Rethinking the authority of Scripture #2 - arguments from author-ity

Saturday, July 13, 2013

This post is part of a continuing  series on rethinking the authority of Scripture. Read the first post here

In my previous post I discussed the problem of inerrancy and infallibility, and in particular how they support an authoritarian reading that hurts people and legitimizes violence in God's name. Consequently, lots of us have been looking for alternative ways to read the Bible. Let's dive into a practical example:

In 1 Timothy 2:12 we read “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” Lots of progressive evangelicals like me find this passage troublesome because it appears to promote gender inequality, and imply that women are inferior and cannot be good leaders. So what do we do with this? 

One approach that is taken frequently by us progressives is to claim that Paul did not write First Timothy at all. This argument comes from biblical scholarship which, based on a linguistic analysis of the Greek has determined that the vocabulary used in the pastoral epistles (including 1 Timothy) differs significantly from the other "authentic" or "undisputed" Pauline letters like Romans, Galatians, and so on. 

We see this kind of statement being made a lot in biblical scholarship. Another prominent example is the entire study of the "historical Jesus" which tries to differentiate the Jesus we find in the Gospels who is presented through the lens of the Gospel writer, and the "authentic" and "real" Jesus of history. From this, again, similar claims are often made: "The historical Jesus did not say that yucky thing, that was an embellishment of Matthew."

There has of course been a lot of debate as to whether these claims are true or not, but what I want to focus on here is a much deeper issue: Namely, these kinds of arguments are appeals to authority in the very literal sense of the word: It is an appeal to author-ity. That is, the appeal is to who said it (the author), rather than to the merit of what was said. I would submit that the real problem here is not one of authorship at all. 

Let's be honest: the reason you and I have trouble with 1 Timothy 2:12 is not because of the authorship, it's because we recognize that it is hurtful and wrong to dis-empower women. So we look for a way to make sense of this, and then we hear about this idea from biblical scholarship, and say "Ah ha! That's it, Paul didn't say it. Whew, now I can discount it!" The irony here is that while we are disputing an authoritarian claim (the subjugation of women) we are using an appeal to authority (who said it) to do this.

What I want to propose is that if we have a problem with passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 (I certainly do, and hope you do too) then let's not pretend the issue is about who wrote it or that an appeal to (non)authorship solves the issue. Let's be honest and face that this is really not the issue for us at all nor is it a valid solution. The issue is moral. That's important and deserves a moral response. That is, we need to present an ethical response to this as readers of scripture. I would insist that an ethical response is the single most important task of biblical interpretationc-- and one that biblical scholarship has largely avoided all together (more on that later). So let's find a way to deal with that honestly and forthrightly.

We read in Galatians (an undisputed letter of Paul if anyone is still keeping track) that Paul says "I told Peter to his face that he was wrong" (Gal 2:11). Peter wrote parts of the NT. Yet apparently he could be wrong. So is it equally possible that Paul could be sometimes wrong, too? Can we also "tell Paul to his face" that he's wrong too? I want to propose that Paul makes room for us to do just that. He models a way of questioning things that don't line up with the way of Jesus. When we do the same it's not because of unfaithfulness, but precisely because we are being faithful. We question out of compassion and in the name of grace as an act of faithfulness.

Paul says further here in Galatians  "I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the gospel" (v. 14). Now what is that gospel message Paul is referring to here exactly? Specifically, Paul is criticizing Peter for treating Gentiles like second-class citizens when they were now one in Christ. Along these lines, Paul declares later in Galatians that in Christ there is "neither Jew nor Gentile" to back this up. But he does not stop there. Paul continues on to say "nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." So just as Paul called Peter on treating Gentiles badly, we can call 1 Tim 2:11 to task and say "I see that this is not consistent with the truth of the gospel."

