Calvin on Women

May 27, 2008

Jane Dempsey Douglass, in her article “Christian Freedom: What Calvin Learned at the School of Women,” suggests that Calvin might be something of a cloaked and even accidental feminist. She notes that the significant mark of his attention to women is his choice “to place Paul’s advice for women to be silent in church among the indifferent things in which the Christian is free” (155). In other words, Calvin thinks a woman’s silence is not an irrevocable command from heaven but rather a “human law which is open to change” (156). If this is the case, then churches have the freedom to decide individually what is and is not consistent with order and decency in worship.

Douglass argues that Calvin makes no remarks in his many works that would contradict her reading of the implications of his classification of a woman’s silence in church as “indifferent.” She notes that the “only mention of women’s subjection I have found is in the context of submission of the church to the Word of God” (160). In fact, in the passage in his Institutes concerning head coverings, Calvin writes, “If the church requires it, we may not only without any offense allow something to be changed but permit any observances previously in use among us to be abandoned” (qtd. 158). Thus, argues Douglass, Calvin is open to changes in church order concerning indifferent issues. She even goes so far as to suggest that “Calvin feels the need to correct the apparent meaning of Paul’s statement lest his readers understand that women lack the fullness of the created image of God” (159). He even allows women to speak in church should God call them in a special situation (164). In light of this evidence, Douglass suggests several conclusions: Calvin argues concerning the subordination of women “in the context of Christian freedom” (165); he labels Paul’s directive as human, not divine, law; he advocates for women being made in the image of God theologically if not in the realm of human order; interestingly, Calvin seems to “relativize the authority of the epistles” because he does not take Paul’s statement or arguments at face value (166). Nevertheless, Douglass must conclude that regardless of the implications Calvin’s classification raises, he “expected women to return to their traditional subordinate roles” (172). This conclusion leaves me with the question: how much good does a proposition like this do if it is unintentional and in any case not capitalized on in general church order during and after the Reformation?

John Thompson, in his article “Polity as Adiaphora in John Calvin: The Strange Case of Women’s Silence in Church,” is less enthusiastic about the positive implications of Calvin’s classification than is Douglass. He argues that in fact Calvin would never have supported women speaking in church and wrote to that effect, because “such an office [of public ministry] does not befit one who is in submission” (2); Calvin was also unaware of the positive implications Douglass attaches to his classification since he never discussed them further; mostly, Calvin was not a man likely to approve any kind of change, much less one so controversial. At best, Thompson asserts, Calvin means by his classification the possibility of “a suspension of the rules, not a change” (4). Thus, there may be occasions when the voice of a woman in church will be called for or at least unavoidable, but these occasions do not permit “ a change in polity but a temporary suspension thereof in circumstances of necessity or emergency” (5), a position Calvin is not the first to hold (re. Vermigli). Thompson also notes that while “polity is a humanly-created order,” there are some rules of polity that “are divinely-instituted” (6). Since Calvin’s only examples for his classification of women’s silence as indifferent concern occasional or emergency situations, and since Calvin does not seem to be aware of any other implications of his concession, it is more likely—Thompson argues—that Calvin is not advocating very much freedom for women at all but rather asserting that one’s lack of decorum in a certain instance will not endanger one’s salvation (8).

Models/lessons from Calvin

Calvin’s example of stressing order and decorum in church worship is commendable. As a Presbyterian, I can at least give him that much credit. His distinction between God-ordained commands and human-devised rules is also a useful model as we try to extricate from its cultural seat the truth of scripture for today’s practical application in our many and various church settings. Even his admittance that indifferent rules may be suspended when necessary (if not amended or entirely altered) shows a flexibility in order and structure that allows one at least to breathe, if not grow. In my opinion, regardless of Calvin’s intention or motive, his classification of the issue of women’s silence in church as indifferent to salvation does have positive implications for women in ministry. He may not have meant to give the kind of freedom Douglass hopes for in her analysis of his humanist background and theological writings, but he did open the door for it. Perhaps it is for later theologians and scholars to build on the foundation Calvin laid for an orderly kind of worship that he would not have been able to see clearly through his own cultural lens. If Calvin, in his context, could make concessions on a temporary basis, perhaps he has paved the way for more permanent changes in today’s context.

