Folke T. Olofsson

Trust the basic code and design


In the Swedish National Gallery in Stockholm there are two monumental paintings which meet the eye of the visitor. They are painted by the same artist, Carl Lars­son 1, and they both portray a king in the centre of the picture. Trium­phal lords­hip is the theme of the first. The victo­rious king Gustav Vasa, riding a magni­fi­cent white stallion over a draw­bridge adorned with flowers, is about to enter his capital through its gates at the cheers of his subjects.

The other painting shows a man standing naked on a sledge. The sledge is being pulled to the entrance of a wooden Nordic temple. Two priests are waiting for the naked m­an. The first one, dressed in a white robe, holds the god Thor’s hammer in his uplif­ted hands. The other one, clad in i a crimson garb, keeps a dagger hidden behind his back. The theme of this picture is sacrifice. The king of the Swedes is about to be sacri­ficed at the temple of Old Uppsala in order to secure the survi­val of his people, stricken by famine. 2

In a brilliant, but far from uncontroversial way, the artist has portrayed two aspects of power and indeed male power: lordship and sacrifice. Most people would acknowled­ge the triump­hant power. Far less would recognize sacrifice as an integral part of power and male power. Not surpri­singly, some Swedish politicians and intellec­tuals did not want this painting to be at public display in the Main Hall of the National Gallery 3. It is easy to understand why. Its message is far to threatening for those engaged in the machinery of power.


A striking feature in the world of today is the lack of trust. With violence and evil present everywhere this may be a sound strategy for survival, but this lack of trust goes deeper and affects the roots of contemporary life. Modern man does not trust traditional reli­gious beliefs any longer. In Sweden only six percent of the popula­tion still identi­fy with traditional Christian belief and attend services regularly. 4 Nor does modern man trust traditional social pat­terns. Marriage has become optional, and person of the same sex can have their part­nership registered officially. Modern man does not even trust ob­vious orders of nature. Male and female are “social construc­tions”, which may be deconstructed. 5

Many Christian churches also reflect this lack of trust. Instead of trust in God, distrust has become the hermeneu­ti­cal principle by which the churches app­roach God’s reve­la­tion both in the orders of creation (Schöp­fungsordnungen) and in the Bible.

Trust lies at the heart of life. In order to live I must trust that the ground will carry me and not devour me. Each time I set my foot down on the ground is not the result of a deliberation of distrust. Every step I take is instead an affirmative act of a basic trust. The ground carries me. There is an abiding stabi­lity. There is a basic trusti­ness of reality which inspires trust. Why should not the Church embrace the basic code and the basic design with the same confidence and trust?


In a recently published article 6 a former New Testament professor at Upp­sala University, Harald Riesenfeld, argues that there is a cha­rac­teristic Christological structure to be found more or less explicitly developed not only on the Pauline letters but also in the majo­rity of writings in the New Testament. Therefore, in his view it is appropriate to speak of a basic code.

According to Riesenfeld the Christological belief in Jesus being the Christ in the early church contains five charac­teristic features:

  1. the pre-exis­tence as a divine being in close relation to God;

  2. a human life in obedience and yet with authority;

  3. an ato­ning death;

  4. a resurrection which opens the way to a life beyond death;

  5. a return from heaven of the exalted Christ, a general judgment and an unrestric­ted dominion of God.

The author dismisses the widespread scholarly opinion of today that this Christological picture emerged in congrega­tions belonging to the first and second genera­tion of the Christian movement as a result of a complicated process of interpretation and speculation. There is in his opinion far too many difficulties involved in this hypothe­sis. These difficulties can, however, be resolved, if the exegetes using Ock­ham’s razor were prepared to ask the basic ques­tion again “whether a bulk of these sayings–all of them attri­bu­ted ex­clusively to Jesus in the gospel tradi­tion–have in fact been pro­noun­ced, as it is described in our sources, by Jesus him­self”. 7

Jesus himself and not some unknown creative theologians in anonymous congrega­tions in the early church is the origi­nator of this basic code. A characteristic feature of this Christological structure is also that it is firmly grounded and rooted in the Old Testa­ment. This is and has always been the belief of the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