With all of this in mind, let's think for a moment about what real authority means: True authority does not come from who says it, but from the content of what is being said. In other words, authority is not demanded by threat. That's tyranny. Authority is earned through trust. It is deserved. There is a huge difference between these two perspectives. One is about fear, and one is about respect. Perfect love casts out fear.


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At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two thoughts: 1. Peter was wrong, but he didn't write a bible letter where he claims it was right.
2. Who says that the part of there is neither male nor female is right and the part of women not being allowed to teach? From what you said you could also tell Paul in the face that the part with neither male nor female was wrong, sonsidering the not teaching part right, right?

Not that I hold such thoughts myself, but well, I don't think this way you solved the problem.

God bless

At 4:17 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi De Benny,

"Peter was wrong, but he didn't write a bible letter where he claims it was right."

Well, Peter does write a letter where he claims slavery is right. The apostles were wrong about many things, just as we all are. This is something that is directly stated in the New Testament. So if the NT itself acknowledges that they were wrong about stuff, why would we assume that when they wrote letters they were suddenly incapable of being wrong? Unless we want to claim that slavery is not wrong, we need to face that Peter was wrong when he said this.

Now this raises the question, as you have: on what grounds can we evaluate whether something Peter or Paul says is right or not? If we cannot simply blindly follow a text or appeal to arguments based on authority, then how should we make moral evaluations? These are questions we need to be wrestling with. The big problem is that we have been taught in church not to ask these questions, not to think. What we need to do instead is find a faithful way to address these kinds of moral issues as we read scripture. So at this point, I'm not wanting to "solve" the problem, I'd like it instead to sit there and make us a little uncomfortable so we can all have a conversation together about how to address it.

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So at this point, I'm not wanting to "solve" the problem, I'd like it instead to sit there and make us a little uncomfortable so we can all have a conversation together about how to address it."
Okay, got it. My "problem" is: I'm German, Landeskirchler (if you know what that means), and was never told to ask these questions not. But still I am looking for a way to communicate with biblicists (which are few but exist here none the less) about our common faith in Christ. So I guess I just lean back and wait for the rest of the series...

God bless

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Judy Gale said...

Using historical criticism analysis, what do you think the writer of the letter was intending to communicate in saying: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man?”

At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Judy, Sounds by your question like you have something in mind. What are you thinking?

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Judy Gale said...

I don't have anything in particular in mind, Derek, just wondering your thoughts on whether the writer was "just flat out wrong" in saying this, or was the writer addressing something that was going on then, and within that cultural context and time, perhaps it was useful. As with alot of Scripture, we often take things from "then" and attempt to appy them to "here and now" (and across all cutlural settings). I haven't researched this, so I'm just trying to pick your brain here. What are the interpretations for this verse that you've come across, and which one(s) do you feel is/are the best that could be applied anywhere and at any time? :)

At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Well, as you are likely aware, many have argued that this should be read as a culturally relativised statement that made sense in their context, but should not be taken as a universal statement.

I guess the question comes down to this: How do we discern what is a principle that is applicable to us today, and what is cultural baggage that we can ignore? How do we pick the wheat from the chaff? I would say that a historical-critical analysis can't help us there because views *everything* as cultural. So we need to look elsewhere for our criteria for discerning what remains normative and what does not.

At 4:20 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2:51 PM, Blogger Robin M. said...

Derek, I want to wrestle with you about a larger issue...WHY must you wrestle with this?

If you are able to parse the cannon, if you have a moral compass that is able to discern something is hateful and not useful or loving and useful...then why isn't that God given moral compass not sufficient to stand on its own as divine moral authority?

Why must you wrestle with the ancient texts? They are of questionable source and context. You are here, now, and your moral compass tells you right from wrong.

There is a point at which the tortured wrestle with the texts becomes blasphemous to the clear authority dwelling in you.

At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think it is important for two reasons:

1) It is important to engage and confront hurtful texts because otherwise if it remains unexamined and is simply white-washed over then people have no means with which to rebut a fundamentalist interpretation that promotes violence.

