A few years back I was asked by the church I was then pastoring to lead an adult class on the topic of women’s roles. In preparation for the class, I went back into the debate between those who insist on and those who protest against restrictions on what women can do. I’d read widely in this debate before, but this time I was struck by how each position could appeal to much in the Scriptures to support its viewpoint. I realized that each group was taking one block of data as normative and explaining the rest of the data in light of it.
For example, those who took the restrictive position were taking certain of Paul’s statements as normative and explaining the many women in the Bible whom God seems to have called into roles that violated these statements as exceptions, understandable in light of their place and time and specific circumstances. Those who argued against restrictions took the example of these women as normative and explained Paul’s statements as exceptions, understandable in light of their place and time and specific circumstances!
So which approach was right? Was each side in the debate simply privileging certain data based on its own prior convictions, preferences, and presuppositions? Was it inevitable that all interpreters would do this, so that the debate could never be resolved? In cases where the Bible seems to be ambiguous, so that interpreters of good will can legitimately differ, is it simply up to us to decide? Or might there be, I asked myself, some overarching principle, organizing theme, or grand narrative arc in Scripture that allowed us to determine in large, disputed cases like this from the Bible itself what was normative and what was exceptional?
I decided to approach the class from the viewpoint that there is a grand design in Scripture that we can follow in order to determine what elements in the Bible are normative and what elements are exceptional. As a rule most Christians appeal to the life and teachings of Jesus as the normative part of the Bible and they explain more difficult parts in light of his teaching and example. While I agree with this entirely, I’m going to try to take it a little further. I see the life and teachings of Jesus as the culmination of God’s work, pursued throughout the course of the history of the divine-human relationship recorded in the Bible, to restore what was lost at the time of the first creation by bringing in a new creation. Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” to describe God’s activity breaking into the present creation in order ultimately to bring about the new creation. (I understand the term in this sense: the kingdom of God is present on earth wherever and whenever God’s will is done without resistance, that is, on earth as it is in heaven.)
The implications are that some elements in the Bible represent provisional arrangements that God has made to govern and regulate relationships in the present creation that’s awaiting renewal, while other elements represent arrangements that God is introducing as part of the inbreaking kingdom in order to bring about this renewal, and so they reflect God’s original and ultimate intentions. The apparently conflicting data can be resolved by describing some of it as provisional and therefore subordinate to the remaining data that is original and ultimate.
Now I realize that some people will disagree with me about which arrangements belong in each category. That’s an exciting discussion I’m looking forward to having.
But others may disagree with me about the grand organizing principle of the Bible. They may counter, for example, that the Bible is actually the history of the several dispensations by which God has governed his relationship with humanity and the world, and that data relative to the current “church” dispensation (basically that found in the New Testament epistles, even more so than in the teachings of Jesus) must be privileged above data relating to any of the other dispensations. There can be no resolution to the debate at this level. In other words, if you’re going to come along for the rest of this blog, you need to be willing to engage my arguments within my understanding of the grand organizing principle, and not appeal to another principle to invalidate them. Fair enough?