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Postconservatism: Defining the Label, Evaluating the Movement (Pt. 2 of 2)

This post is part of a two-part series.  You may wish to read the first post before proceeding!

A few concluding thoughts about postconservatism in light of Roger Olson‘s book Reformed and Always Reforming:

First, I think Olson is right to want a term to describe those who have become less theologically conservative while still identifying themselves as evangelical.  There are “postevangelicals,” too, which may hold some of the same theological positions (as well as some differing ones), but it’s good for us to recognize both those who stop using the evangelical label and those who retain it.

Secondly, Olson admits that some of the people he identifies as postconservative (e.g. Nancey Murphy, Stanley Grenz, etc.) have not been big fans of the label.  This is interesting to me because I know it was also the case with Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy.  Well, just as we tend to insist on calling Barth neo-orthodox against his will, I do think there’s some usefulness in using postconservative to describe those who fit our own definitions and understandings of what the word means.

But I think it order to become a more cohesive movement we would need to see more people choosing to identify themselves as postconservative.  This may mean less in academic circles since those Olson would call postconservative often interact with each other’s work a great deal, are real-life friends and colleagues, etc.  They will continue these same relationships regardless of what they’re calling themselves.  However, I wonder the lack of agreement on how to self-identify inhibits postconservatism’s ability to become something that lay people can also understand and identify with.

Thirdly, I think it’s interesting to think about the ways in which postconservatives have been influenced not only by their fundamentalist and neo-evangelical forebearers but also by movements such as neo-orthodoxy and postliberalism.  Are postconservative evangelicals really doing much new or are they merely the evangelicals willing to learn from others?  Regardless, I think they have unique opportunities to speak to other evangelicals.

Fourthly, I think postconservative is perhaps most useful when used to identify scholars more than theological opinions themselves, despite the fact that Olson’s book is focused on the postconservative style of doing theology.  If you talk about theology, there is the question of why we need to say “postconservative” as opposed to simply identifying theology as more “moderate,” “progressive,” or “liberal.”  (Although, admittedly, liberalism and conservative evangelicalism have both been more modern in approach than postconservatism, so a more postmodern/postfoundationalist scholar might want to avoid this spectrum for this reason alone, I suppose.)

There is also, as Nancey Murphy points out (according to Olson), the issues of conservatism being a relative term to begin with.  Anyone wanting to retain what they are handed from the previous generation of postconservative scholars is, in a sense, conservative—although since we would never label a liberal who wanted to continue the liberal tradition as being “conservative,” I think this argument is of questionable relevance.  Even if “conservative” technically implies conserving traditional views, we use it in everyday speech to create a left-right spectrum.

The sense in which “postconservative” seems to always work well, however, is to describe the paths of individual theologians.  If someone comes from a more conservative background but has moved leftward to a certain degree without completely repudiating their roots, it makes sense to use “postconservative” to describe who they are and where they come from.  Of course, if we were to really see a boom of denominations and organizations influenced by postconservatism, what would those who grew up and then remained in this tradition call themselves?  I guess we can answer that when we get there.

Fifthly, in terms of critiquing the book itself, I have two primary complaints.  I did find myself mildly irked that Olson seemed to see postconservatism as coming out of Arminianism more than the Reformed tradition (especially since neo-orthodoxy has been such an influence on many postconservative scholars).  I’m not certain if this is true in terms of where most scholars are actually coming from, but I don’t think it’s a necessary aspect of the journey which leads one to become postconservative.  The book also seems to mention open theism a whole lot, and while it may be a good example of an issue some postconservatives have been willing to reconsider, I don’t think it’s the defining issue by any means—something Olson admits, too, and yet he still seems to focus on it a disproportionate amount.

Similarly, I thought it was curious that more attention was not given to the issue of inerrancy.  A significant part of my own definition of what it means to be postconservative is an abandonment of the doctrine of inerrancy.  Perhaps this merely flows out of the postfoundationalism which Olson mentions, but I thought it would have been worth mentioning in its own right.

Lastly, I want to express that even if several handfuls of postconservative evangelical scholars exist, it doesn’t mean they are welcome at many evangelical institutions (ex: Wheaton, where one has to be an inerrantist and believe in a historical Adam) or in the Evangelical Theological Society (also inerrantist).  And finding a theological home can be even more frustrating when you’re not a professor.  For that reason, I hope that postconservatism (along with postliberalism) matures into something beyond the reaches of the academy, creating space for thoughtful and faithful theological engagement in our pews, as well.

Postconservatism: Defining the Label, Evaluating the Movement (Pt. 1 of 2)

I recently read Roger Olson‘s book Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), mostly because I wanted to hear how someone else was describing postconservative theology.  For a while I’ve had an interest in exploring the outskirts of evangelical theology, and postconservatism is one of the movements with which I feel some level of identification.  Olson identifies six characteristics of postconservative evangelical theology in his first chapter:

“First, postconservatives, like conservatives, presuppose revelation, but they consider its main purpose to be transformation more than information” (53).

