’Shadows and Broken Images’: thinking theologically about femaleness and maleness

I’ve been reading Megan DeFranza’s new book, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God (Eerdmans, 2015). It happens I will be on a panel with DeFranza at ETS in Atlanta this year; reading her book made me look forward to that interaction all the more. I confess I’ve not quite finished it yet; it is a very worthwhile book, which I am not here trying to review, but reading her arguments sparked an idea which seems worth exploring. I want to argue that our best way of thinking through an adequately postmodern account of human sex-difference might come from reflecting on medieval commentaries on Lombard’s Sentences.

DeFranza begins by identifying and criticising a ‘medical’ model of intersex which sees being intersex as a ‘condition’ that needs to be ‘cured’ by medical, probably surgical, intervention. She goes on to explore the history of sex-identity in the Christian west (notably the – catastrophic – acceptance of the Aristotelian doctrine that there is one human sex, and that women are deficient males), and to present what is (going to be I think – not finished it yet!) effectively a liberation theology of intersex, proclaiming an intersex Jesus after the manner of Cone’s Black Jesus or Eisland’s disabled Jesus.

Her description of the medical model got me thinking. It is a praxis more than a theory, of course, and involves the following practices/assumptions:

  1. Each child at or around birth is assigned a category by observation – normal male, normal female, or abnormal
  2. Children defined as abnormal should be rendered normal, or as close as possible to it, by medical intervention.
  3. So an intersex child should be defined as deficiently male, or deficiently female and should be rendered as adequately male/female as is possible, through surgery and socialisation.

DeFranza’s main criticism of this, following Fausto-Sterling, is philosophical: it presumes the normalcy of a binary sex model; if we reject the claim that the only ways to be adequately human are to be properly male or properly female, then we have good reason to object to this whole process of non-consensual invasive intervention.

Well yes – although deconstructing a binary sex model is going to have some fairly far reaching consequences (it makes such categories as straight, gay, lesbian, bi, and even trans rather complicated, for instance…) Further – as DeFranza recognises, for the Christian theologian there is a certain exegetical pressure towards a binary reading of sex, as when Jesus quotes Genesis, ‘the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”…’ (Mt. 19:4). That said, DeFranza wants to resist that exegetical pressure, because she is properly, Christianly, concerned about the ‘other others’, the ones who find no box in our neat systems of classification. She identifies the concern as postmodern; I would rather identify it as Christian; the marginalised and excluded should always be the people to whom the church is most responsible.

DeFranza develops her rejection of a binary account of human sex by suggesting that if we grant ontological status to maleness and femaleness we are going to have serious problems with the incarnation, and that those who proclaim ontological difference are unable to specify what these differences are, beyond the crudely physical. The second point strikes me both as right, and as important – I will come back to it. On the first, I think her argument at least needs more work: there is plenty of discussion of the point out there, going all the way back to Augustine’s raising of the question of why the divine Logos became incarnate as a man, not a woman (in ad Simpl. from memory – or possibly the eighty-three questions?). This argument was included in Lombard’s Sentences (Bk III dist. xii art. III) and so we have literally hundreds of medieval discussions of the point in the commentaries, before we ever get to all the modern ones prompted by feminist theological reflection.

The modern discussions generally suggest that it is possible to give a decent account of sex difference whilst holding to the maleness of the incarnate One – I routinely set my students Ruether’s essay, ‘Can a male saviour save women? Rescuing Christology from patriarchy.’ for instance. I guess DeFranza would suggest that Reuther and others end up weakening the ontological binary, which may well be true, but the point needs to be demonstrated.

The medieval discussions (or those I have read) mostly rely on the unhappy Aristotelian biology. Commenting on the Sentences, Aquinas proposes an argument for the position that the Logos should have become female with the line ‘Christus assumpsit defectus naturae nostrae. Sed fragilitas sexus feminei est quidam defectus. Ergo debuit ipsum assumere’ (Super Sent., lib. 3 d. 12 q. 3 a. 1 qc. 2 arg. 2). We can live without such arguments, I think. His positive reasons for asserting the necessary maleness of the incarnation are 1. ‘Christus fuit caput Ecclesiae. Sed mulier non est caput viri, sed e converso, secundum apostolum. Ergo non debuit esse mulier.’ and 2. ‘Christus, ut esset doctor Ecclesiae, promittitur Joel. 2. Sed mulieri non convenit docere in Ecclesia, ut patet 1 Corinth. 14. Ergo Christus non debuit sexum femineum assumere.’ It’s fair to say that I don’t think that this is his best moment, theologically speaking… (Although the first positive argument is perhaps open to a charitable reading via sacramental understandings of marriage, and Eph. 5, which might be more worthwhile.)

