Before I begin with the story and mount my defense of Dr. Rollston against his cultured despisers, I need to make clear that I wrote this post without Dr. Rollston’s knowledge. Dr. Rollston has no knowledge of the contents of this post, nor is he responsible for its contents, nor did I ask him for permission to write it.
On August 31 of this year, my former graduate professor, Dr. Christopher Rollston, published an article on Huffington Post, entitled, The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like To Talk About. To anyone with a cursory acquaintance with critical biblical scholarship, it is a remarkably uncontroversial assessment of the plight of women throughout much of the Bible.
An Uncontroversial Article
Dr. Rollston begins by establishing the contemporary relevance of the subject under discussion. Only recently did the Augusta National Golf Club make the decision to accept women members. On the other hand, Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin recently claimed, idiotically, that a woman’s body has “biological mechanisms to prevent pregnancy in cases of something he refers to as ‘legitimate rape.’” Dr. Rollston uses these two examples to frame his discussion of the plight of women in the biblical texts. Dr. Rollston will show that as in modern culture, the Bible too vacillates between two poles in movements toward and away from women’s liberation.
Dr. Rollston frames the historical context in which biblical texts that marginalize women have their place: “From Mesopotamia to Egypt, women in the ancient world were considered property—valuable property, but property nonetheless.” This is true, Dr. Rollston argues, of the Bible as well, as much as it pains us to say it. Dr. Rollston cites Ben Sira (a now deuterocanonical text that was nevertheless found in the Bibles of the earliest Christians). Ben Sira writes that “the birth of a daughter is a loss,” and that “better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good.” These sentiments Dr. Rollston rightly labels as misogynistic.
Dr. Rollston further cites the Decalogue, which lists a man’s wife in between his house and his slaves and livestock as an item of property. He further points out the gender-bias in the very grammar of the text. The Decalogue was written by men, to men. Women were not addressed, though their obedience by extension was assumed. Dr. Rollston rightly concludes, “The Ten Commandments embody much that is foundational for modern society, but egalitarian they aren’t.” Again, to anyone only barely familiar with critical scholarship, Dr. Rollston’s conclusions are stupendously uncontroversial.
He goes on to highlight both gender bias and misogyny in the book of Proverbs. The book is addressed to males, not to females, and the males are warned against “the evil seductress,” but never does there appear a warning to women against any male seducer. Again, “the authors say living with a contentious woman is terrible, but never say the same about a contentious man.” Dr. Rollston happily concedes that there is the case of the “noble wife” who is praised in Proverbs 31 as “wise, benevolent, hard-working, an entrepreneur, and loved by her sons and husband,” though “daughters are not mentioned.” Nevertheless, Dr. Rollston reminds us, while males are encouraged to acquire such a noble wife, never does the book offer the same message to young women. Dr. Rollston says that this is because men were the intended readers, not women. This is true, but I would also add that this is because it was ordinarily the domain of men to procure wives, and not the other way around (with few exceptions).
Dr. Rollston proceeds to identify texts from the New Testament in which women are in various ways marginalized. He cites 1 Timothy 2, and his remarks are worth noting at length:
The author is discussing worship and begins by stating that “men should pray” and then says “women should dress themselves modestly and decently.” So men are to pray and women are to dress modestly. That’s quite a contrast. But there’s more: “Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to be silent.” The author’s rationale: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Timothy 2:8-14). So, according to this text, women were to be silent in worship because they were created second and sinned first. And the final blow is this: a woman “will be saved through childbirth, if she remains in faith and love and sanctification with modesty” (1 Timothy 2:15). This text is not too different from a Saying in the Gospel of Thomas (114) that says women can be saved once they become males. In any case, for the author of 1 Timothy, eternal salvation comes obstetrically.
I repeat, except for fundamentalist Evangelical scholars, Dr. Rollston’s conclusion here is uncontroversial among even many of the more traditional Christian critical scholars. While the Evangelicals continue to protest, this reading is taken for granted among those who wish to treat the texts with honesty and integrity, rather than self-servingly.
