Monday, September 7, 2009

Admiration and distance from the great men of theology

I admire great theologians from the past. Their greatness lies, in part at least, because they spoke words which still, across many centuries, have the power to inspire, challenge, and enlighten us. Augustine of Hippo, for example, illuminates both exegesis of Scripture and the thornier problems of philosophy. Tertullian stands as a man for our time with his intensely intelligent development of theology in a new language (Latin), in the face of immense challenges from the philosophers and hyper-spirituals of his day. Luther set in train a reflection on Romans which to this day has not exhausted the mysteries of that book, possibly the greatest book of theology ever written. Calvin, well, he was a master of theology, the systematizer of the Reformation, who in these early years of the twenty-first century is inspiring a great movement known as 'the New Calvinism'.

None were infallible. Some parts of Augustine's famous work, The City of God, just seem odd to me. Luther was just terrible about 'the Jews'. Tertullian was a bit odd about the relationship of philosophy and theology: what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Quite a lot really; and Tertullian with his philosophical approach to theology (like Paul with his Hellenistic rhetorical skills) underlines that! Calvin: where to start? Just about every Calvin aficionado has to defend Calvin from the charge of joylessness, and severity.

Here is another reason to distance ourselves from the faults of these great men:

remember our history - a post by Jody Stowell

he [satan] had a deceitful conversation with the woman - no doubt starting with the inferior of the human pair so as to arrive at the whole by stages, supposing that the man would not be so easily gullible, and could not be trapped by a false move on his part, but only if he yielded to another's mistake.

and do you not know that you are each an eve? the sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. you are the devil's gateway; you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. you destroyed so easily God's image, man. on account of your desert - that is, death - even the son of God had to die.

therefore satan, seeing that adam was the more excellent creature, did not dare attack him; for he was afraid that this attempt would fail. and i believe that if he had attacked adam first, adam would have gained the victory. he would have crushed the serpent with his foot and said: hold your tongue! the lord has commanded otherwise.

woman is more guilty than man, because she was seduced by satan, and so diverted her husband from obedience to God that she was an instrument of death leading all to perdition. it is necessary that women recognise this, and that she learn to what she is subjected; and not only against her husband. this is reason enough why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame.

Back to PRC: A challenge to modern exegetes of 1 Timothy 2:13-14: do you agree or disagree with the line of these four exegetes, that women are less excellent creatures than men?

In my understanding of current 'complementarian' v 'egalitarian' debates (referring to the general thrust of these around the blogosphere, not to any particular comments made on this blog in recent days), there is a very strong agreement between 'complementarians' and 'egalitarians' that men and women are ontologically equal and the dispute is whether men and women are role differentiated (women may not teach, exercise authority over a man) or not.

But this was not always so. The New Calvinists, for example, who are complementarian, follow a theological master who ranks women below men (as per the quote above).

From where does the change in recognition of the true status of women come? If from Scripture, where does that reading of Scripture come from compared to the reading more or less shared across many centuries by Tertullian to Calvin?

My suggestion is that "culture" - in this case the culture of vote-giving, education-providing, career-affirming 20th and 21st century Westernism - has changed the way we all read Scripture, at least reading Scripture so that we do not draw the conclusions these great theologians drew.

Perhaps if we understood better the role - the universal, pervasive role - of culture in reading the Bible, we could work better towards a common Christian understanding of women in ministry!


  1. "From where does the change in recognition of the true status of women come? If from Scripture, where does that reading of Scripture come from compared to the reading more or less shared across many centuries by Tertullian to Calvin?

    My suggestion is that "culture" - in this case the culture of vote-giving, education-providing, career-affirming 20th and 21st century Westernism - has changed the way we all read Scripture, at least reading Scripture so that we do not draw the conclusions these great theologians drew.

    Perhaps if we understood better the role - the universal, pervasive role - of culture in reading the Bible, we could work better towards a common Christian understanding of women in ministry!"

    What more can be said? It only remains for me to add that this may also be the key to a common understanding of the place of LGBT people within the Christian community. Until those who are conservative on sexuality come to see that the emerging cultural consensus on this issue, at least in the first-world societies, is wise and humane, they will continue to believe that it is an evil to be opposed, and continue to read the scriptures in the light of that conviction.