“I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice…I considered myself most unfortunate because God had made me inhabit a female body in this world.”

~ Christine de Pizan

Vile. Abominable. Abode of every evil and vice. Indeed, what woman could feel anything but “most unfortunate” when convinced of her sorry state of existence before the perfection that is held up as man? The querelle des femmes, and later the witchcraze, feature in the great debate about the nature of a woman: is she good (like Mary) or is she bad (like Eve)? With the advent of a wider availability of education for women, a new realization of and outcry against oppression and misogyny arose. Are women really as bad as “they” say, these men who are educated by men and surrounded by educated men and uneducated women, these men who capitalize on each other’s propositions about the female sex and project their own sexual appetites onto them, these men who happening upon a woman of equal or superior learning/courage/virtue, etc can only scratch their heads and pronounce her to have risen above her sex—are women as bad as “they” say?

While courtly love, this ideal of romance, was at its peak, women like Christine began to expose “the attitudes it promoted toward women, and its reduction of romance to sexual conquest—and abandonment” (Kelly 10). Women were nothing more than sexual objects made to feel empowered for the purposes of the game but ultimately losing. A counterpoint to courtly love may be the rise of fear concerning witchcraft; where one’s romantic interest is held to be without fault, the witch is the epitome of fault. In the Malleus Maleficarum, the two authors surmise that witchcraft appeals more to the woman because (as Monter summarizes) “women are more credulous than men; women are more impressionable; also, ‘they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things they have learned by evil arts’…[they have a] greater sexual appetite…[and are by] nature quicker to waver in the faith” (129). So courtly love holds up a woman as the virginal Mary, but only for purposes of conquest. The accusation of witchcraft colors woman as the deceptive, lustful Eve who is vindictive and in cahoots with devils. Whether she is good like Mary or bad like Eve, she is still just a woman, rationally inferior (Kelly 12).

I try not to get frustrated when I read about what men used to think about women, but it is difficult when I realize that it is sometimes still the case today. Arguments from nature may have softened their terms and tone, but they are just as harmful and hurtful as ever. I’m reading Dan Doriani’s Women and Ministry right now for another class, and the gentleness of his tone and the caution with which he steps ever harder on the attempts of women to do God’s work are beginning to infuriate me more than the brash diatribes of these centuries-old documents like the Malleus Maleficarum. I want never to find myself in the place Christine de Pizan once was, despising her own sex, despising her own self, lamenting that God would make her at all if he would choose to make her so deformed and despicable as to suffer being a woman. If such a state is the logical conclusion of the pontification of men over the nature of a woman, there is no good in the reason of such men. God made male and female and pronounced them good. Anything short of that pronouncement is a lie, and one men have perpetuated and built upon for thousands of years.

So I say hurray for the women who “rose above their sex” to the extent that they could recognize their oppression and speak against it. Hurray for the women who would not accept lies about themselves or allow anyone to continue telling them to other women. Hurray for the women who suffered and toiled and even lost for the sake of the querelle des femmes and in the face of accusations with as heavy a price as death by fire. Hurray for women who stood up and said “no” to the insistence that they had less rationality, less virtue, less strength of character, less natural ability, less faith. May I have such courage to speak with gentleness and yet persistence when I face accusations of my own. The way has been paved for me. And that is a blessing.

The idea of referring to God as Mother, or even as Mother-Father, has never sat comfortably with me. I cherish the image of God as Father and attribute much of my relationship with God to the understanding that image has fostered. Nevertheless, I felt no discomfort when reading Julian of Norwich’s Showings. Perhaps that is because it was not my first reading of her revelations using such prevalent maternal language and imagery when referring to God and especially to Jesus. Or perhaps I was not uncomfortable because she is not agenda-driven in her writing. Though Julian often refers to Jesus as our Mother, she continues to refer to him as “he” and just as often pairs the parental reference as God our Father and God our Mother. Particularly, Julian is writing in explication of sixteen visions she had of Jesus revealing something of himself to her. If her explanations include maternal imagery in conjunction with paternal imagery, I am not upset by it but appreciate what her revelations add to my understanding of God in the role of tender nurturer.

Likewise the use of maternal imagery in the writings of Hildegard and Hadewijch, as recorded by F. Gerald Downing, does not bother me for similar reasons. These women are not pushing an agenda, trying to force out the man in favor of the woman or trying to emasculate men or make God a woman. They are simply recording their own experiences of personal encounters with Jesus, using the kind of language and imagery that is both appropriate to their own life experience and to the way in which Jesus chose to reveal himself to them. As Downing notes, “Hadewijch enjoys a fully tactile (and indeed erotic) sensation of being embraced by him [Jesus] during a mass,” and Julian’s less sexually-charged image of “Christ’s motherly suckling care” is just as intimate and personal a description (429). Downing notes also that the images these women draw on in their writings are all scriptural and traditional sources available but not utilized by other theologians like Anselm and Thomas Aquinas (430). This kind of imagery, Downing argues, leads to an understanding of “the actions of Father, Son, and Spirit towards us [as] personal, specific, and interconnected, culminating in the Incarnation of the Word and the response the Spirit enables” (433). The point is not a triumph of feminine imagery over masculine but of personal, bodily imagery of a real and experienced relationship with God over impersonal, abstract imagery of a distant God who is perfect but inaccessible.

Marianne Meye Thompson writes in her article “Speaking of God” that it is important not to lose one’s audience for the sake of pushing a theological conviction that the way has not been prepared for (6). What is the help in praying to God as Mother before a room full of people who have no idea what you are doing? But Julian teaches her readers, in the midst of her sensuous and bodily language, how to imagine God (and particularly Jesus) as relating to us not just like a Father but like a Mother as well: “for God’s fatherhood and motherhood is fulfilled in true loving of God; which blessed love Christ works in us” (chapter 60). I think Thompson would agree that reading Julian out of context would be detrimental to an unprepared audience, but Julian’s unashamed use of maternal language (“[Jesus] feeds us and nurtures us: even as that high sovereign kindness of motherhood [does],” chapter 63) in general draws no particular criticism.

Jewett would probably also agree that Julian’s use of maternal language is appropriate because they are just metaphors. She still uses the masculine pronoun “he” to refer to each of the three persons of the Trinity—“for he [Jesus] is our Mother, Brother, and Savior” (chapter 58, emphasis added)—which is the only thing Jewett is concerned about. She also does not use maternal language to the exclusion of paternal language, so Jewett would not be too concerned about her usage but would probably praise her ability to integrate these images so smoothly into her descriptions. In fact, Jewett actually declares that “the church needs to teach that God is as much like a mother as like a father” (139), and thus Julian does.

Thompson notes that while there is a “predominance of male imagery for God” in the Bible, it is also true that “the Bible does use feminine imagery for God” as well (2). Since “much of our language for God is metaphorical and analogical” (1), there is no grounds for the claim that it is “unbiblical to picture God in analogies from the sphere of women’s experience” (3). What Julian does in her writing is provide a balanced analogy of the parental relationship, both that of the Father and the Mother whenever she deems appropriate. In that way, she is able to elevate from a “second degree” status the part of the woman in the image of God (5).

Jewett echoes Thompson in the acknowledgement that women have been demeaned in the church, relegated to a secondary or “human-not-quite-human” status in relation to men (119). Since God has revealed himself in masculine language through the biblical authors, and since theologians have followed that tradition in referring to God, Jewett argues that it is appropriate to use masculine language, especially the masculine pronoun “he,” to refer to God (123). Nevertheless, it is important to educate Christians that while a masculine pronoun can be more appropriate in some contexts than a feminine one, that usage must be balanced with the recognition that “God so transcends all sexual distinction as to be neither male nor female, yet appropriately likened to both” (124). Julian does just that: likens God to both a Father and a Mother, “as truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother” (chapter 59). Ultimately, Jewett asserts, God has revealed himself not as masculine but as personal, the “personal Subject, saying I am who I am” (127), so while masculine language about God is appropriate because of tradition, “we must not continue to think of the male as supremely the bearer of the image of God” (128). Julian helps us understand God in feminine terms as well with her many references to Jesus as the suckling mother who cares for his children: “The mother may give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus feeds us with himself” (chapter 60).

