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At Utrecht in 1995, Alfred McClure, president of the North American Division (NAD), addressing delegates to that General Conference session, made the following claim:
Our sisters who stand with us in ministry deserve the same acknowledgment of their call that the church confers on their male colleagues. . . . You may rest assured that it is not driven by any kind of feminist agenda (quoted in Randal R. Wisbey, “SDA Women in Ministry, 1970-1998,” Women in Ministry, ed. Nancy Vyhmeister, p. 247).
The latter sentence was especially interesting. Delegates were told they “may rest assured” that the NAD request somehow stood independent of any feminist agenda. In disclaiming this, McClure acknowledged that there was indeed just such an agenda alive in the Christian world—only somehow not driving the same goal in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In our Church, the plea to ordain women was not being advanced on the basis of such an agenda of “any kind.” How reassured the delegates were, we do not know. We do know that in the end, 673 voted YES, while 1,481 voted NO. In retrospect, whether McClure was aware of feminist sources or not, his claim 18 years ago was not defensible.
In this series of articles we shall especially consider the relation of Women’s Ordination and its kindred issues to the Seventh-day Adventist view of Scripture and methods of interpretation. In this first installment, our goal is modest: to outline the major approaches to the Bible and how they differ. It is in relation to these that Feminist Theology will be brought into focus as we proceed.
Feminist Theology can be categorized in roughly three varieties. These have been called Radical, Mainstream, and Evangelical Feminism. Proponents of Radical Feminism, like Mary Daly, reject the Bible in its entirety as being so tainted by “male-centeredness” as to be unusable by women. Daly even envisions a future without men. (Daly’s teachings are widely referred to. One widely accessible example is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Daly, accessed 2013-05-31.) She is so radical that even Virginia Mollenkott (we’ll meet her later in this series) likes to use Daly as a contrast to her own position. But we bypass Daly to focus on less radical examples of Feminist thought. Mainstream Feminism is less radical yet also finds the Bible hopelessly permeated by “patriarchy.” It endeavors through higher-critical methodology to use parts of the Bible’s text as sources for the “liberation” of women. The champions of Mainstream Feminism include Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elizabeth Shüssler-Fiorenza. A third variety of Feminist thought is loosely called Evangelical Feminism, the only variant claiming to uphold a view of Scripture accepting the Bible as finally authoritative.
But how does the Evangelical Feminist reconcile her commitment to Scripture side by side with her commitment to Feminist values? How does she harmonize two apparently non-negotiable approaches? Some means of interpretive methodology is needed. Many pro-Women’s Ordination Adventists are essentially a subset of Evangelical Feminists. They know their goal must be to lead the church to revisit how certain texts are interpreted. If such change can be accomplished, the way will be opened at last for women to occupy roles biblically reserved for male spiritual leadership.
The Issues Clarified
Although the whole issue has come to be known as the question of “Women’s Ordination,” that terminology is less than ideal.
Very few, if any of us oppose all ordination of women; many of us see no biblical prohibition to appointing women to serve in Scripturally appropriate positions when the congregation perceives that God has called them, or in signifying that call by the laying on of hands. Nor do we oppose women serving in paid ministry positions, or, where appropriate, their being reimbursed out of tithe funds. We do not oppose women receiving equivalent pay to men for equivalent work done. We do not oppose women serving in certain administrative roles where they are not leading a congregation nor providing directive spiritual leadership.
What many do oppose, is the ordination of women to a class of congregational and denominational leadership positions which we believe biblical principle reserves to males. In particular, these include the role of local church elder, the church pastor who in ordained capacity carries global authority, and the position of conference, union, division, or world church president. These positions are distinct headship positions which the Designer of humanity has reserved for called, spiritual persons of the male sex.
Hence, the concerns of many, if not most Seventh-day Adventists, are particular and do not constitute across the board objection of ordaining women. Unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult not to wonder whether some who favor Women’s Ordination do not do so with the very purpose of overturning any kind of creation order sex role specificity. Which is all to say that main issue actually is not Women’s Ordination, but whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church will concur with its Creator in His making us to be equal and His giving us sex-specific role differentiation, or whether His order will be completely discarded. Thus, our position is measured and no merely obtuse rejection of ordaining women.
The reader will also observe in this series that we have often chosen to use the word “sex” rather than “gender,” for reasons that will be explained later.
Three Approaches to Scripture
Because this series of articles comes from a Seventh-day Adventist standpoint, we begin with the Bible. When all is said and done, differing theological approaches to Scripture can be pared down to three. These three systems of understanding are:
(1) PROTESTANT (Scripture alone),
(2) CATHOLIC (Scripture plus tradition),
(3) NEO-PROTESTANT (sorting a subset of materials within the Bible by means of higher-critical methodologies, supplementing with other sources for authority).
Ironically, Liberation and Feminist Theologies arise out of the Roman Catholic Church, yet both partake of the Neo-Protestant higher-critical approach to Scripture. Let’s look more closely at these approaches to the Bible.
