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Feminist Theology is Alive and Well: A Critique of Johnson’s Book “She Who Is”

Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1999.


Feminist theology is not dead. Although Johnson’s book was written a long time ago, her arguments for a feminist reform have been well received over the years and still stand as perhaps the most reasonably argued feminist position available for Catholics. Compared to other feminist reform proposals, her project is very modest. Her ideas have had plenty of time to percolate the church and the Catholic authorities have not taken any disciplinary action against her. In fact, she was invited recently to The University of Dayton (a Catholic school that I presently attend) to give talks on her classic book (i.e. given a chance to promote her theology).

Apparently, whenever there is a new reform ideology floating around “out there” in the Catholic world of theology (especially those seen as having an influence—i.e. feminism), Roman Catholics like to ask the question whether such new ideology is ressourcement or aggiornamiento with respect to the Tradition (Catholics like to use big Latin words to describe relatively easy concepts, and I explain my understanding of them below). We must remember that for the Catholics this includes Scripture because it was the Tradition—not scripture itself—that delineated and codified the canon.

NOTE: From here on out I will not capitalize “tradition,” but I mean to refer to the broad theological tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Perhaps because I am not cognizant of the technical ways in which these terms are understood by Catholic theologians, ressourcement and aggiornamiento appear to me to be greatly overlapping categories. For the sake of my present thoughts, however, I will assume that ressourcement involves—at least to some degree—the replacement of the “old” interpretation with a “new” one, in which case the old paradigm must be undermined to give way to the new.  For the sake of my present thoughts I will also assume aggiornamiento to be less threatening to the “old” way of interpreting the tradition by understanding it more like a further enlightenment of the implications of the old.

I will now seek to give an answer to the question of whether Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is (see publication info above) is ressourcement or aggiornamiento according to a Catholic model of authority.  I will conclude that certain aspects of Johnson’s project can be seen by Catholics as a harmless enlightenment that advances the existing tradition (aggiornamiento), while other aspects of her proposal appear to undermine aspects of that tradition and could therefore be considered a reinterpretation (ressourcement).

Areas of Johnson’s Project Compatible with Catholic Tradition 

At times Johnson appears to understand herself as engaging only in an attempt to balance out the traditional male imagery of God with an equal amount of female imagery that helps plunge the depths of the divine mystery—which would appear to be simply a way of adding more wisdom to the existing tradition (aggiornamiento).  For example, consistent with the tradition she understands that gender language about God is only metaphorical—not literal (5-6). God is not a male.  

NOTE: She doesn’t like the irony of saying “He is not male,” which language she believes undermines the point!  She prefers “Godself” to “Himself.”  

Along with tradition she admits that metaphors (and all language about God) can never fully exhaust the mystery of the divine reality and therefore all language is inadequate (7). She hopes to make the tradition a land of plenty for feminists who are turned off to it, “consolidating” its gains (12). A good example of such consolidation is Johnson’s application of Irenaeus’s axiom Gloria Dei vivens homo (the Glory of God is the flourishing of humankind) to the female gender (14). In this case, she simply applies tradition in a new direction without undermining it.

She explicitly delineates her aim in terms of “a new interpretation of the tradition” (18) and a “hermeneutical retrieval” of ancient texts (which I assume includes scripture as well as extrabiblical tradition). While anxious to correct sexism she nevertheless does not take this to the extreme of denying all differences between men and women (32).  The most important distinction she makes is this: she is not advocating a negation of male imagery (which is used in the tradition) but only pleading that such imagery not be understood literally or used exclusively (to the marginalization of female imagery) or patriarchally (33).

The male metaphors are to be understood as designating relationships, not essence (34). She is not abandoning, for example, the Chalcedonian formulation, only correcting it against the abuse of arbitrarily transferring Jesus’ human gender to the his divine person when none of the other historical particularities of his human nature are considered transferable (35).  Her female imagery is often drawn from scripture itself (e.g. the housekeeper’s lost coin in Luke 15:4-10 [56]).  She does not ignore or deny, for example, scriptures metaphor for God as Father (80-81).  She does justice to proper theological distinctions between God’s presence and essence in male depictions of YHWH (106).

Johnson’s continued emphasis on paternal symbols as analogous of function and “not an ontological claim,” fits with the existing tradition—aggiornamiento (173). Likewise, her persistent criticism of Aquinas’ anthropology continues also to be a fair corrective (Aquinas thought females were inferior to males, 174). When she complains that the pneumotology of the Nicene Creed “did not receive attention commensurate with [its] confession,” her lament, I take it, could be shared by the most conservative of Catholics and is certainly no threat to the tradition (128). Just the opposite, her critical energy here is an aspiration to live up to this tradition. Her observation that Mary has stolen the spotlight from the Holy Spirit is fitting with the tradition also, which, though affirming that the Holy Spirit is God and Mary merely mortal, tends to let Mary wear all the outfits from the Holy Spirit’s wardrobe (129). This critique is sure to find resonance with Protestants such as myself who share similar concerns. At these junctures, Johnson’s critiques are inbounds and no one should pull the plug on her venture.

Aspects of Johnson’s Project That Undermine Catholic Authority 

On the other hand, Johnson at times appears to be undermining the tradition—in which case her project appears to overlap with ressourcement.

For example, she understands herself to be promoting an entire shift in total world view (6, 28) in which the Christian’s traditional use of divine imagery is “deconstructed” and heavily criticized (29). She is against the use of certain male images that (as inconvenient as it is for Johnson) are actually prevalent in the Christian tradition—God as the absolute king of the world, for example—decrying these images as inherently perverted even when understood in benevolent terms rather than tyrannical terms (20, 34, 36).

