Feeling the Force of Feminism

18 06 2008

At present I’m making incursions into enemy territory as I research my MTh thesis, handling the claims and criticisms of academic theology, seeking to keep my head amidst a maelstrom of anti-inspiration invective. The latest area of conflict that I’m billeted in is that of feminist theology, and its proving to be a hard station.

Perhaps before I make any other statements on this, a qualifier is needed. I’m not dealing here with the issue of women in ministry, nor am I speaking of those women who are making an argument for a greater degree of respect to be paid to femininity within the church. I have my own views on each of these issues, but they are not my concern here. Rather, by feminist theology I am speaking of radical feminism, with its virulent antagonism against all things male in Scripture.

I am researching ‘Father language’ in John’s Gospel, with the high incidence of Jesus’ describing God as His Father (with all of the intimacy that such a term suggests) as my focus. By divine providence I am covering this issue at a time when I am preparing for fatherhood myself, and it is proving a rich seam of thought, academically and personally.

The sad thing is that feminism seems to hate fatherhood – particularly that of God. I could multiply a whole host of quotes to support the above statement, but one from Karen Bloomquist will more than illustrate:

“A crucial theological agenda in the conversion from patriarchy is the transformation of God-language and imagery. Exclusively male imagery and language for God continues to legitimize patriarchy and the paradigm of male ‘control over’ that undergirds the violence-laden situation we find ourselves in today. It is not that male God-language is in itself generative of violence, but that it comes to function that way within the central power-over dictates of patriarchy…Changing God-language and imagery is not an elitist exercise but a key step in the conversion from patriarchy”. [Quoted in Thompson: The Promise of the Father]

Such statements (and believe me I could fill an entire blog with examples of them) betray something deep at the heart of academic feminist theology – that of the supremacy of the modern reader over the text. Bloomquist is able to assert her own position with frank authority, without any sense of caveat or proviso. Her word is truth, and God’s Word is negotiable. It is fascinating to read from the works of those who feel that the text can be converted by them rather than vice versa, and that they can make demands of God’s Word rather than God’s Word making demands on them.

It is doubtful that any other ideological presumption could carry the sense of self assured authority and absolutism that feminism does. Were I, for instance, to state my views as a conservative evangelical with the same force within theological discourse, my approach would be ruled out of reason as being presuppositional and laden with bias. Feministic approaches seem to feel vindicated in steam rollering the text with little qualification.

This is not to mention the tragic view of fatherhood which such an approach embodies. There is no doubt that abuses by fathers in the past provide rich soil for criticism of fatherhood generally, but this is by no means the norm. Instead, God’s depiction as Father within Scripture is one of compassion, dignity, grace, and justice – a far cry from the ‘violence-laden situation’ which feminism describes. One wonders how far such a denigrating view of fatherhood has filtered down from feminism within the academy to family life in reality. As men we are given a pretty low bar to live down to, and it is little wonder that many have failed to see the fundamental dignity of godly masculinity, and fatherhood which follows the example of the Father.


Hermeneutical Humility: New and Old

24 10 2007

There’s a lot of talk in the Christian world concerning humility and the handling of God’s Word. Prominent in this discussion are some of the statements emanating from America’s branch of the Emerging Church. According to this school of thought, humility as applied to Scripture entails a sense of uncertainty about Scripture’s meaning, message, or authority. Kristen Bell’s now famous statement in the November 2004 edition of ‘Christianity Today’ is fairly representative of this new brand of ‘humility’:

‘I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible, that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like like is big again – like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color’.

Such statements are always full of poison-candy charm. It sounds appealing, meek, and culturally sensitive to say that we don’t know, we’re not sure, we’re too humble to make positive or concrete statements. It sounds as though such an approach is an attractive alternative to the burgeoning certainty of those of us who describe ourselves as conservative evangelicals. It sounds as though this kind of ‘humility’ should resonate well with our culture, and should give it a unique selling point to a generation which doesn’t know where its centre of seat of authority is located.

Sadly, the truth is very different.

This ‘hermeneutic humility’ leaves the Church, and individual Christians, in exaclty the kind of moral and interpretative morass that theological liberalism effected a century ago. We are left with a Bible whose truth is suspect, whose authority is not only questionable but denied, and a faith whose epistemological basis is no more certain than the whim and fancy of the latest guru interpreter who might enter the ‘conversation’. It renders the Bible an intellectually suspect, devotionally compromised, theologically open document which has no more authority to speak to man’s heart or conscience than the latest edition of ‘Hello’ magazine – a hopelessly subjective source of non-certainty, non-authority, non-exclusive truth. It provides the Church with a Bible which cannot speak with any clarity in church life, public discourse, or personal discipleship. It is a Bible which will not work in teaching the heart, convicting the conscience, or engendering faith. It is a Bible which will make no sense in the ICU waiting room, in the hospice ward, or at the graveside of a loved one. It is a Bible which has no right to teach us how to live, or to view the world. It is a Bible evacuated of its power to convey the solid Truth of God to a generation floundering for want of certainty, and hungry for it. In short it leaves the Church and individual with a Bible which won’t speak at any meaningful level.

