Skip to content

N.T. Wright, I Ching and complementarianism

June 23, 2014

About 12 days ago N. T Wright gave a most surprising and somewhat incoherent interview on homosexuality. I still don’t get most of the interview but it certainly raises many discussion points. I, for one, am wondering if there is some secret sort of Christianity floating beneath the surface that I have never heard of before. Here is the best transcript of the interview, at First Things. And here is Sarah Over the Moon’s reaction with comments.

There are far too many odd things to deal with so I am going to take a few paragraphs and have a look at them. Quoted at First Things, Wright says,

Now, the word “marriage,” for thousands of years and cross-culturally has meant man and woman. Sometimes it’s been one man and more than one woman. Occasionally it’s been one woman and more than one man. There is polyandry as well as polygamy in some societies in some parts of history, but it’s always been male plus female. Simply to say that you can have a woman-plus-woman marriage or a man-plus-man marriage is radically to change that because of the givenness of maleness and femaleness. I would say that without any particular Christian presuppositions at all, just cross-culturally, that’s so.

With Christian or Jewish presuppositions, or indeed Muslim, then if you believe in what it says in Genesis 1 about God making heaven and earth—and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

If you say that marriage now means something which would allow other such configurations, what you’re saying is actually that when we marry a man and a woman we’re not actually doing any of that stuff. This is just a convenient social arrangement and sexual arrangement and there it is . . . get on with it. It isn’t that that is the downgrading of marriage, it’s something that clearly has gone on for some time which is now poking it’s head above the parapet. If that’s what you thought marriage meant, then clearly we haven’t done a very good job in society as a whole and in the church in particular in teaching about just what a wonderful mystery marriage is supposed to be. Simply at that level, I think it’s a nonsense. It’s like a government voting that black should be white. Sorry, you can vote that if you like, you can pass it by a total majority, but it isn’t actually going to change the reality.

I am most interested in the middle paragraph. I never before knew or had been told that male and female were like heaven and earth. I learned that in Greek Mythology but never extended it to Christianity. But to clarify Wright’s belief’s about heaven and earth, a commenter, Alastair Roberts joined the conversation and cited Wright in an earlier book, Surprised by Hope,

These are Wright’s own words from page 116 of the book in question, within a section titled ‘the marriage of heaven and earth’:

Heaven and earth, it seems, are not after all poles apart, needing to be separated for ever when all the children of heaven have been rescued from this wicked earth. Nor are they simply different ways of looking at the same thing, as would be implied by some kinds of pantheism. No: they are different, radically different; but they are made for each other in the same way (Revelation is suggesting) as male and female. And, when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forwards; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation. [emphasis added]

Does  this make Wright’s complementarianism clear? And do we see the natural parallel between heaven and earth and male and female. I had never seen this outside of a pagan context until very recently. Oddly, just a few weeks ago, I read an essay by Peter Kreeft on gender in heaven. Here he writes with much more detail,

But why is Christ’s maleness essential? Because he is the revelation of the Father, and the Father’s masculinity is essential. This is the second half of our equation.

To understand this second proposition, we must distinguish “male” from “masculine.” Male and female are biological genders. Masculine and feminine, or yang and yin, are universal, cosmic principles, extending to all reality, including spirit.

All pre-modern civilizations knew this. English is almost the only language that does not have masculine and feminine nouns. So it is easy for us who speak English to believe that the ancients merely projected their own biological gender out onto nature in calling heaven masculine and earth feminine, day masculine and night feminine, sun masculine and moon feminine, land masculine and sea feminine. In the Hindu marriage ceremony the bridegroom says to the bride, “I am heaven, you are earth.” The bride replies, “I am earth, you are heaven.” Not only is cosmic sexuality universal, its patterns are suspiciously consistent. Most cultures saw the sun, day, land, light, and sky as male; moon, night, sea, darkness, and earth as female. Is it not incredibly provincial and culturally arrogant for us to assume, without a shred of proof, that this universal and fairly consistent human instinct is mere projection, myth, fantasy, and illusion rather than insight into a cosmic principle that is really there?

Once we look, we find abundant analogical evidence for it from the bottom of the cosmic hierarchy to the top, from the electromagnetic attraction between electrons and protons to the circumincession of divine Persons in the Trinity. Male and female are only the biological version of cosmic masculine and feminine. God is masculine to everything, from angels to prime matter. That is the ultimate reason why priests, who represent God to us, must be male.

I had a lot of trouble reading this. First, only about one quarter of languages use gender, that is sexual gender, to classify nouns. Some languages use animate, inanimate, some use tall and short, some use young and old. Some have no noun classes at all. But definitely the ones that use sex as a basis for classifying nouns are in the minority.

Next, certainly Greek myths indicate that the sky was masculine and earth was feminine. However, earlier Mediterranean religions had a male storm God and a female Sun God. Some countries today still have a female Sun God. But back to European languages, in French le soleil m.and la lune, f., but in German die Sonne, f. and der Mond, m.  There is no gender consistency even in such a small pool.

And no I don’t see males as light, sunny, dry and open, vs. females as wet, dark, and earthy, made for the night. (Oh yeah, I can see where some men might like this comparison. 😉 And on one last note, is the electron male or female? I found that some think she is female and others think he is male. Really it is enough to give you a headache. Somehow, the notion of a binary sexualized universe is being called up to support heterosexuality.

But my universe is made of 2)heaven and hell; 3)land, sea and air; birds, fish, animals; protons, neutrons and electrons; 4) north, south, east, west, 5) five fingers on your hand, 6) six sides to the beehive cell, 7) seven, notes in the scale 8) eight – how many children are in my family, and so on.

