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Eschatological “Angeloid”: Sarah Coakley, Gregory of Nyssa, and On the Making of Man, Pt. 2

In this series, we are going to examine St. Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of gender in his work, On the Making of Man, and how the Anglican theologian, Sarah Coakley, is seeking to utilize his theology for her own project. If one were to follow Coakley’s engagement with Gregory, reading her academic articles and not just her books, they would see that her views of him have shifted and evolved over time. In all of her works on the subject, however, Coakley would have us see that Gregory has provided us with an innovative eschatological view of gender. To put it in a simple paraphrase, she interprets Gregory as having said, “Whenever the fullness of the Kingdom finally comes, and humanity is finally perfected, there will no longer be any gender differentiation between males and females.” In such a state, we will be like the angels; “angeloid” being the word she likes to use in describing this perfected anthropology. This future angeloid state should, then, have radical implications for how we view gender in the present, since it is transitory. It would especially impact discussions around notions of male headship and female subordination to that headship. While I have a lot of admiration for Coakley and her theological creativity, I am going to push back on some of her conclusions. This series is not a wholesale dismissal of her project, though. I think she has put her finger on something rather important in Gregory’s thought, and I want to help to tease it out all the more, contributing some of my own thoughts to the discussion.

The first article in the series can be found here.

Gender in On the Making of Man:

We have already seen that, for Gregory, the gender binary of male and female is not a component of the image of God because in God there is no such thing as male or female. We have also seen that gender is bound up with the very being of the human person, revealing the human person’s connection to the created order, and that sexual reproduction is a certain means of grace whereby humanity can reproduce, despite the fall, in accordance with God’s will for the human race. In order to reach the telos of the image of God, humankind needs a means of reproducing in order to press ever forward towards that telos. Thus, this means that gender is not merely a preemptive measure taken by God before the creation of humankind; he didn’t simply instill gender in us with the foreknowledge of an inevitable fall. Rather, gender was necessary for procreation, whereby the full number of humankind might be fulfilled. This means that gender is not wholly painted in a negative light, as if it were merely a Plan B to God’s original Plan A.

We have also observed and reiterated that in spite of much modern scholarship, Gregory is not promoting the notion of a “double creation” in regards to the human race. We were not created “humanoid” in an angelic state first and then gendered later on. Even though gender and the image of God remain distinct in Gregory’s mind, one did not preface the other historically (only literarily in the Genesis creation narrative). This is highly significant because those who believe that Gregory taught that humankind was genderless before the fall will likely misunderstand the themes of gender and salvation in his work. While it would make sense to view Gregory’s soteriology as a return to a genderless angelic state if we were created in that state to begin with, it doesn’t quite work this way because we have been male and female all along, according to On the Making of Man. So, there will not be a return to the angelic state if we did not exist originally in that state to begin with.        

While we can rule out the double creation theory and a return to a genderless angelic state in what Gregory has given us, several possible inferences do emerge from the work. Before we dive in, though, it would be good to remind ourselves of what Gregory is not speculating about; the things that he views as the “dogma” of Holy Scriptures. Again, in 16:9 we read about these things:

a.) Two natures exist in the cosmos, the “divine and incorporeal nature” and the “irrational life of brutes.” Humanity is a sort of medium between these two cosmic extremes, containing elements of them both. There is no double creation in Gregory, as if the rational came first and then, only later, the irrational. Rather, we find that the rational and irrational elements are two sides of the same coin.

b.) The “divine, rational and intelligent element…does not admit the distinction of male and female” because, as Saint Paul tells us, “there is no male or female.” Thus, the image of God is genderless because God is genderless.

c.)  Our “irrational” element reveals our “kindred with the irrational,” and is something that God commingles with the divine image in us.

d.) Lastly, consider the last line in Gregory’s understanding of Scriptural dogma: “he (God) adds the peculiar attributes of human nature, ‘male and female.” Thus, while the rest of the living cosmic order is commanded by God to reproduce (The “Be fruitful and multiply…” injunctions), it is only said of human beings in Genesis that God has created them as male and female.

With Gregory’s Scripture-derived dogma laid out as a foundation for us, we can now safely explore certain inferences that can be gleaned from Gregory’s theology. It is important to note before we begin, however, that he is not addressing modern feminist issues, no matter how many feminist theologians may want him to do so. He lived in a different time, and the modern conception of “equality” clearly was not a concern for him. However, Gregory’s work leaves some considerable space for a theology of gender to be reconsidered. Before delving into the thought of Sarah Coakley and how she seeks to utilize Gregory’s theology, I want to succinctly walk through the implications of Gregory’s eschatology of gender. 

