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Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross
A review of a book by Deanna A. Thompson who joins a growing list of Protestant feminist theologians examining 16th century reformers.
By Cheryl Peterson
Book Review: Deanna A. Thompson, Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004. pp. 184. pb. $18.00. ISBN0-8006-3638-4.
Thompson joins a growing list of Protestant feminist theologians (e.g. Mary Solberg, Serene Jones) who seek to bring feminist theology into conversation with insights from the sixteenth century Reformers. She wishes to reclaim Luther’s theology of the cross as a resource for theology today in spite of the concern raised by many feminists that this symbol is inherently violent and oppressive to women. Indeed, Thompson posits that Luther’s theology of the cross can be a resource for those who want to “re-imagine and reform dominant, abusive versions of Christianity and render a more faithful, liberating portrait of life lived in response to the gospel message” (xi).
The book is organized into two main sections. In the first part, Thompson offers an insightful and contextual outline of the development and application of Luther’s compelling new vision for the theological task first articulated in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Thompson shows how for Luther, the cross exposes and frees believers from “the suffocating grip of self-preoccupation and obsession” (93) and thereby offers a new vision of Christian existence. Luther applied this new vision to the spiritual realm in his protest against spiritual abuses, but Thompson critiques his failure to let this insight shape his sociopolitical views, e.g. in his writings against the Jews and the peasants. A theologian of the cross must “call a thing what it is” in the temporal world as well, particularly when religious justification is given for oppressive structures and practices.
In the second part, she brings Luther’s theology of the cross into “a mutually critical, mutually enhancing conversation” with feminist theology. She finds methodological similarities in how each criticizes “theologies of glory” in the dominant tradition by appealing to experience and utilizing a hermeneutics of suspicion. At the same time, she addresses the real points of difference regarding the nature of sin, the maleness of Jesus the Savior, and the doctrine of the atonement. In each case, she reviews the feminist critique of Luther’s theology, envisions Luther’s response to such criticisms, and then suggests a way forward toward “a feminist theology of the cross.” The one weakness with her book is that it takes her nearly 100 pages to get there. This reviewer would have found it preferable if the contextual introduction to Luther’s theology of the cross were briefer and the engagement with feminist concerns were addressed throughout.
In the last chapter, Thompson begins to sketch out what a “feminist theology of the cross” might look like. A feminist theologian of the cross shares the cross-centered vision of Luther who says “No!” to all theologies of glory and “Yes” to freedom given in new life that comes with dying and rising with Christ and his cross. It will involve some “reformulation of Lutheran categories in a way that honors the insights of both feminist and Lutheran commitments” (140). Thompson’s most creative and promising proposal in this regard is her re-envisioning of Luther’s understanding of atonement as a “joyous exchange” and its corresponding metaphor of marriage. Drawing on the Johannine narrative, she proposes as an alternative the model of friendship, whereby “God’s atoning work for us on the cross is done through Jesus’ befriending humanity" (136). In her concluding chapter, she hints at the ecclesiological implications for this model which one hopes she will return to and develop in a future work.
This book is a welcome addition both to contemporary feminist theology and the growing body of literature on the “theology of the cross.” Writing as a Lutheran, Thompson’s book will appeal most to Lutherans and others in the Reformation tradition, but it also will be of interest to those who find themselves on the divide between their feminist sensibilities and the church’s tradition. Readable and engaging, this text is recommended for use in upper level undergraduate and seminary courses.
Deanna Thompson teaches religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her book is reviewed by Cheryl Peterson of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio. The review appeared at Catholic Books Review. A paper by Deanna Thompson is available here called Becoming a Feminist Theologian of the Cross.
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