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Elizabeth Johnson’s God-Talk Thirty Years Later: A Critique

by Kimberly Dickson | April 30, 2022

Elizabeth Johnson embarked on bringing feminine language into God-talk through her book She Who Is thirty years ago. As she explained, though theologically all agree God is Spirit and beyond gender, the language of God is male in preaching and instruction, which supports “an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women” (5).1 Through both classical tradition and theology, Johnson uncovered the ancient use of wisdom/Sophia as a feminine description of God, which she appropriated toward a new naming of God, Sophia. Her book unpacks the significance and orthodoxy of naming the one God-Sophia, in three persons Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Father-Sophia, with surprising life-giving results.

Since the publication of Johnson’s book, her thoughts have shaped and guided the conversation on God-talk. This article will critique her position on each of the three divine persons. Following her order, it will first consider the avoidance of Pentecostalism in Johnson’s writing, and how its inclusion in her understanding of the Spirit-Sophia can greatly empower those for whom Sophia is preferentially interested, poor and marginalized women. Second, it will consider Jesus-Sophia and the evangelical critique, specifically from Kathryn Greene-McCreight, that Johnson lost sight of the biblical narrative, which itself has the power to overturn the oppressive pattern in favor of freedom and equality. Third, it will consider Johnson’s use of Mother-Sophia which not only essentialized gender, but by rejecting Jürgen Moltmann’s suffering father who determined his Son’s sacrifice, also undermined traditional atonement theology.

Spirit-Sophia

Johnson finds that in the Hebrew Scriptures and early Syriac Christianity the Spirit was construed as female and named in OT wisdom writings as Sophia (51, 89–91). Among the diverse attributes of the Spirt, the Council of Nicaea recognized the Spirit as the giver of life (141). Like the life-giving Spirit, women uniquely “know the power and pain of bearing and birthing new life, and caring for it even to the point of exhaustion or death” (128). Thus, women uniquely experience the Spirit-Sophia in recognizing that wherever life exists, there too is the Spirit of God. Johnson elaborates that the vivifying power of the Spirit is found in renewing, healing, and freeing, and when human destruction is held at bay or overcome, new possibilities emerge (142). “The Spirit’s renewing power thus manifests itself historically in shaping the praxis of freedom, those myriad forms of people’s struggle toward more peaceful and equitable circumstances; a stunning example being women’s struggle against sexism” (144).

Already alluded to is Johnson’s conviction that Spirit is experienced. As she says, “To this movement of the living God that can be traced in and through experience of the world, Christian speech traditionally gives the name Spirit” (131). Thus, Johnson places the work of the Holy Spirit first, because only through experiencing the Spirit can we begin to understand the other two persons.

There is a sense in which we have to be touched first by a love that is not hostile (the “third” person), before we are moved to inquire after a definitive historical manifestation of this love (the “second” person), or point from there toward the mystery of the primordial source of all (the “first” person). (129)

As the world first experiences the Spirit, so too should we first discuss the Spirit.

Though Johnson details the many life-giving, experiential moves of the Spirit—especially for the disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed—she fails to recognize a key way the Spirit is working in these groups, specifically by giving voice through ecstatic Pentecostalism. As Andrea Hollingsworth states, “Johnson speaks to the importance of contemplation and prophecy for an ecofeminist spirituality. She does not, however, connect these practices to Charismatic forms of spirituality.”2 Johnson sees Pentecostalism as individualistic with an “emphasis . . . on the emotional effects of life in the Spirit with undirected enthusiasm” (136). In noting resistance of feminist theologians to engage Pentecostalism, Hollingsworth narrows in on Johnson’s reticence, saying it is likely due to a fear that the emphasis could “promote an oppressive ‘pie in the sky’ form of spirituality and Spirit doctrine in which women are encouraged to passively endure their daily suffering and subordination, but cope by escaping regularly to Charismatic prayer.”3 Johnson is not interested in escape, but rather in the experience of the Spirit-Sophia bringing action against oppression.