Similarly, Olson discusses a focus on the Bible as narrative over propositions.  I appreciated the narrative vs. propositions emphasis more than the transformation vs. information emphasis.  Olson discussed Vanhoozer’s “dramatic approach” to revelation, which is based on speech act theory but otherwise doesn’t sound entirely dissimilar from Wright’s “a troupe of Shakespearean actors making up the fifth act to a long-lost play of Shakespeare’s of which we have only recovered the first four acts” idea.  I’m sure there are important distinctions, but not having read Vanhoozer, I don’t yet know what I’m missing.  Anyway, I agree with the idea that the Bible can’t be treated as a systematic theology textbook.  But I’m not certain I like the “transformation” vs. “information” distinction.  Isn’t information (about God, about God’s work, about ourselves, etc.) what transforms us?  If we didn’t know who Jesus is, how could we be transformed?  I worry about a focus on experience that neglects the intellect, and I’m not certain postconservative theology must prefer experience in this manner.

“A second common characteristic of the postconservative style of evangelical theology is a certain vision of what theology is all about.  For postconservatives theology is a pilgrimage and a journey rather than a discovery and a conquest.  Also, for them the constructive task of theology is always open; there are no closed, once and for all systems of theology” (55).

I agree in large part with this point.  Postconservatives exist only because they have been willing to venture beyond the bounds of conservative evangelical theology, questioning what has not previously been questioned.  I am not certain, however, if this is a characteristic of postconservative theology as much as a characteristic of the individual theologians who have moved in postconservative directions.  I think postconservatives have been willing to change their minds in order to preserve academic integrity and avoid cognitive dissonance more than they have specifically been seeking to move new theological places.  And once they arrive in certain new theological places, they are often unwilling to leave.  For example, how many postconservatives who have abandoned inerrancy would be willing to reconsider that issue?  How many people who have ceased to believe in a historical Adam will one day decide Genesis 1-11 should be taken literally after all?  Postconservatives may be willing to explore new theological possibilities, but they also form new commitments along the way.

“A third characteristic of postconservative theological work is a discomfort and dissatisfaction with the reliance of conservative evangelical theology on Enlightenment and modern modes of thought” (57).

I think this is a very important part of what it means to be postconservative.  Olson talks a great deal about postfoundationalism, critical realism, McIntyre, etc.  It was practically like sitting in on Nancey Murphy’s class again (fond memories!).  It is being postfoundationalist which allows postconservative theology to cease committing bibliolatry, using presupppositional apologetics, etc.

“A fourth common characteristic of the style of evangelical theology called postconservative is its vision of evangelicalism itself…  Postconservatives view evangelicalism as a centered set category rather than a set having boundaries” (59).

I  think this is simply necessary for anyone who wants to continue using the evangelical label after becoming postconservative.  If evangelicalism has rigid boundaries or if the Evangelical Theological Society determines who is in and out, then most postconservatives can no longer be called evangelical.  But if evangelicalism is a centered set with fuzzy boundaries, then people can continue to use the evangelical label (because they want to change its connotations or because they feel it’s important to honor their roots or whatever reason might apply) even as they move past what some more narrow-minded folks might call “evangelicalism.”  Considering evangelicalism a centered set is legitimate—and maybe even best—but it is admittedly self-serving for postconservatives who still want to think of themselves as evangelical.

“A fifth common feature of postconservative evangelical theology is a tendency to view the enduring essence of Christianity, and therefore the core identity of evangelical faith, as spiritual experience rather than as doctrinal belief” (61).

This is the idea of Olson’s about which I am most skeptical.  Isn’t the point of theology to define what we believe?  I would say spiritual experience is important to consider someone’s faith genuine, but an experience with God is not automatically Christianity.  Similarly, Christianity cannot be Christianity without some theological basis.  I would prioritize theology but say that theology truly internalized produces fruit in terms of experience and action.

As for “the core of evangelical faith,” it doesn’t even make sense for this to be defined as “spiritual experience” because this—at least without clarification as to the kind of spiritual experience—seems to say that being evangelical and a “real” Christian are synonymous, which is preposterous.  It seems here that Olson’s definitions of evangelicalism are rather messy.  Yes, maybe evangelicalism should be a centered set, but there is a point at which some Christians are not close enough to that center to be called evangelicals.  It doesn’t mean they haven’t had any spiritual experiences or that they’re not real Christians, but they don’t deserve the evangelical label for either theological or sociological reasons.

“A sixth common feature of postconservative evangelical theology is a tendency to hold relatively lightly to tradition while respecting the Great Tradition of Christian belief” (63).

In some ways this is merely another way of stating that nothing is set in stone and that postconservatives are willing to change their minds about things.  I worry a bit about a deemphasis of tradition and wonder if there must be firm lines between paleo-orthodoxy and postconservativism as Olson implies.  Unfortunately, I think a more thorough exploration of postconservative and paleo-orthodox evangelical theologians is necessary before I can answer that question.

