This is part four of my series on “Trinity, Gender, and Subordination,” which is my contribution to Rachel Held Evans’s Week of Mutuality.
The Problem of Analogy
I have identified social trinitarianism as the crucial factor in the complementarian position. I have also identified this position as theologically unfounded, based on an illegitimate application of human personhood to God. Social trinitarianism results in a mythological, tritheistic, and Marcionite conception of God. But this does not exhaust the problems with the complementarian use of trinitarian doctrine.
I have classified these additional concerns under the heading of analogy. By “analogy” I mean the move between speaking about God and speaking about humanity. As I have already implied, such speaking cannot be univocal—because then God and humanity would be basically identical, as is the case with the social trinitarian concept of “person”—nor can it be equivocal, because that would mean we could never actually speak about God. If our language is equivocal, then it has no real meaning; there would be no actual relation between God and humanity. But God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ establishes precisely such a relationship, and for that reason, meaningful speech about God is indeed possible. The result is that we can speak analogically.
But what kind of analogy are we talking about? If the analogy only comes into effect via revelation, then it is only available on the basis that God chooses to make this analogy possible. The analogy is not a general possibility that any person can articulate. If revelation in Jesus Christ is the starting-point, then the analogy is only possible on the basis of faith. It is only because God has spoken to us in the Word that we can then speak truthfully about God in our words. This is what Barth calls the “analogy of faith” (analogia fidei). Truthful speech about God depends upon a reconciled relationship with God. We can only begin to know God once we discover that God already knows us in Christ. As Paul states, “you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Gal. 4.9). To know God is to know that we are loved and saved by God. What this means, in effect, is that we only know who God is and how God relates to us in light of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We don’t have access to a God outside of or behind the incarnate God. Something can only be analogous to God if it is in accordance with what God has made manifest in Jesus.
Why this brief discourse on analogy? Because the logic of the complementarian argument—which tries to establish an analogy between Father-Son and male-female—violates the analogy of faith. This takes a variety of different forms. I’ve already addressed the social-trinitarian basis for this move, but let’s look at it from another perspective. By drawing the analogy to men and women, the complementarian position posits an analogy of being rather than an analogy of faith. The analogy of being (analogia entis)—to which Barth was adamantly opposed—is the notion that there is an inherent likeness between humanity and God. The analogy of being posits an analogy between human being and divine being, irrespective of faith. Classical proponents of the analogy of being locate the connection in our reason (our logos) that participates in the divine reason (the Logos). Others make an immortal soul the basis for the analogy. What I am suggesting is that complementarianism is implicitly locating an analogy to God in our gender differentiation. Unlike some versions of the analogia entis, the complementarians are, presumably, not trying to use this gender binary as an apologetic basis for reaching knowledge of God outside of faith. And yet their version remains a species of the analogia entis insofar as the analogy is grounded in a particular feature of humanity-in-general, namely, our sexual differentiation as male and female. Our being as male and female is supposed to correspond to God’s being as Father and Son. Even if the fulfillment of the analogy only arises within the church, the possibility of this analogy is already latent within our natural being. In other words, complementarianism tries to find a point of analogy in creation rather than in reconciliation. It is not an analogy given in revelation and made possible through faith.
What unites all versions of the analogia entis is the notion that our analogy to God is a feature of our being created “in the image of God.” The doctrine of the imago dei is a very convoluted affair in Christian history. There is very little agreement among textual and theological scholars about what the term ought to mean. What is certainly clear is that a change happened in early Christian theology. Instead of asking “how do we image God?” the church began to ask instead, “What makes human beings different from the animals?” The assumption was that the image is something we are, something we possess, rather than something we do; it was a noun (“the image”) instead of a verb (“to image”). The result was the identification of some structure in our being that could conceivably correspond to God’s being. The notion that the image could be lost through sin and restored only through reconciliation was inconceivable. And yet it is precisely this more dynamic understanding of the image that makes the best sense of the biblical witness.
