Presiding Bishop calls the Gospel heresy – or does she?

Kevin Sam has two posts about some words spoken by Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church (TEC), the US-based body which, as I reported a few days ago, is on the verge of putting itself outside the Anglican Communion. In the first of his posts, Kevin reports on Albert Mohler’s surprise that Bishop Jefferts Schori used the word “heresy” in these words which Mohler quotes, from her speech to the General Convention of TEC:

The crisis of this moment has several parts, and like Episcopalians, particularly the ones in Mississippi, they’re all related. The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being. That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention.

Mohler comments:

note carefully that the Bishop identified as heresy what the church —   throughout all the centuries and in every major tradition — has recognized as central to the Christian faith. The confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” has been central to biblical Christianity from the New Testament onward. … The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church finally summoned the determination to apply the word heresy — and then applied this most serious term of odious rejection to the Gospel itself.

In a second post Kevin examines Jefferts Schori’s words for himself, asking the question Was Bishop Schori really talking about the heresy of selfishness? But he doesn’t give a clear answer. Now if it is selfishness that the bishop called a heresy, I would not disagree except to concur with Mohler that

The word heresy should properly be reserved for teachings that directly reject what the Bible reveals and the Church has confessed concerning the person and work of Christ and the reality and integrity of the Trinity.

But what was it that Jefferts Schori was attacking? The key is probably in these words of hers:

That individualist focus is a form of idolatry

This suggests that her main point was about “individual” and “alone”, the idea that salvation can be found by individuals apart from a Christian community. That is indeed a distorted teaching of many Christians in the West, related especially to the ideals of rugged individualism and personal independence – not quite the same thing as selfishness. Again, while “heresy” is too strong a word, if this is what Jefferts Schori was attacking I would not want to take issue with her.

But the Presiding Bishop’s words are all too open to the interpretation which Mohler puts on them, that what she has called heresy is a concept at the heart of the gospel, the teaching originally of the prophet Joel which was quoted by the apostles Peter and Paul:

Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

(Joel 2:32, Acts 2:21, Romans 10:13)

If Bishop Jefferts Schori is calling heresy this biblical teaching, upheld by the church through the ages, then she is putting herself and the denomination she leads not just outside the pale of the Anglican Communion but outside the pale of historic Christianity. If this is not her intention, she needs to clarify her statement immediately. Otherwise she is simply hastening the day of TEC’s formal ejection from the Anglican Communion.

Sarah Palin, my kind of Republican

I don’t often comment on American politics. I suppose I tend to leave that to Americans, but that doesn’t stop Canadians like Kevin Sam giving their opinions. But I have made some exceptions for Obama, here and here, so partly for the sake of balance I will give some initial reactions to the surprise nomination of Sarah Palin as Republican candidate for Vice-President. In fact it was such a surprise that it seems Jim West confused her with Michael Palin!

From what I have read, including this BBC report and some others and this Wikipedia profile, Sarah Palin sounds like the kind of person I could support, if I could stomach Republican policies in general, especially on social issues like health care and on Iraq.

One piece of information which may be new: in 2002 Palin was defeated in the race for Lieutenant Governor of Alaska by Loren Leman who is the brother of Better Bibles blogger Wayne Leman.

It seems that Palin is a good Christian. At least this is how she is portrayed by the conservative World Magazine. This article says that she attends Wasilla Bible Church, which is non-denominational and evangelical. David Ker among others suggests that her denomination is Assemblies of God, but the evidence for this in fact suggests only that when she was a junior high student (so perhaps before the Bible Church opened in 1977 when she was 13) she attended Wasilla Assembly of God, and that when in the state capital Juneau she attends Juneau Christian Center which appears to be Assemblies of God. This all seems consistent with what was written at the Christianity Today politics blog. So, while she has not rejected her Pentecostal upbringing, her current preference is slightly different.

