Canonical fidelity vs. empirical integrity (feminist theology and other challenges)

I just read a chapter in Adam Kotsko’s Politics of Redemption which engages feminist critiques of the cross. One aspect of the feminist theology I have encountered that makes me squirm as an evangelical is its willingness to toss out pieces of the Biblical canon if they seem to promote misogyny. I am willing to read the Bible with the same liberationist agenda that Jesus and Paul both had, but I consider myself bound to the epistemic foundation of canonical fidelity, meaning that I don’t throw anything out, even when God tells Joshua to slaughter all the women and children of some Canaanite city or when the Levite in Judges 19 pulls a Jeffrey Dahmer on his concubine. Biblical authority is a line in the sand for me, but given that, to what degree am I accountable to what I would call empirical integrity? Do I owe any responsibility to the reality that I share with people who aren’t interpreting it through my canonical filter?

Feminist theologians are coming from a different epistemic starting point than I have: whatever has been used to justify the oppression of woman is wrong and completely stripped of its credibility, regardless of what sacred walls have to be kicked down in the process. For example, if calling God “Father” has factored into the oppression of women, then a new name for God needs to be found.

I actually wrote a song called “Mama” about God when I was in my early twenties since I felt that God’s male-genderedness was the basis for all the evil Christians had committed throughout history: “Why should a girl call you her dad? If you called yourself a mom, then boys would learn you don’t bless swords, they’d learn to get along…” My wife and I used a New Zealand version of the Lord’s Prayer at our wedding which refers to God as father and mother.

So I can’t justify in terms of a feminist episteme why I went back to calling God “Father” in seminary. But I did. Part of what happened was I went with some youth to the annual North Carolina Methodist youth gathering called Pilgrimage, and the speaker was trying out some gender-neutral words for the Trinity: fountain, well-spring, and waterfall, or something like that.

All of my youth were rolling their eyes and asking, “What’s that woman talking about? She’s SO boring!” It was probably the most tone-deaf youth message I have ever encountered. And maybe it’s unfair that I associated her cluelessness about talking to youth with her word choice for the Trinity, but it felt careless in a whimsical, “mainline-ish” kind of way to play around with words for God without any regard for the words the Bible actually uses.

I was in a class taught by a fairly conservative British theologian named Geoffrey Wainwright at the time. Somehow the topic of gender and Trinitarian names came up, and Wainwright said something like, “Well, Jesus said Father so I say Father, but that doesn’t mean that fathers get to be God.” That’s basically the stance that I’ve taken since then. I’m very uncomfortable with the thought of inventing my own names for God. Something about the sacredness of the One to whom I pray requires that certain aspects of the way I address God get handed down to me by someone else.

So in terms of Trinitarian names, I’m pretty obstinate. Even if it were somehow sociologically “proven” that calling God “Father” creates a culture of misogyny, my defense would be to say an abusive interpretation of scripture doesn’t invalidate the scripture that has been abusively interpreted. But is this defense always justified? Many people do the same thing with penal substitution theology (a version of which I want to affirm). I’ve often heard that just because the (almost universally accepted) “caricatures” of penal substitution turn many evangelical Christians into retributive Javerts, their misinterpretation doesn’t merit a critique of the “real” theology behind it (which you’re not allowed to critique until you’ve read every book that Packer, Grudem, Sproul, and Carson have ever published).

Having been on both sides of these kinds of debates, I think evangelicals play the “straw man” card way too eagerly when faced with challenges to our theology that should not be dismissed so easily. Is there ever a circumstance in which an old and very established theological tree needs to be chopped down or at least pruned on the basis of its rotten fruit even if its Biblical roots are technically sound? 200 years ago, it was inconceivable for many Christians that a practice like slavery which was condoned explicitly by the Bible should be condemned on the basis of a general sense of human equality loosely derived from Christian sensibilities. But Jesus did say that trees are judged by their fruit and not just their roots (Luke 6:44).

I’m dealing with the question of original sin for my sermon this weekend. I agree with the theological affirmations that make original sin a necessary doctrine: God only creates good things; He’s never the author of evil; but humans somehow find ourselves self-centered and broken to a degree that requires God’s grace to deliver us. That is a paradox that requires a story to explain it.

But is it okay to admit with “safely orthodox” Christian thinkers C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton that Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden is a “true myth,” a God-breathed, non-historical, though absolutely real story that represents the truth of the human condition? Choosing autonomy over dependence on God is the first move underneath all sin; it opens our eyes to our naked fragility and begins the downward spiral of a life of deception in which we hide from each other and God.

But then there’s the other question of what I do with the fact that there are people walking around who act more like Jesus than I do even though they don’t call themselves Jesus’ disciples. It seems to require a lack of empirical integrity for me to say that they are “totally depraved” for the sake of my theological convictions or even to qualify their spiritual fruit as being the product of a very limited “common grace” from God. Why then does their common grace often trump whatever uncommon grace I have received in terms of producing real Galatians 5:22 spiritual fruit? I can’t ignore the fruit.