  2. Hi Howard
    In a spirit of genuine enquiry/exploration, not of argumentation, I think there are important questions re LGBT which are a little different to questions re equality of men and women: viz.,
    - is there an 'emerging cultural consensus'?
    - does opposition to (e.g.) 'gay marriage' necessarily imply a presupposition that it is an 'evil to be opposed'?
    - is there one issue re 'LGBT' or more than one issue (because, e.g. the church could expect bisexual people to constrain desire in a heterosexual direction)?

    But these are not questions I expect you to respond to in a comments' thread such as this ... I offer them as a signal of some questions this blog, our church on its journey to the 3rd hui may wish to engage with ...!!

  3. I should not write this reply at this moment, because I'm so cross .. but perhaps you should all KNOW that. The blog Peter is referring to is written by a woman who is one of the leaders of an English blog of so called 'open' evangelicals called Fulcrum. Not a nobody in the world of our church, so someone who should be extra careful about what appears on her own personal blog.

    We have been talking on another part of this blog, about the reasonss we should avoid personal attacks .. well what are these? Does putting these quotes out like that help women to be more Godly? Does it help women to feel they should help men? Or fight against them? Does it help men to be more Godly? Or is it put there to increase their level of guilt .. such a productive emotion.

    This is the sort of open declaration of 'war' between the genders that I abhor most deeply. Pointing out a person's failures without realising that you too suffer from the same sin .. is abhorrent.

  4. Hi Rosemary

    Thanks for commenting - you help me to see things in a way I do not normally see!

    I simply had not thought of these quotes as either a 'personal attack' or as something which might not 'help women to be more Godly'.

    Least of all had I thought of these quotes as a 'sort of open declaration of 'war' between the genders'.

    I shall think about such things.

    I can only reiterate that my intention in posting them was merely to underline how much we have shifted culturally in the way we read the Bible 'plainly'.

    Mentioning Jody (whom I am well aware is a leader of Fulcrum) was simply the usual polite acknowledgment of a source.

  5. Peter I accept that there are important differences between the case(s) for accepting the ministries of L-G-T-B people and accepting the ministries of women. My main point was that there is at least one common issue, a long history of culturally bound resistance and prejudice, and that recognizing those cultural factors in each case is a key step (not the only one) towards acceptance of change.

    However, having since followed your link to Jody's blog and here earlier reporting of the FCA conference I would now want to add one further commonality - the fierce opposition of the FCA leadership to both women's ordination and LGTB ministries! The leadership dynamics of this strain of evangelicalism (here and abroad and in its frightful international cohesion) has been hateful to me since I met it in my early childhood. Far from preserving gospel truth, it was the chief hindrance to my conversion as a young man, and once I found other more liberal and enlightened models of Christianity that led me to Christ this self-assured cabal has been a spiritual adversary. I want to cry out for the world to hear, particularly the world inhabited by my children, "These aggressive, self-important, dominating loudmouths are not what Christianity is all about. This is not the image of Christ!"
    But there you are - that is my particular psychopathology and cultural bias speaking ... maybe.

  6. Hi Howard
    You helpfully draw out a number of issues!
    E.g. the nature of the gospel we are seeking to preserve, the characters of multiple evangelicalisms, and the role of psychology in the act of communication ...

  7. Your question about from where came the changed understanding of the ontological status of women intrigued me. I wondered if the women suffragists were motivated by Christian principles (as with the fight for the abolition of slavery) but, as far as I can see, that's not the case. Christian "conservatives" were strongly opposed to giving women the vote.

    This 1884 essay, titled "Women's Suffrage", by a Rev. Prof. H. M. Goodwin, is one example of how the Bible was used to argue against women being allowed to vote, even in the democratic USA. He writes;

    If there is any law written in nature’s boldest and most legible hand and stamped indelibly on the human constitution, it is that which assigns different spheres and duties to the two sexes. ... To the man is given physical strength, executive force, mastership, leadership,—in a word, headship in the family, in the field, and in the State. Hence government is his prerogative by nature. To the woman is given a finer and more delicate organization, not inferior but different in kind and quality, fitting her as manifestly for private and domestic life... To deny or ignore this law is to deny the plainest facts, and to fly in the face of nature itself. Nature and reason, no less than Scripture, declares man to be ... the proper head and ruler of the State. ... The equality of the sexes, in the only sense in which the term can be properly used, is perfectly consistent with subordination of rank and place, as even theology teaches in the doctrine of the Trinity, where the Son is subordinate and obedient to the Father, yet one with Him in all divine attributes.

