Feature Article

From Volume 27, No. 4 (Fall 2018)

The Mother, the Sinners, and the Cross: Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Bach’s Tilge, Höchster

Chiara Bertoglio

1.  Introduction

This paper analyses the theological, spiritual, confessional, artistic and cultural issues posed by Johann Sebastian Bach’s adaptation of Pergolesi’s setting of the Stabat Materas a German Psalm paraphrase suitable for use in the Lutheran Church. These twin compositions actually represent four distinct and yet intertwining works: the Medieval Latin lyrics of the Stabat Mater, which obviously predated Pergolesi’s setting by several centuries; the musical features of Pergolesi’s masterpiece; the lyrics of Bach’s Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, taken from the Biblical Psalm 51 (50) but purposefully adapted to Pergolesi’s music, whose text they replaced; and Bach’s own musical interventions and changes to the score. Thus, this topic is as fascinating as it is difficult to treat in an organic fashion: indeed, so numerous and diverse are the factors at stake, that it is indispensable to treat them somewhat separately as introductory remarks, before delving into the theological analysis proper. One could even say that theological conclusions surface almost inevitably when the complete cultural and artistic frame is set.

A number of pressing questions need to be answered in order for that indispensable background to be established. I will give an account of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater first: the history of this eighteenth-century music work needs to be traced back to the Middle Ages, when its lyrics were written within the framework of the devotion to the Mater Dolorosa; later, the historical context and musical features of Pergolesi’s work will be discussed. I will then need to move back in history again: in order to understand the nature of the changes made by Johann Sebastian Bach to Pergolesi’s work, the theological understanding of the Virgin Mary within the Lutheran tradition needs to be clarified. At the same time, it is fundamental to discuss, albeit briefly, which kind of “Mariology” can be gathered from the examination of Bach’s compositional output. As we will see, although the basically Lutheran shape of Bach’s vision of the Virgin cannot be questioned, it somehow transcends confessional boundaries and represents a fascinating perspective for modern hearers from an ecumenical viewpoint. Only at that point will the ground be laid for a comparison of the two works, starting with consideration of the lyrics, continuing with an examination of the musical details, and concluding with a theological interpretation of both works.

Read the entire essay here.

Some earlier essays:

From Volume XXI, no. 1 (Winter, 2012)

Hope and Optmism in Straitened Times – Markus Bockmuehl

In a late modern world that has grown disillusioned and cynical about utopias, let alone about humanity’s ability to solve its own and the planet’s problems peacefully, societies and churches no longer share the assumption that hope is clearly a Good Thing.1 The great twentieth-century utopian ideologies all collapsed in a pile of ruins. And the current crisis of North Atlantic capitalism signals global future which, whatever it holds, no longer self-evidently promises the triumph of the West. Life in reduced circumstances, indeed in old-fashioned poverty, is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. Europe’s public social spending teeters on the brink, while one in six Americans struggles to secure enough food. And after the Pyrrhic War on Terror, what scope remains in the politically and economically straitened electronic surveillance society for aspirations to life or liberty or justice? Certainly all of these now lie much less obviously in the gift of markets, of technology, of government, or of the individual pursuit of happiness. . . . .

Read the entire essay here – Markus Bockmuehl, Hope and Optimism in Straitened Times

From Volume 23, no. 2 (Spring, 2014)

The Apocalyptic Body of Christ? Reflections on Yoder and Apocalyptic Theology By Way of David Foster Wallace

Chris K. Huebner  (Canadian Mennonite University)

I have been asked to speak about John Howard Yoder and apocalyptic theology. I will do so by reflecting on Yoder’s understanding of the body and its capacity for speech or articulacy—in particular as these themes are reflected in his understanding of the body of Christ. It strikes me that these questions play out somewhat differently in Yoder’s work than they do in what we might call apocalyptic theology more generally (whatever that means; and I will admit here, as an aside, that one of my struggles in undertaking this assignment is to figure out just what counts as being representative of the so-called “apocalyptic turn in recent theology”). This difference would mean that any attempt to enlist Yoder as an ally in support of a program or movement called apocalyptic theology will be awkward at best. If it is appropriate to draw on Yoder in support of apocalyptic theology, it must equally be acknowledged that his work also pushes back against it in some significant ways. To draw attention to Yoder’s posture of ambivalence toward academic movements should hardly be necessary, for it has received plenty of attention in recent engagement with his work. I don’t want to rehash that ground here. So let’s get one thing out of the way at the beginning. Yes, we can find texts in which Yoder emphasizes the category of apocalyptic. But it is also worth noting that he typically qualifies these references by insisting that the category of apocalyptic is only one among many and should not be elevated to become a sort of governing principle. As Yoder himself puts it, “Apocalypse is only one of many modes of discourse in the believing community. We should not prefer it; we should use them all.”  Call it methodological non-constantinianism or perhaps something more elegant. But that is not what I want to dwell on today. I am more interested in exploring how the question of apocalyptic theology relates to some of Yoder’s more substantive commitments about the body of Christ and its capacity for speech.

John Howard Yoder, “To Serve Our God and to Rule the World,” in Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, ed. Michael Cartwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 129-30.

Read the entire essay here – Chris K. Huebner, The Apocalyptic Body of Christ?


From Volume XIX, Number 2
Spring, 2010

in the Trinitarian Theology of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson


In the 1950s, when the French Orthodox lay theologian Paul Evdokimov suggested that “woman” could not become a priest without betraying her ontological alignment with the Holy Spirit, no one in the Orthodox church was actually entertaining the possibility of female priests.[1] He answered the question in passing, a small part of his larger project to illuminate the spiritual dimension of femininity against the tradition’s tendency to demean women. Likewise, Orthodox theologians Nicolae Chitescu and George Khodre could answer a simple “no” to the hypothetical question of women in the priesthood at a Faith and Order conference in 1963; the idea was not worth a second thought.[2] At the first-ever international gathering of Orthodox women at the Agapia convent in Romania in 1976, the ordination of women was not on the agenda for discussion. Only one woman brought it up at all, in her keynote address. Even her answer was a provisional no—but also a charge to engage in better and deeper reflection on the issue. She called upon the Orthodox church to “internalize” the question.[3]

Since the 1970s, Orthodox churches have indeed internalized it, at least the Orthodox churches in Western countries. There is a growing body of literature on the subject, nowhere near the amount in Protestant and Roman Catholic circles, but enough to prove that it has become a live issue, live and contested enough to have strangled all recommendations to reinstate the female diaconate. There is still no consensus on whether deaconesses should be ordained to their office, and given the interrelationship among the ordained offices, the diaconate appears to be a “slippery slope” toward the ordination of women to the priesthood as well.

So far, no one from within has outright petitioned the Orthodox church to ordain women to the priesthood, though many have suggested the possibility in their scholarship. It is not surprising that Orthodox women are at the front of the debate. Among them are Leonie Liveris, editor of the journal MaryMartha in the 1990s; a number of American Orthodox connected to St. Nina’s Quarterly, including Teva Regule, Maria McDowell, and Valerie Karras; and scholars such as Eva Catafygiotu Topping, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, and Kalliope Bourdara.

