A Solid Rock Ledge on the Slippery Slope

The argument is sometimes made that there is a “slippery slope” of “concessions” by the church to modern culture in the area of inter-personal relationships, and especially gender issues. The various stages on this slope are, perhaps:

  1. Abolition of slavery;
  2. Women in leadership in the church;
  3. Full acceptance of homosexuality in the church;
  4. The latest one I have read about: acceptance of “polyamory”.

Now to be fair by no means all of those who use the “slippery slope” argument start it with abolition of slavery. But some do. And the general argument seems to be that acceptance of one of these stages necessarily opens the way to the next stage. So, the people who argue like this position themselves with pride on a supposedly solid mountain top, often based on a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible, and condemn any shift from this position as starting on the slippery slope. Perhaps they are thinking in terms of the psalmist’s image of his feet slipping in Psalm 38:16 and elsewhere.

But is the slope in fact a slippery one, or is it broken by a ledge or barrier made of solid rock, a “shelf of rocks” as Ben Witherington renders part of Matthew 16:18, of biblical truth? Can this determine how far Christians can legitimately part company from one another without betraying the gospel abandoning their faith?

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Reflecting Culture, not Changing Attitude

Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream quotes from an interesting press release from Changing Attitude, a pressure group which is “working for gay and lesbian affirmation within the Anglican Communion”, and of which the Bishop of Chelmsford is a patron. The press release, written by Davis Mac-Iyalla, director of Changing Attitude Nigeria, is interesting for its argument that full acceptance of homosexuality in the life of the church is analogous to the abolition of slavery.

Now in my post yesterday A further implication of Christianity being cross-cultural I noted (quoting an older post) that

slavery is accepted in the Bible because it was accepted by all in the cultural context, but this does not imply that it is normative for Christians.

In other words, it is right for Christians to support the abolition of slavery because the acceptance of slavery in the Bible was a culturally relative matter. This argument is in practice accepted by almost all Christians today, although it was highly controversial in the 19th century. Many evangelicals, including myself, apply the same argument to biblical passages which appear to teach that church leaders must be male, but this remains a controversial issue.

But does the same argument apply to homosexuality, as Mac-Iyalla seems to claim? Where should the line be drawn between what is culturally relative and what are the fundamental and unchangeable principles of the Christian faith?

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A further implication of Christianity being cross-cultural

I wrote yesterday that Christianity is cross-cultural and cross-linguistic (see also my follow-up post). This evening, for a quite separate reason, I found myself reviewing the series I wrote last year on The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible. In Part 5 of that series I quoted several times from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart (this link is to the current edition, not the one I quote). I note now that these quotations, and the explanation I wrote of them, show how the cross-cultural nature of Christianity has important implications for understanding and applying the Bible. So I repeat here part of what I wrote there.

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Adrian Warnock censors those who find an error in Grudem's words

Adrian Warnock has deleted from this post on his blog a number of comments, at least four by Suzanne McCarthy and two by myself. He has not informed me that he has done this. He has mentioned this in a comment addressed to Suzanne on a post at the Better Bibles Blog, where he writes:

I have removed some comments over at my place that I feel are off-topic. This is one of them

Fortunately I have a copy of these six comments still open in a browser window and so can restore them to public view on this blog.

I must agree with Adrian that some of Suzanne’s points, and my second comment which is in reply to those points, are somewhat off the immediate topic of Adrian’s post. So he has is acting reasonably by deleting those comments.

However, I have a very serious problem of principle with the fact that he has deleted both of the comments which point out an error of fact in his post. The error is in the words of Dr Wayne Grudem in part five of Adrian’s interview with him. These comments are of course entirely relevant to the post concerning which they were added as comments.

Adrian doesn’t seem to have a problem with being corrected himself. Indeed he was very gracious when I put him right about subordination within the Trinity in his recent post on the attributes of God. But it seems that he cannot take it when people find errors in what his favourite teachers have said. He wrote the following in a comment just before the ones he deleted:

O, and please be careful about being disrespectful to our guest around here. If I had Dr Grudem as a guest in my home and another guest was rude to him most likely I would ask that guest to leave.

Indeed it is right to be respectful to a guest – and to any guest, including any commenter on a blog, not just to those who have an academic position and a good reputation in certain circles. However, I do not consider it to be showing a lack of respect to politely point out errors of fact made by someone else. Indeed I would consider it disrespectful to avoid carefully correcting someone, to stop them perpetuating their error and potentially being even more embarrassed by public exposure. And I would certainly consider it disrespectful to the honoured guest, as well as to the person pointing out the error, to intervene in the discussion to prevent the guest from finding out about their error.

As for the particular issue in question here, since Adrian has not let me make the correction through a comment in his blog, I will have to make it more publicly, in a separate post from this one.

Here are the comments which Adrian deleted, unedited:

Suzanne McCarthy said…
On 1 Tim. 2:12 Dr. Grudem also takes a stand against the Tyndale – King James tradition.12But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.12Einem Weibe aber gestatte ich nicht, daß sie lehre, auch nicht, daß sie des Mannes Herr sei, sondern stille sei. LutherSo Dr. Grudem cannot teach from these Bibles, I have heard many times pastors tell me that they cannot teach from a certain text even though it is what was in the KJ or Luther Bible. Why is that? They need their own special version? They will not use a traditional and established Bible? 

I don’t know why the TNIV is “a highly suspect and novel translation”, it is simply an update of the King James translation in this case.

I challenge Dr. Grudem to go back to the King James Bible and teach from that.

12 December, 2006 08:14

Suzanne McCarthy said…
And why is it alright to post on the internet against the TNIV and its translators? Why is that acceptable? Who are these people?Bruce Waltke
Gordon Fee
Ron Youngblood
Douglas Moo
RT Franceto name a few.It is my prayer that this rift in the Christian community be healed and that there will not be one group posting in public against another, going on radio against another, in front of non-Christians. 

I am so disturbed by this action on the part of the authors of the Statement of Concern against the TNIV. It is my desire that this provocation of disunity be dismantled. These people, these issues are personal to me. This statement has caused such personal grief, and for what, in what way is the ESV a perfect translation and the KJV, the TNIV and the Luther Bible is not?

There needs to be grace and healing and humility. Not this display of why the TNIV is suspect.

12 December, 2006 08:27

Suzanne McCarthy said…
Adrian,I need to address your misunderstanding regarding the generic ‘he’.Dr. Grudem claims,”Thus, in Hebrew and in Greek as well as in English, the usage “suggests a particular pattern of thought,” namely a picture using a male representative” and 

“But in typical contexts, singular masculine gender pronouns encourage a starting picture of a male, not just a totally faceless entity”

This implies to me that Dr. Grudem thinks that the pronoun creates male semantic meaning – a male image in the mind. Does it do this in Greek?

In Greek, the pronoun is αυτος meaning ‘the same one as has been mentioned’. And the grammatical ending is masculine.

In fact, no one has ever suggested that masculine grammatical endings create male semantic content, or a starting picture of a male in the the mind.

So I cannot understand this argument of Dr. Grudem’s. He may feel that this is true in English, but the Bible was not written in English. We have to deal with this.

Let me be clear – the Greek pronoun αυτος does not create a male image in the mind that encourages us to receive Christ in our hearts.

Let’s look at this verse.

Rev. 3:20

20Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

Why should we need the pronoun ‘him’ to create a starting picture of a male in a woman’s head. May not woman come to Christ untrammeled by the thought of a human male, not Christ himself, but the male who represents her in her relationship to Christ, as a picture in her head?

