How Trustworthy is the Bible? (4)
Written by Cornelis Pronk
|Reformed Practice - The Bible|
We have seen that the main thesis of Dr. Loonstra's book is that God reveals Himself to man, both in nature (general revelation), and in His Word (special revelation) in a metaphorical, i.e., non-literal way. God has chosen to do this as part of accommodating Himself to the level of man's limited capacity to comprehend divine truth. By using metaphors He enters into the world of our experience (ervaringswereld). That world varies from culture to culture. There is an enormous gap between the thought-world of the Old and New Testament people and our own modern scientific world and life view. This poses a real challenge for us as we must try to enter into this thought-world of the ancients to see how they understood God's revelation to them and what that same revelation means for us who no longer share the same outlook.
To illustrate how difficult this assignment can be, Loonstra mentions the issue of the woman's place and role in the family, church and society. According to apostolic teaching, the woman should be submissive to her husband. While she is equal to the man spiritually, as both are in Christ by faith (Gal.3:28), she must not abuse this Gospel privilege to strive after the kind of emancipation her unbelieving sisters are seeking. The Christian woman is to accept the place assigned to her by Christ, her Lord. The man is called the head of the woman (I Cor.11:3; Eph.5:23) and the woman is the glory of the man (I Cor.11:7). The apostle emphasizes the subordinate position of the woman because some of the female members of the congregation were no longer willing to accept their submissive roles. To support his teaching on this subject Paul appeals to Genesis 2 and says that the woman was taken out of the man and was created for the man (vv. 8,9). He then draws from this the implication that the woman may not teach, but is to be taught. She has to keep silence in the church and if she wants to learn anything she can ask her husband at home. "I do not allow a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man," Paul says, "but to be in silence" (I Cor.14:34; I Tim.2:12). Appealing once more to the creation ordinance, he says: "Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived but the woman being deceived was in the transgression." (I Tim. 2:13,14).
To be sure, the apostle also stresses that the headship of the man is not just a matter of exercising authority over the woman. It also includes his loving devotion to his wife and her well-being for which Christ's love for His Church serves as a model. Thus male headship consists of two closely connected aspects: responsibility for the woman as well as authority over the woman. The man experiences that responsibility towards his wife in loving and sacrificial devotion and is able to exercise his authority when the woman accepts her subordinate position.
Having outlined the New Testament model for male-female relations Loonstra now asks the very important question: How do we incorporate this Biblical view into our modern Western thought patterns and frames of reference in such a way that we do full justice to what God says to us on this subject? The key concepts here, he says, are "responsibility" and "authority." In Scripture these concepts stand or fall together. One cannot have responsibility for someone without having some degree of authority over that person. To feel responsible for someone rests on a relationship of dependence. This relationship between responsibility and authority was a reality in New Testament times. But today that is no longer the case. A cultural change has taken place with respect to how people view and experience authority. Loonstra warns that if this is not taken into account we will create a short circuit when applying texts about the position of the woman to the present situation. We cannot get around the fact that in the past societal authority was firmly tied to someone's position. A person's social position (=authority) defined him as a person. While there is still a tendency today to derive personal prestige and respect from one's social position, that connection is not as automatic as it once was. For us the authority that is required for performing a function or discharging a responsibility is not as firmly tied to the person as before.
This has implications for the headship principle as set forth by Paul. In the New Testament headship is coupled to the man's personal authority over the woman and necessarily implies her subordination to him. For us moderns, however, male headship has to do with a functional authority, i.e., an authority the man needs in order to assume responsibility. The husband's authority over his wife is rooted in his responsibility for his wife and not the other way round. There is no need to describe the relationship between husband and wife in terms of personal authority of the one over the other.