If N. T. Wright and Peter Kreeft want a syncretistic I Ching Christianity, then they need to make this clear and the rest of us can wander off and stop scratching our heads. We will just write it off as another off shoot cult of Christianity, and let it go.

One last point, hasn’t “heaven and earth” traditionally be treated as a merism which connects to opposing terms to include everthing in between? “Heaven and earth” refers to the totality of all creation. And male and female refers the totality of all humans, male, female and everything in between.

One of the best passages to read on the use of “heaven and earth” is in The Dance Between God and Humanity: Reading the Bible Today As the People of God, Bruce K. Waltke, pages 166 and following. Waaltke also points out that in Rev. 21, both night and sea will cease to exist. In Peter Kreeft’s terms, this implies the anihilation of the female. These arguments put forward by Kreeft and Wright are deeply denying and alienating of anyone but a straight male. It all needs to be tossed. Read the Hebrew Bible with someone who knows how to read Hebrew. Waltke is a complementarian but I have not typically seen him read too many unwarranted assumptions into a text.

38 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2014 12:56 pm

    And here’s Fred Clark’s interview with N. T. Wright. 🙂

  2. June 23, 2014 1:13 pm

    Yes, I saw it. Hilarious!

  3. June 23, 2014 1:36 pm

    I like your universe! 🙂

    And N. T. Wright’s is no different, if he’ll admit it. No, he won’t easily admit it; he makes despised Nazis out of people who would let there be “hundreds of methods of working out” sexuality and marriage:

    N. T. Wright: Obviously huge issues there, and there’s no way we can lay them all out tonight. I do want to say a word about a word. When anybody—pressure groups, governments, civilizations—suddenly change the meaning of key words, you really should watch out.

    Here’s his universe that allows for English campanology:

    This is not the place (the reader may be glad to know) for describing English campanology, except to say that it involves “ringing the changes” — the literal meaning of that phrase is unknown I suspect to many who use it metaphorically — on the eight (or however many) bells. There are literally hundreds of methods of working out how to make those changes, since the rules are that no bell can move more than one place in a row at a time and that no sequence must ever be repeated. For most people, walking by in the street or hearing cathedral bells from the other side of the city, it may appear simply confused noise. For those who know what it’s about, it gives a deep and rich pleasure, the fresh expression of an ancient tradition.

    The motto of my local association of bell-ringers reflects, somewhat self-deprecatingly, this sense that most people have not idea what it’s all about: Ars Incognita Contemniture, “an unknown art is despised.” I ventured to suggest that the motto could be changed to something more upbeat: Ars Audita Clebratur, “an art that is heard should be celebrated.” But my point here is quite simple: to many people, biblical covenant theology appears about as change-ringing is to the untutored person in the street. Indeed, “despised” would not be too strong a word.

    The point here is quite simple: let’s not change the word “despised” as if it only applies to eight bells and one particular theology.

    The point here is quite simple: N. T. Wright changes the word Christ to King in his NT translation, and not everybody likes it.

    The point here is quite simple: N. T. Wright has himself gone along with the shift in English language uses of generic pronouns and generic noun words for human beings brought on by the pressure feminist groups.

    The point here is quite simple: Nuancing a word’s meaning does not a Nazi make.

  4. June 23, 2014 3:57 pm

    I’ve read the majority of Wright’s work. He holds that the first Christians taught that marriage between a man and a woman is a good thing, and that sexual expression is to be reserved for that. He agrees with that teaching. He also believes women should be able to be Anglican priests *and* bishops, and that there is no inherent difference in value between females and males as humans. His interpretation of all the “problem texts” is completely “egalitarian.” He is not in any way a “complementarian” as that term is understood in the US.

    He also knows that life is difficult and even confessing Christians do not always hold to their professed beliefs. One of his daughters had a child “out of wedlock” and he and his wife supported her in every way. He also has no intention of trying to impose his own Christian views on people, and he is not interested in pogroms against LGBTQ people. I know this from personal experience, as I have met and talked with him. It is unfortunate, and a (rare) lapse in judgment, I think, that he brought Nazism into the conversation to make his point.

    I’ve encountered Alastair Roberts’ comments elsewhere on the ‘net. He seems to be a very brilliant guy, but I don’t find his arguments leading anywhere except to eventually making women second-class humans, even though he denies that. His quoting Wright doesn’t mean Wright would agree with him.

    I don’t believe Wright is right about everything (and neither does he). His work on the 1st century and Jesus within that Jewish context was very eye-opening for me as an Evangelical – rearranged my theological furniture completely, and for the better, and actually led me away from E’ism. There are many theological threads that connect his thought with regard to the C1 Jewish context to E. Orthodoxy.

    In the context of worship, everything in an Orthodox church, including the architecture itself and the way the icons are arranged, points to the Ultimate Union of Heaven and Earth – not so much the “final view” of Revelation, but rather the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. He is the Center of Everything. The dualities that exist in that space, including the duality of gender, only point to Him; that is the only message we take from the pre-modern understanding of “male” and “female.” They are meant neither to imply superiority of one over the other, nor to disappear altogether. Love seeks union with the Other without colonizing or obliterating the Other, but rejoicing in the Other being fully who s/he is. Of course “‘Heaven and earth’ refers to the totality of all creation. And male and female refers the totality of all humans, male, female and everything in between.” The one does not negate the other.

