Friday, December 26, 2014

But what does "biblical"mean?

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

In this memoir, Rachel Held Evans describes how she spent a year trying to live "biblically" as a woman. She tried to follow the Bible's instructions to women as "literally" as possible.

Evans is a little vague about why she did this. She notes that she has been accused of mocking God's Word, but doesn't respond to the criticism, except for saying that it made her doubt herself (p. 4). She seems to have undertaken the project as a way of demonstrating the foolishness of trying to follow the Bible exactly, and the inconsistency of those who try.

For example, the subtitle indicates how she called her husband "master". This comes from 1 Peter 3:5-6: " For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear."

Now, Evans has missed the point of the passage. Peter does not tell women to call their husbands "lord"; he tells them that they should have "the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit" (v. 4), and to follow the example of the "holy women of the past". He then mentions a specific instance from the life of Sarah (Genesis 18:12), and says that women should be daughters of Sarah, not necessarily in calling their husbands "lord", but in "doing what is right and not giving way to fear".

Has Evans missed the point intentionally? Is she saying that the word "biblical" has no meaning and that we all pick and choose what verses of the Bible we want to obey? Well, the entire book revolves around this slippery use of the word "biblical".

Two examples of this slippery usage will suffice. Evans writes to a Jewish friend to get advice about following the Old Testament food laws. She notes that she didn't want to follow the rabbinic tradition, "after all, this was my year of living biblically, not my year of living Talmudically" (p. 157). But then, on the very next page, she decides to stick to all the dietary laws found in the Old Testament, including "no mixing of meat and dairy". Well, that's not in the Old Testament; that is merely a Jewish tradition. Does Evans not realise this? It appears she is confused about what is in the Bible and what isn't.

A second example of the slippery use of the word "biblical" is in Evans' discussion of female victims in the Bible. She refers to them as "victims of biblical misogyny" (p. 47). Here the word "biblical" appears to mean "described in the Bible". But the Bible certainly isn't approving of the actions of rapists like Amnon. Evans says that women like the Levite's concubine of Judges 19 were "crushed at the hand of patriarchy" (p. 66). But there is nothing in the text to suggest that "patriarchy" is to blame; indeed, in this particular case the woman could better be described as a "victim of anarchy".

In this, and in many other places, Evans fails to grasp the difference between an indicative and an imperative. Just because the Bible describes a particular action or practice, it doesn't mean that Christians are to copy the action or follow the practice. So when Evans notes that "advocates of biblical patriarchy" do not appear to be "taking multiple wives" (p. 52), she is both misreading the Bible and misunderstanding her opponents. The Bible tells lots of stories of polygamy, and none of them present the practice as worthy of emulation. Almost always some trouble comes out of it. And even if we were to say that it was still allowed today, it doesn't follow that we should be doing it. You may believe, for example, that ("biblical") slavery could still be practised today, but it doesn't follow that to be "consistent" you should take some slaves yourself. 

It's this very issue of consistency that Evans seems to be exploring in this book, but she fails to demonstrate that anyone is being inconsistent. Time and again, she mentions various "opponents" (my word, not hers), but evidently has not grasped the reasons for or the implications of her opponents' views. Sometimes she makes totally unfounded accusations, such as saying that "those who seek to glorify biblical womanhood have forgotten the dark stories" (p. 66). Evans also fails to grasp the history of interpretation of the Old Testament throughout the history of the Christian Church. Mainstream Christianity has never said that we should adopt Old Testament practices completely. In this way, Evans is responding to a straw man.

Evans also lacks hermeneutical sensitivity: a number of times she engages in a "flat" reading of the text. Her statement that a man's "procreative prowess is listed by the writers of Scripture as one of his most worthy virtues" (p. 58) is an obvious misreading, while her comment that "Jesus showed little regard for the Levitical purity codes" (p. 169) fails to take into account that Jesus told the healed leper to go to the priest (Mark 1:44) in obedience to Leviticus 14.

Thus, throughout A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans misinterprets Scripture, in failing to properly understand and apply the Old Testament. She misunderstands the people to whom she is (presumably) responding, especially those in the "biblical womanhood" movement. And she misuses key words, such as "biblical" and "literal".

Evans explicitly identifies herself as feminist. I think it is also fair to describe her as "post-evangelical", though she doesn't use that phrase. Not only does Evans show a defective interpretation of Scripture, she also has a defective view of it. She talks about "how insufferable I found the apostle Paul's rambling prose" (p. 121). She rejects the unity of Scripture, referring to the Bible's "cacophony of voices" (p. 294). This leads her to reject a unified concept of what it means for anything to be "biblical".