This different view of authority has consequences for the connection between teaching and authority. Teaching always involves the exercise of authority; it is a form of speaking with authority. Where this authority is viewed as being bound to a person and a position, the one who receives the teaching is subordinate to the one who does the teaching. In such a setting it is improper for the woman to instruct her husband, for that implies submission to his wife. That is not in keeping with his calling as head of his wife. But where the authority is limited to the mere exercise of a function there is no submission involved. In that case the authority of the one who teaches is restricted to what he or she has to say. The authority derives from the function of teaching and has no further implications for the personal relations involved, because those relations are no longer based on personal authority positions, but strictly on functions and responsibilities towards one another.
In Bible times authority was inseparably connected with the person who exercised it. Consequently, the authority of the man necessarily implied personal submission of the woman. That is why the woman was forbidden to teach the man, for that would give her personal authority which called for personal submission on his part. This would amount to an attack upon his position as head of the woman. But with us authority is not defined as authority tied to a person. For a woman to teach therefore poses no threat to the creation order between man and woman. Conclusion: in today's context the prohibition to have women teach loses its meaning.
As for the apostle's appeal to the Genesis account of the fall, especially the reference to Eve's being tempted by the serpent, this too needs to be evaluated in terms of the cultural context, Loonstra feels. Paul's intention cannot be to stigmatize women in general as being easy targets for temptation and therefore not fit to teach. Such a reference can only make sense in a cultural context in which women are lagging behind men in terms of development and are viewed as weak and vulnerable.
Loonstra sums up his argument by pointing out that changes in the cultural situation have led in some cases to different views as to what is trustworthy and normative. We can no longer accept certain concepts and practices in the form in which they were originally delivered because they conflict with our sense of what is true or proper (pp.202-205).
I have concentrated on the issue of male-female relations because it serves as a good illustration of Loonstra's entire argument as developed in his book. God's Word, he maintains, is trustworthy at all times and in every generation, but in order to get its message we have to read it in its cultural context. We always have to ask, what did God's Word mean to its original hearers or readers and what does it mean for us today?
I have no problem with that. Every preacher worth his salt will try to explain his text using this method. But Loonstra goes far beyond that elementary principle of exegesis. In his view every generation of Bible readers reads God's Word through culturally conditioned glasses and not only interprets it in terms of concepts derived from a particular culture, but also gives it a meaning which it may or may not have had originally. Not only is this inevitable, Loonstra argues, but it is God's intention that we read and understand His Word this way. God reveals Himself to man in a variety of metaphors, pictures and stories which are readily understood by a given culture, e.g., myths and legends in the ancient pre-scientific world. Today He uses other vehicles to convey his truth, e.g., through modern scientific theories as evolution and socio-philosophic ideas such as emancipation, human rights and racial equality.
The danger here, as I see it, is that in this way culture will dictate how the Bible should be interpreted. Not only does this make everything relative so that one's understanding of truth will vary from culture to culture, but what if a given culture's values and viewpoints are in conflict with Scripture?
The male-female relations issue, discussed above, will serve as an illustration. According to Loonstra we cannot take Paul's prohibition of women teaching in church and apply it to our situation today because we no longer view such teaching by women as an exercise of authority which implies submission of the man to that authority. Teaching is merely a function in which both male and female church members can take part.
Where does this notion come from? Not from the Bible. I am thankful that Dr. Loonstra is honest enough not to twist Scripture into saying what it does not say, as so many others have done. He accurately represents the apostolic teaching on this and other subjects and for that he is to be commended.
But if not from Scripture, where do these ideas originate? From modern culture, of course, one feature of which is that it promotes across the board equality for women and men.
Today we are in the midst of a revolution the consequences of which few of us are able to envision. I am referring to the egalitarian movement that seeks to eradicate all distinctions between men and women and the roles assigned to them by God the Creator. This ideology has influenced our society in a very powerful way. No one can escape its impact. Christians also are being affected by this movement, as can be seen by the push in many denominations to ordain women to church offices. But even where this is not (yet) an issue, questions about the role of women in the home, church and workplace are being discussed intensely.
