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Theology is Dangerous

September 21st, 2023 | 8 min read

By John Shelton

“Discussion of theology … is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun's brightness.” — Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ

Graphic and sacrilegious language will be quoted below.

“Misaligned Incentives”

Brad Littlejohn published a lovely reflection on the 10th anniversary of the Davenant Institute, in which he laid out the path from graduate studies in theology to blazing his own institutional path. Part of that journey involved a warning to doctoral students from the premiere living theologian, Oliver O’Donovan. “The academy as it now exists is a very poor home for the work of theology, and increasingly at odds with the needs of the church,” he said.

O’Donovan made these remarks a decade ago. While he did say at the time that “it’s still possible to do good work there,” the incentives for academic theological research and reflection are remarkably misaligned with the life of the church. There are, and will continue to be for some time yet, important scholars worth engaging with in these institutions. It is more important than ever that those attempting to do good work from “within Babylon” (as it were) receive support, and if necessary, lifelines, from Christians working within orthodox institutions. And yet, on the whole, the need for novelty drives a transgressive impulse in the academy that reveals a diminishing institutional interest in basic Christian ethical concerns.

Consider Yale Divinity School. Its 1701 charter envisioned an institution “wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts & Sciences who through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church & Civil State,” and it seems to have succeeded. Yale Divinity School produced some of the greatest minds of the 20th century, including H. Richard Niebuhr and his brother Reinhold Niebuhr. But those days appear to be vanishing rapidly.

When Theology Becomes Blasphemous

Linn Marie Tonstad joined the faculty of Yale in 2012, having previously completed her Ph.D. there in 2009 under Miroslav Volf. While a doctoral student, Tonstad co-authored a book chapter with Volf and she writes kindly of the faith he had in her then (as a “queer person, and feminist,” she specifies) in a later volume she contributed to in his honor. In her doctoral dissertation, which she completed and successfully defended before Volf and other faculty, she calls for using “the ability of women to achieve multiple orgasms” as “a better model” for thinking about the divine life.

In other words: Tonstad was already a known entity at the time she was hired by Yale to teach and form students “to foster the knowledge and love of God through rigorous scholarly inquiry” (somewhere along the way, the Divinity School updated its 1701 mission statement to this).

One of Tonstad’s most disturbing remarks comes from a 2013 symposium bearing the subtitle, “Shape Shifting God as Queer.” There, she commended deviant sexual practices like the use of “glory holes.” As described in a later interview with Tonstad, these allow “patrons to stick their dicks into a hole cut out of a wall, for any stranger on the other side to suck them off.”

At the end of her talk, Tonstad also said “if we move from cock-sucking to clit-licking in touching God’s transcendence, we will no longer gag on God’s fullness, nor be forced to swallow an eternal emission grounding reproductive social normalization.” So much for heeding Ephesians 5:3’s warning that “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality.”

Tonstad’s vulgarities, published with slight alteration in her 2015 work, God and Difference, would help her secure tenure in Yale’s divinity school. That same book included plenty of other foul phrases. For example:

  • “The Father’s impregnation of Mary with his Word (another logos spermatikos?) begets Christ’s body, the church, which itself is the place or empty space that she has become.”
  • “Resurrection does not mean the fulfillment of sexual difference, unless we reduce fulfillment to the end of the interplay of plenitude, sacrifice, and lack, active and passive penetration, theology done only in the missionary position.”

Unsurprisingly, Tonstad continued to speak in these ways after securing tenure. In Queer Theology (2018), she approvingly quotes from another indecent theologian, Marcella Althaus-Reid, saying: “Mary, the theological simulacrum, the Virgin Mother, needs to be replaced with ‘Mary, Queer of Heaven and Mother of Faggots.’ This Mary is a Mary of pleasure, ‘a woman who had ‘seven times seven’ clitoral sexual pleasure.’”

In a 2022 interview, Tonstad “proposes that we figure the trinity through models of lesbian sex—where partners play with each others’ clitorises, not in exchange of one’s pleasure for another’s pain or submission. They both get off simultaneously, they are both active: mutual intensification. Divine arousal… is abundant.” Tonstad even affirms sadomasochism as a possible “methodology for approaching antagonism” in theology.

It would be one thing if Tonstad’s hiring and achieving tenure were merely a sign of God giving the leadership of Yale Divinity School over to its own desires. In fact, you could even argue that Tonstad’s employment at Yale is a sign that the program has too closely learned the lessons from Exclusion & Embrace (written by Volf), which reserves exclusion to an act of God alone in the eschaton, never once mentioning the commanded church practice of “excommunication” in its several-hundred pages. Inclusion apart from exclusion is no Christian virtue.

But Tonstad’s influence isn’t limited to Ivy League progressives and the mainline churches who have forgotten the clear instructions of Scripture to practice certain forms of exclusion for the sake of the purity of the gospel. For starters, Volf, who is frequently invited to speak at Evangelical institutions, has himself referenced her in his own work, including as recently as 2021 (in a piece for Political Theology and in the additions made to his republished version of The End of Memory).