The immediately-prior discussion is much more interesting, however: not why the incarnate one is male, but why the incarnate one is sexed at all: asking ‘Utrum Christus debuit aliquem sexum accipere’ (lib. 3 d. 12 q. 3 a. 1), Thomas offers three arguments for the negative, one relying on Gal. 3:28, one suggesting that sex is merely functional – ‘sexus ordinatur ad generationem carnalem. Sed Christus non venerat ut esset principium humani generis per generationem carnalem, sed spiritualem. Ergo &c.’ – and one fascinating line about God’s relation to created sex difference, which ends, strikingly, ‘Ergo vel utrumque assumere debuit, vel neutrum’. His positive arguments for a sexed incarnation are an appeal to Heb. 2:17, coupled with an assertion that to be ‘human in every way’ includes to be sexed, and the more troubling line ‘quod est inassumptibile, est incurabile, ut dicit Damascenus. Sed sexus praecipue curatione indigebat, in quo maxime peccatum originale regnat. Ergo debuit assumere sexum,’ which I might just about be able to accept if we first delete the ‘praecipue’ and the ‘maxime’, although even then it seems to confuse sex with sexuality in ways that I find rather difficult.

That said, this last point exposes an important assumption: our sex, our very maleness and femaleness, stands in need of redemption and healing. If we take that seriously, we can get somewhere, although we need one more piece of the jigsaw – Augustine’s (hard-won…) argument that sex difference will persist in the eschaton (which increasingly seems to me to be an absolutely crucial doctrine for working out our ethics and anthropology; let this go, and all sorts of things fall apart).

With this in place, we can suggest that true maleness and true femaleness are, theologically considered, a memory and a hope, not a present possession. East of Eden, in our present fallen, broken, state, we are all inadequately sexed. When Ransom meets the (unfallen) King and Queen of Venus in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, he exclaims ‘I have never before seen a man or a woman. I have lived all my life among shadows and broken images.’ There’s a lot going on in Perelandra, and I’m uncomfortable with a fair amount of it, but this point seems to me to be perceptive and right. Fallen beings in every part of our life, our biological sex too is bent out of shape and nothing like what it should be.

This gets me back to DeFranza’s second point above; as I said, I think she is right to claim that we cannot specify with any exactness what it is to be male or female, theologically speaking. I suggest, however, that this is not because the binary is not a part of being human; it is because we have almost no access to what it is to be properly human.

Now, that ‘almost’ needs some work. We have 1. the pre-fall creation accounts; 2. the prophetic and apocalyptic visions of the coming Kingdom; 3. the example of Jesus. The life of Jesus is difficult data: it is one life, and so whilst we must insist that every act and decision is congruent with true maleness, it is hard to argue that any particular act or decision is necessary to true maleness. So, for example, the fact that Jesus depended for financial support on a group of wealthy women (Lk. 8:1-3) tells us that it is not antithetical to being properly male to be financially dependent on a woman, but an argument that it is necessary to true human maleness to be financially dependent on a woman, whilst much better founded exegetically than most recent proposals about ‘Biblical manhood’, is not finally convincing.

It seems to me that Augustine’s exegetical arguments are compelling for the eschaton, and that the protological texts point in the same direction, and so that a modest commitment to some sort of binary account of human sex is necessary but, again, we must not confuse that true binary with any aspect of our present experience. That’s about it from the exegesis, as far as I can see. We have almost no access to what it is to be properly human; it remains a memory and a desire – we know only the ‘shadows and broken images’. (I accept the possibility that there is nothing more to true human sex difference than the physical; I do not think we can know this, however.)

