The Relationship Between Reformed Theology and Contemporary Theologies of
The 212th General Assembly was asked to consider the following
Commissioners’ Resolution 00-20. Concerning Dialogue
Regarding Contemporary Theologies of Women.
That the 212th General Assembly (2000)
1. Urges congregations, middle governing bodies, the General Assembly
Council, and the three divisions (National, Worldwide, and
Congregational Ministries) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to engage
in educational forums and dialogue regarding the relationship between
Reformed theology and contemporary theologies of women.
2. Instructs the PC(USA) to cooperate in preparing and widely
distributing educational resources that would be useful for study and
dialogue in these issues.
3. Instructs the General Assembly Council to assess the denominational
response to this study and dialogue and report findings to the 215th
General Assembly (2003).
Since the 1970’s, the Presbyterian church has authorized support for
women’s ministries, which has included the development and use of
theologies by women. However, since the 1993 Re-Imagining event in
Minneapolis, contemporary theologies that are identified as feminist,
womanist (African-American), and mujerista (Latina), and Asian have been
regarded with suspicion and outright contempt in some quarters of the
When Presbyterians experience deep disagreement about particular issues
regarding diversity, the General Assembly has asked members across the
denomination to engage in study and dialogue together (dialogue on
abortion, 1989; study and dialogue on homosexuality, 199396; dialogue in
“Unity and Diversity” events, 19992001).
Many Presbyterians have very little familiarity with contemporary
women’s theologies and have few opportunities to discuss the role of
these theological perspectives in the church The action by the General
Assembly would provide important education, understanding, and mutual
engagement about theological differences that are at the heart of some
of the denomination’s most contested disputes.
Norman R. Lindblad
Presbytery of Cincinnati
Molly D. Morgan
Presbytery of Salem
This resolution was referred to the General Assembly Council (GAC) with only
one amendment.Instead of ‘urging” the GAC and three divisions of the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA) to engage in the forums, and dialogue
‘regarding the relationship between Reformed theology and contemporary
theologies of women,” the GAC and the three divisions of the PCUSA were
‘directed” to do so.
In a remarkably speedy response, the Women’s Ministries Program Area (WMPA)
of the PCUSA produced and distributed a ‘primer” on Feminist Theology.This
year they will have available, in time for this General Assembly, ‘primers”
on both Womanist Theology and Mujerista Theology (available in both English
and Spanish).The dialogue’ called for seems more like a monologue at this
point, but it does bring up the question of whether or not such a dialogue
can even take place in any meaningful way.
The discussion called for is one that is to explore the ‘relationship
between Reformed theology and contemporary theologies of women.”1 This
assumes that there is or is the possibility of some relationship’ between
them.The rationale given for this discussion includes the concern that ‘Many
Presbyterianshave few opportunities to discuss the role of these (Feminist,
Womanist, Mujerista, 2 theological perspectives in the church.”Here again,
the assumption is that these ‘theologies” have a role to play in the life
of the Church.
In addition to working on this resolution, the WMPA welcomed a new associate
director to their helm this Spring, Mary Elva Smith.In an interview with
Leslie Scanlon of ‘The Presbyterian Outlook” she offered this bit of advice
on addressing the controversy over the programs and teaching of the WMPA,
‘those concerned about Women’s Ministries need to, de-escalate the polarity
and try to find a way to talk about our common ground and then begin to talk
about our differences.”’ 3 Smith assumes that there is a common ground’
to talk about between the theologies of women’ developed and used’ by the
WMPA and those who are calling for faithfulness to the teachings of our
It is the above assumptions that this paper seeks to challenge.The place to
begin that challenge is not with an examination of the content of these
various theologies.’4 Rather a more basic examination of the approach to
theology in general will reveal whether or not any meaningful conversation
can take place between these theologies’ and Reformed theology.
At root, ‘contemporary theologies of women” 5 along with most modern
liberal theologies and even many conservative theologies, fit into what
George Lindbeck, a retired Yale Divinity School Professor, labels
‘experiential-expressivism,” which he defines in reference to those who
practice it, ‘thinkers of this tradition all locate ultimately significant
contact with whatever is finally important to religion in the prereflective
experiential depths of the self and regard the public or outer features of
religion as expressive and evocative objectifications (i.e. nondiscursive
symbols) of internal experience.” 6
What this means is that those who adopt this methodology believe that
religion is purely an expression of a person’s own experience.It is a
person’s experience that determines the shape and content of their
theology.Whether that involves Re-imagining God to correspond with our own
ideas of what is God-like or elevating personal testimony to the level of
proclaiming the Gospel, our own experience is the determining factor in how
we talk about God.What is more, our experience becomes the criterion used to
evaluate the worth and relevance of other talk about God, including the
Bible, Creeds, and Confessions.