    I could never have become Orthodox if at its depths it was misogynistic in any way. The best Orthodox blogger in this country, Fr. Stephen Freeman, wrote recently in response to a comment: “St. Paul’s statement viz. man as the ‘head’ of woman is rather simple, but often misused. It’s a ‘play on words.’ Man is the ‘head’ as in the ‘head of a river,’ i.e. the ‘source’ of woman – woman was taken ‘out of man.’ It never had anything to do with boss. It doesn’t even make sense as “boss.” That whole reading – a Protestant and a late one – is flawed.” I would highly recommend Fr. John Behr’s book “Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image.” It rises far above sexuality per se and the current level of debate. I also personally know 3 gay Orthodox men in positions of responsibility in the Church in this country; there is no issue at all with their being gay, as they are following Christ in remaining celibate. Same-sex attraction is not seen as anything worse than difficulties any human being has. There are certainly problems with how LGBTQ people are treated in the “old country” – again, not the first time Christians have acted contrary to their professed beliefs. See

    I am concerned that Christians who hold the view that sexual expression is to be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman are now being demonized and dehumanized. Surely some of them have demonized and dehumanized LGBTQ people, and that needs to be called out as contrary to Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself. There are also Christians who hold that view and who also love LGBTQ people and have never related to them in any other way than as a fellow fully human beings. Are they all to be lumped together? Does “tolerance” mean intolerance to peaceful disagreement? When will all the demonization and dehumanization stop?

    For what it’s worth, my opinion is that religious bodies and the State should de-couple completely in this matter. Let any 2 people who want a civil union be granted such by the State, with all the attendant legal rights, privileges and responsibilities. If that couple wishes a religious ceremony, they can have it as well, but the civil union is what counts legally. That way, everyone is treated the same under the law, and religious people/bodies get to define “marriage” according to their own teachings. I don’t believe my opinion is in conflict with EO teaching; we do not seek to build a theocracy, or rebuild any kind of church-state dynamic that existed in the past.


  5. June 23, 2014 4:48 pm

    Thank you for giving a more comprehensive perspective of N. T. Wright’s view(s) after having actually read what he wrote. So apart from this “(rare) lapse in judgment” of his, would you say that he is really “not in any way a ‘complementarian’ as that term is understood in the US”?

    I appreciate what you share of this one writing in the Orthodox Church in America:

    Fr. Stephen Freeman, wrote recently …: “St. Paul’s statement viz. man as the ‘head’ of woman is rather simple, but often misused. It’s a ‘play on words.’ Man is the ‘head’ as in the ‘head of a river,’ i.e. the ‘source’ of woman – woman was taken ‘out of man.’ It never had anything to do with boss. It doesn’t even make sense as ‘boss.’”

    What N. T. Wright has written, in Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon on page 67, seems so much less egalitarian and much more complementarian:

    Paul assumes, as do most cultures, that there are significant differences between men and women, differences that go far beyond mere biological and reproductive function. Their relations and roles must therefore be mutually complementary, rather than identical. Equality in voting rights, and in employment opportunities and remuneration (which is still not a reality in many places), should not be taken to imply such identity. And, within marriage [which must be between a man and a woman only], the guideline is clear. The husband is to take the lead — though he is to do so fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided. As soon as ‘taking the lead’ becomes bullying or arrogant, the whole thing collapses.

    It’s really wonderful of you, Dana, and so very important when talking about these issues, to acknowledge the personal family issues of N. T. Wright. His family seems to have had to deal with issues that are difficult and require grace and forgiveness and the view(s) of scriptural teachings. His own teachings are not and cannot be done in some sort of vacuum of abstraction.

    And yet if his wife were to accept ordination in the Anglican church and he were to step down from his position, then who would lead, him or her? Or if their daughter were to be a priest at some point, and then if she married, then would her spouse (necessarily a man not a woman) would lead her in the marriage though she would lead him in the church? It’s really not so clear, this hierarchy of lead-and-follow determined by sex.

  6. June 23, 2014 4:57 pm

    I thought the marriage metaphor (or, equivalently, a metaphor of erotic union) for a heavenly-earthly union (or sacred-profane union or divine-human union) was fairly common — e.g.: Isaiah 54:5, Jeremiah 2:2, Hosea 2:16-20, the various Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Song of Songs as an extended mystical metaphor, the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25, John 3:27-30, Ephesians 5:32 (just focusing on the marriage metaphor here), sponsa Christi, etc.

    I can also cite various mystical Jewish, Hindu, Sufi, Zoroastrian, and Buddhist sources; as well as various pre-Christian Greek sources (not the least of which is Plato’s Symposium).

  7. June 23, 2014 5:19 pm

    At least ishi and ishti are two equal partners. The master is no longer master. God and his people, his bride, or God and his servant, his son, or God and his nation, his children. These metaphors are different perspectives on God. But the Sky impregnating mother earth, and the binaries of that system, belong to the Greeks and the Hindus and so on. Then there is Japan and the mother goddess. Unfortunately, not too much relation between myth and polity. But do we need to perpetuate heaven as male and earth as female. Must women always provide the floor men walk on?

    I don’t mean to sound so harsh, but I think I prefer something along the lines of “You are my sunshine…”

  8. June 23, 2014 5:42 pm

    The female is also ruach, the spirit moving over the water, the dove who calls Jesus her son, the breath of life in creation. Adam and Eve are earth and air.

