A Critical Assessment of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s “Christology:
Can a Male Savior Save Women?”
by John Drury
In chapter five of her classic work of re-constructive feminist theology Sexism and God-Talk, Rosemary Radford Ruether turns to Christology. The subtitle poses the question, “Can a Male Savior Save Women?” In the following essay, I will briefly summarize her criticism of various Christologies, evaluate her answer to the question, and constructively reflect on how to best solve the serious problem she identifies.
I. Ruether’s Christology
Ruether gives the majority of her attention to critiquing the history of Christology in its biblical, orthodox, and alternative forms. Her criterion of judgment is whether such Christologies correspond to the liberating activity of Jesus (116, 123). If a particular Christology perpetuates patriarchy then it violates the spirit of the Christ about whom it is supposedly reflecting.
Ruether first points out that Christology’s “remote, pre-Hebraic origins, feature a central female divine actor” (117). Hebrew thought displaced the feminine with a male Messianic king (118). The close connection between David and the Messiah only solidifies the maleness of the Jewish messianic vision (119).
According to Ruether, Jesus does not perpetuate the nationalistic Davidic hope, but rather envisions the “Reign of God as a time of the vindication of the poor and the oppressed” (120). Jesus “resymbolizes the messianic prophet (and, by implication, God) not as a king but as servant” (121). Jesus is an iconoclast that challenges the religious authority of his day, not based on his own authority as a final revelation of God, but as an instigator of a general principle of iconoclasm applicable to all persons (121).
During the early centuries of Christianity’s development, this liberating iconoclasm of Jesus underwent a patriarchialization process. The first step began with the early Christian confession of Jesus’ resurrection and imminent “return as conquering Messiah” (122). The patriarchal imagery of dominion was simply delayed until the Parousia. The second step was institutionalization. The charismatic and prophetic Christologies, which carried on the true spirit of Jesus, proved unstable and so were replaced by the succession of bishops (124). The third and final step was imperialism. In the 4th century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and so Christology reverted back to the ideology of kingship. The male Christ-as-Logos stood at the top of a “vast hierarchy of being” that perpetuated a male domination over women (125). Such was the context of the Christology that became orthodox at Nicea and Chalcedon, which in turn limited ordination to males because only they could properly represent Christ (126).
Before turning to her own feminist Christology, Ruether discusses two alternative Christologies: androgynous Christologies and spirit Christologies. “Androgynous Christologies see Christ as the representative of the new humanity that unifies male and female” (127). Gnostic Christologies spoke of Adam as originally androgynous, who was then split into male and female. Redeemed humanity in Christ is once again androgynous. Medieval mystics and modern romantics also have similar Christologies (128-29). The implicit dualism in these Christologies continues to subordinate femininity (130). The distinction between male and female is only overcome in an otherworldly economy of redemption, and so patriarchy is perpetuated.
The second alternative is found in spirit Christologies. Early Christian prophetism is its archetype (130). These Christologies see “Christ as a power that continues to be revealed in persons, both male and female, in the present” (131). Movements that speak of a “third age” of the Spirit usually share this Christology, with representatives such as Joachim of Fiore, the Shakers, and Mary Baker Eddy (132-33). Modern radicals often follow this pattern when speaking of an Age of Reason or of the Goddess (134).
Since spirit Christologies dislodge Christ from a past paradigmatic moment, Ruether affirms their basic shape. However, they leave Christology untidy, for they do not draw a tight connection between this ongoing Spirit and Jesus (135). To fix this problem, Ruether turns to the synoptic Gospels, which, when stripped of Messianic and Logos mythology, characterize Jesus as a critic of “religious and social hierarchy” (135). The Abba of Jesus is non-patriarchal, and therefore liberates women from male domination (136). The object of Christ’s representation is the lowly and oppressed. Therefore, his maleness is incidental and insignificant (137). His spirit lives on in those who continue his liberating activity. “Christ” is the liberating person, wherever and whenever she or he is found (138). The referent of Christology is therefore not limited to the historical Jesus. The question “Can a Male Savior Save Women?” is rendered moot because the term “savior” does not necessarily refer to the historical male Jesus. He is only one instance of the redeeming and redeemed humanity that “goes ahead of us, calling us to yet incompleted dimensions of human liberation” (138).
