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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: The Status of Women

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

In our contemporary discourse, the subject of gender looms large, especially in discussing gender inequality, abuse, and sexuality. Unfortunately, Christianity has a storied history in its treatment of women. The Church continues to wrestle with massive issues related to its storied past, biblical interpretation, and theology on matters such as sexuality and women in ministry. As much as I wish we could solve these issues in our churches and our political sphere in this post, it is far beyond the scope of what a simple blog can do. The Church needs to continue its deep reflection on these issues and our political process needs to continue debating how to best approach gender inequality from a policy perspective. The treatment of women as beloved image-bearers of God should be a high priority for the Christian Church. What we will try to do today in this blog is to listen to a few comments from Augustine about women to frame further conversations in the Church and politics.

Early Christianity bloomed in a rigidly patriarchal society and afforded unprecedented dignity to women, affirming them as equal image-bearers in a world that saw them as inferior to men. When women were not considered valid witnesses in court, Jesus presented Himself to women as the first witnesses of the Resurrection. However, there are also passages in the New Testament about women submitting to their husbands, passages that rub us the wrong way today [1]. The Church has struggled over the millennia with how to interpret these passages, the affirmations of women, and passages that seem to assert the inferiority of women. Again, we will not be able to solve these interpretative challenges here. I bring them up because, as we listen to Augustine, we might not be completely satisfied with some of his interpretations, but we also need to recognize he is, at the same time, more affirming of women than much of his culture and even other church leaders of his day.

Throughout his life as a bishop, Augustine had to engage in several theological controversies related to the nature of creation and, in particular, human nature. In addressing these, he turned regularly to the opening chapters of Genesis and thought deeply about them [2]. Our passages for today come from his work, On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis. Augustine argues that God’s creation of humanity as “male and female” [3] is “according to the body” [4]. The distinction between male and female is not a distinction in nature, soul, mind, or value. For Augustine, male and female is a distinction between two kinds of bodies. This is important because Augustine will attribute the image of God in which humanity was created [5], to the mind, specifically the “part of the mind which clings to contemplating unchanging truth” [6].

Now, on these two points, scholarship has raised serious questions for Augustine’s interpretation. First of all, male and female are not seen as simply biological distinctions, but also different experiences of the world and ways of being, far more encompassing than what Augustine argues. Second, most biblical scholars reject Augustine’s assertion that the image of God refers to the mind and its ability to recognize the divine. Research of the Ancient Near East shows the “image of God” was common parlance for regal status, for kings [7]. Yet while Augustine’s interpretation is questionable, he is attempting something specific. By regulating gender distinction to the body and the image of God to the mind, he is making the case that men and women image God equally. “A woman…is also renewed in the spirit of her own mind in the recognition of God according to the image of the Creator, wherein there is no male or female. As women are not separated from this grace of renewal and this reformation of the image of God….so in the original condition of humanity, since the woman was a human being also, she certainly had her own mind, and a rational mind, according to which she, too, was made in the image of God” [8]. If we deepen our interpretation of Genesis 1 to recognize that gender includes more than just the body and that the image refers to status, we also deepen Augustine’s affirmation. Men and women are equally able to know and experience God, but also representing the heavenly King of all in how they manage creation together.

Augustine then asks what it means when God calls the first woman a “helper” for the man [9]. In our culture, the word “helper” may sound negative, implying some form of servitude or inferiority. However, in the original Hebrew, the word translated helper, “ezer”, is most often used to describe God as the helper, and deliverer, of his people [10]. Augustine wonders what this “help” is and why it requires a difference. If it refers to help tilling the earth [11], why not simply create another man? If it refers to companionship, again, why not another man? Augustine highlights the one activity which requires both male and female, with all their distinctions, to accomplish: procreation. A man and woman, together, as biologically difference, are necessary and equally essential in the process of procreation (though we cannot say both bears the same physical toll!) [12]. Now, I am not sure if Augustine intends to say something along the lines of, “Bearing children is all a woman is good for.” I certainly hope that is not what he is saying! In this argument, Augustine highlights an area where women are not simply a support, a secondary helper, but essential without whom the human race could not continue. If we extend that, as we did earlier, to the image of God as all-encompassing, we need to say that women as image-bearers are essential, without whom the task of representing God to the creation and stewarding it on His behalf could not happen. Men and women have vital roles to play in the calling God has placed on humanity and we could not do it without each other.

In our brief reflection, we have seen that Augustine, drawing on the biblical text, provides the seed for a high view of women as equals and as essential in the life God intended for humanity, even if it did not always bear fruit in his own thought. When we delve into the biblical text, using Augustine’s logic and the best biblical research of our own day, we learn that this vision is far grander and all-encompassing than Augustine dreamed. Christian men and women have a framework for seeing women’s issues as issues of justice, as an imperative to bestow on women the same dignity and value God Himself does. As Christians work to live just lives and create a more just society as we wait for the resurrection life in God’s new creation, the treatment of our sisters in Christ in the workplace, in society, and our churches should be an essential priority.

[1] For example, see Ephesians 5:22-24.

[2] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 250.

[3] Genesis 1:27 NRSV.

[4] Augustine, p. 251.

[5] Genesis 1:27.

[6] Augustine, p. 251.

[7] T. Desmond Alexander, From Paradise to the Promised Land. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, pp. 125-126.

[8] Augustine, p. 251.

[9] Ibid. p. 252.

[10] See Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:7, 26, 29; Psalm, 20:3; 33:20; 70:5; 115:9-11;121:1-2; 124:8;146:5.

[11] Genesis 2:15.

[12] Augustine, p. 252.

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