  9. June 23, 2014 6:27 pm

    Kurk, the quote comes from the “for everyone” series. It is meant to speak to an “average” person. He makes the point, esp in the paragraphs preceding what you quoted, that Paul is actually doing something different, pointing to Christ as the model of self-giving love. To my knowledge, nobody else in the ancient world exhorted men along those lines, and that is also different than what is taught in most “complementarian” churches. And I do believe that his stance on women serving in the church marks him out as very different from US complementarians. His interpretation of Gal 3.23 and 1 Tim 2 is the usual egalitarian view; I do not have those “for everyone” books at hand, but I have read it elsewhere and heard him speak about this more than once.

    I don’t think he and Maggie have any discussions about “who leads.” She’s a very capable, intelligent and quick-witted woman who worked for some years within the prison system (can’t remember the specific job), and I’m sure they make every effort to relate to one another on the basis of gift rather than hierarchy determined by sex. I don’t think he would have any problem at all if his wife became a priest (he has retired as Bishop and is strictly an academic now) or if his daughter became a priest and was married, as long as everyone was in sync with the Anglican church in England. He hasn’t left it, and I don’t believe he ever will.

    In Eastern Christian thought, “earth” in the kind of symbolism of which I spoke above doesn’t mean the floor men walk on. It signifies that which is material and visible, as “heaven” signifies that which is invisible and not material. The point is, you need both to have a living human being, and Christ is the Truly Human Being, the One in Whom the union of heaven and earth became Reality.


  10. June 23, 2014 6:34 pm


    It may be one way of thinking, that woman is material and men immaterial, but it is not a universal framework. It can coexist with woman as spirit and man as body.

  11. June 23, 2014 6:56 pm

    Here on page 266 of Sanskrit Grammatical Literature on Tibet, we see that the vowel is masc. and the cons. feminine, and then the vowel is feminine and the consonant masculine. There are also neutral sounds and other categories.

    The concept of using gender to elucidate somethingthat has nothing to do with gender is pervasive, but the values are not constant. The important thing is to keep the metaphors fluid, and never use the metaphors to deprive either sex of equality.

  12. krwordgazer permalink
    June 23, 2014 7:10 pm

    This piece written by Andrew Wilson on The Confluence blog defines Wright’s view as pretty standard UK Anglicanism in allowing full equality to women in the church, but also establishing male leadership in marriage– as Kurk quoted from “Paul for Everyone” above.

    As Wilson says:

    Wives and husbands, along with everyone in the church, are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, but not in identical ways. The church submits to Christ by recognising him as head, and following his leadership. Christ submits to the church by loving her, taking on the form of a slave, giving himself up for her, and presenting her holy and blameless. So when Paul compares the wife to the church and the husband to Christ, he is saying that the ways in which their ‘mutual submission’ is expressed will be different: the woman will follow her husband’s lead, and the man will exercise his leadership by serving his wife, as Christ-like leaders always do. (This view is very simply expressed by Tom Wright in Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters).

    It is a very “soft” complementarianism to be sure, but if husbands are the designated leaders of wives because husbands are male, then it is complementarianism all the same. Wilson again:

    Finally, the most curious thing. . . is that it is essentially a complementarian position – the way in which a husband and a wife relate to each other involves a fundamental distinction in their responsibilities which stems from the way men and women are created – and yet it is frequently held by those who would self-identify as egalitarians, like Chris Wright, Ben Witherington (so I’m told), Tom Wright, and many others. This is not because such scholars are muddle-headed, however; it’s because the conversation in the UK, and its rather more feisty equivalent in the USA, has been so preoccupied with teaching and government in the church that many on both sides haven’t noticed how much they agree on when it comes to marriage. Who would have thought, for example, that (notwithstanding the different nuances and phraseology they would bring to the topic) Wright and Piper would basically agree on the meaning of Ephesians 5 and its application to marriage?

  13. June 23, 2014 10:35 pm

    The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church.

    These texts, and others like it, are using marriage to teach us about the new heaven and the new earth, about Christ and Christ’s church. They are not using the new heaven and the new earth, or Christ and Christ’s church, to teach us about marriage!!

    You can’t invert the metaphor and its referent without doing violence to the text.

  14. June 24, 2014 8:08 am

    How dangerous to be married to the right answers. We were married to the law but have now died to it that we might be married to the one who was raised from the dead. That’s a new thing for a word and a name that names a natural thing in the world for all cultures. But where does this knowledge lead us – in sickness and in health…

    I like the nice distinction that you can’t ‘invert a metaphor’. Thanks.

    I think there are potholes in this conversation so I usually avoid it. But – a highway shall be there… it will be called the way of holiness. Another metaphor.

  15. June 24, 2014 12:39 pm

    The understanding is not that woman *is* material and man *is* immaterial, and I don’t believe that I wrote that – if I did, I was not being clear. Rather, it is that genderedness points to those things and ultimately to the union of those things in Christ. It is what Victoria said at 10:35 above: gendered humanity teaches us something about Christ.


  16. June 24, 2014 1:45 pm

    Of course, there are numerous religious writings that discuss the feminine nature of the divine being “married” to (or in relations with) the masculine nature of the human; for example, a number of passages about the Shekhinah in the Zohar or in Moses Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah; or in writings about Devi in Hinduism. In many ways, having a female divine aspect is more natural for male authors who want to use the ecstatic metaphor to describe mystical union with God.

    However, it does not quite work for Christianity, which has an anthropomorphic (biologically male) man-god as the second person of the trinity. Even the Gnostic (female) demiurge Sophia fared poorly in neo-Platonist circles (e.g., the criticism of Plotinus), and amidst the general anti-sexual stance of the Gnostics.