Hollingsworth makes the point that Pentecostalism in Latin America is bringing action that aligns with how feminist theologians understand the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit. Hollingsworth notes R. Andrew Chestnut’s research as significant:

Ecstatic Pentecostal experiences of the Holy Spirit are often vocal and public. . . . Women are more often endowed with vocal spiritual gifts than men. Glossolalia is speech for those whose tongue is tied by official society, particularly for poor women of color. . . . In addition, he names prophecy “an essentially female phenomenon that ‘transforms believers who are deprived of official means of communication, such as regular postal and telephone service, into divine messengers, God’s spokeswomen.’”4

This aligns with Johnson’s emphasis on prayer and the Spirit’s “call to utter the dangerous, critical words of prophecy” (144). Pentecostalism agrees with Johnson perhaps more than she herself appreciated when authoring She Who Is.

Hollingworth provides evidence that women publicly using their voice before the congregation brought new life, empowering them to cope with and transform domestic conflict. It provided the women with “moral authority in the home to challenge their husband’s drinking, gambling, and/or adultery. When husbands were converted (often a result of their wives’ prior conversion) they were more likely to give up their machismo.”5 It also provided autonomy outside of the home through service associated with religious activities such as teaching, visiting and assisting the sick, and running social service programs.6 In fact, “women have been encouraged to exercise official spiritual leadership and to give prophetic voice through formal ministerial and theological training and ordination,” so that by 1990 there was an upsurge in Latino-Pentecostal clergywoman in the Assembly of God.7 Similarly, Janice Rees recounts research in Latin America where women’s agency is created through their Pentecostal experiences. As an example, she cites “embodied experience of ritual within Pentecostal communities in Salvador” being linked to empowerment, where “women often become reference points in the neighborhood, religious specialists who are frequently sought for guidance and healing.”8

The development of women’s agency over the past thirty years in the Latin American Pentecostal world speaks to Johnson’s core concerns of the Spirit’s empowerment through women’s embodied experience. Her inability thirty years ago to appreciate the move of the Spirit in Pentecostalism speaks more to her own social location than to prejudice against a move of the Spirit. As she said, her own social location was shaped by her being a “white, middle-class, educated and hence privileged citizen of a wealthy North American country,” and deeply formed by Catholic community and feminist liberation theology (11). To this point Patrick Oden explains, “The [Catholic] church opted for the poor, but the poor opted for Pentecostalism,” explaining that liberation theology remained hierarchal and distant from the poor, whereas the Pentecostal movement, especially for women, provided everyone with a voice from the ground up.9 I suspect Johnson now values these empowering Spirit-filled developments, as she herself said, “new instances of women’s creativity, leadership, and prophecy today signal that by the power of the Spirit of God, the history of women’s empowerment has not ceased” (65).

Jesus-Sophia

Johnson understands Jesus as a Spirit figure precisely because he was “conceived, inspired, sent, hovered over, guided, and risen from the dead by her power.” As a historical figure, the Spirit became “concretely present in a small bit of it; Sophia pitches her tent in the midst of the world; the Shekinah dwells among the suffering people in a new way” (159).

Johnson mines Scripture, church history, and philosophy, where she finds that Sophia and logos were scriptural equivalents, whereby the Gospel of John makes use of the wisdom/Sophia tradition in the prehistory of Jesus.10 Thus, in John 1:1–18 Jesus is “present in the beginning, an active agent in creation, descending from heaven to pitch a tent among the people” (100). The word choice of logos rather than Sophia was to simply contextualize the faith in a Hellenized world where logos was a key philosophical tenet. Further, Sophia was becoming problematic because of its use by growing gnostic groups. Unfortunately, according to Johnson, this choice of words, combined with philosophic sexism, ensured that the female Sophia/Spirit of Jesus would be suppressed (100–102). Writing later than Johnson, pneumatologist Clark Pinnock reached her same conclusions regarding Spirit-Christology and called for its recovery, saying, “At least the early church had an excuse for favoring Logos Christology. There was an apologetic advantage to Logos Christology then, but not today. There is no reason for us to continue to let Logos Christology dominate and marginalize other dimensions.”11 Thus, Johnson resurrects the Jesus-Sophia and asks:

What does it mean that one of the key origins of the doctrine of incarnation and trinity lies in the identification of the crucified and risen Jesus with a female gestalt of God? Since Jesus the Christ is depicted as divine Sophia, then it is not unthinkable—it is not even unbiblical—to confess Jesus the Christ as the incarnation of the image in female symbol. (103)

