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Taming the Shrewd? On Polemical Rights and Rhetorical Wrongs

Recently some of our friends and associates got into a minor dust-up over women bishops, intellectual empathy, and the overall posture which conservatives ought to take towards middling-to-liberal evangelicals in their midst. We think there’s something to all of this, but first a little bit of a summary of the events which lead into it.

The Church of England just barely failed to pass a measure which would have allowed for the consecration of women bishops. The British N.I.C.E.-State, including most of the clergy of the national church, responded to this failure with outrage, and Parliament hinted that the state would be willing to use coercive force to pass the measure even contrary to rules of polity and proper parliamentary procedure. All for the greater good, of course, as omnisciently known by Nanny.

Former bishop N.T. Wright responded to all of this with righteous indignation, telling the politicians to back off and respect the church’s prophetic voice, which voice just so happened to be saying that they would all get what they want eventually, if they could just tone it down a notch and let the Church of England find a way, in its fierce prophetic independence, to get with the program on its own. In his message he deployed two rhetorical sleights-of-hand.

The first of them was exegetical, or rather, counter-exegetical. He attempted to neutralize the argumentative force of a Biblical passage by claiming that “serious scholars” disagree about it, apparently with no hope of resolution in sight, and most certainly no hope of it before the decision is made about women bishops, which therefore must be made on other grounds. The strong implication was that “serious scholars” actually do agree on this point, and in fact agree with Bp. Wright on it. The maneuver was bad argument, and, incidentally, untrue.

The second was to abjure the spirit of the age, and to insist that the Church must make its decisions only on its own principles. Some of which, presumably, would be Biblical – except 1 Timothy 2:12, which is, as the disagreement of the serious scholars supposedly proves, obscure. But the spirit by which the church would make its decision turns out to be a vague spirit of the “new creation,” without much exegetical support. The question which you are doubtless posing to yourself now is, how exactly would a spirit of the new creation, untethered by Scriptural obscurities, differ from the spirit of the age? Not by much, as it turns out. It supports exactly the same conclusion in this case, but, we are told for very different reasons indeed. How are those reasons different? They’re churchy, that’s how. Different. Thus, the zeitgeistish rationale for unisexist compelle intrare is ushered in speedily under cover of fending it off.

So Pastor Douglas Wilson called out Wright at this point, with a response somewhere between a belly guffaw and an “oh, please!” He thought Wright’s statement unworthy of much engagement, lest otherwise well-intentioned persons dignify fallacy with serious consideration. Brad Littlejohn then protested against this means of conversation, identifying both the British Left and Wilson, as representative of the American Right, as doing violence to proper reason and rhetoric. Mr. Littlejohn feared that both would actually hinder biblical fidelity and proper church unity, as well as run the risk of alienating various other Christian onlookers. Mr. Littlejohn demanded intellectual sympathy; Pr. Wilson called for Evangelical backbone. What should we think of these varying concerns?

How Then Should We Debate?

Pr. Wilson does sometimes seem to fall back a little too easily on mockery as a method, though in principle he subscribes all the safeguards, and in practice doesn’t let it ever really substitute for reasoning. Still, it is one of his trademarks, and it often puts off readers not already in his camp. In this case, however, it is quite clear that it isn’t merely default scorn.

Behind the always-interesting punditry, and aside from the often excellent pulpitry, perceptive readers will find Wilson the pedagogue to be successor in many respects to figures of the American liberal arts revival such as Mortimer Adler or Scott Buchanan. Pr. Wilson cares much more than people often remember or give him credit for about those lost tools of learning. What made him outright laugh at Bp. Wright was not Wright’s position on women’s ordination, though he certainly thinks that’s astoundingly wrongheaded. But wrongheadedness as such doesn’t make Pr. Wilson laugh to scorn: he is quite capable, as he has shown on very many occasions, of dealing very respectfully with atheists with whom he disagrees about nearly everything; a fortiori, he is quite capable of talking respectfully with a sincere Christian with whom he disagrees about one thing. What made Pr. Wilson laugh at Bp. Wright’s argument, rather than simply oppose it, were precisely those rhetorical sleights-of-hand and failures of reason, because Pr. Wilson cares a great deal about the integrity of reason, of argument, and of those once-lost, now newly recovered, tools of learning. He believes in headship of the head, as it were. When someone has abdicated this headship of their head by employing sophistries, the response, in Pr. Wilson’s view, is to signal very loudly what just happened. Pr Wilson has said that he generally holds Bp. Wright in high regard, and that he has mostly had flattering things to say about him, but that Bp Wright’s latest foray into philology and prophetical emperor-rebuke is, well, laughable.