  17. June 24, 2014 2:12 pm

    Couldn’t we agree also that “Christianity, which has an anthropomorphic (biologically male) man-god as the second person of the trinity” also has this biologically male man-god as a Jewish one?

    In the context of male v. female, where the man assumes the role of leader over the female, why not also have the Jew over the Greek? The bodily markings (i.e., male circumcision v lack of it in males) cut right to the would-be distinctions.

    N. T. Wright has one of the best (my opinion) English renderings of the Greek of Galatians 3:27-28. He’s willing to let the writer desconstruct the constructs of race, of human-as-property, and of gender:

    You see, every one of you who has been baptized into the Messiah has put on the Messiah. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no “male and female”; you are all one in the Messiah Jesus.

    Wright explains how and why he gets to this in a public talk long before he produced his entire NT translation:

    First, a note about translation and exegesis. I notice that on one of your leaflets you adopt what is actually a mistranslation of this verse: neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. That is precisely what Paul does not say; and as it’s what we expect he’s going to say, we should note quite carefully what he has said instead, since he presumably means to make a point by doing so, a point which is missed when the translation is flattened out as in that version. What he says is that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no ‘male and female’. I think the reason he says ‘no male and female’ rather than ‘neither male nor female’ is that he is actually quoting Genesis 1, and that we should understand the phrase ‘male and female’ in scare-quotes.

    What Wright is right about is that Paul is using a Greek phrase from Genesis LXX (and it’s a frozen phrase). What Wright could have noticed is that this LXX phrase so frozen is not just in Genesis 1. It’s also in Genesis 5. Maybe as importantly or even more important is that it’s in the Noah story, where the Lord commands that animals be saved ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ. All species were included.

    Even there (i.e., in this Genesis context of salvation of the earth), there is no inherent division of the sexes so that the one leads the other or is in front of the other or is somehow hierarchically above the other in any role whatsoever. Nonetheless, the writer (Paul) to his Greek readers in Galatia stresses that the distinction is “no longer” in the context of the ark, in context of the garden of Eden, in the context of the empire of Rome, in the context of Galatia, in the context of the home, in the context of the assembly (ekklesia), in the context of the synagogue, “in the Messiah Jesus,” where “you are all one.”

    The maleness and the Jewishness of the human cannot be so important any longer, in this context.

  18. June 24, 2014 2:58 pm

    I am trying very hard to think of what gender has taught me about God and can’t come up with anything. What am I missing? – God has a sense of humour??

  19. June 24, 2014 3:16 pm

    Kurk, if you are arguing theology, then I think you have many strong points; but if you are arguing literary metaphor, then I am not sure that I would agree. It does seem to me that many Christian metaphors are made to Jewish (and also Greek) concepts in a way that re-reads or subverts their meanings — the fourth gospel can be read as lengthy list of such metaphors.

    I often encounter Christian metaphors to “circumcision” or torah (“the law”) or phylacteries or the paschal lamb in a way that complete re-reads original meanings. For example, whatever “circumcision of the heart” (Romans 2:29) means, it certainly does not involve actual foreskins. In the tradition of Luther’s biblical interpretation, for example, the followers of Jesus become the true descendants of Abraham, while the Jewish non-followers of Jesus may lose their membership in this clan (Galatians 3:7, Romans 9:6-8).

    Now, in a post-Shoah world, most of us are more sensitive to the question of the position of Jews in Western society, but this creates no identity crisis for the typical Christian — she has already had her position as a true descendant of Abraham established by the Pauline epistles — and in that sense, she is Jesus’s sister.

  20. June 24, 2014 3:18 pm


    Syriac Christianity honoured the rukha d’qudsha as the Breastfeeding Mother God. They couldn’t quite get rid of the Father God but they could prioritize the Mother God. Mary, as mother of God and queen of heaven was also a good stand in, and shows the desire for a Mother God.

    God is only compared to a father about 15 times in the Hebrew Bible and a few times also to a mother. All verbs attributed to the spirit of God were feminine. I wonder if the Hebrew Bible really made God sound as masculine as the English does. The mother bird, the spirit over the water, the breath of life, the milk of the word, the womb and the struggle of giving birth are all mother related. War, not part of the original creation, gave priority to males.

  21. June 24, 2014 3:28 pm

    Suzanne, that is quite true, and yesterday I even considered commenting on parenthood as being the second great metaphor for love with the divine, and that is particularly strong with the mother metaphor.

    However, the parent metaphor is different than the spouse metaphor, in that the latter has notions of relations (and, in mystical interpretation, ecstasy). Thus, a consecrated virgin becomes a “sponsa Christi” not a “filia in Christo.” The spousal metaphor also naturally leads to the metaphor of creation and life-giving.

    The biblical commandment to honor your father and mother and many other texts clearly indicate that children never reach equality with their parents; but we can hope for equality among spouses.

  22. June 24, 2014 3:32 pm

    I think part of the problem is that for some of us, metaphors are just that – metaphors. They lead to intertextual commentary and so on.

    But for some people metaphors point to reality. This is what I was posting about. For Peter Kreeft metaphors teach us about reality and not about how some people frame reality. For Kreeft metaphors are insight into a cosmic principle that is really there. I am offended that he says women are dark, night, wet, etc. What kind of thing is that to say in public? Why aren’t women nurturing sun, wind and light? Women need to tell men who talk like this that the wetness of a woman is not pointing to a cosmic principle and does not relate to women in their workaday life. We women are too tolerant of this nonsense.

    I get it, I have read Thalassia

    and its insight into how men think of women. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t also the women that we are to ourselves.