Indeed, if someone came to my door I would say, “Please let whoever is knocking come in and I will give them tea.”

I would not say “Please let whoever is knocking come in and I will give him tea.” I think not. I will welcome a woman as easily as a man.

I discussed this with Dr. Packer and he agrees on this – the generic ‘they’ is perfectly standard.

12 December, 2006 08:53

Suzanne McCarthy said…
Arian,Does is only matter to you how masculine sounding the words are, or do you care about something being true?Think of the women who reported that Christ was risen. Wasn’t that truth? Can you not open up to something more than masculinity? 

12 December, 2006 09:05


Peter Kirk said…

I am sorry to have to report yet another factual error in what Dr Grudem says. In fact I see that Suzanne has already spotted this, but I repeat it here because some may not take such a point from a woman or may not read all of her comments – and because I drafted what follows before reading Suzanne’s comments.Grudem writes: “in 1 Timothy 2:12 the TNIV adopts a highly suspect and novel translation … It reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”“. But this is not a novel translation at all, for as with Matthew 5:9 Grudem seems to have ignored KJV. Look at the KJV rendering of 1 Timothy 2:12: “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man”. Of course “usurp authority” is not precisely the same wording as “assume authority”, but the meaning in the context must be the same. Grudem continued: “If churches adopt this translation, the debate over women’s roles in the church will be over, because women pastors and elders can just say, “I’m not assuming authority on my own initiative; it was given to me by the other pastors and elders.” Therefore any woman could be a pastor or elder so long as she does not take it upon herself to “assume authority.”” Well, for over 300 years most churches adopted KJV, but despite Grudem’s argument here this did not stop the debate over women’s roles in the church. So what is the real difference between TNIV and KJV here?Grudem also writes: “I don’t think a pastor can give a woman “permission” to do Bible teaching before the church, because the Bible says not to do that.” But actually what the Bible passage in question says is that Paul himself does not give women this kind of permission, in the churches over which he had authority. So this seems to leave open the possibility that other church leaders could and did give this permission. There is a long and complex hermeneutical procedure which needs to be followed, including such issues as how far our churches today are under Paul’s apostolic authority and whether individual examples should ever be taken to be normative, before we can translate Paul’s example into a command for churches today. This process seems to have been ignored in this whole discussion, at least on the blogs I have been reading. I hope Grudem has addressed this issue in his book. 

12 December, 2006 14:55

Peter Kirk said…
Suzanne, you shouldn’t call Adrain “Arian”. You may disagree with him, but I don’t think he is guilty of this particular heresy!You quote Grudem as claiming concerning generic “he” “Thus, in Hebrew and in Greek as well as in English, the usage “suggests a particular pattern of thought,” namely a picture using a male representative”.Here we need to distinguish carefully between linguistic and theological issues. It is true that in many languages, including Hebrew and Greek, and in some mostly older varieties of English, a grammatically masculine pronoun can refer to or “represent” all humans, male and female. But this is not true of all language, especially those like Persian and Turkic languages which have no gender distinctions in pronouns; it is also not true of the form of “gender neutral” English used in many parts of the English speaking world. It is thus of necessity a language specific issue, which has no significance outside the structures of specific languages. Thus it is something which cannot does not need to be preserved in a translation into a gender neutral language. The problem with this comes when Grudem attempts to recharacterise this as a theological issue and then insist that language specific distinctions are preserved even in languages which do not and cannot make these distinctions. 

12 December, 2006 15:07

The Original Gospel Manuscripts in Washington?

We Evangelical Christians, who accept the Bible as the authoritative word of God, generally qualify our statements of faith with “according to the original manuscripts”. We thus allow that the Bible as we have it may have been altered or corrupted even in the best manuscripts which survive, although we usually assume that such changes are trivial. This qualification allows for example for a scholar like Gordon Fee, in an old controversial case which is now being discussed again, to argue on text critical grounds that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is not original and so not authoritative, while, despite some accusations to the contrary, remaining an evangelical. But the qualification also implies a limitation on the authority of the Bible as we have it, and opens the door to accusations of a lack of intellectual rigour in the evangelical position.

And so I was interested to read that a new claim is being made which is startling in this context. I am not referring to the report that the tomb of St Paul has been found, although if his body is found in the tomb that might have some interesting implications for biblical studies such as the possibility of finding out what his “thorn in the flesh” was. But the claim I have in mind is far more startling, although from a less reliable source.

The claim I am referring to is that original manuscripts of the four Gospels have survived, and are in Washington DC! This is the claim which has been made by Dr. Lee W. Woodard. At least, he claims that the manuscripts which he has identified were produced and authenticated by the original authors, and date to the first century.

The Freer Gospels or Codex W (Codex Washingtonensis or Washingtonianus) is a codex (manuscript book) which was purchased in Egypt 100 years ago this month (19th December 1906 according to this page dating from 1913, although others have claimed that the centenary fell in November 2006) by Mr Charles Freer, taken to America, and bequeathed to the Smithsonian Institute. The centenary was marked with a special session at the SBL meeting in Washington in November, at which the latest scholarly opinions on this codex were aired, including the following attributed to Ulrich Schmid:

The IV/V century date seems to have no secure basis and a later date (e.g. VI century or later) is entirely possible.

A set of facsimile images of the Gospel of Mark in this codex is available online.

But it is this codex, generally accepted by scholars as being from the 4th or 5th century AD, which Dr Woodard is now claiming to be an original first century set of the four gospels. The evidence on which he bases his claim (from the brief summaries on his website and here; I have not read Woodard’s book, nor the 14 page full colour paper entitled “Codex W Discovered to Be the Original First Century Gospels” which he was handing out at the SBL meeting) is that he has found on the codex small annotations and seal marks in Aramaic indicating the provenance and date of its various parts and the authors’ names – apparently Matthew in Damascus in AD 36, Mark in Athens in AD 69-72, Luke also in Athens in AD 73-74, and John in Ephesus in AD 96, the same year in which, according to Woodard, the four gospels were bound together to form the surviving codex.

If Woodard has indeed found previously unrecognised marks in the codex, they deserve proper scholarly study; but until they have received such study and the results have been properly published, I remain sceptical. Woodard has not done his cause any good by his means of promoting his theory, through a book and a website targeted at a popular audience, as is clear from the unqualified claims and sensationalist language of the website.

Nevertheless there remains the intriguing possibility that Woodard’s claims may be true, that the gospels sitting in a Washington museum may be the originals. That would have some quite significant consequences for biblical scholarship and for the church.

For one thing, it would revolutionise the study of the textual criticism of the New Testament. In fact for the Gospels it would render this study mostly obsolete; but the new evidence from these texts would also have profound effects on the textual study of the rest of the New Testament. Woodard also claims that his discovery solves the “Synoptic Problem” of the interrelationships between the gospels, and proves that the hypothesised “Q” document never existed – but then his theory that Mark used an early draft of Matthew and that Luke used both Matthew and Mark is one now held by many New Testament scholars.

There would be some other interesting textual consequences. If Codex W is the original, that implies the authenticity of passages which most textual critics now consider inauthentic, such as Matthew 17:21 (omitted in most modern translations) and the “longer ending” Mark, 16:9-20. It would also imply the authenticity of a short passage included after verse 14 in this “longer ending”, which survives only in Codex W. Here is Metzger and Ehrman’s translation of this interesting little passage, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“And they excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or: does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal thy righteousness now” – thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, “The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness which is in heaven”.

