so servi, for example, accounts for a household of both male and female slaves.

This usage is uniform across classical and late antiquity, and aptly expresses the assumptions of those societies. Says Gillian Clark, in the conclusion of her important book Women in Late Antiquity (OUP, 1993): ‘The texture overall, I think, is that of inherited assumptions. We continue to be told, as at any time since the fifth century BC, that women are domestic, and that what they actually do with their time is not very interesting. Public status is inappropriate for them unless they are members of the imperial house, and even then they are expected to manifest the traditional virtues of modesty, chastity, and piety towards gods and family … although they are just as capable as men of being good, they will normally manifest their goodness in private life.’ (pp139–140).

The maleness of the incarnation for the modern liberal Christian and the post-Christian feminist is sufficiently remarkable to need explanation or mitigation. For the Fathers of the Church, in the culture of late antiquity, it needed no explanation. It was ‘natural’ and inevitable, hence the ‘silence’.

Kenotic patriarchy

But this is not to say that no explanation existed. Part of the acceptance of the maleness of Jesus as natural and inevitable was the awareness of a doctrine of what we may call ‘kenotic patriarchy’ at the most fundamental level of Christian soteriology.

Philippians 2.6–11 is generally taken as a pre-Pauline hymn (or proto-credal statement) which gives us an insight into the earliest faith of Christians. It probably lies behind the language of John 13. The kenosis of Philippians 2 is a willing descent from authority to obedience, from the public to the private, from master to slave. On the simple principle that you cannot give away what you do not have, the gravity of the declination (in the society in which it was set) required that the subject was male.

But there is more to it than that. For patriarchy is the perennial condition of humanity. Said Margaret Meade in her review of Steven Goldberg’s ground-breaking study The Inevitability of Patriarchy: ‘Persuasive and accurate, it is true, as Professor Goldberg points out, that all the claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are nonsense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed … Men have always been the leaders in public affairs and the final authorities at home.’

In order to defend the ordination of women to the priesthood it is up to the liberal Christians to demonstrate either that Meade was wrong or that things have changed. And they will be hard put to do either or both.