Coakley, the Trinity & Gender, and the Nature of Redemption

I began reading Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self on the recommendation of a close friend. I recently finished it and am overwhelmingly grateful not only for the theological content that will continue to unfold within me for a long time, but also for her delightful prose that gently teases and nurtures the reader along.

Coakley’s project—including her “method”— is ambitious and she says so herself. She writes, “The method I here call theologie totale involves a complex range of interdisciplinary skills; and to link the theoretical to the pastoral in this way is a task of some considerable spiritual and intellectual delicacy, just as to write so as to be ‘understanded of the people’ makes its own ascetical demands on the author.”¹ Not only does it make “ascetical demands” of the author, but it is equally demanding of the reader. While I selfishly took intellectual delight in the smorgasbord-like approach that Coakley takes, I feel utterly incompetent to grasp the depth of her project.

Coakley seeks to turn Freud “on his head” and make the case that it is not sex which is fundamental and our desire for God “ephemeral” but in fact, just the opposite. “[I]t is God who is basic, and ‘desire’ the precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul—however dimly—of its created source.”² Coakley helps us to see that desire is more fundamental than sex. Her central theme woven throughout is that ascetic practices, namely that of prayer, reorders desire and the notion of selfhood in relation to the Trinity.

There is so much to commend. First, I love how thoroughly Coakley interacts with the Patristics. It is so refreshing to read a feminist theologian who doesn’t interact with and demonize caricatures of the Church Fathers, but instead takes their work seriously in order to both commend and critique.

Second, in one of the most surprising movements in the book, Coakley takes on social trinitarianism. She critiques social trinitarianism because it fundamentally misrepresents the Cappadocian Fathers, exposing the anti-Enlightenment agenda of its adherents while also revealing itself to be rooted in an ultimately intellectually unsustainable ‘East-West’ divide in trinitarian thought. To do this Coakley engages deeply with Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, highlighting both their deep similarities as well as their differences.

But at the heart of her book is the Trinity, the ascetic practice of prayer that transforms desire, and how this transformation has implications for gender (and other binaries). Coakley argues that throughout Church history there has been a temptation to treat the Holy Spirit as a “mere third.” In contrast she writes, “The Spirit cannot be an add-on, an ‘excess’, or a ‘go-between’ to what is already established as a somehow more privileged dyad (the ‘Father’ and ‘Son’). Instead, the Holy Spirit is intrinsic to the very make-up of the Father-Son relationship from all eternity…”3

For Coakley, this ‘threeness’ of the Trinity ultimately challenges ‘twoness’, it undoes or transforms binaries. This is where I find myself disagreeing the most with Coakley. I want to qualify Coakley’s argument by saying that this sort of Trinitarian thought exposes and undoes flawed or sinful binaries—like the false narrative of the ‘East-West’ trinitarian divergence—but not all binaries. But Coakley doesn’t qualify her argument and she argues that the binary of male and female, when exposed to the three-ness of the Trinity, is transformed. She writes, “Twoness, one might say, is divinely ambushed by threeness.”4

And this is the crux of my hesitation regarding Coakley’s project. I wonder if she does not properly account for the given-ness of our bodies, of our ‘sexed’ bodies. In a way, her argument that desire is more fundamental than “sex” introduces a sort of ‘soul’ (for lack of better conceptual term) and body dualism. Desire is separated, distinct from, or abstracted out of the gendered body. And while a case could be made that a soul-body dualism is present in the writings of the New Testament (and most definitely in the history of Christian theology), the Church also confesses the belief in the bodily resurrection.5

More than a body-soul dualism, my concern is that Coakley stresses discontinuity with the created order, discontinuity with the given-ness of the male and female body that will be resurrected. For Coakley, redemption is a “transforming” of gender; as we are sanctified and made more and more into the image of Christ, as we are purged, broken and pieced back together, gender is open to “divine transfiguration.”6 Coakley argues, “that it is an implication of trinitarian thinking at its most robust and daring that its ontological threeness always challenges and ‘ambushes’ the stuckness of established ‘twoness’: of male and female, of ‘us’ and ‘other’, of ‘East’ and ‘West’, and even of God and the world.”7

