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Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic
Christian Understanding of Gender
by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.
Baker Academic, 2005
(138 pages, $14.99, paperback)
reviewed by S. M. Hutchens
To remain “biblical,” the Evangelical progressive, these days infallibly marked by his profession of being both orthodox and egalitarian, has never been able to deny outright the parts of the Bible he finds damning to his cause. In the early days of Evangelical feminism, attempts at persuasion tended to concentrate on reinterpretation of the patriarchalist seats of doctrine, especially in the writings of the unfortunate St. Paul, who was viewed as having a particularly difficult time saying what he meant.
With time and critical scrutiny, however, it appeared this project would collapse of its own weight for several reasons, first because the scholarly reinterpretations of sub-egalitarian passages, once the shell shuffling in the journals was done and the pea finally reappeared, still looked strained and unnatural, not to mention at odds with the way these passages had been understood from the Church’s beginnings.
An Egalitarian Canon
Then it became more plain that it wasn’t just Paul who was the problem, but the broad patriarchalist stream upon which he sailed, a stream that perfused the Scriptures from beginning to end and in which all parts were connected. It became more difficult to make the necessary adjustments to biblical anthropology without noticing that one was perforce also making changes to traditional ethics and Trinitarian doctrine.
Worst of all, it became apparent as the work progressed that there was a controlling agenda behind it that came not only from outside the Bible, but outside any historically plausible definition of Christianity.
Faced with this situation, the problem for egalitarian theologians has become associated less with particular passages of Scripture as with the Scriptures considered as a whole. Several years ago in the pages of this journal we dealt with one of them, who averred that the Bible contains patriarchalism in much the same way as it contains reference to the devil and his works. What’s patriarchal isn’t Scripture—it’s just in the Bible. What’s egalitarian, he assured us, is what’s truly Scripture. Obviously this canon-within-the-canon approach has its drawbacks, the first of which is that by that rule the Bible can be made to teach anything whatever, but some variation on the theme seems to be what’s being worked on today on the upper floors of the Evangelical theology laboratories.
A case in point is the new book by John G. Stackhouse, holder of the Sangwoo Youtong Chee chair of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, recently opened by J. I. Packer’s retirement. Stackhouse’s thesis improves on the plausibility of the scheme mentioned above, for he not only asserts that patriarchalism (which he regards as evil, and the root of many evils) is found in the Bible, but that it is authoritatively taught by valid representatives of “Godself.”
Stackhouse’s eschaton, however, is “finally feminist,” for patriarchy is an interim measure that God has, in “holy pragmatism,” ordained for humankind in its sinful and ignorant nonage, and from which he intends it to become extricated as it ventures further into the life, knowledge, and love of the genderless God—presented in male terms in Scripture because of the cultural captivity of the world and the Church to patriarchalism.
Stackhouse regards real orthodoxy as the faith that is leaving all this behind, emerging from the dead chrysalis of patriarchy into the sunlight of God’s perfect equality. So, the book advertises, the patriarchalists are right when they say not only that the Bible contains their doctrine, but that it is no less than the Word of God, and wrong in believing this state of affairs isn’t, by the direction of God’s will, being exchanged for something better.
The egalitarians are wrong when they attempt to evade the obvious patriarchalism of the Bible (the point of the greater mass of their scholarship is by implication discarded here!), but right in their conviction that from the beginning, and in the end, it was not and shall not be so, since the message of the Bible is, in the final analysis, feminist.
As one would expect, to support this thesis Stackhouse has to do away with “biblicism,” the parts of St. Paul that flatly contradict him, and the historical beliefs of the Church as they confirm what the Scriptures were once thought to teach. One would think this a tall order, but he manages it in 129 pages.
Biblicism, he indicates, is the attitude held by pious but ignorant people that one believes something just because “the Bible says so.” What is required, on the contrary, is the interpretive intervention of those who are able to isolate the eschatologically valid egalitarian wheat from the patriarchalist chaff, understanding the fuller, more perfect message of a Bible that is very confusing on these matters.
