“And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” ~St. Irenaeus, 180 AD
Beth Allison Barr believes that women’s hands are tied—bound by an age-old patriarchy that fears women at their best and freest, a patriarchy that has woven its way into church history, morphing as circumstances required, attaching itself to certain doctrines, various Bible verses, and even particular economic arrangements. In Barr’s eyes, this systemic parasite external to Christianity has been gumming up the works in the relationship between the sexes for millenia, subjugating women and enlisting the Bible for its justification.
In her popular and controversial book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, Barr, a medieval historian at Baylor University, shares her personal story of sexist (and even abusive) mistreatment in Southern Baptist contexts, a narrative that is becoming appallingly familiar. But the bulk of her book is a fascinating survey of medieval women’s ministries, and a series of hermeneutical and historical arguments intended to show (1) that patriarchy isn’t God-ordained but is a sinful human invention, (2) that Jesus, Paul, and the early church were egalitarian, (3) that pre-Reformation Christian women long enjoyed the freedom to preach, teach, and lead, and (4) that submissive “biblical womanhood” and male headship in the family, church, and society aren’t rooted in the Bible or in a pre-Fall creation but come from a variety of historical contingencies. Barr’s book not only critiques complementarianism (of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood variety) but also makes an evangelical case for women’s ordination.
Whether or not Barr is convincing is for each reader to decide. Personally, I was moved by how many women in my life resonated with Barr’s book, and could identify with her personal experiences of being overlooked, disrespected, and mistreated solely because of her sex and with explicit justification drawn from a “plain reading” of the Bible. Regardless of what you think of Barr’s ideas and arguments, her story deserves a hearing.
I want to investigate an idea that lay dormant within Barr’s book, a thread she touched on in passing in her section on medieval women but never really tugged: the lofty symbolism of the Virgin Mary and of the celibate monastic life, and the fact that both of these were repudiated by the Reformers.
To what degree did “Our Lady Undoer of Knots” provide a space for women to be something more than merely Adam’s helper? I’m curious what knots remained stubbornly tied when Protestants gave Mary and monasticism the slip and proceeded along spiritual paths without them. I’m learning that the historical oddity isn’t the supposed “introduction” of Mary into what was otherwise a religion with a “masculine feel” to it (in John Piper’s words). The historical oddity is that Mary went missing. Her disappearance is intimately related to evangelical assumptions about women today.
There’s Something about Mary …
While all branches of the church believe that Jesus Christ is God made man, the patristics and medievals (along with Catholics and Orthodox today) viewed Mary as the one human who was most fully like God. She was thought to be the holiest of all God’s creatures, a singular picture of the collective church that is the Bride and body of Christ. In the Paradiso when Dante enters heaven, he is bid to “Look now at the face that most resembles Christ, for its brightness alone can enable you to see Christ.” Mary was the mirror of Christ’s face, the person who most fully reflected his glory: every glance at her would immediately become a vision of him.
The patristics and medievals saw Mary’s feminine significance woven throughout the Old Testament because they were adept at allegorical interpretation. They knew that femininity embodies sacred space: the womb, the throne, the temple, the Holy of Holies, the ark, the garden of paradise, the top of the mountain, the burning bush, the very sanctuary in which the priest stands. She contained within her womb he whom the heavens themselves could not contain (St. Augustine). The incarnation would have been impossible without the Mother of God, for Christ was flesh of her flesh.
Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov argued that Protestantism’s complete rejection of the veneration of Mary led to the “impoverishment and withering of Christian piety,” noting,
[W]hat a profound and many-sided change would arise in our whole religious life if we were to remove from it all those thoughts, feelings, experiences and dispositions that are linked with our reverence for the Mother of God. … Protestantism is separated from the Church… by its lack of spiritual sensitivity for the Mother of God. How such spiritual insensitivity arose and became possible in the Christian world is a puzzle and a mystery of Protestantism.
