15 December 2023

Thinking through Difference and Desire: A Critical Engagement with of Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality and the Self

By Sarah Allen

Regional Director of Flourish, London Seminary’s training programme for women, a writer and a teacher.


This essay critiques the central arguments of Sarah Coakley’s 2013 work God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity from a reformed perspective and in light of current debates around sexuality and gender in the church. Coakley’s methodology, trinitarian model and anthropology are explored, resulting in a concentration on the relationship between God, desire and gender. Conclusions are drawn about the important role of binaries and embodiment, and a careful use of metaphor in theological models.


Gender, sex, and sexuality are focal points of debate and even outright conflict today in both Christian and secular discourse. This January, the Church of England’s Bishops’ announcement that prayers of blessing will be offered to same-sex couples has given rise to questions in Parliament and headlines in newspapers, while the Scottish approval of new Gender Self-ID rules has intensified protests at the resulting apparent erasure of women’s and children’s rights. For the evangelical church, these conflicts coincide with an ongoing revaluation of attitudes to female and male identities. Not only are lines drawn between those with conservative and liberal attitudes, but increasingly in some of these discussions, second wave (now often depicted as ‘radical’) feminism which militates against objectification of women and for equal opportunities, emphasising women’s collective needs, appears to be at odds with third and fourth wave feminism, influenced by poststructuralist gender theory which promotes diversity of self-expression and the breaking of norms.[1] Central to these, questions around the relationship between sex (biological identity of male and female) and gender (cultural expressions of masculinity and femininity) are the twin concerns of equality and difference.

These questions, however, are not primarily sociological, political, or even philosophical. Southern Baptist College Principal, Al Mohler, writes that “current debates on sexuality present to the church a crisis that is irreducibly and inescapably theological”.[2] How men and women can be different and at the same time equal; whether observable gender differences and sexual behaviours are purely socially constructed or innate, and whether all have the same value, are not just questions which can be addressed by theology, but which necessarily presuppose an understanding of both humanity and God, whether this is acknowledged or not. As such, conversations in churches about these topics have relevance to the debates outside their walls.

God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity (GSS) is, in part, an answer to this crisis.[3] Sarah Coakley, one time Honorary Canon of Ely Cathedral and until recently Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, admits that “institutional Christianity is in crisis about ‘sexuality’” and confesses her aim “come at the issue…through a different route – that of the divine itself”.[4] However, her approach to issues of sex and gender is different from that of Mohler: her theological outlook is shaped by feminism and Platonism, convictions which lead her to the striking conclusion that:

only systematic theology (of a particular sort) can adequately and effectively respond to the rightful critiques that gender studies and political and liberation theology have laid at its door. And only gender studies, inversely, and its accompanying political insights, can thus properly re-animate ‘systematic theology’.[5]

Coakley’s theological method, therefore, provides Christians of reformed theological convictions an opportunity to see how a contemporary gender studies approach challenges some orthodox elements of doctrine, and at the same time, highlights questions around gender, sex, sexuality and power which require further careful thinking. Here, sex is taken to refer to biological sex, that is male and female, and gender to the expression of masculinity and femininity.

Method as Message

Romans 8.26-7 forms Coakley’s starting point in GSS, and from these verses she develops a threefold thesis: first, that the Trinity is to be understood most profoundly through Spirit-led contemplative prayer; second, that “sexual desire finds its meaning only in the triune God”; third, that through encounter with the triune God, damaging binaries found in Church and society can be broken down or transcended.[6] Thus, Coakley’s arguments about gender, sexuality and the Trinity are conceptually interdependent and structurally interwoven, even sentence by sentence creating a typically post-modern obscurity.

This integration of ideas stems in large part from an approach Coakley names théologie totale, which is simultaneously her “method, perspective and, even to some degree, message.”[7] By totale she means an inter-disciplinary range: chapters on iconography, patristics, metaphysical poetry and practical theology are all included in GSS and in these she uses frames of reference from feminist ideology, gender studies and other branches of philosophy. At the same time, totale implies a uniformity of vision, despite the disparate material, which for Coakley comes from contemplation. Her breadth of interest provides a challenge to evangelicals who have, to their own serious detriment (see my review in the Spring 2023 edition of this journal) not sufficiently scrutinised the relationship between power and gender in culture or theology. However, this unifying methodological approach functions also to promote a theological emphasis on an erosion or minimisation of difference, which creates some serious doctrinal problems.