Want to continue reading?  Go on to Pt. 2!


Unlocking Romans Chapter 1

Kurt Vonnegut once gave eight rules for writing short stories. Number Eight states: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” While Daniel Kirk is clearly not writing a short story, his opening chapter, like all well-written academic books, does a good job of letting the reader know where he is going. The reference to Vonnegut is not entirely inappropriate, though, because Kirk is decidedly concerned with telling a story. He’s not, however, telling a story in the conventional sense with the creation of characters and plot. Instead, Kirk is telling us a story by telling us how to be a good audience. It’s something akin to my experience reading Tolstoy’s short story “The Three Hermits.” The story is about an encounter between a church official and three hermits who live on an isolated island. The hermits being ignorant of liturgy, the church official teaches them the right way to pray making them repeat the Lord’s prayer again and again. He then departs, content that he has brought them into the fold. As the church official sails on, he suddenly is overtaken by three mystical figures shrouded in light and running upon the waters. They are the three hermits who have come to inform the official that they have forgotten the words of their prayer. When I first read the story, I read it in terms of a dichotomy that seemed important to me: organized religion vs. the Holy Spirit. It was a victory over stuffy religion. With greater knowledge of Tolstoy’s battles with the Russian Orthodox Church, the meaning of the story began to change. My prior reading wasn’t wrong per se, but it really failed to capture the force and intensity behind Tolstoy’s portrayal of official state sanctioned religion as foolish, devoid of power, and spiritually suffocating. Kirk offers us a hermeneutical key that doesn’t so much change the way the story is told, but begs us to alter how we listen. Some of the broad ideas of Romans are not in dispute: that Paul is concerned with Jew-Gentile relations, that he is trying to frame his argument in a way that is theologically consistent with the Jewish Scriptures, and that he is intimately concerned with the implications of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for the understanding of God. Less certain is how he gets there.

Daniel Kirk proposes that understanding Paul’s argument in Romans is quite simple: pay attention to Paul’s portrayal of God. He cautions the reader that whatever sort of God one expects to find in Romans will inevitably shape how one reads the letter. If we hold in our minds the God of the philosophers–the unmovable mover, the perfect and ineffable first cause–then we arrive at a reading of Romans that fails to hear Paul. Instead, Kirk proposes that Paul consistently and necessarily focuses his letter on the God of Israel. It is this God whose character is challenged by the curious fact that  his people simultaneously continue to be in bondage to pagan rulers and reject Jesus as the Son of God. As the demographics in the church shift, Paul must account not only for the rejection of the Jewish people but for the acceptance of the Gentiles. The trouble for Paul is that he is simultaneously the ambassador to the Gentiles and the representative of a God whose identity is marked by his particularity. How does an apostle navigate the disjunction between a God whose character is revealed by his patronage of Israel and his calling to a group that has historically been excluded from that group? Kirk promises to guide us through a reading of Romans–to tell us where to listen up–that will solve Paul’s dilemma, make sense of the peculiarities of the text, and, most important of all, lead us away from outmoded ways of hearing Romans. In short, he promises to show how Romans is a theodicy of sorts. Whether he will keep his word remains to be seen.

Feminism, Parenting, and Writing Your Own Story

We are not dead.  We are just moving across the country.  I’m so sorry we have sucked at blogging.  Here’s a blog post I wrote a few weeks ago for just this occasion—when I felt bad for not posting but didn’t have the time to write something new!

As I mentioned recently, engagement was a turning point for me as a feminist: I realized in a new way that I couldn’t escape sexism, and I had to consider what it meant for me to be a feminist and a bride, a feminist and a wife.  This experience, I must admit, left me a little paranoid about my future.  I hadn’t “felt” my gender in this way in a while, and I started to imagine that various frustrations I encountered as an engaged woman were only the beginning of a much more traumatizing period of life.  If being a bride was tough on me as a feminist, wouldn’t all of the annoying assumptions that come with “mommyhood” culture be even worse?

Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself by Amy RichardsAs a preemptive strike against what troubles may come, I was excited to get my hands on a copy of a feminist book about having a baby called Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself.  It was recommended to me by a fellow Fuller graduate who served as the All-Seminary Council VP for Women & Gender the year before I did, and I really thoroughly enjoyed the book.  I don’t care to simply summarize it, and I’m not really in the mood to analyze it either.  (Though perhaps I will dedicate some future posts to some of the issues it raises.)  I did, however, want to post one of the sections that meant the most to me:

With motherhood, it’s easy to lose your perspective and confidence, and to believe there is one lived experience for every “good” mother.  My big post-pregnancy fear was that I would no longer feel or be considered sexual.  I had been convinced that women don’t have time for sex after children, and even if they do, men don’t find them attractive after they’ve watched a baby come out of them.  I also assumed that I would lose all connection with the outside world.  A month before I was due to give birth the first time, I stocked up on household supplies—toothpaste, contact lens solution, ink cartidges—convinced that I would hunker down for a long and lonely few months.  I was shocked that, after being home from the hospital for only a day, I was out for a walk, out for a beer, able to read the newspaper.  I had overprepared, but more than that, I had overidentified with other women’s experiences.  This is what other women had told me, and I assumed that one woman’s experience was every woman’s experience.  I extrapolated from friends’ post-pregnancy lives and applied it to my own without considering elements that already made my situation uniquely mine: for instance, I work from home and have a partner who works fewer and more flexible hours than I do.

