Douglas Wilson and Patriarchy: More of the Root

For Wilson, nature determines roles, and we all must live in obedience to our roles. Men are “lords” by nature, a term he prefers to “leaders.” They are covenantal lords of their families and must strive toward positions of authority in the church and society. The wife must help her husband’s outwardly-focused mission of expansion and ruling by being busy at home and having lots of children. The children must learn obedience in order to be useful in the future. The male children who learn obedience will grow up to be lords, and the female children to be busy helpers of the lords whom they marry, and dominion will increase to the point where the city of God will overtake the city of man and heaven will be brought to earth. This is what I call the “utilitarian model” of Wilson’s theological anthropology, a Christianized version of Aristotle. 1

For Aristotle, the telos (chief end) of the man and the woman corresponds to their what they are by nature. In other words, impersonal nature provides the causes of the man and the woman. The woman’s final cause, her ultimate purpose, aligns with what she is materially and essentially. Her natural design corresponds with what she is good for, which is child-bearing. For Aristotle, impersonal nature always acts for an end (Physics 2.3 [194b17-195a4]). That end has moral significance. The woman’s excellence is determined by whether she is properly fulfilling what she is designed for by nature (Nicomachean Ethics I.1-8). Need it be said that as an anti-theist, Aristotle never saw the end of the woman as to glorify and enjoy the personal, self-contained, triune God forever.

In line with Aristotle, Wilson’s anthropology polarizes the causes of the man and the woman.  According to Wilson, masculinity is a “category” incarnate in males; femininity is a “category” incarnate in females (For Glory and a Covering (2006), Kindle, Loc. 747). He writes, “ . . masculinity is authority, sacrifice, responsibility, and initiative . . . . femininity is submission, obedience, gratitude, and responsiveness” (For Glory, Loc. 802, 746-760, 823-830). Wilson’s list seems strangely similar to Aristotle’s ideas of femininity, yet what is unique to Wilson is that he does not consider a woman morally bound to exercise her femininity in all directions at all times (Politics 1.13 1260a). For example, she is not supposed to be feminine and obey just any man, only her own husband, and a wise queen like Esther should act masculinely and guide the king into wisdom. What preeminently concerns Wilson is the “effeminate man,” who displays the feminine characteristics listed above in an inappropriate way or direction, and the “feminist,” who is at war with “femininity” by improperly exercising rule, sacrifice, responsibility, and initiative. Where does Wilson derive his “masculinity” and “femininity”?

Wilson does not want us looking within ourselves to understand masculinity or femininity but rather to accept our created natures as he has described them “as given from our bones out to our skin” (For Glory, Loc. 761). Nevertheless, the Trinity will help Wilson make his case theologically. Wilson’s exegetical evidence for masculinity and femininity, and male headship and female subordination, is found in the “hierarchical, layered, and trinitarian” reality of God himself (For Glory, Loc. 754). Using 1 Corinthians 11:3, he says that the Father is masculine as relates to the Son, and the Son is masculine as relates to the church (For Glory, Loc. 754-762).  Here he implies that the Son’s obedience to the Father, even unto crucifixion, is an expression of femininity. For Wilson, it is not God the Son but God the Father who is the ultimate source of masculinity: “God the Father is not male . .  and yet, God the Father is ultimately masculine . . and a dim reflection of His masculinity has been projected, among other places, onto human maleness” (For Glory, Loc. 761). 

All this must now turn to the chief occupation of Wilson, authority and submission. According to Wilson, when a man marries a woman, he must enact the “masculine role” in his relationship with his wife or else sin (For Glory, Loc. 773). Concerning the authority and submission on display, Wilson paraphrases Ephesians 1:20-23, declaring Christ’s preeminence over the created order, but inserting “husband” for “Christ,” and “wife” for the “church”: “The husband is the head over his house for the wife, to the wife, who is his body, who is his fullness, even though his authority fills the house” (For Glory, Loc. 307).  We are called to imitate this. Husbands are to fill the house with their authority, and women, somehow, are to imitate the church in being their husband’s body and full of their husband’s authority. This is how Wilson relates the man to the ascended Lord and the woman to the church. For Wilson, the husband is analogous to the ascended Lord of creation, and the wife analogous to the creature, and their relationship must reflect the distinction.