In stark contrast to this understanding of a basic code stands the opinions of the American Jesus Seminar, which contends that most Christians' picture of Jesus Christ is, in fact, radi­cally mista­ken, because it “is an imaginative theologi­cal construct, into which have been woven traces of that enig­ma­tic sage from Naza­reth–traces that cry out for recogni­tion and liberation from the firm grip of those whose faith overpo­wered their memories”. 8 If one believes, as the members of the Jesus Seminar do, that only 18 per­cent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels may have actually been spoken by him, the picture of Jesus in the end dis­solves in the acid of distrust.

If the Church looses her trust in the basic code she will eventually loose her identity by being wide open to all the projects and agendas of the secula­rized world and society.

Trusting the basic code is another way of saying that the Church should have a fundamental and permanent trust in that which make her understand reality. God’s revelation in his Word, which at the profoundest level is the Incarna­tion, is the basic code for an adequate understanding of of the world as God’s creation. The world is not simply there. It is created.

The Incarnation represents as a pars pro toto the whole of God’s action in Christ, which is the revelatory code to an adequate understanding of all reality. The Incarnation, God becoming man, means a final divine yes and amen to the whole crea­ted order (Schöpfung). As Christians we have to take “all things visible” seriously.

If we have in mind the double aspect of the Word of God, signifying both the revelation given in God’s word in the Bible and the Word, the second Person in the Holy Trini­ty, the Logos by whom all things were made, the Word made flesh, we shall be able to approach the protohistory con­tained in the first three chapters of Genesis in a theolo­gically appropriate way.

As Christians we have a basic trust in the Word who became flesh. As Christi­ans we also have a basic trust in the word of Scripture which resounds and echoes the Logos. The three first chap­ters of the Bible is a part of the divine revela­tion. The creation is not something you can understand apart from God’s revelation. In these chapters man by God’s teaching learns something that he would not have known otherwise. The word of God is focusing our attention on the creation of mankind, what it means to be human–man and woman–and what it means to be human–man and woman–in relationship to the divine. Here we encounter the basic design.

With a basic attitude of trust towards Scripture we do not play off different stories against one another. What the Bible tells in different stories form a wholeness to be embraced and welcomed rather than being cast suspicion upon and rejected.


In the first chapter of Genesis it is said that man after a Trinitarian counsel (v. 26) is created in the image and likeness of God, and that God created mankind male and fema­le. There is in this statement an obvious equality between male and female as God’s image. Gender and sex are there from the very beginning. They are a part of the goodness of creation. They also stand under God’s original bles­sing. They belong to the essential createdness of man: the basic de­sign.

In the second chapter another story is told which in a wonderful way completes the other. Man, adam, (der Mensch) is created from the dust of the earth, adama, and becomes a living creature when the Creator breathes his spirit into him. But man is alone. As God’s representative he has the God-given power to name things, categori­ze, grasp reality, assume authority over it, but something is missing. The revela­tory story goes on to tell how God causes a deep sleep fall over Adam. It is a myste­rious, ecstatic sleep. And out of Adam’s, the earth-ling’s side, God makes him someone to meet him, to help him. It is deeply significant that this wonderful new creature is taken from his side, not from his head, his hips or from his feet, but from the side where his heart is. She is in the deepest sense of the word his part-ner. And as Adam has assu­med authori­ty over God’s creatu­res by calling them by name he now gives his helper the name woman, be­cause she is taken from man. This is both an act of taking authority over and an expression of the most intimate rela­tedness. In this story there is an equa­lity bet­ween man and woman as they have the same natu­re and belong to the same kind. Yet, there is also an apparent “hierar­chy” between man and woman: a he­adship and a sub­mission.

The story about the creation man and woman is not something which remains in the past. The relationship between the sexes in crea­tion is actualized and manifested in every marriage. The union between a man and a woman in marriage belongs to the origi­nal and basic design.