  23. June 24, 2014 3:32 pm

    Circumcision is a good metaphor to pick on. What is it as a sign? It is not specifically a Christian metaphor in that circumcision of the heart is not original to Paul but occurs in Deuteronomy. The full Christian metaphor for circumcision of the gentiles (male and female) is in Colossians 2. It is not impossible to see early circumcision as a type of death. The incorporation of the many into one representative is not foreign to the Psalms.

  24. June 24, 2014 3:33 pm

    Okay, I'll take a break so we won't be crossing over so much. But yes, we can hope!

  25. June 24, 2014 4:43 pm

    Yes, correct: “in a post-Shoah world, most of us are more sensitive to the question of the position of Jews in Western society, but this creates no identity crisis for the typical Christian.”

    But the crux of the issue here in N. T. Wright’s most recent public statements are about not the typical Christian in his world. In other words, the Christian who is LGBTQ would be more sensitive to the question of the position of Jews in Western society, since there was a particular and focused hatred of Jews and also gay individuals by the German people who were Nazis:

    “As opposed to the Jews and the Roma, the Nazis intended not to exterminate homosexuals, but to “reeducate” them. The death rate among homosexuals was high, especially when compared to other groups imprisoned for purposes of reeducation.”

    Who knows what metaphors, whether theological or literary or biblical or philosophical or political, were used to justify the atrocities. Were the ones planning and implementing the Holocaust reading Aristotle or Plato or Moses or St. Paul or Adolf Hitler? I do think it’s a sad thing that N. T. Wright uses Nazi approaches to words and their meanings as a metaphor for resisting humane change in this world.

  26. June 24, 2014 7:04 pm

    I’m not going to try to defend Tom Wright, who is having a “get off my lawn” moment.

    But this discussion reminds me a bit of another outspoken “Reverend Wright”; Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and how his controversial comments led to one of the most significant speeches on human rights — candidate Obama’s A More Perfect Union speech. Or it reminds me of Lincoln’s truly cringeworthy opening sentences at the fourth Douglas-Lincoln debates in 1858, and how later Frederick Douglass — without once apologizing for Lincoln, still was able to put Lincoln’s legacy into context in Douglass’s 1876 oration.

    (Tom) Wright has made some significant contributions to scholarship, and he has also espoused a lot of nonsense. I trust posterity can value the former while not getting bogged down in the latter.

  27. June 24, 2014 8:45 pm

    Dana and Theophrastus,
    You both appear to suggest that Wright’s larger corpus of work, his scholarship (and neither his “for everyone” writings for the “average” person in which he has the biblical husband leading the wife nor his recent comments comparing pro-gay marriage proponents to the Nazis and the arguments for societal change to Communist diktat) is what must really count for the real N. T. Wright.

    In 2002, he did come out “as a long-time specialist on the letter to the Romans” to insist this –

    Paul’s denunciation of homosexual practice in Romans 1 is . . . his highlighting of female and male turning away from natural usage to unnatural [and it] grows directly out of the text which is his subtext, here and often elsewhere: for in Genesis 1 it is of course male plus female that is created to bear God’s image. The male-plus-female factor is not of course specific to humanity; the principle of ‘male plus female’ runs through a great deal of creation. But humans were created to bear God’s image, and given a task, to be fruitful and multiply, to tend the garden and name the animals. The point of Romans 1 as a whole is that when humans refuse to worship or honour God, the God in whose image they are made, their humanness goes into self-destruct mode; and Paul clearly sees homosexual behaviour as ultimately a form of human deconstruction. He is not saying that everyone who discovers homosexual instincts has chosen to commit idolatry and has chosen homosexual behaviour as a part of that; rather, he is saying that in a world where men and women have refused to honour God this is the kind of thing you will find.

    In 2005, as the Bishop of Durham, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Tom Wright, he speaks of the possible need to assert his position in this office, like this –

    Like most bishops, I have not up to now thought it my business to ask such questions of the clergy in my care. But if clergy decide to enter a Civil Partnership they are thereby putting me in a new situation in which my own integrity as diocesan bishop, and my collegial position within the House of Bishops, strongly suggest that I should follow the process thus recommended. This would not (as is sometimes suggested) be ‘intrusive’ or ‘invasive’, but the proper exercise of pastoral oversight. I fully understand that some people feel bound in conscience to disobey the clear and official teaching of the Church on these matters. I trust that the Diocese will respect my own conscience as its bishop, acting as its chief pastor and teacher of the faith (and as someone who has had to exercise international responsibilities in related matters), if with reluctance I am forced, by those who decide to go this route, to change my practice to meet the new situation.

    He goes on to concede, as Bishop, this –

    If people want to change the rules about this or anything else, there are ways of doing so. We have voted as a Communion and a Church to have women priests, to admit children to Communion before Confirmation, and so on. Change can and does happen. But it can’t happen by people creating ‘facts on the ground’, deliberately flouting the church’s well-known teaching, and then requiring that the teaching be adjusted to fit.

    It is his scholarship, where he works out the teaching he brings down into the church. It was as Bishop that he expressed that “Change can and does happen.” And yet it is his scholarship, the worked out biblical cosmology, that prevents changing “marriage” since it would violate the cosmology with its consequential metaphors, heaven and earth, male and female, Christ and church, Genesis’s beginning and Revelation’s end.

    I agree with you that the metaphor of circumcision is useful in this context of change. N. T. Wright, as Bishop, gives in 2004 a conference paper for the Symposium, ‘Men, Women and the Church’ to say this –

    Indeed, Genesis 1—3 [where the binary cosmology is established] remains enormously important for Paul throughout his writings.