The common retort “Just wait until you are a mother” explains some of how I came to this perception.  Parents offer opinions based on their lived experience, which is invaluable, but what they may also be expressing is the belief that no one can do or experience what they didn’t.  If parents put certain things in the realm of impossibility—combining work and family, traveling, taking your kids to restaurants—then their choices may narrow yours.  Sharing your own experience can be helpful, but it can also be alienating.  (p. 222-223)

I appreciated these words immensely because several of her fears echo mine: kids supposedly demolish your sex life (women’s more than men’s somehow?  not even sure how that works…), isolate you from the “real world,” and transform your relationship into something from the 1950s.  Now, I’m pretty certain that my life doesn’t have to be like that, since the people saying many of these things aren’t necessarily even anything like me.  Some of these women didn’t care much for sex before babies, don’t work, and don’t have husbands committed to taking an equal share of childcare and housework—is it any wonder that they aren’t having any sex now, are stuck at home (where many of them are generally happy despite occasional feelings of isolation, I should note), or doing more baby-related things than their husbands?

Still, I struggle to not let their experiences color my imagination about the future.  Like Richards, I think I have a tendency to hear other women’s stories and think that they will inevitably be my own, which of course rather freaks me out, since I don’t want my life to go that way.  Of course, I have no way of knowing specifically how things will turn out for me—there is always a lot of unknown when you enter into a totally new experience of this sort—but it is comforting to know that Richards had very similar fears to mine and yet experienced things quite differently from many women she knows.  And it’s also always good to have some sense talked into you about why you’re letting someone else’s story determine your own to begin with.  The fact is everyone is different.  I know myself better than some of the people who might want to tell me what my life will be like, so while they may have had certain experiences I have not yet had, there is no telling whether I will experience these same things in a similar manner.

If anyone wants further ponder about feminism, pregnancy, motherhood, and how to feel comfortable making one’s own decisions in such realms, I highly recommend Opting In!  And if you’d like to think about feminism, engagement, and weddings, go back and read my on-going post series on that topic, as well as I Do, But I Don’t, which inspired it.

Did Clement, Bishop of Rome, Write or Quote from Hebrews?

I’m continuing to work through the fantastic Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction edited by Wilhelm Pratscher, and one of the truly fantastic parts of this book is that every chapter has a section on intertextuality. Besides being a generally fascinating subject, it is important for how we conceive of Christianity in the earliest of the early church. In the chapter on 1 Clement written by Andreas Lindemann, the relationship between 1 Clement and Hebrews is briefly explored:

The special similarity between 1Clem [sic] and Hebrews was recognized even in the early church. Eusebius writes (HEIII 38.1-3) that the fact that the author of 1Clem cites Hebrews means that Hebrews cannot be a “young” text; he also refers to the similarity of style and thought. Origen concluded from [i.e. according to] Eus VI 25.14 that people saw Clement of Rome (or even Luke) as the author of Hebrews. (pg. 59)

The section of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History Lindemann refers to is specifically dealing with what Origen has argued about the nature and authorship of the scriptures. It contains some interesting features like the claim of Matthean priority and the denial of the authenticity of 2 Peter. The section referred to above says:

11. In addition he makes the following statements in regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews in his Homilies upon it: “That the verbal style of the epistle entitled ‘To the Hebrews,’ is not rude like the language of the apostle, who acknowledged himself ‘rude in speech’ but that its diction is purer Greek, any one who has the power to discern differences of phraseology will acknowledge.
12. Moreover, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged apostolic writings, any one who carefully examines the apostolic text will admit.”
13. Farther on he adds: “If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s.
14. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it.” But let this suffice on these matters. (Schaff, Eus VI 25.11-14)

Lindemann continues:

To be sure, neither agreement by citation nor other references to the text allow for the assumption of a direct literary relationship. But the similarity of 1Clem 36.2-5 to Hebrews 1:3-5, 7, 13 is so great that the use of Hebrews by 1Clem must still be considered possible.

Placing the texts side by side the similarity is obvious.

1 Clement 36.2-5

Hebrews 1:3-5, 7, 13

2By Him we look up to the heights of heaven. By Him we behold, as in a glass, His immaculate and most excellent visage. By Him are the eyes of our hearts opened. By Him our foolish and darkened understanding blossoms up anew towards His marvelous light. By Him the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge, who, being the brightness of His majesty, is by so much greater than the angels, as He hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.3 For it is thus written, Who maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire.

4 But concerning His Son the Lord spoke thus: Thou art my Son, today have I begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession.

5 And again He saith to Him, Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool.

3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.  5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?