The first position we identify is that of historical Protestantism, often called Sola Scriptura. It is the idea that Scripture itself is its own authority, provides its own norm, and elucidates its own methods for interpretation. To rightly interpret the Bible we look to its self-testimony about how it is to be understood.
The keynote thought here is that all Scripture is inspired, or God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). All the Bible, then, finds its source in the Spirit of God who carries His prophets forward (2 Peter 1:20, 21). God is one and moves all by one and the same breath (1 Corinthians 12:11). The result of this moving by the same Spirit and same God is seen in texts finding fundamental harmony with one another. While we deal with many factors in interpretation, underlying all is the God-breathed reality and origin of the whole. But our main interest in this article stands with the other two relationships, that of the Catholic (“Bible plus tradition”), and of the Neo-Protestant (“the Bible minus”).
A second view is that of the Roman Catholic Church, wherein the Christian’s authority is the Bible along with tradition. Catholics hold that the gospel was handed down in two ways: orally, and in writing. With the continuation, they hold, of apostolic succession,
This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through tradition, ‘the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes’ . . . . the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the Holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1995, pp. 30, 31).
Hence, the Catholic view may be designated as “Scripture plus tradition,” much in contrast to the standard Protestant view. There is an addendum to this, however, possibly unknown to most readers. In 1943, Pope Pius XII released the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Influenced by the Holy Spirit”). This papal letter authorizes interpreters to “use historical-critical methods to study the sources and forms of expression used by the sacred writers, along with their cultural and historical contexts” (Richard P. McBrien, gen. ed., Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Entry, “Divino Afflante Spiritu,” p. 423). The directives of this encyclical were incorporated into the Vatican II documents in 1965. This was truly a history-impacting move, for it legitimized Catholic use of the interpretive methods developed under the Neo-Protestant approach.
Arising within the Protestant wing of Christianity, we have higher-criticism/historical-criticism. As the Soulens indicate,
The rise of historical criticism, which began in the 17th cent. and achieved full flower in the 19th and 20th centuries, is the major transforming fact of biblical studies in the modern period (Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 3rd ed., p. 79).
This change in stance toward Scripture has enormous consequences. It meant that all manner of ideas were brought to bear upon the investigation of the Bible which never before had been employed in its study.
It is difficult if not impossible to speak of the historical-critical method. Rather, there have arisen a series of critical methodologies having a variety of purposes and approaches. Among these are structuralism, narrative criticism, reader-response criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, and more. In general these share the four basic tenets of historical-criticism:
(1) that reality is uniform and universal;
(2) that it is accessible to human reason and investigation;
(3) that all events historical and natural occurring within it are in principle interconnected and comparable by analogy; and
(4) that humanity’s contemporary experience of reality can provide objective criteria by which what could or could not have happened in the past can be determined (Soulens, p. 78; See also Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method, p. 55; both are adapted from Ernst Troeltsch’s essay, “On Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology,” 1898).
What is the great overarching defect in this approach? It results in the unqualified use of human reason to judge the Bible. Too great a confidence is placed in human ideas and constructs. The human ability to accurately judge and analyze the Bible is almost always overstated. When such presuppositions are brought into our interpretation of the Scriptures, such as holding that there are no “miraculous” interventions possible beyond what we presently see, the authority of the Bible is dissolved. Creation ex nihilo, or a literal worldwide flood, or resurrection from death, are de facto impossibilities.
We shall discuss the historical-critical approach later in this series. The special point of interest for us here is that both Liberation and Feminist Theologies enter Christianity via Roman Catholic sources. What’s more, neither arise before the publication of Divino Afflante Spiritu. Which is to say, that the Catholic embrace of higher-critical methodology has a connection to the rise of Liberation and Feminist theological emphases.
This series of articles is not intended to suggest that all Adventist proponents of Women’s Ordination hold in all respects or even to most of the tenets of Liberation or Feminist Theologies, or that all secretly embrace the historical-critical method. Indeed, there is substantial diversity in the methods and approaches of Adventists urging Women’s Ordination. The crucial point is that approaches to the Bible and its interpretation are deeply impacting.
It has been important to lay out the basics of these three approaches to the Bible (Protestant, Catholic, and Neo-Protestant) before proceeding to more particular analysis of the theological foundations of Women’s Ordination with its associated issues have come to us in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There are very serious differences between these three approaches to the Bible (Protestant, Catholic, Neo-Protestant). All comes to bear with the urgent questions (1) what shall be our canon (authoritative documents or sources); (2) what shall be the principles by which we interpret these, and (3) will those guiding principles be drawn from Scripture or imposed upon the Bible from outside itself?
The historical-critical method is inextricably connected with Feminist theology, even with Evangelical Feminism in particular. Our next installment will offer a brief look at the initial shape of Feminist Theology as manifest in first wave Feminism.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Pastor Larry Kirkpatrick has served churches in Nevada, Utah, California. They presently serve in the forest fastness of Northern Idaho where Larry lives with his wife Pamela and their children Seamus (age 7) and Mikayla (age 6).