    What then is he saying? Remember that he is controverting in particular those who wanted to enforce Jewish regulations, and indeed Jewish ethnicity, upon Gentile converts. Remember the synagogue prayer in which the man who prays thanks God that he has not made him a Gentile, a slave or a woman – at which point the women in the congregation that God ‘that you have made me according to your will’. I think Paul is deliberately marking out the family of Abraham reformed in the Messiah as a people who cannot pray that prayer, since within this family these distinctions are now irrelevant.

    I think there is more. Remember that the presenting issue in Galatians is circumcision, male circumcision of course. We sometimes think of circumcision as a painful obstacle for converts, as indeed in some ways it was; but of course for those who embraced it it was a matter of pride and privilege. It not only marked out Jews from Gentiles; it marked them out in a way which automatically privileged males. By contrast, imagine the thrill of equality brought about by baptism, the identical rite for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. And that’s not all. Though this is somewhat more speculative, the story of Abraham’s family did of course privilege the male line of descent: Isaac, Jacob and so on. What we find in Paul, both in Galatians 4 and in Romans 9, is careful attention being paid – rather like Matthew 1, in fact, though from a different angle – to the women in the story. If those in Christ are the true family of Abraham, which is the point of the whole story, then the manner of this identity and unity takes a quantum leap beyond the way in which first-century Judaism construed them, bringing male and female together as surely and as equally as Jew and Gentile. What Paul seems to be doing in this passage, then, is ruling out any attempt to back up the continuing male privilege in the structuring and demarcating of Abraham’s family by an appeal to Genesis 1, as though someone were to say, ‘But of course the male line is what matters, and of course male circumcision is what counts, because God made male and female.’ No, says Paul, none of that counts when it comes to membership in the renewed people of Abraham.

    What is remarkable is that baptism in Christianity can supplant male circumcision in Judaism as a means for allowing inclusion and for deconstructing sex and race and class distinctions. And yet nothing can deconstruct the male and female binary, since Heaven complements Earth in the Beginning and Jesus marries the church in the end.

  28. June 24, 2014 9:10 pm

    The real issue here is what is happening in Uganda. Homosexuals are turned into non humans. This is the terror. I am ashamed of Anglicanism. Except for this man, a human, treating others as humans.

  29. June 24, 2014 9:17 pm

    BTW “marriage” is a useless word. Think of how it is applied to child brides. They are “married.” No, they are not, they live in a state of perpetual rape. This author Gloria Furman thinks “child brides” are in an arranged “marriage.” They are in an arranged prison of torture.

  30. June 24, 2014 11:56 pm

    [marriage] marked them out in a way which automatically privileged [heterosexuals]. By contrast, imagine the thrill of equality brought about by [equal marriage], the identical rite for [heterosexuals and homosexuals].

    That’s where my brain went. To the extent that Christianity is about abolishing distinctions of privilege so that we are all one in Christ Jesus, this seems like a natural continued working-out.

    And yet nothing can deconstruct the male and female binary

    And yet, it’s not actually a binary: not in the sense of on/off, either/or, this/that. If we actually study actual humans with the tools of modern biology, we see it’s more like a bimodal distribution that, yes, has some overlap. Male and female are not actually simple anatomical categories: they’re complex physiological categories.

  31. August 20, 2015 4:55 am

    Thanks for the interesting dialogue.
    I have thought that Wright is an egalitarian. According to the “…for Everyone” quote it seems he is more of a complementarian. But it would contradict his other sayings if he is one, I remain convinced he is a semi-complementarian, which would make a lot more sense.

    But about your interesting discussion. I still remain confused, how come I feel that if nowadays one sees sex (the existence of male and female sexual binary) as teaching us something about God or reality, one is instantly held complementarian (in a sense misogynist). I sense the same here. What it could teach, I think, is that there may exist differences that do not fall into dominion or subjugation, a unity-in-diversity of a kind that may help us vaguely understand something about the mystery of Trinity. Or what if –as I think Wright tried to point out– the fact that most cultures have believed in the existence of some kind of binary-in-search-for-unity/harmony, points (however vaguely) to the reality out there. God made binaries, but the binaries need God to find harmony.

    So shouldn`t there be a possibility of trying to find a third alternative. I`m growing tired of this new holy binary: you must see human body and sex as having no meaning, or you must hold the ancient highly hierarchical view that sees women as inferior.

    Btw to suggest that Wright`s non affirmative stance toward gay marriage would point to or lead to gays held as animals like in Uganda, is even more problematic than Wright`s use of the famous nazi card, that everyone seems to use against the “other” nowadays. Maybe Wright offers valuable (though not satisfying) insight for a construction of a third alternative, egalitarianism that values sex difference, without falling into the age old patterns of dominion.

  32. August 21, 2015 10:31 am

    Thank you for your comment. You’ve said many things, and so has before you N.T. Wright said many things. (And, alas, Suzanne who posted this blog post is no longer with us.)

    Please allow me to focus a reply, then, on just a few things.


    “and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church.”


    “God made binaries, but the binaries need God to find harmony.”

    In the Christian worldview(s), binary is both defeated and deconstructed by the Trinity. Yes, there are those binary-limiting theologians who see pairs in the Judaic-Christic scriptures as ordinate/subordinate aspects of the Nature of the Kingdom of God:


    And yet these are hardly comprise the rich, robust theological images of the Trinity, which inherently includes more than two oppositional, or at least complementarian, and invariably the one-over-the-other constructed items of binaries.

