In Which the Party Happens Elsewhere

There are a number of reasons for this blog’s sluggishness of late, but among them are the fact that some of my blogging energies have been redirected elsewhere.  I will now be serving as a Contributing Editor at the Political Theology blog, so look out for future contributions there, as well as for invisible traces of my editorial touch on other posts there (you’ll be able to tell that I’ve edited them if you find random intrusions of Hookerian style).  I’ve also just contributed a piece at Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Anderson’s excellent site where I’ll be contributing occasionally in future, and my initial foray, on the recent kerfluffle over women bishops in the Church of England, has already set off some fireworks.  Matt had the audacity to title it as response to Doug Wilson (which, admittedly, a significant chunk of it was), something I’ve avoided doing for four years, and so Wilson was good enough to offer a rejoinder at Blog and Mablog within a few hours.  

Wilson helpfully clarifies some of his concerns in his response, though my own concerns remain largely unappeased.  The question, ultimately, is not over whether satire and peremptory dismissal is ever appropriate when confronted with scholarly tripe, but over whether it was appropriate in this particular case.  My argument is that such a posture should be the exception, not the rule, and that our normal posture toward those with whom we disagree should be that of “intellectual empathy,” as Matthew Anderson has recently described.  Particularly, there are those who by their Christian faithfulness, evangelical witness, and diligent scholarship have earned a title to our respect, so that our instinctive posture toward them, even when they seem to have seriously misstepped, should be one of “intellectual empathy,” seeking to understand carefully where they’re coming from even as we disagree, rather than merely laughing them out of court.  Wright, I think, certainly qualifies, and so while I have my own serious disagreements not only with his conclusions but with his arguments in his contribution to the women bishops debate, I think Wilson’s is the wrong way to approach this disagreement, and serves to widen the gap between American and British evangelicals, rather than helping to foster greater understanding.   

I hope to post further on the women bishops topic here at the S&P next week, suggesting a better way of arguing than Wright’s, and also hopefully offering a Hookerian perspective on Parliament’s attempted interference in the matter.  

6 thoughts on “In Which the Party Happens Elsewhere

  1. Brad,Thanks for your kind response on Mere-O. I just had a follow-up question, and I was hoping it less likely to get lost in the shuffle here. Do you think that Wright's argument regarding the translation of 1 Tim 2:12 is, standing on its own, worthy of a lot of serious consideration and spilled digital ink? If yes, then I suppose it's merely an "agree to disagree" situation. If not, though, then I am still wondering what sort of response from Wilson you would have preferred. If the argument is in some sense laughable, why can't we all shoot Wright a knowing side glance and a smirk, followed by an, "Oh, NT. We both know that's rubbish, mate" and top it all off with a belly laugh and a slap on the back.In other words, I see your point that Wright deserves more charity than many other scholars with whom we disagree. However, you must agree that there is some point at which an argument considered on its own is just not worthy of much charity, regardless of the person who makes it, yes? And if an argument crosses such a line, then even if N.T. Wright happens to be the one uttering it, we all have the right to laugh it off, provided we make it clear that we are not laughing at Wright himself and that we challenge him, in the spirit of true scholarship, to do better.


  2. David Douglas

    Brad,How bad do you think the mistake of women's ordination is? Is it an unfortunate but tolerable error that divides who works alongside who on a daily basis (such as disagreements about baptism, not that they don't have other consequences). Or is it an error which will set (or more likely confirm) a church or denomination on a steep glide path to oblivion.The nature of the error should give you a sense of the appropriate response and consideration. Where do you stand on that?Also, as I posted over on Doug's blog, where is the humility and acknowledgement on the part of the scholars (that you wish Doug to politely give the time of day to) that:1) backers of women's ordination are going against centuries of understanding about this issue2) opponents of same are trying to be faithful to scripture, not merely preserve their knuckle-dragging prerogatives.3) women's ordination (so far) has been the purview of highly liberal and essentially apostatizing churches. Have you battled this attitude and called these folks to account?Interested in your take on both these issues.Cheers,David Douglas