This is not a theology of intersex – it might be the basis for one, but although I have gained much from DeFranza’s book, and from reading Susannah Cornwall on the subject, I do not know anything like enough to attempt such a construction. It is, though, a suggestion of how one might criticise the ‘medical model’ of intersex whilst holding on to some sort of binary model of maleness/femaleness; on my telling, the problem is not that some children are classed as ‘abnormal’, but that any of us are classed as ‘normal’. We are not. We are broken, warped, fallen – we are not as we should be. I want to address DeFranza’s proper Christian/postmodern concern about the ‘other others’ with a suggestion that, according to the gospel, our problem is not so much that we regard some people as ‘other’ as that we do not regard all people, including supremely ourselves,  as belonging to that category. None of us are ‘normal’, adequately human, Jesus alone excepted (if you’re properly Catholic, you can have Mary too).

In the beginning the One who created them created them male and female. Now we are – all – shadows and broken images of our true selves; the promise of the gospel is that one Day we will become who we were created to be. This is as true of our maleness and femaleness as of every other area of our lives.


  1. Michael Roca-Terry
    Aug 19, 2015

    Hi Steve,

    This whole topic is somewhat beyond me, particularly as regards intersex children etc. I’m hesitant to comment at all, for that reason amongst many.

    That said, am I misinterpreting your intended meaning when I read your post, and get a distinct sense of a low anthropology, twinned with/ostensibly caused by an underlying eschatological conviction?

    When you write ‘we must not confuse that true binary with any aspect of our present experience’, for instance, how might bringing this proposal into dialogue with a text such as 2 Cor 5:17-21 affect your understanding of our fallen state? Are we merely caught between the ages, with no possibility of genuine transformation prior to the eschaton? Or are we not embroiled in a tussle for adopting aspects of our future redemption now, over against our old nature? Does Paul’s discussion of life kata sarka vs kata pneuma have any bearing on this conversation, or am I off track?



    • steve
      Aug 19, 2015

      Hi Michael, Thanks for stopping by. I guess, simply, I want to hold to a Reformed understanding of our progressive transformation into our eschatological selves: we make progress in this life, but it remains always incomplete. I think there is also reason to assume that our eschatological bodies will have different capacities to our present bodies, and that we will only achieve those capacities at the resurrection, and that, of course, that is true human embodiment, not what we know now.(All this from the narratives of Jesus’ own resurrection body.)

  2. Philip
    Aug 19, 2015

    Thanks for a reasoned, charitable, and calm response to a difficult question. I’m wondering what your outline here suggests about the right response to actual intersex persons. The medical impulse is to “fix” their “broken” biology. What is the moral response? Your conclusion implies that we’re all abnormal — but intersex persons might be more abnormal, given the ideal form of true femininity and masculinity that you grant exists. Does that mean some transformation should still be expected, or is this an abnormality that should be accepted?

    • steve
      Aug 19, 2015

      Thanks Philip. My simple, if cowardly, answer is ‘I don’t know’ – this is what I meant about not having the knowledge to construct a theology of being intersex. I would want to know a bit more about the biology, and a whole lot more about lived experience from a variety of cultural norms. A good theology would bring this lived experience into dialogue with theological norms, allowing it to challenge them, seeing if they are capable of standing under the challenge, or if they can perhaps be reshaped somewhat to meet the challenge – the sort of stuff DeFranza is doing in her book.

      I would strongly resist the language of ‘more abnormal’ – it implies an ability to make value judgements that I don’t think we have.

  3. Lianne Simon
    Aug 20, 2015

    Thank you, steve, for at least taking Megan’s book seriously. Some of the other posts I’ve seen ignore what she said.

    One to ponder: A woman with the complete form of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is born with XY chromosomes. Although she has female-typical external genitalia, she has testes in her abdomen rather than ovaries and uterus. The Bible classifies her as barren female. Will she be male in the resurrection, because of her XY chromosomes and testes? Or female because of her external genitalia, which is how the Bible classifies her. Or will she remain intersex, since the resurrection body isn’t about procreation? The reality is that God created her biologically intersex. Why is that a problem? One might argue, I suppose that the mapping from biological sex to legal sex is a construct. As Megan argues, and as you imply, none of us–on a biological level–is perfectly male or female. But then, why is that not simply God-ordained diversity? As in hair and eye colors?