Could this passage be original? If so, this would be almost the only place in the Gospels where Jesus is simply called “Christ”; Matthew 11:2 is the only other one where there is not a clear reference to the expectation of the Messiah.

But the most profound consequence would be for the evangelical view of Scripture. At least for the gospels, the very words of Jesus, there would no longer be a qualification to biblical authority, but instead there should be a confidence that what we have is the authoritative record of the very words of the Lord. But quite how this insight would be received would be interesting! And of course this is all hypothetical, for Woodard’s claim has by no means been proved. It will also be interesting to see whether any recognised scholars make the effort of looking into it properly, or whether all of them stay away from what might become quite a “hot potato”.

Paul, Sex and Marriage 5: Semantic Analysis of 7:1-16

This is part 5 of my 1988 essay What did Paul really say about sex and marriage? 1 Corinthians 7:1-16. The Greek text here is adjusted as in part 3. Not all of the material in this section is of immediate relevance in 2006, but the introductory analysis is significant in proving that Paul treated men and women identically in family matters, and the discussion of 7:1 clarifies some continuing misunderstandings.


The following discussion of the features of semantic interest in this passage is based on a semantic analysis according to the method of Beekman and Callow, with some modifications. The semantic display resulting from this analysis is given in the Appendix. This method of analysis has the advantage over some others of requiring direct semantic relationships between kernel sentences not only to be shown to exist but also to be classified; sometimes a definite classification is impossible because of ambiguity or complexity in the relationship, but the attempt to classify is very helpful in understanding the passage. Additional points of semantic interest not covered by the analysis, such as non-literal language, are also considered in the discussion.

One striking feature about this passage is that men and women are treated completely equally with deliberate parallel passages, as illustrated here:

7:2 ἕκαστος τὴν ἑαυτοῦ γυναῖκα ἐχέτω
καὶ ἑκάστη τὸν ἴδιον ἄνδρα ἐχέτω.
7:3 τῇ γυναικὶ
ἀνὴρ τὴν ὀφειλὴν ἀποδιδότω,
ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ γυνὴ
τῷ ἀνδρί.
7:4 γυνὴ τοῦ ἰδίου σώματος οὐκ ἐξουσιάζει
ἀλλὰ ἀνήρ,
ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ἀνὴρ τοῦ ἰδίου σώματος οὐκ ἐξουσιάζει
ἀλλὰ γυνή.
7:2 [… each (man) his own woman should have
and each (woman) her own man should have.
7:3 to the woman
the man should give back the duty,
and in the same way also the woman
to the man.
7:4 the woman does not have authority over her own body
but the man,
and in the same way also the man does not have authority over his own body
but the woman.]
7:8 Λέγω δὲ τοῖς ἀγάμοις
καὶ ταῖς χήραις
7:8 [But I say to the unmarried
and to the widows …]
7:10 γυναῖκα ἀπὸ ἀνδρὸς μὴ χωρισθῆναι,
7:11 καὶ ἄνδρα γυναῖκα μὴ ἀφιέναι.
7:10 [… woman from man not to separate,
7:11 and man woman not to divorce.]
7:12 εἴ τις ἀδελφὸς
γυναῖκα ἔχει ἄπιστον
καὶ αὕτη
συνευδοκεῖ οἰκεῖν μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ,
μὴ ἀφιέτω αὐτήν·
7:13 καὶ γυνὴ εἴ τις
ἔχει ἄνδρα ἄπιστον
καὶ οὗτος
συνευδοκεῖ οἰκεῖν μετ᾽ αὐτῆς,
μὴ ἀφιέτω τὸν ἄνδρα.
7:12 [… if any brother
has an unbelieving woman
and she
is willing to live with him,
let him not divorce her;
7:13 and if any woman
has an unbelieving man
and he
is willing to live with her,
let her not divorce the man.]
7:14 ἡγίασται γὰρ ἀνὴρ ὁ ἄπιστος ἐν τῇ γυναικί
καὶ ἡγίασται γυνὴ ἡ ἄπιστος ἐν τῷ ἀδελφῷ·
7:14 [for is sanctified the unbelieving man in the woman
and is sanctified the unbelieving woman in the brother;]
7:15 … οὐ δεδούλωται ἀδελφὸς
ἀδελφὴ ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις …
7:15 [… is not bound the brother
or the sister in such things …]
7:16 τί γὰρ οἶδας, γύναι, εἰ τὸν ἄνδρα σώσεις;
ἢ τί οἶδας, ἄνερ, εἰ τὴν γυναῖκα σώσεις;
7:16 [for how do you know, woman, if the man you will save?
or how do you know, man, if the woman you will save?]

The parallel given in 7:8 will be explained in the discussion below. In obvious contrast to all these parallels stand 7:1b, καλὸν ἀνθρώπῳ γυναικὸς μὴ ἅπτεσθαι [good for a person not to touch a woman], which has no parallel concerning how women should treat men, and 7:7a, θέλω δὲ πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἶναι ὡς καὶ ἐμαυτόν [but I want all people to be as also myself] – which tends to confirm that these are quotations.


The first four words of this verse are grammatically difficult. Formally the relative pronoun ὧν should refer back to an antecedent, which could only be the preceding passage in general, giving the meaning and concerning these (previously mentioned) things you wrote “It is good …”; but recognition of Περὶ δὲ [but about] as a discourse marker rules this out. The relative must therefore be taken in the non-classical (but common in the New Testament) sense of that which; περὶ ὧν [about which] stands for περὶ τούτων ἃ [about the things which] (Zerwick and Grosvenor). Since the discourse marker introduces what the author says on a new subject, there must be an implicit I say (cf. λέγω [I say] in 7:6,8) here. Thus the meaning could be Concerning the things which you wrote [I say] … . If the remainder of the verse is not taken as a quotation, this formula must introduce all of Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ letter, which is most of the rest of this letter. This view is not satisfactory, because of the repeated Περὶ δὲ at 7:25. 8:1, 12:1 and 16:1,12, and the earlier use of the Corinthians’ letter, most clearly at 6:12. There is however no difficulty if the latter part of 7:1 is taken as a quotation, for it then indicates a specific subject brought up by the Corinthians with which Paul deals in 7:1-16 (or 7:1-24). The meaning is thus something like Concerning these words, “It is good …”, which you wrote, [I say] … . This is a powerful argument for finding a quotation here. Thus in 7:2 Paul begins the content of what he is saying on the subject raised by the Corinthians’ statement; because he is also taking issue with their statement he introduces it with a strictly unnecessary δὲ.

The last part of 7:1, γυναικὸς μὴ ἅπτεσθαι, literally not to touch a woman, is an example of non-literal language, and one whose meaning is not immediately clear. AV, RSV, NASB, JB translate literally, leaving the reader to decide whether the phrase is metaphorical; but the translator, who should be familiar with first century Greek idioms, is much better able to decide such points than the reader, who might supply a quite inappropriate metaphorical meaning. TNT substitutes an explanation of the euphemism, but its not to have intercourse with a woman is too blunt. Phillips’ to have no physical contact with women is much better, a plausible literal translation which is also an equivalent English euphemism for sexual intercourse. NIV and TEV make explicit an alternative understanding of the metaphor, as not to marry, and NEB has a third understanding, surely too strong: have nothing to do with women. Fee, 7:1 showed that the Greek idiom regularly refers to sexual intercourse, and argued that the NIV translation is an attempt to harmonise with the context on the basis that there is no quotation here. The best translation therefore seems to be that of Fee, not to have relations with a woman.