The Contemplating Subject

Coakley’s contemplative method defines her anthropology, the ‘self’ of the book’s title. In contemplation, she contends, human desire meets its reflection in God’s desiring self. What she means by contemplation is wordless and silent reflection, “an attentive openness of the whole self…to the reality of God and the creation”. [8] Though she draws this emphasis from pre-and post-Nicene writers, she misses out their insistence on scriptural exegesis and ultimate Christ focus. Ayres says that for Augustine “humility, desire for divine mercy and attention to the Scriptures are the sine qua non for being led toward contemplation”, presenting contemplation as goal, rather than process.[9] This is starkly different from Coakley’s apophatic method of “kneeling in the darkness”, pursuing “a love affair with a blank”.[10] Her connection of self-abnegation and unknowing leads theologian Linn Tonstad to claim provocatively that “the self-erasing human being … comes to stand at the very center of her theological project”.[11] This critique comes from a feminist perspective and is driven by a conviction that kenotic interpretations of Philippians 2.6-7 are especially damaging for women.[12] While Coakley does not promote kenosis as self-erasure, still this embrace of “darkness” and some confusion around revelation may ironically generate a danger of both solipsism and/or loss of self-identity, for where else can one go for a sense of self within this scheme? In the light of recent discussions around abuse of women and minorities in the evangelical church, it is important to underline that although discipleship metaphors of slavery and self-denial are to be taken seriously, loss of self is presented as the opposite of salvation (Matthew 16.24-27).

If, in Coakley’s scheme, contemplation is the ideal mode for the self, it also expresses the central essence of the self. She writes that “desire is the constellating category of selfhood, the ineradicable root of one’s longing for God’ and again that “desire is more fundamental than sex…desire is an ontological category belonging primarily to God, and only secondarily to humans”, it is “the precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul…of its created source”.[13] Reformed theology might agree with the centrality of desire to human experience, and its ultimate satisfaction in God, but Coakley goes further in attributing desire to God, and giving “new coinage to …[the] tradition of Christian Platonism”.[14] We will consider this turn in later paragraphs.

The Desiring Subject

This understanding of desire as defining human experience, exposed in spiritual encounter and shown to be capable of transformation and sublimation, is to be welcomed in a secularised space where desires are rarely interrogated or denied. Coakley advocates for asceticism, as a practice of self-denial, or mortification, and this offers a significant avenue for reformed Christians to explore especially in the light of same-sex marriage debates.[15] It must be noted, however, that although she acknowledges the “crookedness” of the human heart and the necessity of grace, stating that “the Spirit progressively ‘breaks’ sinful desires, in and through the passion of Christ” (emphasis hers), these references to the processes of sanctification remain ambiguous, and the outcome she envisages is lacking, too.[16] Committed monogamous relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are an ideal, to be worked towards, rather than a discipline to be adhered to. This sets Coakley apart from the historic Christian sexual ethic. As we shall see later in our discussion of gender, this highlights Coakley’s reluctance to consider embodied sex, and her related misplacement of Biblical marital metaphors.

In addition, Coakley’s understanding of desire for God, is much thinner than that of Augustine on whom she bases much of her argument. While he sees humanity as the “desiring animal”, he consistently unites desire with delight and love, implying desire less focused on possession (that is, more agape than eros), and which has been satisfied so produces joy.[17] Coakley’s anthropology lacks this vision of fulfilled desire, and of understanding which can shape and instruct desire. This appears to promote self-denial without God’s provision of satisfaction, a rather paltry offer.[18] A reformed construction of the training of desires must allow for delight as well as denial.

