Could Christ Have Been Born a Woman? A Medieval Debate
By Joan Gibson
Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1992)
Introduction: Contemporary Christianity is far from resolving many controversies about gender and religion. Problems arise around issues ranging from the role of women in society, to the suitability of church art portraying Christ as a woman; from a tendency to identify women with the flesh or sin, to the ordination of women or the use of inclusive language. While differing responses to feminist, or even feminine, elements in our understanding of the divine are clearly at stake in all these issues, it is important to note how current debates are also fueled by conflicting interpretations of history and historical documents. These debates take place within a tradition and society that include misogyny and male domination, and they rely on methodologies developed in communities that actively excluded women. In these respects, medieval Catholicism exemplifies a similar set of difficulties about gender and God and is an important conduit for the transmission and continued influence of these difficulties on the Christian heritage. Francine Cardman suggests, in the context of arguments about women’s ordination, that Catholic prohibitions depend on an incomplete and misleading reading of medieval sources. Systematic theology, from its earliest days, combined tradition and contemporary concerns. In her discussion of the rise of systematic theology in the twelfth century, Marcia Colish argues that theology “could be and was harnessed to a variety of practical agendas in the period.” There is no reason to think this is any less true today, and an examination of the medieval debate on the sex of God reveals that contemporary discussion is far from a historical oddity. Rather it fits within a long series of Christian approaches to God through the female. This ongoing discussion offers ample historical warrant for contemporary efforts to reformulate criteria for thinking about God’s gender.
Questions about the sex of God and its relation to human sex roles seem to have evoked lively interest in the middle ages from around the closing years of the eleventh century. Anselm, for example, declares in the Monologium, “I think I ought not to by-pass the question of which set of terms is more suitable for . . . [the persons of the Trinity] ‘father and son’ or ‘mother and daughter’—for there is no sexual distinction in the Supreme Spirit and the Word.’ He offers a grammatical argument that both persons are Spirit— denoted by a masculine noun, but equally both are truth and wisdom— requiring feminine nouns. Anselm bolsters this grammatical sexual equality with the empirical finding that while in most species the male is naturally superior, the case is reversed for some kinds of birds in which the female is always the larger and stronger. His response to the question of which sex is more appropriate to the trinity is based on different biological and metaphysical principles, however the role of the father in generation is that of first and principal cause and thus a son bears greater similarity to his father.
There appears to have been continuing interest in questions about the sex of God, for in the 1150s Peter Lombard raised the issue in a new form, asking in book three of the Sentences whether God could have assumed humanity in the female sex. For his pains, Walter of St. Victor (d. 1190) declared him blasphemous, though unintentionally so. Despite Walter’s aggressive antirationalism, the Sentences were enshrined in the theological faculty at Paris by the 1220s and commentaries on the Sentences, which had already begun to appear, are the primary source for the continuing history of this question. Over the following three hundred years, during which the Sentences dominated theological studies in the universities, the issue was kept in philosophical and theological consciousness.