The ordination of women is one of the most contentious issues dividing Christians worldwide. Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and many conservative Protestant denominations, such as the Lutheran-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), forbid women from being formally ordained to ministry as priests and pastors (though one often finds women occupying positions of “director” and it should be noted that the SBC’s repudiation of women in ordained ministry is a departure from the denomination’s earlier position, which allowed for female pastors before the “conservative resurgence” of the 1970-80s).
An author’s social location is a contemporary concern in scholarship and public life, and so some might find it odd that a man, William Witt, wrote Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination, rather than a female theologian. He initially shared this concern and he suggested his late friend the Rev. Dr. Martha Giltinan do so instead, but she pointed out he had historical and systematic theology training that she lacked and she persisted in encouraging him to write (vii). Additionally, Witt is well-placed to the write the book as a theologian operating out of the Anglican Church in North America, which has maintained a conservative position on LGBTQ+ issues while sanctioning (though not without lingering opposition) the ordination of women to the priesthood.
The central thesis of Icons of Christ is that the traditional argument for not ordaining women—that women are ontologically inferior to men, more susceptible to temptation, less rational, and more emotional—has been universally abandoned. Culture has incrementally moved towards recognizing the equality of men and women, with great strides being made in the 20th century as women won the right to vote and entered the workforce en masse following the Second World War (at least in the West). Given that men and women are recognized as equals, to deny women’s ordination based on the “traditional argument” is no longer tenable and not even conservative bodies like the Catholic Church or the SBC base their denial of women’s ordination on this argument. But this leads to Witt’s contention that current arguments against women’s ordination are in actuality just as novel as arguments for women’s ordination. Witt writes, “both the decision to ordain women and the two positions that refuse to ordain women are new theological positions. All three positions are responses to the new recognition of the equality of women. None of these three positions represent the traditional position because all of them reject the historical arguments rooted in inequality” (29).
Given that the traditional argument is no longer tenable, Witt contends that conservative Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have been forced to devise new justifications for forbidding women’s ordination, but their arguments are distinct. According to Witt, conservative, complementarian Protestants have based their opposition to women’s ordination on an understanding of the Trinity that subordinates the Son to the Father; this intra-Trinitarian relationship is deemed the model for the subordination of women to men (and as a natural consequence, women cannot be ordained or exercise any leadership over women—including, ideally, in the public square).
Catholicism does not object to women exercising leadership in public (e.g., as a CEO), but women cannot partake of sacramental ministries, which renders it impossible for them to be ordained to the priesthood. The modern Catholic justification for this is that the priest must act in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) and since Jesus was male, naturally, the priest must be male. Thus, ironically, conservative Protestantism forbids women from being ordained because they are too much like Jesus (in subordination) while Catholicism forbids women from ordination because they are too unlike the male Jesus (34-35).
The book is divided into three sections. Every chapter homes in on one particular issue pertaining to women’s ordination; thus, Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination can be read as a series of essays rather than as a cumulative argument (though there is overlap between the chapters). In the first section, Witt addresses standard conservative Protestant arguments against women’s ordination that are based (at least purportedly)on the Bible. The second section deals with Catholic objections to women’s ordination. This section is the most valuable contribution to the discussion/debate about women’s ordination, as Witt, unlike many egalitarian Protestants, extensively interacts with key Catholic texts (mostly papal encyclicals) and theologians. As well, Witt resourcefully mines a dissenting tradition in modern Catholicism that gestures towards a loosening of restrictions upon women in the priesthood found in the scholarship and voices of such eminent figures such as Yves Congar, Edward Kilmartin, and Nicholas Lash. In the third and final section, Witt discusses the role of women in the New Testament.
This volume is generously ecumenical in scope. Apart from his extensive engagement with Protestant and Catholic sources, Witt draws upon the intriguing scholarship of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, a lay Orthodox theologian who proposed that Eastern Orthodoxy revive the office of the diaconate for women and who found admiration and allies in eminent Orthodox theologians such as Anthony Bloom and Kallistos Ware (208-17). Absent from Witt’s work is any engagement with Pentecostal theology, however, which has long championed women’s ministry and leadership and which has been the ascendent form of Christianity in the Global South. Yet Witt’s book is aimed at grappling with conservative Protestant and Catholic arguments that do not rely on the typical arguments or biblical passages cited by sola Scriptura Protestant egalitarians, so this omission is not surprising. The monograph is also wide-ranging, as Witt addresses not only women’s ordination, but also doctrines and practices that are intricately connected to women’s ordination, such as Christology and the competing hermeneutical methodology of the Puritans and Richard Hooker (the former strictly insisted on the Bible alone as the sole norm of theology, while the latter, an influential Anglican theologian, preserved a place for tradition and long-standing custom, 48-49).
Icons of Christ will be the book for Christians to engage with as the long debate over women’s ordination continues in the various streams of Christianity. Its ecumenical engagement with both Protestant and Catholic arguments makes it stand out as a unique contribution, equally capable of grappling with biblical exegesis and the historic Christian tradition.
Alex Strohschein is an independent scholar.
Date Of Review:
July 5, 2023
William G. Witt is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Trinity School for Ministry.
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