Dr. Rollston goes on to example further cases. In Genesis and Judges, some men were “willing to surrender women to horrendous violence,” citing Lot’s delivery of his daughters to a sex-crazed mob, and a Levite’s surrender of his concubine to a gang of rapists. More significantly, and more in keeping with his thesis, Dr. Rollston cites the law in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 that compels an unmarried woman to marry her rapist. He points out that the patriarch Jacob, even before this law came to be, was comfortable giving his daughter to her rapist in matrimony. (I have written on this law before.)
Dr. Rollston further reminds us that polygyny was morally acceptable in the Mosaic legal code, and, I would add, polyandry was of course unheard of. He further highlights the fact that a woman’s religious vow could be nullified by her father or husband. Dr. Rollston points out that the custom of a marital bride price “reveals that marriage was, at least in some respects, a property transfer, as payment had been made to acquire the bride.” Dr. Rollston could have cited numerous other texts which amply well demonstrate that the acquisition of a wife was in fact considered, in legal terms, the acquisition of property. In the pseudo-Pauline household codes, Dr. Rollston tells us, husbands are commanded to love their wives and not to treat them harshly, while women are commanded to submit to the will of their husbands. I will add here that many Evangelicals wish to stress the words, “husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church,” as if this somehow mitigates the patriarchal arrangement. How did Christ love the church? By dying on its behalf, yes, but also by issuing commandments, leveling rebukes and judgment, and determining the course of its existence. Anyway, Dr. Rollston’s list could go on and on, of course, but he cuts it short here in order to change gears.
His evaluation of the plight of women in the Bible is not wholly negative. He also makes sure to highlight several examples (not an exhaustive list, but neither was his list of patriarchal texts) of movements toward women’s liberation in the Bible. He writes:
Thankfully, some biblical authors pushed back against the marginalization of women. For example, according to the Bible, Job had seven sons and three daughters and the writer of the book of Job actually names those daughters but not the sons, a reversal of standard practice. Also, these daughters “received an inheritance along with their brothers,” wonderfully subverting the standard legal practice of not giving daughters a share of the family land (Job 42). And the ancients who penned the stunning narratives about Deborah (Judges 4-5) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20) were pushing back against patriarchy as well. The New Testament Paul was quite progressive for his time, as he considered Phoebe to be a “deacon” and Junia to be “preeminent among the apostles” (Romans 16:1, 7). He also wrote: “there is no longer male nor female” (Galatians 3:27). But these voices were the exception, not the rule.
As a former student of Dr. Rollston’s I am quite familiar with these texts. As a self-described (and absolutely genuine) feminist thinker, Dr. Rollston always took time out to discuss both the negative and positive portrayals of women in the Bible. He wanted us honestly to confront the bad, but also to embrace and celebrate the good. There are numerous other positive examples Dr. Rollston routinely provides in the classroom that don’t make the edit here. For example, Dr. Rollston reminded us that the Hebrew word for “helper” (ezer), which is ascribed to Eve in the Garden, is a word used to describe Yahweh’s own relationship to Israel. He often emphasized this with great force: the earliest representation of woman in the Bible (canonically speaking) honors her not with a patriarchal designation, but with a designation worthy of Yahweh himself. Dr. Rollston encourages his students to read the Bible critically, and to confront the problematic texts, while celebrating and embracing the texts that shine brightly out from a very dark period in history. Far from presenting the Bible as something to be rejected, Dr. Rollston celebrates its diversity and praises it for maintaining in its balance texts that are, in the words Dr. Rollston chose to use in his Huffington Post article, “wonderful,” “stunning,” and “quite progressive.” Of course, Dr. Rollston, in his integrity, is forced rightly to conclude that these texts were “the exception, not the rule.” (Note that he does not say, “the exceptions that prove the rule,” because that cliché is misused: originally, “prove” meant “test,” and not “confirm.”)
In his conclusion, Dr. Rollston brings the relevance of this discussion back into the present. In what I consider to be a very balanced assessment, Dr. Rollston writes:
People today often wish to turn to sacred literature for timeless trues about social norms. This impulse is certainly understandable. But that impulse can be fraught with certain difficulties. After all, to embrace the dominant biblical view of women would be to embrace the marginalization of women. And sacralizing patriarchy is just wrong. Gender equality may not have been the norm two or three millennia ago, but it is essential. So, the next time someone refers to “biblical values,” it’s worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that’s not something anyone should value.
