by Stephen B. Clark
excerpted from his book, Man
and Woman in Christ, Chapter 15 (entire book now online)
Copyright © 1980 by Stephen B. Clark
A. "Scripture must be
in accord with my view of what is ethical, or I will have to reject it."
This view is stated in a strong form in the following quote:
Either religion promotes human development and well being or it is destructive and cannot be representative of the true God. This must be kept in mind when we insist that the life, human development and well being we are talking about is that of women as well as men. Then we can say with a clear conviction and without fear or guilt that if Jesus was not a feminist, he was not of God.(1)This writer—and those who take a similar approach-is coming to scripture with an ethical conviction to which scripture (and Jesus) Must measure up. In this case, the ethical conviction is embodied in the author's feminist ideology. Scripture is not the judge; rather, the scripture is on trial. Jesus and the scripture could easily be rejected. The writer is placing herself and her ideology over the scripture and over the teachings of Jesus. And if the scripture is the inspired word of God, she is placing herself in a position of telling God whether his morality is acceptable to her.(2)
B. "The apostle cannot
interpret scripture/the gospel correctly"
This view is very common. It is expressed in the following quotes:
1 Timothy 2:13-14: "Let a woman keep silent with all submissiveness, for Adam was first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived." The writer not only displayed poor logic but poor theology and misinterpretation of scripture. Eve alone is blamed for the mutual sin in the garden....(3)These quotes are not good descriptions of Paul's interpretation of the scriptures or the gospel. They are much better as illustrations of the authors' misinterpretations of Paul. However, they illustrate a principle which is commonly employed: Paul (or some other scriptural writer) either does not understand certain elements of the Old Testament correctly, or he does not understand certain aspects of the teachings of Jesus. Hence, we do not have to submit to his teachings. At best, his writings on these points provide an object lesson of how someone can make mistakes in interpreting scripture. There are, to be sure, many difficulties in understanding how Paul interprets the Old Testament, and in understanding how some of Paul's teaching relates to some of Jesus' teaching. Yet, to resolve those difficulties by saying that Paul does not know how to interpret scripture or the gospel properly, and that therefore there is no need to follow what he says in a particular respect, is to disagree with canonical scripture. It may be acceptable for one to personally prefer different approaches to scriptural interpretation than those which Paul used. However, to dismiss what Paul teaches on the basis of one's not agreeing with his approach to scripture is to disagree with scripture itself.
Thirdly, St. Paul's method of hermeneutics, that is, interpreting scripture, is not a method which would be acceptable in the twentieth century. Indeed, to accept his method would be to fall into anti-intellectualism.... St. Paul takes what we might call a fundamentalist interpretation of the Genesis narrative.(4)
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is illuminating for us not because it contributes useful ethical practice for us in our time, except for the most rigid literalist, but precisely because it reveals what happens to a man, even a great theologian, when the gospel hits him in his "blind side." It shows Paul's inability to deal with the gospel and, as such, may be useful to us when we ourselves, blind to its intrusion, are blindsided by the gospel.(5)
C. "Modern scholars understand
scripture better than the apostle did."
This bypass is a variation on the previous one: The apostle cannot interpret the scripture correctly. However, it is a significant variation because it confers great authority on contemporary scholars (an authority often conferred by people who would consider themselves as being among those scholars). This view is demonstrated in the following quotes:
Then there is his biased statement which has been quoted with relish by preachers ever since: "For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man." Modern scripture scholars do not, of course, agree with this interpretation of Genesis. Moreover, Paul himself evidently noticed that there was something wrong and corrected himself immediately afterward. . . .(6)The latter quote is based upon a mistake discussed in Chapter One, pp. 5-9, in which the author proceeds from a view that the creation narratives are not history in the modern sense to the unfounded conclusion that they do not teach truth. The former quote illustrates another common approach when a New Testament writer, interpreting another passage from scripture, disagrees with what contemporary scriptural scholarship understands to be the intent of the original author. The conclusion is then made that the New Testament writer has misunderstood the passage. This approach is dubious, in that it rests on the assumption that the meaning of the passage lies in the conscious intent of the human author, regardless of any intent that the divine author may have. The concern here, however, is primarily in the authority such quotes give to "contemporary scholarship." "Contemporary scholarship" turns out to be more authoritative than the apostle in understanding scripture. It therefore is a source of opinion which might allow us to bypass, if not dismiss, teaching in scripture. Even an excellent scholar should not have higher authority for a Christian than the writers of scripture.