While The Making of Biblical Womanhood contains clues to help us solve that mystery, Barr is more focused on the lived experiences of medieval and Reformation-era women than on the theology that permeated their lives. Barr illustrates the creative public impact of many medieval Catholic women, but she presents them to us as individual examples that the church of the time either tolerated or praised. She doesn’t delve into the spiritual sensitivity toward the Virgin Mary that provided the fertile soil from which these bold and beautiful flowers of female Christian ministry sprang. The Virgin’s iconic presence in Christian minds and on church walls allowed women to resonate on the same frequency as Mary, especially those who likewise took up celibacy after the pattern of her perpetual virginity (she was viewed as a sexually active wife only after the Reformation). Women could occupy as lesser lights that holy space afforded by universal piety toward a woman whose place in the heavenly hierarchy far surpassed that of every man on earth (including the Pope), for she was known as “Queen of the Apostles.”
In her book, Barr describes the role of the 12th-century Benedictine nun and mystical theologian Hildegard von Bingen, but she doesn’t quote for us the kind of music Hildegard was writing. Hildegard’s holy audacity to both preach publicly and rebuke prominent male leaders didn’t come from some nascent feminism (which is the impression I got from Barr), but sprang from her contemplation of Mary, as in her song below:
Hail Mary, O authoress of life,
rebuilding up salvation’s health,
for death you have disturbed,
that serpent crushed
to whom Eve raised herself,
her neck outstretched with puffed-up pride.
That serpent’s head you ground to dust
when heaven’s Son of God you bore,
on whom has breathed God’s Spirit.
Feminine boldness can look like Eve sidestepping her husband, ignoring God, hosting the serpent, and reaching for the forbidden fruit. But feminine boldness has another form—that of Mary grinding the serpent’s head into the dust through her humble consent to host God in her womb. Eve’s “no” to God was repaired by Mary’s “yes.” Adam’s flesh became Eve, and they fell into sin and death; the flesh of the “second Eve” (Mary) became the “last Adam” (Jesus), and humanity was restored to life and holiness. This chiastic structure crumbles if Mary is neglected, and all of that rich incarnational theology and mutuality between the sexes is lost to our eyes. When Mary’s role in the history of salvation was downplayed by the Reformers, Eve became untethered from her redemptive counterpart, and the feminine typology of Scripture was left dangling, incomplete, and ruined.
A Metaphor Is an Organ of Perception
After centuries of medieval reverence, the theology and iconography that Mary inspired was rejected as offensive to Protestant piety. I admit that I’m deeply disturbed by Mary’s obsolescence in my tradition, especially since I do not see an equal (or even remotely adequate) replacement for her. I don’t think most evangelicals consciously notice her absence. They don’t see the hole where she used to be; there’s just a blind spot. But many evangelicals do have a sense that what conservative complementarians call “biblical womanhood” is somehow stunted, reduced, and rigid, inadequate to the complexity and depth of what Woman is. Mary is still there, like a phantom limb.
Neil Postman wrote, “A metaphor is not an ornament. It is an organ of perception. Through metaphors, we see the world as one thing or another.” Symbols afford us depth perception, and the converse is true as well: to lose touch with a meaningful metaphor or richly textured symbol is to lose an eye. The iconoclastic Reformers thought of Mary as the worst kind of ornament—an idol—and so they did not realize that in their zeal for the second commandment, they gouged out an eye. This is the crucial loss that Barr’s book doesn’t adequately address.
When the highest feminine symbol within church history was rejected as an idol, a primary example of women’s palpable and indisputable dignity disappeared too, along with the cultural-imaginal space in which feminine greatness wasn’t an oxymoron, but a given. After the Reformation, a woman could be her husband’s helper like a Martha in the kitchen (that was Luther’s preference) or even Martha’s sister at Christ’s feet, but she couldn’t be like the Holy Queen in heaven, the “Throne of Wisdom” where Christ reigned. While we modern evangelicals have inherited centuries of forgetfulness of Mary, those initial Reformers didn’t have a blindspot: they saw Mary and then they carved her out on purpose.