It should be noted that there are some good exegetical insights in this book. I appreciated her description of the militaristic language of Proverbs 31 (p. 76), and her comment that "most of the Bible's instructions regarding modesty find their context in warning about materialism, not sexuality" (p. 128). It was also very encouraging to read how the project exposed her and her husband's prejudices, particularly in regards to conservative Christians (p. 130).

Evans is strongly egalitarian in regards to male-female relationships. She notes that she undertook this project "looking for permission" to lead and speak (p. 296). She concludes by affirming that her calling "is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus" (p. 295). And yet the entire project revolved around assuming (pretending? modelling?) a hierarchical marriage relationship (p. 302). Is that what Evans thought was biblical? Presumably not – the book seems to present a reductio ad absurdam argument. Evans is attempting to show that it's either (a) not really in the Bible, or (b) irrelevant for modern-day Christians.

Thus, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is almost wholly ironic. In this way, Evans is a clear example of what happens when evangelicals embrace postmodernism.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Some unusual terminology, but well worth the effort

An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach by Bruce Waltke with Charles Yu

This review is unprecedented as far as this blog goes in that I am reviewing a book that I have not yet finished. In fact, I am only about half way through. It has been rather heavy going, but it is worth the effort, and I intend to finish it next year.

An Old Testament Theology is a comprehensive textbook on the Old Testament. Waltke goes through it book by book, though some sections of the Bible receive more coverage than others. Genesis gets 173 pages, Job gets 19, Song of Solomon gets nothing at all.

One of the interesting features of the this book is that each chapter is of the form "The Gift of...". This strikes me as a great organising principle for the Old Testament: "The Gift of the Cosmos", "The Gift of Liturgy", "The Gift of Kingship", etc.

The other thing that strikes the reader is the non-standard vocabulary employed. The hardest to get used to is the rendition of the covenant name of God as "I AM" throughout the book. Even more annoying is the use of "vice-regent" used several times. I think the word meant was "viceroy" (which has the associated adjective "viceregal") or else "vicegerent".

On the other hand, the best example of unusual terminology in the book is Waltke's use of "Sworn Land" instead of "Promised Land". Waltke notes that God doesn't just promise the land to Abraham, he swears an oath to him that he will give it. I wonder if the phrase will catch on.

In conclusion, this book will reward readers who put in the effort to carefully read, ponder, and evaluate what it says.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A soft complementarian position denying the eternal subordination of the Son

Jesus, Justice, & Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry by Kathy Keller.

This is part of Zondervan's "Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry" series, the other volumes being John Dickson's Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons (see my review here) and Michael Bird's Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry.

Kathy Keller is the wife of Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The book is written in two parts. The first part ("Hermeneutical Imperatives") discusses relevant New Testament texts. Keller seems to be a soft complementarian. She translates 1 Timothy 2:12 as "I do not permit a woman to authoritatively teach a man", and believes that this still applies today. On the other hand, she is fine with women leading mixed Bible study groups. Following Redeemer's policy, she believes that women can do everything in the church that a non-ordained man can do. This does, however, presuppose a very high view of ordination. Although the emphasis in the pastoral epistles is certainly on the work of the pastor, especially preaching and teaching, Paul does not say "I do not permit a non-ordained person to authoritatively teach a man". In fact, just a few verses before, Paul had said that "the men should pray, lifting holy hands", and that the women "should adorn themselves in respectable apparel" (1 Tim. 2:8-9). Clearly, then, male/female roles and conduct are in mind, and not merely the ordained/non-ordained distinction.

In the second part of the book ("Personal Journeys"), Keller is apparently trying to reach out to disaffected women. She distances herself from anyone who is more complementarian than she (p. 33):
I am frequently embarrassed by others who use the title "complementarian" but who go beyond Scripture to legislate arbitrary rules about the age of boys when women must not teach Sunday school to them any longer, or whether a female small group leader should have a male co-leader if the group is mixed, and so on.

More disturbing, however, are Keller's views about the eternal subordination of the Son (p. 47). She says, "Jesus' submission to the Father was limited to his earthly incarnation" and "to my knowledge, no complementarian has ever espoused such a thing, despite egalitarian charges to the contrary". Well, Keller's knowledge is rather limited, because a host of complementarians have demonstrated that this is the historic Christian doctrine. See, for example, Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father by Wayne Grudem, The Eternal Subordination of the Son Is the Historic Doctrine of the Church by Dave Miller, and A Defense of the Doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son by Stephen Kovach and Peter Schemm.

I'm afraid I couldn't help thinking that Keller was selected to write this book because Zondervan wanted the complementarian case to be presented by a woman. It would, however, have been better to ask someone more qualified to write this volume.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A revolution based on what a verse doesn't say

Hearing Her Voice: A Biblical Invitation for Women to Preach by John Dickson

This book is all about one verse in the New Testament: 1 Timothy 2:12, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." Dickson argues that the verse does not forbid women from giving sermons today. His argument is as follows (pp. 80-81): There are many different different forms of public speaking in the New Testament, such as "exhorting", "preaching", and "teaching". Only one of them is forbidden to women – "teaching", in 1 Tim. 2:12. According to Dickson, this actually refers to "preserving and laying down the traditions handed on by the apostles", and this is not what happens in most modern-day sermons. Hence, women are allowed to give sermons today.

This is a rather idiosyncratic, and certainly very narrow definition of "teaching", and Dickson is not convincing. But even if we were to grant his definition, he is still on very flimsy ground.

Dickson fails to demonstrate why women are allowed to "exhort". The New Testament seems to use that word in two different ways: both personal encouragement, and delivering a "word of exhortation". The latter is used in Hebrews 13:22, in reference to the entire book, and Hebrews does seem to be a sermon, or at least composed of sermonic material. Why can women give this sort of exhortation? Dickson seems to suggest that because that particular word is not used as a prohibited activity for women, it is allowed. In this way, Dickson stands firmly in the Anglican tradition of the normative principle of worship, holding that whatever is not forbidden is allowed, but as an adherent of the regulative principle, I must reject this. The onus is on Dickson to demonstrate that women are allowed to preach; the fact that they are "not forbidden" is not good enough.

Again, even if we accept Dickson's definition of teaching, it is much better to see it applying today as "telling people what the Bible says". In fact, there is another possible definition, which Dickson completely ignores: "teaching" is what teachers do. And the New Testament says a lot about "teachers". Unfortunately, Dickson fails to mention Ephesians 4:11 ("He gave some to be apostles, and some to be prophets, and some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers"). Actually, he does allude to it on p. 78, and seems to suggest that the office of teacher has ceased. But this verse is talking about the pastor/teacher as a single office, and this office is restricted to men (1 Tim. 3:1-2). This is the office that Timothy held, and he was told to devote himself to "the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (1 Tim. 4:13). This is describing the work that a (male) pastor does, and there is no indication in the New Testament that other people do this as well. Thus, there are good reasons why we would conclude from the New Testament that women are not allowed to "exhort", even if we grant Dickson's idea that modern-day sermons are essentially "exhortations" based on the text.

In short, Dickson is presenting an argument from silence. The book has a very feminist-sounding title, and my edition has quite an outrageous subtitle: "A Biblical Invitation for Women to Preach". (Other editions have "A Case for Women Giving Sermons"). Well, it's not a biblical invitation at all. It is based entirely on what Dickson argues one verse is not saying. We should not base doctrines on what single verses say, let alone on what they don't say.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tragic misapprehensions

Rome Sweet Home by Scott and Kimberly Hahn

This is the story of Scott and Kimberly Hahn's conversion to Roman Catholicism. They came out of evangelical Protestantism, and both studied at Grove City College and Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary.

It's an intriguing story, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Scott became a Catholic a few years before Kimberly, and they relate the struggles they had in a "mixed marriage". Secondly, one can detect in this book a trajectory from intellectual conviction (believing that the Roman Catholic Church is the True Church) to emotional connection (feeling at home in the Catholic Church).

However, both of these reasons are built on flimsy foundations. Firstly, the Hahns completely misunderstand key Protestant doctrines such as Sola Scriptura. Now, Rome Sweet Home is more than twenty years old, and it is quite likely that the Hahns have refined their understanding as they have engaged in Catholic apologetics, but they think that Sola Scriptura means the Bible is the "Christian's only authority" (p. 53). As Keith Mathison demonstrates in The Shape of Sola Scriptura, that is most emphatically what it does not mean. Rather, it means the Bible is the only ultimate authority. It is a shame that both these people could study at an evangelical seminary and not know this.

