Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Orthodox Eve and the Royal Priesthood

The Orthodox Church has inherited from the fathers a dynamic spiritual and theological legacy. It is impossible to exaggerate the enormous authority and prestige of the Greek fathers, especially those of the first five Christian centuries. Saints Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzos and John Chrysostom not only laid the foundations of Christian philosophy, humanism and a new culture. They also developed two principles which distinguish Greek Christianity, faith in God philanthropos, the people-loving God who became human, and the corollary belief in theosis, the deification of humankind. For guidance on all issues, therefore, Orthodoxy looks to the fathers, whose thoughts and opinions fortunately survive in voluminous bulk in the form of letters, sermons, tracts, and commentaries.

Thus to understand Orthodox positions and teachings on the roles of women in the church one has to start with the fathers.26 It is they who shaped the theology that has guided the Church in permitting certain roles to women and forbidding others. They are the creators and the authorities for the "tradition spelled with a capital T" that assigned Orthodox Eve, to use St. Cyril's phrase, to permanent and universal "second-class" status.

Unlike the fathers, present day theologians deny the second-class status of women in the church. Without examining its origins and strong anti-woman premises, they defend the "tradition spelled with a capital T." What the church fathers believed about women, they preached, wrote and practiced. We should be grateful for their honesty. "I do not speak in riddles, but in plain, clear language," wrote St. John Chrysostom in his Peri Hierosynes.27 He and the other fathers believed in male superiority and supremacy, in female inferiority and subservience and they said so bluntly without obfuscation and obscurantism. Brilliant thinkers and theologians, often men of cultivation and learning, the "Fathers" were men of their times, unable to transcend the mind-set of patriarchy, the prejudices against women that were entrenched in ancient Greek and Judaic cultures.

Having inherited and accepted this anti-woman tradition, the Greek and Latin Church fathers prolonged its life. It has not yet been repudiated. Shared by other branches of Christianity, androcentrism, patriarchal prejudice and pride lie deeply embedded in Orthodox teaching and practice. Powerful and durable, the influence of this tradition cannot be denied. Nor can it be casually dismissed either as rhetorical hyperbole or as a minor current of monastic influence. To defend it now with new and complicated arguments unknown to the fathers is to evade the issue, to distort history and to ignore the painful experience of women like the nun Theodosia and of little girls who want to serve God at the altar along with their brothers.

By the end of the fourth century a complete theology of woman had been articulated and set in place. It was supported by selected proof-texts from both the Old and New Testaments, by typology paradigms and exegesis. Texts which affirmed women's equality and creation in the divine image were generally ignored. Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28 sometimes occasioned uneasiness. But the uneasiness was removed by interpreting these texts in such a way as to postpone woman's equality and human dignity until the next world. Neutral or ambivalent texts were often given androcentric interpretations. Frequently commentaries involving women were less exegesis than eisegesis. To cite one out of hundreds of examples, in a twelfth-century Annunciation sermon it is explained why Gabriel and not Michael was sent to the young girl in Nazareth. Gabriel, Philagathos wrote, was second among the archangels. Therefore he was sent to the "second species" (PG 132. 933B). There being nothing in the Lukan account of the Annunciation to suggest such an interpretation, we can only conclude that the idea of females' second-class status had a strong hold on the preacher's mind.

Long before Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex (1949), the Greek fathers had defined males as primary and females as secondary. Their favorite texts were those that "proved" women's inferiority and their innate sinfulness. On the basis of passages like Genesis 2 and 3, Colossians 3:18, I Peter 3:27, I Timothy 2:11-15 and I Corinthians: 1-3 the fathers designed their anti-woman theology.28 Patristic consensus "justified" woman's second-class status in the Church and society on two grounds: woman was second in the order of creation and first in the order of sin.

Writing in the tenth century B.C., the author of Genesis 2 described how God made Adam first and then fashioned Eve out of a rib which Adam could spare. Assuming that priority of creation implied superiority, the Church fathers considered Eve and all her daughters, with one notable exception,29 inferior. By divine design, then, women are secondary creatures, not in the same class with men. Consequently women possess a special "female nature" and constitute a kind of sub-species. Adam represents the human being, as do all his sons after him. The phrase "female nature" occurs repeatedly in patristic writings as well as in Byzantine hymns to female saints.30 No analogous phrase exists for men. Unlike women, they require no special definition because they were created first (I Timothy 2:4) and because they are deemed to reflect God's glory, while women reflect man's glory (I Corinthians 11:7).