Mark Stevens insists that it was neither a mistake nor an irrelevance that God was incarnate as a male, there is a reason why even if we do not know it

Why was God incarnate as a male? It is a question which has seldom been asked in the debate about the ordination of women, except to dismiss it as an irrelevancy. What matters, it is routinely said, is that God became human, so that through him all human beings, female as well as male, could be saved. That was the strong suit of Michael Adie in his opening speech in the 1992 debate. But as many, including some radical and committed feminists have seen, things are not quite so simple.

There is a movement in contemporary society to minimize both the symbolic significance and biological integrity of the two sexes – most bizarrely, perhaps, in the recent parliamentary legislation permitting a person to reassign his or her own gender. But sex is not so easily manipulated. It is, as the post-Christian theologian, Daphne Hampson, points out, a prime determinant of individuality and personality.

Post-Christian witness

‘Consider then the following,’ writes Hampson. ‘A book, edited by Hans-Ruedi Weber (until recently of the World Council of Churches), On a Friday Noon shows illustrations of Christ crucified, drawn from all cultures and times in history. The variety is fascinating. There are yellow Christs and brown Christs, Christs who are serene and Christs in agony, Christs who are stylized and Christ in the image of the people who depicted him. But one thing these pictures – which reflect a spectrum of human art and imagination – have in common: they are all images of a man.

If there were to be an image of a woman in that book, that one picture would stand out as the exception. However Christ is understood, as people take him up into their culture, or make of him what they will, they know him to be male. A woman is the opposite to Christ in a way in which someone of another race is not.’

This is a point differently made by the great theorist of the icon, St Theodore the Studite: ‘For Christ would not possess a human nature at all unless it dwells in him, in his particular person, in individual existence. If it were not so, the Incarnation would be a fictitious fantasy.’

Commenting on this passage in God’s Human Face, [Ignatius Press, 1994, p. 223] Christoph Schönborn, adds, ‘If Christ had taken on the general human nature only, then he could not be recognised as a man except on an intellectual and conceptual level. Christ, of course, has assumed also the general human nature, but since this nature exists in fact exclusively in the particular individual, Christ is true man only if his humanity exists as this specific, individual manifestation.’

Whatever we are to say of the gender of the incarnation, we must not and may not assume that it is irrelevant. To portray a person’s sex as irrelevant or insignificant in what they are or do is both offensive and demeaning. In the modern usage it denies them ‘respect’. If all that those who use the rather tired phrase ‘the maleness of Jesus is not soteriologically significant’ actually mean is that Jesus saves both women and men, they must find another way of putting it.

Irrelevance not relevant

None of this, of course, implies that we can know, precisely and accurately, the significance of the maleness of the incarnation. It is merely to say that maleness is an integral part of the mystery with which we wrestle. The American patristics scholar, Richard Norris, made much of the fact that the Fathers say little or nothing about the sex of Jesus.

And it is certainly true that much classical Christology, and the language of the Nicene creed uses ‘gender neutral’ terminology. But it is also true that in the final crisis of patristic Christology – the iconoclast controversy of the seventh and eighth centuries – when the issue at stake was whether the incarnation can be ‘described’ (perigraphein) either in words or by the painted image, the matter was raised in just the way in which it has been raised in the contemporary debate about the representation of Christ at the altar. For both John Damascene and Theodore of Studios the idea that the sex of the incarnation could be irrelevant to its representation would have been the height of absurdity.

Drawing upon them Christoph Schönborn points both to the tradition of images acheiropoitas (‘not made with hands’) and the tradition of bearded representations of Jesus based upon them. That Jesus is a man, born of a woman – integrated, that is to say, into the common genetic makeup of mankind – is the irreducible guarantee of his real humanity. The painted image and the use of the male pronoun is the natural and inevitable expression of that humanity. So, the long and the short of it is that Jesus is a man so that he can save both women and men. There was and is no other way.

Lessons to learn

But granted that the maleness of Jesus is the guarantee of his humanity, and that in consequence the visual representation of the bearded saviour is the authentic expression of an orthodox Christology, is there more that we can learn from it? Or is that maleness, as Michael Adie implied in this speech on 11 November 1992, necessary but in another sense merely accidental: God had to be born into one sex or the other, but either would equally do? Why in a more extended sense, is the incarnation male? And why – a related and perhaps even more contentious matter – is the male pronoun also used of the Godhead himself?

Here, I believe, the suggestive use of perigraphein to refer both to the pictorial and to the verbally descriptive is important and useful. In Holy Scripture we have the fundamental revelation of the Godhead presented to us in narrative form. It is a story. For those who are of the household of faith, it is the story. But its sublimity does not absolve it from the normal rules of narrative. As J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis concluded on their famous nocturnal walk, it is a myth told by a true God. Now it is simply the case that you cannot change the sex of the characters in a story without changing the nature of the story itself. ‘Little Red Ridinghood’ cannot be transformed into a story about Jack the Giant Killer without rendering it, in effect and in fact, quite another story. There would be no Aeneid if Aeneas were a girl.

Changing the story

The meta-narrative of Holy Scripture is one of kenosis. The omnipotent creator and proprietor of the universe, who has created it out of nothing by the word of his power, empties himself of his glory in order to place himself alongside his creatures, and by the humility of an ignominious death frees creation from its bondage to sin and death. It is an action which, paradoxically, manifests to the world the essential nature of the very glory which he had set aside. The gender specifics of this narrative are male. The one who sets aside his authority is the Father. He is incarnate as the Son. The death he suffers is one reserved in the culture in which it transpired exclusively to males. Change the genders and you would have another tale.

But it is not easy to discern what would be the import of that tale. Creation would then be, not ex nihilo, but from the abundant womb of the Creatrix. And the violent death of the incarnate Daughter of a divine Mother (at the hands of either women or men) has a disturbingly different tenor. Essential elements of the original story – the separation and estrangement of creation from God, the wilful self-oblation of the victim, the nature of the sacrifice offered, perhaps even the concept of sin itself – would be disfigured or transformed.

Altered roles

In a society where men overwhelmingly exercise authority and power, and where they predominate in both violence and criminality – the world, in fact, in which we live – this message of kenosis is both powerful and necessary. Glory resides in something other than brute force. Tamburlane is not God: that is the message. In a matriarchal society, of course, by the same argument and in order to proclaim the same message the incarnation would need to be female. But such a world does not exist, and has never existed. Amazons are, paradoxically, a figment of the rapacious sexual imagination of men. There is no evidence of any society which has been matriarchal.

Between social anthropology and the language of the scriptural narrative there is a tidy fit. It is said that things have now changed, that the role of women in [society] has been radically altered and that the old rôles of protective assertion and passive nurture are vieux jeux; it is certainly true that laddishness is on the increase, that the female gaols are fuller than they were, and that alcoholism is becoming a female affliction.

What is not clear is that a fundamental change has overtaken the whole of human society, one moreover which renders the sexual imagery and gender patterns common to all previous societies redundant and incomprehensible. The jury will be out a long time on that.

Cur Deus vir? Why is the incarnation male? We cannot know the fullness of the mind of God; nor can we penetrate the depths of the sexual imagery which has come down to us from the immemorial past – imagery written in our very being, imagery which, as Lewis put it, deals with us rather than we with it.

So we can only begin tentatively to answer the question. But as we do so we gain in confidence that it is a question to which there is an answer. ND