In 5:13, Adam and Eve are regarded as archetypes of man and woman (cf. 1 Cor 11:8) and, according to ancient thinking, the older person, for example the first born son, was considered the better and the senior who should bear the authority. In this case, therefore, Adam is considered as the senior because he was formed first. This, as I have said, cannot be accepted according to the standards of modern Biblical scholarship. Scholars do not class the creation narratives in Genesis as history.(7)
D. "The arguments given
in scripture are not sufficiently cogent for us to accept them."
This is likewise a fairly common approach to dealing with scriptural teaching. The following quote expresses it well:
The bulk of I Cor 11:2-16 is a defense of religion of the most feckless, prooftexty sort ... By the same dismal argument, Paul might have used the creation story to prove differences in race and class, declaring just as logically that these also were decreed by God ... As a consequence, because at bottom he knew he was wrong, he became angry, argued from propriety, nature and proof texts which did not prove. We are saying that he was not ignorant of the gospel here. Rather, he knew it and could not face it.(8)Underlying this quote is a supposition that we can examine the arguments of the scripture writer, observe their quality, and then dismiss what his teaching is if the arguments appear inadequate. This writer not only dismisses Paul's teaching, but dismisses it with contempt, placing himself in the position of judging how well the apostle Paul's opinions measure up to "the gospel." However, this line of thought rests upon an approach to arguments in general, and to argument in the scripture in particular, which is itself inadequate.
E. "I can dismiss certain
elements of the scriptural teaching when they originate in an outside influence—such
as rabbinic influence-rather than in the real Christian message."
To be sure, some writers would dismiss all New Testament teaching on the basis that it is due more to outside influences, but most of these persons do not identify themselves as Christians. However, some who consider themselves Christians would like to reserve the option to dismiss some New Testament teaching on that basis. The following quote contains a careful presentation of this approach:
To the question of whether this attitude toward women should be determinative for us, the answer in this case is clear. Paul's regulations are to a certain extent a regression to rabbinic Judaism, which is so much the more comprehensible because the primitive community wished no revolution, at least not in the social area.(9)Elsewhere this author uses the term "canonized rabbinism" to characterize those parts of the New Testament with which he does not agree. But for this writer and others like him, "rabbinism," not "canonized," is the more significant part of the phrase. According to this view, the fact that some element in the scriptural teaching is in accord with the rabbinic teaching, or was even drawn from it originally, provides ample grounds for rejecting it. The fact that this element is also "canonized"—that is, incorporated into the canonical word of God—does not carry as much weight. This position amounts to saying that "the rabbinism I agree with has authority, and the rabbinism I do not agree with does not have authority." The key feature to notice is that the author feels able to judge with certainty where the scripture teaches truly and where it does not, and he can appeal to cultural influences as grounds for discounting the authority of portions of the New Testament. He assumes, in other words, an authority which allows him to judge the New Testament, to determine what within it is true and what is to be rejected. In short, this writer does not relate to the entire New Testament as genuinely authoritative.