7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.”

13 But to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

Ante-Nicene Fathers


Lindemann notes some differences that detract from the idea of a close relationship between texts. Specifically, both 1 Clement and Hebrews use the language of “high priest” to describe Jesus, but they do so in divergent ways. Lindemann suggests that it is possible that the author of 1 Clement knew Hebrews 1, but not the rest of the letter. All in all, it is a rather complicated issue. There seems to be a clear relationship, but the extent of the relationship is anything but clear.

Those Liberal “Moderates”: Responding to Grudem on Evangelical Feminism & Heresy (Ch. 14-16)

The following continues a series of posts reading through Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?.  If you’re curious why I’m blogging on this, you can start at the first post in the series.  Or backtrack your way through the series by jumping to the previous post.

Ch. 14- “Calling” Trumps Scripture: Some evangelical feminists put a subjective sense of “calling” above the Bible
In this chapter Grudem complains about how women who think they have a calling will simply set aside the Bible in order to follow it.  My big problem with this chapter is how ridiculously misinformed Grudem seems to be about how evangelical women end up in ministry.  Yes, it’s virtually essential for them to have a strong sense of calling to walk the difficult path towards ordination.  However, it’s their very dedication to Scripture (and the default complementarian position most of them start with) which makes that sense of calling so essential—without it, they wouldn’t dare even consider going into ministry!  In my experience, women who do feel God’s call to be pastors are at first very reluctant to follow and do not do so until after they have spent a great deal of time in study and prayer.

Grudem is wrong to assume that their “call” leads them to ignore Scripture.  On the contrary, this call pushes them into Scripture and until they are 100% convinced that they have no heard God wrong, most evangelical women do not think of themselves as ministry material.  The ones who do enter ministry obviously come to different conclusions about the Bible than Grudem, but that does not mean he should be allowed to dismiss the ease with which many evangelical women ignore their callings for years, nor the seriousness with which these women eventually investigate gender issues in Scripture.

Ch. 15- “Prophecies” Trump Scripture: Some evangelical feminists put contemporary prophecies above the Bible
In this chapter Grudem—who, notably, does believe in prophecy and other charismatic gifts today—complains that some evangelicals say God has told them there are going to be more women in ministry.  Honestly, I have little to say about this chapter, because I’m generally skeptical towards prophecy.  Grudem is right that prophecy shouldn’t contradict what we know to be true.  Of course, he and I disagree on that starting point from which prophecies might be judged.  Altogether, then, this ends up being a pointless chapter.  All prophecy should avoid blatant contradictions of our theology, so the question is really, what would we be teaching about women in ministry to begin with?

Ch. 16- Circumstances Trump Scripture: Some evangelical feminists put unique circumstances above the Bible
This is another chapter where I feel Grudem largely misrepresents egalitarians.  While, yes, many of them argue that it is illogical to hold back half the church from ministry when there are so many needs in the world, they do not say that desperate circumstances themselves are what excuse women in ministry.  Instead, we believe women should be involved in ministry, regardless of the level of need out there.  We reject ideas like “God called a man to this position, but because the man said no and God really needs this done, he has now called a woman.”  We aren’t substitutes, nor are we responding to a second-class draft which God initiated because the enormity of the task before us requires more men than are available.  In this sense, we don’t even believe what Grudem claims we do.  He is right, however, that most of us think that God—not being an idiot—has no interest in immobilizing half of his workforce.

Those Liberal “Moderates”: Responding to Grudem on Evangelical Feminism & Heresy (Ch. 13)

The following continues a series of posts reading through Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?.  If you’re curious why I’m blogging on this, you can start at the first post in the series.  Or backtrack your way through the series by jumping to the previous post.

Ch. 13- Experience Trumps Scripture: Some evangelical feminists put experience above the Bible
This chapter was so exhausting I thought it deserved its own post.   Grudem splits the chapter into a few sections, so I will do so, as well.

A. How can God bless the ministries of some women?
Grudem says it is “because God’s word is powerful, and God brings blessing through his Word to those who hear it” (120), regardless of whether or not God likes the preacher.  He gives the example of Samson as someone whom God used despite not always doing things right.

B. The Danger of Loss of God’s Protection and Blessing
This section was crazy.  Seriously crazy.  Either Grudem is not as smart as his Harvard and Cambridge roots imply or he’s being deliberately manipulative.  He begins the section by asserting that “[i]f a woman goes on serving as an elder or pastor, I believe she is doing so outside the will of God, and she has no guarantee of God’s protection on her life” (121).  I’m not totally certain what he means by “protection” to begin with (since obviously bad things happen to good people all the time…), but he does offer a couple of examples of the chaos that might befall a female pastor:

First, there is the example of Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), founder of the Foursquare Church (a Pentecostal denomination) in the early 1900s.  She ended up divorced twice, “kidnapped” once (which looked like a runaway affair after the fact), and dead at 54 from an accidental drug overdose.  I didn’t know her personally, so I can’t know what really went on in her brief but dramatic life.  I admit, however, that her character sounds highly suspicious.  What that has to do with women in ministry as a general topic, however, I don’t know.

