The Trinity, the Image of God, and How Women Have Been Left Out of the Picture [An Interview with Deb Gregory]

What does it mean to be human?

This question is deeply linked to our view of the imago Dei, and it is only recently in history that the feminine experience has been allowed to weigh in on the topic.

In this conversation with Deb Gregory from the Betwixt Podcast, we cut right through the polarizing debates of the culture war being waged around us in both the Church and society. I ask her more about her 5 part series on the imago Dei and the feminine experience which debuts the Betwixt podcast—(it’s amazing by the way).

The Church throughout history has shifted and changed its understanding of what it means for humans to be created in the image of God, and these shifting ways of interpreting the imago Dei have deeply effected women, sometimes by excluding them while at other times including them.

This shifting theological landscape provided a great launching pad to talk about who God is as a triune community of persons, how the Trinity shapes our understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image, our common humanity vs. our individuality, and the experience of women in the Church.

Excerpts From A Conversation About the Trinity, the Image of God, and How Women Have Been Left Out of the Picture

Interview conducted by Steve Dancause

Hi Deb. So I just listened to your 5 part podcast, The image of God and Feminine Experience. I found it to be a thoughtful conversation as well as a fantastic survey of church history and theology on the topic. What led you to create this series?

Thank you, Steve! The series came out of a spiritual awakening that I experienced while living among a Jewish Orthodox community in Israel. My women friends invited me into a perspective on the feminine body that I had missed during bible college and seminary.

I felt ravenous about studying the bible after a long season of theological deconstruction.

Really, the podcast is the slow work of theological reconstruction. Studying scripture through this new feminine lens, the male bias undergirding theology throughout church history became excruciatingly clear.

During that same season, I began to notice that many of the Christian women in my life did not have a clear sense of their spiritual gifts and how they might be used in the church. Probing further, I began to ask the more fundamental question: how do you think of yourselves as an image-bearer of God?

The silence in response to this question was unsettling.

And the uncertainty in my own heart was even more disturbing!

That is what ultimately led me to investigate what the “image of God” means—and how the various historical interpretations, governed primarily by men in power, have impacted women.

You mention in your series that the main Christian interpretations of the imago Dei have tracked with major philosophical turns throughout history. Could you summarize for our readers what those main interpretations have been, and how those understandings excluded or included women?

There are three primary historical views of the image of God which we explore with more depth in each of the podcasts: substantive, relational, and functional.

  1. The Substantive View. In Part 2, we explored the “substantive view” with an eye to Hellenistic influences on early Christian concepts of the imago Dei. I was surprised to learn from church historian Dr. Hannah Hunt how these Hellenistic influences led many virtuous early Christian women to reject their feminine bodies, forsake marriage, and seek to become “female men of God.” In Part 3, philosopher Rachel Douchant dives into Thomas Aquinas, teasing out how women were characterized as “partially rational” during the Enlightenment, and how these concepts continue to impact women today, as can be seen in instances like the notorious “Google memo.”
  2. The Relational View. In Part 4, we see how the body, particularly sexuality and gender, became deeply significant within the “relational view” of the Image of God. Emerging from (and in response to) existential thought, modern Christianity recast the imago Dei as primarily relational in nature. Because God (plural) created male and female in his image, Karl Barth argued that the unity in differentiation of the male/female relationship reveals the essence of the relationality of the Godhead. While many consider this a “win” for women, my guest Dr. Megan DeFranza raises the question: Does this view leave out people for whom those binary categories are not neat or clean or clear?
  3. The Functional View. In Part 5, Richard Middleton takes us through historic shifts to the “functional view,” which redefined the imago Dei in light of how men function as God’s royal representatives on earth.  But what about women? Was Eve also made in the image of God or was she a derivation of the man from whom she was extracted? Did she also possess this royal dominion or was she created to submit under the authority of the man who acted alone as God’s royal representative?

You can see how this last view fuels the egalitarian vs. complementarian debates which mark significant denominational boundaries in contemporary churches.