The most prominent Orthodox woman to speak on the subject, however, was Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (1907-2005), a French Orthodox theologian who, after many years of studying Russian theology and spirituality as well as promoting ecumenism, turned at the age of sixty-nine to the question of women in the Orthodox church. She was the keynote speaker at Agapia, where she endorsed the views of Paul Evdokimov, who had proposed that the division of the one humanity into male and female mirrored the self-revelation of the Father in the Son (=masculine) and the Spirit (=feminine). But no more than five years later, she parted company with Evdokimov and shifted from opposition to support of the ordination of women in the Orthodox church. Her work remains the standard in the discussion.

It is not a little surprising that several male Orthodox theologians have gradually moved toward Behr-Sigel’s position. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s public support of Behr-Sigel left little doubt as to his opinion.[4] Kallistos Ware has admitted that the proffered reasons against women in the priesthood do not persuade him anymore,[5] and Olivier Clément could see no compelling reason not to ordain women.[6] Metropolitan John of Pergamum confessed that he had seen no good theological arguments about the ordination of women, either for or against![7]

There are still plenty of Orthodox opponents of the ordination of women, likely the majority within the churches and certainly a vocal contingent in publication. The articles range from popular diatribes to serious theological scholarship. What is chiefly striking about them, though, is how much the substance of the opposition has changed.

In the 1960s, it was still possible in Western countries to talk about women’s spiritual and physical weakness, menstrual cycles, incompetence, lack of intelligence, or general inferiority, without a qualm.[8] That is no longer the case. Among the opponents of women’s ordination there is a nearly unanimous desire to disprove charges of misogyny and to affirm the goodness of women as created in God’s image. The Inter-Orthodox Rhodes Consultation of 1988, convoked especially to discuss the ordination of women, stated as much, identifying sexism as a sin.[9] There is no suggestion anymore that women are functionally incompetent to perform such tasks as preaching, teaching, and pastoral care.

In reality, the discussion is no longer about women’s capacities at all. Not actions but natures are under dispute. Thus the current arguments about the ordination of women in the Orthodox church revolve around three interconnected points: the nature of tradition, the nature of the priesthood, and the nature of gender and personhood. In what follows, I will consider each point in turn, the current state of the discussion within the Orthodox church, and Behr-Sigel’s contribution.


For many Orthodox, the ordination of women is a non-issue, plain and simple, because it diverges from past practice. The near-complete lack of discussion on the issue within the two thousand years of tradition makes no difference and suggests no need to consider the possibility now.[10] If it ever was right to ordain women, the reasoning goes, the church would have done so. This is not fear of the new per se, at least not on the theological level. (Certainly fear of the new is a common enough psychological phenomenon in church bodies, and not only in Orthodox ones.) The tradition question turns out to be a theodicy question.

The point is simply this: could the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church really have failed so dreadfully? If God calls women to the priesthood, then, it seems, one must infer that the church has uniformly blocked and rejected God’s calls to women for two straight millennia. The church then appears to be an eminently untrustworthy body—not a fellowship of faith and love, but a hierarchical, patriarchal, Spirit-less institution. If it is wrong on this point, how many other points is it wrong on too? How faithlessly has it proclaimed the gospel? The implications are staggering.

This concern appears repeatedly in articles rejecting women’s ordination. George Morelli, for instance, argues that the tradition of the church is as unchanging as its doctrine. Proposals for ecclesial change now are simply the inroads of secularism.[11] Hopko wonders the same thing: could the church have been so dramatically in error all along? Surely not. Perhaps the tradition did not know exactly why it was impermissible to ordain women, but that only means the Orthodox today are called to articulate the deeply-seated reasons for their wisely unchanging practice.[12] Michael Azkoul reasons that if a “male-dominated Church has presumed deliberately to deny competent and pious women a place in the sacerdotal ministry in contradiction to the express command of the Lord and the Apostles, then nothing her Fathers, Councils, and hierarchy [say] in general is worthy of trust.”[13] It isn’t only men arguing this way, either. Katerina Karkala-Zorba, who cites Behr-Sigel in her article, argues that the tradition has not failed the faithful and thus the refusal to ordain women can be trusted.[14] “Ultimately,” writes Andrew Philips, “we would even be led to the thought that God must hate women, that therefore He is not the God of Love, since He allowed His Church to err for 2,000 years.”[15]

Another feature of the perception of tradition among opponents of women’s ordination is the great number of arguments from silence. It is suggested that if Jesus wanted women priests, he would have chosen women disciples; if any woman were to be a priest, it should have been Mary, and yet she was not; and the tradition itself would have spoken up sooner if ordaining women were a good thing. The silence of the tradition is not taken at face value, as silence.

While the tradition is silent about women priests, it is not silent about women. And yet the actual content of the tradition—particularly the patristic tradition—is disputed. Some scholars claim that all the fathers agree that gender is secondary to the first creation of anthropos.[16] Others claim there is a difference of opinion among the fathers, or that some of them changed their mind on the issue one way or another.[17] Still others simply reject any such patristic notion wherever it may appear, crying foul against the supposed Hellenism that made the fathers denigrate sexuality and alienated them from the Christian truth.[18] The point here is not to adjudicate between the competing claims, only to demonstrate that what the fathers say about gender within the realm of theological anthropology and the divine intention remains disputed.

And if the content of the tradition is not clear, the implications of patristic anthropology are even less so. Yet often patristic anthropology is perceived to be both uniform and decisive. Evdokimov grounds his alliance of women with the Spirit in the use of the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit in Syriac liturgies and other apparent similarities between femininity and the action of the Spirit.[19] Yet Verna Harrison argues from the same fathers that the apophatic principle prohibits any imaging of the divine in sexual terms.[20] Kenneth Paul Wesche argues that Scripture and fathers alike plainly witness to the ontological primacy of the male.[21] But Valerie Karras demonstrates how many homo– words were used or invented by the fathers to describe the parity between men and women: homogenis (same race), homotimos (same honor), and even homoousios.[22] Constantine Yokarinis suggests that patristic anthropology assumes fundamental equality between men and women such that any gender differentiation within the service of the church is an error, and yet the same fathers did not see fit to ordain women to the priesthood.

What emerges here is how much the opponents and proponents of the ordination of women have in common methodologically. Both assume that the tradition has been correct from the start; both attempt to read the tradition’s silence in their own favor; both invoke the church fathers in an attempt to settle the dispute. In short, both assume that an answer is already to be found conclusively in the tradition of the church. Neither seriously entertains the idea that the silence of the church is, in fact, silence. More to the point, both share a static understanding of the tradition. Neither imagines a tradition that develops and changes in continuity with what has come before, or the genuine possibility of something new that was not always required.[23]

The concept of the development of doctrine remains a disputed point within Orthodoxy. Some Orthodox theologians repudiate the very idea.[24] It is a common judgment now that Orthodoxy has spent most of the modern era in “captivity” to “manual theology,” namely Western theology of the scholastic stripe, imposed from the outside on the Orthodox faith, resulting in a “pseudomorphosis” of Eastern theology.[25] The project of the so-called neopatristic school following Georges Florovsky has been to shake off the outsiders and teach Orthodoxy to speak in its own voice. Consequently the notion of a developing and changing tradition is unattractive to those who are struggling for the very existence of their own tradition against outside forces imposing alien development and change. Perhaps the closest Orthodoxy has come to the concept of development is in the little-known now, but notorious at its time, essay on “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology” by Sergius Bulgakov.[26] But Bulgakov and especially his sophiology were suppressed by the neopatristic contingent and have never subsequently gained a wide hearing in the East.[27] The developing tradition remains largely a foreign idea.