As if it couldn’t get any worse, Grudem offers an even more extreme example next: Judy Brown.  Judy Brown was an Assemblies of God pastor and former Bible college professor.  In 2004 she was convicted of “malicious wounding and burglary with the intent to commit murder.”  Basically, she had become involved with her neighbor’s wife, and she broke into the home to kill the husband.  Grudem loves this story for two reasons:

(1) Judy Brown had recently written an article published in the first edition of Discovering Biblical Equality, published by InterVarsity Press (when IVP found out what happened, the book was immediately re-released without Brown’s article).  As I have mentioned, Grudem loves to point out that IVP is so egalitarian-friendly.

(2) Judy Brown specifically had a “lesbian relationship” (122).  Since he has a later chapter dedicated to explaining how evangelical feminism ultimately leads to homosexuality, I’m sure Grudem was delighted to tell this woman’s story.

And Grudem attributes none of this to mental illness.  To him, she’s just another great example of the depravity of the “evangelical feminists.”  He says that if she had only taught women, he expects she wouldn’t have had God’s blessing removed from her life and wouldn’t have “tragically lost the ability to make wise judgments” (123).

Some may object to my bringing up the examples of these women, and say, “But what about the hundreds of male pastors who have committed great sins, bringing reproach on themselves and their churches?  Why pick on these two women when many more men have sinned just as badly?

I agree that many male pastors have also fallen into very serious sin.  And I do not doubt that in many of those cases God also withdrew his protection and blessing from them.  But in their cases the reason cannot be that the Bible forbids men to become pastors!  Surely nobody would argue that!  [He goes on...]

But with these women pastors, the most obvious, evident sin is that of disobeying God’s directions that a woman should not “teach or . . . exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12).  And that is why I believe there is a connection between women being ordained and exercising leadership as pastors and tragic results in their personal lives. (123-124)

I’ve never seen such terribly circular logic in my life.

C. What does historical “experience” really demonstrate about women’s ministries?
Grudem also enjoys pointing out the declines in membership and financial support within mainline Protestantism.  Apparently we are to measure ministry faithfulness by ministry “success” and ministry success by numbers of people and dollar bills.

D. We cannot immediately see all the consequences of women being pastors
(1) “Many of the most conservative, faithful, Bible-believing members of the church will leave” (126).
(2) Other members will disagree but stay and will have their confidence in Scripture eroded over time because they think the leaders are encouraging disobedience.
(3) Those who accept women in ministry will become theologically liberal.
(4) Churches will become “feminized.”  (I swear, if I have to hear someone bitch about this one more time…)
(5) Men will also lose their positions of authority at home.
(6) Children will grow up gender-confused.

E. Putting experience above the Bible is a form of “situation ethics” and is also the foundational principle of modern liberalism
Grudem refers to Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1966), explaining that “[h]e argued that people at times needed to break God’s moral laws in the Bible in order to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people” (128).  The last time I checked that was utilitarianism.  So, Grudem, let’s talk about Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.  Maybe you like Kant better?  Look, if we’re going to talk ethics, let’s do so the right way and actually talk ethics.  I personally think Kant makes a lot more sense if we’re going to talk about philosophers egalitarians might like, so I have no idea why we are having this discussion about Fletcher.

All in all, this chapter was even more extreme than I could have expected from Grudem.  Even if I’ve made you want to read it for yourself (just to see if it could really be this bad), I will not be held responsible for any concussions from banging your head against the wall.

Feminist Fiancées and Nontraditional Weddings (Pt. 3): Rings

This post continues a series about feminism, engagement, and wedding planning.  If you’re curious why I’m blogging on this, you can start at the first post in the series.  Or backtrack your way through the series by jumping to the previous post.

engagement ringAs happy as I was to be engaged, I dreaded what I knew was coming next: “Let me see the ring!”  It became rather tiring to explain over and over why I didn’t have an engagement ring, and I hated all the attention to begin with.  Even if I did have a ring, why did all these people think I would want to show it off for them to evaluate?

Jeremiah wasn’t crazy about the fact that I had rejected the engagement ring tradition, but his reasoning made me even more glad I had.  He knew others would judge him by the sort of ring he picked out, so not buying me a ring made him look cheap and rude.  But that was part of the problem, I thought.  I don’t even care for jewelry, so receiving a diamond ring would be nothing but an acquiescence to the pressures of our culture—pressures for men to prove themselves as providers and pressures for women to measure others’ value by the quality of the man on their arms, as demonstrated by the size of the rings on their fingers.

Wicoff, who did have an engagement ring, talks about this problem in her book.  Having a rather conspicuously large ring, she often felt embarrassed by the attention she received from other women and what it implied about her relationship, her fiancé, and her own identity.  She wanted to just accept it as something given out of love, something her fiancé picked out with her in mind, something which she herself thought was beautiful and enjoyed wearing, but the baggage that came along with the ring made it difficult to enjoy as thoroughly as she had hoped.

