To My Cultured Despiser


Galatians 3:28

I count Gary Cockerill of Wesley Biblical Seminary as an elder and friend--I really don't think he despises me. But he does disagree with me ... often.

His most noticeable disagreement with me of late was at Oklahoma Wesleyan University where he critiqued the booklet I wrote on women in ministry. Since I have the text of his presentations, I thought I might respond.

I thought I would start out with the mechanical part of his critique, namely his criticism of what he takes to be my interpretation of the original meaning of Galatians 3:28.

First, he believes that I see in Galatians 3:28 the abolishment of distinctions in social roles between men and women in Paul's thought. He appropriately turns to other passages in Paul and concludes that Paul did not understand the verse to imply a carte blanche abolition of social distinctions in the roles between men and women. I agree with him--Paul did not understand the idea that there is "not male and female" to imply the complete abolition of social role distinctions. 1 Corinthians 11 makes this point clear.

This is an understandable misreading of me. I actually view this verse more like David Thompson (whom Gary also critiques). I am not arguing that Paul applied these implications himself in practice. I am arguing that there are broader social implications to this principle than Paul himself applied in his writings. I will discuss some hermeneutical issues below.

So what did Paul mean in context? First, I should note the possibility that this phrase did not actually originate with Paul. Many think the verse was something said sometimes at baptism. If this idea is true--and of course we cannot prove or disprove the idea beyond a reasonable doubt--then it is possible that the "creed writer" may not have understood the statement quite the same as Paul did. Whether or not what Paul was thinking is the key to the Scriptural understanding of this verse--or still less some hypothetical creed writer--is a crucial issue we will address in the third post.

In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul is speaking of inclusion among the sons of God. Who is in? What does this mean? It means who is included among the people of God. It reflects who will be saved on the Day of Wrath and who will be in the kingdom. Paul startlingly says that as far as sonship is concerned, in the kingdom there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, no distinction between slave and free, no distinction between male and female. As far as getting into the kingdom is involved, all individuals are equally included regardless of race, status, or gender.

But we must also understand these comments in an eschatological sense. Perhaps Gary knows this as well. I consider it beyond reasonable doubt. When Paul says that someone is a son of God--and Paul uses the masculine "sons" in reference to women here--he implies something about inheritance and "heir-ship" (cf. Rom. 8:17). I consider it beyond reasonable doubt that Paul's dominant use of salvation language is future-oriented around the Day of the Lord to come. His kingdom language is also soundly future rather than present oriented (cf. 1 Cor. 6:10), a fact punctuated by his comment that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50).

Does anyone, including Gary, truly believe that in the coming kingdom there will still be role distinctions between Jew and Greek, between slave and free, indeed, between male and female? Will there be these kinds of role distinctions in the eschaton? Surely there will not be. Surely there will not be slavery in the kingdom. Isn't this idea one of the main points of the fact that women do not marry in the kingdom (Mark 12:18-23)? Isn't one of the assumptions of this passage that marriage involves the subordination of women to men, something that does not happen in the kingdom? Indeed, it is not clear at all to me that for Paul resurrection bodies even make gender distinctions.

But Gary is correct. Paul himself did not fully carry out the eschatological point in terms of social roles in this world. Indeed, I think Gary is copping out when he says that Paul so much as tells Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom from slavery. Slavery and female subordination as roles are not sticking points for Paul--they are elements of a world he believes will soon be radically changed (1 Cor. 7:29-31). The important thing is to be spreading the gospel, not changing social roles: "don't let it trouble you" (7:21). And I think it likely that Paul put the brakes on with the Corinthians when they started to play out some of these things in a way that caused disruption in the Corinthian community.

The question Thompson and myself are asking is whether a world in which women can take roles of leadership in the church and home (Gary allows for it in the church) is a world closer to the kingdom than one in which they must be subordinate to their husbands regardless of their respective giftedness. These are matters of my third post. But I consider it a matter for Christian celebration. Praise God! Our sons and daughters prophesy! The kingdom's a comin'. It won't be long now.

The second critique I want to address briefly here is whether there is significance to the wording "not male and female." I have followed those who think this wording may allude to Genesis 1:27 where God creates humanity "male and female."

I accept up front that we do not have enough evidence to conclude this idea with certainty, so I am not suggesting the point is beyond doubt. However, I don't think it is "too broad and sweeping an assertion on the basis of such small and irrelevant evidence."

1. There is a shift in grammar here: "neither/nor..., neither/nor..., not male and female." Perhaps there is no significance to the shift. But it is not unreasonable to suggest there is. On balance, the shift would more likely indicate significance than not.

2. Paul is speaking in reference to incorporation in Christ at baptism (Gal. 3:27). Is this context really that much different from 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 where Paul says that "if anyone is in Christ, there is new creation"? Is it really far-fetched to suggest that Paul would see a parallel between the first creation of humanity and the new creation that takes place when one is incorporated in Christ, the one "through whom are all things" (1 Cor. 8:6)?

3. I suppose the irrelevant evidence Gary means are Jewish traditions that saw the human of Genesis 1:27 as neither male nor female. Perhaps this evidence is irrelevant. But a cumulative case can be made on the basis of things like Paul's psychichos/pneumatikos distinctions in 1 Corinthians that Paul was in dialog with some of these traditions. It is plausible, although ultimately unprovable. But that does not mean it is disproved either. I believe a strong case can be made that certain early Christians interacted with "Alexandrian" traditions in their wrestling with the truths of the new age (e.g., Col. 1:15; 2:17).

Ultimately, the uncertainty of an allusion to Genesis 1:27 does not make Gary's non-allusion thereby more likely in itself.

I also disagree with Gary's sentiment that "there is no clear teaching elsewhere in Scripture to support such a position." I am arguing that Paul, in a somewhat poetic statement that he may not even have created, speaks hyperbolically of the undoing of gender distinctions in women becoming sons of God. Doesn't the fact that he calls them "sons" point in this direction? I believe he certainly means it hyperbolically in relation to this current world. But I'm not sure at all but that Paul understands it far more literally with regard to the future kingdom. It is an eschatological statement that relates to who men and women are in terms of their true identity today and who they may fully be in the eschaton.

I see nothing fallacious or improbable about this interpretation.



Relativizing the Text

Gary identified four errors with the thought of my booklet on women in ministry:

1. Failing to interpret Galatians 3:28 in its immediate context.
2. Failing to interpret it in the light of the broader Pauline context.
3. Drawing sweeping conclusions from very small data.
4. Relativizing clear NT teaching as merely first century culture.

I partially addressed 1, 2, and 3 in my previous post. With regard to number 3, connecting the wording of Galatians 3:28 with Genesis 1:27, I made my position clear. I think it is a plausible and arguable connection but admittedly without sufficient evidence to conclude beyond doubt. But I suggested that it is at least as likely as a reading that sees no connection between the two.

With regard to the broader Pauline context, I indicated that Gary had actually misunderstood my position somewhat. I do not believe that Paul applied Galatians 3:28 toward some abolition of existing social structures. However, I do strongly affirm that sonship for Paul had a strong eschatological element. By seeing no distinction between male and female in terms of being a part of the kingdom, Paul sets up certain principles that are very relevant to the social structures of this world, even if Paul did not apply them fully to his world. These are hermeneutical issues well beyond questions of Paul's original meaning, and I will address them in my final post.

That leaves this post to discuss the charge of relativizing the text. Here I want to turn a weakness into a strength--I think that the entire Bible was relevant to its world and that the overwhelming majority of its meaning was originally understood relative to that world. Even prophecies were almost always (in their "near" meaning) relative to current circumstances. In that sense, every word of the Bible in its original meaning was relative to its world. In terms of original meaning, scarcely a word of the Bible was written to anyone alive today (to press the paradigmatic nature of our reading of Scripture, even John 17:20 likely referred originally to the Johannine community that the Gospel of John addressed).

But, when I say these things, I am not saying it is irrelevant to us! Not at all! Both in its original meaning and as the living Word, the Bible is for us and speaks to us. We have two choices. First, we can discern its meaning for us indirectly, by reading its words in context and applying them to today with integrity by taking the differences between our worlds genuinely into account. Or we can apply them directly to ourselves today by taking them out of context as the Spirit or the Church has and continues to dictate. I have thought about these issues for over a decade and cannot see any other valid option outside these two.

One of my main critiques of modernist evangelicalism is that it is intelligent and informed enough to realize that the Bible was written two thousand years ago and in quite different historical and social consequences. Yet it is still pre-modern enough to want to apply the words directly to today. The classic pre-modernist reads the words of the Bible out of context and applies the meaning directly to today. The classic modernist evangelical is incoherent in that he (and I use the masculine pronoun with a smile) knows in principle how to read the words of the Bible in context, but still wants to apply the words directly to today.

The after-modernist evangelical makes the distinction and considers both paths potentially valid, although separate ways of applying the text: 1) the original meaning as God's word to varied ancient situations within their paradigms and worldviews--thus indirectly applicable to us as we connect the worlds; 2) out of context readings of these words as the Spirit or the Church applies them. These latter readings need not be vastly out of sync with the original ones, but they can be. I'm getting ahead of myself. I will provide the reasoning in the next post for why these options are the only valid ones.

Now back to my "patent non-sense." The women in ministry book points out that Aristotle, some four hundred years before Paul, held that the husband was the head of the wife. I claimed that Paul was "talking like any non-Christian" when he said that the husband was the head of the wife. Let me put it more academically: there was nothing uniquely Christian in Paul's world to claim that a husband should be the head of his wife. Since Aristotle says this--husband...head...of wife--I don't see how this point is debatable. Paul says nothing uniquely Christian in the claim itself that the husband is the head of the wife.

But Gary takes this comment to a different place with a slight jump in logic. He presumes that I am claiming that Paul is saying something non-Christian. Of course this is a jump in logic that is not a fair representation of what I said. To say that Paul is not saying something uniquely Christian is not to say that he is saying something unChristian.

I would agree with what he is thinking, namely, that Paul's spin on this common idea is "thoroughly Christian." Ephesians presents the relationship against the backdrop of Christ's relationship with the church. That's a massive upgrade to Aristotle!

But it doesn't change the fact that Paul did not come up with the basic relational structure. Would Gary suggest that God had therefore made clear to the ancient world and humanity throughout the ages--by natural revelation?--that husbands should be heads of wives? Would he claim that this is a truth intrinsic to the creation or directly revealed to Aristotle? The Greeks had the idea long before Paul. Did God reveal it completely independently to Paul, and it is just a coincidence that this was commonly said in the ancient world? If you'd have told Paul that Aristotle had said this years before he'd respond: "Wow, imagine that. God just revealed that to me too and I had no idea"?

Or would Gary say that God started with where Paul was at in his ancient context and sanctified that paradigm with specific Christian content? That is, of course, what I am saying, and it seems to me the only sensical conclusion. God took an idea Paul had from his world--that husbands are normally the heads of their wives--and steered this understanding in a specifically Christian direction.

But this raises the question--is the headship of the husband part of the incarnated revelation or the clothing in which the revelation comes (Gary used the word incarnational in his presentations, but I imagine he would be hesitant to apply it in this way). In my next post, I will show that we cannot reject the question. Like it or not, God revealed the truth of the Bible through the paradigms and worldviews of the original authors. This forces the question on us when we begin to reflect maturely on matters of hermeneutics.

By the way, I want to clarify that I really believe in common sense leadership in the home of today. If the husband is more gifted at a particular point in time on a particular issue to take leadership, by all means let him lead. If on another occasion the woman is more gifted on a particular issue, it at least seems stupid not to let her lead. God is not stupid. There is perhaps a time when we say, "It doesn't make sense, so it must just be a test of our obedience." I'm not convinced at all that this is such a time.

If a woman has a pilot's license, the pilot of our little plane has gone into a coma, I have no piloting experience whatsoever, and the plane's going to crash... should I say, "Step aside, ma'am. I'll handle this because I have male genitalia." That's how stupid we Christians appear sometimes. I personally believe that if the Dobsonians are right on the headship issue, then this is an issue requiring Kierkegaardian blind faith, because it is irrational. I believe it is unchristlike and unspiritual.

Further, I would argue that even Paul's world had room for what I would call the "deviant woman." Even Aristotle acknowledges that there are occasionally women who are unnaturally suited to command. The command for the husband to head the home in Aristotle's mind was based on the premise that men are simply the naturally gifted ones to lead and women aren't.

Similarly, I believe the absolutist position of so many conservative Christians today--a woman can never head the home--is a misinterpretation of the original scope of Paul's comments even in their original meaning. I have little serious doubt but that Paul understood the phrase "the husband is the head of the wife" to apply to most homes. But there was always room for the "deviant" like Deborah or Huldah, etc...

Gary does raise a very important question: "who gives me the privilege of identifying part of its [the Bible's] teaching as non-Christian." I reject the non-Christian part of this question. I believe Paul's comments were fully Christian for his context. Let me reword the question: "On what authority might we say that a portion of Scripture was appropriate for "that time," but not God's perfect will for "our time." This is an incredibly important question!! In anticipation, note that I've changed the question from the typically modernist Protestant "I" to the more appropriate "we."



Talking Hermeneutics

Let me start this third and final post by affirming Gary's first three presentations at OWU as intelligent and informed attempts to grapple with the nature and function of Scripture from a largely modernist evangelical perspective. His position is not a stereotypical straw man but is a real position. He acknowledges the incarnational nature of biblical revelation.

He accepts that there are matters to be solved with the traditional affirmation of inerrancy and at least seems to affirm considerations such as 1) the careful definition of exactly what is and is not an error and 2) making distinctions between exactly what the point of a given passage is or is not. He theoretically factors into the equation matters like ancient worldview and expressions not meant to be taken scientifically (e.g., sunrise and sunset). He even allows for interpreting the OT in the light of Christ to some extent and affirms the Christian order of the OT vis-a-vis the Jewish way (thus incidentally favoring the church's order for the books over and against the way they were categorized in Christ's day!!! see Luke 24:44).

At the same time, Gary is extremely conservative in his exercise of these allowances. For example, he stops short of accepting the Septuagint as the Scriptural OT, even though it is the text used by the majority of NT authors (and one of his arguments is that Jesus used it! He thus ironically gives the historical Jesus precedent over the Scriptural text!). He would reject any use of genre to allow for significantly lessened historicity (e.g., in the gospels or Acts). He would reject a combination of sources or process of book development that would result in too much deviation from a "what you see is what you get" behind any biblical text (e.g., the standard Pentateuch or Isaiah development theories). He would reject pseudonymity in the Bible. He also argues strongly that inerrancy has always been part and parcel of the holiness tradition.

As I think about Gary's argument, I can't help but think of Thomas Kuhn and scientific revolutions. Every paradigm has "naughty data" that does not fit as easily with the paradigm. Normal science can spend a good deal of its time trying to modify and "complexify" the basic paradigm to accommodate the dominant paradigm. I see Gary's work as largely reactionary, attempts to plug holes in a leaky ship. His plugins are good, I think. In fact, I think they are so good that they might make a mighty good starting point for a new dominant paradigm.

Those of you who've heard me blather on about hermeneutics will have some sense of what that new paradigm might be. And if I might co-opt a Scripture verse... "which is not a new paradigm, but the paradigm you had from the beginning." Gary seems to be arguing that inerrancy has always been a part of the holiness tradition. I would present Gary's argument in the following way. The holiness tradition has always affirmed the accuracy of the biblical witness, particularly in the face of challenges from Deist, modernist, or naturalist circles. The [traditional] idea of inerrancy is thus in complete harmony with the holiness tradition.