Here is precisely where Behr-Sigel made her first insightful contribution. It was perhaps her Protestant past—she was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church of Alsace, active in the Protestant youth movement, and educated with the first class of women students at the University of Strasbourg’s theology faculty—that ingrained in her the idea of doctrinal development; her friendship with Sergius Bulgakov undoubtedly impacted her as well. Throughout her career she insisted on the role of Scripture in judging tradition(s), though she didn’t posit a fundamental opposition between Scripture and tradition, which is more common in Protestant thought.

Her proposal to this conversation within Orthodoxy is the idea that the gospel itself takes time to do its work. Even while she described herself as “patiently impatient,” she did not assume that the gospel would have fully transformed society within a century of Christ’s resurrection, setting the parameters of possibility forever after. Again and again she used the metaphor of the gospel “leaven,” slowly raising and enlightening ancient pagan societies. In her judgment, it has taken twenty centuries for the gospel’s leaven to permeate relationships between men and women. The secular women’s movement is the long-time-in-process outcome of Galatians 3:28.

Therefore, one need not infer either that the church has faithlessly suppressed women’s calls, or that God has neglected the cries of women all along. The gospel works in and through history. It takes time. It does not (and perhaps cannot) change everything all at once. This approach to the church is more historical and less platonic—a change in understanding that Behr-Sigel called for—as well as more ecclesial and less individualistic. In short, God may indeed not have called women to the priesthood before; yet God may indeed be doing so now, for the good of the whole body of the church, and through the slow and steady transformations of the gospel leaven.

Of course, this perspective assumes a disturbing truth: that it is possible for there to be a genuine difference of opinion, or at least a lack of resolution, within the Scriptures, the tradition, and the church fathers. Chiefly the opponents but occasionally also the proponents of women’s ordination seek and find universal consensus, however implicit the consensus might be.

Behr-Sigel disagrees. There is a difference of opinion, she asserts, and therefore there is a lack of resolution on the issue. Behr-Sigel posits that there are in fact two streams of thought about women that have flowed through the whole life of the church. One anthropology has happily baptized and chrismated women, recognized them as saints, martyrs, evangelists, and even apostles, proclaimed their soteriological unity with men, and anticipated a heavenly kingdom where sexuality will be outmoded. At the same time, another anthropology has excluded women from roles of leadership, denigrated their abilities and bodies, and subordinated them to men.

There is an inability to reach a consensus today rooted solely in the tradition and church fathers because no such consensus exists. “The tension between these two anthropologies runs through the Bible and the whole of the Church’s history,” Behr-Sigel writes.[28] Where before, the conflict between the two was unnoticed or perhaps just endured, now the “signs of the times” require of the church a decision, a discernment, a separation of the one from the other that was not required before. To refuse to decide and act is finally to decide and act anyway.

An analogy can be drawn to previous matters of grave dispute in the church. In the first three centuries, there were ways of talking about Jesus Christ in relation to God that were permissible, if not strictly accurate in later perspective; but once the conciliar decision was made, there was no turning back. For Behr-Sigel, the burning questions today about men and women require the same kind of decision—in continuity with the past but discerning of the past and perhaps stepping forward into new territory.


Just because a new thing is proposed, though, doesn’t mean that the new thing is good. It can in fact be very bad; for proof one need only think of the various ideologies to which the churches latched themselves during the twentieth century. Acknowledging the fact of developing tradition permits one to talk about the possibility of women priests, but it does not decide automatically in their favor.

The problem is that the very question of women in the priesthood alters the results of any study of the clerical office. As the assumption of the functional inability of women to perform clerical tasks withered away, new arguments had to come forward if the practice of ordaining men alone was to be maintained. The central criterion for priesthood became “iconic resemblance” (or “natural resemblance” in Roman Catholic parlance). This criterion, however, is entirely new, not a longstanding component of the tradition at all.

Four brief examples suffice to illustrate the point. The patristic classic on the office of ministry is John Chrysostom’s Six Books on the Priesthood. It is, if anything, a heartfelt warning against becoming a priest, given the vast number of gifts required and oppressive number of duties involved. But there is not the slightest mention of the priest’s resemblance to Christ or standing in Christ’s place. Eva Topping explains:

The priest as the “iconic image” of Christ does not appear in patristic discussions of the priesthood… Chrysostom, to be sure, categorically excludes women from the priesthood. He does so not because women cannot physically image Christ. He excluded all women because he believed, as did all the Fathers, in the innately inferior and flawed sinful nature of the female sex.[29]

The “Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation on Bishops and Presbyters” in 1976 serves as another example.[30] This brief statement of the North American dialogue—the longest-running between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches—only once mentions any iconic or natural resemblance of the priest to Christ. Instead, the chief concern is the Roman Catholic “weakness” in its historical practice of “absolute ordination” (ordaining to the priesthood without the priest being assigned to an actual congregation), because it denies thepastoral character of the priesthood (§I). “Pastoral character” is indeed the focus of the statement overall. Presidency at the eucharist is a supremely pastoral act (§II.2). Further, “[b]ishops and presbyters can only represent Christ as bishops and presbyters when they exercise the pastoral office of the church. Therefore, the church can recognize only an ordination which involves a bishop with a pastoral office and a candidate with a concrete title of service” (§II.7). It is striking here how the representation of Christ is linked to thepastoral work of the priest. Further, the chief similarity is found not between Christ and priests but between the apostles and priests. An ordination in apostolic succession “proclaims that pastoral office is founded on Christ and the Spirit who give the grace to accomplish the task of exercising the ministry of the apostles” (§II.5).

The document also notes that some Roman Catholic theologians are “challenging the traditional presentation of the pastoral office as the direct representation of Christ,” suggesting instead it should be one of “directly representing the faith of the church and, consequently, Christ who is the living source of the faith” (§III.1). This, notably, is not linked to the challenge of women priests. In other words, there is a substantial theological objection to depicting priests as uniquely bearing Christ’s image when the matter is considered in and of itself. However, when the subject of women in the priesthood does come up, toward the end of the document, the “iconic representation” of Christ (on the basis of sex) is offered as grounds for refusal, especially by the Orthodox. But “iconic representation” is by no means the substance of the rest of the document’s theological proposal about the meaning of the priesthood (§III.2).

Two years later, another joint statement was released: “Orthodox-Roman Catholic Reflections on Ministries.” Here again, while the bishop (in particular) is called upon to be an image of Christ, he is also linked closely to the ministry of the apostles through his ordination in apostolic succession. No mention of natural or iconic resemblance is made at all.[31]

This same year, 1978, the Anglican-Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission met in Athens and released a statement on the ordination of women. The Orthodox position made no mention of iconic representation whatsoever. It was, in fact, the Anglicans opposed to the ordination of women who advanced that argument! The Orthodox position was based solely on tradition, employing the same themes discussed in the previous section.[32]

By the time of the Rhodes Consultation ten years later, though, iconic representation was the chief cornerstone of official Orthodox pronouncements against the ordination of women. There is some suggestion of it in Khodre and Chitescu in the 1960s, though there it appears simply as one argument among others. Kallistos Ware, who also highlights the argument’s recent provenance, traces it more specifically to “A Letter to an Episcopal Friend” which Alexander Schmemann published in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly in 1973.[33]

In this “letter,” Schmemann charges that the prospective ordination of women by the Anglican communion—a church body to which the Orthodox in France and England had warmed considerably over the course of the twentieth century—would amount to “a radical and irreparable mutilation of the entire faith, the rejection of the whole Scripture—and, needless to say, the end of all ‘dialogues.’”[34] A few pages later he explains why. First and foremost, the priesthood belongs to Christ, not to anyone else, and no one has a “right” to it. In fact, a priest in the church is not “another” priest beside Christ offering any distinct sacrifice from Christ’s own. Christ is the one present doing all the priestly work. Then comes Schmemann’s crowning point.