    (I wonder if Kevin Giles knows about this fellow's view of the Trinity. It's a lot earlier than George Knight's book but does seem to refer to a "combination of eternal subordination in function with equality of being.")

    Goodwin obviously believed that women are naturally lacking the kind of intellectual capacities necessary for involvement of any sort in public and political life. But who is saying that now? Do even the hardest of hard complementarians say that, or do they just say that God says women have to stay at home?

    What proved Goodwin wrong? Wasn't it a couple of world wars, particularly WWII? One of my aunts was a bank teller during WWII. As soon as the war was over and the men came back she was out of work because telling was considered a man's job. That's the sort of thing that makes (some) people think something not quite right is going on. Is God in charge? Can He bring good out of evil?

    The thing I can't get out of my mind is sin. When I used to believe in complementarianism, if I was upset over something I wanted to do or have that my husband had refused to allow, I used to examine my motives and wonder if my misery was because my sinful desire to rule him had been frustrated. Now I don't believe I ever desired to rule my husband. Certainly I wanted him to care for my happiness enough to agree to implement my reasonable suggestions but I don't think that asking nicely and trying to persuade qualifies as an attempt to rule.

    On the other hand, I can't remember ever reading of any male who wondered if his poor relationship with his wife was due to him acting on his sinful propensity to rule her. It's too easy to read, "he shall rule over you," as prescriptive rather than descriptive. And if a man does so then it's easy for him to tell himself that he's not sinning against the law of love but ruling, as God requires.

    One thing that strikes me about Goodwin's essay is the sense of personal superiority that it conveys. He comes across as a man who's convinced of his own righteousness. He's not a sinner! No! Those are found among the lower classes and uppity women!

  8. Hi Janice
    Thanks for this - including a (possibly) early rendition of Grudemism!
    I am also intrigued by the phrase 'plainest facts': what was plain then does not seem so plain now!
    Of course in NZ we take a quiet pride in being the first country in the world to grant women the vote ... a first stage in voting men out of many jobs (though we have temporarily wrested our Prime Ministership back) ... some say backing trailers is the only one women have no interest in taking on!

  9. Dear Peter and Janice ..

    I was so deeply disturbed to read your post Janice. It’s a wonder .. a miracle .. that you didn’t give up on your faith rather than on what you refer to as complementarianism. I’m not sure I’ve got my head around all the nuances and differences between egalitarianism and the other, but I’m sure none of us ever fit completely in a box, especially not one ending in ‘ism.’

    Peter, Janice’s post reminds me why I feel so strongly about the church failing because they have forgotten the fact that men and women are equal for so long. Not only did they not preach it, they didn’t believe it, and the price has been paid by women. The damage that has been done to women is immense and unbelievable in this day and age. Referring to previous conversations between us, you’ll understand that I DON’T think men have done such a wonderful job of understanding Scripture, that that is the reason they should continue in the teaching role??!! They haven’t. Of course that doesn’t mean women will do any better. We should all of us weep for our lack of knowledge and understanding.

    Janice, I am comforted by the deep knowledge and understanding you have of Scripture. That knowledge is given to you by the Holy Spirit of Our Lord, you are therefore His in ways that I can only be jealous of, but as I say, extremely comforted by. He loves you and has cared for you throughout, that shows in some of the things you say. I know that I am exceedingly blessed in my husband and four sons, and reading your post, I can only once again thank God it is so, and bewail my inability to be a better witness both to men and women of our ‘oneness’ in Christ. I know in the depths of my soul, that we must work together, love and support each other regardless of gender, as Our Lord demands in order to demonstrate to the world that He is King.

  10. Thank you Rosemary
    At this point - on the points you make here - we are in deep agreement!
    With warm regards