Palin is not at all the stereotypical conservative Christian woman. She has not stayed at home to manage her home and home school her five children (well spaced over 19 years), but has built her own career. Yet she chose to give birth to her Down’s Syndrome son earlier this year, rather than have an abortion because of his condition. She likes hunting and fishing, not typical feminine pursuits. Given her background in small town Alaska, where guns may be necessary protection from marauding moose and polar bears, I can almost forgive her membership of the National Rifle Association; but she will need to realise that policies which work in Wasilla (population under 6,000 when she was mayor, homicide rate zero in 2005) are not necessarily appropriate in Washington DC (population 588,000, homicide rate 169 in 2006 even after dropping by half since the early 1990s).

The interesting issue is why 72-year-old John McCain picked 44-year-old Palin as his running mate. The consensus seems to be that this was political expediency, picking a young and unusual outsider to balance an old Washington insider, to mirror the Obama-Biden ticket. That certainly makes a lot of sense for McCain, and explains his surprising choice. However, I think it is a good choice – or perhaps not, because it increases the chance of a Republican victory which could have all sorts of other serious repercussions for world peace, and for the health and welfare of poor Americans.

But anyone who votes for the McCain-Palin ticket has to reckon with the real chance that Palin will become President and Commander-in-Chief of US forces, a chance that is enhanced by McCain’s age. So they should not vote this way unless they think that Palin could be an appropriate President.

So this brings me back to the question which I first raised in comments on John Hobbins’ blog (note that there is already more than one page of comments on this post including at least three by me) and then again at Complegalitarian: is a woman Vice-President acceptable to conservative Christians, who are mostly at least in theory complementarian? If not, McCain might find himself losing a substantial number of votes just because he has a woman on his ticket.

Now some complementarians limit women to submissive roles only in the church and in the family. But others teach that women should never be in positions of authority over men even in the secular realm, and so would certainly not accept a woman as President or Commander-in-Chief. Among these is the well-known Bible teacher John Piper, who, in the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood which he co-authored with Wayne Grudem, on pp.17-19 of this PDF file, wrote:

Mature femininity does not express itself in the same way toward every man. A mature woman who is married, for example, does not welcome the same kind of strength and leadership from other men that she welcomes from her husband. But she will affirm and receive and nurture the strength and leadership of men in some form in all her relationships with men. This is true even though she may find herself in roles that put some men in a subordinate role to her. Without passing any judgment on the appropriateness of any of these roles one thinks of the following possible instances:

  • Prime Minister and her counsellors and advisors.
  • Principal and the teachers in her school.
  • College teacher and her students.
  • Bus driver and her passengers.
  • Bookstore manager and her clerks and stock help.
  • Staff doctor and her interns.
  • Lawyer and her aides.
  • Judge and the court personnel.
  • Police officer and citizens in her precinct.
  • Legislator and her assistants.
  • T.V. newscaster and her editors.
  • Counsellor and her clients.

One or more of these roles might stretch appropriate expressions of femininity beyond the breaking point. …

But as I said earlier, there are roles that strain the personhood of man and woman too far to be appropriate, productive and healthy for the overall structure of home and society. Some roles would involve kinds of leadership and expectations of authority and forms of strength as to make it unfitting for a woman to fill the role. …

The God-given sense of responsibility for leadership in a mature man will not generally allow him to flourish long under personal, directive leadership of a female superior. J. I. Packer suggested that “a situation in which a female boss has a male secretary” puts strain on the humanity of both (see note 18). I think this would be true in other situations as well. Some of the more obvious ones would be in military combat settings if women were positioned so as to deploy and command men; or in professional baseball if a woman is made the umpire to call balls and strikes and frequently to settle heated disputes among men. And I would stress that this is not necessarily owing to male egotism, but to a natural and good penchant given by God.

It will be fascinating to see what John Piper and other complementarian leaders have to say about Palin as a candidate Vice-President. Interestingly Al Mohler, who doesn’t allow women to teach in his seminary, predicted Palin’s nomination back in May in an article about her Down’s Syndrome baby, but with no comment on whether she would be suitable. The only specific clearly negative comment I have seen is from Carmon Friedrich, called a “mover-and-shaker in patriarchy” by Molly Aley who quoted him:

Does God not ordain the means as well as the end? Why does she get a pass on the leadership issue and career mother problem just because she has the right views on abortion and helps make McCain more electable? If Christian complementarians/patriarchalists get behind this choice, then they undermine all their arguments for the creation order as the reason for opposing women in other areas of ministry. The Word of God calls the civil magistrate a “minister of God.”