    Lianne Simon — intersex and Christian

    • steve
      Aug 20, 2015

      Lianne, Thanks for stopping by. I really meant what I said about not knowing enough to theologise about intersex; I am not trying to make any claims here, so much as to suggest that if we feel the need to be committed to a binary account of sex, then there might be a less damaging/invidious way of doing it, and that it is one that has surprising purchase in the Christian tradition.
      From a position of admitted ignorance, though, I would make four tentative points on the example you offer:
      1. You say nothing (except perhaps implicitly by calling her ‘her’) about how this person experiences her own identity, which seems to me to be an important question. The best Christian ethical stuff in this area a generation ago tended to draw an unhappy contrast between trans and intersex (calling both by different names, of course…) assuming (putting it crudely) that not fitting the binaries biologically was somehow more worthy of ethical reflection than not fitting the binaries psychologically; that seems to me to be flawed in some very serious ways.
      2. You say ‘The Bible classifies her as barren female’? Does it? If you mean ‘people in Biblical times would have classed her as barren female’ then you are no doubt right, but people in Biblical times made all sorts of assumptions that are nowhere taught in the Bible, and that distinction is rather important…
      3. ‘Why is that not simply God-ordained diversity? As in hair or eye colors?’ I suppose I see a fairly significant degree of exegetical and theological pressure to at least pause to consider the possibility that in divine intention human sex is binary. It might be that at the end we find good reason to reject that pressure, but I don’t think that I – as a theologian – can responsibly pretend it isn’t there. I realise that is very easy for me to say, and much, much harder for you to hear; I see my vocation here as struggling with trying to hear the Bible and the tradition in one ear, and scientific advances and personal narratives in the other, and finding something to say that is adequately responsible to both. I don’t pretend to do it very well…
      4. Let me make one positive affirmation: I do not know whether she will be raised male, female or intersex; I am sure that the particular glory of her resurrection life will reflect the reality of her being intersex in this life; come the resurrection everything will be transformed, but nothing that matters will be lost.

      • Mike Johnson
        Jan 20, 2023

        According to Matthew 22:30, Jesus said we will be like the angels which I take to mean there will be no sex differences after the resurrection.

        • steve
          Jan 23, 2023

          Augustine argued the point at length, concluding that sex differences would remain. For good recent discussions of his argument, see Christopher Roberts, Creation and Covenant, or Beth Felker-Jones, Marks of His Wounds.

  4. Lianne Simon
    Aug 20, 2015

    I know of no one with CAIS who claims to be a boy/man.

    Yes, it is difficult to differentiate between what people would have done in Biblical times and what is normative.

    Deut 23:1 says that changing genital shape can change legal sex in the eyes of the law. At least an indication that genital shape was a concern to the law.

    Matt 19:12 indicates that at birth some were considered neither male nor female, presumably based on observation of genital shape. Matt 19:12 also indicates that some change their legal sex category for good reason.

    Barren women, throughout the Bible are treated not much differently than fertile women. They were allowed to marry. And Isaiah 54 gives faithful barren women hope.

    Regarding transsex, I would point out the Matt 19:12 doesn’t appear to make an ethical difference between those born eunuch and those who choose surgery to become so.

    At the very least, the Bible recognizes some intersex as being distinct from male or female. (Matt 19:12 again)

    Kind regards,

    • steve
      Aug 20, 2015

      Good points. I will think further. Thank you.

  5. Lianne Simon
    Aug 20, 2015

    The other thing I forgot to mention–In Acts, Philip healed numerous people. One exception was the Ethiopian eunuch. Perhaps being a eunuch wasn’t something that needed fixing. If the Ethiopian eunuch was born that way, then he was intersex. If he was made that way, wouldn’t Philip have healed that violence? If he chose to be that way, it has implications for modern day transgender people. If you say that the Ethiopian eunuch wasn’t a real eunuch, then I’d like to see another place in the Bible where someone was called that without being one in the flesh. (And I understand that some translations soften Matthew 19:12 until it’s meaningless.)