The logical outcome of pursuing religious studies along an experiential-
expressivist line is actually the opposite of the inclusiveness its
proponents claim as their highest value.Rather this method only leads to
fragmentation and isolation.The feminist movement itself has had to come to
terms with this reality.In an interview given upon her impending retirement
Letty M. Russell, a Yale Divinity School Professor and early proponent of
the feminist movement within the church, had this to say about feminist
theology today, ‘We don’t talk about feminist theology anymore.We speak
about theologies.There’s womanist (African-American women’s) theology, Asian
theology, mujerista (Hispanic) and queer’ theology (the theology of gays and
lesbians).” 7 Mary Elva Smith in her interview cited above has this to say
about the ‘need for Women’s Ministries to be inclusive theologically,” she
said that there needs to be an understanding, ‘that within feminist theology
there is significant cultural and ideological diversity.” 8 If theology
is nothing more than a record of human experiences then this fragmentation
is no surprise; of course African-American, Hispanic, and Asian women are
going to have different experiences. But why stop with only cultural and
The reality of this position is that even if you assume a common object of
experience, in this case God’ or the divine,’ there is no way to prove that
one particular person’s, let alone one particular group’s, experience is an
experience of the same thing as another’s.At the end of the day it is
impossible for one person to have the same experiences as another.Not only
does this lead to fragmentation and isolation, but can in fact set one group
against the other, as is the case with the relationship between many
contemporary theologies of women and Judaism.The anti-Semitism inherent in a
theology that sees the Old Testament and Jewish religion as a proponent of
the patriarchy that is supposed to oppress women is acknowledged by
feminists and their critics alike. 9
Experiential-expressivism is an intellectual dead-end that stifles true
discussion and dialogue.Lindbeck, who is concerned to find a method that is
able to address ecumenism and inter-faith relations dismisses
experiential-expressivism from the pool altogether, saying it, ‘can be
disregarded becausethey make meaningless the historic doctrinal affirmations
of unconditionality, irreversibility, or infallibility, and thus leave
nothing to discuss.” 10 That experiential-expressivism is an inadequate
methodology for true theological discussion lies in the fact that, ‘each
type of theology is embedded in a conceptual framework so comprehensive that
it shapes its own criteria of adequacy.”11
At best this method that lies at the root of contemporary theologies of
women yields up nothing more than a full range of self-contained
monologues.Those who are engaged in theological conversations throughout the
church today are beginning to discover the bankruptcy of this method.Many
times we will use the same words but invest those words with vastly
different meanings, because we are defining those words within conceptual
frameworks that have no reference to each other.This renders language
meaningless and discussion the same.It is evident that meaningful
conversation, let alone a shared role in the church, is not even possible
among the different contemporary theologies of women, hence the WMPA’s need
for more than one ‘primer.”It would seem that such internal fragmentation
does not bode well for the more complex ‘dialogue regarding the relationship
between Reformed theology and contemporary theologies of women” that has
been called for in the above resolution.
The resolution itself betrays the incompatible nature of the two enterprises
it seeks to bring together in dialogue by its vocabulary: ‘Reformed
_theology,_” and ‘contemporary _theologies_ of women.” 12 Such an
enterprise of theologies’ is vastly different from the enterprise of
‘theology.”The task of theologies has been discussed above, and now we must
turn to the task of theology and examine the basis of its method.
Theology, the word itself, comes from the Greek and means ‘the study of
God.”In its definition it implies a common goal and a singular purpose that
is not the case with the word, ‘theologies.”Lindbeck notes about the
Christian faith in distinction from others, ‘from the very beginning this
religion has been committed to the possibility of expressing the same faith,
the same teaching, and the same doctrine in diverse ways.” 13 Theology is
not about recording and relating our own experiences of what we perceive to
be God, but about handing on the faith, a faith that has as a first-order
principle that we know God through God’s own revelation ultimately in Jesus
Christ made known to us in Scripture.