Well, now we can look forward to more mothers telling their daughters, “You can be anything you want to be…even vice president!” How is this woman able to be her husband’s helpmeet and be a proper mother to her little ones with such huge responsibilities in her job?

On the other hand, the World Magazine article I mentioned earlier, despite the magazine’s generally complementarian position, comes close to endorsing Palin. And James Dobson is reportedly elated at the news. So how can these complementarians have this attitude? Perhaps it is that these people have a one track mind about politics: the only thing they care about is a candidate’s position on abortion. But then McCain who is not pro-life will not force through anti-abortion legislation for the sake of his VP, so anyone who votes for these two because she is pro-life is voting irresponsibly. Or perhaps John Hobbins is right on the facts, although wrong on the morality of them, when he writes the following astonishing endorsement of hypocrisy:

Consistency is the hobglobin of small minds. Ordinary people tend to get this instinctively. Eggheads like Piper and Grudem, maybe not.

It’s obvious that many people read P & G’s books without coming to agree with the notion that a woman by definition is unfit to be President of the United States, or drive bus, for goodness’ sake.

Well, let’s wait and see. If leaders like Piper come out against Palin, at least they are being consistent, and they may convince enough of their supporters to make a significant dent in McCain’s vote. If they don’t, they will be shown up as hypocrites. It will be interesting to watch!

Strange Bedfellows

Some people have strange bedfellows.

Today I read (thanks to Suzanne for reminding me of what I first saw yesterday) first that Justin Taylor and Al Mohler, conservative Christians, are taking up common cause with President Ahmadinejad of Iran against a woman with a young child who has chosen to serve in the armed forces. Now I would not encourage a woman to leave her child in this way, but I would uphold her right to do so if she chooses to. The strange thing about it, however, is the way that Taylor and Mohler are agreeing with someone one might expect to be their sworn enemy, who is certainly the sworn enemy of their country. But perhaps Ahmadinejad’s vision of a patriarchal theocracy, and expectation of the imminent return of the Hidden Mahdi, are not really so different from Taylor’s and Mohler’s patriarchal and possibly theocratic vision, and perhaps their expectation of the imminent return of Christ. It is no accident that their religion and Ahmadinejad’s are both described, mainly by their enemies, as “fundamentalist”.

Meanwhile Henry Neufeld has posted (all at once) a new series reviewing Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion (due out in paperback in May, but already well discounted in hardback). I have not read the book so will not comment on it myself. But Henry reveals an even stranger set of bedfellows than Mohler and Ahmadinejad. Henry notes that

Dawkins sees two possibilities–religion of all related varieties on the one side, and atheism on the other. He downplays moderation of all types.

Later he quotes Dawkins:

The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.

and continues:

One of the most common arguments I face from fundamentalists and also some conservatives is the “slippery slope” argument. If you give anything away, it’s only the first step to giving everything away. But this is a fallacious argument because it has built in the assumption that the correct position will result from choosing one of the extremes. Perhaps the position in the middle is the most correct, and in that case we would have a “slippery slope” on either side.

See also my own recent criticism of the “slippery slope” argument. The new point which Henry makes is that Dawkins is using exactly the same type of fallacious argument as do the fundamentalist Christians against the possibility of the kind of moderate position which (in general terms) Henry and I share. The same Al Mohler who wrote favourably of Ahmadinejad had just a few days earlier railed against a Christian speaker (the same one whose view of the atonement I discussed recently) who dared to question the fundamentalists’ preferred model of the atonement. Mohler tellingly ended his post:

We are left with an unavoidable choice. We must stand with the Apostle Paul … Or, we must stand with Dr. John and Mr. Fraser … On this question there is no middle ground.