  6. Ian Paul
    Aug 20, 2015

    Steve, thanks for this. I am impressed by your patience in exploring these issues!

    Despite all the subtleties of the argument, isn’t there a single, massive point of departure in the phrase ‘mere biology’? Isn’t the attempt to define human identity, in particular human sexual identity apart from the physical, which is often qualified as ‘mere’ a rejection of the physical creation, which Tom Wright calls ‘gnostic’, and which was the logical grounds for Paul’s charge of idolatry in Romans 1?

    I am not familiar with Augustine’s argument about sex difference in the eschaton. It has struck me that is Jesus’ wounds were recognisable in the resurrection body, then other things about him must also have been intact, including his genitals. Assuming that bodily identity is not ‘mere biology’ this then takes male sex difference into the eschaton.

    Or does Augustine say something different?

    • steve
      Aug 21, 2015

      Ian, thanks for this. My language was misleading: ‘mere’ in the sense of ‘pure’. I absolutely do not want to denigrate physicality, but an argument that moves from ‘this is my physical existence’ to ‘this is how God intended me to be’ with no other premises is, it seems to me, a poor argument. That was all I meant.

      • Ian Paul
        Aug 21, 2015

        Ah, not sure I ever said ‘no other premises.’ But the question is then: given our destiny as resurrected bodies, in what way can we set aside our physical identity, particularly in relation to sexual identity, given the creation narratives.

        • Lianne Simon
          Aug 21, 2015

          That is the question. My physical identity is intersex rather than male or female. I accept that as God-ordained diversity. Others see it as a result of the Fall.

          • steve
            Aug 25, 2015

            [To Lianne] All I can say is that, the whole of the point of my argument above was that this is a false dichotomy. Every aspect of our experienced identity is both an expression of God-ordained diversity and a result of the Fall.

        • steve
          Aug 25, 2015

          [To Ian] I don’t think we can set aside our physical identity at all, but we have to expect it to be transformed.

          • Lianne Simon
            Aug 25, 2015

            [Steve] “Every aspect of our experienced identity is both an expression of God-ordained diversity and a result of the Fall.”

            I don’t know any Christians who believe this in practice. Do you maintain that things like racial characteristics, eye color, and hair color are a result of the Fall as well as God-ordained diversity? Why shouldn’t an extra large clitoris be treated the same way?

          • steve
            Aug 25, 2015

            Lianne, I don’t know how to answer that – if that’s because I haven’t understood something that I should have read, I apologise.
            Either you are saying that sex-identity is as trivial as eye-colour, which I struggle to accept – maybe I need to know more here – or you are saying that the created/fallen/being-redeemed paradigm is unknown in Christian theology, which I am confident is demonstrably wrong.

            I am trying to argue that this paradigm applies to all of our sexual identities, regardless of whether we are male, female, intersex, trans, or whatever. I admit, freely – it was there in the OP – that I do not know how to move from that argument to an adequate theological account of being intersex – I can imagine several directions of argument leading to various different conclusions. If you think I am trying here to argue in a particular direction on this point, then please believe me – I am not.

  7. ian Paul
    Aug 21, 2015

    Something further I’ve been pondering from your comments: I was really struck by your reluctance in comment conversation to identify something as ‘more abnormal’ than the rest of fallen humanity. Having someone in the family who has had sex reassignment surgery, I share your reluctance.

    However, I also have several friends who have been affected by thalidomide, and I wonder what happens when we draw a comparison. ‘Normal’ people, however fallen, have two arms and two legs. My friends do not have this ‘normal’ complement, and to that extent could be classified as ‘more abnormal’. This is not the language we use, but there doesn’t appear to be any problem with recognising this.

    You do not have to resolve the debate between the medical and social models of disability to recognise this. There is, of course, a lively debate about the place of disability in the eschaton…but we don’t therefore suggest that there is nothing normative about having two arms and two legs.

    So why does the presence of intersex people suggest that we should revise our understandings of the male-female sex binary as normative?