Rightly understood, the imago dei answers the question, “What does it mean to be like God?” with the answer, “Be holy, because I the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19.2). And we must also remember Exodus 31.13: “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.” For Christians, God’s act of making us to be holy occurs in the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ. This is why we find Jesus described as the true image of God (2 Cor. 4.4, Col. 1.15). We are to be conformed to his likeness. All of this is brought together, in light of Christ, in Colossians 3.9-11 (emphasis added):
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!What it means to be “in the image of God” is not having rationality or (gendered) relationality—something intrinsic to us, something we possess—but rather coming to live in reconciled relationship with the Creator, becoming-holy, becoming-righteous, becoming-new. In other words, the imago dei has nothing to do with some inherent feature of our humanity; it is not an attribute that characterizes us by nature. It is instead a gift that comes to us by grace. We receive it as part of our conformity to Christ through faith. We only image God when we image Jesus, and we only image Jesus when we receive the new life that he provides and participate in the ministry of reconciliation. This has nothing to do with being male or female, since all persons are equally sinful and so equally reconciled to God. The analogia entis tries to find a point of contact between God and humanity outside of Jesus Christ; the analogia fidei recognizes that we only image God—i.e., we are only analogous to God—when we become participants in the mission of God through the saving work of Christ.
But let’s bracket the issue of the analogia entis. Even if an analogy of being is not involved, there is still a fundamental problem with the analogy itself. Why are Father and Son supposed to correspond to male and female? How did we even come up with such an analogy? Obviously, both Father and Son are masculine images, and Jesus is quite literally a man. On what grounds does anyone make the connection between the Son and women? Of all the connections one could theoretically draw, this one makes the least amount of sense. Maybe the gender analogy is based on the fact that the Holy Spirit has a history of being understood in feminine terms. That would be rather surprising, considering these are complementarians who refuse to use feminine language for God at all. Moreover, the Spirit in the biblical witness does not possess the kind of concrete interpersonal agency that would provide an analogue for human relations. And there is no history of obedience and submission on the part of the Spirit, nothing that would provide any support for the complementarian position. So the appeal to the trinity to support gender subordination depends finally upon the identity of the Son.
Returning to the main question, then, how does the Father connect with men and the Son with women? Is it simply because we see superiority and submission in the Father-Son relation? Besides the fact that this presupposes the social trinitarianism criticized above, it is an entirely formal conception of this relation. Nowhere in scripture do we find abstract discussion of the Father’s superiority and the Son’s submission. What we find are concrete accounts of specific actions and relations for the sake of specific ends. Jesus is not subordinate to the Father in the abstract; he is subordinate because, as the gospel of Matthew puts it, “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16.21). Jesus is sent (missio) on a mission of obedience to the point of death. The fact of his submission cannot be abstracted from his mission. His subordination has the cross as its indispensable content. Likewise, the Father is not superior in the abstract; the Father is superior as the one who sends the Son into the world. The Father’s superiority has the mission of the Son as its indispensable content. Both aspects absolutely preclude any generalization of their roles within the history of salvation. The “roles” of the trinitarian modes of being cannot become a formal template for human “roles,” gendered or otherwise.
We can demonstrate this rather easily through a little reductio ab absurdum. Where exactly are we to find an analogue for women in the obedience and submission of Jesus? Jesus is subordinate in terms of his obedience unto death, but let’s sincerely hope there is no attempt at an analogy there. Jesus is the revealer of God and the apostle to the world. Ironically, wouldn’t that mean women are the true apostles and ministers? Jesus says that “I and the Father are one.” Does this identification apply to men and women? Jesus prays to the Father. Are women supposed to pray to men? We could go on and on. The point is that the analogy between Father-Son and men-women is clearly arbitrary, formal, and in the end, meaningless. The whole basis for the analogy is wrong-headed from the start. The complementarians have a position they want to find theological justification for (viz. the subordination of women). They look around and happen to see subordination in Jesus’ relation to the Father. They then use this to legitimate their model of gender roles. The circularity of the argument is painfully obvious, just as it was in the social trinitarian position discussed above. The complementarians find in God confirmation of what they already believe to be true.
The only non-arbitrary basis for an analogy between human relations and the Father-Son relation is found in the fact that the Son took on human flesh in the incarnation. It is Christ’s humanity that then establishes a connection with other human beings. But this immediately poses a problem for the complementarian position, no matter how one looks at it. If we view Jesus’ gender as significant, then he becomes the analogue for men; if we view his humanity in terms of its salvific significance—in which case men and women are included equally—then he becomes the analogue for all human beings (i.e., within the church) irrespective of gender differentiation. Either way, any attempt to make him the model for women in particular appears baseless. At least the connection between the Son and the church makes sense from the biblical text. Paul speaks of Christians as those who are adopted by the Father and become co-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8.16-17; Gal. 4.7). If we are going to speak about a particular group of people who are subordinate, it can only be the church as a whole that is subordinate before the Lord, not women who are subordinate to men.
