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Eschatological “Angeloid”: Sarah Coakley and Gregory of Nyssa, Pt. 1

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 male 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. 

Inspiration for the Series

Moments after the service had ended, members of the congregation filed past me one by one and family by family, greeting me and shaking my hand as they went. It was customary for the minister and elders of this particular Reformed church to walk out in procession as the members of the congregation sang the closing hymn. As a guest preacher, I stood in the back, giving people an opportunity to greet me once the service had ended. I vividly recall a conversation with one man in particular as he asked me about my sermon on John 17 and the Trinity. “I really liked your sermon,” he said.“I am sure you are familiar with Focus on the Family?” he asked. Then he said, “There was a podcast recently where the minister taught that marriage and family life is meant to mirror the Trinity, whereby the father is to be the head of the household like the heavenly Father is the head of the Trinity. Also, the spouse and the children are to subordinate themselves to the husband/father just as Jesus and the Holy Spirit subject themselves to the Father in the Trinity. What a wonderful way to recover Trinitarian theology and, you know, make it applicable!” Even though I expressed my concern that ideas of subordinationism can easily skew a proper historical and orthodox understanding of the Trinity, he wasn’t convinced . The message that he had heard through the podcast affirmed his own values and agendas, and he wasn’t concerned with looking into the development of Trinitarian theology. Rather, he sought to choose bits and pieces of a dogma to undergird his preexisting worldview. This encounter inspired this article.

In this series, I want to explore the work of Sarah Coakley and determine whether she is using St. Gregory of Nyssa’s work properly, especially in her interpretation of On the Making of Man. I agree with her that there is a real need to creatively reconsider the role of women in the church and in society today. Furthermore, there is a need to critically engage those who are using the theology of the Church Fathers to support their own agendas, whether they be “conservative” or “liberal” appropriations. What I appreciate about Sarah Coakley is that she truly lends a fresh voice to a debate that has more or less stagnated. She is moving the conversation forward from within an orthodox Christian perspective. Yet, the question needs to be asked as to how well she is actually appropriating patristic theology. Is she beginning with patristic theology and then coming to her egalitarian conclusions? Or, is she beginning with a feminist agenda and reading the Church Fathers through that lens, skewing what the Fathers are actually saying?

Coakley claims that Gregory’s wider corpus (and this work particularly) urges the reader towards notions of gender equality. She would have us see that the seeds for modern notions of egalitarianism are already latent in Gregory’s work. But as we will see through this series of posts, there are aspects of Gregory that Coakley doesn’t read as closely or carefully as she should. There are significant aspects of Gregory’s work that she misinterprets, unfortunately, from the very the get-go. Yet, whenever it comes to the big picture that Gregory paints in terms of gender and its “transcendence,” she seems to pick up on some of Gregory’s inferences rather insightfully.

To lay out a succinct trajectory: in this first article, we will begin by examining Gregory, paying close attention to some of the major segments of On the Making of Man that deal with gender. Then, in the next article, we will address some of the ways in which Gregory’s theology of gender can inform some of our modern discussions, based off of the observances that we have made in this first article. In the final article, we will set our sights on Coakley’s interpretation of Gregory’s work in order to both affirm and critique how she engages him.  

Gender and Creation in On the Making of Man

Perhaps St. Gregory’s teaching on gender can best be introduced by first examining the contents of another ancient manuscript. In 2 Clement, the author briefly touches on gender, quoting the Gospel of Thomas to make a point about the coming of the Kingdom of God. “For the Lord himself, when he was asked by someone when his Kingdom was going to come, said: ‘When the two shall be one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female, neither male nor female.”1 After taking the time to explain the first portion of the verse, the author elaborates on what the section about male and female means. “And by ‘the male with the female, neither male nor female’ he means this: that when a brother sees a sister, he should not think of her as female, nor should she think of him as male.” Here we see that gender is to be transcended in the way that we relate to one another interpersonally, but not in a way that makes gender meaningless. It is not as though males quit being males, or women females. Rather, there is a sanctifying of the relationship; a transition in how things are commonly perceived. In my opinion, we find a very similar line of thought in Gregory’s work. While not denying the intrinsic place that gender plays in the life of the human being, Gregory would have us look through it and even beyond it. While gender certainly signifies the human connection with the created order, Gregory will show us that we are to look past human sexuality towards something grander and more divine (the image of God within the person).    

Gregory’s creative excursion on gender is found near the middle of On the Making of Man, and it has puzzled many readers. Many, Coakley included, take Gregory to teach that there were two creations that brought about the formation of the human being. The notion is that God created human beings first in some sort of non-sexual and angelic state, and then infused them with gender later on. Upon closer examination, however, we will find that this is not what Gregory is getting at. There are a few passages of Gregory that have proven especially troublesome, one of them being 17:2-3 2, where Gregory seeks to answer “those who raise the question” of how humankind would have procreated had they never fallen. The assumption in the inquiry is that sexual procreation was only a result of the fall of man, and that gender is not an essential aspect of humankind since it was an addition to humankind’s original state, given solely for the means of procreating in this fallen state. After reading the work as a whole, it seems evident enough that Gregory is simply playing along, speculating an answer to an impossible scenario. But the way he responds is itself formative. Playing along, Gregory says that, had mankind never fallen, human beings would have reproduced like the angels, after the “mode” of angelic reproduction. He comes to this conclusion by reflecting on the words of Christ in Luke 20:35-36.