The first difficulty here is the meaning of διὰ τὰς πορνείας [because of the immoralities]; the problem is that πορνείας is plural. Barrett concludes that the meaning here is cases of sexual immorality, which is quite plausible, but so would be various forms of sexual immorality. The reference is not hypothetical, for at least one case of πορνεία had actually occurred (5:1).

The relationships between these three verses, which follow one another with no conjunctions (asyndeton), are not immediately clear, partly because the husband/wife parallelism obscures the structure. One side of the argument in isolation reads:

7:2 Because of cases of sexual immorality:

The main clauses in 7:2, in the context, are not to be taken as get married to the single, but as live as married to the already married; this is the general principle which is clarified in the following verses. 7:3 is central as it specifies the application to sexual intercourse, in euphemistic language. 7:4 amplifies the ὀφειλή [duty] of 7:3, explaining the reason for it and leaving no doubt as to its content. The opening of 7:5 is a summary introducing the exception clause.

There is thus a chiasmus in 7:3-4: 7:3 starts with husband-wife, then wife-husband; 7:4 explains first wife-husband and then husband-wife. An oddity emerges from this analysis: if, as Fee believes, the main problem at Corinth was that certain wives were depriving their husbands and driving them to the prostitutes, the most vital of Paul’s points, that each wife must give her husband what she owes him, is the one point which is not spelt out in full; perhaps Paul deliberately lets his readers work out the last step for themselves for greater impact, as he may also be doing in 7:17-24 where the application to marriage is left implicit.


This is another difficult verse to analyse. The general principle Do not deprive one another is modified by an exception, which is not hypothetical (Fee, p. 281) for the conditions can really be met; rather, it is optional in that the couple may deprive one another if the conditions are met but are under no obligation to meet them. The one condition clause includes four separate conditions: there must be agreement; the arrangement must be temporary, or perhaps for a pre-determined time; the purpose must be prayer; and (equivalently to the second condition) the couple must again be ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ [together], presumably another euphemism for sexual intercourse. The reasons for laying down these conditions, or at least the last one, are to avoid temptation presumably to extra-marital sex. The semantic content of this verse is not difficult to understand if one remains at arm’s length from its grammatical form, which is obscure.


The question then arises of how 7:6 relates to the preceding verses. The traditional interpretation takes the whole of 7:2-5 as a concession because of cases of sexual immorality (7:2), whereas Paul’s ideal is stated in 7:1b. This is a possible understanding of 7:6, but conflicts with the conclusion that 7:2-4, rather than 7:1, represents Paul’s position. A more likely concession is the clause explicitly identified as such, the exception in 7:5; 7:6 is thus a clarification of εἰ μήτι ἂν [except] pointing out that Paul is not commanding such periods of separation but merely permitting them.


This verse brings a further difficulty. Introduced by δὲ, or possibly by γὰρ [for] although the textual evidence for this is less good, Paul makes the strong statement I want all people to be as I am, qualified only by the following contrasting clause. As Barrett points out, θέλω [I want] cannot be translated I should like (NEB) or I could wish (Fee, p. 285); indeed, the δὲ may be best understood as contrasting this definite wish with the indefinite concession of 7:5,6. Yet Barrett’s own explanation of 7:7 reads more into this statement than could have been seen by the Corinthians. Two points may help to clarify it. Firstly, this seems to be a quotation from the Corinthians, turned back round to make Paul the speaker; they had perhaps justified their renunciation of sexual relations by writing You said you wanted all of us to be like you, and you are celibate. Secondly, the similarity must be noted between this and the repeated Become imitators of me (4:16, 11:1) which forms an inclusio around this part of the letter; here Paul shows the limits of such imitation with the contrasting clause about different gifts, which applies not only in the area of sexual relationships, as chapter 12 beings out. The verse can perhaps be paraphrased as follows: But this, as you wrote, I do want for everyone of you, that you become like me, imitators of me – not identical to me, for each of you has his own gift … .

In the last part of the verse, it should be noted that the pairing is οὕτως … οὕτως [thus … thus], not τοῦτο … τοῦτο [this … this]; the reference is not directly to different gifts (contra NIV) but to different ways of living, parallelling ὡς καὶ ἐμαυτόν [as also myself]. The word χάρισμα [gift] here need not be taken as a technical term for a spiritual gift; rather it is what God graciously gives (χαρίζομαι) or assigns to each man, to live in his own individual way – a message expanded in 7:17-24.


These verses are comparatively straightforward to analyse. Fee argues from contemporary usage that the ἀγάμοι [unmarried ones] of verse 8 are widowers, as Paul himself probably was, rather than those never married. This certainly fits better with the man-woman parallelism of these verses; it also distinguishes this passage from 7:25 ff. and reduces the tension with 7:2. It should certainly not be assumed from its etymology that ἄγαμος is equivalent to unmarried. The first part of verse 9 is grammatically a condition, but semantically it serves to identify those who should get married, being equivalent to οἱ μὴ ἐγκρατευόμενοι [those who are not controlled].

In 7:9, πυροῦσθαι [to burn] is a clear example of non-literal language. AV and NASB translate literally as burn; no doubt some have misunderstood this literally as referring to martyrdom (cf. 13:3, AV, NASB ?), as perhaps they have JB be tortured. The word could be a reference to judgment and punishment in the fires of hell – which are surely metaphorical – but, as Fee argues from the wide context, a more likely metaphorical meaning is in this case the one chosen by NIV and TEV (cf. also RSV, NEB, TNT, Phillips): burn with passion, i.e. sexual desire. This desire was hardly unsatisfied (Phillips), for οὐκ ἐγκρατεύονται [they are not controlled], in the present indicative, implies that they were already satisfying it.


7:10, as punctuated in UBS3 and translated in NIV, RSV etc., opens with a contradiction: I command … not I; for not I but the Lord is taken as a parenthesis. The Greek could be taken instead as I do not command, but the Lord commands, taking ἐγώ [I] as the subject of παραγγέλλω [(I) command] and supplying an implied παραγγέλλει [(he) commands]; this avoids any contradiction and maintains the parallel with the opening of 7:12 if, as in UBS3 but not in NIV, I, not the Lord is not parenthetic there. In any case the meaning is little affected: Paul appeals to the authority of the Lord Jesus for these instructions.

The man-woman parallelism is broken in two ways in these verses. Firstly, the instruction to the woman is μὴ χωρισθῆναι, do not become separated, but that to the man is μὴ ἀφιέναι, do not divorce. In the cultural context there may have been a technical distinction between what was possible for a man and for a woman (although in 7:13 μὴ ἀφιέτω [let her not divorce] is addressed to a woman), but in view of the perfect parallels elsewhere it seems certain that Paul intended men and women to be treated as nearly as possible equally. Thus it is inappropriate to make a distinction in applying this passage in a modern culture in which men and women are equal with regard to divorce. Secondly, the prohibition of remarriage for those who have, despite Paul’s instructions, divorced is given explicitly only to woman, but Paul presumably intended it to apply equally to divorced men. The clause ἐὰν δὲ καὶ χωρισθῇ [but if she also divorces], like the first clause in 7:9, identifies the subject of the following clause, but ἐὰν [if] with the subjunctive indicates uncertainty: the situation might not, and should not, arise.