At the same time, he implicitly acknowledges in his comments that it did not appear in the Wesleyan Methodist polity until 1955. He does not mention the Pilgrim Holiness Church, the other half, which did not have this term in its polity. He also implicitly acknowledges that the actual term rose within fundamentalism in response to the challenges of biblical criticism in the latter part of the 19th century. He also implicitly acknowledges (citing none other than our own Steve Lennox) that many late 1800's holiness individuals sought escape from these rational challenges in an experiential focus on the Spirit and entire sanctification.

OK, now I have all the ingredients on the table. Let's cook.

I would argue that there is a slight of hand at work in Gary's presentation in which the word inerrancy takes on slightly different nuances. One the one hand, he is clearly operating primarily with a definition of inerrancy that affirms the historicity of the Bible in the face of questions raised by biblical criticism. He acknowledges that the real rise of this fundmentalist term was after the late 1800's. He acknowledges that most of the late 1800's holiness authors resorted to experientialism rather than intellectualism in reaction. And he acknowledges that the term did not become a part of the Wesleyan tradition until the 1950's, and then only in half of it (not the Pilgrim side).

So I would put the story this way. What we are looking at here is the tension that has arisen as the modern era has thrust a sense of "original meaning" on us. Most Christians throughout the ages, indeed most Christians today, read the Bible primarily in a pre-modern way. The text is read as God's word to us and historical features of the text are only engaged with to flesh out application for us. Hans Frei has argued profoundly that without the rise of modernism, people not only assume the historicity of the text--but the possibility that the stories did not occur doesn't even occur to them. They see themselves as part of the story and the potential distinction between story and history is not made.

Modernism has raised questions of historicity and scientific accuracy about the text. Those who engage with it are changed simply by the raising of the question--the distinction between story and history is made even when a person is defending historicity. And it is true that the Wesleyan tradition, to the extent that it has engaged with such things, has generally taken the fundamentalist side of the argument when the distinction has been made.

But I think Gary implicitly acknowledges that those who have done so have stood on the perpiphery of the holiness movement. The holiness movement itself (and we must remember that it is more the holiness movement than John Wesley that is the forebear of the current Wesleyan church) has historically been more experientially oriented than rationally oriented. We have always had individuals like Gary who were heavily rationalist in orientation. But the bulk of Wesleyans--the people who do most of the living and dying around here--have always been pietists. And they have always been pre-moderns--and thus pre the inerrancy debate in its proper terms. In its history, most Wesleyans have not even engaged the question of whether the Bible is historical. It has not been a part of their engagement with Scripture.

Modernist evangelicalism stands incoherently between two Scriptural paradigms. On the one hand, it recognizes that the original audience of 1 Thessalonians were ancient Thessalonians and not some modern reader. It recognizes that the meaning of a martyros is not a martyr, what the word suggests to us, but a witness, what the word meant to them. It understands that when Psalm 74:13 speaks of God breaking the heads of dragons (KJV, RSV) it was alluding to a mythical creation story of the ancient near east.

Well, that last one will set off the "circuit breakers" of many modernist evangelicals. It's a little too close for comfort. Like Gary, modernist evangelicalism will only "read in context" so far, then it falls back on its pre-modern heritage. To be fair to Gary, he really does try to listen to the text even when it makes him uncomfortable. He even acknowledges in a footnote that Jude may actually have thought 1 Enoch to be Scripture. And I should clarify that I think Psalm 74 is only using the image of the mythical creation stories, not that the author actually believed them (my circuit breakers?).

The pre-modern paradigm is the other Scriptural paradigm. The pre-modern paradigm reads the text as a direct word from God to us. Forget the Thessalonians, or more accurately, the Thessalonians don't even occur to us because we read the words as God's word to us without a second thought. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:10--"Is it for oxen that God is concerned [when he says not to muzzle the ox when its treading the grain] or it is written for our sake." The other option largely doesn't occur to the pre-modernist--Scripture is for us and was written for our sake! Without even thinking about it, we assume that the Bible was written for us rather than the oxen (the original addressees). Check out any prophecy program on TBN for confirmation.