“When the Sadducees once argued against the doctrine of resurrection, and brought forward, to establish their own opinion, that woman of many marriages, who had been wife to seven brethren, and there-upon inquired whose wife she will be after the resurrection, our Lord answered their argument so as not only to instruct the Sadducees, but also to reveal to all that come after them the mystery of resurrection life: ‘for in the resurrection,’ he says, ‘they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, neither can they die anymore, for they are equal to the angels, and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.’ Now the resurrection promises us nothing else than the restoration of the fallen to their ancient state; for the grace we look for is a certain return to the first life, bringing back again to Paradise him who was cast out from it. If then the life of those restored is closely related to that of the angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life, and hence also our return to the ancient condition of our life is compared to the angels.3

Gregory observes that there are legions of angels, and that they couldn’t have become such a large number had they not had some form of reproduction. So, his culminating answer to the original question about how humankind would have gotten along reproductively had they not fallen is this: humankind would have reproduced just like angels.

Now, it is important to situate this whole discourse within its wider context or else misunderstanding is likely to occur. At first glance, it seems as though Gregory is capitulating to the question, and that he is teaching us that humankind was originally created like the angels, and that gender only entered the picture after the devolution of man to a fallen state. By keeping the wider context in mind, however, we will find that this is in fact not the case. Gregory here is simply responding to a speculative question with a speculative answer. He even admits the lack of clarity in his answer. “Now here again the true answer, whatever it may be, can be clear to those only who, like Paul, have been instructed in the mysteries of Paradise; but our answer is as follows.”4 To paraphrase, he is saying that “saints like Paul have this all figured out. We, on the other hand, are simply trying to take an educated guess as to how this would’ve worked.” Gregory is even uncertain as to what the angelic “mode” of reproduction actually might be, saying that it is “unspeakable and inconceivable by human conjectures, except it assuredly exists.”5 We, with Scripture and tradition in mind, understand that the scenario posed by the question is an impossible one. We may be able to speculate about the life of humankind had it not fallen, and about the angelic “mode” of procreation, but the fact remains that we have indeed fallen and that we are clueless as to how (or whether) angels multiply.

Furthermore, Gregory’s thought in the following chapters proceeds in a different direction as he moves further from speculation towards more realistic notions. Indeed, Gregory affirms that humankind was designed to be gendered and to reproduce sexually from the very beginning, which would eliminate any notion of a double creation theory. As Fr. John Behr has argued, “Gregory specifically denies that human beings ever had any means for multiplying other than through their existence as male and female…”6 In other words, we find that what humankind is now, is what humankind was always meant to be. The “animal” nature and the human means of sexual reproduction were infused within us from the very beginning and are providentially a part of God’s plan. As Behr says, “this divine act is not solely determined by the foreseen fall, but it marks the completion of God’s act of fashioning the being in whom His image is manifested.”7 Thus, gender is not simply bound up with the economy of salvation (although it is not entirely unrelated to it). Rather, the human being is meant to be both angelic and animalistic, rational and irrational. As Behr has aptly put it in the title of the article that I’ve been quoting, the human being is designed to be a “rational animal.”

Gregory’s speculation is not devoid of meaning, however. It is not just a useless tangent about angels and sex that he ruminates on in the middle of his corpus. Rather, the whole discourse causes its reader to consider more deeply the angelic/divine half of our composition. While an unfallen world is not the reality in which we live, it is useful for us to consider from what height we have fallen. Or to utilize Gregory’s terminology, we can reflect upon not only the ascension of humankind, but the human person’s declension as well. Thus, Gregory’s exercise is not a futile one. In considering what humankind could have been we are faced with the reality of what we have failed to be. The fact that we do not exist in an angelic state of perfection spurs us towards that eschatological future where such a state will be the reality. This is precisely the point that Gregory makes at the end of his whole gender section. We are to patiently anticipate the future blessed resurrected state. “Let him therefore wait for that time which is necessarily made co-extensive with the development of humanity,”8 he says.

Prior to his conjecture on primordial angelic reproductive theory, Gregory actually straightforwardly tells us in 16:9 what he considers to be the “dogma” of the Holy Scriptures in regards to the composition of the human person and in regards to gender. “…the doctrine is this. While two natures—the divine and incorporeal nature, and the irrational life of brutes—are separated from each other as extremes, human nature is the mean between them: for in the compound nature of man we may behold a part of each of the natures I have mentioned—of the divine, the rational and intelligent element, which does not admit the distinction of male and female; of the irrational, our bodily form and structure, divided into male and female: for each of these elements is certainly to be found in all that partakes of human life.”