On this point, the evangelical complementarians have something to learn from Catholic complementarians. Catholics have their own way of drawing gender-based analogies from Christ. They aren’t any less problematic overall, but they are less arbitrary. Catholics don’t use the intra-trinitarian relations at all; their commitment to the orthodox doctrine of the trinity precludes any social trinitarianism from the start. Instead, they take for granted the so-called “law of nature” that defines the man as the active giver and the woman as passive receiver—represented in the different sexual organs of men and women. They then see this natural law exemplified in the relation between God and Mary: God as the active initiator and Mary the humble receiver (“let it be with me according to your word”). God represents the “male” function of activity, and Mary represents the “female” function of receptivity. This then maps on to relations within the church—except not in the way one might expect! Catholics do not make the mistake of applying the God-Mary relation to actual men and women in any straightforward sense. They don’t need a theological reason for complementarianism, because they believe God has already ordained a self-evident law of nature. (There are many good reasons for Protestants to reject this notion of a law of nature, but that’s another conversation for another time.) Instead, Catholics use the God-Mary relation as the analogue for the God-Church relation as a whole. The entire church, men and women, are called to be “feminine” by receiving God’s grace. Hans Urs von Balthasar even calls the church “the woman-in-community.”1 We could say, according to the Catholic understanding, that we are to be “masculine” in our active ministry towards others, but “feminine” in our receptivity before God.
Among modern Catholic theologians, Balthasar is perhaps the one who has reflected on this “polarity of man and woman” the most. For him, it is central to the very drama of salvation. Like almost all Catholics, he takes this gender binary to be “a fundamental feature of human nature.”2 In his explication of the male-female relation, he defines man as “word” (German: Wort) and woman as “answer” (Ant-Wort). He connects this distinction to the Genesis creation account, where the man is the one who names the animals, while the woman is the response to the man’s word: “If man is the word that calls out, woman is the answer that comes to him at last.”3 The woman’s fruitfulness “is an answering fruitfulness, designed to receive man’s fruitfulness . . . and bring it to its ‘fullness.’”4 He makes a similar connection to the parallel terms Litz (“look”) and Ant-Litz (“face”). The man is the look, the woman the face that returns the look. For Balthasar, it is a fact of nature that the man is superior and the woman is subordinate. The woman only responds to the man; she cannot be an initiator herself. There is an order “built into” the structure of nature itself. It is a “natural datum,” he says, which neither sin nor redemption changes.
What’s important to note is that it is only after he has developed this account of human nature that Balthasar then adds: “This [account of male and female as word and answer] yields an analogy for the relationship between God and the creature.”5 In other words, there is no claim to find the basis for male-female relations in the trinitarian relation between Father and Son. The analogy goes the other direction. Catholics take the “fact of creation” as their starting-point, and only from that perspective do they go on to find confirmation of this relationship in other examples from Scripture and theology. The advantage of this approach is that Balthasar makes none of the questionable analogical moves noted above, except (crucially!) for his embrace of the analogy of being. On that point, Catholics are united against Barth and the Reformation. Nevertheless, his account does not make the mistake of social trinitarianism, nor does he try to map the Father-Son relation onto the male-female relation. Balthasar represents one of the only logically respectable alternatives to a full-fledged position of radical equality. If one is going to try to argue for complementarianism on theological grounds, one has to take creation or nature as one’s starting-point. One has to embrace an analogia entis. This will mean sacrificing Jesus Christ as the normative center of one’s theological anthropology.