“No middle ground” seems to be Mohler’s refrain, and it also seems to be Dawkins’. No doubt it is also Ahmadinejad’s. For all of them, either you agree with them completely, or you are completely in error and your opinions do not even deserve proper respect. Dawkins, it seems to me, should be also be called a fundamentalist.

Meanwhile I want to stand with Henry and others to defend the middle ground of Christian faith, based on the Bible but moderate, intelligent, not dogmatic and open to the surrounding culture, from the attacks of fundamentalists of all varieties.

Dawkins is wrong: a scientist can believe in a real God

Richard Dawkins’ new book The God Delusion seems to be causing a bit of a stir. I haven’t read it, and I probably won’t. Not long ago I sat through a series on Channel 4 TV in which Dawkins presented his views on the same subject, and that was more than enough to put up with!

But I would like to respond to one of Dawkins’ points which is highlighted by Al Mohler in his commentary article The Dawkins Delusion. And as Mohler has not enabled comments on that article, I am responding here and in more length than appropriate for a comment.

Mohler writes, in part quoting Dawkins in The God Delusion:

In [Dawkins’] opening chapter, he argues that most legitimate scientists–indeed all who really understand the issues at stake–are atheists of one sort or another. He defines the alternatives as between a stark atheism (such as that Dawkins himself represents) and a form of nonsupernatural religion, as illustrated by the case of Albert Einstein. “Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply,” he explains. As examples, Dawkins offers not only Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking but also Martin Rees, currently Britain’s Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society. … He cites Einstein to the effect that he was a “deeply religious nonbeliever”–moved by the majesty of the cosmos but without any reference whatsoever to a supernatural being.As Dawkins explains, real scientists are naturalists. As such, they eliminate entirely the question of a supernatural being’s existence. “The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.”

Thus Dawkins claims that scientists are never true theists, believers in a living and personal God separate from his creation, but if they are not atheists they are more like pantheists, believers in the divinity of the universe. But this claim is so wide of the mark as to be ludicrous. For centuries there have been many scientists who have been theists of one sort or another. Indeed the founders of modern science were almost all theists, even though many, such as Isaac Newton, were not orthodox Christians, and some tended towards deism (which is rather the opposite of pantheism, not identifying God with the universe but separating him entirely from it). Einstein also seems to have been a theist, despite what Dawkins claims, as shown by his famous statement “God does not play dice with the universe” (is that “without any reference whatsoever to a supernatural being”?); so apparently is Stephen Hawking, for he has insisted that “God does play dice with the universe.” Indeed, in our own time there are many good scientists who are theists, indeed who are orthodox Trinitarian Christians.

As an example, I can mention John Polkinghorne. He was Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge, in the same department as Stephen Hawking (although not then in its beautiful new building). In fact Polkinghorne taught me astrophysics, when I was a graduate student of physics at Cambridge; I still remember his graphs of the life cycle of a star. He would never have got that post, nor been elected FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society), if he had not been a good scientist! He was also a reader (effectively a part-time assistant pastor) at a local Anglican church; I remember receiving communion from him. At about the time that I left Cambridge, 1978, he also left to train for ordination in the Church of England; he was then in his late 40’s. He ministered in churches for some years before returning to Cambridge as President of Queens’ College.

Polkinghorne has written a number of books on the subject of science and faith. In the one I have in my hand, Science and Christian Belief (SPCK, 1994), based on the prestigious Gifford Lectures for 1993-4, he argues from scientific first principles for an orthodox Trinitarian Christian faith, with a very definitely theistic God. Now I don’t agree with everything that Polkinghorne writes in this book. But he is certainly a counter-example to Dawkins’ claim. And Dawkins must be aware of him. Does he get a mention in Dawkins’ book, I wonder, or is this an embarrassment which is simply ignored?

But does Dawkins in fact have a point that these scientists have “a form of nonsupernatural religion” which is “light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible”? Well, yes, although this concept of a non-interventionist God is not pantheism but deism. As I mentioned before, there has certainly been a tendency towards deism among scientists, and more widely, since the 18th century Enlightenment. Indeed, as I have discussed elsewhere, a form of deism is found even among many Bible believing Christians, whose God is not really “interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, … prayer-answering”, and is “sin-punishing” only outside this world; they too hold to “a form of nonsupernatural religion” at least since the end of the apostolic age. But that is another issue.

