Evangelicals and Feminism, Part 3: Biblical Theology and Progressive Revelation

A recent post by a friend about the new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans sparked a lively debate concerning the relationship of evangelicalism to the feminist movement.  After a lengthy discussion we have decided it best to move the conversation to a different forum.  This series of posts is meant to organize the ideas touched on in the debate into a more logical presentation before we delve into areas of further discussion.  Today’s post deals with issues surrounding evangelical beliefs about scripture, the use of the Bible in theological discourse, and the idea of progressive revelation.  For more of an introduction to this debate, the participants, and the various viewpoints in evangelicalism concerning this issue, see the introductory post to this series.

Biblical Theology, Canon, Convenant, and Progressive Revelation

Austin:  I do not think I’ve misunderstood Evans’ goal in writing the book at all. In fact, I completely understand it. But, it’s an infantile pursuit from the get go. She is attempting to overturn the tables in the temple of typical, complementarian wings of evangelicalism that advocate biblical womanhood by pointing out that womanhood is varied within the Bible. “If we’re going to be ‘biblical’ in any meaningful sense of the word, we’ve got to be biblical in the whole sense of the Word. I understand that. And I think it truly is an endeavor full of folly. Why one might ask? It’s a complete disregard for issues related to hermeneutics and God’s redemptive historical progression as he works through his people. Ask yourself, Alex, “Why is it that anyone writing polemical texts against conservative or traditional Christianity end up being the best Biblicists and literalists one has ever seen?” They typically come to a text, point out its most far-fetched literal meaning, and then raise their hands remarking “of course we cannot do this anymore. We’ve progressed.” I think anyone trained with a little hermeneutics under their belt would readily recognize that Scripture doesn’t easily lend itself to such interpretive potholes. It’s a multifaceted book full of different types of literature with many literary and stylistic variations that God saw fit to reveal Himself through. I think she knows that her interpretive scheme is squirrelly. Or maybe she doesn’t and in that case, she shouldn’t be writing books to the Church (that preposition is misleading also…she shouldn’t be writing books at or against the Church). This is why I suggested my egalitarian friends to go somewhere else for thoughtful discussion on those types of issues. Go read N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington III, or Craig Keener and their thoughtful discussions surrounding those important issues. The way they handle the text and other believers is something to be admired and is greatly contrasted with how Evans usually carries herself on her blog.

To this idea of a “canon within a canon,” you as well as I definitely hold certain texts higher for faith and practice within the Church. Let’s not for one moment pretend that a levitical law concerning the uncleanness of a woman during menstruation holds the same weight as direct statements about life within the Church made by apostles in various epistles. Most if not all believers today and throughout Church history (so your comment concerning the “neo-Reformed movement” is moot) do not and have not practiced the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Torah for good reason. I know you’ve likely read books on the subject so I’m not posting any rationale of while this redemptive change has occurred between the two covenants. But my point is, let’s not throw our hands in the air crying “foul” when we know good and well why we don’t get Church life commandments from Leviticus 18 instead of epistles. (Albeit Leviticus and other texts are directly relevant to the Church today. Let’s not pursue a discussion on this today). 

I keep making the point but I do it because it’s where the rubber meets the road- this is an issue of hermeneutics and ultimately biblical authority. As Burk Parsons said not too long ago, “Egalitarianism isn’t just a different exegesis of a few New Testament pericopes, it’s a fundamentally different hermeneutic of Scripture.”

Alex:  I think, Austin, you are absolutely correct in suggesting that we are all selective in our readings of scripture. No doubt about it. But here’s the problem: the evangelical understanding of scripture makes this kind of selectivity a troubling proposition. If we believe that scripture is the actual word of God, the very words God intends for us to hear, spoken/inspired by the divine breath itself, and if we assume that God is a coherent, systematic being who speaks with one, non-contradictory voice, then we very quickly get to the belief that scripture must speak with one voice and contain no contractions and that its words rest on the authority of God. I think that’s a fairly accurate statement about what the evangelical view of scripture is, correct me if I am wrong. So, given this understanding of scripture, the hermeneutical issue becomes extremely significant for the whole of evangelical theology. If scripture speaks with one voice, contains no contradictions, and is divinely authoritative, then why isn’t the Levitical law still practiced today? I think, Austin, you and I would agree that it has to do with modifications to the covenant made in the New Testament. But why do those modifications exist if the Bible speaks with one voice? What legitimates a decision to emphasize one part of scripture over another if there really is no inconsistency between them, no difference in perspective, no change in God’s nature or mind about certain things? I think RHE is asking a very specific question about the reason we make these selective readings with regards to the role of women in the church, but I also think that in doing that she is raising a really crucial issue that cuts to the very core of evangelical theology and its beliefs about what scripture is and how we read/use it.

So you are correct in saying that egalitarianism is a completely different hermeneutic. It most certainly is, but that doesn’t answer the question which hermeneutic is more “true” to the way that we use scripture and the way we should use scripture. I think the question Evans asks is which hermeneutic is better?

CLARIFICATION:  I know that most evangelicals do not treat scripture as if each part holds equal authority and applicability (with the possible exception of Walter Kaiser, who is not a small voice but may be a minority). What I’m arguing is not that this is what evangelicals do with scripture but rather this is what seems like the logically consistent conclusion about scripture to draw from the evangelical assumptions about scripture. The question I’m asking is two fold: first, why do we not follow the logic to where it seems to point and second, why do we do it in the particular ways that we do. Hope that makes my position a tad bit more clear.