F. "I can pick out what
is truly important about scripture and Judge the rest in terms of what
The quote on p.353 is a good example of this attitude. The writer is convinced that he knows what "the gospel"-the important part of the New Testament teaching-truly is, and that he is able with some certainty to discard the scriptural teaching which is not in accord with "the gospel." The following quote illustrates the same approach from a somewhat different angle:
The equal dignity and rights of all human beings as persons is of the essence of the Christian message. In the writings of Paul himself there are anticipations of a development toward realization of the full implications of this equality. We have seen that after the harshly androcentric text in 1 Cor he attempts to compensate somewhat:The author of this quote asserts her ability to distinguish the true Christian message from the rest of the material in the New Testament, and to hold to that true, essential message. What she picks out as the essence of the Christian message will probably fail to convince most Christians that she has a very good grasp on what the New Testament is saying. The quote is, in fact, an excellent example of the position which judges the New Testament with a standard derived from a nonscriptural source—in this case, modern personalist ethics. Holding this position leads to approving the New Testament where it agrees with the external standard, dismissing it as having no authority or value where it fails to agree. To claim an ability to choose what is the essential or valuable New Testament message is to set oneself over the New Testament as its judge and to evaluate the New Testament itself.Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God' (I Cor 11:11-12).Moreover, the dichotomy of fixed classes as dominant-subservient is transcended:'For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Gal 3:27-28).As one theologian has pointed out:'This does not mean that the kingdom of heaven has to do with non-sexed beings. Paul is enumerating the relationships of domination; these are radically denounced by the Gospel, in the sense that man no more has the right to impose his will to power upon woman than does a class or a race upon another class or another race.'It is not surprising that Paul did not see the full implications of this transcendence. There is an unresolved tension between the personalist Christian message and the restrictions and compromises imposed by the historical situation. It would be naive to think that Paul foresaw social evolution. For him, transcendence would come soon enough—in the next life. The inconsistency and ambivalence of his words concerning women could only be recognized at a later time, as a result of historical processes. Those who have benefitted from the insights of a later age have the task of distinguishing elements which are sociological in origin from the life-fostering, personalist elements which pertain essentially to the Christian message.(12)
G. "I am trying to be
led by the Spirit, and the Spirit has not led me to adopt the kind of position
that scripture seems to teach."
This approach is not commonly represented in scholarly literature, but can be commonly heard among Christians at large. It is another way of denying the authority of scripture without seeming to do so. The above statement could actually be approached in two very different ways. The first of these ways (touched upon in the previous chapter in the discussion about submission to scripture) involves avoiding an overly legalistic approach to scripture. People need not always submit to scripture legalistically. Those who are seeking to follow the Lord and to submit their minds to his truth can wait upon the Lord's assistance. They can accept a truth as the Lord teaches them the reality of the truth and a way of applying that truth in their own lives. In this sense, waiting for the leading of the Spirit is not a refusal to accept the authority of scripture. It is simply a confession of the need to have more than the bare written page of scripture in order to arrive at the truth—in this case, the need for some direct help from the Holy Spirit. To understand the meaning of scripture and how to apply it needs light from the Holy Spirit. A submissive person can wait for God's light before attempting to implement scriptural teaching.
There is, however, a second way of approaching the above statement, in which being "led by the Spirit" can be a way to bypass scriptural authority. This happens when someone makes the Spirit's leading the decisive factor in accepting anything as true. When such people say they are "waiting for the Spirit's leading," they are saying that they personally require direct revelation or inspiration in order to accept something as true. In a discussion of a topic like the roles of men and women, it can often mean that they have a suspicion or a conviction that the Spirit is leading Christians nowadays differently than he was leading the early Christians. It would be a mistake, they feel, to pattern our lives on the way he was leading a group of Christians 2000 years ago. Such a position does not deny outright the authority of scripture, but it does amount to such a denial in practice. If the scripture teaches "Thou shalt not steal," one should not need a personal revelation to ascertain whether the Spirit will lead one to steal or not. In fact, any "spirit" who leads someone to contradict the teaching of canonical scripture is exhibiting clear signs of not being the one Holy Spirit. One of the greatest values of possessing a canon of scripture is that it provides a means of discerning spirits. The scripture and other teachings were given in order that the minds of Christians could be formed so as to perceive spiritual influences in the right way. For a Christian to neglect the highest teaching authority in favor of individual or collective revelation or inspiration is a major spiritual mistake.
H. "There are contradictions
in scripture. Or, at least some approaches in scripture are so much at
variance with one another that we cannot hold both with intellectual integrity.
Hence, we can only hold to some of scripture."
Certain aspects of this position have been discussed in earlier chapters. Modern writers have asserted contradiction or variance in the scripture's teaching on the roles of men and women in two primary places: between Jesus and Paul, and between Galatians 3:28 and much of the rest of Paul's teaching on men and women.(16) In both these instances (as was treated in Chapters Six and Ten), the contradictions cited are more apparent than real. The actual contradiction is not between Jesus as the New Testament evidence shows him to be and Paul, or between Gal 3:28 as Paul really meant it and the other key texts. Rather, it is between Jesus (or Gal 3:28) as understood or wished by certain modern writers and the rest of the New Testament teaching in our area. Such contradictions arise from the interpretations of modern writers, not from the scripture.