But why is the “ontological threeness” of the Trinity privileged over its “ontological oneness”? And what does the “ontological oneness” of the Trinity mean for the binaries of male and female, God and the world? These questions remain unanswered. At the end of the day it remains unclear to me why the ‘threeness’ of the Trinity necessarily implicates gender.8 Yes, our conceptions—and lived reality—of gender are sinful and flawed and need to be redeemed. But it does not seem to me that the binary of male-female is a fundamentally sinful or flawed binary. Can the redemption of gender mean that male and female remain, in a redeemed manner, instead of transformed into something new?9 The creation accounts in Genesis are full of binaries: light and darkness, land and sea, male and female, God and humankind. Scripture does not seem to suggest that binaries are fundamentally wrong or necessarily need to be overcome, but rather are being restored and redeemed in Christ. Coakley seems to stress a narrative of redemption that leans toward dis-continuity of the created order at the expense of continuity of what God created and called ‘good.’

I recently preached on Matthew 19 where Jesus is asked about the possibility of divorce and the Mosaic law. Jesus says that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, “but from the beginning it was not so.” In this passage Jesus reaches back behind the Mosaic law to Genesis 1 and 2 and says, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’” and “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (Matthew 19:4-5). Jesus argues that what was allowed under the Mosaic law because of sin is allowed no longer. In Christ hard hearts are being made new, replaced with hearts of flesh that love God and neighbor in the power of the Holy Spirit. But notice that redemption—this new reality inaugurated in Christ—stresses not dis-continuity with the created order but a fundamental continuity with what God had established in the beginning. While Jesus is talking about marriage in particular I think the theological and moral logic that underlies this passage has implications for gender, too.

Maybe a more relevant passage that speaks of gender is Galatians 3:27-28 where Paul writes that for those baptized in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no longer male and female…” Does Paul here indicate that the binary of male and female dissolve in Christ? I think the key lies in the confusing change in conjunctions between the first two pairs and the last. Where Paul uses the “neither/nor” for the first two pairings, he changes to the conjunction “and” when speaking of male and female. This seems to suggest that the binary of Jew and Greek, slave and free dissolve, but something else is suggested for “male and female.” Wesley Hill, commenting on this passage notes that in the ancient world, including the Old Testament, one’s masculinity was defined in relation to one’s wife and vice versa.10 To be a man is to be married to a woman and to be a woman was to be married to a man. Paul seems to indicate that this coupling—male and female—is no longer required for those baptized in Christ, but not that male or female no longer exist, dissolving into ‘oneness’ or ‘threeness.’

The cultural norms and understandings of gender are redeemed in Christ. Those baptized into his death and resurrection are freed from these cultural norms. In Christ, marriage is no longer required for the fulfillment of maleness of femaleness. And this has profound implications for gender, for what it means to be male and female. This redemption or transformation is not that the binary of male or female is transformed in such a way that it is discontinuous with the created order, but instead is confirmed; male and female still exist in the new creation realized in  the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ while simultaneously being opened to new realities.

The summer between my first and second year of seminary I read IV/3.1 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics with a group of friends. That summer Barth gave me the conceptual framework of continuity and discontinuity when thinking about the reconciliation made known in Christ. Barth’s words, I think, speak to what I am trying to name. He writes that the reconciliation that God has made known in Christ is “the confirmation and restoration of the order of creation.” He goes on to say that, “In the life of Jesus Christ there takes place, with the establishment of the new order, the reconstitution of the old.”11 The new order must be held in tension with the confirmation of the old.