[T]hus the “institutional” priesthood in the church has no “ontology” of its own. It exists only to make Christ Himself present, to make His unique Priesthood and His unique Sacrifice the source of the Church’s life and the “acquisition” by men of the Holy Spirit. And if the bearer, the icon, and the fulfiller of that unique priesthood isman and not woman, it is because Christ is man and not woman…[35]

And this itself is necessary because the relationship between Christ and the church is a “mystical marriage,” in which the latter is a bride and the former is a bridegroom. Presumably, to alter the sex of the priest is to void the symbolism of its meaning.[36]

The iconic representation argument is now the decisive one in Orthodox opposition to the ordination of women. Thomas Hopko has argued it most consistently. He has, to his credit, tried to prevent it from being isolated from all other aspects of the priesthood. He wants it to be one criterion among many, including spiritual gifts, moral character, public witness and so forth. Generally speaking, he is correct: a priest must indeed have spiritual gifts, exemplary moral behavior, a believing family, and so forth. The problem is simply that women can have all these things too. The only trait that disqualifies them is their femaleness, which causes the maleness of the priest once more to be the decisive factor.[37]

The iconic argument has not won universal approval, however. Kallistos Ware admits to the argument losing its force for him.[38] The participants at the bilateral dialogue between the Orthodox and Old Catholic churches collectively rejected the iconic argument, too. One paper in particular was devoted to demonstrating how the theology of icons does not permit the conclusion that women cannot be icons of Christ in the priesthood.[39] John Erickson, who was present at Rhodes, goes so far as to suggest that very term “priesthood” misleads contemporary people as to the patristic understanding of the clerical office. There was far more to it than cultic action in the eucharist, and in any event “natural resemblance” to Christ is a spiritual, not physical, quality.[40]

To summarize, then, the majority of Orthodox opponents to the ordination of women reason this way. The bedrock, irreplaceable, and unique role of the priest is to present Christ iconically at the eucharist; to be an icon of Christ, the priest must be male; therefore, women cannot be priests. Behr-Sigel took issue with both premises of the syllogism.

First, the very approach of reducing the priesthood to one indispensable element is foreign to the whole tradition of Orthodox theology. If anything, it sounds more like the scholastic “manual” theology imported from the West. Eucharistic presidency is not to be isolated from other aspects of the priesthood. If anything is to characterize the priest, Behr-Sigel reasons, it should be love—“maternal love,” as Evdokimov himself put it—gathering and leading the whole flock in worship and holiness of life. The exclusive focus on eucharistic presidency in fact impoverishes the priesthood.

The same is the case in focusing on the maleness of the priest. For Behr-Sigel, it is a misunderstanding of the eucharistic liturgy itself. The priest does not represent only Christ. He certainly does so during portions of the liturgy. But he also represents the church, speaking for and with the whole assembled body. The apex of the eucharistic liturgy in the East is the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit. At that point, the priest ceases to speak on behalf of Christ and begins to speak on behalf of the congregation, using the pronoun “we” and calling upon the Holy Spirit. There the priest identifies with the apparently “feminine” church, the bride awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. It is thus not accurate to emphasize only the “masculine” aspects of priesthood iconically presenting Christ. A female priest would in fact redress an imbalance in the symbolism by her presentation of the bridal church.

This line of thought, of course, still assumes a distinct symbolism of male and female, aligning the masculine with Christ and the feminine with the church. Behr-Sigel herself rejects this symbolic usage. If one were to insist on the symbolism, she contends, there is still no reason not to ordain women and thus permit them eucharistic leadership. But far better, in her judgment, is the abandonment of the distinction between masculine and feminine roles in the liturgy, and thus in the priesthood, altogether.

Behr-Sigel emphasizes one other aspect in the Orthodox understanding of the priest’s role in the liturgy. It is truly not the priest who acts. He doesn’t stand in for an absent Christ (as Schmemann insisted!). He is rather a vessel by which the entire Holy Trinity acts. He “lends his tongue and hands” to God, a phrase of John Chrysostom frequently quoted by Behr-Sigel. Why then, Behr-Sigel proposes, could a woman not lend her tongue and hands to God? And why should God not make use of them?

This in turn has implications for the iconic understanding of the priesthood. It is not maleness that makes for an image of Christ. As Orthodox soteriology demands, Christ is full and entire humanity, anthropos, assuming the flesh of men and women alike in order to restore it. Both men and women must be icons of Christ because the humanity of both has been assumed by Christ, as in Gregory of Nazianzus’s famous dictum, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” All matters of symbolism aside, the very christology of the church demands the recognition of women as images of Christ. Given the polyvalence of symbols, as Behr-Sigel observes, the refusal to ordain women now suggests the very opposite—that women are not adequate icons of Christ. The result is to leave both their humanity and their salvation in doubt.

The thing of it is, even the most stringent opponents of the ordination of women in the Orthodox church do not deny the full humanity assumed by Christ. They agree that women’s humanity is assumed by Christ too and, with Basil of Caesarea, deny that the salvation of women should be doubted in the slightest. What then is the difficulty?

Following the reasoning to its logical end, the final matter at stake is the meaning of the incarnate Word’s becoming a human male rather than a human female. For the opponents of women in the priesthood, the maleness of Christ is intrinsic to his “being,” or mission, or imaging of God the Father. It is proof of the reality of the incarnation: humans only appear as males or females; the Word became male; therefore his maleness is inseparable from his meaning. To say otherwise is to engage in any number of heresies: docetism, perhaps, for denying the reality of Christ’s body, or trinitarian modalism, for confusing the work of the Son and the Spirit—this especially is the charge levelled by Evdokimov, Hopko, and their followers. The maleness of Christ is so important that any image of Christ must also be male.

The objection is, once again, that being male itself becomes the chief criterion. The love and grace which Christ offered are curiously demoted. And this emphasis in turn produces heresies of its own: a Nestorian tendency to award the male body of Christ its own kind of independent existence, or a fundamental rejection of the soteriological unity of men and women in Christ, or a violation of the apophatic denial of sexuality being in any way proper to God’s own essence. Once again, the church fathers offer very little help in this matter.[41]

Behr-Sigel herself never gets to the point of pursuing the meaning of Christ’s maleness. This is likely because, once she abandons Evdokimov’s theory about “christic” males and “pneumatic” females, she also abandons the attempt to concoct any gender theory of her own. She followed the lead of Scripture and tradition in having very little interest in the question at all. This is a strength in that she most accurately reflects the wisdom of the church catholic before her. She is also not entangled in any set of theories that fail to do justice to the scriptural and patristic witness. Evdokimov’s debt to Jungian theory, which he did not always use accurately, is warning enough.