“Plain Reading” versus Mira Profunditas
Traditions about Mary’s life, the ability to see her as one of the many layers of meaning in Old Testament texts, and the liturgical and devotional veneration the Church had long shown her, disappeared among Protestants in part because of a change in the way they approached the Scriptures and church tradition. Protestants embraced Sola Scriptura at the same time that they began to reject the Pauline, patristic, and medieval practice of reading Scripture allegorically. There began to be a deeply rooted hermeneutic of suspicion in Protestantism (which the Reformation shared in common with the Enlightenment); the Reformers began to look askance at allegory and symbolism as something arbitrary and false, a form of make-believe. They pulled away from the earlier assumptions that Scripture contained “an infinite forest of meanings” (Henri de Lubac), and believed instead that Scripture has only one meaning (and a plain one at that). The Bible should be read by everyone, and accessible to everyone: therefore its meaning must be simple, singular, obvious, and clear. Assumptions like these, while heartily democratic, lack the sensitivity and intuitive awareness that can pick up on that subtle feminine thread woven throughout the Scriptures.
And so Mary was reduced to “just a girl.”
An exaggerated solus Christus [Christ alone] compelled its adherents to reject any cooperation of the creature, any independent significance of its response, as a betrayal of the greatness of grace. Consequently, there could be nothing meaningful in the feminine line of the Bible stretching from Eve to Mary. Patristic and medieval reflections on that line were, with implacable logic, branded as a recrudescence of paganism, as treason against the uniqueness of the Redeemer. Today’s radical feminisms have to be understood as the long-repressed explosion of indignation against this sort of one-sided reading of Scripture [emphasis added].
I share Barr’s indignation at those in the complementarian camp who claim “inerrancy” and a “plain reading” to justify an interpretation of the Scriptures that locates male headship and female submission in the Pauline epistles while simultaneously being blind to “the feminine line of the Bible stretching from Eve to Mary.” By all means, let’s figure this out together based on the Bible, but not on myopic, dissected bits of it. Whether you deal with the Bible in its parts or as a whole (as an illuminated library in conversation with itself) makes all the difference.
Barr takes what is today a contentious passage, 1 Timothy 2:15 (“Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control”) and compares a medieval allegorical sermon on this text with a 17th-century Protestant “plain reading” sermon. “The medieval sermon author uses Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:15 to encourage all Christians to face the pain of repentance and penance so that they might be re-born into the joy of salvation,” Barr writes. This approach honors the dignity of the feminine by showing how this “birthing” is analogously true for all believers. The Protestant sermon, however, applied this passage strictly to women and their domestic and parental duties, comparing them to snails with their homes always on their backs. The Protestant preacher “uses Paul’s words as evidence for the divinely ordained subjection of women and their divinely ordained calling as—if I may use a modern term—homemakers,” Barr writes.
The Reformers’ efforts to democratize access to Scripture by emphasizing its perspicuity had the unfortunate effect of tying women’s hands to the “obviousness” of the simple and plain meaning in front of them while simultaneously obscuring the symbolic feminine that permeates the Bible. While modern-day complementarianism’s defenders argue over exactly what Paul meant in 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, and Ephesians 5, I believe we should take our cues from the medievals and try to re-introduce allegory and symbolism into the evangelical mind.
“The appeal of the way of allegory,” writes theologian Andrew Louth, “the realization of the multiple senses of Scripture—comes from this recognition of the mira profunditas [wonderful depth] of the Sacred Scriptures.” While we argue over slivers of Paul, we’re missing out on those wonderful depths that could help us adjudicate the meaning of these thorny passages. As long as the theological skirmishes remain at the level of chapter and verse—attempting to extract the objective meaning from the text using “the perfect tool” of historical-critical exegesis, and never rising to encompass the overarching patterns and living symbols of the Scriptures with their internal coherence and correlation—then no matter which side wins—the complementarians or the egalitarians—we’re still half blind; we’re still missing an eye. And Mary isn’t the only symbol we’ve lost.
Part 2 of this article will explore what happened to the faith when Protestants “lost their virginity” by repudiating monasticism, and how the trade-offs the Reformers made have led to conflict and confusion over women in the evangelical church.
To be continued…