It is important to note that most of us quite legitimately use this conversational maneuver whenever an interlocutor has gone so far out of argumentative bounds that we have to acknowledge, if we want to continue talking at all, that normal discourse has stopped, and the best we can do to get it started again is saying something like “Oh, please!” This doesn’t in itself signify lack of respect or even affection; friends have to do it to friends sometimes, spouses even have to do it to spouses. It can be misused, but it has its place. When the person on the receiving end of such a nudge is well-intentioned, they usually, if a little shamefacedly, take the cue. Which is what Pr. Wilson was obviously hoping for.

Intellectual Empathy

While ridicule is sometimes appropriate, it also has its limits. The warrant for legitimate ridicule is the certitude that the person whose arguments one is about to laugh out of court knows better than to argue that way. It can stop a failing conversation in the hopes of restarting it according to the rules of discourse, but it also runs the risk of alienating participants who might not know better.

Two of our friends who did object to Pr. Wilson’s approach are Brad Littlejohn and Alastair Roberts (who shows up in the comments of Wilson’s blog). Messrs. Littlejohn and Roberts are neither of them supporters either of women’s ordination or of bad arguments, and so their concern is important to note. Mr. Littlejohn’s concern regarding Pr. Wilson’s response was that it runs the risk of alienating a wide range of orthodox evangelicals who see Bp. Wright as a sort of figurehead, and who might not see his exegetical reasoning the same way Pr. Wilson does, namely, as a kind of dodge. And as Mr. Roberts has pointed out, women preachers do have a long history in English Dissent, and Dissent is back of English evangelicalism, even of evangelicalism in the established church. This being the case, their reception of Bp. Wright’s position, and the relative importance they grant it in the pastoral scheme of things, may constitute a special case which requires greater shrewdness in handling than it might here. Without proper intellectual, social, political, and ecclesiastical formation, the escape-hatch hermeneutics, while still dishonest in its way, is understandable, especially the uncritical acceptance of it by those disposed to do so by longstanding bad custom. It comes from a desire not so much to evade the Bible as to defend the Bible, but with the tragic caveat that, in this case, the Bible is having to be defended from itself.

To Pr. Wilson, the appeal to British context sounds like asking us to pull the frog very slowly out of the pot because that’s how it’s used to being boiled; but perhaps matters are more complicated. It is always wise to remember that, in a diverse world, there are Jeremiads and there are Obadiads.

What’s Wrong With Wright

We think Wilson was right to give special attention to Bp. Wright’s bad arguments in particular. He is indeed a very important figure in the English church and, through his writings, to the evangelical church throughout the world. Pr. Wilson has said that he mostly has praise for Bp. Wright and that his eminence is deserved, and that what especially grieves him is to see bad arguments coming from an otherwise good teacher.

We wouldn’t go as far as Pr. Wilson does in praising Bp. Wright, and we will go much farther in critique. Bp. Wright plays much too fast and loose with history, and scorns traditional Protestant theology (although he seems almost completely unacquainted with it) in favor of a supposedly breakthrough understanding of the New Testament which had eluded everyone until very recently. His misapprehension of traditional doctrine has been pointed out by Stephen Holmes, and Mark Seifrid has also shown how Bp. Wright’s haste to arrive at his innovation leads to bad method in NT exegesis, unlike Luther’s genuine doctrinal renewal, which was founded on rigorous philology. When you add Bp. Wright’s evident sense for publicity to his impulse for innovation at the expense of tradition, that he is need of pointed correction becomes all the more clear. One can also expect from him a Barthian disregard for settled civic and creational order in favor of a spirit of the “new creation,” an ontology which does violence to more than just the conversation.

There are areas to appreciate in Wright, namely his work on the gospels and the theological significance of the resurrection. It would be a good thing for Bp. Wright and for the church if he could become a little more intellectually circumspect. Still, at this time his antics are unsurprising, and so we believe that Pr. Wilson is well within his rights to call them out. We only hope that the good bishop will notice.

Women’s Ordination?

The topic of women’s ordination is too involved to consider closely here. But in brief review, what can be said is that before settling the question of whether and in what way it can be considered adiaphoron, or why older theologians like Luther or even Calvin could display a surprising degree of apparent flexibility with regard to certain exceptional forms of the question, we are in serious need of settling the question of what it is in the first place, and thus what ministry is. Is it preaching? Doctrinal exegesis? Spiritual direction? Liturgical presidency? All these things? Is it exhaustively comprehensive of spiritual leadership, or not? Roman Catholics, with their doctrine of priesthood (priests, as mystical participants of Christ’s victim-priesthood, must be male in order to be specially conformed to Jesus, a male, for the purpose), give a rationale for male-only ordination which we cannot, since we do not share their doctrine. But many evangelicals do not really know what our own doctrine is.

Pr. Wilson makes the excellent point that if the Gospel is the restoration of nature, then the harmonious polarity of man and woman is one of the things remediated rather than undone, which makes the Pauline sexual criterion of eligibility for teaching office a matter, at least indirectly, of the Gospel. To him, female ordination distorts the work of Christ by teaching a false anthropology, a false soteriology, and a false eschatology. It almost always involves a denial of the authority of Scripture as well, since it must sideline those rather direct Pauline prohibitions. Thus, it is not the sort of matter with which churches can safely allow disagreement and pluralistic settlements.