Contrary to Catholic tradition that saw Jesus as playing subordinate roles to the Father while still being equal in essence and glory, Johnson also understands roles of subordination to imply inferiority (23, 25). What does that say about Jesus?  Furthermore, since Jesus used almost exclusively masculine language for God (which is oppressive in Johnson’s view), it raises the question: “Did Jesus accommodate himself to a sinful and oppressive way of speaking about God?”  The implications of her ideology have dangerous implications here.

The tension between these two aspects of her project—undermining the tradition while at the same time attempting to cast her project as one that strengthens that same tradition—cannot be easily resolved.

If the tradition excludes women from certain responsibilities in the church, such as priesthood and bishopric, Johnson’s evaluation at places undermines this tradition and (therefore) proposes what we might call a censorious denunciation (or “reinterpretation,” if you prefer to be less candid) of the tradition (122). To depict the state of affairs more starkly: If her concept of “flourishing” includes women flourishing in these roles for which they have so far been forbidden by the tradition, she is accusing the Catholic church of blasphemy (168)!

Ironically, while she claims that “the crucified Jesus embodies the exact opposite of the patriarchal ideal of the powerful man,” she seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that the Sophia-inspired text of scripture (Sophia is Johnson’s favorite name for God) teaches that Jesus endured the suffering of the cross in order to purchase a people for his own possession (Titus 2:14) and, upon rising, take his seat at the right hand of God (Heb 12:2)—the place of kingly power that Johnson hopes the image of the crucified Christ will eradicate (161)!

Conclusion: Johnson = Typical Modern Theology 

Johnson wants to accept parts of the tradition that conveniently fit her feminist agenda and vehemently reject those that create problems for her agenda—even if they are at the heart of the gospel itself (not to mention the broader tradition). This fits the postliberal complaint to a tee (that modern theology wrongly tries to redefine God in keeping with their modern sensibilities, redefining everything to fit their agenda). The real question is: Is anyone really surprised?

Unconditional Pardon in Christ :: Justification in Karl Barth

If not the most important theologian of the 20th century,[1] the case could be made that Karl Barth was at least one of the foremost Christian theologians of modern times.  His attitude toward scripture and scathing critiques of the classical liberal tradition “marked a watershed in twentieth-century theology.”[2]  His first publication, a commentary on the book of Romans, functioned somewhat like a bombshell on the theological playground of his contemporaries.[3]  His decisive break from the school of classical liberal theology spawned an entirely new school of thought: postliberalism.[4]  Although Barth is criticized as never having actually escaped the Enlightenment framework,[5] the Christomonism (or “Christological concentration”) that makes possible a Christian appreciation of the Barthian tradition argued that the truths revealed in Christ were not merely truths ascertainable through general revelation and therefore Christ reveals new and indispensible truth.[6]  Barth in particular took a Christ-centered approach to theology to such extremes he has been criticized for turning “the whole of theology into Christology.”[7]  Nowhere is this Christocentrism more evident than in Karl Barth’s doctrine of justification.


This blog series is an attempt to highlight accurately some of the unique aspects of Karl Barth’s doctrine of justification.  Because Barth himself warns that the theology represented in his Romans commentary is only “the beginning of a development,”[8] while his Church Dogmatics[9] is considered his most mature thought,[10] this study will give its attention to the latter.  The study will be at least 6 posts long, and will attempt to show 1) how Barth’s distinctive doctrine of election informs his articulation of his doctrine of justification, 2) how Barth’s Christocentric outlook enables him to see the wrath of God as only a phase or form of the grace of God, 3) why differences of opinion exist on whether or not he held to a position of ultimate universal salvation, 4) what various arguments Barth employs to defend his position that sola fide is not the articulus stantis et cadentis acclesia [“the doctrine by which the church stands or falls”], 5) in what ways Barth’s version of sola fide is similar to classic Protestant positions and in what ways it is dissimilar, and 6) that Barth’s doctrine of justification has played a prominent role in ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Catholics. 


Next Post :: How Barth’s Doctrine of Election Bears on His Doctrine of Justification


[1] “Karl Barth was without doubt the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century.  Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol 2: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1985), 362.  Alister E. McGrath is more reserved: “Barth is unquestionably one of the most significant theologians of the twentieth century” [italics mine].  Alister E. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology: 1750-1990, second edition (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1984), 123.


[2] W. S. Johnson, “Barth, Karl (1886-1968)” in Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters, ed. Donald K. McKim (Downers Grive, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1998), 433. 


[3] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1968). 


[4] B. E. Benson, “Postliberal Theology,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, second edition, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001), 937.  McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology: 1750-1990, second edition, 123-152, 220. 


[5] “Barth’s own theology may be regarded, at least in part, as a reaction against the anthropocentricity of the liberal school – a reaction particularly evident in his inversion of the liberal understanding of God and humanity as epistemic object and subject respectively.  Yet Barth has essentially inverted the liberal theology without fundamentally altering its frame of reference.  As such, he may be regarded as indirectly – perhaps even unintentionally – perpetuating the theological interests and concerns of the liberal school, particularly the question of how God may be known.”  Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, third edition (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 398.


[6] McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology: 1750-1990, second edition, 131, 220.


[7] McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 401.


[8] Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, vi.  Barth even goes so far as to say, “When, however, I look back at the book, it seems to have been written by another man to meet a situation belonging to a past epoch.”  Ibid.


[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. G. Bromiley et al. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956-75).


[10] David Ford even considers Volume IV of Church Dogmatics in particular—the volume we will be focusing on—as “the crowning  achievement of Barth’s mature theology.”  David Ford, “Barth, Karl (1886-1968)” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, ed. Alister McGrath (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1993), 32. 

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