The danger here is that Christians are not sufficiently aware of the anti-christian motives behind the modern emancipation movement. It has its roots in the Enlightenment and came to expression in a violent way in the French Revolution with its slogan "equality, liberty and fraternity." A key concept of this ideology is functionalism, i. e, the idea that distinctions between men and women have to do only with functions or tasks, not with clearly defined social roles or positions. It is very important to understand the difference between a person's functional role and his social role.
A functional role defines a set of activities or tasks that an individual regularly performs within a functional grouping. It usually involves a job description in which a person's function is clearly defined. A functional role does not require a full personal commitment. The relationship structured by the role is limited and contractual in nature.
A social role, by contrast, cannot be formulated in terms of a job description. Its main purpose is not to structure a set of activities, but to provide a stable order for relationships involving a broad-ranging personal commitment. For example, the role of a father in a family is not defined adequately by the specific tasks he performs, such as working to earn a living, fixing things around the house, etc. The tasks that a father performs are expressions of his role as a man in relationship to his wife and children. The tasks do not define the father's role; they may vary, but the role remains the same. When such a social role as that of a father is properly exercised it fosters stability in a family. The same thing applies to the position of the woman. Her role in the family cannot be defined either by the things she does normally: washing dishes, cooking meals, driving the children to school or piano lessons, etc. A maid can do all these things but this does not make her a mother. The mother's role is one of being fully committed to her children and husband.
It is this traditional concept of the family with its clearly defined roles for fathers, mothers and children that our society has placed under attack. Tremendous pressure is being exerted against all social roles as explained above and the result is that traditional social roles are beginning to look more an more like functional roles.
Social and functional roles can also be distinguished in terms of assignment and achievement. Almost all functional roles are achieved roles, that is, positions that an individual can assume because he has displayed some ability or skill. Social roles, by contrast, are usually ascribed roles. They are given, not earned. A father is a father and a mother a mother, regardless of ability, skill or intelligence. True relationship is rarely earned or deserved, but usually just given.
When Loonstra asserts, therefore, that the prohibition of women teaching in church has validity only for New Testament times because teaching by women no longer bears the connotation of usurping authority, but is only a matter of performing a function, he is on dangerous ground. Such a statement does indeed reflect the current thinking of our society, but not the teaching of Scripture. True, Loonstra wants to hold on to the principle of headship (p.204), but for him this means no more than that the man assumes a specific responsibility for the woman. Discharging that responsibility is his function or task which is not inseparably connected to his authority as a person and therefore does not require submission on the part of the woman.
Here we see how culture begins to dictate the interpretation of Scripture. I do not deny that there are certain cultural aspects to Scripture which today cannot or need not be observed in the same way. We no longer greet one another with a holy kiss but substitute a firm handshake. We do not lift up holy hands in prayer but assume some other reverent posture as we approach GodÕs throne.
We may also disagree on whether or not a veil or some other head-covering is required today as a symbol of a woman's submission. These are specific applications of Biblical principles which do no violence to those principles themselves. What Loonstra does, however, in his discussion of Paul's teaching on headship concerns more than just some cultural expression of that principle, but attacks the principle itself, as I have tried to demonstrate.
For this and other reasons which I stated in previous editorials I have a real problem with much of what Dr. Loonstra sets forth in this book. I do not question his good intentions. Dr. Loonstra sincerely believes that God's Word is trustworthy even after everything he has said about its alleged historical and scientific inaccuracies and inconsistencies, and even mythological and legendary elements. But I fear he is sincerely wrong. The book shows the author's exceptional erudition and theological acumen for which I have the greatest admiration and respect. It is my prayer that upon further reflection my esteemed colleague in the Netherlands may reconsider some of his conclusions and return to a more traditional and Reformed position on the Word of God and its authority for faith and life. That would truly benefit the church of Christ which is rapidly becoming a beleaguered minority in the midst of an atheistic and anti-christian culture.
Rev. Cornelis (Neil) Pronk is an emeritus pastor of the Free Reformed Churches and the editor of the FRC Messenger. This article was printed in the FRC Messenger and is republished here with permission.