2) There are, particularly in the NT many things that are still far ahead of us. The idea of enemy love and restorative justice are still revolutionary, and I find it challenging and inspiring to work through how to live that out.

I want to have a way of engaging with the text that allows me to do both of the above, and those same tools allow me to engage life that same way where I also find people using authority and power to justify hurt, and I also find people innovating towards social justice and compassion who challenge me to grow.

What I don't want to do is get stuck. So I read the Bible in a progressive way that allows me to not stop moving forward.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger ellikat7 said...

I have a book by J. Lee Grady called "10 Lies the Church Tells Women." In it, starting on page 70, he claims that in the Greek throughout 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is alternately quoting a letter he received from the Corinthian church. I do not know Greek, so I don't know if he is correct or not, but he claims that there is a symbol used here by Paul that denotes that he is quoting from something else. So basically, in verse 34-35, he is quoting from their letter to him where they are saying that THEY do not allow women to speak in church. Then Paul contradicts them and points out that what HE taught them was from God. I've always wondered if this author is right about this being a quotation, but don't know who to ask. What do you think?

At 12:03 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Grady is referencing a well known of scholars here. As he notes, there are no quotation marks in Greek. Indeed, there is no punctuation all, or paragraphs or even spaces between words! So translators have to make educated guesses. How they decide to Translate (including the punctuation they add) makes a huge difference. In this verse (1 Cor 14:36) it begins with the Greek letter "e" which means "or" and at the beginning of a sentence would be translated as "what!?" as in "What!? Are you kidding me?!"

So the argument is that Paul is quoting someone in vv 34-35 and then in v 36 responds by saying "What? Did the word of God originate with you?" as a refutation to this.

Of course other scholars disagree, and so it goes back and forth with conservatives arguing that it says women should be silent, and progressives arguing the opposite point. Each side can come up with plausible reasoning for their side.

So it seems to me that we cannot rely on the scholars giving us a definitive "well that proves it" answer. We thus need to look to something beyond this to sort it out. The idea that "if we only knew the Greek it would all be clear" is just not true. The proof of this is that scholars constantly disagree with each other over these kinds of things.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Of course, by definition, as a "progressive" you are not identifying at this point, Derek, with "traditional" Christian faith (which gave us our biblical canon). I do remember reading, however, that the source of the scripture (as in authorship or source feeding the author, e.g., the Gospel according to Mark is believed to originate with the Apostle Peter for whom Mark served as writer and recorder), i.e, the writing's "author"-ity was indeed one of the most important criteria in the patristic period for determining which books ought to be included in the canon of Scripture. I mention this by way of asking if you have ever studied in any detail what process these early Fathers followed and what criteria they ultimately ended up using to decide which Gospels and epistles were actually apostolic in origin and which were not?

At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

ofGrace, It was not just a criteria of the patristics, but of the wider culture they were a part of. That's why there are so many "Gospels" that claim to be by "Paul" or "Mary." Most scholars don't think that 1 Peter was actually written by Peter, let alone that Mark was written by a disciple of Peter. So while the patristics may have claimed this as their criteria, there is serious doubt as to whether these were factual claims.

Personally I think it misses the point. The issue is not who said it, but the content of what is being said.

Also keep in mind that there was not one "tradition" that gave us our canon. There are multiple traditions with multiple canons. The Catholic canon does not agree with the Protestant one, and the Orthodox one is also different, in fact there are multiple Orthodox ones. So which canon do we pick, and which tradition? It gets very messy and unclear.

The question becomes: Who do we trust? A tradition? Which one? Scholarship? Which one? I think what Jesus teaches us is that we need to learn how to discern what is (to borrow your name) of grace, and what is not, even if that means going against the grain of tradition to do it. Grace trumps tradition. Or to put it differently, the only "tradition" that I recognize is the tradition of grace, and there is simply no church or ecclesiastical institution that can claim that as their heritage.