These verses are relatively straightforward in themselves, although their relationship to the following verses is obscure. It is not immediately clear who οἱ λοιποῖ [the rest] are; they must be those not included in 7:8 or 7:10, but the content of Paul’s instructions shows that they are those married to unbelieving partners. Thus οἱ γεγαμηκότες [the married (ones)] of 7:10 must be the married couples who were both within the church; and if 7:8 is indeed addressed only to the widowed Paul is postponing his instructions to those never married until 7:25. The indefinite conditional clauses εἴ τις ἀδελφὸς … [if any brother …] and γυνὴ εἴ τις … [if any woman …] again serve to identify specific classes of man and woman and are not true conditions. 7:12 is the beginning of a complex multiple chiasmus stretching to the middle of 7:14, as is shown by the terms used for men and women: ἀδελφὸς … γυναῖκα … γυνὴ … ἄνδρα … ἄνδρα … ἀνὴρ … γυναικί … γυνὴ … ἀδελφῷ [brother … woman … woman … man … man … man … woman … woman … brother] (italics mark the unbelieving partners).


The first half of this verse is very difficult theologically, since its teaching seems to conflict with the rest of Paul’s theology. Semantically it is not so difficult in itself. Ἡγίασται [is sanctified] is presumably a divine passive; it is God who has caused the change, through the believing partner. The easiest solution to the theological problem is the semantic one of taking ἅγιος [holy] and ἁγιάζω [sanctify] here in quite a different sense to Paul’s normal usage, a sense determined rather by the context, but it is difficult to find such a sense that does justice to the word’s important place in the argument. For Paul here is giving the reason for his prohibition of divorce in 7:12,13: God has caused a real change in the husband, despite his unbelief, so that he and the children of the marriage, although they too might not believe, are in some sense holy and are not to be rejected as unholy or defiled – and similarly for the wife. Thus ἄπιστος [unbelieving], twice in this verse, is a contraction of a concessive clause although he/she does not believe.

The second half of the verse is difficult to analyse, if not to understand. It is linked equally to both of the preceding statements, about husband and wife. The words ἐπεὶ ἄρα illustrate the danger of treating New Testament Greek as if it were Classical Greek: Liddell and Scott give the meaning since then, quoting Homer as their example, but that cannot be the sense here. A synchronic study of Paul’s use of ἐπεί gives a different picture: several times (Romans 3:6, 11:6,22, 1 Corinthians 5:10,7:14, 14:26, 15:29 – see Bauer on ἐπεί, Turner, p. 318, and Zerwick and Grosvenor on these verses) he uses it in the sense of otherwise, i.e. [if that were not the case] then. Here one must supply the double condition if the unbelieving husband or the unbelieving wife were not holy, a condition contrary to the fact as already stated, although this is not indicated in the consequence clause. This is introduced to highlight the significance of the last clause, the climax of the verse, which is the result or perhaps the purpose of the unbelieving partners being made holy.


This verse, which concerns the unbelieving partner who wishes to separate from the believer, provides the contrast to the preceding three verses concerning the unbeliever who wishes to remain married. Since this letter is not addressed to the unbelievers, the imperative χωριζέσθω [let him/her separate], grammatically addressed to the unbeliever, is semantically addressed to the believing partner; the English let him do so (NIV) is to be taken in its more basic sense allow him to do so. The believer must therefore accept that the marriage is truly terminated; this is underlined by οὐ δεδούλωται [is not enslaved], a metaphor since there is no question of literal slavery, and a significant one because it introduces the analogy between marriage and slavery which probably underlies 7:21-23. Since in the cultural context and therefore in the presupposition pool legal divorce automatically conferred the right of remarriage (Murphy-O’Connor, Divorced, p. 604), Paul surely intended to allow remarriage in this case of a believer divorced by an unbeliever; the contrast with 7:11 concerning two believers must be deliberate, and Fee’s argument that remarriage is not permitted (pp. 302-303) does not stand.

Most English translations (NIV, AV, RSV, NASB, NEB, JB; also the punctuation of UBS3) connect the last clause of this verse to the preceding clauses, making a major division at the end of the verse; but it is then difficult to explain the δὲ at the start of the clause: RSV appears to mistranslate it as for, and NIV, TEV, JB suggest this nuance, whereas the translations which retain but (AV,NASB,NEB) scarcely make sense. Fee argues that this clause is to be taken instead with the following verse, as in Phillips’ translation; together they give a further reason, in addition to that of 7:14,15, for the couple to remain together if possible. This analysis also makes more sense of the link between this clause and 7:17-24, in which the term κέκληκεν [has called], introduced here without explanation, is interpreted and linked back to the subject of marriage; this link would be much more awkward if 7:16 reverted to another subject.


This final verse on marriage between believers and unbelievers consists of two rhetorical questions. Formally, how do you know …? is equivalent to you do not know … , but to reduce the text to that, as a semantic analysis must do, is to lose the thrust of Paul’s style, here giving a last point to ponder for anyone who is considering divorce from an unbeliever. Paul distinguishes σῴζω [save], which for the unbeliever is future and uncertain, from ἁγιάζω [sanctify], which for the same person is past with continuing effects (7:14); the precise nature of the distinction is a theological difficulty which can only be answered by reference to Paul’s teaching elsewhere. Here, as in 9:22, Romans 11:14 and 1 Timothy 4:16 (the only cases in the Pauline letters), σῴζω [save] is given a human grammatical subject, but all these passages are rhetorical, and as with ἁγιάζω [sanctify] in 7:14 Paul surely sees the true subject as God and the human as the means he uses.

Paul, Sex and Marriage 4: Discourse Structure of 1 Corinthians

This is part 4 of my 1988 essay What did Paul really say about sex and marriage? 1 Corinthians 7:1-16. The Greek text here is adjusted as in part 3.

This in fact concludes the part of the essay which is most likely to be of interest to readers in 2006. So, while I do intend to complete this series (as well as my unfinished series on Kingdom Thermodynamics), I may do so rather more slowly than up to this point.


A further requirement for a correct linguistic understanding of the passage is to determine its relationship to the surrounding material, the co-text, within the structure of the complete discourse, in this case the whole of 1 Corinthians. Therefore, an analysis of the main discourse components in the whole letter is necessary, and it must be based on linguistic criteria, rather than the theological presuppositions which often determine commentators’ analyses.

4.1. The Traditional Understanding

It is generally agreed by commentators that much of 1 Corinthians is a response by Paul to issues brought up in the letter sent to him by the Corinthians – although some of the issues he deals with came to his notice through other reports from Corinth (e.g. 1:11). The traditional view, expressed by Hurd (p. 48), is that 7:1 introduces the answers to a series of questions which the Corinthians had asked Paul in their letter, and indeed that most of the material from 7:1 to 16:12 is in answer to specific questions. By contrast, 1:10 to 6:20 is generally taken (e.g. by Barrett, p. 28) as written in response to the other reports.

Fee questions this standard view. He sees the combative style of the supposed replies as showing that Paul is not answering their questions but challenging their statements (pp. 5-6). This accords with the conclusion of Jeremias, originally on chapter 8 but also applying in chapters 6 and 7, that Paul repeatedly quotes a statement from the Corinthians and then takes issue with it.

In every commentator’s analysis, it seems, a new main section starts at 7:1, indicating the start of Paul’s replies to the Corinthian questions; some make an equally important division at 5:1. It would be necessary to take 7:1 as such an important new start if the second part of the verse were not a quotation from the Corinthian letter, for then the first part would refer to every matter raised in that letter, including those dealt with in the chapters following chapter 7. But if it is indeed a quotation, the second part serves to specify as the subject of the section starting at 7:1 one particular issue amongst those raised by the Corinthians, the issue of sexual relations; and Paul’s response to this issue does not continue beyond the end of chapter 7.

