Editor’s Note: The piece below represents the opinion of the author. Anglican Pastor does not take a site-wide position for or against women’s ordination. We do, however, require both clarity and charity. We ask that your responses to it do so as well.
The connection between christology and soteriology
A cornerstone of orthodox Christian theology is summed up in the phrase “what is not assumed is not healed”. The phrase is echoed by many early church fathers, but it is credited to St. Gregory of Nazianzus.
I teach this principle to undergraduates in my theology classes every semester when we are discussing the development of classical christology (the doctrine of Christ). And my students usually grasp the significance of this principle quite easily.
As the early church fathers sought to make sense of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, they recognized that if Christ were not fully human—human in every way as we are, yet without sin—then Christ could not redeem humanity.
Thus, Jesus Christ had to have:
- a real human body,
- a real human mind,
- real human emotions, and
- a real human soul.
In the words of St. Gregory of Nazianzus:
“For that which he has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole” (Epistle 101, 32).
In this way, christology and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) are intimately connected. To rescue us from the dominion of Sin, Evil, and Death, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, had to become like us.
As the divine Word, he could descend into the darkest depths of human sin and suffering without being overcome by them. And, as the Word-made-flesh, he could ascend to the heights of heaven following his resurrection—and bring us, now reconciled and united with God, along with him.
If “what is not assumed is not healed” is a crucial, non-negotiable aspect of orthodox Christianity, then we do well to consider carefully its implications.
For example, if the flesh that the Word assumed in Jesus Christ was ethnically Jewish, does that mean Jesus cannot save Gentiles?
The church has consistently answered: No, of course not. In the logic of “what is not assumed is not healed,” what matters in the incarnation is Jesus’ humanness, not his Jewishness.
(To be clear, Jesus’ Jewishness is crucial to his person and work. Without recognizing that Jesus was a first-century Jew, and all the religious, social, and cultural implications that entails, one cannot fully understand Jesus and what he has done on our behalf. But what I’m exploring here is the logic at work in orthodox reasoning about christology and soteriology.)
Indeed, it is precisely in the particularities of Jesus Christ’s person that he can save all people. The particularity of the incarnation is the pathway to the universality of salvation. “[H]e had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” and “not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (Heb. 2:17; 1 Jn. 2:2).
As Beth Felker Jones says in her book Practicing Christian Doctrine, “Jesus does not come among us as a generic human being; he comes as we do, with particulars.” The truth is, there is no such thing as a generic human being. So, in order to be human, the Word had to become a particular human being, with ethnicity, culture, language, sex, gender, and more.
What, then, of Jesus’ maleness? Can a male Christ save women?
Yes, orthodox theologians reply. Yes, of course he can.
Why? Because in assuming the flesh and blood, soul and spirit, of a particular human being, the Word has assumed the flesh and blood, soul and spirit of all human beings—including women.
(It is worth observing that, according to orthodox Christian teaching, the human nature of Jesus Christ was formed in the womb of the Virgin Mary, without the contribution of male “flesh” whatsoever. The Word-made-flesh receives his human flesh from a woman. I am grateful to my colleague, Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler, for bringing this to my attention.)
Again, what matters for salvation is Jesus’ humanness, not Jesus’ maleness.
Now, what does all this have to do with women’s ordination?
Quite a lot, actually.
Many arguments are proffered against women’s ordination, some biblical, some theological, some historical, some even biological and psychological. Of course, there is far more to the arguments for and against women’s ordination than this short piece is able to address.
For now, due to space constraints, I choose to focus on one argument against women’s ordination that I find particularly theologically problematic: The assertion that women cannot represent Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist; the claim that women cannot act in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”).
The argument, in short, goes something like this: Because women have female bodies and Jesus Christ has a male body, women cannot serve as a sacramental sign of Christ in the Eucharist.
To be more specific, women cannot act in persona Christi because their female bodies do not correspond to the body of the male Christ. In this view, female priests are not just not allowed; female priests are false signifiers. In their female persons, female priests lie, as it were, about the male person of Jesus Christ, who is presiding sacramentally at the altar.
And, as a result, women must not represent Christ at the Eucharistic feast.
In the theology of the body, male and female are seen as ontologically distinct, two parts of the one whole of the imago Dei. This “natural” gender division then serves as the foundation for structured gender roles.
When it comes to the function of the priesthood, then, the male sacramentally represents Christ while the female sacramentally represents the Church. Within this perspective, to have a woman priest is to usurp and upend a fundamental ontological reality of the world God has made.
But this brings us back to our christological and soteriological principle: “what is not assumed is not healed”. If women qua women are fundamentally incapable—and, according to some Christians, even ontologically incapable—of representing the male Jesus Christ in their female persons, then that calls into question whether their female persons can be redeemed by the male Jesus Christ.