Well, as we have seen, Hawking is certainly not a deist but a theist if he is serious in asserting that “God does play dice with the universe,” for this is a personal God intervening in the universe after its creation. Einstein’s denial of this did not make him a deist either, for, according to a BBC programme, “Einstein’s work was underpinned by the idea that the laws of physics were an expression of the divine.” It seems rather that their concept of God is a classical theistic one: God perpetually controls and upholds the universe which he created. But at least for Einstein this seems to have implied that God always works in a way determined by the laws of physics, thus ruling out miracles as well as randomness.

Polkinghorne, although not in the same league as Einstein and Hawking as a scientist, is certainly not a deist. He also goes beyond Einstein’s kind of theism to accept that God can work outside and beyond the laws of physics, for he accepts that at least one miracle took place: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if one miracle is possible, then there is no reason why others should not be. So, while Einstein’s God is not “the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible”, and while Polkinghorne might not identify completely with this rather tendentious description, Polkinghorne’s God is able at least in principle to do all these things, and his religion is not “nonsupernatural”.

And where my former science professor led, I am not afraid to follow. Indeed I would go further, and claim that God does indeed intervene in our world, work miracles, read thoughts, punish sins (but more readily forgive them), and answer prayer. There is nothing in science, understood properly, to say that these things are impossible. But I have seen these things happen, and as a scientist I need to take this as evidence that they are possible, and indeed should be expected to happen today.

The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 3: Principles of Scholarly Exegesis

I introduced this series with a look at how Al Mohler became a complementarian, and then in the second part I looked at “the husband of one wife” in Titus 1:6 (RSV) from the fundamentalist approach. I will now continue by looking at how to take a more scholarly approach to this phrase.

At this point I will remind you all that in the 1980s I studied theology to MA level at a school, London Bible College (now London School of Theology), which is committed to an evangelical position but also to a scholarly approach to the Bible. As such it is similar to Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary referred to in Part 1 of this series – or at least to how that seminary was in the 1980s (Mohler also quotes a report that now “Baptist schools increasingly are being ‘forced to sacrifice their intellectual integrity to ensure the flow of funds,'” and I might wonder whether under Mohler’s presidency SBTS has been forced to abandon its former scholarly approach to gender issues and instead teach the intellectually flawed works of Grudem et al about this). Later I taught biblical exegesis at the European Training Programme of Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International. What I write here is based on what I learned at LBC and taught at ETP, as expanded by myself.

A proper scholarly approach to a Bible passage requires two distinct stages. The first, known as exegesis, is to understand what the original author was trying to say to his or her original audience. Only when this has been clearly established should the interpreter move on the next stage, application to a present day situation. In this part of the series I will look only at exegesis, and will move on to application in a future part.

Gordon Fee has defined exegesis as follows:

Exegesis… answers the question, What did the Biblical author mean? It has to do both with what he said (the content itself), and why he said it at any given point (the literary context). Furthermore, exegesis is primarily concerned with intentionality: What did the author intend his original readers to understand? (New Testament Exegesis, p.21)

The essential steps in doing exegesis are first to identify the problems, then to find out the facts about these problems, then to make the right choices. The following step by step procedure for exegesis is adapted from Fee’s New Testament Exegesis:

1. Get an overview of the whole document: survey the literary setting of the passage.

2. Examine the communication situation: survey the historical setting of the whole document:

  • Who is the author?
  • Who are the recipients?
  • What is the relationship between them?
  • Where did the recipients live?
  • What historical situation occasioned this writing?

3. Examine the validity of treating the passage as a unit: try to be sure that the passage you have chosen for exegesis is a genuine, self-contained unit.

4. Study and compare different translations of the passage; in particular compare a fairly literal translation (or the original text itself), with a meaning-based modern translation. Look at other translations to see if there are any major differences of interpretation. Comparing translations in this way will alert you to places in the text where it is possible to interpret the meaning in more than one way, or to further implications or nuances of meaning, which might otherwise be overlooked. Try to re-express the meaning of the passage in your own words.