Related to this restricted view of desire, is an absence of the idea of union with God in Christ, and instead the presence of a version of participation which comes through graced contemplation. Though Coakley refers to Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa in some detail as exemplars of this sanctifying process of participation arising out of contemplation, the images of justification, union and imputed righteousness, as well as the language of forgiveness which they both use is absent.[19] Instead, Coakley offers participation which is “possible only in virtue of contemplative ‘effacement’” and which is significantly “a progressive – and sometimes painful – incorporation into the life of God”.[20] This is a strange departure from the protestant tradition Coakley serves within. Just as there is no idea of regeneration and union with God, there is no sense that participation has a corporate dimension. Her term ‘incorporation’ even suggests a dissolution of the self, a mystical merging with God, and thus a breaking of the binary creature-creator distinction which is alien to the doctrine of union with God, or to classical understandings of participation.[21] It may be that this is an issue of terminology, but such a breaking of binaries is in keeping with other concerns throughout GSS. Thus, her discussion of the self’s relation to the church is also largely neglected, other than to say that the contemplating soul might be a source of renewal for the church at large.[22] The individual’s spiritual experience then, overrides both corporate and, through the exclusive focus on contemplation, corporal dimensions of reality. Contemplation may be an essential component of Christian discipleship, but it must reckon with the body, as God’s good gift.

Divine Disruption

Coakley’s focus on spirituality determines her formulation of the divine, but so too does her commitment to feminism and gender theory. The result is a centring of the Holy Spirit as a means of resistance to any formulations which can be described as binary, hierarchical or patriarchal. Coakley centres her Trinitarian explorations in perceived oppositions between pre- and post-Nicene writers and between Paul and John, as well as drawing from visual representations of the divine over church history. John 14-16, she claims, offers a ‘linear’ model of authority which is in direct contrast to an earlier Pauline vision of ‘mutuality’ found particularly in Romans 8 and Galatians 4. She argues that this model was developed through fourth century creedal achievements which she claims marginalised the Spirit in “potential, at least, ironic unorthodoxy” as “the secondary communicator of an already privileged dyad” and then reinforced by western adoption of filioque.[23] Coakley then claims that this dominance of Father and Son, and diminishing of the Spirit, who in eastern formulations was depicted as female, or in the west substituted with Mary, resulted in a patriarchal hierarchy in Church life and doctrine. Steering away from common feminist responses to this, Coakley accepts gendered language for the Father and Son, but proposes the Spirit as leading and interrupting, so diminishing a sense of masculine authority, and uses this model to suggest that human fixities, including those of gender, can also be disrupted by spiritual encounter.

The Interruptive, Leading Spirit

In contrast to what Coakley sees as John’s ‘linear’ model and as an attempt to avoid the “privileged male dyad”, Coakley offers instead a trinitarian order in which, the Holy Spirit:

is …the primary means of incorporation into the trinitarian life of God, …as constantly and ‘reflexively’ at work in believers in the circle of response to the Father’s call.[24]

She dubs this schema “incorporative”, “reflexive”, “prayer-based” and “Spirit leading” and identifies the Holy Spirit the one who forms Sonship in the believer, through “interruption” and leads them to the Father in the act of prayer, bringing incorporation into the divine in Ro 8 and Gal 4:6. [25] The difficulty with this formula lies in what is absent, rather than what is present.

Her discussion of both the biblical and patristic sources as she develops this position is unconvincing. Coakley proposes opposition between a linear model, implying hierarchy, and one of incorporation, implying mutuality. However, in most examples we find the Father, Son, Spirit order integrated with language of indwelling; difference, indicated through the processions and economy, sits comfortably with equality.

Paul’s depiction of what Leon Morris calls “mutual indwelling” in Romans 8 is still carefully structured.[26] The work of the Spirit in believers described throughout the chapter is predicated on the work of the Father through the Son, neatly summed up in Ephesians 2:18 where Paul writes “through [Christ] we …have access to the Father by one Spirit”. When she turns to Athanasius, Coakley correctly argues that “incorporative ‘adoption’ into Sonship” in Letters to Serapion is concomitant with “the Spirit’s ontological equality in the Godhead” and surmises that this resolution came through Athanasius’ contact with the mysticism of Anthony.[27] Yet here also, the Spirit “proceeds from the Father, and, belonging to the Son, is from him given to the disciples and all who believe in him”.[28] The Spirit may lead believers to the Father, but first the Father sends the Spirit, and both always in and through Christ. Coakley’s spirituality perspective which leads her formulations is not the one preferred throughout her sources, even those which are influenced by early mysticism.