As Harold Wells comments, this shows that Jesus’s maleness is “not theologically determinative for his identity as Christ.”12

Johnson’s logic also addresses the feminist concern summarized by the early church father Gregory of Nazianzus, “What is not assumed is not redeemed.” As she says, “if maleness is essential for the christic role, then women are cut out of the loop of salvation, for female sexuality is not taken on by the Word of flesh” (162). Despite appreciating the historic particularities of Jesus’s human identity and the challenges of his ministry that would require a male to have any impact on oppressive structures, his maleness is “not theologically determinative of his identity as the Christ” (165–66).

Greene-McCreight directly critiques Johnson’s stance, addressing feminist concerns from a narrative approach where she finds the maleness of Jesus critical to salvific overturning of oppression. She begins at the Garden of Eden, where “being human is to be created male and female, in the image of God.”13 This sexual embodiment is reflected in Gen 3:16, where male rule over female is one of the many results of their disobedience to the Creator, and all that had been declared “good” is now cursed.14 Greene-McCreight argues that contrary to Johnson’s stance, Jesus’s maleness is directly related to his ability to save and transform the fallen order to a new Creation.

Since Jesus was a Jew who fulfilled the promises to Israel and offered up once and for all the perfect sacrifice, he had to be male. If he were not male and a Jew—indeed, a free Jewish male—how could the baptismal promise of Galatians 3:27–29 have been granted? . . . The three sets of opposition in Galatians 3:28—Jew-Greek, slave-free, male-female—correspond to the categories in which Jewish election is cast. . . . Paul is saying that what has happened in Jesus has turned this election on its head: now in the new “time zone” inaugurated by Jesus’ Resurrection, there is no distinction in God’s electing grace between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female.15

Thus, Jesus’s maleness, his Jewishness, and his status as free are the specific attributes needed to overturn Gen 3:16 and mark a new order where “the old has passed away and the new has come.”16 Greene-McCreight’s powerful argument, looking at Jesus’s maleness through Scripture’s entire narrative, makes one wonder if Johnson and other Christian feminists are correctly interpreting Gregory’s statement, “What is not assumed is not redeemed.” Perhaps it is the specificity of his incarnation that allows all to be assumed.

Mother-Sophia

In exploring the possibility of replacing God the Father with Mother-Sophia, confusion abounds. Throughout history “God the Father” has been used to also designate the One God, who Johnson initially introduces as Spirit. The NT understanding of God the Father, as clarified by Athanasius, is Father in relation to the Son. The distinction is important, as the terminology “Father” is used precisely because of its relational aspect, rather than as a metaphor for the male essence of God. Athanasius, in response to the Arian controversy that sought to demote Jesus to a created being, specifically emphasized that the first person of the Trinity was named Father to emphasize relation rather than function.17 Johnson notes the importance of this herself (34). Yet in replacing Father with Mother, Johnson lost this relational focus and instead focused on the functionality of woman’s body to create life, as Mother (180). This harkens to Spirit-Sophia who creates and essentializes the function rather than the relation of Mother. As Cristina Richie states:

Sophia-as-mother can harm women by setting up a normative pattern of emulation for all women. The image of woman as biologically and/or theologically bound to procreative sexuality has long been used as evidence of women’s social and physical inferiority. Because the “office” of motherhood is seen as natural and unchanging, women are directed towards activities that help them fulfill this destiny and away from activities that might hinder reproduction—for example, education, work, and singleness.18

To Johnson’s credit, she also called out the same historical and contemporary problems of gender essentialism in using the term Mother-Sophia (186–87).19 In noting the problem, however, she did not change the name.

Interestingly, Johnson reveals her agreement with Athanasius’s relational definition of Father to Son in his rebuttal of the Arian controversy. In this context she recognizes that the Trinity undermines gender essentialism in favor of “differentiation.” Endorsing Moltmann and Leonardo Boff on the social Trinity, she says:

There is no subordination, no before or after, no first, second and third, no dominant and marginalized. . . . There is only a “trinity of persons mutually interrelated in a unity of equal essence.” The Trinitarian symbol intimates a community of equals, so core to the feminist vision of ultimate shalom. It points to patterns of differentiation, that are nonhierarchical, and to forms of relating that do not involve dominance. It models the ideal, reflected in so many studies of women’s ways of being in the world, of a relational bonding that enables the growth of humans as genuine subjects of history in and through the matrix of community, and the flourishing of community in and through the praxis of its members. In this the personal uniqueness flourishes. . . . (231)

Ultimately, Johnson does not believe in gender essentialism. But just as early theologians tried to grasp one aspect of the Trinity and missed another, so too does Johnson momentarily slip into gender essentialism with Mother-Sophia.