    • steve
      Aug 21, 2015

      I think you are confusing two things here: the closeness to the norm of a particular aspect of the human condition, and the closeness to the norm of a person taken as a whole. Let us assume (for the sake of argument, and noting your comments about social models of disability) that lacking limbs is abnormal for a human being, using abnormal in the sense of ‘not God’s creative intention’; this does not mean that every particular person affected by thalidomide in the womb is more abnormal than every particular person who was not so afflicted, except in this one discrete particular. So even if we accept a sex-binary, we cannot on that basis say ‘everyone who is intersex (or trans), is more abnormal than all those who aren’t.’ This point seems very important to me.

      • Ian Paul
        Aug 21, 2015

        Thanks Steve. But if I might come back to you, I think you are making one logical error and two assumptions, both of which I would like to question.

        On the logic, you infer from my comments that I am asserting that ‘every particular person affected by thalidomide in the womb is more abnormal than every particular person who was not so afflicted’. Of course this cannot be the case—but that is not the comparison, which must be made ceteris paribus. If we did choose to use this language, my point is that we are not unhappy to recognise this. (Btw, I don’t think I was intending to yet bring theology in; it is possible to talk about ‘normality’ without referring to ‘God’s creative intention’ isn’t it?)

        To put it in rather more neutral terms, this condition is not seen simply as different, as an equally good alternative in comparison with the ‘norm’, but is seen as something deficient in some respects. My question is why, in discussion about sex identity which is different from the norm, this possibility is often ruled out of bounds. Can we ask whether the intersex condition is a disability?

        The two assumptions which I would question are equal and opposite. I wonder if my friends do seem themselves as different only ‘in one regard’, rather than it affecting the whole of their view of themselves.

        On the other hand, is sex identity so fundamental to what it means to be human that it is a totalising issue, rather than one aspect of who we are?

        • steve
          Aug 25, 2015

          Ian, thanks. You are drawing me into issues I know I am not competent to discuss. I do not know how your friends see their disability; I do know that the issue of the proper narration of disability is hugely charged right now, and I’ve not read my way into the discussions with any seriousness at all.

          The ‘ceteris paribus’ point is of course correct, but seems to me to be something of a red herring, in that the sorts of arguments I was tracing don’t work like that. In DeFranza’s ‘medical model’, intersex people are classed as unacceptably abnormal; others as acceptably normal. If we imagined some sci-fi dystopia where every one of us had our genetic weaknesses and imperfections enumerated and corrected at birth, we might be able to talk about a particular issue caeteris paribus – but when I am constructed as ‘normal’ and others as ‘abnormal’, I have to reject the construction, I think?

  8. Alastair Roberts
    Aug 25, 2015

    We interviewed Megan DeFranza about her book on our podcast last week, which has just gone online. The podcast, along with some of my thoughts on the subject of intersex arising from our discussion, the wider online discourse surrounding the question, including the post here, is available here.

    • Ian Paul
      Aug 25, 2015

      Alastair, thanks for this link. You articulate with greater clarity and precision what I was trying to expressed in my questions above to Steve.

  9. Lianne Simon
    Aug 25, 2015

    Steve. Sorry that I can’t add this comment above. The point I was trying to make is that intersex is biological diversity in the same way that eye color is. Yet blue eyes aren’t generally considered a result of the Fall. Or abnormal. Blue eyes are a genetic mutation that doesn’t need to be fixed. An extra large clitoris isn’t abnormal either. The Fall certainly affected everything–I’m not questioning that. But you can’t base abnormal vs normal on that. And if you make the Garden normative, then blue eyes are abnormal.

    • steve
      Aug 26, 2015

      OK. I agree completely that we can’t simply ‘make the Garden normative’ – I hope that was clear in the OP. As to the rest, I’ve said repeatedly that I just don’t know enough about the biology of intersex to have any worthwhile opinions; this side of six months intensive reading, I’m not going to be drawn beyond that disclaimer; sorry! Thanks for taking the time to engage, though.


  1. Eerdmans All Over: August 21, 2015 | EerdWord - […] R. Holmes, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, posted thoughts about “thinking theologically about maleness and femaleness”…
  2. Podcast: Intersex | Alastair's Adversaria - […] In our latest podcast, we discuss intersex persons with Megan DeFranza, who recently wrote a book on the subject,…

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