I must take a moment to point out here what Dr. Rollston does not say in this conclusion. He does not say that the Bible must be rejected wholesale, nor would he ever say such a thing. To Dr. Rollston, examination of the less-than-moral values of the Bible is just as important as examination and celebration of the moral ones. Dr. Rollston does not say, further, that patriarchy is the only biblical value. On the contrary, the view Dr. Rollston articulates is one in which the Bible contains many and diverse values, including values that are often in direct contradiction with each other. This conclusion is, of course, uncontroversial among biblical scholars, even biblical scholars at moderately traditional theological seminaries, such as the one where Dr. Rollston is chaired. The point, therefore, of Dr. Rollston’s article is to remind us not to appeal to “biblical values” uncritically, as if all values represented in the Bible exist in harmony with one another. Dr. Rollston rightly reminds us that they do not. And Dr. Rollston’s conclusion, therefore, is that if we are going to choose to be people of faith who look to the Bible to inform our values in the modern world, we must be aware that all biblical values are not created equal. Patriarchy is in fact one biblical value, and it must be rejected. But Dr. Rollston does not argue that this is the only thing the Bible has to say about women. He also celebrates what is praiseworthy therein.
From the vantage point of the vast majority of scholars at Christian educational institutions at the center of the spectrum between conservative and liberal (which is where Emmanuel Christian Seminary has firmly resided since its inception), what Dr. Rollston has argued is almost drearily uncontroversial. I say “drearily” not because Dr. Rollston’s observations are dreary, but because Dr. Rollston’s conclusions are just taken as a matter of course among Christian scholars within the biblical and theological academic guilds. There is no controversy.
A few examples are in order. I will compare some of Dr. Rollston’s statements to conclusions drawn by John J. Collins in his standard introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Collins is a Catholic scholar whose conclusions are generally fair representations of the consensus of biblical scholarship.
Dr. Rollston writes:
The Decalogue is a case in point. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Because the Ten Commandments are so well known, it’s quite easy to miss the assumptions in them about gender. But the marginalization of women is clear. The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and so she’s listed with the slaves and work-animals.
Dr. Collins writes:
Either men or women could be guilty of adultery, but the man offended against the husband of his partner in sin, while the woman offended against her own husband. . . . The most notable aspect of this [tenth] commandment is surely the inclusion of the neighbor’s wife along with his slaves and his ox and donkey. We need not conclude from this that adultery was considered only a property offense. It was also regarded as shameful, and an offense against God. But there is no doubt that it was also regarded as a property offense.1
Also, Dr. Rollston’s point that the Decalogue is written by men, to men, and not women, is a point taken straight out of Jewish feminist scholar Athalya Brenner’s famous article, “The Decalogue—Am I an Addressee?” which is an article recommended to students by both Old Testament professors at Emmanuel Christian Seminary.
Further, Dr. Rollston writes:
And the readership of the book of Proverbs is warned to beware of the evil seductress (e.g., Proverbs 5), but the reverse doesn’t occur: never does the book warn women to beware of a male seducer.
Dr. Collins writes:
The strange woman, then, is first of all the adulteress, who is perceived as a threat to the social order (from an explicitly male point of view).2
Dr. Rollston writes:
True, there is a famous text in Proverbs which praises a “noble wife” (Proverbs 31:10-31). She is wise, benevolent, hard-working, an entrepreneur, and loved by her sons and husband (daughters are not mentioned). Readers are encouraged to find such a wife. But there is a subtle problem: there is no counterpart to the “noble wife” text, nothing in the book that encourages young women to find a noble husband. After all, men were the intended readers, not women.
Dr. Collins writes:
For all its professed praise of women, 31:10-31 is unabashedly patriarchal in its perspective. It reflects the crucial contributions of women to agricultural society in antiquity, and shows high respect for their competence. In the end, however, much of the glory redounds to the husband, who is a gentleman of leisure because of her labors and can take his place among the elders of the city gates.3
That the dominant bias in the biblical texts is patriarchal is probably about as uncontroversial a conclusion among biblical scholars as one can find. There is no controversy.