What is also significant in Coakley’s presentation of the Spirit is her absence of attention to repeated references in both John and Paul to the Spirit’s teaching role: in John spiritual liberation comes through knowing the truth.[29] This gap is also evident as she considers patristic sources. Coakley asserts not only that the early Church made “a normative association of the ‘Spirit’ with charismatic gifts, and especially prophecy” which, though it lacked “subtleties…[was] in line with…[the] prayer-based approach”.[30] Those “ecstatic” gifts, however, are in many places associated with wisdom-revelation, understanding, holiness and preaching, (implying reason and self-awareness), rather than an absence of rationality or self-transcendence.[31] Furthermore, she is forced to concede that, rather than exclusively supporting her approach, most of the sources she cites are “a mixed type”, combining linear order and incorporation. [32] Even in Origen’s On Prayer, a treatise on Romans 8 which Coakley contends represents her model of trinitarian incorporation and accompanying ecstatic experience, the Holy Spirit and understanding are inseparable in prayer, and that understanding comes from the word.[33] If we are to centre contemplation, in the way that these sources do, then it has to be contemplation of God through reflection on his word, not on a “blank”.[34] Such a word focused contemplation will be instructive for thinking about sex and gender and provide believers with increasing clarity, rather than a confusing lability.

The God of Desire

Coakley develops her argument by identifying in Augustine, and Gregory of Nyssa, “ecstatic moments…which converge towards a vision of God predicated precisely on the notion of incorporative, transformative, divine desire”.[35] Here, too, she overstates her case, and in the process she overrides one crucial elements of human/divine difference. At the end of De Trinitate, Augustine writes that “the love which is from God and is God is distinctively the Holy Spirit; through him the charity of God is poured into our hearts, and through it the whole triad dwells in us”. She is right that this is a joyful echo of Rom. 8:14-17 but hardly “a sense of even divine ‘control’ being released”, or even a replication of her Spirit-led incorporation.[36] Coakley’s reading of Gregory of Nyssa’s later work as “an alignment of sexual desire and desire for God” is curious.[37] As for Augustine, in Nyssa, sexual longing is to be distanced from, even replaced by, the second.[38] Furthermore, the metaphor of longing runs one way; the believer is to be in love with God, a love implanted by God, but God is not depicted as desiring the believer. Even, he says, “God, in contemplating Himself, has no desire”.[39] Bom writes appositely that for Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, “the desire for God is the result of the ontological distance of difference between humanity and God”; desire comes from the incomplete towards the complete, not vice versa, and not exist within the complete.[40]

In seeking to foreground the Holy Spirit as a representative of divine desire, Coakley disrupts these important divine distinctives. Rather than her schema coming from the pre and post Nicene sources she discusses, it seems to be rooted in the writings of later mystics. 6th century Pseudo-Dionysius writes in The Divine Names:

the name of Loving- kindness [agape] and of Love [eros] is placed …in the same category throughout the Divine revelations, and this is of a power unifying, and binding together, and mingling.[41]

This Coakley rightly interprets as “a divine ecstatic yearning, meeting and incorporating a responsive human ecstatic yearning” and she goes further, stating,

desire is an ontological category belonging primarily to God…[it] signifies no lack …[it] connotes that plenitude of longing that God has for God’s own creation and for its full and ecstatic participation in the divine, trinitarian life.[42]

Like Dionysius, she imports ideas of possession and want. Coakley describes God’s desire as a “longing” or “yearning”, both words with connotations of absence, incompleteness and even possibility, claiming this is both ontological and directed towards the creation.[43] Her presentation is out of keeping with a classical understanding of God’s aseity and potentially, his impassibility, diminishing a sense of God’s freedom and grace, and replacing it with a kind of dependence on creation. [44] Rather than finding desire in the Trinity, we might more carefully say with John Webster, “God loves himself in the mutual delight of the three persons in which is his entire satisfaction”, noting the relationship of delight and love we saw earlier in Augustine.[45]

If we understand desire as a force sustaining difference, in that it causes the subject to see the desired as object, and bringing these together, and which can ultimately be reproductive, then human interpersonal longing and human desire for God can have stabilising effect. To transfer desire to inter and extra trinitarian relations, however, is destabilising, as we have seen. It seems far better to focus on the completeness and certainty summarised in John’s declaration that “God is love” and to recognise his will in loving humanity first (1 John 4.7-12).