1.) Even though there can be no return to an angelic mode of existence (given that we weren’t created in such a state to begin with) perhaps we are progressing towards such a state. Gregory hints at this in On the Making of Man and even says it outright in On Virginity.Thus, it seems that in Gregory we are not just learning about a soteriology that orients us back to the original state of things, but one which points us towards something new. Salvation in Gregory is not merely a return to a lost beginning, but it is the acquisition of and ascension towards a telos that has yet to be attained. May we recall what Gregory says about the image of God; that it is the genderless aspect of our being. Thus, the pursuit of the image of God is in a very real way the pursuit of the transcendence of gender. Now, we cannot be certain as to what this transcendence might look like, other than the fact that we will somehow “be like the angels.” There are two ways we could interpret Gregory’s interpretation of Jesus (see Matthew 22:30) here: either we will be like the angels because we will no longer marry, or we will no longer marry because we will be like the angels. The question is about which causes the other? Will people no longer marry because they have been made genderless like the angels? Or, will people be like the angels because they will no longer marry? Is there a change in bodily composition or a change in how our bodily compositions are lived into? In the one case, this means that we will become “angeloid” and genderless, losing all gender differentiation. In the other case, we will enter into some kind of angelic state, relating to one another in angelic ways, but maintaining our genders all the while. In this state, gender would not be discarded, but the relationship between the sexes would be transformed. We will all deal with each other in accordance with the image of God, not in accordance with gender distinction.

Regardless of which side our opinions land on, Gregory would have us see that gender relations are going to look quite different in the Kingdom come. 

2.) Furthermore, it is important to point out that Gregory says nothing of female subordination in On the Making of Man. In this work, gender does not reflect some sort of natural or heavenly hierarchy. The only subordination that we see is the necessity of the human person to submit the irrational-animalistic element to the power of the divine image. Yet, we don’t see the same sort of reflections in Gregory as we might see in Saint Paul or other Church Fathers, for example, where the female is meant to subordinate herself to the male because of a Trinitarian2, natural, or ecclesiastical hierarchy. Gregory mentions nothing about the male being the head of the female, or anything pertaining to the need for the female to submit to the male.3 Certainly, we cannot deny that Gregory would’ve been familiar with Paul’s epistles and each verse that speaks about the relationship between men and women and husbands and wives. Yet, these sorts of themes do not come up in Gregory at all, which is somewhat surprising given the fact that he spent so much time laying out the proper order of the universe within the first section of his work.4 While themes of subordinationism may have been in the back of his mind, they were never included in his reflections. This fact is not without some significance. What he says in the work and, more importantly, what he opts not to say, is telling.

3.) In this same vein comes my final reflection: males and females are both made after the image of God in Gregory’s teaching. We must note the potential impact of this: that females can bear the image of God just as much as men can. There is no hint (as Augustine is sometimes interpreted as saying5) that males have received the totality of, or even a greater portion of, the image of God. Needless to say, this has huge implications for what we commonly call “women’s equality” and even things like women’s ordination to the priesthood. Gregory won’t allow us to say that males have something that females don’t, or that males have more of a share in the divine than their female counterparts.

If we were to approach the topic of women’s ordination, for example, through the lens that Gregory has provided, one could not say that the male is the more accurate representation of God since the image of God is essentially genderless. The way that Gregory uses Galatians 3:28 is informative. The point of Christ’s personhood is not his maleness, but that he is a person through which the mysterious genderless image of God has been revealed, and a person through which the genders find their unity. Even though he has a gender, Christ incorporates both into himself. Thus, to argue that only men can be priests because Jesus was a male would really miss the comprehensiveness of Gregory’s Christology.

Furthermore, another implication is that, as humankind strives after eschatological fullness, it would simultaneously be striving towards a reality whereby gender is somehow transcended (whether physically or relationally). Thus, women’s ordination would not be a deviation from tradition. It would be the eschatological realization of one aspect of it, and it would signify that males and females are learning to relate to one another not in accordance with what distinguishes them (the irrational element) but, rather, in accordance with what unites them (the genderless image of God).  

As I mentioned before, it would be mistaken to promote Gregory as a sort of early feminist in the way that we think of the term today, but it would also be mistaken to say that Gregory’s views couldn’t be game changers for many of the debates raging around gender and sexuality today. So, people like Sarah Coakley are right to perceive a unique perspective in Gregory, and one that can be utilized to take our conversations in a new direction. With all of this foundation laid, we will turn our attention to Sarah Coakley in the next and final article. Hopefully, this foundation will provide the means for a much-needed critique of her work, but also an opportunity to appreciate other ways in which Coakley brings Gregory’s theology out into contemporary conversations.

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TJ Humphrey

TJ Humphrey

TJ is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and aspiring to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.

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