Austin:  Complementarians wholeheartedly affirm that God is a “coherent, systematic being who speaks with one, non-contradictory voice.” But, that does not mean that he always works the same way within various agreements. God has chosen to work with humanity through binding, legal agreements known as covenants throughout salvation history to bring redemption to the world. Examples of such covenants are as follows: Abrahamic (Gen. 12, 15:1-21, 17:1-27), Davidic (2 Sam. 7), Mosaic or Old (Exo. 19-24), and the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:6-13; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). The New Covenant fulfills both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants (Gal. 3:16-18; Rom. 4; Heb. 2:16) and lays aside the Old Covenant by satisfying its demands in Jesus (2 Cor. 3:14; Heb. 8:6, 13; Gal. 3:8, 19, 24). Furthermore, that God is a certain way does not mean that there are not practical shifts within redemptive history caused by the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Second Coming of Jesus. That does not mean that once God reveals his will during a certain period in salvation history he cannot act any other way within other times. I appreciate you bringing up the issue of the Old Testament law and its function during this time period. This was the debate of the New Testament community. How did the coming of the Messiah which caused the overlapping of the ages and beginning of the eschaton evidenced by the Spirit being poured out indiscriminately on all who believe change how the Church related to the Old Testament law? Instead of writing out a full response, I’m going to default to a very able person to explain it for me. Responding to the common charge of inconsistency made by homosexual advocates against those who uphold Scripture’s ethic concerning that sin, Tim Keller wrote: 

The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices that were to be offered in the tabernacle (and later temple) to atone for sin so that worshippers could approach a holy God. As part of that sacrificial system there was also a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness. You could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods and not others, wore certain forms of dress, refrained from touching a variety of objects, and so on. This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can’t go into God’s presence without purification. But even in the Old Testament, many writers hinted that the sacrifices and the temple worship regulations pointed forward to something beyond them. (cf. 1 Samuel 15:21-22; Psalm 50:12-15; 51:17; Hosea 6:6). When Christ appeared he declared all foods ‘clean’ (Mark 7:19) and he ignored the Old Testament clean laws in other ways, touching lepers and dead bodies. But the reason is made clear. When he died on the cross the veil in the temple was ripped through, showing that the need for the entire sacrificial system with all its clean laws had been done away with. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and now Jesus makes us “clean.” The entire book of Hebrews explains that the Old Testament ceremonial laws were not so much abolished as fulfilled by Christ. Whenever we pray ‘in Jesus name’, we ‘have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus’ (Hebrews 10:19). It would, therefore, be deeply inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible as a whole if we were to continue to follow the ceremonial laws. The New Testament gives us further guidance about how to read the Old Testament. Paul makes it clear in places like Romans 13:8ff that the apostles understood the Old Testament moral law to still be binding on us. In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship but not how we live. The moral law is an outline of God’s own character—his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so all the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament (Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20; 1 Timothy 1:8-11.) If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.” 

The full article can be found here.

I’ll go ahead and make a stab at which hermeneutic is best. Whichever hermeneutic takes in the following within their theological formation: the one that yields to the authority of the God who has revealed himself, the one that shares the satisfying desire and goal of pleasing him by worshipping with our whole being which includes our minds, the one that plays careful attention to the important questions of who, what, where, when, how, why, and etc., the one who appreciates the cultural context of the given commands of God, the one that recognizes the difficulties of time, culture, geography, and language but humbly goes forward with the realization that the people of God need the Word of God, the one that takes careful use of the languages of the original text such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the one that attempts to remove as many current, cultural presuppositions that hinder an accurate interpretation or reading of the text, and the one that appreciates and understands God’s redemptive work as it progresses through, between, and by covenants as he seeks to redeem the entire creation. That hermeneutic is likely best and, in my opinion, that is most represented by the complementarian position. The complementarian position does not equal chauvinism, traditional Southern roles of women being barefoot cooking with no opinion, or the degradation or persecution of women. It is the realization that God has so arranged marriage and Church life in such a way that there exists certain roles and express responsibilities for equal but different participants known as men and women.

Luke:  Alex, no one believes the version of Biblicism you put forward as the logical conclusion simply because that version is untenable. Scripture doesn’t work without progression. Progressive revelation is an evangelical doctrine. Liberal theologians don’t generally care if Scripture has movement. The issue isn’t a biblicism that acts as if God can only says one word forever because he is outside of time. The cannon and task of theology is just a little more complex, and despite what you think, biblicism doesn’t point to somewhere that doesn’t exist. We biblicists aren’t stupid, Alex. I also don’t think that saying God kept scripture from contradicting itself (biblicism) is the same as saying God kept it from progressing (where you say biblicism points).

You may hold biblicism as untenable, congrats on that. But we who do hold to biblicism have our reasons and we definitely hold to the dictum that progression ≠contradiction.

Questions for Further Discussion:

  1. Is there an inconsistency between evangelical assumptions about scripture and the evangelical use of scripture?
  2. Is there a difference between “progression” in revelation and a change in voice/perspective/consistency?  Can the Bible speak with “one voice” and contain “progression”?
  3. Does selectivity in our reading of scripture reflect more than just progressive revelation?

As a side note:  Hurricane Sandy is rapidly approaching the Northeast, expected to begin impacting our area later tonight, so there is a significant chance that I will be without power/internet starting tomorrow.  The rest of this series has been pre-scheduled and should post automatically.  Will keep you updated on our status here.  In the meantime, a prayer for safety (from The Book of Common Prayer) for those in the path of the storm:

O God, our heavenly Father, whose glory fills the whole of creation and whose presence we find wherever we go:  Preserve those in the path of the storm, surround them with your loving care; protect them from every danger; and keep them in safety as the storm passes; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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