5. Formulate questions listing the points that need to be investigated. This should include a listing of points where the meaning is unclear to you and of any alternative interpretations.

6. Establish the text: are there any alternative textual readings in the passage which affect the meaning of the text? If so, examine the evidence in support of each alternative reading.

7. Identify words for which word studies need to be made and make these word studies, using help from lexicon, concordance and commentaries.

8. Use the bible itself and commentaries and other reference books to look for help in answering the questions you have listed. Through studying commentaries you may also be alerted to further questions that need to be considered.

9. Analyse relationships between words and between larger units, such as clauses, sentences, paragraphs.

10. Study other passages of scripture which may be relevant because

  • they give teaching on the same topic, or
  • (for the Gospels, Kings/Chronicles etc.) they are parallel passages, or
  • they use similar words or expressions and may throw light on the meaning of that expression.

11. Make a decision on those points where alternative interpretations are possible.

12. Make a new version of the passage in your own language expressing the meaning clearly and explicitly.

As this part is already getting rather long, I will leave it here, and in part 4: Exegesis of Titus 1:6 apply these principles to that verse.

The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 2: The Fundamentalist Approach

In Part 1 of this series I looked at how Al Mohler became a complementarian, and in doing so apparently rejected the scholarly arguments which were dominant at his seminary on the basis of a fundamentalist appeal to “the clear teaching of Scripture“.

In this part I will look at the fundamentalist approach to studying the Bible, and prepare the way for describing what I see as the proper scholarly approach. I will do this in the context of what must have been one of the Bible passages which Mohler studied before becoming complementarian. On this blog I have previously looked at 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and so on this occasion I will look at another passage, in fact just a short phrase, which is translated very literally “the husband of one wife” in RSV, but less literally “faithful to his wife” in TNIV. This phrase is found in Titus 1:6, where it refers to elders, and in 1 Timothy 3:2,12 referring to “bishops” or overseers and to deacons respectively. As Lingamish notes in his original discussion of this phrase, in 1 Timothy 5:9 there is an opposite phrase translated “the wife of one husband” in RSV and “faithful to her husband” in TNIV. I will concentrate on Titus 1:6 because it is here that the phrase is applied to elders or presbyters, and most Christian traditions seem to understand modern pastors or priests as in some equivalent to biblical elders.

So let’s start by looking at Titus 1:6 from the fundamentalist approach to the Bible. On this approach, it is indeed a simple matter. This verse gives some conditions for anyone to be appointed as an elder, and one of these is that an elder must be “the husband of one wife“. As a husband must be male, the implication is very simple: elders must be male. And, from the same approach to 1 Timothy 3:2,12, “bishops” and deacons must also be male. I am sure that it was in passages like this that Carl Henry found “the clear teaching of Scripture” about which he challenged Al Mohler.

It is interesting, however, that not many traditions also take the position, equally clear from this verse on this method of interpretation, that “bishops”, elders and deacons must be married. It is also interesting that this interpretation when applied to deacons contradicts another Bible passage, Romans 16:1, where Paul writes approvingly of Phoebe, a woman deacon. Yes, “deacon” (TNIV) is the correct translation here, not “deaconess” (RSV), nor “servant” (NIV, ESV), for she is described with the same grammatically masculine Greek word used for “deacon” in 1 Timothy.

This illustrates the weakness of the fundamentalist approach to Scripture. It can be highly selective; an interpreter can choose to give great importance to small phrases, even the tiniest grammatical details, which support the position which he or (more rarely!) she supports, while ignoring the main teaching point of the passage in question. It can also be highly ingenious in finding excuses to dismiss other passages which seem to be contradictory – while rejecting similar attempts to dismiss the original interpretation as “deny[ing] the clear teaching of Scripture“. In the case of Romans 16:1, the ingenious attempt to dismiss “the clear teaching of Scripture” that Phoebe was a deacon has even been written into several Bible translations. A further weakness of fundamentalist Bible interpretation, not seen so clearly in this example, is that fundamentalists often take verses entirely out of their original context.