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks, great questions from both Davids.David N. first:"Do you think that Wright's argument regarding the translation of 1 Tim 2:12 is, standing on its own, worthy of a lot of serious consideration and spilled digital ink?"Well, although I just said "great questions" I think the way you've asked this has perhaps overhastily narrowed the issue. Because exegesis never happens in a vacuum. Wright's exegesis of 1 Tim. 2:12 (and of course, properly speaking, it's an exegesis of 1 Tim. 2, since Wright is trying to reinterpret this verse in its wider context, and thus providing a new reading of that context) is only one part of a larger exegetical argument from the New Testament, and that is part of a larger theological understanding about the sort of book Scripture is, the meaning of Jesus's work, the definition of the Church, etc. If you abstract any one piece from that overall argument and treat it on its own, it may look fairly silly, but that doesn't necessarily mean the argument on the whole is fairly silly. Any good theological argument is an elaborate edifice, in which each brick gives strength to those around it, although no single brick can bear the weight on its own. I gave Pastor Wilson the example of a five-point Calvinist trying to deal with texts like "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world”; most likely, if you come upon the Calvinist scholar at that particular moment, in the course of that single bit of exegesis, it will look rather forced and perhaps downright laughable. However, that would be somewhat unfair: this exegesis is part of a much larger whole of reading and interpreting the Bible, and if the other parts of the argument are solid, this exegesis gains strength accordingly. Even if the other parts of the argument are not solid (as in the case of N.T. Wright), they do add some further plausibility, and should be taken account of, so that we do not straw-man him as ridiculous on the basis of a single bit of exegesis. Of course, that said, it can be possible for a single bit of exegesis to be so bad, for a single brick of the edifice to be so unsound, that it causes the whole edifice to crumble, so we can and should examine the merits of each constituent argument.So, to finally answer your question properly—I think that the argument regarding the exegesis of 1 Tim. 2:12 is dubious but not self-evidently ridiculous. Although Wilson makes it look ridiculous by just comparing the two English translations, this is very amateurish, and I'm surprised Wilson made no attempt to argue from the Greek. I'm no expert, but I learned enough Greek and did enough NT studies to discover how often a different translation of one or two words (and most words do have multiple possible meanings) can dramatically change the meaning of a text. In the present case, I think N.T. Wright is right that replacing the normal translations of a couple of the words with other lexically possible translations could yield something like his result. Now with translation, one is dealing more often with probabilities than with straight right and wrong, but I would say that, based on my very limited knowledge, Wright's translation is distinctly unlikely. But not self-evidently laughable.As for the rest of the bricks of his argument, which should be kept in mind when evaluating any one particular brick—I think some have a fair bit of plausibility, others less so, so that I think the argument on the whole deserves respectful attention and careful refutation, rather than outright dismissal. But I acknowledge in principle that we will from time to time encounter arguments that warrant outright dismissal. To that extent, I don't disagree with Wilson in principle, only in his application of it.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Now David D.:The short answer is that I think it's somewhere in between the two poles you have sketched. I do not think it is as minor as differences over baptism (which is itself not all that minor, although in the grand scheme of things today, it is relatively so), because I think fundamental questions of anthropology are at stake. How we understand men's and women's roles will affect a great deal, and if we mess it up, the consequences will create lasting problems in many areas. But I do not think it is so significant that it necessarily puts us on "a steep glide path to oblivion," and I think that to say this is to demonstrate far too little faith in the power of the gospel. It is certainly possible to advocate women's ordination in a way that fundamentally compromises the gospel, and many have done so, but it is certainly not necessary. In itself, the issue is not connected to the fundamental planks of the gospel, or what it means to be the church, and therefore, while compromise on this point will have negative consequences, I have confidence that God will preserve, by the power of the gospel, churches that embrace women's ordination but remain in other respects faithful. This is partly a matter of theological conviction, partly a matter of empirical experience. I think I'm going to try to flesh out the above in a post (hopefully tomorrow) where I attempt to situate the issue more systematically. So, to the second part of your comment, I would say that you're quite right on the whole, and this was a large part of the point of my original post, which was to call to account progressives in the Church of England who acted like it was silly, backward, and unthinkable for conservatives to oppose women's ordination. I would have a whole lot more respect for progressives if they would be willing to acknowledge forthrightly that the burden of proof is on them, and that overturning centuries-old practice is a big deal, instead of pretending that their view is perfectly obvious, and those who won't jump on board are bigots. But I must emphasise that not all advocates of women's ordination are like that. Some (and I think Wright is one of them) clearly recognize that there is a strong prima facie case for conservative opposition, and recognize the need for careful argumentation and patient persuasion. Also, I would contest the empirical truth of your third point—"women's ordination (so far) has been the purview of highly liberal and essentially apostatizing churches." This is rather question-begging, I suppose, as it depends what you mean by "highly liberal and essentially apostatizing"; but I think only the most uncharitable description could possibly identify all the denominations that have decided to ordain women in those terms. Certainly it has only been the practice of churches considerably more liberal than the CREC, but not necessarily "liberal" in the proper sense of the word. In fact, I would argue that it's important that we confine the use of the word "liberal" to those who self-consciously deny the full authority of Scripture, and identify as "evangelical" those who self-consciously affirm the full authority of Scripture, along with the Protestant understanding of the gospel. There will be many evangelicals who differ from us about what that authority entails and how certain parts of Scripture are to be interpreted, but that does not necessarily warrant calling them "liberals" or "apostatizing."