We are thus faced with a crucial decision: either the event of salvation accomplished in Christ is determinative for human relations (thus resulting in radical equality), or it isn’t, and instead there is a bifurcation between creation and reconciliation. This essay is premised on the claim that only the former route is theologically responsible for Protestant Christians committed to Jesus as the self-revelation of God. As problematic as it may be, the Catholic position at least makes internal sense. What makes no sense at all, however, is the evangelical complementarian attempt to find a theological justification for its account of gender roles in the trinitarian relations.There are many problems with the analogy between the trinity and humanity—many more than I can adequately discuss here. The time has come to evaluate the underlying problem with every such analogy: the disregard for the ontological divide between God and the world. The attempt to find some analogue in the trinitarian being of God for human social relations is fundamentally misguided, because it fails to take into account the wholly otherness of God. Words like “Son,” “person,” “relation,” etc., lull us into thinking that we can compare God’s intra-trinitarian relations with relations between human beings. But this forgets that all such language is a feeble and fallible human attempt to speak about a reality that is radically different from anything we experience or imagine. Our language about God is never a direct expression of who God is and what God is like. God’s self-revelation, while granting us true knowledge of Godself, does not mean that our concepts are themselves revelatory; our words are at best a finite, provisional, and contextual witness to the reality of God. We must not allow the authority of Scripture or the familiarity of the church’s language blind us to the fact that our words have only analogical significance, meaning that God is both similar and dissimilar to what our words normally mean. And while the similarity is important—grounded as it is in Christ himself—the dissimilarity is crucial, since God is absolutely transcendent and totally other than the world. God is of a completely different ontological order from humanity.
This is why, in the final analysis, no gendered comparisons can be made between God and humanity. There simply is no analogue to human gender to be found in God. God is wholly beyond human attributes like sexual differentiation. The distinctions between men and women, masculine and feminine, have no connection to or grounding in the being of God. On this point, the tradition has consistently insisted that God is absolutely beyond gender. Gregory of Nyssa makes this quite explicit: “The divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in divinity?).”6 The traditional use of the masculine pronoun for God has no gendered meaning whatsoever. God is not male, nor does God have “male” characteristics. Conservatives sometimes claim that the use of feminine imagery for God is an illegitimate anthropomorphizing of God. But that argument holds true for masculine imagery as well. It is the radical transcendence of God that allows both masculine and feminine words to describe God—precisely because neither is directly applicable to God.
In the end, the argument from the trinity is a complete dead-end. There is no way to determine human social relations from intra-trinitarian relations. We are prevented from making any such move. Whatever “person” means in relation to Father, Son, and Spirit, it does not and cannot mean the same for human persons. Even if there is a relation of superior to subordinate between Father and Son, these are modes of one and the same divine subject; they do not relate to each other as separate individual subjects brought together through a fellowship of wills. Whatever “subordinate” means within God’s being, therefore, it does not and cannot mean the same for human beings, nor could it possibly apply to a particular gender (or any other set of people).
To return to where we began, the problem with all these analogies is that they are not grounded in the analogy of faith. What the analogia fidei makes clear is that our speech about God—that is, our understanding of how God relates to us and how we relate to God—has to be seen in the light of our reconciliation to God in Jesus Christ. And what we learn from Christ is not that superiority and subordination are mere characteristics of God. On the contrary, the relation of superior and subordinate within the trinity only has theological significance as part of the event of reconciliation. They are not attributes to be applied to us; they are aspects of a salvation narrative in which we are called to participate as faithful witnesses. The Son is only subordinate to the Father for the sake of his mission as the one “obedient unto death”; his subordination is integral to the divine will to reconcile the world to God. Christ’s submission is entirely “for us and for our salvation,” as the creed puts it.
The complementarian attempt to use this submission as a model for gender relations ends up separating the form of Christ’s mission (submission to the Father) from its soteriological content (reconciling us to God). But this is to arbitrarily and illegitimately isolate an aspect of Jesus Christ’s history—dislocating it from its proper location within the event of salvation and turning it into an example for us to imitate. The problem is that Christ’s submission to the Father is not a model to follow; it is a mystery to praise. The complementarian use of this narrative for human relations does not respect the exclusive nature of this Father-Son relationship. Not only is it ontologically other than any human relationship, it is part of a salvation occurrence that we simply cannot and must not try to apply to ourselves.
