Gender and the Incarnation

We are currently reading through Thomas C. Oden’s Systematic Theology 3 Vol. Set
in my Biblical and Systematic Theology class (we started off with Christopher J.H. Wright’s The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, an excellent resource for biblical theology).  One of our assignments for the class is to write a short catechism or personal credo on a subtopic in systematic theology (soteriology, Christology, etc.).  I have chosen to do a short catechism on anthropology, focusing on what it means to be human, created in the image of God, body and soul, male and female, etc. Since I have been thinking through a number of gender issues during my time at HBU, this will hopefully serve to catalog some of my conclusions.

Recently I’ve been particularly interested in gender and the Incarnation… probably because we’ve been reading on the Incarnation in our Patristics class.

What does it mean for Jesus to be male?  Are both genders represented in the Incarnation?  Many of the early patristic writers drew connections between Eve and Mary, the mother of Jesus (e.g., Irenaeus in Against Heresies, Book III).

Oden’s volume on the person of Christ has a relatively lengthy discussion on gender in the Incarnation. In his section Was the Incarnation Sexist? Oden writes,

Did God show sexist bias or partiality against females or males in the birth of the incarnate Lord? The classical exegetes reasoned that both maleness and femaleness were honored equally in the incarnation…

Mary is female, Jesus is male. God’s way of coming involves both genders in a particular way fitting to those genders: female, for the birthing of the God-man without human father, and male, for the mission of the anointed messianic servant, according to the Jewish expectation of a male of Davidic descent.

The core of this classic feminine/masculine incarnational equilibrium is found in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: ‘But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law’ (Gal. 4:4). Paul says: born of a woman, a particular woman, without male assistance, not born of woman and man.

If one takes the premise that the incarnation required birth and that giving birth cannot be done by males–there is no way physiologically–it forms a plausible hypothesis for explaining why the Savior was male: if the mother of the Savior must necessarily be female, the Savior must be male, if both sexes are to be rightly and equitably involved in the salvation event, according to classical interpretation. This hypothesis reverses the sexism argument by making the female birth-enabler the primary basis upon which the incarnate Lord was more plausibly to be male (this in addition to the Hebraic assumption that the Messiah would be of the male line of David). (p. 116)

It is no wonder Mary exclaimed, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:48-49)

Oden’s argument finds support from some of the early Christian writers (he quotes Augustine a number of times).  This is one area I think Protestant theology is lacking–we have sorely neglected the role of Mary, the Theotokos, in the Incarnation. We pretty much never talk about her (at least from my own experience)! But I, for one, would like to become better acquainted with the mother of my Lord.

I don’t know… maybe I’ve been spending too much time with the Church Fathers?


11 thoughts on “Gender and the Incarnation

  1. Interesting book. As far as Mary, while for sure Mary was a key part in Christendom,so are we. Mary’s position will forever be the same as any saved person, male or female. I have to say, it will be good to talk to her one day. But for now, we know nothing more than what the scriptures teach. Thank you Mary for being obedient to the call. ……Shalom


    1. Thanks for your comment, Stan! I’d personally like to see Mary become more a part of our Christian story, in the same way we talk often about Peter and Paul or other individuals from Scripture, or even those influential teachers and writers throughout Christian history. We don’t have much about Mary, but I would think it beneficial (at least for me personally) to consider what it means for God to have used Mary in the way he did and what that means for the church, and for women in particular–I think Oden’s argument is a way forward in recognizing some gender equality in the Christian story.

      Just thinking through my own experience I feel like Mary has been glossed over or only mentioned in passing at Christmas time. Surely there is more that Mary’s life/calling and, as you point out, her faithful obedience can teach us.


  2. This is one area where Orthodox and Roman Catholic Mariology trumps our Protestant version. While co-redemptrix is a problematic title it is worth pondering the fact that early theologians, and some of the more ancient representations of Mary, determined that Mary must have a role similar to Jesus’ or equal to it. I need to roll this around in my head some more, which is further evidence that as a Protestant/Evangelical I haven’t the tools for addressing this matter that our Orthodox and Catholic siblings have available.


  3. I agree that the role of Mary in the incarnation can indeed be minimized, but is gender-equality to be an issue in every matter that relates to God’s dealings with us? I think that the Anglican church has, for instance, gone overboard in its effort to ‘genderize’ everything. I am quite satisfied with the statement that, “in Christ there is neither male nor female…we are all one in Christ Jesus”


    1. As long as sexism and oppression exist in the church (and the world) I imagine that gender equality will continue to be an issue. When arguments like Jesus’ maleness being intrinsic to what it means to be truly human continue to be made I personally want to keep asking questions about what gender is and is not. Sadly not everyone in the church is satisfied with Gal. 3:28 so I think we’ll have to continue to ask questions and challenge each other and learn together. Thanks for your comment!


  4. It is worth noting that, all the way back in Genesis 3, God told the serpent that “the woman’s seed” would crush the serpent’s head. For much of human history, humans have behaved and believed as if the man is the farmer and the woman merely the soil, so to speak, when it comes to genetics. But God who created us knew from the beginning that the woman contributes half of the genetic material — that woman never was the soil in which the man plants his-and-only-his child. This may be why Judaism counts Jewish descent through the mother.

    You run into a bigger problem when citing Jesus as the Son of David. We know that He is. But as a balance to Jewishness coming from the mother, priesthoods and kingships in Judaism come from the father. That is, in Judaism Jesus would have to be the biological child of Joseph to inherit from Joseph. Mary also is descended from David (through Prince Nathan, full brother of Solomon), but she is a woman. Some Catholic teachings argue that Mary also is descended from Solomon through “Shealthiel and Zerubabbel” who appear in both lineages. But that doesn’t change the fact that Mary is a woman.

    So the reasons that Judaism doesn’t accept Jesus as Messiah, or even a Messiah candidate, are multiple. Most Christians actually know very little about Judaism. The odds are that we Gentile Christians have problems with gender to this day because of the prejudices of our Gentile ancestors, not our Jewish ones.


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