When I bought Feminist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics, Arthur said to me, “This is the perfect book for you!” Indeed, the title suggested they came from a similar background to me (reformed), and were wrestling with similar issues (feminism).
Actually, the writers here are far more committed to their reformed identity than myself: most of them are ordained in Reformed denominations, while I resist identification with any denomination. That means that they’re interacting with reformed thought very much as something which they and their people hold dear. There was much that was familiar and reassuring to me about this, especially a high regard for the Bible, and in-depth analysis of John Calvin alongside later calvinists.
This book helped me to greater appreciate reformed theology. Several essays engage in historical theology, taking the way the reformed traditions have understood particular doctrines and showing how these are corruptions of Calvin’s pastoral heart and theological motivation. Kalbryn A McLean’s essay on providence and Margit Ernst-Habib’s essay on predestination are examples of that. Fascinating to me was Serene Jones’ essay on creation and law, where she employs aesthetic analysis. She draws on much of the same material in Calvin that John Piper’s Christian hedonism uses, and comes to similar albeit gentler conclusions. I’m keen to add ‘is it beautiful?’ into my theological interaction alongside ‘is it true?’
Most of the writers are also more sold-out to a feminist identity than I find myself as well. I generally interact with feminist theology as a conversation partner rather than as my theological base. Most of the time there’s lots of common ground, and Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s chapter on the Imago Dei and Cynthia L Rigby’s contribution on the Incarnation and the Trinity both explore this territory. One of the most surprising areas of commonality which several writers bring out is the prevalence of feminine imagery in the Bible and John Calvin’s writing, including Calvin’s encouragement to think of God as mother in his commentary on Isaiah 46:3. Amy Plantinga Pauw’s discussion of the church as both mother and bride is especially warm and efficacious. However, at times in some of the essays it felt like there were some assumed doctrinal positions that I would find problematic, like, for example, an avoidance of the wrath of God as a theological theme, or a universalism.
However, by bringing the two strands of reformed thought and feminist theology together, genuinely in conversation with one another rather than merely one critiquing the other, the writers successfully avoided binaries. Martha Schull Gilliss’ chapter on the atonement is an excellent example. Unlike other feminist theologians who determine to do away with the cross, she argues that we must see satisfaction for sin as necessary in the atonement. She’s sympathetic to feminist theologians who argue that theme of punishment sounds as though God is the one perpetrating violence, and that in valorizing Christ in his suffering we give warrant to those who would uphold that women’s suffering as holy. Instead she accesses the reformed theme of the Son’s willing suffering so that it “lacks the common connotations of subjugation and victimisation, and his agency dislodges the associations we habitually connect with our own suffering.” She sees the Godhead not perpetuating suffering at the cross (by causing the Son to suffer) but as absorbing the suffering of the world, that in his resurrection is would be no more. Thus we are able to say to women not only that God is with you in your suffering, but also that he opposes it.
To finish, a highlight, a lowlight and a middle light. I loved Kristine A. Culp’s chapter ‘Always ‘Reforming, Always Resisting’ for its profile of Marie Durand (pictured below) of whom I was previously unaware, and the strong French reformed tradition of the political and economic dimensions to resisting idolatry. As with any collection, there were some chapters that resonated less for me. The opening chapter on fear pushed everything through that one particular framework in a way that seemed quite unfair and artificial to me. Finally, I appreciated the several chapters that brought out histories of African American reformed Christians, but I found myself perplexed by womanist approaches: with their focus on the American church, they show little awareness of a global dimension to Christian faith. However, Amy Plantinga Pauw’s chapter on ecclesiology nodded in the direction of the changed nature of the global church.
The book’s editor, Serene Jones has written elsewhere that feminist theology is “a theology that articulates the Christian message in language and actions that seek to liberate women and all persons, a goal that Christian feminists believe cannot be disentangled from the central truth of the Christian faith as a whole.” This book models that, not seeking to divorce itself from reformed theology, but in fact being motivated by it to continue developing theology that brings wholeness.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.