The Gendered God

If Coakley offers us a God who confuses the boundary between created and creator, so too, she presents transgression of the “false divides” of gender boundaries.[46] Many 20th century feminist theologians have located masculine language for God as a source of inequity in the Church and world and proposed instead feminine language or a female divine. In a similar way, social trinitarians have responded to division by allocating gender identities to the persons of the Trinity, thus reinforcing gender essentialism. Coakley rejects both these approaches to the gendered names and metaphors found in the bible. Following Aquinas she first appears to see ectype in the language of Fatherhood, saying “the true meaning of father is to be found in Trinity”, supporting this from Matthew 23:9.[47] So far, so good; yet her aim to “slay patriarchy at its root” by letting contemplative encounter with the heavenly Father radically redefine understandings of masculinity and authority, gives rise to problems.[48]

Because her conception of prayer is of engagement with “unspeakable” “mystery”, the fatherhood of God is then defamiliarised, and becomes “a Life into which we enter…Fatherhood beyond all human formulations”; thus ectype breaks down.[49] Significantly, Coakley places the word father in inverted commas, to signify the distance of this term from typical understandings, and she does not offer an alternative definition or even the beginnings of a description. This means that the good within human fatherhood, such as self-sacrificial guidance, protection, compassion and provision, implied in Scripture (for example, Psalm 103 and Luke 15:11–32), is set aside and the doctrinal significances of adoption and the begottenness of the Son, are muted.[50] Furthermore, an ambiguity around human gender results. Separating divine names, metaphorical though they are, from their human referents (see Ephesians 3.15), leaves a gap in the meaning of masculinity.

Malleable Male and Female

In GSS Coakley encourages readers to explore not only a disruption in gendered language for God, but also how encounter with the gender-less God can disrupt human understandings of gender too, even to the extent of rendering gender labile. She bases this idea first on the use of the birth pangs metaphor in Romans 8.22-23 and works out to look at Origen and Gregory of Nyssa’s writings, on prayer and the Song of Songs, comparing these with Augustine’s reflections on sex difference. Throughout this discussion, it is evident that Coakley misapprehends important metaphors. Paul in Romans uses the metaphor of female birth pains to describe the created order’s struggle as it waits for God’s kingdom to come, and he also writes about Christians as sons and children. This is not a “flipflopping” of gender, because the referents are different. Paul uses different metaphors to emphasise different aspects of reality, creation’s pain is one, and believers’ relationship with God is another, and in this last, the children and their father, he retains a hierarchical distinction between what is made, and its maker which is determined more by generation than by gender. Furthermore, it is important to remember that it is the nature of metaphor to liken two ultimately dissimilar things, rather than to transfer wholescale likeness. Dissimilarities are not dissolved by comparison of discrete features.

In her discussion of other sources, Coakley transfers her assumptions about the relationship between trinitarian and gender relations. She acknowledges that Augustine’s understanding is of a paradox of equality and difference between men and women, and concludes that here, “what matters is harmony and order, unity and cooperation”.[51] Yet, she also suggests that for him, “contemplative encounter …will include the possibility of upsetting the ‘normal’ vision of the sexes and gender altogether”, seemingly basing this on her own understanding of gender dynamics in contemplative prayer.[52] When she considers Nyssa’s On the Making of Man, Coakley discovers a “fascinatingly labile perception of the role of ‘gender’” implying “desexed equality”.[53] This reading is, however, disputed. Rather than suggesting a two-stage creation process of “angeloid” unsexed spiritual bodies, followed by sexually differentiated bodies, it can be read as indicating a simultaneous creation of two separate entities: rational, unsexed spirits and sexed bodies. This latter option would cohere to some degree with Augustine’s equal-and-different argument, as equivalent spirits dwell in differentiated bodies.