At the same time, Behr-Sigel’s lack of an answer to the pressing question about Christ’s maleness is a weakness. When accusations of trinitarian, christological, soteriological, and anthropological heresies fly in both directions, there is no choice but to push on. I submit that none of the questions about men and women in the church are going to be resolved until the church reaches some kind of consensus about the ontological implications of the incarnate Word’s male human body.[42]


The basic dispute among contemporary Orthodox theologians regarding gender is whether it has any spiritual significance at all, and if so, what kind. The question seems innocuous enough, but the answer is the foundation for any subsequent decision about the priesthood of women. Gender matters so much in the debate on the ordination of women because it is the lynchpin of the iconic argument. The icon expresses a typological relationship, such that the male priest is a type of Christ, just as Christ was a type of Adam (or vice versa), while a woman is a type of Mary, or Eve, or perhaps the Holy Spirit. The connecting link between the types, in all these cases, is gender. If gender is not somehow constitutive and essential, then the typology itself falls apart or at least becomes strictly limited in its scope.

If, as with Evdokimov, “woman’s” spiritual calling is so thoroughly defined by her gender, then she cannot become a priest without betraying her very nature. Wesche attempted to demonstrate that a female priest is an “ontic impossibility—i.e., it is contrary to nature.”[43] Deborah Belonick spoke of the “ontology of woman” wherein “anatomical image is related to the soul.”[44] Ware, though skeptical of such conclusions, still holds to the spiritual significance of gender.[45] Hopko has given the most sustained attention to the matter over the years. In an early article he explains his own project simply: “[I]f human sexuality is spiritually necessary to proper human being and life beyond the need for the biological reproduction of the species, then its reason and purpose must be discovered and disclosed.”[46]

The surprising fact here is that all these Orthodox strongly resemble a particular stripe of theological feminism preoccupied with a supposed distinctive female essence.[47] The irony is rich since these conservative Orthodox are at such pains to prove that feminism—depicted as a monolithic entity—is completely and utterly at odds with the Christian faith. Wesche says, for instance, that arguments for the ordination of women always require starting with feminist rather than Christian foundational principles.[48] Here he is operating from the same set of assumptions as feminists like Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether, who would reconceive Christian thought and practice along feminist lines, rather than those of his fellow Orthodox theologian Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, whose arguments derive from within the Christian faith itself. Belonick, too, posits an absolute distinction between Orthodoxy and feminism, and yet, curiously, finds a possible point of commonality between them in their identifying females with the Holy Spirit.[49] In neither case do the theologians’ unexpected feminist allies give rise to any uneasiness about their position!

On the other hand, along with Behr-Sigel, Karras and Harrison—both patristic scholars—have been most consistently critical of this essentialist approach to gender. Karras argues outright that “there is no spiritual dimension, no ontological significance, to gender.”[50] If there were, then people would be “determined” by their gender to the detriment of their personal freedom.[51] While Harrison doesn’t go that far, she certainly advises extreme caution in attributing anything sexual or gendered to God and finds that the church fathers took very little interest in the subject at all.[52] Gender-based spirituality is almost entirely without grounding in the tradition.

But even if everyone did agree that gender means something spiritual, how would the church determine what exactly it means? Neither the Scriptures nor the church fathers offer any clear resolution. The essence of the Holy Trinity is apophatically unknowable, yet the first and second persons of the Trinity are called Father and Son; they are called Father and Son, and yet it is forbidden to draw any analogy to creaturely ways of begetting and being begotten.[53] All contenders in this debate are agreed that gender is not in God’s essence, but some suggest that God’s “energies” take on distinct gendered qualities. Humanity is gendered, but there are two creation stories, and three human states: one before the fall, one after the fall but before the eschaton, and one to come about in the eschatological resurrection.

It comes down to the basic problem of how to define the “difference” between men and women. It is obvious enough that men and women are different, but what is the nature of the difference? As we have noted before, the nature of the dispute itself has changed. The patristic dispute, set in the context of monastic celibacy, was whether sexual differentiation is intrinsic to creation or a secondary provision for the inevitable state of sin. The modern dispute, set in the context of social movements toward equality, asks whether sexual differences are biological and psychological or ontological and transcendental. Most contemporary theologians opt for the intrinsic-to-creation side of the patristic discussion, fearing a gnostic contempt of the body. But that does little to resolve the modern question. How much does gender determine, limit, or form who one is and what one can do?

For Behr-Sigel, the common flaw in all of these approaches is to treat the sexual component of each human being as a quantifiable thing. Such a move is not in keeping with the broader tradition of Orthodox theology which regards human being itself as a mystery in the spiritual sense. It is in Vladimir Lossky’s personalism that Behr-Sigel finds the outline of a resolution to the mysterious, Trinity-imaging combination of person and nature in humanity.[54] She herself doesn’t spend much time developing a theological conception of personhood, though she alludes to Lossky’s work as the foundation for her ultimate convictions about men and women in the church.[55] It will be useful here to sketch Lossky’s own vision first, then to indicate what Behr-Sigel likely finds attractive in it, and finally to suggest how their combined insights might suggest an answer to the questions posed by the possibility of women in the priesthood.

In his first study, Lossky admits off the bat that there is no “elaborated doctrine of the human person in patristic theology, alongside its very precise teaching on divine persons or hypostases.”[56] Later he makes the point more strongly: “In general Christian anthropology has not received sufficient theological elaboration.”[57] What little attention the topic got was usually wrapped up in philosophical packages not necessarily conformed to Christian teaching. For Lossky, anything like a proper theological anthropology must flow from the top down, from God to humanity, quite aside from sociological data.[58]

For this reason, Lossky assumes that both the Trinity and the incarnate Christ will illuminate human existence. This is not a unique move; in fact, the twentieth century was quite awash with attempts to explain individuality and community, likeness and otherness, unity and diversity on the basis of the Trinity. But where Evdokimov and others find in the Trinity and the person of Christ alike an archetype or pattern setting the bounds for human beings, Lossky moves in quite a different direction.

In the triune God, Lossky explains at length, the hypostasis is the same as the ousia, and yet the hypostasis cannot be reduced to the ousia. Because of the personal nature of the triune God, the term hypostasis is more like a placeholder than a delimitable concept. As Lossky puts it, the hypostasis “is no longer a conceptual expression but a sign which is introduced into the domain of the non-generalizable, pointing out the radically personal character of the God of Christian revelation.”[59]

Such is the case with God. Does the ousia-hypostasis distinction apply to human beings as well? Is the human hypostasis equally irreducible to the human ousia? To Lossky, these questions are the same as asking “whether Trinitarian anthropology has had any repercussion on Christian anthropology—whether it has opened up a new dimension of the ‘personal’ by discovering a notion of the human hypostasis not reducible to the level of natures or individual substances, which fall under the hold of concepts.”[60] After reviewing and rejecting a number of ways of formulating such terms as hypostasis, person, and individual, Lossky arrives at this conclusion.

[I]t will be impossible for us to form a concept of the human person, and we will have to content ourselves with saying: “person” signifies the irreducibility of man to his nature—“irreducibility” and not “something irreducible” or “something which makes man irreducible to his nature” precisely because it cannot be a question here of “something” distinct from “another nature” but of someone who is distinct from his own nature, of someone who goes beyond his nature while still containing it, who makes it exist as human nature by this overstepping and yet does not exist in himself beyond the nature which he “enhypostasizes” and which he constantly exceeds.[61]

One of the tasks of deified humanity, then, is to go “in grace beyond the individual limits which divide nature and tend to reduce persons to the level of the closed being of particular substances.”[62] The hypostases of God demonstrate that God Himself is not enclosed in His own nature. That is what it means for God—and therefore for the human—to be a person. So the common feature between God and humans that makes both “personal” is not a certain set of characteristics, not even nous or mind as Gregory of Nyssa was tempted to suggest.[63] It is the common self-transcendence of their own nature: in short, their personhood.

