This semester I am teaching Paul Knitter’s Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis Books, 2002) as part of a section on the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions. My friends from my undergraduate theology days will certainly recognize this book. In it, Knitter goes through four different models that describe how Christianity can relate to non-Christian religions: the replacement model, the fulfillment model, the mutuality model, and the acceptance model. I like this book in particular because it’s very readable for undergraduates and generally presents the models without judgment, which allows me the opportunity to have my students evaluate and judge each model based on their understanding of Christianity and Christian history.

I generally don’t like to be nitpicky about books, but a few weeks ago, as I was preparing to teach the fulfillment model for the first time, I took objection to an aside comment that Knitter makes about the period of the early church. He says, “During the first three centuries, one of the principal ways in which early Christian theologians (called the Church Fathers–if there were any Church Mothers, we have no historical record of them) tried to figure out the meaning of this broader ‘pagan’ culture was by means of a central theme of the New Testament: the Word of God” (p. 64, emphasis is my own).

All I want to ask is: Seriously, Paul Knitter? We have no historical record of “Church Mothers”? 

At the same time as I am teaching this class, I am teaching a section of the History of Christianity in which we read the writings by or about women from each period of church history: early, medieval, and modern. If there are no “Church Mothers,” then what are we reading in the period of the early church?

Now, of course, one of the problems with women’s voices in the early church period is that we don’t actually have any unfiltered voices of women. The records that we have of the voices of women in this period are all reported through the writing of men, which creates a problem if we’re trying to get at what women “really” thought.

Two texts that I assign, however, stand out as being significant examples of “Church Mothers” that we should keep in mind when we’re teaching the history of Christianity. The first is the account of the Martyrdom of Perpetua (c. 203 CE). Although the text itself bears the marks of later editing, as the introduction to the text I use in class explains, Perpetua’s own voice in the text is undisputed.1 Diarmaid MacCulloch calls it “one of the most remarkable pieces of writing by a woman surviving from the ancient world.”2 MacCulloch highlights some of the boldness in Perpetua’s account as the reason it is so remarkable. She stood up to her father and rejected any duty that she should have to her family and her child. In relation to the latter, she reported, “Then God saw to it that my child no longer needed my nursing, nor were my breasts inflamed. After that I was no longer tortured by anxiety about my child or by pain in my breasts” (In Her Words, p. 30).

One of the issues in reclaiming women’s voices from the past is that their writings are often not as straightforward about their theological content as we find in the writings of men. So, some interpretation of their texts is necessary to draw out the theological message. There is significant theological content in Perpetua’s account of martyrdom, including the idea of salvation through Jesus Christ, the significance of martyrdom, the role of a Christian in relation to his or her family, God as the source of faith, God’s providential care of the martyrs, the power of prayer and intercession, the theological significance of suffering, etc. These are all significant ideas in the history of Christianity. So how is Perpetua not a “Church Mother?”

The other significant text that comes to mind in this case is the teaching of Macrina in On the Soul and the Resurrection (c. 380 CE), written by her brother Gregory of Nyssa. This text is a little more ambiguous because the words are Gregory’s, not Macrina’s. But, whether or not they are Macrina’s own words, the fact that her brother attributed them to her remains significant. What would Gregory gain by claiming that these thoughts are those of a woman and not his own? He identifies Macrina as Basil the Great’s sister “the Teacher” (In Her Words, p. 48) and proceeds to explain a sophisticated theological discussion about the soul, the period of purgation that the soul will undergo after death, and an idea of universal salvation. Macrina was supposedly called “the Theologian” by her brother, which is particularly significant in that, over 1000 years later, in France, the Abbot of Saint-Cyran referred to Agnès Arnauld as la théologienne with a direct reference to Gregory and Macrina as a model.

So, again, I ask: do we really have “no historical record” of Church Mothers? This seems to me to be an oversimplification of the period and a lack of understanding about women’s voices in the history of Christianity.

  1. I use the anthology In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought, edited by Amy Oden (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), which is a fairly good collection of writings by and about women throughout the history of Christianity. 
  2. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), p. 162. 

7 thoughts

  1. Good observation. I had to smile at your title, though. “Seems” doubtful? What about: IS doubtful? Good choices on the two texts you use to illustrate how very doubtful Paul Knitter’s comment is. And I think you’re right to connect “motherhood” and “fatherhood” of the church in terms of theological or doctrinal formulation. But is it possible to not even go (or remain) there, I wonder? What if our criteria for mothering and fathering the church had less to do with formulating doctrine and just with embodying Christian faith? Then we’d have even more sources open up to us. Good post. I love the glimpse into your teaching life.

    1. That’s a good point in terms of formulating doctrine vs. embodying Christian faith. Especially with the example of Macrina, her influence on her family is also significant. So there’s perhaps more than one way of contributing theologically to the development of Christianity that we should consider.

  2. I think our definition of theology is the problem. We expect theologians to be academics who write treatises. Mystics (male and female) are therefore not considered to be proper theologians. We have a very 12th century perspective on theology. Founders of orders dedicated to service are not considered theologians even though they certainly had a belief system that informed their service. These service-based orders have indirectly shaped doctrine.

  3. I wonder if part of the problem is the configuration of mother and father in the theological, and particularly ecclesiological, imagination then and (to a lesser extent) now. The church itself is seen as mother, the baptismal font as its womb, and the bishop as joined to his church in a nuptial bond. There is no room for Church Mothers in this picture; only for Church Fathers, who are seen as the spiritual fathers of believers who are reborn from the womb of Mother Church.

  4. Have you read Gaventa’s “Our Mother Saint Paul”? A compelling argument that the way Paul uses language about himself aligns him with women. In an age of transphobia, it feels right and good to name Paul as one of our early Church Mothers.

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