However, in at least one instance, Tonstad has made even more direct inroads into an evangelical institution.

Tonstad's Evangelical Admirers

Amy Peeler is an associate professor at Wheaton College. In 2019, Peeler wrote that she values Linn Tonstad’s trinitarian analysis. In Women and the Gender of God (2022), Peeler repeatedly and approvingly quotes from Tonstad’s 2015 work throughout her own.

It is important to note the one caveat Peeler makes in Women and the Gender of God with regard to use of Tonstad, though I’m not sure if it’s extenuating or more concerning. Buried in a footnote, Peeler writes: “Were I to engage with [Tonstad’s] work holistically, I would have critiques to offer, but her frank assessment of theological appeals to paternal language provided an important step in the development of my own thinking” [emphases mine].

Clearly, Peeler is aware that there are issues with Tonstad and has flagged as much for the careful reader. And yet, Peeler claims that it is Tonstad’s ‘frank’ assessment of paternal language that was important to her. Charitable interpretation requires that we not assume Peeler had one of the scandalous passages quoted above in mind, but what could be more frank in Tonstad’s works than what has been quoted?

Furthermore, much as we might expect any author extensively and favorably referencing the works of John Howard Yoder or Jean Vanier to at least provide the reader some context about the grievous sexual abuse committed by these men, shouldn’t we expect that some similar contextualization be provided for those engaging with Tonstad? Some may object to comparing bad actions with bad words, but the intensely irreverent language that Tonstad frequently resorts to demands such comparisons. As James 3:6 warns, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

Peeler’s gender book has already been the subject of some controversy, though this has been entirely unrelated to her dependence upon Tonstad. In April 2023, The Gospel Coalition’s peer-reviewed theological journal, Themelios, published a critical review of Women and the Gender of God but failed to disclose that the reviewer, Marcus Johnson, served on the same church staff as Peeler. While that would certainly make for some awkward staff meetings, it would not have been nearly the controversy it became if not for another powder keg that went off the month before, when The Gospel Coalition posted salacious (though hardly in comparison to Tonstad!) excerpts from Josh Butler’s then-forthcoming book on sex and theology: Beautiful Union.

Peeler herself criticized the excerpts as “a crude male sexualization of God.” Butler is not who I would want as my children’s youth pastor, teaching them about sex, but there is still no comparison between Butler and Tonstad. The former is embarrassingly prurient; the latter clearly violates the Third Commandment.

For comparison, the initial words that got Josh Butler’s 2023 article at The Gospel Coalition pulled, endorsements of his book retracted, and led to his resignation as a pastor were the following:

  • “What deeper form of self-giving is there than sexual union where the husband pours out his very presence not only upon but within his wife?”
  • “What deeper form of hospitality is there than sexual union where the wife welcomes her husband into the sanctuary of her very self?”
  • “On that honeymoon in Cabo, the groom goes into his bride. He is not only with his beloved but within his beloved. He enters the sanctuary of his spouse, where he pours out his deepest presence and bestows an offering, a gift, a sign of his pilgrimage, that has the potential to grow within her into new life.”

Nevertheless, this disparity between Butler and an author who Peeler relied on in her own work went unexplored. Instead, a social media swarm turned the matter into a useless tribal fight between complementarians and egalitarians. Butler defenders quote-mined Christians in ages past for cringey sexual commentary, and Peeler’s defenders circled the wagons. Beth Allison Barr, for example, commented that TGC’s “response to Josh Butler versus Amy Peeler makes their intentions so obvious.” Beth Felker Jones, called on TGC to publish a retraction of Johnson’s review of Women and the Gender of God, in part because Johnson called the book “disturbing” and “bizarre.” Whether Peeler was leaning on Tonstad or another queer theologian, I am not sure, but speculating that Jesus may have been “intersex” is surely fitting of both of those critical terms.

What Should Be Done?

To lay my cards on the table, I would be perfectly happy if Evangelical scholars would stop engaging positively with Tonstad, much like they have (for the most part) stopped working with Yoder and Vanier. I think academic theological scholarship would both be the better off for it in this case, not just because Tonstad is un-Christianly vulgar, but because the whole enterprise of queer theology is a dead-end for the church that must always be reforming, always be purifying its thought, language, and behavior.

However, acknowledging that there might be fruitful arguments and avenues of thought that simply cannot be engaged with apart from Tonstad (as is also the case with Yoder and Vanier in certain respects), a less austere alternative might be sufficient: explain to the reader why you are engaging despite all the baggage associated with the figure. Readers deserve to know this up-front, especially in the case of young, impressionable college students who might be reading Peeler’s book for a class.

Disclosing (and often, analyzing the theological significance of) Karl Barth’s longstanding adulterous affair with his assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum is standard practice now in Barth scholarship. Christians believe that words matter and cannot afford to take Tonstad’s debasement of theological language any less seriously.

John Shelton

John Shelton is the policy advisor for Advancing American Freedom. He received degrees from Duke University (M.Div.) and the University of Virginia (B.A), and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Katelyn, and their children.