The same ideas apply when considering humanity from the point of view of “the image and likeness of God” in Genesis 1:28. Lossky writes:

[A]s in Trinitarian theology, the term “image”—or rather, “in the image”—applied to man must be given a new meaning along the same line of thought which made us distinguish in God the personal or hypostatic from the essential or natural. Man is not merely an individual of a particular nature, included in the generic relationship of human nature to God the Creator of the whole cosmos, but he is also—he is chiefly—a person, not reducible to the common (or even individualized) attributes of the nature which he shares with other human individuals. Personhood belongs to every human being by virtue of a singular and unique relation to God who created him “in His image.” This personal element in anthropology, discovered by Christian thought, does not indicate, in itself, a relationship of participation, much less a “kinship” with God, but rather an analogy: like the personal God, in whose image he is created, man is not only “nature.” This bestows on him liberty in regard to himself, taken as an individual of a particular nature.[64]

While the image of God in all human persons is “inalienable,” it will manifest God to a greater or lesser degree depending on the deification or sin of the person.[65]

Human uniqueness, then, does not lie in any set of individual qualities, nor is it threatened by qualities shared with others. Human uniqueness lies solely in the person’s having a relationship with God.[66] And, further, since this relationship is finally what qualifies as human being, then “[n]o differences of created nature—sex, race, social class, language, or culture—can affect the unity of the Church… There is no Church of the Jews or of the Greeks, of the Barbarians or of the Scythians, just as there is no Church of slaves or of free men, of men or of women.”[67]

The appeal of Lossky’s personalism to a thinker like Behr-Sigel is clear enough. Instead of focusing on natures, which so often turns into stereotypes and essentialism, Lossky focuses on the person. The person is not cut off from his or her own nature, nor from other persons. But the person is not defined, pinned down, or limited, either. The very quality that makes a person a person is self-transcendence, which includes among other things the possibility of love. And the anchoring in trinitarian doctrine is not lost. This understanding of personhood derives directly from the Christian “discovery” of the personal being of God in three hypostases, indissolubly united and yet utterly unique.

What, then, of sexual differences? Lossky pays little attention to the question, only to lump them together with ethnic, social, and economic differences as irrelevant in the body of the church. They are certainly not identified as part of God’s own nature, nor is an extra stratum accounting for gender added to human nature. Lossky died before gender questions were raised en masse in the church. Is this an oversight that needs correcting?

Not at all. In Lossky’s way of thinking, it would not matter a bit if gender were inserted as another level of human “nature.” A male person and a female person will always exceed and transcend his nature and her nature, however distinct those natures are from one another. What makes him and her the same, in the end, is their common ability to transcend themselves.

The ramifications of such personalism match with Behr-Sigel’s mature position on the place of women in the church. The nature of any given woman is not a limiting factor in her capacity to serve the church. It is not alien to who she is, but it does not contain her, either. She is like to God (the Trinity as a whole or the Holy Spirit in particular) not in any particular set of feminine qualities resulting from her nature. She is like to God, she is God’s image, in her self-transcendence, as a person. Therefore, Behr-Sigel’s growing intuition that “women’s charisms” represent a false trail recognizes that the very attempt to elevate women in their distinctive femininity is precisely to deny them their common personal humanity. Women are not a set of charisms. They are persons with a variety of charisms who, again, transcend the nature of which they are an instance.

In this light, then, we can say that the anthropologies of Evdokimov, Hopko, and even Wesche make the error of identifying the hypostasis of humanity not with the person but with the gender. “Woman”—always rendered in the singular—occupies the category of the individual, not, for example, “Elisabeth.” The same error appears in treating “Eve” as equivalent to “woman” and “Adam” as equivalent to “man.” They are no longer persons, but genders. The hypostatic status of gender permits the identification of the Son with men (or “man”) and the Spirit with women (or “woman”). In both cases, the trinitarian hypostasis is aligned with an entire gender. But every individual male person is lost this way, subsumed in his gender in hypostatic analogy to the Son; and the same for women with the Spirit. While Evdokimov and Hopko correctly avoided aligning gender with the ousia—which would indisputably have called into question the soteriological unity of men and women—they failed to recognize the identity of ousia and hypostasis in the trinitarian analogy; that the hypostasis is not other than the ousia. Ironically, Evdokimov and Hopko committed a classically Western trinitarian error, subsuming the person under the nature!

A hypostasis is nothing more nor less than an instance of an ousia. Gender does not exist as such, but gendered humans do; they are hypostases of shared human ousia, whether they are male or female. Inserting gender into the ontological scheme (whether in the place of ousia or hypostasis) obscures actual persons, concealing them within their gender. In short, the hypostasis must be the person, not the person’s gender. That is the proper trinitarian analogy. The person is not accordingly alienated from his or her own gender. But neither is he or she contained by it.

It matters little whether the attempt is to introduce “feminine” language for God and defend “feminine” ways of being in the church, or to preserve “masculine” names for God on the assumption that God has distinctly “masculine” traits. Each attempt comes to a different conclusion, but they are methodologically indistinguishable. Both start “from below” with assumptions about what qualifies as masculine or feminine. Both emphasize gender to such an extent that personhood is lost. The whole sweep of Behr-Sigel’s thought moves to the conclusion that this approach is a dead-end, for traditionalists and revisionists alike. Any attempt to invoke the “feminine” (or the “masculine”) always ends up reducing women (and men) to mere instances of their natures, rather than self-transcending persons in God’s own image. In truth, men are persons and women are persons, because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are persons, too.



[1] Paul Evdokimov, Woman and the Salvation of the World: A Christian Anthropology on the Charisms of Woman, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s, 1994), 216. The French version, Le Femme et le Salut de Monde, was originally published in 1958.

[2] Concerning the Ordination of Women (Geneva: WCC, 1964).

[3] Behr-Sigel, “Keynote: The Meaning of the Participation of Women in the Life of the Church,” in Orthodox Women: Their Role and Participation in the Orthodox Church, Report on the Consultation of Orthodox Women, September 11-17, 1976, Agapia, Roumania, eds. Constance J. Tarasar and Irina Kirillova (Geneva: WCC, 1977), 17-29.

[4] Bloom gave an address at the London School of Economics in 1989 in which he hoped that women would someday be permitted to become not only priests but even bishops in the Orthodox church. See also his introduction to Behr-Sigel’s Ministry of Women in the Church (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood, 1991), which he hails as the “first swallow that announces the coming of spring,” xiii.

[5] “I am far from convinced by many of the current arguments advanced in favour of women priests; but at the same time a number of the arguments urged on the other side now appear to me a great deal less conclusive than they did twenty years ago.” Ware, “Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ,” in The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church, with Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (Geneva: WCC, 2000), 50.

[6] “My opinion—I know that very few Orthodox theologians share it—is that there are no strictly theological reasons to bar women from the priesthood.” See “Orthodoxy, Olivier Clément and the Ordination of Women,” Mary Martha 3/1 (1993): 27-29.