Although he rejects most of its basis, Fee sticks to the most extreme form of the traditional analysis, in which the section starting at 7:1 continues right through to 15:12. His most important argument for keeping to this analysis is based on the repeated opening phrase Περὶ δὲ [But about], found at 7:1,25, 8:1, 12:1, 16:1,12, which he takes as introducing some, but not all, of Paul’s responses to the Corinthians’ points (p. 267). Yet Fee recognises the close affinity between 6:12-20 and chapter 7, and that already at 6:12 Paul quotes and corrects a Corinthian position (p. 250 note 8); but he relegates this important point to a footnote and does not let it affect his overall analysis.

4.2. Major Discourse Markers

The main linguistic criterion for analysis of this letter is the occurrence in it of discourse markers, such as recurring introductory formulae.

The formula Παρακαλῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί [But I encourage you, brothers], found in 1 Corinthians at 1:10. 4:16 (modified) and 16:15, is recognised as a commonly occurring introductory formula in Greek letters and official documents (see Fee, p. 52). It is found in Paul’s letters also in 1 Thessalonians 4:1,10, 5:14, where it is used to introduce three of a series of six mostly ethical exhortations; there, the fullest form Λοιπὸν οὖν, ἀδελφοί, ἐρωτῶμεν ὑμᾶς καὶ παρακαλοῦμεν [Then finally, brothers, I ask and encourage you] is found introducing the first exhortation (4:1), and the other five are introduced by various abbreviated forms including Οὐ θέλομεν δὲ ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, ἀδελφοί, περὶ [But I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about] (4:13, cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1, 12:1), and, most briefly, Περὶ δὲ [But about] (5:1). It can be concluded that similarly in 1 Corinthians the fullest formula is a high level discourse marker and the shorter forms are lower level markers.

According to the traditional analysis of 1 Corinthians, the formula at 1:10 introduces a new main division of the letter – as indeed it must do since it follows the conventional thanksgiving which opens the letter. The occurrences of the same formula at 4:16 and at 16:15 are not generally recognised as of equivalent importance, but linguistic considerations suggest that they should be. There is some difficulty about making a division at 4:16 because the οὖν [therefore] looks backwards. A better understanding of this division can be obtained by looking at the subject matter of the section starting at 1:10, an exhortation that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you (1:10, NASB); this subject is carried through, with a digression on wisdom, at least to 3:23, and there then follows a practical conclusion (4:1-5a) and a brief doxology (4:5b), a conventional closing discourse marker. Thus the main division is at 4:6, which is the start of a link passage stretching to 4:15, taken up by the οὖν [therefore] of 4:16.

The exhortation of 4:16 has as its content μιμηταί μου γίνεσθε [become imitators of me], which forms an inclusio with the identical statement in 11:1, which is rounded off by καθὼς κἀγὼ Χριστοῦ [as also I of Christ]. There is little unity in the subject matter of 4:16-11:1, but its unity as a discourse component can be defended by its distinctness from the preceding and succeeding long sections, on divisions and on worship respectively, as well as from the discourse markers; the material is also united in being dominated by ethical exhortations on immorality and on idolatry, always closely linked in the New Testament.

At 11:2 a new section begins with an ironical pun, all the more striking if it is based on a quotation from the Corinthians’ letter. In view of the preceding verse, the praise which Paul would have preferred to have been able to give was πάντα μου μεμίμησθε, you have imitated me in all things; but instead he uses the very similar words πάντα μου μέμνησθε, you have remembered me in all things – somewhat fainter praise. He continues the irony with the double-edged word κατέχω, which can have the meaning as in Romans 1:18 of suppress rather than hold to. This introduces the new section, whose subject is τὰς παραδόσεις κατέχετε [you hold to/suppress the traditions], in both senses: received practices are in view in chapters 11-14, 16 and received teaching in chapter 15. The section closes at 16:13,14 with a summary. 16:15-18 is a brief final exhortation, again introduced by the standard discourse marker, and the letter closes with final greetings.

4.3. Immorality, Idolatry and Other Evils

The section from 4:16 to 11:1 can be analysed further by consideration of the discourse markers. 6:12 marks an abrupt new start: the quotation from the Corinthians is brought in with no conjunction – asyndeton, relatively uncommon in Greek. This verse matches 10:23, and can be taken as paired with it to form an inclusio, so that 6:12 to 10:23 becomes a section on its own. It serves to confirm this that all the quotations already identified from the Corinthian letter with which Paul takes issue are found within this inclusio. 10:24-33 is a closing summary with specific practical instructions, omitted earlier perhaps to avoid confusion with general principles. An inclusio can also be discerned marking off 4:18 to 6:11 as a separate section, for it begins and ends on the subject of the kingdom of God – not a frequent theme in Paul’s writings.

Furthermore, the sections 4:18-6:11 and 6:12-10:23 are linked in that the latter takes up the list of evils with which the former ends, in 6:9,10. In 6:12-20 Paul expands on his reminder to the Corinthians not to be πόρνοι [immoral people]; in 8:1-13 and 10:14-22 they are not to be εἰδωλολάτραι [idolaters]; in 7:1-40 not μοιχοί [idolaters]; 9:1-27 perhaps reminds them not to be λοίδοροι [slanderers]; πλεονέκται [greedy people] and μέθυσοι [drunkards] are considered later, in 11:21,33-34. Homosexuality and theft are not dealt with explicitly, but Paul hints at the latter in chapter 9 and possibly the former in 11:2-16. There is another list of vices in 10:7-10; the first two are clearly those dealt with in chapter 8 and in 6:12-7:40 respectively, and the last two probably relate to chapter 9. Thus Immorality, Idolatry and Other Evils would be an appropriate title for 6:12-10:23.

4.4. Chapter 7 in the Discourse

Within the inclusio of 6:12-10:23 the clearest discourse marker is the repeated introductory formula Περὶ δὲ [But about], found at 7:1,25, 8:1. An important conclusion from the analysis already made is that the first of these markers should not be taken, despite the traditional commentators’ analysis, to have a special status as marking the start of a primary division of the letter. From the start of chapter 9 the situation becomes more complex, and will not be considered here. 7:17-24 is somewhat anomalous: it is a unit in itself, with the repeated ἕκαστος [each] (7:17,20,24) giving a general principle which is illustrated by two pairs of examples; it is linked back to the advice of 7:8-16, and especially the appeal for peace on the basis of the Christian calling in 7:15; but its principles are applied in 7:25-40. Therefore it seems best to take chapter 7 as three discourse elements, 7:1-16, 7:17-24 and 7:25-40. The first and the last of these are separate elements and should be treated as such, although much of the subject matter is in common, and one can reasonably expect a consistent treatment of it within this small part of the letter, in addition to conformity in both sections to the general principles of 7:17-24. Only the first of these elements is considered further in this essay.

4.5. Concluding Observations

The above discourse analysis of 1 Corinthians, using linguistic criteria alone, is very different from the traditional commentators’ analysis. Only if the evidence for a new analysis were overwhelming could one expect such a widely held traditional view to be overturned. This essay does not claim to provide the required conclusive evidence, but only to suggest the alternative as worthy of further consideration. The final conclusions in Section 6 are not greatly affected by the choice of analysis, except on the one point assumed, and agreed by Fee, that the Περὶ δὲ [But about] formula of 7:1 serves to introduce only part of chapter 7 and not the majority of the letter.