I commend Ruether for her extensive critique of the ideological use of Jesus’ masculinity. Theology has far too long used the maleness of Jesus to perpetuate oppressive social arrangements between men and women. Her criticism of androgynous Christologies was especially insightful, for she points out that they continue to subordinate women in theory and in practice. These practical abuses of Christology must be stopped, and Ruether’s identification of their root cause will help to raise awareness.
Ruether’s constructive reflection on Jesus’ liberating activity is also helpful. Too often the themes of liberation in Jesus’ life are repressed. An untrained reader of the synoptic Gospels would certainly encounter a socially liberating message, and be surprised at the absence of these themes in traditional Christian theology. If the Jesus found in the Gospels is the starting point for ethics, then we would be hard pressed to advocate male dominance over women. The same would go for any Christology that aims to correspond to the Jesus of the Gospels.
Finally, Ruether’s acute critical perspective allows her to ask the right theological questions. Since any respectable re-constructive theology must pose questions to received tradition, the value of her work can be judged in part by the insightfulness of her questions. The following questions confirm her insight into the problem she faces:
Where does this leave the quest for a feminist Christology? Must we not say that they very limitations of Christ as a male person must lead women to the conclusion that he cannot represent redemptive personhood for them? That they must emancipate themselves from Jesus as redeemer and seek a new redemptive disclosure of God and of human possibility in female form? (135)
Unfortunately, Ruether does not sufficiently answer her own question. She ultimately sidesteps the whole issue of Jesus’ maleness by displacing him from the center of Christological reflection. For Ruether, Jesus is not the sole bearer of Christological predicates. Christology is not talk about Jesus and what he did for us, but rather what we can do for each other. A male savior ultimately does not save women, but men and women are in the process of saving one another from oppression.
One could regard such logic as a moral influence atonement theory. However, it is questionable whether Jesus plays any necessary role in the salvation of others. It seems that redeemed humanity could exist without knowledge of or participation in Jesus Christ. “Christ” is the universal principle of liberation, of which Jesus is merely a particular instance. Such a move renders incoherent Christian confession of Jesus as Christ. Furthermore, it subordinates confession to a supposed universal justification. What makes Christianity “Christian” is not its relationship to Jesus but its consistency with the liberating Christ-principle.
This weakness carries with it further problems. Ruether’s revision may rid Christology of sexist ideology, but trades it in for a different form of ideology. Since his saving potential rests in his iconoclast behavior, Jesus invariably “takes sides” with the oppressed. No redemption is offered to the oppressors. They are the judged sinners, while the oppressed are the vindicated righteous. He is not a representative of the whole of sinful humanity, but only of liberated humanity (137). Ruether’s Christ does not destroy the hierarchy, but reverses it. The Pharisees who kept women out are now on the outside. Would it not be better to confess with Leslie Newbigin that “Jesus is not for one against the other. He is against all for the sake of all” (56)?
Finally, it is worth noting that Ruether disposes entirely of classical Christology on the basis of its practical abuses. Would not a better solution be the proper use of classical two-natures Christology? Traditional Christology identified in scripture a dialectical interplay between Christ’s humanity and divinity. Therefore, in light of feminist criticism we would be justified in associating Jesus’ maleness with his human nature. Furthermore, kingly themes in the Gospel need not be eradicated, but dialectically related to servant themes. Finally, Ruether completely ignores the cross, I suspect on the basis of the abusive role it has played for women. Yet, once again, the solution should be proper use rather than disuse.
III. Steps to a Solution
In the course of her justified criticism of the patriarchy of orthodox Christology, Ruether may have missed a potential solution to the problem. The classical theologians faced a problem very different in content but strikingly similar in form. They were asking, “How can a Jewish savior save Gentiles?” This question runs right through all the New Testament documents and persists throughout early Christian theology. One could contend that the turn to the Logos concept was a way of relating Jesus’ Jewish particularity to his universal appeal to the Gentiles. The same logic could be applied to Ruether’s question. Jesus’ humanity does not separate him from anyone because he is also divine.
I believe this is a better solution to the problem because it does not require a massive revision of the received tradition, nor is it forced into trading one ideology for another. This way we can confess that Jesus Christ is the savior of all: Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, Slave and Free (Gal. 3:28).
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.
Newbigin, Leslie. The Open Secret. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.