I know other women feel differently.  They love their rings and would reject the idea that engagement rings treat women as prizes to be won and men as sugar daddies and whatnot.  Many think rings are essential to making an engagement official, even though the diamond ring tradition didn’t become popular until the 20th century.  I know many women—including feminists—want a ring, and that is their decision.

But I didn’t.  Accepting the attention associated with an engagement ring would have made me feel like I was agreeing with the idea that I had been waiting my whole life to be the magical, mythical creature known as a bride.  That my value was tied to landing a man and the sparkly things he could give me.  That Jeremiah’s value was caught up in trying to make those sparkly things happen.  That, for some reason, as a woman I needed to wear my relationship status on my hand while my fiancé didn’t.  And I don’t even particularly like diamonds, and I’ve never been a ring person.  Giving in and wearing a ring would have been a win for jewelry companies, the larger wedding industry, advertising, capitalism itself!   An inexcusable waste of money on something I didn’t even want. Perhaps if we both were to wear engagement rings, I would have felt differently, but even that is doubtful.

I’m pretty sure at the time everyone thought I was overly political and generally crazy.  Some probably judged Jeremiah for no fault of his own, and many people probably thought even I would come around eventually and wish I had a rock.  But two years later, I still have no regrets.  Early on in our relationship, I had told Jeremiah that I had never wanted an engagement ring and would refuse any marriage proposal that included one.  I am glad I followed through with my convictions and preferences, and despite tiring of having to explain that choice to others, I have always been glad for the reason I could give.

Those Liberal “Moderates”: Responding to Grudem on Evangelical Feminism & Heresy (Ch. 12)

The following continues a series of posts reading through Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?.  If you’re curious why I’m blogging on this, you can start at the first post in the series.  Or backtrack your way through the series by jumping to the previous post.

Ch 12.- Tradition Trumps Scripture: Some evangelical feminists put church tradition above the Bible
This was another one of those chapters that leaves one with an intense face-palm impulse.  First of all, Grudem moves away from talking about women and instead is discussing Kevin Giles’ book The Trinity and Subordinationism.  It is related to the women issue because Grudem claims the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, a position Giles believes to be heresy.  However, it’s a little more removed from what we’ve been talking about so far.  Of course, Grudem isn’t making his case about the Trinity here, but rather is complaining about how Giles makes his argument: Giles appeals to tradition.

Giles seems to think that Scripture could be used to support either side, but Scripture properly interpreted supports his own non-subordinationist position.  He takes his cues about how to interpret Scripture from looking at what the church has believed over time.  There is nothing wrong with this, of course—if there’s a complicated issue, it makes sense to consider what Christians have always believed.  They are not guaranteed to be right, but we should at least know why we disagree with them where we do.  (On the issue of women, for instance, I disagree with many Christians throughout history, a fact with which I’m ok.  But I don’t think we should reject tradition without careful study and reasoning.)  Sadly, Grudem resorts to an appeal to the anti-Catholic impulses pervading much of contemporary evangelicalism.

How then does Giles think we should determine which view is right?  The answer, he says, is found in church history: “In relation to the doctrine of the Trinity my argument is that the tradition of the church should prescribe the correct reading.”  For Giles, then, the tradition of the church becomes the surpreme authority.  His approach is similar to Roman Catholicism but contradictory to the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) and contrary to the beliefs of evangelical Protestants.  In fact, I find it somewhat surprising that InterVarsity Press would decide to publish this book.  [There he goes picking at IVP again...]  I am not suprised at this because of the conclusion Giles holds (egalitarianism) but because of the underlying view of authority on which he bases his argument (the superiority of church tradtion, not Scripture, because Scripture can be read in different ways). (117)

This is one of the chapters that really leaves me with little respect for Grudem.  He could make a real argument against Giles’ heremeneutic, but he doesn’t.  Instead he appeals to the prejudice of his readers—a rather low road, in my opinion.  Additionally, he contradicts himself by complaining about appeals to tradition, because Grudem himself has said more than once, “Oh, but nobody has thought women should be pastors until very recently!”  If he is going to appeal to tradition, he shouldn’t castigate others for the same.  (He is not even right, by the way, that women have never been in positions of authority in the church.  Besides the New Testament examples he dismisses, we can appeal to the case of abbesses who ruled over monks and nuns living in the same community, for instance.  Perhaps women in authority have been rare, but they have not been nonexistent.)

Those Liberal “Moderates”: Responding to Grudem on Evangelical Feminism & Heresy (Ch. 10-11)

The following continues a series of posts reading through Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?.  If you’re curious why I’m blogging on this, you can start at the first post in the series.  Or backtrack your way through the series by jumping to the previous post.