The hermeneutic humility articulated by J.C. Ryle in the introduction to his ‘Expository Thoughts on John’ is much more consistent, God-honouring and intellectually viable. His ‘humility’ is not the synonym for relativistic ignorance that Bell advocates – a humility which exalts man and situation over the text. Rather his is the humility of a finite mind brought low before the powerful Word of God; a conscience convicted of its own weakness and profound inability:

‘I believe that the inspired writers were infallibly guided by the Holy Ghost, both in their selection of matter and their choice of words. I believe that even now, when we cannot explain alleged difficulties in Holy Scripture, the wisest course is to blame the interpreter and not the text, to suspect our own ignorance to be in fault, and not any defect in God’s Word…I believe that the want of our age is not more “free” handling of the Bible, but more “reverent” handling, more humility, more patient study, more prayer. I repeat my own firm conviction, that no theory of inspiration involves so few difficulties as that of “plenary verbal inspiration”. To that theory I entirely adhere.’

Oh, for more of this kind of humility. Broken-hearted, bowed-knee, wounded-conscience humility which seeks certainty in spite of our fallen propensity to misunderstand, misinterpret and misappropriate. How we need it, how the Church needs it; how our sin-obsessed, moral freefall generation needs to see it embodied in our bold proclamation of ‘Thus says the Lord’!

The Point of Contention Pt.1 – The Truth War

4 10 2007

This evening I finished reading The Truth War by John MacArthur. Since I first read one of his paperbacks twelve or thirteen years ago, I have found myself repeatedly challenged by MacArthur’s strict adherence to the Word of God and bold public defense of its truths. The Truth War finds him in stirring form, writing passionately and powerfully about the need for the contemporary Christian to stand up for truth amidst a postmodern, emergent, prevaricating culture – both within and without the church.

The basis for the book is the New Testament epistle of Jude, with its urgent call to Christians to ‘contend for the faith’ in the face of widespread apostasy and unbelief. MacArthur’s focus is at once expository (considering the threats of which Jude was writing), ideological (thinking through the means and methods by which Satan uses false teaching to undermine the church generally) and practical (suggesting ways in which believers might arm themselves for the ‘Truth War’). Much of his application is directed against the ‘Emerging Church’ movement, and he spares no blows when dealing with some of the statements made by Brian McLaren and Rob Bell on issues of orthodoxy and truth.

I imagine that some reviewers of this book in days to come will make much of MacArthur’s militant language, and accuse him of being ungracious, uncouth and unloving. Nothing could be further from the truth. Time and again the author emphasises that he is not advocating sectarianism or divisiveness, and argues strongly in the final chapter that love should characterise every engagement with those who undermine gospel truth – even when dealing with those who are propagating and teaching error. Anyone who accuses MacArthur of an unloving stance simply hasn’t read this book closely enough, nor understood the urgency of the issues with which he deals.

In many sections MacArthur’s earnest love for, and defense of, truth are on clear display. Here’s a sample:

‘My heart resonates with Jude’s concern for the church, his love for the gospel, and his passion for the truth. I too would prefer to write about something positive – concerning such things as the riches of salvation and all the joy and blessings that belong to all who are truly in Christ; our love for the Lord; and especially His grace and glory. In fact, this book is ultimately about those things and how to safeguard them, because they are precisely the points of truth that are ultimately at stake in the Truth War.’ [xxvi]

One other clever aspect of the book is its use of episodes from church history to illustrate the need to stand for truth. As I read these sections it brought out something which has risen to the forefront of my thoughts over the past few months as I have worked my way through the biographies of great men in church history: namely how many were called to wage war and contend for the truth of the gospel. MacArthur writes:

‘The handful of vignettes from church history we have examined together in this book are only a brief introduction to how the Truth War has been fought over the past two millennia. I hope what we have examined here will provoke you to pursue the study further on your own. Look at any period of church history and you will discover this significant fact: Whenever the people of God have sought peace with the world or made alliances with false religions, it has meant a period of serious spritual decline, even to the point where at times the truth seemed almost to be in total eclipse. But whenever Christians have contended earnestly for the faith, the church has grown and the cause of truth has prospered. May it be so in our time.’ [184]

Over the next while I hope to follow this counsel and post some thoughts on contention from my biographical readings, and from ‘The Truth War’, drawing out the difference that contention has made for the truth of the gospel and the expansion of Christ’s kingdom. It will be a sporadic series over the next number of months, Lord willing.

Finally, I heartily commend this book to all. As with any publication there are elements with which I am not entirely comfortable. His use of metaphors from America’s ‘War on Terror’ leave me a little uneasy at times, and a slight tendency to sweep all those who are propounding various errors into the emergent camp is somewhat offputting. But these are minor concerns to say the least.

If you’re interested in reading The Truth War for yourself, or in the issues with which it deals, Pyromaniacs are hosting a discussion post sometime this month which will be interesting, provocative, and well worth looking out for.