The Affair of Dr. Blowers
So of course, there’s controversy. It begins with one of Dr. Rollston’s own colleagues at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Dr. Paul Blowers. Dr. Blowers operates in a different academic discipline than does Dr. Rollston. While Dr. Rollston is a world-renowned ancient Near Eastern epigrapher and a biblical critic, Dr. Blowers is a patristics scholar, who engages regulalry in a discipline called historical theology. For convenience, here’s a standard definition of historical theology as a discipline:
Historical theology is a branch of theology that investigates the socio-historical and cultural mechanisms that give rise to theological ideas, statements, and systems. Research and method in this field focus on the relationship between theology and context as well as the major theological influences upon the figures and topics studied. Historical theologians are thus concerned with the historical development of theology.
So that is the modus operandi of Dr. Blowers. He is primarily interested in the development of theology over time, particularly as theology developed throughout church history, with specialization in the patristic period.
Conversely, Dr. Rollston’s modus operandi is that of biblical criticism:
Biblical criticism is the scholarly study and investigation of biblical writings that seeks to make discerning judgments about these writings. It asks when and where a particular text originated; how, why, by whom, for whom, and in what circumstances it was produced; what influences were at work in its production; what sources were used in its composition; and what message it was intended to convey. It also addresses the physical text, including the meaning of the words and the way in which they are used, its preservation, history and integrity. Biblical criticism draws upon a wide range of scholarly disciplines including archaeology, anthropology, folklore, linguistics, Oral Tradition studies, and historical and religious studies.
Dr. Rollston is the chaired professor of Old Testament at the seminary, while Dr. Blowers is the chaired professor of Church History, or Christian Tradition, as it were.
Thus, what we have here are two professors with very different approaches to the biblical text. To put it tersely, one is interested in the biblical text in its original historical context, while the other is concerned with the biblical text as interpreted throughout the course of Christian history. One is interested in the sources of the biblical text; the other is interested in the text primarily in its final, canonical form. These are very different disciplines, although there is some occasional overlap. Both scholars operate well within their own traditions, and it is perfectly appropriate for each of them to discuss the biblical text within the parameters set by their respective disciplines. In Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article, he was operating perfectly appropriately within his own discipline.
The controversy begins, however, when Dr. Blowers thought it necessary to offer his criticisms of Dr. Rollston’s article. This took place on the distinguished academic forum known to insiders as “Facebook.” Dr. Blowers writes:
I hate to do this but I will have to offer a dissonant voice here: (1) there is nothing new in this essay, and it adds to a host of other problems from the OT (e.g. holy war traditions) that the church has had to deal with for centuries—thus the editorial “We” in the title is a bit nebulous when you consider those interpreters within both Jewish and Christian traditions who HAVE dealt with this hermeneutical dilemma.
Let’s look at Dr. Blowers’ first criticism: “there is nothing new in this essay.” Well, I hesitate to use technical jargon here, but, well, duh. Dr. Rollston is writing for the Huffington Post, not JBL. Scholars don’t tend to break new ground within their discipline by debuting it on the Huffington Post.
But the more substantial point Dr. Blowers wants to make is this: patriarchy in the Bible is one of many problematic issues in the Bible, including “holy war traditions,” that “the church has had to deal with for centuries—thus the editorial ‘We’ in the title is a bit nebulous when you consider those interpreters within both Jewish and Christian traditions who HAVE dealt with this hermeneutical dilemma.”
There are a number of problems already. First, Dr. Blowers says, “it adds to a host of other problems from the OT,” ignoring the fact that the problem of patriarchy extends to the very latest texts in the New Testament canon as well. But that aside, note the predictability of Dr. Blowers’ criticism: Dr. Rollston is not—surprise!—engaging in Dr. Blowers’ discipline of historical theology. Dr. Blowers thus takes issue with the “We” in Dr. Rollston’s title: “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like To Talk About.” Dr. Blowers’ point is that, since Jewish and Christian theologians have been talking about these issues for millennia, it’s not accurate for Dr. Rollston to say that “We Don’t Like To Talk About” these issues. This criticism is equally inane. I assume that, since Dr. Rollston was publishing on Huffington Post, the “We” in the title did not intend to identify professional theologians throughout the last two thousand years, but rather the everyday people, especially Christians, who would be reading this article on the internet. There is nothing “nebulous” about Dr. Rollston’s “we.” Dr. Blowers simply wishes to remind everybody that he’s a historical theologian and that this discussion is, to him, so very, very passé.