Some people find this story of the creation of woman from man highly dis­crimina­ting and want to ban it from the Bible. The fact is, however, that this story has God’s own sanction and attestation. Together with the text in Genesis chapter 1 it gives some of the basic features of God’s revela­tion on the nature of man, male and female, and their relationship to one another and to God.

In the first story the likeness with God and their mutual eqality in relation to God are emphasized. In the other story the differentiation between male and female is accen­tuated. Woman is defined i her relation to man and there is a hierarchy in the relationship between man and woman. It is important to keep both aspects in mind when trying to understand the biblical anthropolo­gy.

Without taking the third chapter of Genesis into account any presentation of the biblical understanding of man would be incomplete. The Fall changes the conditions for the whole creation. Becoming like God without God, was the goal of man’s sinful action. Man was destined to become like God. That was according to God’s will and not sinful per se. But as in so many cases, sin sets off with the best of motives. The sin is that man tried to snatch this godlike­ness for himself on his own terms wit­hout God, violating God’s will as expressed in his command. Some theo­logians have also suggested that the Fall means an up­setting of the God-given hierarchy of creation. Original sin is under­stood as “the woman taking over autho­rity from the man, and the man saying and doing nothing to stop it”9. This may well be so. Knowing good and evil in the Old Testament sense means setting ones own standards like God. Upset­ting the God-given order in creation may well be a part of this. Howe­ver, Original Sin has a wider scope and this violation of a divine order is rather a symptom than the whole cause.

When God declares his judgement upon sinful man it is highly significant that the consequences of sin affect man in his manhood and woman in her woman­hood and also the relationship between man and woman. Man’s God-given creati­vity, which is a part of his being created in the image of God, is affected both in its aspect of work and in the aspect of procreation. Work becomes a toil and moil. Procrea­tion in the sense of giving birth becomes painful. The harmonious hierarchical order, the original partners­hip, between man and women already given in creation, will now lapse into man’s dominee­ring over women.

Jesus Christ, the incarnated Word of God, does not in any way abrogate the orders of creation. He rather strengthens them as with marriage. In his tea­chings he also sets new standards and deepens significant Old Testament themes 10 which is clearly reflec­ted in the teachings of the apost­les. Especi­ally St Paul binds toget­her orders of creation with orders of salvation and places Christ as the interme­diary and the one who keeps them together. This is parti­cularly evident in his under­standing of the church and the rela­tionship bet­ween man and wife in marriage.

In dealing with decorum i public worship in the church in Corinth, St Paul make reference the order of creation. He wants the Corinthian Christians to understand that “Christ is the head of every man, man is the head of woman and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1), and he is estab­lishing his argu­ment by referring to the story about the creation of woman. For Paul there is a given hierarchy: God, Christ, man, woman. But this hierarchy of headship and submission must not be understood in any repressive sense. The tender­ness in the rela­tionship bet­ween man and woman and the fundamental interdepen­dence, “she is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”, are clearly reflec­ted in this passa­ge: “Woman cannot do without man, neither can man do wit­hout woman, ­woman may come from man, but man is born of woman–both come from God”11.

Life in Christ does not mean that the God-given hierarchy between man and women, established in the story about the creation of woman from man, is abrogated. This hierarchy remains and is even tied to the relationship between the Father and the Son. Thus, the relationship between man and women is patterned after Christ and his example. This is parti­cularly obvious in the passage in Ephesians, chapter 5, in which the author decisi­vely makes a connexion between the relations­hip between man and wife and the relation between Christ and the Church, Christ being the Bridegroom and the Church being his Bride.

“Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of [belief in] Christ (v.21) 12. Man and wife are admonished “to go under the order [_taxis_] which exists in the belief in Christ”. There is an order to submit to which has been there since creation and which still remains in Christ. The wives are exhorted to sub­mit themselves to their husbands as their heads as they, and the Church, submit to Christ, the Head. This is tradi­tional language. But when it comes to the husband’s rela­tion to his wife the language of mutual submission is no longer used. Now, there is a very specific language of sacrificial love and self giving. Man in marriage in rela­tion to his wife has Christ in his sacrifice on the cross as pattern and prototype.