We need to know, he says, that “no Christian safely decides against what he or she understands Scripture to say, since God has specially blessed Scripture as his written revelation. Still, because we are human beings with limited intellectual capacities and, worse, are still subject to the influence of sin, we must be aware of the fact that our interpretations of anything, including Scripture, may be possibly mistaken and even self-serving.”
But it is clear to whom Stackhouse thinks these pastoral admonitions about sin and ignorance are to be applied in the instant case. And at the end of the day it is equally clear to whom he thinks we, in our sin and finitude, should resort: the best-informed and most skilled interpreters of Scripture—the egalitarian religious intelligentsia.
Stackhouse’s gifted generation has finally, after two millennia of relative darkness on gender matters, understood the Bible—except 1 Timothy 2:15, which is so obscure that no one can explain it.
To any orthodox Christian standing outside Evangelicalism, all this would cause the jaw to drop and the eyes to glaze over, but Stackhouse knows his audience. To the kind of Evangelical he addresses, history (as Mark Noll has noted with some force) is very close to bunk, and the idea that there is interpretive authority in the Church is barely thinkable. The highest authority in the Evangelical world is the Evangelical professor, for he/she is where the interpretive buck stops.
Particularly in the case of gender distinctions, the professor tells us, we should pause to consider what is “transparently commendable wisdom on grounds appreciable by all. . . . If our interpretation of God’s Word seems to result in something bad [e.g., patriarchalism] it may be that it is our own badness that is being confronted and needs reorientation.”
Of course it is the crude biblicist who is being called upon to reorient himself, who needs to stop defying God’s Holy Word, come to understand it better, and purge himself of erroneous interpretations. All this is so transparently obvious to the illuminati that “the burden of proof falls on complementarians to show how it is really better for subordinationism to continue to characterize the relationship of Christian men and women.”
One of the reasons for this surprising shift in the burden of proof for novel doctrines must be the loss of poor, confused St. Paul as a genuinely apostolic authority. As far as Stackhouse is concerned, where the apostle is right he is right, and where he is wrong he is wrong. He thinks, for example, that some of 1 Corinthians 11 “seems pretty typical of a first-century rabbi who is reading Genesis 1 and 2 through patriarchal lenses—lenses not all of us share.” Indeed, he continues,
as many Bible scholars have pointed out, Paul’s interpretation of woman as the reflection of man, and not directly of God as his image, seems to fly in the face of Genesis 1:26–27. His depiction of the second creation story, that of Genesis 2, of the woman being created from and for the man seems a bit tendentious. The adam was not obviously sexed before division into male and female.
One wonders just how many good Evangelicals will let this treatment of the apostle and the character of his authority float right past them, how many will genuflect in trustful adoration to the Assurance of Many Scholars, along with the assertion that the proto-human adam was not obviously sexed—all marvels of feminist interpretive skill and imagination, and so surely not to any degree as “tendentious” as the opinions of the unfortunate apostle, who is, in this case, expounding Genesis to his hearers through a lens of evil, a lens that, fortunately, “not all of us share.”
Might one cautiously suggest that no one who treats St. Paul in this way can consider himself “orthodox” in any historically meaningful sense of the term, or that Paul’s authority is such that if someone cannot submit to sharing his “lenses,” he is not a Christian teacher? Obviously, however, it is not required of the incumbent of J. I. Packer’s old chair, or for the asseveration that one is an orthodox Evangelical.
The history of the Church as an institution of divine authority is of no real concern to scholars like Stackhouse, at least where gender matters are concerned—except as something to be brushed aside. The apparent insouciance with which the confessedly “orthodox” egalitarians cut themselves off at the theological root of church practice, confession, and authority—even that of the Reformation—is nothing short of breathtaking, the admonition here that we not succumb to the temptation of private interpretation of Scripture, surreal.