More recently, Biblical scholars are moving away from views that overemphasize power or dominion and refocus on human identity as kin, co-regent, and priest of God within the garden temple context of the Creation story. In this view, all humans—women included—were created to be co-heirs in God’s family. This is ultimately what Christ restores us to through his life, death and resurrection.

What were some of the most significant things you discovered from your research and conversations with your guest scholars?

I learned so many things—but it mostly provoked more questions! Despite thousands of years of spinning it over, the imago Dei remains a beautiful and compelling mystery. We still don’t completely understand it.

My most significant takeaway from the Betwixt series on The Image of God and the Feminine Experience is that when our understanding of the imago Dei is refracted through a warped philosophical glass and skewed biblical understanding, the result is that our image, and especially the images of women and minorities along the margins, is tarnished and distorted.

On How Being A Woman Created in God’s Image Has Led to Transformation in Her Own Life

How has your view of yourself as a woman created in God’s image changed during this series?

Great question! The conversations with my guests that challenged me the most were the ones that helped shape how I think of myself as created in God’s image, and how that connected to my identity as a child of God.

It struck home that if I am a daughter of God, I have authority, agency, and responsibility to use the gifts and resources he has given me to bless the church and serve as an agent of restoration and reconciliation to the world. This is gospel for me. If I’m a daughter of God I have authority, agency, and responsibility to use the gifts God has given me to bless the church and serve as an agent of restoration to the world. This is gospel for me. @betwixtpodcast Click To Tweet

But I noticed I was battling against deep feelings of shame as I investigated this series. Early on, I became aware of a deep-down, gnawing sense that there is something flawed and inadequate about me as a woman. Who was I to think I could investigate and speak into a hefty theological topic like the imago Dei and the feminine experience? I found sparse scholarly work on this topic and it felt daunting.

Digging into the history of the imago Dei, I struck the roots of my shame. Women have been considered flawed and inadequate for a long time, which is why we have experienced exclusion from the doctrine of imago Dei.

Even though I live in a world where this falsehood is actively refuted, that old message is still deeply embedded. Pushing through the voices of shame has produced an incredible sense of freedom and agency as I explored my own voice. For me, this became an embrace of the imago Dei.

On The Image of God Expressed in Community

For me, the Trinity as three Persons who are one Being implies that image-bearing involves our individual uniqueness, but ultimately entails all human persons together. In other words, image-bearing is a team sport. What are your thoughts on that?

This might stir the kettle a bit, but I’m not convinced that the Trinity is connected to the imago Dei in the way that is popularly presented in churches today.

When God says, “Let us make man in our image and likeness,” does the plural us refer to the Trinity? Many Christians assume that it does—but this presents grammatical and syntax problems. Most Old Testament scholars resist explicitly reading the Trinity in Genesis 1:26-27 and provide what I think are much better interpretations.

The idea that male and female as imago Dei reflect the unity in differentiation of the Trinity was made popular within the last century. Karl Barth along with other continental theologians helped to bring this Social (sometimes called Relational) view of the Image of God to the pews at a time when psychotherapy and individualism was on the rise. Stan Grenz was instrumental in bringing sexuality to the forefront of the imago Dei discussions in a way that brings due emphasis back to community. Millard Erickson seems to think the social view is a product of existentialism.

If this is true, I can see how we are in the muddle of individualism taking over the collective nature of the imago Dei.

But what if the imago Dei is more about family than the individual or the sexual relationship? Perhaps this is why Israel as a community was set apart to image and imitate God as a priestly nation and why the church, as unified brothers and sisters, is considered the body of Christ. This opens up space for each individual to use their gifts to make the church community a place of life and flourishing.

All of that to say, that I agree with you—but prefer a different path to get there!

Well, as someone who likes to talk about the Trinity and our communal imago Dei, your criticisms are well received! I agree that a reading of the Trinity in Genesis does not work using historical/critical methods—and I fully admit that I read it theologically and in retrospect in light of the revelation of Christ. But I do think we arrive at the same conclusion: God’s image is less about individualism and sexual relationships and more about family.