In contrast, within Nyssa’s Homilies on the Song of Songs we certainly see a fluidity of gender roles, as the soul seeking after God, takes a male voice, then female, sometimes singular, then plural, in a contemplative ascent towards participation in God. These movements, in however, instantiate the union of two different identities, as Cadenhead states, identifying in Gregory a rejection of Plato’s pederastic model: “the erotic relationship between God and soul is always metaphorically a male-female relationship”.[54] We might add, the metaphors work precisely because they use two distinct entities, male and female bodies, or rather, bridegroom and bride, for two distinct referents, God and his people. True fluidity of gender would break down the functioning of this metaphor. Here we must note that recognising bodies as created male and female (rejecting gender theories of bodies as neutral forms which are assigned or subvert socially constructed gender) allows us to describe gender not as a fluid performance, but as a function of those bodies. Do Vale, in his insightful analytic work on gender, argues that this position takes into account the good orderliness of creation and also undergirds the classical doctrine that God is genderless, as he is bodiless, and acts to rebut the idea that a belief in binary gender somehow results in a patriarchal God.[55]

One could argue that by adopting in GSS a view of “gender that is …founded in bodily practices of prayer”, rather than the sexed body, Coakley contracts and concretises gender, and actually reinforces stereotypes, establishing a sort of female-dominant androgyny, for the pray-er is the receptive, bridal figure.[56] As she writes so provocatively in an earlier work, “only the feminised soul can fully respond to the embraces of the bridegroom”.[57] Removing the metaphor from its scriptural context of Christ’s loving self-gift for the Church and covenantal faithfulness, creates a problematically eroticised and individualistic model. Bridal imagery which is used throughout Scripture to describe first Israel and then the church, is always corporate, never applied to individuals, and focuses first on what the Lord has done, as covenant maker, before any bride-like behaviour of his people. Gender reference within the metaphor illustrates this distinction, as well as the loving security of union, far more than other aspects of gender. Male believers do not need to become “feminised” in prayer, though they do need to become dependent and submissive, features also of the child and the servant, which are non-gendered metaphors for believers. Collectively these images define ideas of the church, rather than masculinity or femininity, for the calling to submit to God is issued to all, male and female alike.

Difference and Desire Reconstructed

Returning to the current tensions in the church, we find that Coakley highlights areas which merit careful theological attention and may be of great help in producing a God honouring response. These include the relationship between human desires and our hunger for God, the use of prayer and self-denial in training desire, and the connection between conceptions of gender and abuse of power. While her methodology is certainly limiting, a willingness to centre prayer and also to explore wider Christian culture in our practice of theology is needed as we travel forwards.

In GSS Coakley exposes, perhaps inadvertently, the paradox of difference and equality worked through both her studies of trinitarian models and representations of gender. Her proposal, of offering resolution through an interruption of binaries and an embrace of gender lability, is, though instructive in exposing power structures at work, ultimately reductive. A kind of oneness emerges, which minimises the body that is the church and the differentiated human body, as well as the incarnate body of Christ. It seems that to address the current crisis of sexuality, as she aims to do, the reverse is required, for it is in facing up to difference through the body in these various forms, and in relation to God, the Church can properly deal with difference, order and equality, as well as sacrifice and power.

About the author

Sarah Allen is a teacher, writer and northern director of London Seminary’s Flourish Course. She is the author of Resilient Faith [Co-Author] (Crossway, 2022) and Clothed with Strength (10Publishing, 2022). Sarah is married to Lewis who pastors Hope Church in Huddersfield and mum of five. She has a MTh from UST and MA in English from Cambridge.


[1]  For example, over pornography. Second wave feminism opposed this in the 1980s, but third wave feminism of the late 1990s onwards, influenced by post-structuralism, embraced it. The debate is on-going.

[2]  Al Mohler, Biblical Theology and the Sexuality Crisis. Cited 30 March 2018. Online: https://www.9marks.org/article/biblical-theology-and-the-sexuality-crisis/

[3]  Sarah Coakley, God Sexuality and the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Hereafter referred to as GSS. This is the first of four projected volumes which means that any assessment of Coakley’s theology is to a degree provisional and limited. Gaps and questions which are identified here may well be answered or closed in subsequent books. For example, whilst this first volume considers The Trinity, the subsequent volumes are expected to discuss Christology, soteriology and ecclesiology and along with them, issues of race and class. Having said this, much of the material of God, Sexuality and the Self can be found, either in full, or in fragments in her published oeuvre, so it can be confidently assumed that the book to a significant degree stands on its own and it is unlikely that its arguments will not be seriously mitigated by future writing.