Of course in practice most people read the words of the Bible somewhere on a continuum between the two. Most Bible readers today will have a good deal of awareness of the ancient world. People like Gary and (I hope) myself have quite a large awareness of the ancient context in which the Bible was created. And yet, at the same time, we are all unaware of our glasses and assumptions, blind spots that make the way we read the Bible different from the way they did.

The new paradigm I am suggesting, one that I think is emerging, affirms both ways of reading the text while keeping them distinct.

We can read the original meaning of the Bible as God's word to them, and let the text be fully incarnated into their paradigms and worldviews. Yet we can acknowledge that the Bible as Scripture, as God's word to us, has always taken the words a little out of context in the sense that the pre-modern hermeneutic--and now post-modern because we are doing it consciously--applies the words to us out of context.

I believe that if we are honest with ourselves, we have always read the Bible with certain rules behind the scenes, what I just called "circuit breakers." When we read 1 Peter 3:19-20 about Christ preaching in the Spirit after he died to the spirits of those who sinned in the days of Noah, we immediately sense that this verse is "weird." It doesn't fit our paradigm. Many a modernist scholar will begin to play dodge ball. No, it can't allude to the story in 1 Enoch of angels having sex with human women and being chained until the day of judgment in consequence.

My point is that pre-modern believers and modernist evangelicals both have circuit breakers in terms of what they will or won't let the biblical text actually mean. Much of the time, these circuit breakers are related to orthodoxy and tradition. I fully affirm this orthodoxy, as well as orthopraxy. I am arguing that these are the appropriate circuit breakers when it comes to applying the Bible to what we believe or do.

But not for determining what the original meaning was! What I don't affirm is twisting the original meaning of the Bible to make it fit with this orthodoxy. I see that as setting yourself up for a crisis of faith the more you learn and ponder. Let the original meaning be the original meaning, truth incarnated in a particular time and place. Let Genesis 1:1 picture a pre-creation chaotic formless mess of primordial waters, cause that's what everyone else in the world thought until at least the 1st century BC (cf. 2 Peter 3:5). But then let's read the text Scripturally as well with the consensus of the church in mind. In that sense it wouldn't matter if Paul did not fully understand Christ's pre-existence (although most scholars think he did), because the issue was fully settled in the church.

In that sense we begin every discussion with the Bible. But as I have written previously, it cannot end there because the Bible itself has not reached a final answer on many very important issues (e.g., the relationship between Christ as Son of God and God the Father; the creation of the world--is it out of nothing; is Christ's death the end of the sacrificial system, as Hebrews indicates, but surely James in Acts 21 might question).

With regard to women in ministry, the booklet was not meant to be an academic piece. It was a sermon. I consider the movement to affirm women in every way as a prophetic movement in the church much as the Protestant Reformation was. It is the cutting edge of the Spirit in the world today. It is the working out of the gospel in the church (this aspect of the gospel has actually worked itself out partially in the world before the church, much to our shame). Those who oppose it will be shamed by the Christians of coming generations, much as we now look at the "fundamentalists" of the 1800's who argued pro-slavery. Those who argue for artificial roles for women because of their anatomy are the heirs of those who used the Bible a 100 years ago to argue for slavery as a biblical institution.

Gary himself is pro-women in ministry, so I consider him a person of the Spirit on this issue. I just think his head is getting in the way as he tries to work "what the Spirit inside him is saying" through his own paradigms and worldview. I do consider it a rather large failure of judgment on his part to use this booklet as the "whipping boy" of his hermeneutical argument on a campus that I hear already leans against women in all roles of ministry. I wonder if he left the campus feeling, "Yep, women in ministry is wrong"--even though that's not what he said.


So let the discussion continue...

I believe we know where God is leading the process (for I am far from alone--we are a growing movement in the church). Although I do not at all believe we are wrong on the issue, I believe strongly that God will get the church where it needs to go. I don't think for one minute that our misunderstandings will somehow foil God's plans! God is in control.