Secondly, their emotional connection to the Catholic Church is also a flimsy foundation for conversion. Kimberly says regarding the rosary, "I really felt the Lord was giving his approval and ministering to me through it" (p. 160). It is, of course, impossible to argue with such feelings. But it is significant that the Hahns need to retreat into such mysticism in order to justify their conversion.

The Hahns make much of 1 Timothy 3:15, where it says that that the Church is the "pillar and foundation of the truth". They rightly point out that this might go against the evangelical instinct of regarding the Bible as the pillar and foundation of the truth. But quite apart from the fact that both could be true, there is still no reason to believe that Paul is talking here about the Church of Rome.

This is therefore a rather sad book. The education that the Hahns received and the conversations they had with evangelical friends were not sufficient to keep them from converting to Rome. But they did so on the basis of some tragic misapprehensions concerning Protestant doctrine and spirituality.

Monday, September 08, 2014

An important theme, but mixed contributions

The Holy Spirit and Reformed Spirituality

The volume is a Festschrift of sorts. A Festschrift is a collection of essays written in honour of a particular academic, usually on a topic that is dear to that academic's heart. Well, The Holy Spirit and Reformed Spirituality honours Geoff Thomas, who is not an academic at all, but rather an ordinary pastor.

The theme of this book is an important one, for two reasons. Firstly, there seems to be a misconception that Reformed theology is weak on the Holy Spirit. Some would even suggest that while Reformed theology may be good on soteriology, when it comes to pneumatology we need to turn to Charismatic theology.

Now, it is true that there is no chapter in the original Westminster Confession of Faith specifically on the Holy Spirit, but many reformed theologians have written volumes on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit: George Smeaton, Abraham Kuyper, and James Buchanan in previous generations, and Sinclair Ferguson more recently.

The second reason why this topic is important is that there are some people who like reformed theology, but prefer other spiritualities. Catholic writers like Brendan Manning and Henri Nouwen are quite popular in some Reformed circles. But although Reformed spirituality is often neglected, it is inseparable from Reformed theology.

Unfortunately, the essays in this volume do not really match the importance of the theme. It is often the case that contributions to Festschriften vary in quality, but overall this book is somewhat disappointing. It was interesting to see no less than four chapters dealing with some aspect of John Owen's thought. Two of these (by Carl Trueman and Derek Thomas) were good, but the other two seemed to merely rehash what Owen had written. Similarly, there is another chapter that is merely rehashing Louis Berkhof.

Even more disappointing is Stephen Turner's contribution on the call to the ministry. Turner notes that Acts 13:2 describes the Holy Spirit calling men to ministry. He suggests that this was communicated through a prophet, and acknowledges that we no longer have prophets in that sense. But Turner still wants to hold to the idea that today the Holy Spirit calls men via an "inward" call. Yet that is simply not in the text – the passage is quite clearly describing an outward call.

On the other hand, Robert Oliver's piece on Edward Dering is very good. This book really is a mixed bag, and generally fails to live up to the promise of its title.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Beowulf in Florida

Boys of Blur by N. D. Wilson

N. D. Wilson's latest story is essentially a zombie novel, but don't let that turn you off. (In fact, he never even uses the word.) I was a little sceptical at first as to how plausible the supernatural elements were going to be, but they work, mainly because of the way that Wilson draws on the great Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf.

Wilson has a special interest in writing American stories. In this interview, concerning The Dragon's Tooth, he notes that growing up, he had the assumption that "you had to be in England if you wanted to have a magical adventure", and so he set out to make magical adventure possible in America. Boys of Blur is set in Florida's  Everglades region. It does for Florida what 100 Cupboards did for Kansas; incidentally, it also does for American football what 100 Cupboards did for baseball.

Perhaps the biggest strength of the novel is the way it brilliantly depicts what it means to face temptation. Usually this is a temptation to anger, resentment, or envy – e.g. "Just about every human on the planet was better off than Charlie at this moment" (p. 157) or "This stupid town and all its petty people deserved everything they were getting" (p. 169). But this is an optimistic novel – the main characters resist these tempting thoughts. Wilson also eschews any form of moral ambiguity – these thoughts are always depicted as being wrong.

This is a great story, that I can heartily recommend to young and old alike. Only one minor quibble: on p. 95 it says "the two tumbled off of Charlie". There's no excuse for that.

Finally, here is a very good review of the book: You’ve got your aforementioned zombies as well as a paean to small town football, an economy based on sugar cane harvesting, spousal abuse, and rabbit runs. It sounds like a dare, honestly. “I dare you to combine these seemingly disparate elements into a contemporary classic”.