The truth, of course, is that for average Christians (which obviously includes Dr. Rollston; he is addressing his audience as a regular person, not as a professional to professionals), the subject of biblical patriarchy is in fact one that is unpleasant. I know, because I talk about it with regular people all the time, and we end up getting aggravated at one another, and nobody likes to get aggravated. It’s a touchy subject; that’s all he meant, and Dr. Blowers really knows that. But again, he’s a historical theologian, and saying that is all this criticism really amounts to.
Finally, Dr. Blowers refers to patriarchy in the Bible as a “hermeneutical dilemma.” This is absolutely wrong. There is no dilemma about the hermeneutics of the vast majority of these texts. The patriarchy is undeniable. The dilemma, rather, is moral in nature. The question is not what these texts mean (in most cases), but whether we should agree with what they mean or not. Of course, throughout much of history, those who didn’t agree with these patriarchal texts were forced to use “hermeneutics” to get them to agree with their own moral sensibilities, since it hasn’t long been acceptable simply to say, “these particular texts should not be authoritative to us.” So I agree that it does evolve into a hermeneutical dilemma, but only because of the underlying moral dilemma. And for biblical critics, the problem is much easier than it is for historical theologians. A biblical critic’s job is to find out what the original meaning of the text was, whenever possible. Once ascertained, the critic can choose to pass judgment on the validity of the text’s meaning, or to withhold judgment, or shades in between. But that is a question that arises after the work of biblical criticism is done. For historical theologians, those two questions are all tangled up together. In a nutshell, Dr. Blowers’ criticism of Dr. Rollston so far is that Dr. Rollston is doing what Dr. Rollston is supposed to do and not what Dr. Blowers does. Thus, I find this criticism both vacuous and (to put it nicely) presumptuous. Dr. Blowers continues:
(2) to use a few paragraphs to make the case that the marginalization of women is a “biblical value” with very little countervailing evidence from within the Bible or the history of its interpretation is a less than auspicious undertaking.
First, this criticism utterly misapprehends Dr. Rollston’s perspective and displays either a carelessness of reading or an inability to see the Bible from the perspective of Dr. Rollston’s discipline on the part of Dr. Blowers. Dr. Blowers’ discipline is predicated on the assumption that the Bible is the Word of God, in the singular. Conversely, Dr. Rollston’s discipline is predicated on the assumption that the Bible is a collection of texts composed by humans. The methods of each discipline proceed from and are limited by these fundamental assumptions. Of course, Dr. Rollston’s discipline does not prevent him from viewing the Bible as the Word of God. Probably the majority of biblical critics do treat the Bible in this way as a matter of personal faith, as is certainly true of Dr. Rollston. But their discipline prevents them from allowing those faith assumptions to interfere with the mechanisms of criticism and historical-grammatical interpretation. Equally well, someone working in the discipline of historical theology need not view the Bible as the Word of God in the singular as a matter of personal faith; nevertheless, the discipline requires that the Bible is treated in this way in order to achieve the aims of the discipline.
So, what Dr. Blowers fails to apprehend is that, since Dr. Rollston is not arguing that patriarchy is the only biblical value pertaining to the status of women, it is not a valid criticism to contend, as Dr. Blowers does, that non-patriarchal values in the Bible constitute “countervailing evidence” to Dr. Rollston’s thesis. Dr. Rollston’s point is only that there is more than one biblical value pertaining to the status of women. Dr. Blowers ostensibly seems to require that there can only be one biblical value in this regard. The reality, of course, is that there is more than one, and two at least are in direct conflict with one another. Dr. Rollston spelled this out expressly, and moreover he alluded to this when he referred to patriarchy as the “dominant” value in the Bible. And it most certainly is. While Dr. Rollston’s list of liberative voices in the Bible was incomplete, so too was his list of oppressive voices, and the truth is that instances of the latter far outnumber and outweigh instances of the former. Unless, of course, one were to tip the scales in favor of the liberative voices by appeal to what’s called a “christological hermeneutic,” which is all very well and good but, again, outside the bounds of Dr. Rollston’s discipline. Dr. Blowers continues:
(3) to make this case in a forum, like the Huffington Post, open to a wide gamut of readers, many of whom will already be profound skeptics toward Judaism and Christianity, simply provides more ammunition for cynicism, especially as provided by biblical “experts.”