  5. Brad, thanks for the resopnse (again).I suppose it does come down to agreeing to disagree here, not between you and I (as I haven't decided where exactly I fall with respect to how we should treat egalitarianism as a whole), but between you and Wilson. He seems to view the whole egalitarian system as a worldly imposition on Scripture, so that almost no individual part of that system could ever be taken too seriously. And as such, when Wright goes out on a limb and makes a less-than-solid argument in favor of an inherently unbiblical system, it is laughable. For my part, I took Ron Pierce's "Theology of Gender" class at Biola. Ron is an egalitarian, and I took the class over the summer with only 2 other (female) students, so it was an interesting experience. I got so involved in the class that I did way more reading than was required and my paper was twice the required length (the great advantage of a summer class). I came out quite convinced that egalitarianism has zero Biblical footing, but I haven't quite been able to take a Wilson-like plunge into hardcore patriarchalism, with all its philosophical attendants.By the way, I don't know if you saw my comment on Wilson's blog, but I think it would be very helpful if you wrote a brief post explaining what you think makes "British evangelicalism" significantly different from her American cousin, as it concerns the women bishops debate. As I said, you have suggested 2 or 3 times now that Wilson just doesn't get the nuances of British evangelicalism and how that affects the debate differently, but I'm sure that Wilson is not alone. And as much of an Anglophile as I am, I don't quite know what differences you are referring to either. It might sound to some as though you are just trying to pull the Pomo wool over their eyes. 😉


  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks David. I think you're right about a fundamental difference between Wilson and me here. I think the egalitarian side is quite right that the Christian tradition on the whole has not taken sufficiently seriously all the NT teaching about "neither male nor female" and there's a good deal of self-examination and re-appraisal to be done, even though I don't think it's going to lead all the way to the conclusions egalitarians want. So I think many egalitarians, and many egalitarian arguments (I don't like to talk about "isms") do need to be taken with some seriousness. Even if one didn't think that that was so on a theological level, there's a strong pragmatic argument—fact is that a large and growing number of evangelicals are egalitarians, and unless you want to bury your head in the sand entirely and confine yourself to preaching only to your own small choir, you've got to be willing to make an effort to understand where they're coming from.I did see your comment about a post on British and American evangelicalism, and I passed on the suggestion to my friend Alastair, who, having spent his whole life among the former, as opposed to only 3 1/2 years, is probably far better suited to speak to the issue. He pointed me to this post (see the bottom section; it's quite lengthy). My point, however, was not so much to appeal to nuances within British evangelicalism that give a different logic to the debate (although I think there is a measure of that), since I think, following Alastair, that British evangelicalism does have some very deep cultural and theological problems. My broader point is that faithfulness looks different in different contexts. A good example here is Augustine's view of sex and marriage. If we looked at his writings on this in the abstract, we might be appalled at his "Gnosticism." But when we recognize that an excessive contempt of sexuality and valorization of virginity was the norm in the Christian culture of his day, we will realize that he was in fact, within the constraints of his culture and horizon, offering some really good teaching that was pointing in the right direction, and deserves to be sympathetically assessed accordingly. Just so, someone who might be a sellout in the context of US evangelicalism may be a faithful leader who is doing a lot more good than harm in the context of British evanglicalism. And, as I never tire of saying, British evangelicals do see a few matters a lot more clearly than their American cousins (e.g., ecological issues, economic justice, the problems with US foreign policy, etc.).


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