    For example, the late Dallas Willard (yes professionally a philosopher but somewhat a theologian arguably), asked an audience once to take “a glimpse into the heart of the Trinity.”

    He went on:

    “The members of the Trinity serve one another in love; they each regard the other as better than themselves. Now try this on. I know I’m saying some things you might not have heard before. Just try that on. That the members of the Trinity each regard other as better than themselves. That’s what he [Paul in Philippians 1] was talking about when he brought the subject up [in Philippians 2], wasn’t it? What about Christians, followers of Christ, regarding others as better than themselves. Putting others first, without thought. Well that’s the lesson about the Trinity. They each regard the others as better than themselves. What they have between them is beyond trust. As we can understand trust, they don’t think of themselves enough to make trust an issue. When you try to understand the issues surrounding difficult theological topics like subordination or not subordination in the Trinity you can wring all the blood out of your brain and never get anywhere if you stay at the level of abstract categories [which require the creation of binaries for the abstractions]. And the reason for that is what you see in the Trinity is the act of will and character. There’s no subordination in the Trinity. Not because the members of the Trinity are not different. They are different. The reason there is no subordination in the Trinity is because the members of the Trinity will not put up with it. It is a will thing. It is a love thing. It is an understanding sort of thing. And it’s dangerous to talk this way, but you may want to spend some time thinking about how the members of the Trinity would get together and have a party for one another. You see the Trinity sets the model of what community is supposed to be like.”

    Willard was a Southern Baptist. So maybe we can consider an example from another Anglican, from the late Robert Farrar Capon. He believed, he wrote in one place at least, that the scriptures pronounced homosexual acts sin; and yet he also wrote in one other place of the Trinity this way:

    “Imagine with me, therefore, two lovers in bed. Paul and Laura will do nicely, although this isn’t about them anymore; it is about the two Ultimate Lovers, God the Father and God the Son — and about the Third Ultimate Lover, God the Holy Spirit, the Divine Us, who proceeds forth from their loving. Still, think of the Father and the Son, if you will, as a man and a woman in a motel from noon till three.

    (I am aware that my switching of the Son’s gender may bother you. You could solve the problem for yourself by thinking of all the passages where God the Son, the creating Word, is referred to in the feminine gender — where he is presented under the feminine image of the Wisdom of God, the Sapientia Dei who mightily and sweetly orders all things, the Hagia Sophia who was with him from the beginning — where he is called, in short, Saint Sophie. Alternatively, I could solve the problem for you by making them homosexual lovers. But I have a feeling that might bother you even more than two heterosexual lovers in a Holiday Inn; let it pass.)”

    As we all know, Wright, when struggling with his interpretation of Galatians 3:28, where Paul seems to blur constructed distinctions of sets of binaries, Wright himself has to say things like this:

    “So does Paul mean that in Christ the created order itself is undone? Is he saying, as some have suggested, that we go back to a kind of chaos in which no orders of creation apply any longer? Or is he saying that we go on, like the gnostics, from the first rather shabby creation in which silly things like gender-differentiation apply to a new world in which we can all live as hermaphrodites – which, again, some have suggested, and which has interesting possible ethical spin-offs? No.”

    The flip clause, “we can all live as hermaphrodites,” seems intended to get us all agreeing with Wright that humans who live as hermaphrodites must be living as unnatural freaks of Nature. And yet Wright is hardly considering in this context what Jesus said in Matthew 19:12 (in Wright’s own translation of the Greek here) –

    “You see, there are some eunuchs who are born that way from birth. There are who have been made eunuchs by others. And there are some who have made themselves eunuchs for sake of the kingdom of heaven. If anyone can receive this, let them do so.”

    In terms of marriage, Jesus, portrayed in the canonical gospels of Christian scriptures, lives more like a hermaphrodite and more like a eunoch than like a married person, whether in a marriage of people of different genitals or the same. Later, in the book of Revelation, the writer John under the influence of the holy spirit does portray Jesus as a male husband; but he there is a baby sheep in the image, a lamb, who is married to a city, a Polis, the New Jerusalem. Their biology in terms of sexuality is hardly distinct there or in focus.

    What I’m pointing to, however, is not the Christian theologians’ erasure of distinction. Rather, Trinitarians inevitably and necessarily have to make more of distinction than just binary sets. Rather than oppositional, complementarian, hierarchical binaries of Jew /Greek, free/slave, male/fe–male, there is the much more difficult notion of unity-in-threeness. Making the Tri-Une God a model for race, or class, or sex differentiation, is very very difficult. Hetero-sexual marriage is hardly a picture of God for rich Trinitarians.

    One final response. Since you notice the late Suzanne McCarthay’s mention of Uganda, we might together notice Wendell Barry’s mention of his USA. Well, Barry isn’t a theologian professionally nor an Anglican. And yet he does read the Christian scriptures in light of how the American government had tended to view marriage until just recently:

    He, Barry, gets at not ignoring sex distinctions, doesn’t he. And yet.

  33. Teresa Swett permalink
    March 8, 2016 5:46 am

    Really useful information. Cool to read such a well-considered article! You will be surprised how easy it can be to fill forms. Try fillingl DS-230 through the online sowtware


  1. The Literary Star Puzzle: in the Ψαλμοὶ | BLT
  2. Friday Night Potpourri: So Much Internet, June New Moon edition | Gaudete Theology
  3. N.T. Wright’s Complementarianism | BLT
  4. Biblical Studies Carnival – June 2014 | Reading Acts
  5. David Capes’s Assault Against the “Assault” Against “the male-female distinction” | BLT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: