Review of Icons of Christ: Symbolism and Conclusions

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Colvin: Review of "Icons..." by Witt

Part 4: Symbolism and Conclusions

In the previous three installments, we have examined the plausibility structures of women’s ordination (WO), Witt’s view of history, and his handling of Greek philology. We now turn to questions of symbolism, a topic that Witt discusses mainly in dialogue with Roman Catholic authors, especially Manfred Hauke.[1] Hauke’s argument is fairly unusual and depends upon Jungian psychology and other controversial assumptions, so I have little interest in defending it from Witt’s criticisms. My concern with these chapters is more with Witt’s handling of C.S. Lewis and with his view of representation.

The argument from symbolism is most prominently set out in C.S. Lewis’ essay “Priestesses in the Church?”[2] Witt takes grave umbrage at the use of the term “priestesses” by modern opponents of WO: he says that it carries the connotation of shrine prostitution, which Witt dismisses as a product of the fevered imagination of Greco-Roman historians like Strabo and Herodotus and the dirty minds of modern male orientalists. There never were any shrine prostitutes in the world around ancient Israel, he concludes. The use of the word “priestess” by opponents of WO is therefore akin to “slut-shaming” or “shaming by associating the ordination of women with questionable sexual behavior.” (186)

“Priestess” as a slur?

This was all news to me. It is certainly not at all what C.S. Lewis was doing in his “Priestesses in the Church” – the essay that Witt admits is the source of the usage. In that essay, Lewis makes no mention, nor any insinuation, of sexual sin. He is appealing, rather, to the entire cosmic and semiotic economy of the sexes in the Bible, in contrast to other cultures. God is masculine vis a vis the creation and his people; Israel is His bride; Christ is the bridegroom. Because Lewis is appealing to this cosmic sexual economy, he opens his essay with a quotation from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in which Caroline Bingley suggests that balls would be “much more rational if conversation rather than dancing were the order of the day” – to which her brother replies, “Much more rational, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a Ball.” Lewis is appealing to a ball as an event in which the sexed order of reality is on full and glorious display, so that it determines what all participants do. That is the gravamen of his essay: the violation of the Biblical and creational sexual order by the ordination of women. And that is what virtually everyone who uses the term “priestess” intends to evoke—not shrine prostitution, but the jarring conflict between WO and the traditional understanding of the sexes. Perhaps Witt accuses his opponents of this innuendo about shrine prostitution because he is genuinely unable to perceive the creational sexual order, like a tone-deaf person who cannot tell whether a song is sung off-key or not, or a colorblind person who cannot tell that his green shirt and blue necktie are clashing with each other? But whatever the reason, Witt should make some effort to understand the charge Lewis is actually making, rather than turn “Priestesses in the Church?” into an offensive strawman.

God’s Masculinity

Witt reduces God’s revealed masculinity to a largely meaningless cipher. He reminds us that:

God has no bodily parts, God has no sexuality, and God is not male…Given that the triune God is neither male nor female, any language or imagery used to describe God in sexual terms is necessarily symbolic or metaphorical. (252)

But the masculinity of created males is a reflection of the prior and superior masculinity of God. To say that “God is not male” because he has no bodily parts is trivially true in the biological sense, but to claim that he is not masculine because he does not have body parts is quite false. God created men and uses them to analogically reflect his own masculinity. The fact that fathers do not bring forth children from within their own bodies, but stand apart and over against them in many ways, is itself a reflection of the transcendence of God. If God were our mother rather than our father, then the revealed gender of God would not communicate that transcendence. The feminine acts of gestation, parturition, and nursing of children are not symbols of transcendence, but of the most intimate immanence.[3] Witt, however, resists the idea that the masculine imagery used of God in Scripture is reflective of normative male roles in human society: “it would be a misreading to read them as endorsing male privilege or hierarchy, or as providing a ‘role model’ for male-only ordination.” (257)

Christ’s Maleness

In a similar way, Witt treats the sex of Jesus as a semiotically thin accident with no implications for the sex of officers in the church. He approvingly quotes Thomas Torrance’s claim that Christ’s maleness is irrelevant to his function as the representative of his people. He also represents the opposing view – that Christ had to be male in order represent His people – as a sort of Nestorianism, the “mistaken idea that it is the priest as male, not as a person, who can represent Christ.” As part of this argument, Witt makes Christ’s maleness an accident, not essential to his humanity:

The focus on Christ’s male sexuality makes essential what is actually an accident of human nature (in the technical philosophical sense), since human beings come in two sexes, but both are equally human; sexuality is something that merely distinguishes one human being from another, not that which is truly essential, and which all human beings have in common. If Jesus Christ is to save all human beings—male and female—then what is essential about his humanity is that he is human, not that he is male. (237)

We may wonder whether it is really true that maleness and femaleness are accidents and not essential to humanity. The very definition of “truly essential” as “that which all human beings have in common” begs the question of whether the differences and relations between the two inevitable sexes are themselves part of what is essential to the human race. Certainly, God’s statement in Genesis 2:18 that “it is not good for the man to be alone” suggests that maleness and femaleness are essential in the bene esse sense: sex does not merely distinguish humans from each other, but is absolutely necessary for human beings to fulfill their God-given functions.

