Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Do You Deny the Authority of Scripture?

I try, for the most part, to avoid overtly controversial issues here, but one issue that I have been unapologetically vocal about has been the right of women to serve in all forms of church ministry. As one friend commented in a Facebook chat some months ago, this is not the position of the vast majority of Christians (that is, if you make sure to include all Christians everywhere in the world, and not just those of us in the western world). Nonetheless, this is one justice issue that I try to be consistent in defending.

It should therefore be no surprise that I don't generally think very highly of the works of Wayne Grudem, who seems to have made it his professional life's mission to argue why the Bible doesn't allow women to serve in certain forms of church ministry. What I sometimes have trouble conveying to my friends who disagree with me on this matter (especially if they agree with the works of Grudem) is that my issues with Grudem go beyond just my disagreement with his position, but also to the way in which he tries to make his point.

But while I often stumble or get tongue-tied on this matter, Kevin Giles clearly has no trouble at all. I posted this review Giles wrote in response to one of Grudem's recent works a few days ago on my Facebook profile (having discovered it through Jesus Creed), so perhaps a few of you have read it already. It's a rather longish profile: about 4 pages long. I don't really expect most people — especially non-scholars, to be all that interested in reading through the complete analysis of Grudem's book, but Giles does a very nice job of explaining why Grudem's interpretation is not to be equated with "what the Bible teaches," and he does so in a very thorough manner. What Giles says in his opening paragraphs conveys in a fairly broad way what I have sometimes struggled to convey, so here's just that portion copied for your perusal:
...The fundamental seismic fault in the author’s thinking is that he cannot differentiate between the interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself. For him, if anyone rejects his interpretation of the key texts on which he and other hierarchists base their case for the permanent subordination of women, then that believer is by definition rejecting the authority of Scripture. What this means is that the methodological challenge to interpret Scripture rightly in its given historical and cultural context and to apply what is said rightly in another historical and cultural context is solved by assuming and asserting that “my interpretation” tells you exactly what the Bible says. When an author claims that one’s interpretation of God’s word is God’s word without any caveats, then, by implication, one is claiming to speak for God. The author is asserting that what he says the Bible says is what God says, and, thus, if you disagree with him, you are disagreeing with God....

As long as hierarchists argue in this way, there is no possibility of finding common ground on the question of the status and ministry of women. To begin an honest and open dialogue, we have to agree that the issue is not the authority of Scripture, but how Scripture is to be interpreted and applied. Evangelical egalitarians do not reject the authority of Scripture; they reject an interpretation of the Scriptures that suggests that God’s unchanging ideal is the subordination of women.
I've said this a number of times, and I'm sure I'll say it again: it's one thing to have a disagreement, but one needs to learn how to engage those disagreements in a civil manner. Accusing your opponent of denying the authority of Scripture fails to do exactly that, especially when the person you're debating is another Christian scholar. Also taken from Giles' review, here is a list of Christian scholars that Grudem has accused of denying Scripture's authority:
John Arnott, Jack and Judith Balswick, Linda Belleville, Gilbert Bilezikian, Darrell Bock, Clarence Boomsma, Peter Davids, Craig Evans, Gordon Fee, R. T. France, J. Lee Grady, Joel Green, Rebecca Groothuis, Stanley Grenz, Stan Gundry, Mimi Haddad, Jack Hayford, Bill Hybels, Walter Kaiser, Craig Keener, Richard and Catherine Kroeger, I. Howard Marshall, Alvera Mickelsen, Roger Nicole, Grant Osborne, Alan Padgett, Ronald Pierce, David Scholer, Aída Spencer, Sarah Sumner, Anthony Thiselton, David Thompson, Ruth Tucker, William Webb, and Don Williams.
That's a lot of names! And they come from a fairly wide span of interpretive perspectives. I'm confident that some of my more liberal friends would see at least some of them as too "conservative" for their tastes. I can't claim to be familiar with all of these people, myself, and so won't argue that I agree with all of them. That's not even the point. The point is that I do know the perspectives of quite a few people on this list. Some of them are personal friends, or are professors that I've been privileged to work with. Even when I disagree with them on some issues (as I do on occasion), I would never dream of accusing them of "denying the authority of Scripture"! That would be a huge insult to people who have devoted their lives to the task of studying Scripture and making its teachings available to other church leaders. For most, if not all, of these scholars, they would ask "why would I do this if I didn't believe in the authority of Scripture?" (I'm aware of some scholars of biblical material that are not, themselves, Christians, and who would not affirm the Bible's authority. I'm sure they have reasons for why they do what they do. But I'm also pretty sure that none of these non-believing scholars are on Giles' list.)

My own denomination, the PC(USA), is involved in a different kind of interpretive debate right now: whether or not practicing homosexuals should be allowed to be ordained as pastors The debate is threatening to tear the denomination apart, and indeed a number of churches have left the denomination already (including the one that I used to attend while in college). Many of those who are against such ordination argue that the issue is one of "correct" Biblical interpretation, and I am not sure that I disagree with them. However, I do think it goes too far to accuse those who argue for the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians of "denying the authority of Scripture." The same argument has been used, and clearly continues to be used, of those who believe that women should not be ordained (indeed, Grudem apparently argues in another book that the ordination of women is a step toward the inevitable ordination of practicing homosexuals, a process preceded only by what he describes as "abandon[ing] inerrancy." Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler also calls these two issues "closely linked"). We must be careful of the accusations we make toward others, let we be accused of doing the very same thing ourselves by those who disagree with us on other interpretive matters. There's no such thing as a truly "objective" reading. All Scriptural study involves interpretation.

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