[7] See Archimandrite Ephrem, review of Le ministère de la Femme dans l’Eglise by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Sorouzh 57 (1994): 48.

[8] Chitescu: “Then there is the period when women are ‘impure’…” in Concerning the Ordination of Women, 57. Khodre: “[I]s the feminist movement well-founded? Does it not express the dissatisfaction of those women who suffer from the Diana-complex? …the biological rhythms fluctuate more in women than in men and their moods are affected by these rhythms,” ibid., 61. Though it should be noted that the recent book of Michael Azkoul seems to support the maintenance of purity taboos; see Order of Creation, Order of Redemption: The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2007).

[9] The conclusions and all the papers presented are collected in The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women, Interorthodox Symposium, Rhodos, Greece, 30 October-7 November 1988, ed. Gennadios Limouris (Katerini, Greece: Tertios Publications, 1992). See “Conclusions of the Consultation,” B.VI.22.

[10] As Hopko acknowledges: “There are no specific sources dealing with it in church tradition, where the question is not treated even in the most rudimentary form.” In “On the Male Character of the Christian Priesthood,” in Women and the Priesthood, 1st ed., ed. Thomas Hopko (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s, 1983), 97.

[11] George Morelli, “Whose Church Do I Belong To: My Church or the Orthodox Church of Christ?” at http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/ articles6/MorelliSecularism.php, accessed November 28, 2007.

[12] Hopko, “Presbyter/Bishop,” in Women and the Priesthood, new and revised ed., ed. Thomas Hopko (Crestwood: St. Vladmir’s, 1999), 140.

[13] Azkoul, 40.

[14] Katerina Karkala-Zorba, “The Role of Women in the Orthodox Church Today,” Mary Martha 5/1 (1996): 3-8.

[15] Andrew Philips, “Some Reasons Why the Orthodox Church Does Not Admit Women to the Priesthood,” Orthodox Life 43/2 (1993): 46.

[16] “Beyond physical sex, gender itself is seen by all of the Fathers as an element added to humanity only because of God’s foreknowledge of man’s fall. Several modern theologians mistakenly believe this view to be limited to two of the most speculative Greek Fathers—Gregory of Nyssa and Maximos the Confessor.” Valerie Karras, “Patristic Views on the Ontology of Gender,” in Personhood: Orthodox Christianity and the Connection between Body, Mind, and Soul, ed. John T. Chirban (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1996), 116.

[17] “[W]e can identify a difference of opinion among the patristic writers. John of Damascus, when he speaks of the creation of humanity, claims that the first human being was male. But later he moves to another line of thought.” Constantine Yokarinis, “A Patristic Basis for a Theological Anthropology of Women in Their Distinctive Humanity,” Anglican Theological Review 84/3 (2002): 590. Deborah Belonick admits that “patristic exegetes had varied opinions even when interpreting Genesis” in “Women in the Church,” inOrthodox Perspectives on Pastoral Praxis, ed. Theodore Stylianopoulos (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 1988), 84. But she eventually takes sides: “If God willed gender distinction for the sole purpose of procreation, then differences in women and men are reduced to bodily function,” which is unacceptable to her, 85.

[18] For example, Hopko says, “Is there a consensus patrem on the subject [of gender in the life to come], or are these views, clearly influenced by hellenistic sources and teachings, upheld by only some strands of patristic teaching…?” “The Debate Continues—1998,” in Women and the Priesthood, new and rev. ed., 254. See also Kenneth Paul Wesche: when Gregory of Nyssa “turns to the mystery of gender, he forgets and, falling back into the androgyny of Greek philosophy, attributes gender to the Fall.” “Man and Woman in the Orthodox Tradition: The Mystery of Gender,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37/2-3 (1993): 242.

[19] In addition to Woman and the Salvation of the World, see Evdokimov’s book The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel and Victoria Steadman (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), first printed in French in 1944; and also the essays “The Charisms of Woman” and “Panagion and Panagia: the Holy Spirit and the Mother of God,” in In the World, Of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader, eds. Michael Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s, 2001). Susan Ashbrook Harvey also discusses the usage, though she draws different conclusions from it, in her study, “Feminine Imagery for the Divine: The Holy Spirit, the Odes of Solomon, and Early Syriac Tradition,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37/2-3 (1993): 111-139.

[20] Verna Harrison, “The Fatherhood of God in Orthodox Theology,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37/2-3 (1993): 185-212.

[21] Such is the thrust of his article, “Man and Woman in Orthodox Tradition.”

[22] Karras, “Flesh of My Flesh—Greek Patristic Exegeses of the Creation of Eve,” St. Nina Quarterly 2/1 (1998): n.p.

[23] A curious corroborating example comes from post-Christian feminist Daphne Hampson. She, too, raises the theodicy question: “How can God be seen to be good when one considers what history has been, and what it has meant for women that God has been conceived in primarily male terms? …why, if God be good, has any harm come to women?” Theology and Feminism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 11. She similarly rejects any notion of developing tradition permitting the ordination of women at a later point in Christian history—the “kairos” position, as she calls it. Such a position only absolves the church of its sexism and whitewashes the past. Ibid., 22-24. In Hampson we see the same underlying assumption of a static, ahistorical tradition as is defended by the various Orthodox thinkers discussed above.

[24] Thomas Hopko writes, “The Orthodox Church does not have a teaching of ‘dogmatic development.’ Orthodox believe that expressions of Christian faith and life can change and indeed must change as the Church moves through history. But the Orthodox interpret these changes as being merely formal and not in any sense substantial. They would never agree that there can be anything in the Church of Christ today that was not essentially present at any moment of the Church’s life and history.” “Women and the Priesthood: Reflections on the Debate,” in Women and the Priesthood, 1st ed., 177. Likewise Azkoul, quoting Kallistos Ware’s statement that “Holy Tradition, rightly understood, is dynamic, not static and inert,” concludes: “With just these few words, the entire ecclesial and social legacy of the Orthodox faith is thrown into doubt,” x. The chief point of Azkoul’s book is that any change or criticism of the tradition where women are concerned renders the entire Christian faith void.

[25] This judgment stems from Georges Florovsky’s monumental work Ways of Russian Theology, trans. Robert L. Nichols (Vaduz, Liechtenstein: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987). See also the discussion in Dorothea Wendebourg, “‘Pseudomorphosis’: A Theological Judgement as an Axiom for Research in the History of Church and Theology,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 42/3-4 (1997): 321-342.

[26] Bulgakov’s essay has been translated into English in Tradition Alive: On the Church and the Christian Life in our Time: Readings from the Eastern Church, ed. Michael Plekon (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2003), 67-80.

[27] Westerners, however, have tended to be very appreciative: for instance, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Rowan Williams, and John Millbank.

[28] Behr-Sigel, “The Bible, Tradition, the Sacraments: Sources of Authority in the Church,” in Discerning the Signs of the Times: The Vision of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, eds. Michael Plekon and Sarah E. Hinlicky (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 89.

[29] Eva Catafygiotu Topping, “Orthodox Women and the Iconic Image of Christ,” in Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy: Women and the Church (Minneapolis: Light and Life, 1987), 125.

[30] The statement was published in Diakonia 11/3 (1976): 293-295.

[31] “Orthodox-Roman Catholic Reflections on Ministries,” Origins 7/44 (1978): 702-704.