In any case, one might legitimately say that 1 Timothy 2:12 is a relative ruling of Paul’s prudence, especially given the sense of violent rather than ordinary authority implied by authentein and Paul’s harking back to Genesis, which of course has it in 3:16 that in the world of the Fall the woman shall desire to dominate her husband. If fallen disposition is in fact what Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy 2:12, then it cannot be a ruling reflecting primordial nature restored in Christ in any absolute way, and what we have is discipline, not essence of the Gospel.

And of course, as for what constitutes the essence of the Gospel, proponents of women’s ordination will point to Matthew 22:30 and Galatians 3:28 as principially normative, and this is an account one ought to be able to answer. The response to this Biblical argument for women’s ordination would need to involve a discussion of how the work of Christ and its eschatological import are appropriately applied in this present world. For instance, if there truly is no longer “male nor female in Christ,” and this is applied in all ways temporal as well as spiritual, then why did Paul go on to say so much about male and female roles, as they agree and disagree? Also, if there is no longer sexuality, gender, and marriage (don’t forget!) in the visible and institutional Church, then why has the Church always had a marriage rite and placed such significance upon the institution? Is it really the case that centuries of Christians, to include other New Testament authors, did not understand their own theology, and yet we do? 1 Timothy 2 is not the only place where these matters are addressed: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, Ephesians 5:22–6:9, Colossians 3:18–4:1, Titus 1:6, and 1 Peter 2:13–3:7 all address temporal hierarchy and various distinctions, to include jurisdiction, between the sexes.

And it might well be that Paul, in 1 Timothy 2, has in view both primordial complementarity and fallen disposition, thus involving the gracious work of Christ and His Spirit and causing his own advice to be prudential and pastoral. This would still make his ruling not exactly of the essence of the Gospel. But, even if not the Gospel itself, an ancillary ruling of divinely inspired apostolic prudence, understood in light of its principles and context, is a weighty-enough authority. No argument claiming biblical fidelity can be satisfied with merely sidelining such a ruling along with its principles and context. It must account for them.

But again, the question of what ordination is needs new light. As it is, in this dispute, contestants are mostly scrapping over offices of power in institutions which, although in principle legitimate, are not of the essence of the church. The traditionally orthodox too often end up defending peripheral territory which any old Puritan critic of prelacy could have told them often isn’t worth saving, and they neglect the central charism, the cultivated form of which would be a winning argument in itself regarding this matter. Too, we would suggest that the question is a much broader one than the clericalist and secularist division of things would have it. If ordination to public office is a provision of the visible kingdom and visible hierarchy, then this includes all sorts of civic offices too, and Pauline reasoning at least by analogy would extend to these; in fact, it could be argued that this broader principle is something he in fact presumes as given and prior in his particular rulings regarding the liturgical assembly. Having given up on this broader foundation, however, the traditionalists in the Church often do appear to be arguing arbitrarily, based upon proof-texts used only very selectively. In short, complementarianism must exist in all spheres of creation, or it will exist meaningfully in none.

This is a discussion which can be had maturely and in the end, decisively. It must begin with a consideration of what kind of question it is, and what is for certain from the start is that it is a very important one. Our own position is the traditional one, which we think is exegetically and rationally beyond any real doubt. But the fact that some such as Bp. Wright make miserable arguments doesn’t relieve us of the duty to make very good ones, and part of that means not only making rigorous exegetical arguments, but also knowing enough about our audience to be able to find the best road to persuasion.

On Conversation

Is reasonable discussion on this too much to ask? We don’t think so. In the case of Bp. Wright’s statement, the reasonable thing was actually to laugh at his unreason. But it is also reasonable to give those who aren’t making those kinds of arguments, but are entertaining the position, the benefit of the doubt, and to meet them where they are. Christ’s heavenly power renounces Hell’s. If we are to imitate him in everything, that everything includes our manner of conversation, and so we ought to forgo, all of us, any attempt at the leverage which sophistry might gain us. Imitating Christ with our minds means renouncing the spurious power of sophistries, relying only on truth; but relying on truth means meekness of mind, and scorning only that which scorns reality.

This does bring us back to the issue of intellectual empathy, but it also brings us to political awareness and pastoral canny. We must be aware of all of the factors. We must always spurn error, and sometimes we must openly scorn it; but we must always have a deep sympathy for those making the mistakes, in order to understand how to reach them, and in remembrance of our own follies. And where we disagree in a genuinely contestable matter, we must always draw close the circle of friendship and reason together according to the law of the one Logos, which is reason’s original and its only light. The old saying is true: in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. But let us also add, given the day in which we live, in all things truth.

By Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante

Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante are the founders and editors of The Calvinist International.

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