Male Priests and Kings

Witt resists the traditional answer that Jesus’ maleness was and is necessary for his performance of his representative priestly and royal offices. Israel had kings, not queens, because part of the king’s job was to represent the people and lead them in battle. Priests had to be male, not female, because they were representatives of the people. For Witt, however, the maleness of Israel’s priests is merely an accident derived from the Temple’s requirements regarding cultic purity: Witt thinks that women could have been priests, if only they had not been subject to ritual uncleanness because of menstruation: “Purity codes concerning women’s ritual impurity are the most plausible primary factor that prevented Jewish women from full participation in religious life. Women could not be priests because of ceremonial uncleanness.” (185) As an explanation for Israel’s all-male priesthood, this is puzzling. Menstruation is, generally speaking, regular and predictable; why then could they not serve as priests during those times when they were ritually clean? Or after menopause? Witt gives no answer. But the same God who gave the Torah’s rules about priesthood also created women’s bodies. On Witt’s view, the Torah’s masculine priesthood does not reflect an holistically gendered world designed and intended by God, but is simply an accident. Scripture, unmoored from creation, becomes what we can make of it.

Similarly, the origin of the Levitical order – just how and why the Levites became representatives of the rest of Israel – is never mentioned by Witt. It poses a still greater challenge for the idea that women would do just as well. The scene is immediately after the incident of the Golden Calf:

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD’S side? Let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.

And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. (Ex. 32:27-29)

The violent origin of the Levites’ calling as God’s servants in the place of every firstborn male Israelite is commemorated by their appointment as guards for YHWH’s house: “And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” (Num. 1:53) This is not feminine work. Neither is the NT pastorate, which involves watching for the security of the flock (Acts 20:28) and fighting to defend it against false teachers. This is why the NT uses military metaphors (2 Tim. 2:3-4) and martial imagery for the work of the church’s pastors, as well as shepherding, typically conceived of as both provision (“feed the flock committed to your charge”) and protection (“grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock”).

Just as Witt reduces the maleness of Israel’s priests to an accidental side-effect of the cleanness requirements, he also minimizes the significance of Jesus’ selection of twelve male apostles:

The primary reason that Jesus chose only male apostles is the same reason he chose only twelve apostles and only Jewish apostles—the fulfillment of Old Testament typology. (267)

And that is all. But why, we might ask, were the original patriarchs male? Why not include Dinah as a matriarch alongside them? Is it a mere accident of ancient Near Eastern culture? If something fulfills typology, does it therefore not have any other significance? In Witt’s reckoning, the masculinity of God, the maleness of Christ, of Israel’s kings, of the Levites and Aaronite priests are all without implications for the sex of Christian pastors today. Witt explicitly rejects the claim of the Anglican Forward in Faith document “Consecrated Women?” that, “the male can represent the whole human race in a manner in which the female cannot.” Witt follows Elisabeth Behr-Sigel in replying that “Adam is representative, not because he is male, but because he is human.”(275) Thus, Witt begs the question. Why was Eve not the representative? She was human, after all.

Similar question-begging reappears throughout the book. It is the result of a modern mindset unable to account for a pervasively gendered premodern world. For Witt, if the apostles or Jesus or Israel’s priests or Israel’s kings or Adam were able to be representatives, it is not because they were male. But why, then, did God use males, over and over again, in offices involving representation? And why did He not use women instead? Nor is this pervasive sex-distinction restricted to the Torah’s human functionaries: the sex of sacrificial animals is specified, a fact which has attracted comment from Philo[4] to the present.[5] Why must priests and leaders offer male animals as sin offerings? It isn’t because of menstruation, since female animals were also acceptable, including on the Day of Atonement. Witt offers no explanation.

In the end, Witt repeats the claims of Witherington, Payne, Bauckham, and the other leading lights of egalitarian NT studies that the named and unnamed women of the NT – Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, etc. – were probably officers, not mere helpers, messengers, or financial sponsors; they probably taught and preached, and probably were important leaders in the church. Why, Priscilla is even named before her husband, so she must have been more important than he was.[6] And Junia, after all, is an apostle—an apostle of whom, we don’t know, but that doesn’t prevent Witt from making her the starting point of an a fortiori argument in favor of women as presbyters. To be sure, women are never explicitly named as presbyters in the NT, but then “neither are any individual males.” (298) These claims have failed to move opponents of WO in the past, and they will not persuade them now either.