[32] “Appendix 2: The Athens Report 1978,” in Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue: The Dublin Agreed Statement 1984 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 58-63. For example: “The ordination of women to the priesthood is an innovation, lacking any basis whatever in Holy Tradition… In this constant and unvarying practice [of ordaining only men] we see revealed the will of God and the testimony of the Holy Spirit, and we know that the Holy Spirit does not contradict himself… Holy Tradition is not static, but living and creative”! §III.3 and §III.4.

[33] Ware, “Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ,” in The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church, 78.

[34] Alexander Schmemann, “Concerning Women’s Ordination: A Letter to an Episcopal Friend,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 17/3 (1973): 239.

[35] Ibid., 242.

[36] As far as I can tell, no one among the Orthodox has yet called into question the other implications of taking the nuptial imagery as a literal requirement for the sexuality of the clergy and laity. To raise just one question among many, what of lay men? Do they culpably fail to develop their “christic” virtues in not becoming priests, yet because they are not women, either, do they lack “pneumatic” virtues as well? Or do they themselves become “female” or “feminine” as part of the body of the church? If they do not become female, are they in a homosexual relationship to the priest and to Christ? One must assume that all of these implications are offensive to Orthodox tradition as well. These issues have been explored by Western theologians, however, in particular Sara Coakley and Tina Beattie in response to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

[37] See Hopko’s essays “On the Male Character of the Christian Priesthood,” in the first edition of Women and the Priesthood, and “Presbyter/Bishop: A Masculine Ministry,” in the new and revised edition.

[38] See the section entitled “‘An icon of Christ’: but in what sense?” in Ware’s “Man, Woman, and the Priesthood of Christ” in The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church, 78-90.

[39] “We have reached the common conclusion that there are no compelling dogmatic-theological reasons for not ordaining women to the priesthood.” See Urs von Arx and Anastasios Kallis, “Common Considerations,” Anglican Theological Review 84/3 (2002): 505. See also Anastasios Kallis, “Presidency at the Eucharist in the Context of the Theology of Icons: Questions about the Ecclesial Representation of Christ by the Priesthood,” Anglican Theological Review 84/3 (2002): 713-29.

[40] John H. Erickson, “The Priesthood in Patristic Teaching,” in The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women, 103-115.

[41] Some Orthodox studies that have analyzed patristic views on the maleness of Christ are as follows. Valerie A. Karras, “The Incarnational and Hypostatic Significance of the Maleness of Jesus Christ according to Theodore of Stoudios,” Studia Patristica, vol. XXXII, ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone (Louvain: Peeters, 1997): 320-24. Verna Harrison, “The Maleness of Christ,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 42 (1998): 111-51, discussing a number of patristic writers. Yokarinis, in “Patristic Basis,” quotes John of Damascus: “[T]he Son of God became ‘son of man’ in order that his individuality might endure. For since he was the Son of God, he became ‘son of man,’ being made flesh of the holy virgin and not losing the individuality of his sonship,” 604, fn. 66. Yokarinis also points out that if we think of gender in complementary terms, the one completing the other, then the Son’s humanity was imperfect since he only took on one of the two complementary genders; this, however, is at odds with Chalcedonian christology which insists on the perfection and completeness of Christ’s humanity.

[42] Some attempts have been made by the Orthodox already. Verna Harrison argues that we cannot really know, for God only reveals what He has done, not what He could have done. One possibility, though, is that being born of a woman in the flesh of a male sanctifies both sexes. See “The Fatherhood of God in Orthodox Theology,” 209-210. According to Wesche, it is the ontological headship of Adam the male over Eve the female that requires a male Jesus to include all of humanity in salvation. “Man and Woman,” 242. Perhaps the most famous attempt to answer this question in the West is Rosemary Radford Ruether’s essay, “Can a Male Savior Save Women?” in Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 116-138.

[43] Wesche, 214.

[44] Belonick, “Women in the Church,” 84.

[45] “For myself, I believe most strongly that maleness and femaleness, as gifts from God, have dimensions that are not only biological but spiritual.” Ware, “Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ,” in The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church, 77. An excellent review of Ware’s essay (and Behr-Sigel’s too) is to be found in Sorouzh 83 (2001): 49-55 by Ian Graham.

[46] Hopko, “The Masculine Character of the Priesthood,” in Women and the Priesthood, 1st ed., 103.

[47] To cite a number of examples: Valerie Saiving, in “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” argues that men and women sin in essentially different ways, so the church’s teaching about sin has missed the mark with women and in fact reinforced their sin rather than quenching it. In Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, 25-42 (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979). Judith Plaskow picked up this theme and further essentialized men and women in Sex, Sin, and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1980). Mary Daly is now perhaps the best known of essentializing feminists; see in particular her Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973). Essentialism remains a disputed point across the various kinds of feminist theology. Any supposed common quality shared by all women is the very axis of misogyny, but it is also the engine of communal feminist efforts at social and theological reform. The salient point here is that positing something in common among all women can equally serve the causes of conservative Orthodox Christians and radical feminist Christians and post-Christians.

[48] Wesche, 216.

[49] Belonick, “The Spirit of the Female Priesthood,” in Women and the Priesthood, 1st ed., 165. For instance, Alwyn Marriage, Life-Giving Spirit: Responding to the Feminine in God (London: SPCK, 1989). Rachel Conrad Wahlburg, “The Women’s Creed,” inJesus and the Freed Woman (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 155-57. Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Womanpriest: A Personal Odyssey (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

[50] Karras, “Patristic Views,” 117.

[51] Ibid., 118.

[52] Harrison, “The Fatherhood of God,” 189-190.

[53] Verna Harrison, “Male and Female in Cappadocian Theology,” Journal of Theological Studies 41/2 (1990): 41.

[54] Behr-Sigel refers to the essays collected in the volume (later translated into English) In the Image and Likeness of God (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s, 1974). The three relevant essays on theological anthropology are “The Theological Notion of the Human Person,” “The Theology of the Image,” and “Catholic Consciousness: Anthropological Implications of the Dogma of the Church.”

[55] For example, in Behr-Sigel, “L’ordination des femmes, un problème oecuménique,” Contacts 42/2 (1990): 122.

[56] Lossky, “The Theological Notion,” 112.

[57] Lossky, “Catholic Consciousness,” 185.

[58] “Theological anthropology must be constructed from the top down, beginning from Trinitarian and Christological dogma, in order to discover in human reality the unity of nature and the multiplicity of created hypostases, the will which is a function of the common nature, the possession of divine grace by created persons, etc.” Ibid.

[59] Lossky, “The Theological Notion,” 113.

[60] Ibid., 115.

[61] Ibid., 120. A very similar description of the image of God—and therefore one very likely drawn right from Lossky—can be found in Behr-Sigel’s essay “Woman is Also Made in the Image of God” in The Ministry of Women in the Church, 84: “The image of God is not a thing or a part of man. It relates to the dynamic and global orientation of an existing being who is endlessly called upon to go beyond himself and to transcend his nature. As such, the image of God is both a gift and a task: the task of becoming ‘the likeness of God.’”

[62] Lossky, “The Theological Notion,” 122.

[63] Lossky, “The Theology of the Image,” 138-139.

[64] Ibid., 137-138.

[65] Ibid., 139.

[66] Lossky, “Catholic Consciousness,” 186.

[67] Ibid., 184.


Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is Assistant Research Professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France; and editor of Lutheran Forum.