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).

0 thoughts on “The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 1: Introduction

  1. Thank you, Brian. As for Dr Henry or anyone else being a significant theologian, I am with Paul on this: “As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism…” (Galatians 2:6, TNIV). Paul was talking about “James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars” (v.9, TNIV). If Paul would not defer on theological issues even to the recognised leaders of the church in his time, but in fact opposed Peter himself face to face (v.11), then who is anyone like Dr Henry that I should be expected to defer to them just because of their name or reputation?

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