The question remains, however, how people who approach the scripture as authoritative and from God should deal with the contradictions which they think they might be perceiving. Scripture scholarship in the last 150 years or so has made the question of contradictions in scripture an acute one for Christians. Hegelian thought patterns affected German Protestant scripture scholarship throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. In turn, German Protestant scripture scholarship has been an important influence among academic scripture scholars in other countries and environments. Even when scripture scholars do not adopt actual Hegelian positions, the dominant Hegelian dialectical thought form often persists.(17) Dialectical thinking leads a person to see historical development in terms of opposition and contradiction that need to be resolved. An instinctively dialectical temper, which scripture scholars possess because of their training, will tend to presume opposition and contradiction, or to perceive things in those terms, even when the evidence is not strong that such contradiction is present. Even where the dialectical temper among scripture scholars has been less prominent, an oppositional or contrasting rather than a synthetic style of thought is still valued, leading scholars to stress the differences between various New Testament "theologies," and "church orders."(18)
Moreover, where the historical approach prevails in New Testament scholarship, there is a tendency to place greater emphasis on the "genetic origins" of different opinions and approaches in the New Testament, and in so doing, to contrast different communities and authors, so that an evolutionary description can be traced. The results of this scholarly attempt to discern differences between authors and communities in the New Testament have been mixed. Some go beyond the available evidence and occasionally even fly right in the face of available evidence. Some have been of real value. Yet, however valuable it may be, this approach does produce a problem at times for Christians who are not as interested in an evolutionary description of Biblical thought in an area as they are in what the word of God is teaching them about how to live their lives. The two perspectives involved are different.
How then does one seeking to learn from God's word approach a perceived contradiction? There are three main approaches. One approach is to use the contradiction as a means for eliminating one of the passages.(19) However, such an approach is a denial of the authority of scripture as a whole. Perhaps many who eliminate passages this way do so on the basis of a conviction that scripture as a whole cannot have authority because of such discrepancies. The second approach could be called the harmonizing approach. This approach smooths out seeming contradictions, and often differences as well, by maintaining that the authors are really asserting the same thing. Two passages on the same subject will be interpreted by each other with the understanding that they must be making the same point because they have the same. author—the Holy Spirit. However, harmonizing has an important drawback: It often leads to passing over important differences between passages, books, authors, and communities.
The third approach could be called the synthetic approach. The synthetic approach is based upon the view that differences in the New Testament can often be combined into a stronger synthesis, a synthesis which can be richer once the differences have been understood. Ephesians 5:22-33 and 1 Pt 3:1-7, for instance, present many differences when compared with each another. Yet the stress in 1 Peter on the wife's respect for her husband can be combined with the stress in Ephesians on her subordination to provide a fuller picture of how the wife should relate to her husband. The passages can be synthesized even after recognizing that they are not saying exactly the same thing.
Some assert that there is not sufficient unity in the New Testament to make either a harmonizing or a synthesizing approach intellectually honest. This issue cannot be fully discussed at this point, although the previous chapters indicate that such a view is based more on presuppositions than on actual evidence. The concern of this chapter is not with the historical question of unity in the New Testament, but with the approach that a believing Christian should take to the New Testament canon.(20)
For such Christians, the question at this point is: What does the New Testament teach-that is, assert authoritatively(21)—and what do believers do when they think the New Testament might be asserting two contradictory or incompatible things? A complete answer cannot easily be given here, but two points are important for someone who
approaches the scripture as the canonical word of God. First, a Christian cannot hold that scripture is actually teaching two contradictory things in areas where it is intending to teach. If the whole scripture is the canon, the measure of all else and of highest authority, then it cannot be teaching two irreconciliable statements. It is not possible to hold that the scripture is fully canonical and also contains contradictions. Secondly, Christians do not have to feel responsible for reconciling everything they see in scripture. They may see an apparent contradiction, but the right approach is frequently to acknowledge that they do not yet understand how the two statements go together, and to wait for some resolution compatible with submission to scripture. In such an approach, the final criterion is a faith criterion about the authority of scripture, rather than a criterion which makes one's own mind or modern scholarship the final arbiter. The lesson from the study of Gal 3:28 in Chapter Six is that once an interpreter would let go of some of the presuppositions of contemporary society which have the strongest hold, the apparent contradiction in the scripture would disappear. At such times, scripture can be seen in a perspective which the reader has been unwilling to even consider. In other words, it is not intellectually dishonest for a Christian to hold that scripture does not contradict itself. Often, more complete understanding actually dissolves the seeming contradiction.