From the nature of woman

Plainly, Paul Jewett states in his book The Ordination of Women that this argument is “about as bankrupt as an argument can be” (9). The idea that a woman cannot preach because she will be a sexual distraction from the word of God is nothing short of ridiculous, not to mention insulting. Jewett acknowledges that the root of this argument is actually a “thinly veiled admission that the woman is still regarded as a sex object rather than as a person” (10). Men should use their positions in power to change that regard rather than perpetuate it. Jewett laments that instead of empowering women, “the church sees to it that god never authorizes a woman to escape male guardianship” (12) by creating a convoluted theology that puts a woman at odds with her divine calling (to wifely duties?) should she accept an actual divine calling (to seek ordination).

From the nature of the ministerial office

In Jewett’s estimation, the nature of ministerial office does not limit women from being ordained except by the lack of open-mindedness of the men. If it is “the woman’s relationship of subordination to the man that disqualifies her for ordination” (19), then we are back to the argument from nature that men should rather rise above than perpetuate. If women are capable of receiving “the same spiritual endowment” (18), and if it is true that “in Christ there is a universal priesthood of all believers, female as well as male” (20), then there is nothing to say that women cannot hold the office pertaining to that endowment. The underlying argument that women are unable to receive the sacrament of ordination even if it were placed upon them because they are women has no firm foundation but is merely an assumption based on cultural expectations. The arguments do not hold water theologically or practically, yet the rule stands on a tradition of faulty belief and teaching.

From the masculinity of God

In this section, Jewett calls perpetuators of this argument to account, arguing that “an affinity between maleness and divineness remains the basic assumption” (35). Those who make this argument simply like for God to be more male than female so that “to the male belong the privilege and the responsibility and the dignity in God’s church, because God is a masculine Deity” (35). The problem with this argument, Jewett points out (aside from degrading women), is that it does not jive with the theological principle that “there is only a ‘personal’ distinction in God (Trinity), not a ‘sexual’ one” (36). There may be male imagery for God in the Bible, says Jewett, but there is female imagery, too; there may be condemnation of goddess worship, but there is condemnation of god worship, too (37). Ultimately, “if God transcends human sexual distinctions in his essential being, then one cannot predicate of him either masculinity or femininity in the human sense of the terms” (43). God is like a father, and God is like a mother; “he is not subject to the either/or of fatherhood or motherhood as we are” (43), and both images are necessary to more fully explain the character of God and the manner in which he relates to his children. From a grammatical and linguistic viewpoint, Jewett advocates that when we “refer to God as ‘he,’ [we] should mean only that God is a personal God in contrast to an abstract, philosophic idea,” not that God is male (45); however, that usage must be taught and understood correctly and not allowed to be warped into an argument against woman’s capability to image God equally to man’s (47).

On a side note, I found Jewett’s discussion of the Holy Spirit as female (47ff) really interesting. I had never heard the argument before, always assuming that like the “he” used for God the Father and God the Son is meant to denote personhood and not sexuality, so too the Spirit was described with the pronoun “he.” It is appealing, I must admit, to consider the Holy Spirit in the role of Sophia, the feminine counterpart to all this masculine divinity. But I was convinced by his argument that any persuasion toward femininity comes solely from the fact that the word itself is feminine, not from any discernable specialty of character of the Spirit. Making the Holy Spirit female presents just the same set of problems we are already dealing with by the misunderstanding that the other persons of the Godhead are male. Ultimately, “the Trinitarian fellowship of the Godhead knows no male and female distinction, and the human fellowship of male and female knows no discrimination against the female as bearing the divine image to a lesser degree. Therefore, God’s Incarnation in the form of male humanity [and likewise the Greek word for “Spirit’s” being a feminine word] is theologically indifferent” (55). I can jive with that.