Women Ascend the Pulpit

Article excerpt

MANY PEOPLE are taken aback by the concept of women theologians. They assume this is a recent development and that females teaching the subject are few and live an embattled life in their respective schools. In fact, women have been doing theology from the early centuries of the church. In the fourth century A.D., for instance, learned Christian women studied the scriptures in the original languages and wrote letters to leading male scholars asking probing questions. One Roman Christian matron, Faltonia Betitia Proba, composed a long poem on the creation of the world and the life of Jesus in Vigilian verse.

In the Middle Ages, dozens of female mystics recorded accounts of their visionary experiences to instruct their communities and the larger church. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German abbess, penned three major theological treatises on the creation of the world, sin, and salvation, as well as many other works, such as studies on medicine and lives of the saints. She also composed hymns to be sung in church by the sisters of her community. Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English contemplative, authored an account of her religious visions. In her reflections on the Christian Trinity, she saw God as having paternal and maternal aspects, claiming that "As truly as God is our father, so truly is God our mother."

The 16th-century reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin did not favor women as teachers or preachers. In the 17th century, though, Baptists and Ouakers boasted numerous female preachers and writers. The co-founder of the Quakers (Society of Friends), Margaret Fell, wrote many doctrinal pieces. Over 90 other Quaker women in the late 17th century produced doctrinal dissertations. Fell's best-known work, "Women's Preaching Justified According to the Scriptures," argued that Christ himself had established women's preaching ministry by appearing first to Mary Magdalene and commissioning her to proclaim the good news of the resurrection to the 11 disciples who were hiding in the upper room in fear of persecution. Since acceptance of the good news was itself predicated on the acceptance of the witness of a women, the church cannot believe in the resurrection without at the same time acknowledging women's right to preach.

The beginning of the women's rights movement in 19th-century America saw a number of Christians counteract the view that females should not preach. They defended women's equality in creation and redemption. Lucretia Mott--a Quaker feminist, abolitionist, and pacifist--delivered more than 100 sermons and lectures in which she expounded a theology of the equality of all people through God's indewlling spirit present in every person. Elizabeth Cady Stanton edited a commentary on the Bible while in her 80s. It rejected Biblical inerrancy and criticized any views that defined females as inferior to or solely dependent on males.

Although women have been scripting doctrine for more than 1,600 years, the belief that female theologians represent a recent development is not entirely off-base. What is new, at least over the last 30 years or so, is women going to established schools and seminaries, earning doctoral degrees in theology, and being hired to instruct on the subject. This development has gone hand in hand with the winning of women's ordination in increasing numbers of Christian churches and Jewish synagogues.

Women as preachers go back to earlier Christian centuries. Hildegard preached with the Pope's approval to many church gatherings, based on his affirmation that she was a prophet commissioned by God. Although the Catholic Church did not (and still does not) accept the ordination of females, it believes that God might specially commission a woman to convey messages through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Baptist women also preached in 17th-century England based on a belief that they could be prophets. They cited Acts 2:17 "'Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" to prove that God at Pentecost had bestowed the gift of prophecy on men and women alike. …