However, there is another aspect of Johnson’s characterization of Sophia-as-Mother where she takes issue with both Moltmann and the classical view of atonement. Moltmann in The Crucified God asks, “Why did [God the Father] keep silent over the cross of Jesus and his dying cry?”20 He answers this through his definition of love. Only one who suffers can love another. Through suffering, God loves the unlovable and through that love, makes them loveable.21 And for Moltmann, this love is best expressed in the Trinity:

The son suffers in his love being forsaken by the Father. The Father suffers in his love the grief of the death of the Son. In that case, whatever proceeds from the event between the Father and the Son must be understood as the spirit of the surrender of the Father and the Son, as the Spirit which creates love for forsaken men, as the spirit which brings the dead alive.22

But Johnson argues the offering of the Son by the Father is inexcusable and is the opposite of love. She says of Moltmann’s thesis:

This is to blame Jesus’ Abba . . . for what rightly should be laid at the doorstep of the history of human injustice. It leaves us with a repellent view of a sadistic God rather than a God who loves life and hates injustice. One can imagine a loving father or mother suffering the grief of the loss of a son due to an unjust death . . . but to imagine the parent takes the initiative in arranging the sacrifice—here the imagination reaches its limits and the humanistic values rise up in protest. (218–19)

Instead, Johnson embraces that the death of Jesus is solely due to historical injustices. In rejecting Moltmann’s thesis, she also rejects the theology of atonement and does not offer an alternative.23 This is surprising, considering her preservation of the key tenets of classical theology.

Other voices are emerging from marginalized and oppressed peoples who have mined the depths of liberation theology while, like Johnson, seeking ways to stay within orthodox Trinitarian tradition. I believe their voices can speak into the space that Johnson could not bridge. Like Johnson who recognizes that, “despite [Christian tradition’s] sexism [it] has served as a strong source of life for countless women throughout the centuries and continues to do so today,” Esau McCaulley, an African American theologian, represents those who have clung to their faith in the face of unjust treatment by the very ones who gave them their Christian traditions (65). In agreement with the ethos of Johnson’s historical attribution of Jesus’s crucifixion, he says, “we have decided to trust God because he knows what it means to be at the mercy of a corrupt state that knows little of human rights.” But he argues that this is not enough, stating that, “If that were the full message of the cross, Jesus would merely be another in a long line of martyrs. Jesus stands out as the one truly innocent sufferer who had done nothing wrong.” For in the mystery, McCaulley recognizes that though the Black population was “not slave owners, nevertheless we have in ways large and small participated in the harm of others. We have also damaged ourselves and rebelled against our Creator . . . we are all sinners. . . . Jesus’ profound act of mercy gives us the theological resources to forgive. We forgive because we have been forgiven.”24 He reminds us of Miroslav Volf’s insight that the ones who have been sinned against become sinners. Though quite unfairly, the victims now have to deal with their own anger, bitterness, and revengeful urges that make them perpetrators against a new set of victims.25 Volf’s powerful insights stem from his own experience as a native Croatian who suffered under the brutal Serbian invasion that he characterizes as, “sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities.”26 Both McCaulley and Volf’s analysis consider the sin and anger of oppressed populations that need to be dealt with in order to bring community. “It is only by looking at our enemies through the lens of the cross that we can begin to imagine the forgiveness necessary for community.”27 It is ironic that Johnson misses this given that community is her ultimate aim.

Atonement theology is hard to embrace, for the reasons articulated by Johnson. But even the oppressed are sinners and need atonement for there to be any chance of community. This is a mystery; as Johnson says, “It is abundantly clear in classical theology and its contemporary retrievals that human words, images, and concepts with their inevitable relationships to the finite are not capable of comprehending God, who by very nature is illimitable and unobjectifiable” (116).