[4]  Coakley, GSS, 1.

[5]  Sarah Coakley, “Is there a Future for Gender and Theology? On Gender, Contemplation, and the Systematic Task”, Svensk Teologisk Kvartalskrift. Årg. 85 (2009), 52; GSS, 9.

[6]GSS, 15 italics mine. These divisions include those between eastern and western approaches to the Trinity (301); Church and sect (185); and equality and difference in reference to gender (273).

[7]GSS, 43. As Miroslav Volf has said, “method is message” in that “all major methodological decisions have implications for the whole of the theological edifice”. Miroslav Volf, “Theology, Meaning and Power: a Conversation with George Lindbeck on Theology and the Nature of Christian Difference” in ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L Okholm, The nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Post-Liberals in Conversation, (Leicester: IVP, 1996) 45.

[8]  Koh, “Prayer as Divine Propulsion” n.p; GSS, 89-88.

[9]  Ayres, Augustine, 131.

[10]GSS 325; 342. She credits Dom Sebastian Moore with this phrase – see her footnote.

[11]  Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 108.

[12]  It is a common and valid critique that ideas of Christ-like self-emptying (kenosis) make the powerless in society more prone to exploitation and complicit in their own subjugation. Recognising that these verses do not teach that Christ emptied himself of his divine nature is an important safeguard against such a problem.

[13]GSS, 58 and 10.

[14]GSS, 8-9. For Plotinus, the key shaper of the Platonism which significantly influenced Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, amongst many others, desire is central to life: “in the highest life, the life of Intellect, where we find the highest form of desire, that desire is eternally satisfied by contemplation of the One… Soul is the principle of desire for objects that are external to the agent of desire. Everything with a soul, from human beings to the most insignificant plant, acts to satisfy desire…. Soul explains, as unchangeable Intellect could not, the deficiency that is implicit in the fact of desiring.” Gerson, Lloyd. “Plotinus.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), ed., Zalta, Edward N. Cited 12 May 2019. Online:https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/plotinus/.

[15]  David Bennet’s DPhil thesis may be a starting point for this process: Queering the queer: an exploration of how gay celibate asceticism can renew and inform the role of desire in contemporary Anglican theology.

[16]GSS, 14. What she means here by the ‘the passion of Christ’ is unclear.

[17]  Michael P. Foley in foreward to Mark J. Boone, The Conversion and Therapy of Desire: Augustine’s Theology of Desire in the Cassicacum Dialogues, (Cambridge: James Clark & Co ,2017), viii.

[18]  That is, if the self is continually desiring, then it will inevitably be lacking, and in being without satisfaction will remain at the centre.

[19]  Gregory of Nyssa, Homily 1, 25-27, 14. Homily 2, 17. Augustine, De Doctrina, book 1, chapter 17.16,.27 and 16.15, 27 (No editor or translator mentioned in this copy) Online: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/doctrine.html This book was published the same year as the Confessions began to be written, 397 AD.

[20]GSS, 23, 87.

[21]  This relates, too, to the hypostatic union, which is not clearly shown in her Christology, which I do not explore in this paper.

[22]  Coakley, Powers, 85-6 and GSS passim.

[23]GSS, 330; On page 101 she says that this is because of an “ambiguity” in Scripture. Here she means that a focus on Johannine writings to elaborate the equality and distinction of the persons meant that what she sees as Paul’s model was not acknowledged. Whether this is a real ambiguity will be discussed below. Of course, she is not the first to say that the exclusion of the Spirit results in the oppression of women; we see this in other feminist writers like Elizabeth Johnson. & GSS, 101. Emphasis hers. Coakley’s argument here is in some ways reminiscent of her arguments regarding onto-theology – that dogmatic certainty can bring about the marginalisation of the other.

[24]GSS, 111. 

[25]  For example: GSS, 316; 111; 89.

[26]  Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988. Repr. 1994), 307-8.

[27]GSS, 136; 136-7.

[28]  Letters to Serapion, (translated C.R.B. Shapland, Epworth Press 1951) 46. Online: http://thegroveisonfire.com/books/Athanasius/Athanasius-Letters-to-Serapion-CRB-Shapland.pdf. 1.20, 43. In addition the pattern ‘from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit’ is repeated numerous times: twice in 1.12 (page 38), twice in 1.14 (page 39), twice in 1.20 (page 43).