At 7:48 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Thanks, Derek. From an EO perspective it's not who said it versus what was said, but who said it and what was said. I agree that we are looking to discern the tradition of grace (or of the Holy Spirit, if you will), which is really exactly what the EO Church means by "Holy Tradition."

It's interesting that you bring up the pseudo-epigraphic writings that abounded during the patristic period, because it is the same Church Fathers who recognized the canonical writings as such who also rejected the apocryphal and heretical, which ranged from writings that, although clearly later in date than the apostolic period and not of apostolic authorship, rather having the nature of "pious fiction", also had some teaching that was compatible with the Christian tradition as they had received it (e.g., the Protoevangelium of James) to fully heretical writings like the Gnostic gospels (e.g., "The Gospel of Thomas").

As an EO Christian, the relatively recent modern Protestant truncation of the Christian Scriptures is not authoritative for me. Technically, the EO "canon" (or "canons") is not formally a closed issue, but what functions as the EO canon (with its slight regional variations) has no significant difference with that of the RC Church and certainly not any that would determine doctrine. (That the EO have never seen fit to formalize a declaration of the canonical books of the Scriptures they have received is one clue that the Orthodox take a different approach to spiritual authority and to the Scriptures than either RCs or Protestants.) So while it is certainly possible to oversimplify the issue of canonicity, I think it is possible to overcomplicate it as well and see it as much messier than it actually is in terms of the big picture.

As you probably know, the most ancient canons of both Eastern and Western versions of the canonical Scriptures are based on the Greek translation of the OT Scriptures known as the Septuagint (LXX). This was the OT text in use by the vast majority of the first-century Jewish communities (most of whom no longer understood Hebrew, having been dispersed throughout the Greek-speaking Eastern half of the Roman Empire). Thus this is the version of the OT that became the first Scriptures of the NT Christian communities and those communities they established and was the version of the OT most often quoted in the NT by its human authors.

At 7:58 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

(cont.) The LXX has been received in the Orthodox Church as a Holy-Spirit inspired translation. We have no modern rationalistic theories of the supposed “verbal inerrancy in the original autographs” of the Scriptures (as if that does us any good when those autographs have long since disappeared from the face of the earth, and never mind the fact that even Protestants who accept this dubious theory of the nature of Scripture's inspiration cannot even reach at least a broad consensus of a framework within which to interpret those "inerrant" words of Scripture!), so our approach to the Scriptures is not that of the Protestant Fundamentalist. Either the Holy Spirit (who inspired and guided the fallible and completely imperfect human authors of the Scriptures) can keep their meaning and nature clear and inspire their translation and application within the Church, or there is no hope for modern Christians to have any understanding of what they are intended to communicate. At least that is how it seems to me. Ultimately, it’s a matter of trust in the Holy Spirit, isn’t it? I would add that it seems to me this trust in the Holy Spirit (and what it implies for our interpretation of Church history, as well) is much more critical than the strength of the logic of our own rationalizations based on the completely human, and therefore completely fallible, process of the modern historical-critical approach to understanding the texts of the Christian Scriptures (as useful as these can sometimes be).

That said, the Orthodox understanding of the nature of the Scriptures, how their truth is discerned, and of the nature of spiritual authority in the Church is rather different (from what I have read and in my experience) from the Western traditions, whether RC or Protestant, but that’s a subject for another day (and one I’m, frankly, not really qualified to comment on). And, I've already taken up too much space on your comments thread!

I appreciate your work and the conversation.

At 9:00 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Just came across this (much more trustworthy and competent) EO perspective on the nature of Church authority and thought it might be of interest (given your comment to me above):

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Steve Finnell said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:39 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I have deleted your comment above because it did not engage with the content of the blog in any way. This is a comment thread, so if you would like to comment you are welcome to. But this is not the place to post advertisements for yourself. That is inappropriate.


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