We should pause succinctly to reflect on that last line to once again avoid confusion; “for each of these elements is certainly to be found in all that partakes of human life.” Gregory, in laying out Scriptural doctrine, is expounding upon the composite nature of the human being. This being is composed of both divine and the earthly elements: the rational and irrational, the intelligible and the brutish. We are animalistic, but also made in the image of God. There is a delicate balance between these two extremes within each one of us. The last line, however, reveals to us that both of these polarities are to be found in “all that partakes of human life.” Thus, if we only were angelic/rational, we would be less than human. The same would be true if we were only irrational/brutish. Both extremes need to exist within the human person if that person is to be fully human. Again, we are made by God to be rational animals. With all of this in mind, we can continue to move forward in Gregory’s thought. 

“That the intellectual element, however, precedes the other, we learn as from one who gives in order an account of the making of man; and we learn also that his community and kindred with the irrational is for man a provision for reproduction. For he says first that ‘God created man in the image of God’ (showing by these words, as the Apostle says, that in such a being there is no male or female): then he adds the peculiar attributes of human nature, ‘male and female created he them.”

This passage can trick readers into thinking that Gregory is promoting some sort of double creation theory here as well. Yet, we need to bear in mind a few pertinent things. We need to recall what Gregory has just said before this paragraph; that the animalistic and the rational elements are both necessary for human life. In a double creation scenario, this would mean that the human being was not, in fact, fully human if he only existed in the angelic/divine/rational mode of existence in his prelapsarian state. The human being is only human if he is composed of both “elements.” Furthermore, Gregory is expounding upon Scriptural “dogma” here. As far as we have been able to determine from history, had Gregory been truly teaching a form of double creation, he would have most certainly not labeled this teaching as “dogma,” given that no one else was teaching this during his time or before him. Had Gregory included this bit as one aspect of his conjecturing, it certainly would have been easier to accept notions of a double creation theory as if he were speculating on such things. However, Gregory is decidedly not conjecturing here. He is seeking to lay down a solid dogmatic foundation before launching into a multilayered speculative discourse.   

There is no reason to assume that Gregory is talking about a historical order in this quote as opposed to a literary one, either. Yes, one way of interpreting this pericope is to say that God fashioned humankind with the intellectual element first in history and then later added the irrational element for reproduction. However, such an interpretation flies in the face of its wider context, and especially against what Gregory considers to bear the weight of Scriptural dogma. There is another way of interpreting Gregory on this, one that is strikingly simple and obvious. Gregory is talking about a literary order found simply in the writings of Genesis.9 He would have us see that in Genesis we first read that God created humankind in his image and in the next clause we read that God has fashioned us into male and female. Thus, Gregory is not expounding upon a double creation theory, but just pointing to the distinction between the clauses. The human person is comprised of two elements, one made after the image of God and the other composed of gender, but this does not mean that the former precedes the latter historically speaking. Certainly, the image points us Godward, towards the One who is over all things and genderless, whereas gender points us downward, so to speak, to the reality of our kinship with the animals and the created order. Gregory is doing nothing more here than simply trying to spell out once again the fact that the human is a composite being, containing aspects which are simultaneously divine and earthly.

In 22:3-5, we find Gregory venturing into another conjecture of sorts, but one that hearkens back to his dogmatic reflections. Here again he willingly admits that he is not entirely certain of the precision of his teaching and that he is, for lack of better words, taking an educated stab at it. “Well, whether our answer is near the truth of the matter, the Truth itself may clearly know; but at all events what occurs to our intelligence is as follows…”10 Immediately following this he tells us that the image of God has a “telos,” and that Adam was not the fulfillment of it. Rather, the whole sum of humanity is required before the image of God is fully manifested and accomplished. Thus, the image of God is something that humanity continually grows further into. It is not given in its completion in the beginning. Furthermore, he expounds upon how God foresaw human weakness and how God preemptively “mingled” his own image with the irrational element in the creation of the human being. Gregory goes so far as to say that the means of sexual reproduction that we know today is the only way we were meant to procreate from the very beginning. “Now seeing that the full number of men pre-conceived by the operation of foreknowledge will come into life by means of this animal generation, God, who governs all things in a certain order and sequence—since the inclination of our nature to what was beneath it (which he who beholds the future equally with the present saw before it existed) made some such form of generation absolutely necessary for mankind…11 [italics added]. In other words, human beings were never designed to experience the mode of angelic reproduction. Rather, God foreknew man’s capacity to reach towards the heavens, and also the inevitability of mankind’s descent, and wired us accordingly. And it is through this animalistic nature that salvation also works itself out. In order words, the current mode of natural human reproduction is the chosen means whereby God works his salvation and will out effectually. We aren’t simply to strip ourselves of that which is animalistic and irrational. Rather, we are to direct these dynamics Godward, letting our relationship with God take priority over our kinship with created things. Another way of saying this is that we are to redirect our animal nature towards the image of God or, better yet, to submit the animal nature within us to the image of God. This means that while gender is an essential aspect of our being, it still belongs to the animalistic/irrational portion of our composition, and it needs to be conformed to the image of God which, interestingly enough, is genderless.

In the second article in the series we will return to the notion of the image of God as being genderless, and we will tease out some of the implications of this and how these implications can inform modern theological discussions around gender.

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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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