Paul, Sex and Marriage 1: Contents and Introduction

Over the last few days, as part of my Bible translation work, I have been looking at 1 Corinthians. This reminded me of an essay which I wrote about this book, nearly 20 years ago, in fact in 1988. At the time I was a student at London Bible College, now London School of Theology. Studying for this essay helped me to form some of my current views about issues of sex and marriage, as well as about the structure of the book. And I have found myself referring back to this essay a number of times, including in the last few days.

For some time I have meant to put this essay on the Internet. This is because at least some of the questions which I raise and methods by which I answer them (see especially the last paragraph of the Introduction, at the end of this first part) are very relevant to recent discussions here, and on other bl0gs including the Better Bibles Blog.

So, here is the essay, at least the first part – with links to further parts to be added later. This is based on a scan of my printed copy of the essay, as unfortunately my original computer files were lost. I have retyped the Greek and/or copied the text from computer files of the New Testament text. The text has not been edited only to correct scanning errors. I have attempted to preserve the bold and italic marking of the original, except in section headings, but not the page layout.


Peter Richard KIRK

Essay submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the B.A. degree of the Council for National Academic Awards

London Bible College
B.A. Part Two
Lecturer: Dr. F.P. Cotterell

23rd February, 1988




2.1. Cultural Presuppositions

2.2. Presuppositions from Previous Contact


3.1. Acknowledged Quotations

3.2. Linguistic Characteristics

3.3. Paul’s Responses to the Corinthians’ Points


4.1. The Traditional Understanding

4.2. Major Discourse Markers

4.3. Immorality, Idolatry and Other Evils

4.4. Chapter 7 in the Discourse

4.5. Concluding Observations














APPENDIX – Semantic Display of 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 [External link to a PDF file]



The popular image of the apostle Paul is that he was a misogynist who disapproved of marriage, sex, and in general of everything enjoyable in life. On the basis of this caricature many have rejected the Christian faith, and many others who call themselves Christians have rejected Paul’s teaching in favour of a religion of love and liberty which, equally simplistically, they take as the true or original Christian message.

Most of the passages from Paul to which such people take exception are in his first letter to the Corinthians. In it there are two passages, 11:2-16 and 14:34-35, which seem to be degrading women, at least in their place in the church, and there is a whole long chapter on marriage and sexual relations, chapter 7, which has traditionally been taken as disapproving of both and allowing them only as grudging concessions to human weakness. Yet modern commentators have produced very different interpretations of these contentious passages. For example, Fee, summing up chapter 7, says: Does not Scripture say in fact that singleness is better than marriage? To which the answer is No (p. 357); on 11:2-16 he concludes that such a “church custom” … is not to be raised to Canon Law (p. 530); and on 14:34-35 that it is not authentic … certainly not binding for Christians (p. 708).

Are such reinterpretations valid? Or are they a case of making the bible fit one’s cultural presuppositions? One way of answering this question is to analyse the contentious passages in their context using linguistic criteria, rather than by theological ones which tend to be coloured by traditional interpretations. This essay is an attempt to answer the question in this way for chapter 7, by analysing the first sixteen verses; the remainder of the chapter is both more obscure and less directly relevant to the central question: did Paul disapprove of all marriage and all sexual relations, or did he not?

The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 6: Conclusions

At last I am bringing this series (part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5) to a conclusion.

In part 1 I looked at how Al Mohler rejected the scholarly position on women’s leadership in the church apparently because he was persuaded by a fundamentalist appeal to “the clear teaching of Scripture“, on a matter where the biblical teaching, if properly understood, is in fact far from clear. In part 2 I looked further at this fundamentalist approach to Scripture, and showed how this method is fundamentally flawed and could in fact be used to give supposedly biblical support to almost any teaching.

In parts 3, 4 and 5 I looked at the scholarly approach to understanding and applying the Bible, as taught at evangelical Bible schools. By using this approach I explained why the Bible, at least at Titus 1:6, should not in fact be taken as prohibiting women elders.

Now it should be clear that I have a lot more sympathy with the scholarly approach to the Bible than I do with the fundamentalist one. But I also have some serious reservations about the scholarly approach.

I mentioned in part 5 how the cessationist position, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are no longer in operation, can be used to negate any applicability today of any biblical command. But ironically the whole scholarly approach to the Bible is based on cessationist assumptions, and usually the fundamentalist approach also is, because both ignore the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting and applying Scripture. (Some interpreters follow the fundamentalist approach and claim to do so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; this is likely to be even more dangerous than attributing a fundamentalist interpretation to one’s own intelligence.) Even Gordon Fee, who is not a cessationist, carefully avoids any suggestion, in chapters 3 and 4 of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, that the Holy Spirit has any part in the exegesis or application of the New Testament letters. Presumably this is because any appeal to the Holy Spirit would immediately lead to his book being rejected by the scholarly establishment as well as by cessationist readers.

Nevertheless, I strongly recommend How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth; the link at this point is to the current edition at Amazon.co.uk.

But, whereas scholars and fundamentalists ignore the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture, the Bible itself teaches that this is the key to how it can be understood today. It is clear from the gospels that neither the scribes and Pharisees for all their scholarship, nor Jesus’ disciples before the Resurrection despite having Jesus with them for three years, had a clue about how to interpret the Old Testament Scriptures properly. It was only after the Resurrection, for example on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35), that the Scriptures started to open up to the disciples. But Jesus promised that “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13, TNIV). Fifty days later the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), and the apostles seem to have been filled immediately not only with boldness but also with a completely new level of understanding and application of the Old Testament Scriptures. In a similar vein, Paul taught:

7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:

    “What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
    and what no human mind has conceived—
    these things God has prepared for those who love him” —

10 for God has revealed them to us by his Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:7-10 (TNIV©)

Now I recognise that there is some validity in the cessationist counter-argument that John 16:13 was spoken to the 11 apostles, some of whom under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote the New Testament books; and that what was unclear before Pentecost was the Old Testament, which has now been made clear to Christian believers through the New Testament which is clear.

But can the Bible, even the basic Gospel message, really be understood today apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Paul did not teach this, but he wrote:

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

2 Corinthians 4:3-4 (TNIV©)

Thus he implies that the same veil which prevented the Israelites from understanding the Law of Moses (3:13-16) prevents unbelievers from understanding the Gospel. But, Paul taught, only the Holy Spirit can take away this veil and reveal the meaning of the Scriptures to those who come to believe:

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:14 (TNIV©)

But concerning those who thought that they could understand the things of God through their own studies apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit, Paul wrote:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where are the wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

1 Corinthians 1:18-21 (TNIV©)

So where does this leave us? Does it imply that each individual Christian can claim the authority of the Holy Spirit for their own interpretation of Scripture, however invalid it may be from a scholarly viewpoint? Surely not! Does it imply that the church can interpret and apply the Scriptures under the guidance of the Spirit? In principle, I would say “yes”, but unfortunately the actions of church leaders through the centuries show that there is no guarantee that the church, in any form visible on earth, is in fact being guided by the Spirit.

It seems to me that the scholarly approach does have value in providing an exegetical and hermeneutical framework within which to evaluate any claim to guidance by the Spirit. Thus I would reject any such claim if it contradicted the teaching of Scripture as discovered by the scholarly approach. There is also a lot of room within the hermeneutical approach taken by Fee, and described in part 5 of this series, for the Holy Spirit to guide the church and individual believers. This is particularly true of matters which may be culturally relative.