“We properly revere the early church fathers for bequeathing us much classic wisdom,” he says, “but their general misogyny is a scandal. Most of them, as far as we know, really did see women as not only spiritually and intellectually inferior to men, but also positively dangerous to men’s godliness.”
While one does not wish to defend any bad attitudes that might be found in the Fathers, by the time one gets to this place in Stackhouse’s essay he is quite prepared to believe that a large portion of the misogyny mentioned here may well be derived from the seriousness with which they took the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition. One might wish to draw some distinctions between the attitudes, say, of Chrysostom and Jerome, but no—the Fathers of the Church were by and large woman-haters.
And really, how else can one account for the whole history of a Church that was at constant pains to keep women in their place until feminism finally came into its own in our day? For Evangelicals like Stackhouse, what patriarchalists see as the historic belief of the Church, based on explicit apostolic teaching, and held to by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox for as long as those churches have existed, is simply something that needs to be gotten over.
In brief, his method is this: Correcting egalitarians who might be reluctant to admit it—especially, one would think, when they have spent much of their scholarly careers in attempts to disprove it—he notes that patriarchy and the equality of men and women are both taught in the New Testament. But current scholarly opinion, not to mention reason and simple decency, regard patriarchalism as both morally repugnant and unconnected to the essence of biblical truth.
Scriptures that reflect non-egalitarian teaching are based on a human error to which God accommodates Godself, not the life of God as reflected in the creation and consummation of humankind. This mass of teaching, that the headship of the man is not simply a result of the fall, but an ordinance of creation in God’s image, is obscure, time-bound, or the result of faulty exegesis.
Numerous times Stackhouse assures the reader that his patriarchalist opponents are not to be despised. They are sincere people who have correctly identified the Scriptures as teaching what they believe.
But he makes it abundantly clear that they are also ignorant, backwards, resistant to the best modern scholarship, and, so far as they persist in believing that patriarchalism is true, they must also be willing participants in a great lie and a profound evil to which God has accommodated Godself in his attempt to save them. They are not evil themselves, but they, like the overwhelming majority of Christians in all times and places, are ignorant folk who need to be taught what the Bible really says by masters who have finally understood its deepest message in regard to matters of gender.
At the end of the book Stackhouse calls for honesty: Considering, he notes, that we are in the midst of a gender war involving real rewards for those who take the right side and real punishments for those who take the wrong one, we need to ask ourselves, among other things, “What do I really want to believe about gender—what do I have to gain or lose by coming to this or that conclusion?”
Now, indeed, let us be honest. In how many places does the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture (Ph.D., University of Chicago) believe people are actually rewarded these days in the Evangelical and academic world, in the general field of this book’s probable distribution, for opinions that oppose his? One has little doubt that scholars who write things like this feel the nearly intolerable weight of opposition to their doctrines, but little of it comes from the world they inhabit and to a large degree control.
“Complementarians” within their own camp argue politely with them, but rarely garner the force or will to punish them. It is doubtful now that in the Evangelical world they have the numbers to do it, even if they were so inclined—which they’re not, because they’re not “Fundamentalists.” And the mainstream of Evangelical officialdom reliably helps them along by stolidly refusing to take sides, which would be sinfully divisive, holding that good Evangelicals can stand on either side of the egalitarian fence.
Does Stackhouse not honestly mean here that he wishes to have traditional believers admit to themselves that their motives for believing what they do on these matters are sub-Christian? If so, there is no more insulting patronization than to urge us “all” simply to be open to the leading of the Spirit of God, to take an attitude of submission to whatever God will say to us, to be like “young Samuel” and “young Mary.”
It appears in these quarters that egalitarian openness is closer to that of the young Eve. Perhaps, since Professor Stackhouse is clearly a man of kindly disposition and generous understanding, he will sympathize, with all due pity, if we decline to emulate her.
The essay to which the author refers in the fifth paragraph is “Children of a Better God,” which can be found at http://touchstonemag.com/archives/author.php?id=37.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.