I do believe that even the most virtuous agnostic does lack the same critical thing the rich young ruler lacked when he asked Jesus whether he was perfect (Mark 10:21). Even almost perfect people lack the moral strength not to be turned into ungracious misers as the byproduct of living an excessively virtuous life unless they are able to deflect the praise of others by crediting their virtues with genuine heartfelt conviction to God’s grace working through them.

I also think we need the humbling thorn (2 Corinthians 12:7) of believing that our sins made Jesus die so that our souls won’t swell up with the Luciferian self-worship that makes our goodness diabolical. Because I’m unwilling to be dismissive of what my eyes have witnessed in certain non-Christians, I have to be open to the possibility of there being a non-Christian means of inhabiting the same reality of humble dependence upon God that is constitutive of Christian discipleship. Regardless, whatever good we accomplish has the perilous likelihood of cursing us with self-righteousness outside of humble dependence upon God.

So I guess my point in all this is that there is a real tension between empirical integrity and canonical fidelity, Scientists like my dad who cannot believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 really are doing so out of a commendable integrity in the face of knowledge God has revealed to them about the natural world. They aren’t just “conforming” to the world out of peer pressure or some nonsense. And the converse is true: you really can lose your integrity because of what you take to be a fidelity to scripture. You can cling to the Bible’s words in a way that is contemptuous of God’s truth even if the Bible is the essential canon of God’s truth.

As I was in the middle of writing this, my youngest son wanted me to read him the story of Noah’s Ark while he sat on the toilet. Reading about the pairing of every animal species two by two and thinking about that species of bird that migrates each year from the Arctic to Antarctic Circle, I pondered what kind of supersonic, cataclysmic bird-call Noah would have to make to draw all those species of animals from far away (lemurs, kangaroos, etc) who would have to swim through thousands of miles of open ocean from different continents to get to wherever he was. And how he would fit millions of species into a boat whose dimensions are explicitly given as five stories tall and the length of a football field. And how he could keep tally standing at the bottom of the plank so he would know to say, “Actually we’ve already got two” if a third rhinoceros were to show up. Hmm… All of these logistical details don’t bother you when you’re a three year old sitting on the potty.

I’m cool just living in the story. I don’t need to calculate the rate at which water would have to leave the sky in order to fill the surface area of the Earth with water the depth of Mt. Everest in just forty days’ time. Well okay if you insist… 510 * 10^9 m^2 (Earth’s surface area) * 8850 m (Mt. Everest) * 264 gallons/m^3 / (40 days * 24 hrs * 60 min) = 2.07 * 10^13 gallons per minute / surface area = 40.6 gallons per square meter per minute assuming a nonstop steady pace of rain for 40 days and nights. Of course not the whole Earth is at sea level, but the vast majority of it is at or close to it, so the real number would be a little bit lower. Sorry I geeked out. I guess I just find it a lot more plausible that there was some kind of unusual monsoon (or glacier melt) somewhere around the ancient Near East at some point in history that devastated a region and almost killed everyone, which then generated legends that found their way into every tribes’ religion, including the story of Noah that the Holy Spirit appropriated and shaped for God’s purposes.

I do believe that the Earth was likely full of violence and evil (Genesis 6:5) during the transition from small nomadic hunter-gatherer clans to agricultural city states that gained enough of a handle on survival to start feuds with one another. Maybe God saw the violence and responded very concretely and historically by sending a natural disaster. Even if this is true, it’s still irresponsible and disrespectful of God’s sovereignty to casually attribute natural disasters to God’s wrath today.

Or maybe the ancient Israelites simply attributed every natural occurrence to God’s mood and sought an explanation for a year of good rain or a devastating earthquake in the virtues or vices of their society. Why should God have corrected them and said, “Look guys, this is meteorology, not wrath!” if their way of narrating natural occurrences as anthropomorphic expressions of God’s judgment led them to deeper holiness? Is it okay for there to be an arc throughout scripture that goes from a foggier grasp of God’s nature to a perfectly concrete manifestation in Jesus Christ? Is it okay for us to view scripture as a patient, thousand plus year teaching process that God underwent with His people? This is how C.S. Lewis categorizes things in Weight of Glory:

The earlier stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythological—hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becoming more and more historical… Finally you reach the New Testament and history remains supreme, and the Truth is incarnate.

I’m not uncomfortable with God inspiring the ancient Israelites to write things that did not perfectly represent the technical details of the natural order around them as part of His process of developing a relationship with them. It can be God-breathed and useful for teaching without being scientific or historical.

In any case, I want to be faithful to the Biblical canon despite everything, but I also feel obliged to take seriously the challenges that my empirical integrity compels me to wrestle through, whether this has to do with patriarchy, original sin, or ancient floods. 1 Peter 1:22 speaks of “obedience to the truth.” This requires both fidelity and integrity.