Here we can clearly see the pictures in the hall of the National Gallery Stock­holm portraying male power understood in a Christian way. In one picture man is greeted in his triumphal power and lordship, in the other man is about to give his life literally in a sacrifice. Both are true, but together they represent the Truth.

The hierarchical order given in creation, restated in Christ in salvation is in the Christian understanding totally determined by a self sacrificing love. In Philippi­ans, chapter 2, we can clearly discern this pattern. Christ is depicted as the one who does not try to grasp the godlike­ness and equality to God as Eve and Adam, representing fallen humanity, once tried to do. They tried to ascend to heaven and become gods. Christ is the one who reverses this movement of human hybris by relinquishing his godlik­eness. He descends, he empties himself, he is obedient even unto the death on the cross. Here we encounter the kenotic pattern, which is fundamen­tal and essential to all Chris­tian life and discipleship.

Headship and submission between man and wife and the keno­tic pattern open up vast theological horizons. Together they have some­thing important to tell about the rela­tionship between man and God.

It is not possible to understand the Christian view of man’s grandeur and misery if one does not focus one’s attention on Mary, the Mother of God, as contrasted with Eve. Mary is the representative of mankind, as is also Eve, and in a sense Mary reverses the course of the Fall. She is like Christ and unlike Eve when she does not try grasp equality with God on her own terms. Mary does not set her own life projects and personal plans for self fulfilment before the will of God. She listens to the word and promise of God, she is willing to become God’s servant, she be­lieves. Eve said in action no to God’s, she did not accept her position in the God-given hierarchy, she fulfils her role of being a helper in a twisted way by luring her husband to transgress God’s command and thereby bringing ruin over herself and mankind.

Mary is in sense God’s partner and helper as she declares herself to be the Servant of the Lord. She accepts her role as helper accor­ding to the order of creation, and in this submission she brings the greatest bles­sing ever into the world by being the Mother of God, Jesus Christ. Christ is born as any other man, but he is con­ceived in Mary’s womb by an immedia­te creative act of God through the Holy Spi­rit. No human being has ever before met God in such a wondrous way as Mary. And yet, this conception is in a way what happens every time faith is kindled in a human heart. Through the word and pro­mise of God the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, is con­ceived in her. God is growing as a foetus and a child in her womb. Mary said yes to God and believed. She could have used her human freedom by saying no. But she being “highly favoured” enters into the realm of total freedom by saying yes to being God’s servant. She is without any reservation open to God’s action in and through her13.

T­hrough this “active passivity”, this openness to God, Mary becomes the icon of justifica­tio sola gratia, sola fide, sine operibus propter Christum. Therefore, she also shall be called blessed by all genera­tions. Mary serves as an example for both men and women en­couraging them to take their right positions in God’s order of creation and salva­tion. By her own life she serves as a model inspiring men and women to open up their lives in trust and belief in God’s action, offe­ring them­selves as Ser­vants of the Lord for the bles­sing of mankind.

Headship and submission between man and wife and the keno­tic pattern of selfgiving and service belong into a an even greater theological complex as they also touch our very under­standing of the Holy Trinity.

In the first story about the creation of mankind God is portrayed as taking counsel before he creates man: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. The Church knows what some exegetes do not seem to know. This is not a coun­sel at some heavenly court. It is a counsel within the Holy Trini­ty, present already in the first verses of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit moved upon the face of the waters. And God said: Let there be light: and there was light”.

The Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware writes:14

“men an women, so the Bible teaches, are made in the image of God, and to Christians, God means the Trinity; it is only in the light of the dogma of the Trinity that humans can understand who they are and what God intends them to be. Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Trinity”.

In the Orthodox understanding of God there is a strong emphasis on the unknowabi­lity of God in se. God dwells in a light unapproachable to man. Any attempt at defining God in God’s essence is futile. Yet, there is also a strong empha­sis on God’s self disclosure. Man can only hope to attain to an under­standing of God from what God has pleased to reveal about himself in his econo­my of salvation. And God has made himself known from what he has done.

