Friday, February 22, 2008

Don’t Ignore the Context: Paul's Instructions for Women Teaching

I have been ransacking hermeneutics books for the last several months for classes I have taken and some lessons I am teaching. I often find a mixed bag. One of the standard works on genres that I have found helpful is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. It has many helpful guidelines and points for looking at the different types of writings in the Bible. But it has its flaws as well - some of them serious. The recommended commentary section fails to warn readers of that some writers on their lists have a liberal bias (a necessary warning when marketing to a wide audience, as is the case with this book).

Another red flag occurs in an instance where the writers illustrate a guideline that is generally helpful (cultural differences between our time and the first century, some of which are not always obvious), but unhelpfully ignore the particulars of the immediate context of the text under consideration. Fee and Stuart write:

For example, to determine the role of women in the twenty-first-century church, one should take into account that there were few educational opportunities for women in the first century, whereas such education is the expected norm in our society. This may affect our understanding of such texts as 1 Timothy 2:9-15. (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002], 84.)

This sounds plausible on the surface, but notice the text (bold emphasis added by me):

1 Timothy 2 (ESV)

9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,

10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness--with good works.

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.

12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve;

14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

The “for” in verse 13 indicates that Paul is about to give the reason for the command he just gave. Paul grounds his instruction in the order of creation – something that transcends culture, education, and the time period we live in. He is basically saying, “I don’t let a woman teach men because Adam was made first and he was not deceived, but Eve was deceived.” Nothing here about educational opportunities. Just a statement of what happened in Genesis and a doctrine and practical application from it. As counter-cultural is this is for us today, this is God's Word and God's teaching, not just some crazy idea Paul had. The Spirit of God inspired him to write this. There are examples of things that will look different today because of the cultural context (greeting one another with a holy kiss, for example). But something tied so closely to the order of creation is not one of them. The roles of men and women are clearly connected to the creation. Direct implications for the local church still exist. It amazes me that the authors did not even bring the content of verse 13 and 14 into the discussion. Bad example.

So, beware of hermeneutical fallacies everywhere, even in hermeneutics textbooks. Culture is important. But don’t read too much into cultural differences, especially to the point that it makes you blind to the immediate literary context (the words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. surrounding the passage under study) of the text itself, which couldn’t be clearer in this case.

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Note: I hope to review several hermeneutics books in the future, hopefully in some sort of comparative format. At this point, the best single introduction to hermeneutics that I have found is Dan Doriani’s Getting the Message (P&R, 1996).

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