Conclusion

Johnson’s work was a groundbreaking step of correcting the sexism inherent in religious God-talk, due to the male assignment of the three persons of the Trinity. Her careful application of classical theology, her research into the early Johannine contextual choice to name Jesus the logos rather than the equivalent Sophia, and her thoughtful concern to not essentialize gender but instead to release women in all of their difference from oppression, have succeeded in changing the conversation around God-talk. This article looks at developments that have emerged since Johnson’s work. We can now see where Latin American Pentecostalism, through the gifts of charism in their embodied voices, have found new empowerment against oppression. Greene-McCreight demonstrated through scriptural narrative that Jesus’s status as an elect Jewish, free, male enabled him to overthrow oppressive structures. And finally, new voices speaking out of oppression and marginalization embraced Johnson’s historical reasoning for Jesus’s crucifixion while also preserving the classic atonement theory, simultaneously adding deeper nuance and explanation.

Notes

1. Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Herder and Herder, Crossroad, 1992, 2002) 5. Subsequent citations to this book will be in the text, rather than in endnotes.

2. Andrea Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice: Toward a Feminist Pentecostal Pneumatology,” Pneuma 29 (2007) 192.

3. Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice,” 194.

4. Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice,” 202–3. Compare Kristina LaCelle-Peterson’s recounting of Melania, a fourth-century desert mother, who performed two miracles on women “who were gripped by demons that had closed their mouths. They couldn’t talk or eat and were consequently in danger of starving. This we might note, was precisely what the advice of church fathers for women tended toward; it is the logical conclusion of their instructions to be silent and to fast as signs of being closed, pure, and virginal. Melania’s miracle? To open their mouths again.” LaCelle-Peterson, Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective (Baker Academic, 2008) 165–66.

5. Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice,” 199.

6. Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice,” 200.

7. Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice,” 201.

8. Janice Rees, “Subject to Spirit: The Promise of Pentecostal Feminist Pneumatology and Its Witness to Systematics,” Pneuma 35 (2013) 50.

9. Patrick Oden, “Unit 6 Lecture, Spirit in Global Theologies,” TH 559 Theologies of the Holy Spirit, Fuller Theological Seminary, Winter 2022.

10. Johnson is not alone in her discoveries on this topic. Veli-Matti Karkkainen summarizes Julie Hilton Dana’s research into rabbinic literature regarding the Ruach-ha-Kodesh (Holy Spirit) where Hellenized and biblical concepts of Wisdom of Torah are used as personifications of God. Veli Matti Karkkainen, Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit: In Ecumenical International, and Contextual Perspective (Baker Academic: 2002) 162.

11. Clark A Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (IVP Academic: 1996) 91.

12. Harold G. Wells, “Trinitarian Feminism: Elizabeth Johnson’s Wisdom Christology,” ThTo 52/3 (Oct 1995) 336.

13. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine (Oxford University Press, 2000) 107.

14. Greene-McCreight, Feminist Reconstructions, 110.

15. Greene-McCreight, Feminist Reconstructions, 109.

16. Greene-McCreight, Feminist Reconstructions, 110.

17. Athanasius, in “Against the Arians I, 30–4 [Ed W. Bright (Oxford, 1873) pp. 31–5],” in Documents in Early Christian Thought, ed. Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer (Cambridge University Press, 1975) 30.

18. Cristina Richie, “Engaging Women with a Suffering Sophia: Prospects and Pitfalls for Evangelicals,” Priscilla Papers 34/3 (Summer 2020) 18.

19. Johnson recognizes that aligning childbearing with the essence of women has led to subjugation throughout history, and that factually there is much more to women than childbearing and rearing.

20. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 40th Anniversary Ed. (Fortress, 2015) 273.

21. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 309.

22. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 362.

23. Wells emphasizes that Johnson is right to protest an “understanding of atonement that depicts God as angry Father and Judge demanding a blood sacrifice before he will forgive.” But he also critiques Johnson for not providing an alternative. Wells, “Trinitarian Feminism,” 341.

24. Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic, 2020) 130–31.

25. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon, 1996) 79–85.

26. Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 9.

27. McCaulley, Reading While Black, 131.