But, of course, we know that isn’t the case.
All human beings—Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free—are saved through the Incarnation of the Word (the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ).
The particularities of Jesus’ person—a poor, Jewish, male, unmarried, 30-something adult living in first-century, Roman-occupied Israel—are the means by which all human persons are redeemed. And, by becoming one with Christ in our baptism, all become partakers of his Royal Priesthood.
If that’s the case, then all persons are potentially capable of serving as sacramental signs of their Savior.
Responding to an objection: Aren’t redemption and sacramental representation different?
But, some might object: “Jesus, though male, can redeem women. But women can’t sacramentally represent Jesus because redemption and sacramental representation are two different things.”
I would respond: On what basis does the concept of sacramental representation rest?
Many things could be addressed on this front, but I’ll specify only a few.
First, the idea of sacramentality is rooted, in part, in the analogy of being.
An analogy does not require a pure one-to-one correspondence—indeed, in Christian theology it specifies the opposite. Between creature and Creator there are similarities, but never such that the dissimilarities are not always greater. Thus, all analogies between God and human beings are inadequate. They are able to speak some real truth, but always fall short in the end.
Similarly, the sacramental representation of the priest will always fall short of pure representation because it is based on analogy.
Second, sacramental representation means the priest functions not as Christ, but as an icon of Christ.
As William Witt has argued, priests are jars of clay, pointing away from him- or herself and pointing to Christ the High Priest, particularly as they share in his suffering (2 Cor. 4:5-10).
What is central is not physical similarity to the male body of Christ, but the priest’s participation in the pattern of Christ, the Suffering Servant. Insofar as the priest demonstrates this participation, the priest serves as a sacramental representation.
Finally, if the sacramental validity of the priesthood is based in significant part upon the sexed and gendered body of the priest (that is, a male body to match the male Christ), then we find ourselves in a bit of a bind.
As Sarah Coakley (among others) has shown, in the course of the Eucharistic service, the priest not only acts in persona Christi, but also in persona Ecclesiae, which, in the imagery of Eph. 5:22, is gendered female.
If a woman cannot act in persona Christi because her female body does not match the male body of Christ, then how will a man act in persona Ecclesiae when his male body does not match the female Church?
The answer, of course, is that they can; because the priestly body functions sacramentally, or analogically.
No matter which priestly body is the subject of scrutiny, all bodies inevitably fall short of a pure one-to-one correspondence between the sexed and gendered body of human beings and the Bride and Bridegroom they are meant to represent.
And that brings us back to the principle of analogy. No human body exactly, literally, univocally corresponds to our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. But, they do not have to. They need only serve as analogues, which is, in fact, core to what sacrament means in the first place.
Let us return then to Gregory’s great insight, “what is not assumed is not healed,” and put my overall point as plainly as possible:
Conclusion: If Christ in his male body saves women through their shared humanity, then women, through their shared humanity with Christ, can represent Christ at the altar.
If they cannot—if, in their female bodies, women are incapable of serving as sacramental signs of the male Savior, Jesus Christ—then women’s salvation is in jeopardy, as is the salvation of all who differ from Christ in their embodied particulars.
The good news of “what is not assumed is not healed” is that this jeopardy is decidedly not the case. The Word-made-flesh has made provision in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension for the salvation of all humankind. As Gregory of Nazianzus insisted: “[God] has assumed humanity for our salvation … that by one and the same person, who was perfect man and also God, the entire humanity fallen through sin might be created anew” (Epistle 101, 34).
Do women demonstrate bodily differences from the God-man, Jesus Christ? Yes, of course they do.
But it is by virtue of those very distinctions that women offer a powerful sacramental sign of our Great High Priest and the new creation he has inaugurated in his body. And we who feast at Eucharistic tables presided over by women priests get to see glimpses of this new creation every Sunday.
Postscript: Further Reading
The argument offered here is inspired, in part, by the following resources. I recommend them to you for further reading:
- Thomas F. Torrance, Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry, 2nd Edition (London: T & T Clark, 2003).
- Sarah Coakley, “The Woman at the Altar: Cosmological Disturbance or Gender Subversion?” Anglican Theological Review, 86.1 (2004): 75-93.
- William G. Witt, “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ordination and the Priesthood of Christ”, accessed September 12, 2019: http://willgwitt.org/theology/concerning-womens-ordination-and-the-priesthood-of-christ/.
Emily Hunter McGowin is a teacher and scholar of religious studies and a theologian in the Anglican tradition. She is also a priest and Canon Theologian in the diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others. She specializes in the study of lived religion, which goes beyond the traditional focus on texts and historical figures to include the everyday practices and experiences of individuals and their communities. Fortress Press published her first book in May 2018: Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family. She has taught religious studies and theology for many years in university, high school, and local church settings. She is married to Ron and they have three children.