It is Reformation Day and this year we are going to reflect upon a topic that is all-too-often overlooked: women in the Reformation. We shall consider the impact of women on the Reformation and the impact of the Reformation upon women from a theological perspective. I admit that covering such a broad topic within a blog post means I am very short on detail. I encourage readers to check out the sources at the end of this post in order to explore further avenues.
The Impact of the Reformation Upon Women
The Reformation brought about some changes for women both theologically and socially. Theologically, the issue of inequality between men and women socially and spiritually was more widely discussed. Although the concept had existed before, the Reformers largely held to the notion that men and women were spiritually equal. Spiritual equality led some to wonder whether women could perhaps be social equals, or–if that was to far afield–perhaps they could at least be less inequal (Spierling, 181-183, cited below). Seeds for social and spiritual change were sown during this period, but it must be admitted that there was not as much development as some may allege.
For example, Martin Luther’s notion of the “priesthood of all believers” is sometimes taken to mean that women and men could stand alongside each other as spiritual equals in teaching, preaching, etc. However, when Luther himself was challenged on this issue by the Roman Catholics, he answered by making it very explicit that although women could teach in extraordinary circumstances, he believed the Bible mandated that men were in charge in both church and home (Spierling, 186; see Luther’s Works 36: 151-152). Spiritual equality was seen as equality in the eyes of God, not in the roles that men and women actually took on earth. However, Luther also fought against some of the double standards regarding men and women and was outspoken against brothels and other abuses of women (Lindberg, 360-361, cited below).
The Reformers remained influenced by early Christian views of men and women, which were, in turn, influenced by earlier non-Christian scholars whose pre-scientific views of biology and psychology were adopted. Diarmaid MacCulloch traced the impact of Aristotle and the ancient medical expert Galen upon figures like Augustine and Clement. He described the Reformers’ view of manhood and womanhood as viewed through this lens thus:
What Christian theologians asserted about men, women, and sexuality was nonsense, but it was ancient nonsense, and humanity has always been inclined to respect the assertion of ancient wisdom. The… package of ideas also had a lunatic coherence: it seemed to make sense, explained a baffling aspect of human experience, and contained a good deal of room for flexibility of interpretation. No doubt our own medical theories will seem equally lunatic to generations to come. (MacCulloch,611, cited below)
Carter Lindberg’s own discussion of the impact of the Reformation upon women is bracketed by the question: “Was the Reformation a help or a hindrance to women?” He answers, a bit tongue-in-cheek, “It depends.” The Reformers denied that marriage was a sacrament, which allowed, later, for the dissolution of abusive or even loveless marriage. Women also began to become more actively involved in theology, though their voices were often silenced or ignored. The encouragement to leave convents may have reduced the possibilities for single women to have careers in the church or any sort of involvement (Lindberg, 358-361).
The social expectations for men and women during the Reformation period were shaped by the cultural expectations of “gender” which were themselves handed down to today through the theological writings of the Reformers (Ibid, 360). The concept may be termed “patriarchy” and was theologically adapted to continue to make it appropriate for the culture through the 1800s and into today (MacCulloch, 611).
Women’s Impact on the Reformation
Women had little voice within the Reformation, largely due to some of the issues mentioned above. However, that is not to say that women had no voice whatsoever within the theological developments of the Reformation. There were several women who wrote theological treatises alongside their male counterparts, though their efforts were often ignored (Spierling, 187, 180-181).
Among these was Marie Dentière, who defended her own authority to teach in Galatians 3:28. Dentière was a noblewoman who defended the Reformers through the use of the Bible and who vehemently encouraged women to leave the Catholic faith. She wrote to defend Calvin during his exile. Women were called to teach and take up their Bibles to defend the Christian faith. Dentière’s defense of women’s capacity to teach was grounded in the biblical examples of godly women, among them the first herald of Jesus’ Resurrection, Mary Magdalene (Lindberg, 360; see also McKinley, 155-159, cited below).
Interestingly, Dentière’s writings spurred other women, Catholics, to speak against her in defense of convents. Jeanne de Jussie was directly called upon by Dentière to close her convent, but responded with a theological defense of convents and an attack on Calvinism (Lindberg, 359).
Other women acknowledged the subordination of women in the church and home, but nevertheless argued that the situation of the Reformation had brought about exactly the types of emergency situations Luther had granted women may teach in. Argula von Grumbach wrote defending Arsacius Seehofer, who had been arrested and prosecuted for “holding Lutheran ideas.” She felt the need to defend Seehofer because no one else had done so. Thus, her authority was granted due to the priesthood of all believers.The emergency situation was brought about by Seehofer’s continued imprisonment and the fact that no men had stood up to defend him.
Thus, Reformation theology was seen as the grounds for some women to speak; even those who acknowledged the categories of subordination found within the theology of the Reformers. Others spoke up due to the wielding of Reformation theology against Roman Catholicism. Still others felt that sola scriptura had led them to discover real, biblical grounds for women to teach.
I’m a huge fan of Reformation theology, but it must be admitted that the Reformers’ views on women were essentially a product of their societal background. They embraced, rightfully, sola scriptura, but as I have noted elsewhere (Who Interprets Scripture?), this itself raised a number of issues regarding the interpretation and meaning of a text. Moreover, sola scriptura does not entail that one is able to interpret the Bible in a socio-cultural vaccuum. It seems to me the Reformers view of women as essentially child-bearers and home-makers was more a product of their cultural background than something the text of the Bible specifically taught. Of course, that is a debate for a different time.
To end on a positive note, it is worth noting that the Reformers’ teaching sowed the seeds for greater gender equality. The notion of the “priesthood of all believers” should not be abused in order to be taken as an endorsement of women teaching; but it nevertheless did have within it a concept of spiritual equality which provided a basis, however small, for believing that men and women could be spiritual and social equals. Moreover, women began to take up the torch and teach in “emergency” situations and thus provided a basis for others to do the same. Finally, still other women turned to the Bible itself as a justification for their voice alongside that of men. Their authority to teach was, they argued, itself biblical.
Let us continue that Reformation.
Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010).
Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003).
Mary McKinley, “Dentiere, Marie” in Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters edited Marion Ann Taylor and Agnes Choi (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 155-159
Karen Spierling, “Women, Marriage, and Family” in T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology edited David Whitford (New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 178-196.
The Image is of Marie Dentiere and is public domain.
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