To apply this to the issue of women in leadership in the church and Titus 1:6, I would come to the following tentative conclusions. Paul may well have expected Titus to appoint only men as elders, within the specific cultural situation in Crete. But he did not lay down a clear teaching for every situation that only men could be elders. This is therefore a matter on which believers and churches need to rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And on such matters this guidance is not necessarily the same for all. I would thus accept it as valid for any one church or church grouping to decide to accept or reject women elders, or pastors or priests, as guided by the Holy Spirit within their specific cultural context. But churches and individuals should not claim that their decision on this is absolutely morally binding on all people or churches for all time. They should certainly not allow this to be a barrier to fellowship with Christian brothers and sisters who have taken a different position on this matter.

The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 5: Scholarly Application

I introduced this series by looking at Al Mohler’s change of mind. In part 2 I described the fundamentalist approach to the Bible, and in part 3 and part 4 I looked at the first of the two main stages of the scholarly approach, exegesis. In this part I am moving on to the second main stage, application.

I will start by continuing the quotation which I started in part 4 from Think Again about Church Leaders (1 Timothy 2:8-3:16) by Bruce Fleming, now from p.88 and concerning “husband of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3:2:

The instructions in the Bible apply to all people in all
cultures. However, in my work as a missionary
professor I came across three different, distinct and
mutually exclusive interpretations of this phrase in 3:2:

In the United States I heard:

No divorced and remarried man may be an
overseer – one may have only “one wife.”

In France I heard:

Bachelors may not be overseers because they
are not “husbands” and do not have “one wife.”

In Africa I heard:

No polygamist may be an overseer because
one must have only “one wife,” not many.

When the original meaning of verse 2 is understood
as a comment on being a “faithful spouse,” it applies to
all marriage situations wherever one may live. Single
persons may be overseers. If married, either husbands
or wives may be overseers, but in married life they must
be a “faithful spouse.”

This is a good illustration of how the same exegesis of a passage, as meaning literally “husband of one wife”, can lead to different applications. Fleming seems to consider that his alternative exegesis, “faithful spouse”, solves the application issue. Well, maybe it does in this particular case, but the problem is not solved in principle.

Study of the principles of how a Bible passage (or any other text) may be applied today is known as hermeneutics. And this is a very complex field of study. All I can do here is to outline some of the issues which relate to Titus 1:6 and its near parallel 1 Timothy 3:2.

The first thing which needs to be established is whether the text has any kind of authority today. Christians accept the New Testament as in some sense the foundation document of the church, but there are many different views on how far it is authoritative today. I take the evangelical position that what is explicitly taught in the Bible is authoritative for Christians today, and that anything in it which is intended to be a normative or binding rule for Christians should be obeyed – although I would not take the stronger position that the Bible is inerrant on all matters of fact. Some scholars argue (and with some good reasons) that the Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not in fact written by the Apostle Paul and so should be seen as less authoritative than other parts of the New Testament. While I would not be dogmatic about authorship, I accept these books as part of the Bible and so authoritative regardless of authorship. Where in this series I write “Paul”, this should be understood as “Paul or whoever actually wrote this letter”.

It is then necessary to establish whether the rules laid down in these letters are to be understood as normative for the church today. At this point I need to lay to rest one argument. Christians who hold the cessationist position, that the gifts of the Spirit ceased to operate in the church at the end of the apostolic period or when the canon of the Bible was closed, apparently argue that certain commands of the apostle Paul, such as “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:1, TNIV) and “be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:39, TNIV) no longer apply to the church today. Concerning these passages, Adrian Warnock writes to cessationists:

Why, on the one hand, are we at liberty to ignore Paul’s clear commands to the Corinthians … when, on the other hand, we are expected to accept all of his other commands to local churches as applying to us today? If these two commands do not apply to us, which other of Paul’s commands also do not apply? How are we then meant to decide which of Paul’s commands we are going to obey and which we are going to ignore?

Perhaps someone could argue that Paul didn’t allow women elders while spiritual gifts were in operation, because they were not equipped to direct these gifts, but there is no reason to continue this prohibition in the post-apostolic era. With this kind of argument cessationism can be used to negate any biblical command. But, as I am not a cessationist, I will assume that there is no time limit on any biblical command.

But there is a more difficult issue here. Should Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus about elders and overseers be understood as applicable only to the recipients’ specific situations, in Ephesus and Crete respectively? Here the issue becomes very complex. Paul’s original intention in writing may have been only for the specific situations. But the letters were preserved by the church and incorporated into the Bible on the understanding that this was authoritative teaching for all situations, not just the specific one which Paul addressed.

At this point I turn again to Gordon Fee, and to chapter 4 of the excellent book which he wrote together with Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (the link is to the edition which I have, which is not the latest). Fee sets out two rules for proper hermeneutics, in the context of the New Testament letters:

a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers (p.64).

Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first-century setting, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them (p.65).

Fee warns that we must be very careful with extending applications into areas beyond comparable contexts. But he does accept that even where there is no directly comparable modern context there may be a principle which can be applied to

genuinely comparable situations (p.68).

Fee then turns to the problem of cultural relativity. He notes that some Christians do not seem to recognise cultural relativity but

argue for a wholesale adoption of first-century culture as the divine norm (p.71).

My own take on this is that whereas many Muslims take this approach, with the 7th century Arabian culture of Mohammed as the norm, in practice the culture which Christians take as normative is something from the 19th or early 20th century, which they read back into the New Testament. As an example, I would cite John Piper’s Vision of Biblical Complementarity, discussed on the Better Bibles Blog; it seems to me that Piper is not so much Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood as recovering Victorian manhood and womanhood. But my position is the same as Fee’s, that

there is no such thing as a divinely ordained culture… the recognition of a degree of cultural relativity is a valid hermeneutical procedure (p.71).

Fee notes that there are basic lists of sins concerning which the New Testament witness is consistent and unambiguous, and that these prohibitions should be considered applicable to all. But in other matters such as women’s ministry and the retention of wealth there is more variation, and this suggests that these are cultural rather than moral matters. He also writes that

The degree to which a New Testament writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position (p.73).

Thus slavery is accepted in the Bible because it was accepted by all in the cultural context, but this does not imply that it is normative for Christians.

On these principles Fee argues that the prohibition on women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 may be culturally relative and so applicable only to Timothy’s specific situation (p.75).

But I think it would be much harder for him to argue the same about “husband of one wife” in Titus 1:6 and 1 Timothy 3:2,12. For this condition for church leadership is repeated in several places in relation to differently named church offices and without any restriction to specific contexts. So I would conclude that this phrase is applicable to church leaders today, and without restriction to specific named offices. But it can only be applied today in accordance with its meaning as determined by good exegesis.

As I have previously concluded, Paul’s teaching at this point is not about the gender of church leaders but about their sexual activity. Titus 1:6 did not mean to Paul or Titus that women must not be elders, so it cannot mean the same to us today. What it does mean today is what it meant to Titus, that married male elders must be faithful to their wives – and by extension to genuinely comparable situations, it may also mean that married female elders must be faithful to their husbands, and that single and widowed elders must be celibate. At least, this is the conclusion to which I am led by the scholarly approach to the Bible.

This concludes my discussion of this scholarly approach, but I do have some more, possibly surprising, things to say about approaches to the Bible in part 6: Conclusions.