A God With Two Hands: Reflecting on Gender Equality

Stephen Waldron

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A God With Two Hands

A God With Two Hands

In a recent Christians for Biblical Equality blog post, Kevin Giles showed how people used the Bible to justify slavery in a way that is similar to the justification of gender-based hierarchy. In the 19th century United States, pro-slavery theologians made a comprehensive biblical case for the rightness of slavery.

Based on a flat reading of Scripture, in which every part of the Bible should be weighted equally, they probably had the better argument. After all, the Old Testament provided rules for the treatment of slaves, Jesus never said anything about abolishing slavery, and Paul went so far as to tell slaves to obey their masters.

Jesus and the Interpretation of Scripture

If we view that approach as unacceptable, we might ask if there is a better way to interpret the Bible. One popular option is to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. After all, Paul calls Jesus “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). What better way to know what God is really like than to read the Bible in light of the life and teachings of Jesus? Christians ranging from 16th century Anabaptists to Dietrich Bonhoeffer have used this perspective successfully.

But that isn’t quite good enough. For one thing, the Old Testament contains only clues as to who Jesus is, not direct descriptions of the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. For another thing, there are different characteristics of Jesus in different parts of the New Testament. Is Jesus the meek teacher of the Sermon on the Mount or the warrior lamb of Revelation? If there is a way of balancing our interpretation of the Bible more comprehensively than only focusing on Jesus, we should use it as well.

Irenaeus and the Two Hands of God

Fortunately, such an approach can be found in the writings of the 2nd century bishop Irenaeus of Lyons. In his book Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes that God uses Son and Spirit, or Word and Wisdom, as two hands. According to Irenaeus, the Bible records that God’s works in the world are done using these hands. Together, they created the universe and they have gathered the divided people of the world and reconciled them to God.

When we read the Bible, we see both of these hands at work throughout the story. This helps us to interpret the Bible on questions such as slavery that seem difficult on a flat reading.

So the Spirit is the one who delivered the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The prophets promised that the same Spirit would gather the exiles of God’s people and return them to their land.

And Jesus began his ministry with a proclamation of freedom for captives since the Spirit of the Lord was upon him (Luke 4:18). Later, Paul said that Christ has set us free for freedom, which is a reason not to allow anyone to enslave a Christian again (Galatians 5:1). Despite the arguments used by pro-slavery theologians, the work of the Son and Spirit in the Bible repeatedly involves freeing people from slavery.

Women and the Spirit

In Genesis 1, we see the work of the Son and Spirit in creating male and female as good, and this pattern of divine blessing on both men and women continues. It was the Spirit who sent prophets to the people of Israel. Miriam was sent to lead God’s people after their redemption out of Egypt (Micah 6:4). Huldah was sent to prophesy and lead the people of Judah to repentance and renewal of the covenant (2 Chronicles 34:22-28). And the prophetess Deborah was empowered to deliver the tribes of Israel from their oppressors (Judges 4&5).

The prophet Joel predicted that both sons and daughters would prophesy when the Lord’s Spirit was poured out. When this was fulfilled at the Feast of Pentecost, both male and female disciples were there together prophesying (Acts 1:14, 2:1).

This wasn’t the first time that Mary the mother of Jesus was filled with the Spirit, though. Long before John the Baptist predicted that Jesus would baptize people in the Holy Spirit and fire, that same Spirit baptized Mary and favored her to be the mother of the creating and redeeming Son (Luke 1:35). That same Spirit filled her cousin Elizabeth when she heard Mary’s voice (Luke 1:39-45).

Throughout the New Testament, the Spirit is constantly present and active, and there is no sign that the Spirit holds to a complementarian view of the role of women. Instead, we consistently see that the Spirit was given to all and to each for the building up of the church (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:7).

Women and the Son

If there is anything peculiar about Jesus and women, it is how much contact he has with women as compared with men. This was true to the point that Jesus did not even have an earthly father. Before his birth, it was the women, Mary and Elizabeth, who played heroic roles in the story, favored to be directly involved in the arrival of the Son.

During his ministry, Jesus continued to have an uncommonly high regard for women. He commended the faith of a Canaanite woman and healed her demon-possessed daughter, while pointing out just how unconventional this was (Matthew 15:21-28). He sent a Samaritan woman of uncertain moral character to proclaim his Gospel to her village (John 4:1-42). And he told Mary of Bethany that she should pursue education as his disciple rather than working in the kitchen (Luke 10:38-42). This would still be a scandal in many cultures that expect women to care for domestic tasks and not to concern themselves with impractical ideas.

And we might hear, as I recently did, that the disciples all abandoned Jesus as he died on the cross. But it was women (along with one male disciple) who stood beneath the cross and wept (Matthew 26:55&6). And it was women who were courageous enough to visit his tomb and anoint his body with spices, just as a woman had during his lifetime (Mark 16:1-2). For this, they were given the privilege of being the first to proclaim his resurrection to cowering and unbelieving men (Mark 16:9).

Conclusion

When we read the Bible through the lens of the works of the Son and the Spirit, we see that God has favored women at key points in the stories of creation, redemption, and renewal. In the actions of Spirit and Son, we see that the God described by the Bible consistently works through what Carolyn Custis James calls a “blessed alliance” of women and men.

Just as the Spirit and the Son cooperate to accomplish the works of God, so the purposes of God for human beings are carried out by equal partners according to circumstance and gifting. But when the Spirit and the Son carry out mighty and dramatic acts, it is safe to bet that women will be in the middle of the action.

That is the recurring story of biblical womanhood and manhood.

Stephen Waldron

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7 Comments

  • The metaphor of two hands almost seems to lend itself to a kind of dualism that would detract from the true nature of the Spirit and son as indivisible members of the Trinity with the Father. Does Irenaeus deal with the inseparable nature of the Godhead as well?

    • Thanks for the question, Tim. Irenaeus also makes a big deal of the unity of God the creator, because he was arguing against gnostic teachers who believed that the material world was created through a lesser being (sometimes called a “demiurge”). He also argued against Marcion, who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different than the God of the New Testament.

      Irenaeus was concerned with the unity of God’s overall plan through creation, redemption, and the reconciliation of all things to God. Within that context, the “two hands” metaphor is a way of explaining how the same God is acting throughout the whole story of Scripture. Just as the one God created all things through the Son and the Spirit, so the world is being reconciled (or “recapitulated,” as Irenaeus puts it) through the Son and Spirit back to the creator.

      He doesn’t get too deeply into the sorts of Trinitarian questions that were raised at Nicaea, because he lived and wrote before those matters were more fully debated and developed, but he is part of the orthodox trajectory on those issues. Hopefully that helps.

      • This is very helpful clarification, Stephen, especially in light of the current controversy over complementarian theologians like Grudem and Ware who are advocating for ESS.

        • I hadn’t really thought of Irenaeus’ theology (or that of other anti-Gnostic Christian teachers) in that context before. It is interesting that one of their main points is that it is actually God who, as Son and Spirit, interacts with the world in creation and redemption. The heresy they were opposing was the idea that only some lesser being could interact with the material world on God’s behalf.

          ESS seems to move back toward that Gnostic idea (also taught by many Platonists) that God doesn’t really fully interact with the world, but sends a lesser, subservient being to do so. In other words, Jesus and the Spirit seem play a similar role in ESS theology to the demiurge of Gnostic theology. (I know that the ESS theologians don’t explicitly deny the inherent deity and Lordship of Jesus, but they are getting awfully close to doing so, which should be a sign that something has gone awry.)

  • The off-site link to Kevin Giles’s post at CBE is broken.

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