Sunday, May 08, 2016

Some good points, but based on an unconvincing hermeneutic

Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts by William J. Webb

This is a book arguing against smacking (spanking) children. Webb particularly interacts with organisations such as Focus on the Family, which advocates smacking, but suggests a parent administer no more than two smacks at a time. Webb argues that such an approach is not "biblical" at all, in the sense that it has moved beyond what he calls the Bible's "concrete specific instructions". Webb points out that the Book of Proverbs encourages using a rod on the back, rather than a hand on the bottom. Webb than says that the way Focus on the Family has moved beyond the Bible is a good thing, and we should go even further, following the Bible's own trajectory towards a more gentle approach. Webb calls this a "redemptive-movement hermeneutic".

Firstly, the book has a rather condescending feel about it. Webb is constantly "commending" corporal punishment advocates for going beyond the Bible, when they would argue, of course, that they are faithfully following the principles laid out in Proverbs. Webb also notes that he used to believe in smacking, but now he knows better.

Secondly, Webb focuses his attention on a narrow band within the broad spectrum of Christian smacking advocates. He seems to have no knowledge, for example, of Michael Pearl, who does indeed argue for using a "rod". Maybe he knows about Pearl but considers him too fringe or discredited to be worth mentioning. In any case, different pastors, authors, and parents apply the biblical teaching on smacking in different ways (this article from Capitol Hill Baptist Church mentions a plastic spoon), and it's not clear that the Focus on the Family approach can be said to be representative. Webb struggles to articulate what could be wrong in using  an actual rod. The only arguments he gives are: (a) it gives him a feeling of revulsion, and (b) even Focus on the Family avoids it.

Thirdly, at the heart of everything he says about smacking is Webb's redemptive-movement hermeneutic. It's the idea that we look at how the Bible's approach to a certain issue is different to that of the surrounding culture. (In this case, ancient Egyptian and Babylonian laws.) To put it bluntly, we see how the Bible has improved upon that, we discern the direction that the Bible takes us, and go further in that direction. This sounds a lot like improving upon the Bible, and it is. Webb's hermeneutic fails to take into account that in Christ we already have God's fullest revelation. For more details, see Thomas Schreiner's review of Webb's earlier book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.

I was all set to give this book a two-star rating, but Webb includes a postscript in which he gives an excellent overview of "alternative" disciplinary methods. Regardless of whether one agrees with smacking or not, there is a lot of helpful parenting advice here. That was good enough to lift the book up to three stars.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Shrill and contradictory

The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Sydney Anglican Church by Muriel Porter

This book is a critique of Sydney Anglicanism. It is written in rather a shrill tone, and Porter makes no attempt to be objective (p. 6), or even fair: if she misrepresents her opponents, it is their fault for being unclear (p 7).

As the title suggests, Porter argues that the doctrine and approach of the Sydney Anglicans is a form of Puritanism. She note that they emphasise the Bible, and want to reform church practice along Scriptural lines. This causes them to jettison cherished practices (such as the wearing of vestments) as well as reject new things like the ordination of women.

And this is the strange thing about this book. One moment the Sydney Anglicans are criticized for being reactionaries who are breaking with historic Anglicanism, the next moment they are taken to task for living in the past. One is reminded of G. K. Chesterton's comments in Orthodoxy (though it must be said that Chesterton was no friend of the Puritans himself):
Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short... One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall.
And like the critics that Chesterton talks about, Porter does not mind contradicting herself. Without any awareness of the irony involved, she writes against those who "want to turn the clock back" and on the very same page (p. 8) says that she writes the book "in loving memory of the vibrant mainstream Anglicanism of the Sydney Diocese of my childhood, my first spiritual home, which is now well and truly buried."

Or to take another example, Porter appeals to the "openness characteristic of historic Anglicanism" (p. 4) but then dismisses the 39 Articles as "the product of compromise" (p. 16).

But the most disappointing thing about this book are the insinuations. Porter is quite willing to insinuate baseless allegations by asking loaded questions (pp. 37 and 126). This really is a dreadful book. Porter obviously has the cause of women's ordination close to her heart, but she has done this cause no favours by writing this volume.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sad in a number of ways

The Death of a Church by Carl McIntire

This book is a critique of the Confession of 1967, adopted by the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, a denomination that later formed the PC(USA). McIntire had left this body more than thirty years earlier, as a result of the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy, and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church. The first half of the book goes through the 1967 Confession section by section, while the second half of the book provides a historical (but intensely personal) overview.

Much of this book is an insightful assessment of theological liberalism, and the language that it uses. McIntire notes that Christ's death is called a "mystery", when the Bible says no such thing: "God has been careful to present in detail the full and glorious meaning of this one act of reconciliation when Christ died upon the Cross for the sins of men" (p. 39). McIntire goes on to suggest that calling it a "mystery" is a "simple device for denying the Gospel and obscuring the meaning of the Cross" (p. 42).

McIntire also points out that the new ordination vows being brought in at the same time no longer ask ministers if they believe the Scriptures are the Word of God, but merely whether they accept them to be "by the Holy Spirit God's word to you". The capitalization, McIntire argues, makes a world of difference.

Yet there are a number of things in the book that leave a bad taste in one's mouth. Even as an Australian, I found it hard not to cringe when I read "this revolutionary program, which the Negroes are promoting" (p. 92). Then, as McIntire relates his own struggles, he takes aim at Francis Schaeffer and Robert Rayburn, who split away from the Bible Presbyterian Church in 1956 to form a new denomination that would later become the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, which in turn merged into the Presbyterian Church in America. Schaeffer and Rayburn, claims McIntire, "have gone back on the faith they once professed", and their church has a "socialistic structure" (p. 167).

This was my introduction to Carl McIntire, who died in 2002. We can honour him as a warrior for the faith, but some of his attitudes and priorities sadden me.

The book is available in full here.

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.