As such the purpose of theology is not merely descriptive, but is as Ellen
Charry defines it in her fine historical analysis of the practice of
theology, aretegenic.’ 14 For an enterprise to be ‘aretegenic” means that
it is character forming.Theology is not shaped by our experiences, but our
experience, our whole lives are to be shaped by theology.This is a radically
different concept of study’ than what it has come to mean to our
post-Enlightenment and scientific sensibilities.Theology, or the study of
God is not so much putting God under the microscope as it is putting oneself
under Godseeking true ‘under-standing.”It is as Edmund O. Hill says of
Augustine’s treatise on the Trinity: we miss the point unless we grasp that,
‘Augustine is proposing the quest for, or the exploration of, the mystery of
the Trinity as a complete program for the spiritual life, a program of
conversion and renewal and discovery of self in God and God in self.”
Experience is not absent from theology, but neither is it the organizing
principle.Rather theology seeks to draw us out of our own small lives into
an experience of the very life of God, into the dynamic and eternal, living
relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In light of such a purpose the practice of theology is definitely an
‘inside” job.Again we look at Augustine’s method in _The Trininty _as a
prime example of the practice of theology:
throughout the work he never leaves the field of theology in the strict
sense.From beginning to end, in his quest for God, he is trying to
understand what he believes, and never for one moment does he prescind from
what he calls the _initium fidei_, the starting point of faith.Nowhere in
the work is he trying to approach the mystery from other premises than those
provided by revelation and accepted by faith. 16
Theology is first and foremost faith seeking understanding.’Even when
theologians are critical of the received tradition as were those of the
Medieval Era such as Anselm and Aquinas, Charry writes of them, ‘For the
purposes of historical continuity, it is important to note that they did
their work as insiders, committed to the truth of the Christian faith, yet
admonishing it to be its best self.” 17 The practice of theology takes
place within the context of the Christian faith.The Bible provides for the
Christian theological enterprise an entire world and life-view rather than,
as is the case with theologies,’ a piece, and it may be a negative piece at
that, of a world and life-view ultimately consisting of one’s own
experiences.Charry goes on to speak of our practice of theology today and
writes, ‘Those who conclude that the Christian tradition is useless or
irredeemably harmful cannot in good conscience be Christian theologians.They
must find another place to stand where their integrity can be respected.”
18 Under this rubric, it appears that manycontemporary theologies of women’
as defined in this resolution cannot with integrity seek a role in the
church.Nor is it possible for theologies’ which view the Christian
tradition, if they refer to it at all, as just one stop along their
spiritual journey into themselves to have any meaningful conversation with
theology’ which lives and works and plays in the country of the Christian
The quest of theologies, as Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz describes mujerista
philosophy, ‘[to] look at theology from a perspective of culture, ethnicity,
and socioeconomic issues,” 19 has little if anything in common with
theology, the object of which is not to look at itself but to direct the
hearts and minds of its practitioners and hearers to God, and encompasses
culture, ethnicity, and socioeconomic issues in its quest.Rather than
theologies’ in which our world and life becomes the lens through which we
view the Bible and the Christian tradition, theology consists of the
discipline of using the Bible and Christian tradition subordinate to it as
the lens through which we view our world and life.
This commissioner’s resolution seems to imply that people reject
contemporary theologies of women’ because they do not understand them.Smith
so much as says this is the case in her interview, ‘criticisms of feminist
theology have not always reflected an accurate consideration of the
theological points the speakers were trying to make.” 20 Still others like
Russell in her interview attributes the rejection of feminism to fear and
unwillingness to change, ‘Some people are frightened by this (feminism
making inroads into the church and society). They’d like everything to go
back to how it used to be.”21 These comments do not do the objections
justice, nor does this kind of rhetoric foster dialogue– you cannot
dialogue with those you do not take seriously.Perhaps the ‘backlash” 22
against feminist theology is due to the fact that people have understood and
are not afraid to expose the dead-end to which this method of inquiry leadsa
point that those engaged in formulating contemporary theologies of women
ought not to dismiss so lightly.