13 thoughts on “Canonical fidelity vs. empirical integrity (feminist theology and other challenges)

  1. I enjoyed this article. What’s funny is when you are comfortable with your beliefs, it’s not a matter of reading someone’s blog and deciding in whether you agree or disagree with everything, but you see how God is moving in even some of the most minute details.

    What stood out to me was this:

    “I’m not uncomfortable with God inspiring the ancient Israelites to write things that did not perfectly represent the technical details of the natural order around them as part of His process of developing a relationship with them. It can be God-breathed and useful for teaching without being scientific or historical.”

    Growing up LDS for twenty years, I didn’t have a lot of respect for the Bible, especially in light of the Book of Mormon. However, over the past few months, I have discovered people like Peter Enns and Greg Boyd who take commendable hermeneutical approaches to scripture in light of issues they find while reading the Bible by way of a Cross filter. It doesn’t mean, as you said, that we throw things out, but we have to discern and divide the Bible correctly and appropriately. If you’re not familiar with Boyd’s idea behind cruciform hermeneutics, it’s an interesting concept (; one that I’ve been wrestling with for a while before finding his material, and while I wouldn’t say I only agree with him because he’s “famous” and I’m a liberal Christian, I will say I do think it fits into the grand narrative of scripture fairly well, even if it doesn’t provide every answer. Then again, what does apart from Jesus? 🙂

  2. I’m a radical feminist, but I don’t throw anything out of the canon. I may interpret it differently than do literalists, but I throw nothing out. I tend to think of misogynist passages as simply reflecting the understanding of human authors at the time. The Scriptures are divinely inspired but are written by human hands and human hearts. We must read the Bible–all of it, in its entirety–to get some sense of humanity’s changing understanding of God and growing relationship with God. If we throw out chunks of the Bible, we will fail to understand how our relationship with God has grown and evolved through the workings of the Holy Spirit.

  3. I realize this wasn’t the main thrust of your post, but as far as Trinitarian language is concerned I have occasionally used Creator, Christ, and Comforter in place of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It seems to me that they are both descriptive and Biblically based without being gender specific.

  4. Morgan, various thoughts:
    1. On feminist language for God:
    “Well, Jesus said Father so I say Father, but that doesn’t mean that fathers get to be God.” That’s basically the stance that I’ve taken since then. I’m very uncomfortable with the thought of inventing my own names for God. Something about the sacredness of the One to whom I pray requires that certain aspects of the way I address God get handed down to me by someone else.”
    Also, Elizabeth Achtemeier has a great article on the issue.
    And, for feminist criticisms of atonement theology, the Robert Sherman “King, Priest, and Prophet” book has a good section, as well as the Boersma book, and the Paul J. Gorman’s “Cruciformity.”
    2. On Total Depravity and Common Grace – Common grace isn’t just a “little” thing, or a mere concession. It is a strong affirmation of God’s work in non-Christians. Calvin used to say that to discount the truth found in pagan thinkers was to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. It’s only “little” if you think it is, but that’s not the classic teaching. Also, Total Depravity does not mean that people are totally as bad as they possibly could be. It means that every part of them, body, soul, mind, etc. has been affected to some degree by the Fall. There is no super-divine part that gets through untouched like our reason, etc. This is why Reformed thinkers were suspicious of claims of universal reason before Nietzsche and Derrida ever came on the scene.
    3. On Lewis and Chesterton—They affirmed the whole historical myth thing, and the very classic doctrines of Fall, original sin and depravity. Chesterton was a very orthodox Catholic. You can do both. Also, Lewis wasn’t talking about the idea that in the older part of the Bible, God is portrayed decently, but then he’s portrayed better. I think there is progressive revelation, and of course, we need to take the narrative-form into account, but whether or not the historical flood happened, whether it was local, how the details work out, etc. at the very least, the final canonical form is telling us something about the way God looks at our violence and sin, as well as his grace in salvation. (As Peter picks up in the NT)
    Overall, a lot of good stuff, but yeah, as always, little things.

  5. Good post.

    Re: names for God and feminism
    As a feminist, I take a similar stance as you. If Jesus and others in scripture call the non-gendered head of the trinity “father”, then that word must convey something useful about God’s character. But, from a feminist perspective, I am bound to point out that God was called by many names, some of them evoking female associations (mother hen, etc.), so let’s keep in mind that God, though we may sometimes use male names, IS NOT male. Using a male name is fine, but denying or ignoring the female names is oppressive.

    I find it easier to refer to the Holy Spirit as “she” to help express the feminine attributes. This seems to be more consistent with the feminine and neuter pronouns used in scripture for the Spirit of God (in my understanding of them).

    • True. I think Father only comes up for me in liturgical settings. Otherwise just God who definitely is like a mother hen and so forth. I can see that about the Spirit. Gender of pneuma and ruach are fem not that it matters.

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