At the end of the day, so much of Scripture is dependent upon the ontological difference of God and creation, of Christ and his bride, the Church, I am left to wonder how Coakley’s project doesn’t undo this distinction, overemphasizing the transformation of creation at the expense of its restoration. So much of the theological unity of Scripture is dependent upon the unity-in-difference of God and creation, God and Israel, Christ and the Church, which often employs the analogy of the unity-in-difference of male and female, that I was left to wonder that if we pull too hard on the thread that Coakley gave us, what all might unravel with it.


1) Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), xvii.

2) Ibid, 10.

3) Ibid, 56.

4) Ibid, 58.

5) I know that I am in danger of conflating the terms ‘gender’ and ‘body.’ I will run that risk in the essay for the sake of length and to get on to the heart of the matter.

6) Coakley, 58.

7) Ibid, 330.

8) I think Coakley suggests, or would suggest, that the threeness of the Trinity implicates humankind because humankind is created in the “image of God.” Yet, because of the lack of textual evidence for what the “image of God” means exactly as it relates to humankind bearing that image, it has been a significant shape-shifter over the course of Church history, and often an indicator of what is most popular in a cultural and historical moment. Instead of appealing to the Trinity as the image into which humankind has been created, possibly collapsing the ontological distinction between God and creation, I would be more comfortable locating “it” in the person of Christ in whom the new humanity is located and who is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).

9) Coakley argues that she is not obliterating gender, or even the ontological distinction between God and creation, but it is hard to see how she is not doing just that (or at least pushing us in that direction).

10) Hill does note that this passage from Paul is first and foremost about salvation and the Church, about who shares in the inheritance of Abraham. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you are a woman, you are still a ‘son’ of Abraham.

11) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3.1 §69.2 (New York: T&T Clark, 2009).

4 Replies to “Coakley, the Trinity & Gender, and the Nature of Redemption”

  1. Kevin, thanks for a great essay. I especially loved the stuff on embodiment.

    I have one thought to add, about Coakley’s theological method.
    So, which is it? Is Coakley projecting her ideas of gender onto God, or is God revealing deeper understandings of gender to her? This is the old vexing question of the directionality of God-talk. Is God speaking to us, or did we just fire up a human projector and splash our image onto the clouds?

    It seems like Coakley herself is actively trying to get past this impasse through her advocacy for contemplative spirituality. And, it does seem like contemplative spirituality gets past the question of the directionality of God-talk by calling it a false dichotomy. It is not either God speaks or we speak. Rather, the contemplative process is one in which our God-talk (and our desires and our whole selves) are continuously taken apart and put back together by God’s sanctifying grace.

    However, I think you’re right to question Coakley’s assertion that the “threeness” of the Trinity challenges our binaries. Frankly, this strikes me as veering toward esoteric numerology. I think you are much wiser to go back to the text of scripture, looking for more concrete instantiations of how God works with binaries within the covenant of creation. We can talk about how the cross and the eschaton might transfigure those binaries, but I am more comfortable drawing out those implications from the hints given us in scripture, rather than trying to extrude a philosophy of gender out of our doctrine of the Trinity.

    And so I wonder, by your reading, if she has simply substituted social trinitarianism for an equally unhelpful “sexual” or “gender” trinitarianism. If “the Trinity is not our social program,” then perhaps it is not our sexual program, either.

    Still, it is an amazing book, she’s one of our best living theologians, and I am so grateful to share this theological journey with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Steven, thank you for your insightful comments! I think you are right that Coakley is trying to get past the impasse of the directionality of God-talk with contemplative spirituality and I think you are right to say she succeeds in this. This is one of the aspects of the her work that will stay with me and continue to inform my own spiritual life and my pastoring.

      I think I would agree (though I confess that I may not be fully grasping what Coakley is trying to say/do) that Coakley is replacing one trinitarian program for another— social trinitarianism for “sexual” or “gender” trinitarianism. That is such a concise and helpful way to say it. Thank you!

      I completely agree that is was an amazing book and that she is an important living theological voice. I am so grateful to have read it and to be on the journey with you too!

      Like

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