On What the Trinity Teaches Us About the Egalitarian vs. Complementarian Debate

You said in part 5, “my own theological views and the trajectory of the questions that I’m asking really don’t align with either campegalitarian and complementarian.” I would have assumed you to have egalitarian views like myself. Could you say more about where the trajectory of your questions is going, and about how you are trying to transcend the debate?

Sure, I’ll give it a shot. When people refer to themselves as complementarians or egalitarians, I am never really sure what they mean. There seems to be a broad spectrum of issues and positions. However, in my observation, the main concern for both complementarians and egalitarians boils down to authority, which, in our culture, usually means power.  

But what if authority (power) wasn’t the primary concern in Scripture? What if the main concern was fecundity—the cultivation and flourishing of life? What if the church was less fixated on power/authority and more focused on the cultivation and restoration of life? What if instead of building walls and fences to protect our ideologies, we drilled wells so that all who are thirsty could come drink the waters of life? What if pastors functioned more like midwives of God’s kingdom than rulers and CEOs of their own empires?

I think the egalitarian and complementarian discussions are a product of our recent cultural shifts and highly significant to our cultural engagement. They are important to wrestle through.

However, I am personally more interested in the inverse questions that start with a focus on the gospel story of life and flourishing. From this perspective, I think we can have better impact in addressing the constant barrage of power abuse that we face today. The main concern for complementarians and egalitarians boils down to authority, which means power. But what if power wasn’t the primary concern in Scripture? What if the main concern was the flourishing of life? Click To Tweet

From my study I would say that both camps are new interpretations of the Bible based on the radical new cultural context in the late 20th century (the equality of women). Before that, everyone assumed women’s inferiority as a given. We forget how recently it is that society sees women as fully human.

Absolutely! It really is an exciting time to be a woman—though still fraught with incredible challenges, of course.

Through exploring the various view of the imago Dei, it has been interesting to witness how these views play out in our culture. For instance, Baptist theologian Stan Grenz put more elbow grease than anyone into the social view and used it to support the egalitarian position. On the other hand, founding complementarians like John Piper and John Frame rest their views on a version of the Functional view.  

It’s fascinating to observe more and more complementarians drawing from the social view by tying the male-female relationship to the Trinitarian relationship. This is curious to me because Stan Grenz demonstrates that by following this logic all the way through, we end up with two options.  Either it will lead us squarely into an egalitarian camp or we must alter the historic view of Trinity by claiming the eternal subordination of the Son. This is the hot mess complementarians are grappling through right now.

From what I understand, this is a thread you pull in your upcoming book, Trinity Matters. What’s your sense?

I think you hit the nail on the head, Deb! I’m a big fan of the egalitarian Trinity and have long thought of subordinationism as a big problem. I’ve heard that complementarians are becoming uncomfortable using the eternal subordination of the Son to justify their perspective on the subordination of women. I recommend Kevin Giles’ new book chronicling the recent civil war complementarians have gone through. It appears that complementarians are now coming back to Trinitarian orthodoxy, which might mean that the relational view might not work for them moving forward.

On Deb’s Words of Encouragement for Her Listeners

What practical advice and encouragement would you like to leave us with as we await future episodes of Betwixt?

If the image of God is for us as individuals and for the church family, then it’s important for everyone to use and grow in their gifts for the flourishing of the Church.

So my message to women is this: If God has given you a gift for the flourishing of the Church, he has given you authority to use it by the very nature of being his daughter. Seek out wise friends and spiritual directors to help you identify and grow in these gifts. Find ways to use them in and through the church. Women - if God has given you a gift for the flourishing of the Church, he has given you authority to use it by the very nature of being his daughter. Click To Tweet

Many male leaders have no idea what kinds of challenges and risks women face in exploring what the imago Dei  means to them. So my encouragement to men is: Get to know the challenges women face. For many women, even the exploration of their gifts feels like stepping into a minefield. This has been my experience. I am never sure when I cross a line or who I might offend in any given setting.

Be alert to the voices of shame, even in egalitarian settings, because they are hard for women to overcome.

Together, as we bear one another’s burdens and cultivate mutual growth in the spirit of love, the imago Dei is radiantly revealed through the church.