We come away from Witt’s book unsure of why women and men are the way they are in the Bible. God uses masculine imagery, but it doesn’t mean anything for human masculinity. Jesus was born as a male, but not because He needed to be; a woman would have been able to represent His people just as well. The pervasive sexual differentiation of the Bible is a mystery to Witt, reducible to a side-effect of cultic purity regulations or to accidents of premodern cultural mores; he does not explain the overarching pattern so much as he tries to prevent it from scuffing the shiny modern sexual egalitarianism that he is polishing. The now decades-long endeavor of rereading the NT, casting doubt on the authenticity, authorship, and meaning of passages that don’t fit the fantasy of an apostolic-era egalitarianism that is retrojected onto the Bible from modernity, and reflects anachronistic modern ways of thinking about men and women, is a travesty that future generations will struggle to undo. In the midst of culture-wide confusion over sexual identity and roles, the push for female officers in the Church requires distortions of Scripture and the cultivation of hermeneutical skills that it would be better not to know. Practicing these methods will only lead the church further down the road of expressive individualism, with predictable consequences that are already beginning to be seen.

For those of us in the ACNA, which is served by Trinity School for Ministry where Witt teaches, it is especially noteworthy that nothing in Witt’s book distinguishes between women presbyters and women bishops. The ACNA does not have women bishops at the moment, but that is clearly where Witt’s arguments lead. Yet this is almost the least of the dire consequences that could come from this book’s reasoning. The real consequences will come in the future, as a church that has practiced Witt’s methods confronts other issues and questions that can only be adequately addressed with sound hermeneutics and a Biblical view of the sexes. Witt’s arguments’ consistent dependence on a novel, modern egalitarianism makes clear that what is at stake in this debate is not merely whether women can be pastors in the church, but the entire gendered world of Biblical anthropology, cosmology, and theology. Those who handle Scripture and history in the way required to accommodate women’s ordination will find that there are no brakes on their hermeneutical car. Natural gender has been stripped away, replaced by a God who is not male, sending priests and kings and apostles who are all representatives only because they are human (not male), doing genderless jobs that are mere “roles” assigned to non-menstruating individuals in an oppressive and sexist premodern culture that we have finally transcended. Technologically-enabled egalitarianism has at long last delivered on the promise of “Christological subversion” of patriarchal structures, a promise that had gone unfulfilled for two millennia, so that we can finally fulfill the original and eschatological intention of God that had been thwarted by patriarchy until now. The embarrassing verses that seem to stand against this project can all be reinterpreted, recontextualized, condemned as pseudepigraphic, or excised from our Bibles as interpolations.

What could not be justified by these methods? Can anyone believe that Witt’s hermeneutic can offer any robust bulwark against heterodoxy? God grant our bishops the courage to repudiate the course Witt charts for us, and the wisdom to repair the damage that this novel ontology of the sexes has done to the church.


  1. Manfred Hauke, Women in the Priesthood? A Systematic Analysis in the Light of the Order of Creation and Redemption (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988).
  2. C.S. Lewis, “Priestesses in the Church?” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 234-239.
  3. Even the pagan Aristotle notes this difference: “…a parent is fond of his children because he regards them as something of himself…From these things, it is also clear why mothers love [their children] more [than fathers do].” (Nicomachean Ethics 1161b)
  4. Philo, On Special Laws I.200.
  5. See, for instance, Nicole Ruane, “Gender, Animals, and Sacrificial Victimology” in Sacrifice and Gender in Biblical Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 40-76. “The variation in sex selection for victims of animal sacrifice both illustrates and constructs underlying societal ideas about gender. Gender is an intrinsic aspect of victim selection; the legal texts of the Hebrew Bible almost always require or specify the sex of animals intended as victims for specific rites.” (41) Her conclusion: “In sacrifice, the sex distinctions in the natural world of animals enact human distinctions of gender and other hierarchies.”(76)
  6. There are many other cultural and linguistic considerations that dictate the sequence of paired names, such as Behagel’s law, which explains why “The butcher, the candlestick-maker, the baker” sounds wrong, and why “Aquila and Prisca” sounds wrong, while “Priscilla and Aquila” sounds right. In the early 20th century, American etiquette writers advised placing a wife’s name before her husband’s in order to avoid separating the husband’s surname from his given name. I do not insist that either of these principles is behind “Priscilla and Aquila,” but I offer them as suggestive that there may well be other reasons for the sequence than “Priscilla was more important than Aquila.”


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Matthew Colvin

Matthew Colvin holds a PhD in Classics (Cornell, 2004) and is a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He is the author of The Lost Supper (Fortress Academic, 2019). He lives on Vancouver Island.

'Review of Icons of Christ: Symbolism and Conclusions' has 1 comment

  1. October 16, 2021 @ 12:32 am Richard Fellows

    Actually, the ancients WERE sensitive to the order of names in lists of names. The more important (in context) person was named first. As you may know, scribes reversed the order of Priscilla and Aquila at Acts 18:26 and the corruption infected the vast majority of manuscripts.


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