In the end, it has to be said that it appears that this called for dialogue’
must of necessity be nothing but a series of monologues.Contemporary
theologies of women’ and Reformed theology simply cannot talk to each other
in any meaningful way because they are two different animals.The former are
like sea gulls, swimming just on the surface of the water of Scripture and
Christian tradition which make up the context of Christian faith, taking
just enough to feed their flight and shedding the rest on their way.The
latter are like fish who live and breathe the water and whose journey takes
them into new channels and unexplored depths, but never out of the ocean.
Smith says in her interview that she looks forward to ‘real theological
conversation” with ‘a range of strong theologians.” 23
May the Good Lord provide her with such, that she and all those engaged in
such a worthy task may be drawn ever deeper into the dynamic life of the
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to the glory of God alone and their full
enjoyment as they under-stand’ the Almighty.
Charry,Ellen T.. _By The Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Hill, Edmund, O.P.. Introduction to _The Works of Saint Augustine: a
translation for the 21st_
_Century_, Part IBooks, Volume 5: _The Trinity_, ed. John E. Rotelle,
O.S.A.. Trans. with
introduction and notes by Edmund Hill, O.P.. Brooklyn: New City Press, 1991.
Larson, Viola. ‘Human Experience Versus The Church’s Confession.”Article
Available from http://www.naminggrace.org/id24.htm .
Lindbeck,George._The Nature of Doctrine:Religion and Theology in a
Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984.
Lindblad, Norman R. and Morgan, Molly D.. ‘Comissioners’ Resolution 00-20.
Dialogue Regarding Contemporary Theologies of Women.”_Presbyterian Church
26 June 2000. Resolution on-line. Available from
Scanlon,Leslie. ‘New Women’s Ministry leader wants to keep working to make
whole.”’ _The Presbyterian Outlook._Article online.
Available from http://www.pres-outlook.com/maryelva.html .
Wolfe, Kathi. ‘Feminist theology charting new course(s).” _Star-Telegram,
Fort Worth, TX_, 5
January 2001. c. 2001 Religion New Service. Distributed by the Associated
Article on-line.Available from
1 This phrase as it is used in this resolution designates radical feminist
philosophy, womanist, mujerista, and some Asian women’s philosophies.It does
not include the theology practiced by all contemporary women, since at least
some contemporary women practice Reformed theology.In their cases the
discussion called for in this resolution would be irrelevant.
2 I am reluctant to use ‘Asian” as a description of the theology’ meant in
this case, since all Asians and even all Asian women do not share this
3 Leslie Scanlon, ‘New Women’s Ministry leader wants to keep working to make
the church whole,”’ _The Presbyterian Outlook_ [article online]; available
from http://www.pres-outlook.com/maryelva.html ; Internet; accessed 1 June
4 I would suggest that if you want to know what these women think that you
read what they write and the WMPA’s primers might be a good place to start.
I would make the same suggestion where Reformed Theology is concerned and
our own PCUSA Book of Confessions is a great place to start.Be sure to read
all these theologies’ with your Bible open, looking up the Bible passages
they use and taking into account the context of those passages.
5 The inadequacies of this term have already been discussed. Nevertheless,
for lack of a better designation (since the term ‘feminism” cannot be used
to encompass womanist and mujerista philosophy) it will be used throughout
this paper to designate the same types of philosophies to which the writers
of the resolution refer.
6 George Lindbeck, _The Nature of Doctrine:Religion and Theology in a
Postliberal Age_, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), 21.
7 KathiWolfe, ‘Feminist theology charting new course(s),” _Star-Telegram,
Fort Worth, TX_, 5 January 2001, c. 2001 Religion New Service, Distributed
by the Associated Press (AP) [article on-line]; available from
html; Internet; accessed 6 January 2001.
9 See Wolfe, and Viola Larson, ‘Human Experience Versus The Church’s
Confession,” [article on-line]; available from
http://www.naminggrace.org/id24.htm; accessed 10 May 2001.
10 Lindbeck, 91.
12 Emphasis mine.
13 Lindbeck, 92.
14 Ellen T. Charry, _By The Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of
Christian Doctrine_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 3-32.
15 Edmund Hill O.P., introduction to _The Works of Saint Augustine: a
translation for the 21st Century_, Part IBooks, Volume 5: _The Trinity_, ed.
John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., trans. with an introduction and notes by Edmund
Hill, O.P. (Brooklyn: New City Press, 1991),19.
16> Ibid., 23.
17 Charry, 231.
18> Ibid., 235.