Friday, November 23, 2012

Getting it "Wright" and wrong at the same time

N.T. Wright gets off to a good start in his reflection on the defeat of legislation allowing for women "bishops" in the Church of England. The Church, he says, cannot be coerced into "reform" by an over-bearing, over-secularized state.
Exhorting the CoE to ‘get with the programme’ dilutes the argument for women bishops

“But that would be putting the clock back,” gasps a feckless official in one of C. S. Lewis’s stories. “Have you no idea of progress, of development?”

“I have seen them both in an egg,” replies the young hero. “We call it Going bad in Narnia.”

Lewis nails a lie at the heart of our culture. As long as we repeat it, we shall never understand our world, let alone the Church’s calling. And until proponents of women bishops stop using it, the biblical arguments for women’s ordination will never appear in full strength.

“Now that we live in the 21st century,” begins the interviewer, invoking the calendar to justify a proposed innovation. “In this day and age,” we say, assuming that we all believe the 18th-century doctrine of “progress”, which, allied to a Whig view of history, dictates that policies and practices somehow ought to become more “liberal”, whatever that means. Russia and China were on the “wrong side of history”, Hillary Clinton warned recently. But how does she know what “history” will do? And what makes her think that “history” never makes mistakes?

We, of all people, ought to know better. “Progress” gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that “history” was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of “progress”.

“We call it Going bad in Narnia.” Quite.

It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops. And Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.

What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.
Unfortunately, he moves from chastising David Cameron and disdaining secular liberal arguments about "progress" to propping up supposedly "biblical" arguments for women's episcopacy with some uncharacteristically flimsy exegetical stretches.
So what is the real argument? The other lie to nail is that people who “believe in the Bible” or who “take it literally” will oppose women’s ordination. Rubbish. Yes, I Timothy ii is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else. That, in any case, is not where to start.

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.

Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans xvi, 7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going. Unlike the ambiguous “progress” of the Enlightenment, it is full of promise — especially the promise of transformed gender roles.

The promise of new creation, symbolised by the role of Mary Magdalene in the Easter stories, is the reality. Modern ideas of “progress” are simply a parody. Next time this one comes round, it would be good to forget “progress” — and ministerial “programmes” — and stick with the promise.
Inasmuch as Wright attempts to use the Bible as the primary exhibit while arguing his case, his argument for women's episcopacy could be classified as "biblical," as opposed to the "progressive" arguments he disavows. Unfortunately, since his very premise--that there should be no gender distinctions in church leadership roles--is itself a product of "progressive" thinking, he has to twist the Scriptures like a pretzel to make his case. In so doing, he winds up right back in the "progressive" camp from which he wishes to escape.

Douglas Wilson dissects Wright's circular reasoning succinctly, while also taking him to task for a little eisegetical scholarly smugness.
Wright tries to be the crusty conservative, saying, "bah, humbug" to all this progressivity n' stuff, and then says that if we just reject the myth of inevitable modern progress, the arguments for women's ordination will shine forth in all their pristine biblical glory. In the course of all this, he says . . .

"The other lie to nail is that people who 'believe in the Bible' or who 'take it literally' will oppose women’s ordination. Rubbish. Yes, I Timothy ii is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else."

Having banished the Whig view of history out the front door, here we find it banging in an agitated manner at the back door, demanding entrance. What is the password that Wright demands before he lets the progressives skulk back in? You guessed it! Serious scholars disagree.

Well, then, I guess that it is time for us unserious types to pack up our "lies" and go back to our house on the wrong side of history. Wright likes to pretend that he is not surfing the mavericks of the zeitgeist, but he is one of the best at shooting that curl. You see, serious scholars are the ones who graduate from Whig-accredited seminaries.

As for the biblical passages he did refer to in more than a dismissive manner, a couple of quick thoughts. He cites Mary Magdalene, Junia, and Phoebe.

He says that God entrusted Mary Magdalene with telling the other disciples about the resurrection. He fails to distinguish possessing news, on the one hand, from ordination and commissioning to declare that news authoritatively on the other. Mary was undoubtedly a witness of the resurrection, which is not the same thing as being a preacher of the resurrection. Merely possessing firsthand information that Jesus rose does not constitute an automatic ordination -- otherwise all the bribed guards who were witnesses of the resurrection were the first apostles (Matt. 28:4). If simply being a witness was sufficient, then what did the disciples think they were doing when they filled the slot left by Judas? And why did they have to choose between Justus and Matthias when God had already picked Mary Magdalene (Acts 1:23-25)?

Wright also says that Junia is listed among the apostles (Rom. 16:7). He earlier was dismissive of the unusual words in 1 Tim. 2, but here is apparently unaware of the common uses of the noun and verb forms of apostello. An apostle is a "sent one," and the verb means "to send." Jesus was an apostle of God (Heb. 3:1), the twelve were apostles of Christ (Luke 6:13), and Paul and Barnabas were apostles of the church at Antioch (Acts 13:2-4). How much authority is involved is a pure function of the sending agency, and what the sent one is commissioned to do. Of course Junia was a sent one. But whose? To what purpose? The mere use of the word gives us no basis for promoting someone who was sent for coffee to the ranks of the Twelve.

And then he says that Phoebe was an "ordained travelling businesswoman" (Rom. 16:1) and that, having delivered the letter to the Romans, she was the one who read and explained the letter. Let us simply hope that, when she explained it, she did not make up things as she went along that were nowhere included in the text -- like Wright just did. I have had plenty of folks deliver messages to me that did not then exposit the message for me. But Wright says that "normally" the letter carrier would "explain its contents." He has also discovered, by some psychic means, that Phoebe was a businesswoman. Now she could have been, because the Bible doesn't say she wasn't, but we should want more of an exegetical guard rail than that, shouldn't we? I mean, it doesn't say that she wasn't a seller of Rolex watches either. The Bible doesn't say that the tongues of fire at Pentecost weren't green, right? Does that give me leave to teach that they were?

We know that Phoebe was a servant of the church at Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1), and I think it is likely that she delivered the letter of Romans to the Romans. What was her job description as "servant" (diakonos)? We don't know. The word servant is like the word apostle -- a church secretary is a servant of the church, and so is a church planting missionary.

If Wright wants more out of Rom. 16:1, and these other passages, he is going to have to squeeze harder than that.
Thus, the inestimable N.T. Wright is both right and wrong at the same time. He correctly debunks the secular "progressive" thinking behind most of the arguments that were made within the Church of England for female episcopacy. He is off the reservation, however, in maintaining that a truly "biblical" argument can be made for the same once the accretions of progressivism have been peeled away. What is needed in the Mother Church, and any number of other provinces within the Anglican Communion, is a rejection of "progressive" thinking that boldly challenges the conventional wisdom, articulated by both the outgoing and incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, that female episcopacy is inevitable, so long as some conscientious protection is put in place for traditionalists. The question must be re-framed in terms of faithfulness, not accommodation.