According to the Orthodox, and indeed all traditional Christian understanding of the Trinity, the Son is born of the Father before all times; he has also been born into the world by the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The Spirit proceeds from all eternity from the Father and is sent into the world by the Father through the Son. The Father is neither born nor proceeding. Alt­hough the Father and the Son are of the same substance (_homoou­sios_) and the Spirit is wors­hipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, which is another way of saying that the Spirit is also of the same substance, yet the Father is the source and head of the Holy Trinity. Thus, there is in the Ortho­dox understanding of the Trinity a unity and an equality of Persons within the Godhead, Father, Son and Spirit, as well as a diversity and submiss­ion of functions or roles between the divine Persons15.

If manhood and womenhood are to be apprehended in the light of our under­standing of the Trinity, it should not, then, be surprising if we shall find that there exists an essen­tial equa­lity between man and woman, grounded in the econo­my of the Trini­ty, as well as “a functional inequality”, a dif­ferentiation of roles, also grounded in this economy. God is one and God’s action is one, but within this one action there is the economy of the Son and that of the Holy Spi­rit. Man and women are one in equali­ty, but there is “an economy of the man” and “an economy of the woman” which have to be lived out in the family and in the Church. Manhood and womanhood are not simply identical and inter­changable, but together under the conditions of the created order man and woman reflect and represent the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

It would be quite off the mark to suggest that this “hier­ar­chy” which the Christian belief recognizes in the Trini­ty between the Father and the Son and the Spirit, would be oppressive or degra­ding. Self giving love lies at the heart of the Trini­ty, and this pattern of unity and yet diversi­ty, equality and yet sub­mission, permeated by an outgoing and self giving love–the basic code–, which we have seen in the Trinity, can readi­ly be under­stood as the basic design of the rela­tion between man and woman in the Church and in marria­ge16.


There is an important theological task of ecumenical dimen­sions lying before us. Together we need to rediscover and vindicate the biblical understanding of manhood and woman­hood. Christi­ans who have lived in countries domina­ted by a Socialist ideology with its conscious and programmatic endeavour of equality and inter­changeability between men and women replacing family, marriage, upbringing of child­ren within a family with new institutions, values and ideal, may have a special compe­ten­ce and a pro­phe­tic calling to con­tribute to this theo­logi­cal work invol­ving doctrinal as­pects of women’s status in the C­hurch, histo­rical aspects of women’s mini­stry and princi­ples to be used in estab­lishing women in the ministry. If this work is carried out with a trust in the basic code and the basic design, it will no doubt guide and strengthen local chur­ches and individual Christians as well as people of good will around the world in their encoun­ter with and witness to a secula­rized and egali­tarian socie­ty.

  1. A well-known Swedish national romantic painter (1853-1919). ↩︎

  2. This story is told by the Icelandic poet and writer Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) in his historical work Heimskringla. ↩︎

  3. The National Gallery originally rejected the painting. In 1993 after a heated public debate it was finally hung on the wall of the Main Hall as a deposition made by a Japanese art collector who had previously bought the pain­ting. ↩︎

  4. According to “Tro och värderingar i 90-talets Sverige” (Faiths and values in Sweden of the 1990’s), 1996, ed. by Bråkenhielm, Kallen­berg, Larsson, 33% of the Swedes are “private religious”, 28% are agnostics, 20% are atheists, 10% “private Christians”, i.e. they believe in a personal God, but they seldom attend church services, 6% are “Church Chris­ti­ans”, 2% go to church more or less regularly but do not identi­fy with traditional Christian belief. ↩︎

  5. The favourite idea of many feminist that gender is a “cultural construction” is described in an newspaper article by a Swedish writer as an American academic boosting of a French marxist philosophi­cal fashion “la grande théorie”, which emanates from the years around 1968. (Erik Hedling, “Fransk filosofi för­lamar anglosaxisk filmforsk­ning”, Svenska Dag­bladet 1996-04-19). ↩︎