Ch. 10- Does a Pastor’s Authority Trump Scripture?: Some evangelical feminists say that women can teach if they are “under the authority” of the pastor or elders
Well, hooray!  It looks like Grudem and I have once again found a couple things to agree on—in both ch. 10 and 11!  Grudem’s complaint here is that some Christians say that a man does need to be in the official church positions of authority, but as the authority figure he can then allow a woman to preach and teach and whatever else that is normally reserved for a man.  This is an easy way for some to have all the comfort of their traditional views with all the practical benefits of allowing qualified women to teach.  Grudem considers this inconsistent practice, as do I.  Unlike Grudem, I would be glad that women were getting any airtime to begin with… but ultimately, this set-up leaves me unsatisfied.  In fact, in some ways it is really insulting to women—it strikes me as rather patronizing for a woman to always need to be under a man’s authority and seeking a man’s approval.  (Of course, as Grudem notes, anyone teaching in a church is in some way under the authority of the church’s leaders.  If we had true equality, however, we would talk about everyone being accountable to church leadership, rather emphasizing women being under men’s authority.)

I find this a very wussy attempt to include women in the church, and Grudem finds it a wussy attempt to live out complementarian values.   And really that’s what it is: Grudem admits that “many who take this view say they genuinely want to uphold male leadership in the church,” and “this is not a commonly held view among the main egalitarian authors or those who support Christians for Biblical Equality, for example” (103).  It’s funny to me, then, that the chapter title still presents this as something “evangelical feminists” say.  Regardless of what label they ultimately deserve, I see these churches as trying to move forward in a positive direction but just not quite getting it right.  From this point the church can continue to emphasize male authority or women’s gifts, and it’s sort of unpredictable which path they’ll be on twenty years down the road.

Ch. 11- Teaching in the Parachurch?: Some evangelical feminists evade New Testament commands by saying, “We are not a church”
As I already mentioned, I also liked some of what Grudem had to say in this chapter.  He says that while not all parachurch organizations perform all functions of the local church, when parachurch organizations do perform these functions, they should have the same standards as the local church.  Hence, it doesn’t make much sense to say women can teach in parachurch settings if they can’t teach in church settings.  I appreciate this because I wish more parachurch organizations were not so wussy in their support of women.  (An apparent theme of this post: wussiness.)

For example, InterVarsity, which I love, is very pro-women-in-ministry in many ways.  InterVarsity Press publishes many egalitarian books (something Grudem has complained about in multiple chapters already), Urbana uses the TNIV and allows Christians for Biblical Equality to give seminars, and InterVarsity uses women to teach mixed-gender groups and has women at all levels of leadership.  I’ve even heard of a regional leader who tells potential staff that if they aren’t egalitarian they probably won’t enjoy working for IVCF—and hence, while not a technical hiring requirement, complementarian would-be-staff in that region tend to go in other directions (church work, Campus Crusade, etc.).

The thing I appreciate about InterVarsity’s not taking an even more official, more public stand on this issue is that students of various sorts are able to be in fellowship with each other.  Since some of those students wouldn’t have joined an explicitly egalitarian fellowship, InterVarsity’s quietness avoids scaring them off, even though I think ultimately many students find themselves moving in more moderate directions as a result of the teaching they receive from IV staff.  It’s also nice, I know, to not have to alienate the complementarian students and staff already involved in InterVarsity.  And of course, if InterVarsity got too “liberal” a reputation, they would lose some donors—it’s unfortunate that must be a consideration, but funding is a very practical necessity.  The downside, of course, is that things end up more variable on the ground (since no one has made gender equality the priority for the whole organization the way multiethnicity, evangelicalism, or inductive Bible study have been), despite the direction of the national organization.  And that women never feel InterVarsity’s full support.  At least, that is how I felt as a student—like InterVarsity was generally very supportive of me as a woman but too chicken to stand beside me if someone pushed them to declare their views.

All that to say, like Grudem, I think it’s inconsistent to support women in the parachurch while holding onto traditional views—or trying to avoid picking a stance—in the church.  I understand that there is a tension for some parachurch organizations, and that for many of them it might be advantageous to adopt a more gradual approach to this issue.  Maybe if they move in a certain direction without taking a stand, they can ultimately influence more people in an egalitarian direction?  That’s my hope for other groups, too, like the Synergy Women’s Network led by Carolyn Curtis James—a wonderful supporter of women… who, unfortunately, won’t take an official stand on this issue.

Still, I feel unsatisfied.  If we’re all moving towards the same goal, I will try my hardest to be patient, I promise.  But sometimes I wonder if we’re even still moving at all.  Just as I was writing this post, I was struck by a parallel: gradual abolition vs. immediate abolition.  I think I often feel conflicted over whether I can accept the gradual move towards egalitarianism that I see in certain parachurch organizations or if we need to call more loudly for immediate and total change.  I would rather accept gradual movement than scare parachurch organizations away from this issue entirely.  If that’s all they’re willing to do right now, I will try to make peace with that.  But a gradual approach is not really what I want or what feels right—and I fear that without more intentionality and boldness we will never “arrive.”

Continue with this series–read about ch. 12!

© Jeremiah and Ashleigh Bailey 2012