In conclusion, the only way to relate the trinity to human beings is not by moving from God to humanity, but by bringing humanity to God. It is not the intra-trinitarian relations, but the trinitarian movement into the world in Christ, that establishes our likeness to God. We become analogous to God only by participating in the mission of God. Tanner is very helpful here:
My own strategy for closing the gap [between God and humanity] looks to what the trinity is doing for us—what is happening in the life of Christ, in short—to answer the question of how the trinity applies to human life. Human beings are not left to their own devices in figuring out what the trinity means for human relations. Instead, the trinity itself enters our world in Christ to show us how human relations are to be reformed in its image. . . . The trinity in the economy does not close the gap by making trinitarian relations something like human ones, but by actually incorporating the human into its very own life through the incarnation. We are therefore not called to imitate the trinity by way of the incarnation but brought to participate in it. . . . In Christ we are therefore shown what the trinity looks like when it includes the human, and what humanity looks like when it is taken up within the trinity’s own relationships. . . . The gap between divine and human is not closed here by making the two similar to one another, but by joining the two very different things—humanity and divinity, which remain very different things—into one in Christ via the incarnation. . . . The trinity is not brought down to our level as a model for us to imitate; our hope is that we might be raised up to its level.7It’s worth reflecting on Tanner’s words here. Her point is that if we want to know how humanity ought to look in light of the trinity, then we should look to where the triune God has actually become human. We see in Jesus, for example, a dependence upon God, an empowerment by the Spirit, a self-offering love for others, and a ministry of prophetic witness and healing care. We image the triune God by faithfully participating in this mission as apostolic witnesses to God’s abundant mercy and saving love. Jesus was sent on a mission “to inaugurate a life-brimming, Spirit-filled community.” To share in the life of the trinity involves participating “in the kingdom or new community that accords with Jesus’ own healing, reconciling, and life-giving relations with others.”8 This is how we model our lives in correspondence to the trinitarian life of God.
Tanner makes two important observations. First, “Jesus’ relations with Father and Spirit do not appear in any obvious way to be the model for his relations with other human beings in the story.” Second, the relations that Jesus has with Father and Spirit are simply and obviously “the sort of relations that it is appropriate for humans to have with Father and Spirit. . . . We are to worship the Father following the precedent of Jesus’ own prayers, carry out the will of the Father as human beings filled up with and empowered by the Holy Spirit as Jesus was, which means working for the well-being of others as Jesus did, and so on.”9 To be human is to be related to Father, Son, and Spirit—not to be related to others as Father, Son, and Spirit are related to each other.
We therefore learn nothing from the trinity about gender roles. The relations between Father, Son, and Spirit are not relations that we are called to imitate. They do not apply to us. It is also completely irrelevant what gender Jesus is. His humanity is representative of all human beings, since all people are equally sinners and thus are equally reconciled to God in him. (But even if his gender were significant, it would apply to men only.) There is no distribution of people groups among the trinitarian persons. The Father does not stand for one group and the Son for another. Tanner, again, states the matter well:
When humans are incorporated into the trinity through Christ, different people are not spread across the trinity to take on its pattern; instead, we all enter at the same point, we all become identified with the same trinitarian person, members of the one Son, sons by grace of the Holy Spirit; and move as a whole, as one body, with the second person of the trinity in its movements within the dynamic life of the trinity. The trinity does not therefore in any obvious way establish the internal structure of human community . . . . Instead, the one divine Son and the one divine Spirit are what make human society one; we are one, as the Pauline texts suggest, because we all have the same Spirit and because we are all members of the one Son.10The attempt to specify a group that the Father represents and another group that the Son represents has no basis in Christian theology. All human beings find their unifying point of origin and departure in Jesus Christ as the incarnate one of God. Christ is the one who brings us into relationship with a God who is absolutely transcendent and ontologically other than humanity. Outside of his reconciling death and resurrection, there is no analogy between God and humanity; in him and through him, however, we are able to truly bear the image of God. If we wish to bear the image of the trinity, therefore, we can only do so by bearing the image of Jesus as his faithful body of Spirit-led disciples within the world.
1 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama III: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 290.
2 Ibid., 283.
3 Ibid., 284.
4 Ibid., 285.
5 Ibid., 287.
6 Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. Casimir McCambley (Brookline, MA: Hellenic College Press, 1987), 145; quoted in Tanner, Christ the Key, 212.
7 Tanner, Christ the Key, 234–36.
8 Ibid., 240.
9 Ibid., 237.
10 Ibid., 238.