Church Fathers and Feminism

April 20, 2008

I did not, on my first reading of the church fathers Clement and Tertullian, pick up on the different emphases these men have for the proper living of a Christian life. That Tertullian is ascetic and gears his argument on fashion toward that end is apparent now that I am less focused on the absurdity of his various arguments for that purpose. That Clement is greatly influenced by the richness of Alexandria is not a context I was aware of before reading Suzanne Heine’s account in Women in Early Christianity (1987). I can certainly see the differences in value system between the two men. I think Heine has a point that Clement does just as much, if not more, damage than good by advocating for women’s place in the home as designed by nature.

I am less convinced that Tertullian has a positive effect on women’s roles simply because he later becomes a Montanist. Clearly, his comments concerning the place of women designate them to household tasks and relegate them to their husbands’ rule as much as Clement’s comments do. Or how else are we to read Tertullian’s conclusion to women to “paint…your mouth with silence…Submit your head to hour husbands…Busy your hands with spinning; keep your feet at home” (25)? Heine does have a point that an argument from faith as opposed to an argument from nature designates the freedom of choice, that is, women are indirectly empowered to choose the ascetic lifestyle Tertullian advocates for the sake of being faithful wives and faithful Christians. That implicit ability to choose is in itself a significant point. However, the empowerment of women is undermined by the simultaneous advocation that a faithful Christian woman will dress with “the silk of uprightness, the fine linen of holiness, the purple of modesty” (25) rather than with fine clothes and precious stones. Women are thus left with the choice to perform a lifetime of penance for the guilt they have incurred from Eve (by apparently refusing to use popular means of enhancing beauty and also by concealing any natural beauty, which as it turns out is almost as displeasing to God as the unnatural) or, essentially, to leave the faith and forfeit a chance at eternal life.

Heine’s argument that the new feminist interest is to be a non-agenda-driven, objective understanding of history is one that I cannot imagine as a possibility. If we have learned anything from deconstruction and the postmodern movement, it is the realization that one always brings one’s agenda to the text. The best chance we have at anything like “objective” scholarship is to approach a text or time period with the honest acknowledgement of one’s agenda and cultural lens and to remain open to the balancing criticism of other and diverse agendas and lenses. Perhaps that what Heine proposes by labeling her “new interest” as a “feminist interest,” one that—we hope—will refrain from “appeal[ing] only to one side” at the expense of the other (47). One thing I respect about my experiences here at Fuller when we must engage a difficult text regarding women is the careful patience with which professors have laid out the opposing viewpoints and guided students in most frustrating task of wrestling with particular texts that have no easy solutions to translation or interpretation. Somewhere in the midst of exegesis and eisegesis, in the midst of argument and finger-pointing and tears and resignation—somewhere in it all, God is present with us. I cling to that promise.

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