To this point in the chapter, we have discussed eight of the major bypasses of scriptural authority. There is yet another way of calling into question the authority of scripture which cannot be listed as a bypass on its own, but which pervades much of the literature on the roles of men and women—namely, a disrespect for the scriptures or for one of the authors of scripture (Paul receives more than his share of this). We are told at times that "Paul confuses himself and us" or that "Paul was a typical male" or that "Paul knew the gospel and could not face it." The authors of these lines demonstrate a freedom to express disrespect for Paul which clearly indicates that they have not submitted themselves to the writings of Paul (that is, to part of scripture) as to writings which bear an authority over them. They are holding themselves as the ones whose evaluation counts, and even Paul has to receive their approval. Such disrespect for an author of scripture, and thus toward scripture itself, is a manifestation of the underlying spiritual attitude with which they approach Christianity.
Summary: The Need to Submit to Scripture
In summary, there is a variety
of ways of bypassing the authority of scripture—that is, of dismissing
what scripture says as having no authority without directly disputing scripture's
authority. Some of these bypasses are based upon preferring another authority
to that of scripture, perhaps an ethical theory or a scholarly view which
would dispute the teaching of scripture. In effect, preferring another
authority to that of scripture is setting up a judge over scripture, a
judge with higher authority than the scripture itself. Those who advance
such views are submitting to something other than scripture rather than
to scripture itself. Others of these bypasses proceed by dismissing the
authority of certain parts of the New Testament in favor of other parts
of it. Although these approaches are often stated with a reverence for
scripture (parts of it), they in fact rely on something other than the
scripture itself for sorting out scripture. Some theory of influences,
some ethical judgment, some preference for a particular doctrine or interpretation
of a particular doctrine becomes the canon by which scripture is measured
and by which parts of it are found wanting. This too is submitting oneself
to something other than scripture itself and making oneself a judge of
The authority of scripture as a standard by which to measure all other teaching has been unquestioningly recognized by Christians until the last century or so. On this subject Catholics and Protestants have been at one. Now, however, there is significant unclarity on the subject among those who call themselves Christians. The result of the unclarity has been to leave many Christians without the criteria which allow them to ascertain what the truth is. Christian thinking has consequently become increasingly subject to influences from the secular world. Teaching about roles of men and women is by no means the most important area of Christian teaching. It is, however, probably because it is not of first importance that it has felt the influence of some principles of Christian thinking that will eventually be used elsewhere. If someone can be a Christian and can disagree with the scripture in this area, putting his own judgment or the judgment of scholars or of modern thought over the scripture, he can do so in any other area.
The next area for the application of such principles is commonly that of homosexuality. Then follows the rest of Christian sexual morality, and then practically any area of Christian life. Once a principle for judging scripture is accepted, it can be validly applied to any subject matter. This does not mean that someone cannot disagree with this book's approach to the roles of men and women without automatically challenging the authority of scripture. People can disagree with what has been said in this book on other grounds. They can dispute the interpretation of the texts, or disagree with the judgment made about the intent of the scriptural writer in saying what he said in the texts, or reject the approach (to be set forth in the rest of this book) about how to apply the texts. But when people understand that something is actually taught in scripture, and then disagree with it, they are on spiritually dangerous grounds for a Christian, because they are disagreeing with the canonical word of God. For a Christian, this is rebellion. It is believing the serpent once again when he disagrees with what God has said (Gn 3:4).
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