  6. Harald Riesenfeld, “A Basic Code in the New Testament” from Texts and contexts. Biblical Texts in their Textual ans Situational Contexts. Essays in honour of Lars Hartman, Editeds by Tord Fornberg and David Hellholm, Scandinavian University Press, 1995, pp. 911 ff. ↩︎

  7. Op.cit., p. 913. ↩︎

  8. “The Gospel truth”, TIME, April 8, 1996. ↩︎

  9. Michael Harper, Equal and different. Male and female in the Church and Family, London 1994, p 24. ↩︎

  10. E.g. the use of wedding imagery in his tea­ching. ↩︎

  11. See also Eph 5:28-29. ↩︎

  12. For a detailed exegesis of this passage see Bertil Gärtner: Das Amt, der Mann und die Frau im Neuen Testament, 1963, p. 21 ff. Also in English (private print without date) Didaskolos. The office, man and women in the New Testament, translated by John E. Halborg. ↩︎

  13. The Roman Catholic dogma about the immaculate conception (i.e. Mary being “in the first moment of her conception, by a unique gift of grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Mankind, preserved from all stain of original sin”) is in Augustinian terms one (but certainly not the only) way of expressing the truth about Mary’s fundamental openness to God and her willingness to do God’s will without any reser­va­tions. Mary does not have any autonomous freedom of her own. The freedom she has is given her in her relationship to God as her life and existence in every instant of time is given her by God. It is important for a Christian understanding of man to notice that mankind does not only stand at the cross of Christ as crucifiers. There is in humankind also one who said yes to God, the Mother of God, standing by the cross, suffering seeing her son die. By the cross Mary also represents humanity. Man is both crucifying God and longing for God. ↩︎

  14. id., The Orthodox Church, Penguin, 1963, p. 216 ↩︎

  15. In his book Equal and different. Male and female in the Church and Family, 1994, Michael Harper, following Kallistos Ware, op.cit., points out very strongly and convin­cingly that the Orthodox under­standing of the Trinity will help to clarify the relationship between man and wife and their roles in the Church and in the family. ↩︎

  16. Nothing so far has been said about the ordination of women to the priesthood or to the episcopa­cy. Would such ordination be in accord with the biblical testimony? Is there, at all, a biblical testi­mony pertaining to this much disputed question? If one reads the biblical texts about the rela­tionship between man and women (and does not shun “hierachical” statements about headship and sub­mission e.g.), it should be obvious to the unbiased reader that the plain sense of the texts and the overall picture which emerges from these texts speak against the ordination of women (1 Cor 14:34-38, 1 Tim 2:11-15, Gen 3:16, 1 Cor 11:3, Eph 5:22 ff., Col 3:18, 1 Peter 3:1; The way Jesus acted in choosing his apostles among men only tallies entirely with these texts). Thus, ex­egetical­ly the case is clear. The first issue is whether the texts will be allowed to speak for themsel­ves as they are. Related to this issue is, of course, the ques­tion how we put these texts into prac­tice in the Church and in the family. The next issue is whether these texts are at all relevant, applicable and binding for the Church today. This is another way of asking ques­tions about the autho­ri­ty of Scripture and the nature of God’s revela­tion. If one decides that the texts about the relationship between man and woman in the family and in the Church are irrelevant and obsolete, one has the obliga­tion to present the principles and the criteria for one’s interpre­tation of Scripture and demonstrate that they are legiti­mate and justifiable. That is a not an ex­egetical but a hermeneu­ti­cal issue, and it involves the fundamental questions about the identity of the Christian belief. In many respects it seems as if the contemporary Church is con­fronted with the same question that Jesus once asked his disciples: Who do you say I am? (Mk 8:29). Is the New Testament a result of a complica­ted process in which the majority of the words and action ascribed to Jesus in reality are the products of anonymous, creative theologians, and, thus, can be moulded anew in a new contexts. Or does the New Testament resound of the words of him who is the incarnate Word of God? That is not a hermeneutical but an existential religious issue, which calls for decision. In the end the issue about the ordination of women to the priestho­od and the episcopacy seems to be whether one has a trust in the basic code and design or not. ↩︎