Finally, Wilson invokes trinitarian perichoresis for his understanding of the outworking of headship and submission in the family. According to Wilson, the indwelling of the three consubstantial persons somehow teaches us that, “husbands must say, ‘I am the head of my body, my wife. I am the head of the one who fills me.’ The wife must say, ‘I am the fullness of the one who is my head’” (For Glory, Loc. 333). Wilson fails to see that his polarization and prioritization of the man over the woman make any true representation of the Trinity impossible in his system.  

In contrast to Wilson, Van Til’s trinitarian theology focuses our attention not on supposed varying degrees of authority and glory, but on each person of the Trinity exhausting the divine essence and exhaustively indwelling one another in the divine embrace of perichoresis. He writes, “The persons of the Godhead are mutually exhaustive of one another, and therefore of the essence of the Godhead.’”2  Each person fully indwells the other two persons of the Trinity in divine coinherence. Perichoresis is fundamentally expressive of diversity in unity and unity in diversity. This interpersonal interpenetration is defined by Turretin alternatively as mutual intertwining, inexistence, immanence, union, embrace, permeation, and co-existence (Elentics, 1:257).

Building on the church fathers, Calvin purged remaining elements of subordinationism within the Trinity by emphasizing autothean personhood, meaning each person of the Godhead exists as the underived divine essence.  Lane Tipton, incorporating a quote from B. B. Warfield, writes, 

“Though Calvin ‘departed in nothing from the doctrine which had been handed down from the orthodox Fathers,’ he nonetheless conceived more clearly than did they that the persons of the trinity are wholly equal to one another. If the doctrines of grace are to stand, then the Son must not be subordinate to the Father. ‘Simplification, clarification, equalization—these three terms are the notes of Calvin’s conception of the Trinity.’”3

This equalization is rooted in Calvin’s conception of Father, Son, and Spirit each existing as the entire and underived divine essence. Similarly, according to Tipton, building organically on Calvin, each person’s mission is underived. Tipton refers to this as autothean mission, safeguarding equality in terms of their personal works ad extra which terminate in time. Autothean mission secures  “equal in power and glory,” in terms of the outworking of the distinct personal properties of the three persons in creation and providence.

In the representational principle of Van Til, God creates the man and woman of Genesis 1 as finite analogs of himself.4 Using Aristotle’s terminology, God is the efficient and exemplary cause of both the man and the woman. The man and the woman as one mankind reflect the numerical unity of God. In addition, the man and woman as male and female reflect the diversity of God. The emphasis of Genesis 1 and 2, then, is not hierarchy. Both the man and the woman of Genesis 1:26-30 are in a natural, unmediated bond of religious communion with God by virtue of creation. They are individually from him and through him and for him.  They bear the image of God directly from God and not by derivation. Genesis 2 shows the generation of the woman from man’s side. God takes a “wall” from Adam, a term used almost exclusively for objects from sacred space, and builds the woman while Adam sleeps, revealing the procession of God’s image-bearers—from innocence and testing in the earthly sanctuary of Eden (represented by Adam), to glory and confirmed righteousness in the heavenly sanctuary (represented by Eve).

Genesis 1 and 2 also show that the man and the woman have underived missions immediately from God. The man is told to “work and keep” the garden by God. Similarly, God gives the woman her mission as helper. As I understand it, God commissions her to help the man pass through testing, obey the command, “You shall not eat,” and enter Sabbath rest. She does this as unto God who made both of them for himself beyond the shadow and type of marriage. An understanding of man and woman based on a true representation of both the essence and the missions of God himself leads us on a radically different path than Wilson. Wilson has misplaced confidence in the church’s cultural, societal, and political triumph in this fallen world, and thus he inflates the essence, office, and work of the man to a point that obscures the woman and, more importantly, God himself. 

  1. Abraham Jacob Greenstine and Ryan J. Johnson, Contemporary Encounters with Ancient Metaphysics (Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 158-179.  His chapter, “Does It Matter?: Material Nature and Vital Heat in Aristotle’s Biology” is available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1g050w8.14?seq=6#metadata_info_tab_contents.
  2.  Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology (Presbyterian & Reformed Pub Co, 1974),  220.
  3.  Lane Tipton, Van Til’s Trinitarian Theology (Reformed Forum, 2021), Kindle Edition, Loc. 100.
  4. Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1980), 51.

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