[29]  John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:4-7, 9-10, 12, 17 and John 8:32.

[30]GSS, 116.

[31]  In GSS, 120 she claims that the Apostolic Fathers describe “ecstatic, visionary and prophetic activity”. Clement of Rome, however, relates that, “The ministers of the grace of God have, by the Holy Spirit, spoken of repentance” and “an abundant outpouring also of the Holy Spirit fell upon all; and being full of holy counsel” in other places he connects OT Scripture as well as his own writings and the preaching of the Apostles with the Spirit. First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, VIII, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 1 (ed Edited by Alexander Roberts, D.D. & James Donaldson, LL.D, Online: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/lightfoot/fathers.pdf )18; 3. Also see examples on 9; 23.

[32]  These are Irenaeus and Tertullian. GSS, 124. Also, note the quotation she uses on page 123 (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.XX.2)

[33]  Origen, On Prayer, VII, CCEL. Online: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/origen/prayer.pdf. Origen roots his argument throughout in detailed exegesis of various passages and directs his readers to use Scripture in prayer because they are “full of power [if] above all when praying “with the spirit,” they pray “also with the understanding”, 7, 21. Also note that “even our understanding is unable to pray unless the Spirit leads it in prayer” 1, 4; “truly prayers made and spoken with the Spirit are also full of the declarations of the wisdom of god” 1, 5. 

[34]GSS, 325; 342

[35]GSS, 310.

[36]  Augustine, De Trinitate, (trans. Edmund Hill O.P., New York: New City Press, 2015), XV.5.32, 542; GSS, 294.

[37]GSS, 310.

[38]  This will be explored more fully in part 3.

[39]  Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol 5, ed. Philip Scaff. Online: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf205.pdf, 835.

[40]  Klaas Bom, “Directed by Desire: An Exploration Based on the Structures for the Desire for

God”. Scottish Journal of Theology, 62 (2009): 135-48.139.

[41]  Pseudo Dionysius, Divine Names, IV.xii, (Trans by John Parker, London: James Parker, 1897) Online: http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0450-0525,_Dionysius_Areopagita,_Works,_EN.pdf page 36.

[42]GSS, 295.

[43]GSS, 333.

[44]  For example, God is “a most pure spirit…without body, parts or passions, immutable…most free, most absolute…most loving, gracious, merciful Westminster Confession of Faith, Online: https://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/WCFScriptureProofs.pdf, 2, 8-9.

[45]  John Webster, “Creation out of Nothing” in Christian Dogmatics (ed. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 138.

[46]GSS, 68 & 84.

[47]GSS, 324. “Call no man Father except God alone” though Ephesians 3:14-15 could also be seen as upholding this view.

[48]GSS, 327. Note the violence of this language!

[49]GSS., 326, 7.

[50]  Feminist critics still complain that this approach reinstates an unequal divide, with both creation and individual believers as the submissive female and God as masculine authority, (Tonstad, God and Difference, 103). Coakley’s vision however, is far from a reiteration of Ephesians 5.25-33 complementarian structure.

[51]GSS, 293.

[52]GSS, 310.

[53]GSS, 274; 310. Though she carefully notes that he is not “going for non-binary in a “secular” sense” (282) adding: “his is a sui generis view of gender is not one subsumable into modern or postmodern secular categories” (304).

[54]  Raphael A. Cadenhead, The Body and Desire: Gregory of Nyssa’s Ascetical Theology, (California: University of California: 2018), 51.

[55]  Fellipe, Do Vale, The Ontology of Gender: An Analytic Theological Approach. (MA Thesis,

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2016), 189. His argument is dense, but worth including: “If gender is the proper function of the human body, then the only things that are gendered (in the strong, literal sense) are human bodies. Since God lacks a human body, then there is no possibility of his being strongly gendered (he could not possibly have the proper function of a human body if he lacks a human body)… Put simply, the only appropriate subject for gender is the human body”.

[56]GSS, 34. In Powers, 68, Coakley claims “only the feminised soul can fully respond to the embraces of the bridegroom”.

[57]  Coakley, Powers, 68.