In fact, it is possible to support almost any position on any issue of current controversy in the church with this kind of interpretation of Scripture. (Yes, I could even put together an argument for gay bishops if I wanted to!) An interpreter can take a verse of two out of context, selectively latch on to small points within those verses, and use them as support for any teaching they might choose to promote. They then use their ingenuity to reinterpret any verses which might seem to contradict their position. And when anyone tries to disagree with them, they resort to ad hominem arguments like “how … could [you] possibly deny the clear teaching of Scripture on this question[?]“, sometimes even hinting that someone who doesn’t accept their argument might not be saved.

I wish this were a caricature of fundamentalists, but unfortunately I have seen far too many arguments which are just like this, not just on the blogosphere but even in works which people like Mohler claim to be scholarly.

In part 3: Principles of Scholarly Exegesis I will, by way of contrast, start to look at the proper scholarly way of interpreting the phrase in Titus 1:6.

The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 1: Introduction

I was led to write about this topic because Adrian Warnock linked to an article by Al Mohler explaining how he came to became a complementarian (i.e. someone who believes that God has given men and women different but complementary roles in the church and in the family) and an opponent of women pastors. While Mohler, a leading Southern Baptist, is not well known here in England (I had not heard of him until about a month ago), he has been described as the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.” – and put this description in his own personal profile! He also serves on the council of The Council on (so-called) Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the leading group promoting the complementarian position.

Mohler notes that at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, when he was a student there in the 1980s (he is now its President),

the only position given public prominence in this question was avidly pro-women as pastors. Furthermore, I encountered no scholarly argument for the restriction of the teaching office to men in any seminary forum or format. That argument was simply absent.

He then writes that he changed his mind on this issue as a result of

a comment made to me in personal conversation with Dr. Carl F. H. Henry in the mid-1980s. Walking across the campus, Dr. Henry simply stopped me in my tracks and asked me how, as one who affirms the inerrancy of the Bible, I could possibly deny the clear teaching of Scripture on this question.

I have a serious problem with the implications of Henry’s question. To anyone who has studied this kind of issue in any depth, it is clear that the teaching of the Bible on this is not at all clear. I suspect that Henry had in mind a small number of proof texts which could be called upon, often out of context, to prove for example that women could not be pastors. That is the typical approach of biblical fundamentalists to answering this kind of question. The trouble is, this is not how the Bible should be used.

To give credit to Mohler, he did not simply accept Henry’s position on the basis of a few proof texts. I’m sure he had been taught better than that by the scholars at his seminary. He writes:

I launched myself on a massive research project, reading everything I could get on both sides.

Nevertheless, I can’t help suspecting that the reason why at the seminary he “encountered no scholarly argument for the restriction of the teaching office to men” is that there are no such scholarly arguments, that is to say, no arguments which don’t quickly fall when subjected to proper scholarly scrutiny. Of course Mohler wouldn’t agree, for he writes:

there just wasn’t much written in defense of the complementarian position. Egalitarianism reigned in the literature. … Thankfully, with the rise of groups like CBMW and the influence of scholarly books by Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Mary Kassian, and so many others, this is no longer the case. The complementarian position is now very well served by a body of scholarly literature, for which we should be thankful.

But I have examined some of this “body of scholarly literature”, what has been written on this subject by Grudem and his collaborators, and I cannot accept that it is truly scholarly. Books like The Gender Neutral Bible Controversy, by Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, are full of elementary misunderstandings of Greek and linguistics, and show every sign of being an attempt to put a scholarly dress on to an argument which is in fact based on fundamenalist proof texting. Instead such issues need to be examined with a proper scholarly approach.

So, what is the difference between the scholarly and fundamentalist approaches to the Bible? Having whetted your appetites, I hope, I will leave that for part 2 of this series: The Fundamentalist Approach (see also part 3: Principles of Scholarly Exegesis; part 4: Exegesis of Titus 1:6; part 5: Scholarly Application; part 6: Conclusions).