First I want to point out the wholly uncalled for, disdainful “quotation marks” Dr. Blowers throws around the word “experts.” Dr. Rollston happens to be an expert in his field. I find it flabbergastingly paradoxical that Dr. Blowers, an elite expert himself, would resort to such an anti-academic sentiment here. What Dr. Blowers probably intends to imply here is that biblical critics don’t have a monopoly on the interpretation of biblical texts. Fine. Of course, Dr. Rollston never claimed anything like that. He simply operated within his field and did what people in his field do. Now, Dr. Blowers can do what most scholars in his own field do and thank the biblical critic for their work, and go on to appropriate the insights of biblical criticism into their own discipline. There is nothing in Dr. Rollston’s article (nor in his attitude, with which I am intimately familiar) that would prevent Dr. Blowers from cooperating with Dr. Rollston’s discipline and gratefully picking up where Dr. Rollston’s discipline leaves off. But what Dr. Blowers has bafflingly chosen to do instead is to call into question the very validity of Dr. Rollston’s work (‘“experts”’) for the sole apparent reason that Dr. Rollston’s work isn’t that of Dr. Blowers. Dr. Blowers seems to privilege his own discipline so highly above Dr. Rollston’s that Dr. Rollston is in Dr. Blowers’ mind “misbehaving” by doing what biblical critics do. Again, the nicest word for this is presumption.
Second, Dr. Blowers criticizes Dr. Rollston for offering up the standard, uncontroversial insights of biblical criticism on a public forum such as the Huffington Post, on the grounds that these insights are now “open to a wide gamut of readers, many of whom will already be profound skeptics toward Judaism and Christianity” and thus “simply provides more ammunition for cynicism.” There are many different ways to expose the vapidity of this criticism, but I’ll just respond with two. First, everyone knows that the vast majority of people who choose to comment on sites like the Huffington Post are trolls. While the comment threads on HuffPo Religion are often a cesspool of New Atheists who pay no attention to nuance and simply hear what they want to hear in religious articles, equally as often they are a cesspool of Christian fundamentalists who hear only what they don’t want to hear, spout incessant nonsense, and try to convert all the atheists by insulting them. Everyone (except perhaps Dr. Blowers) knows that the comment thread of a religion post on HuffPo is not at all an accurate gauge of the impact the post has had on its readers. The reasonable people who can discern the nuances and make up their own minds tend not to comment, in part because they know that by doing so they would only be committing themselves to mindless debates with trolls coming from every conceivable direction.
Second, it is not the scholar’s responsibility to control the response of the public to the findings of scholarship, nor is it the scholar’s duty to withhold said findings in order to prevent the public from appropriating them in ways incompatible with the scholar’s own personal convictions. To do the latter, in fact, would be a betrayal of the duty of a scholar. Academic scholarship is and should remain a public affair. Although some pastors are scholars, not all scholars are pastors. This may grate against Dr. Blowers’ moderately postmodern sensibilities, but sometimes the truth is the truth and the facts are the facts. How the public appropriates the facts in their personal lives is not within the proper purview of any scholar-qua-scholar, whether (in this case) that entails that some would find ammunition against Christianity or find solace for their faith in the fact that a scholar from a Christian seminary has the honesty to state these issues matter-of-factly without disparaging the Christian faith in general, or whether that would entail the appropriation of these facts into the discipline of historical theology. It is not the biblical critic’s responsibility (nor should it ever be considered the critic’s moral duty) to control the dissemination of the findings of biblical criticism in order to prevent certain public reactions that may be undesirable even to the critic him or herself. Dr. Blowers’ criticism strikes me as regressively conservative and unbecoming of an academic.
Another way to look at it is this: if Dr. Blowers had posted a theological apologia for these patriarchal texts on the Huffington Post, he would be providing atheists real ammunition: evidence that Christians tend to be dishonest and refuse to own up to what’s obviously wrong with some of their sacred texts. Dr. Rollston can be properly viewed as removing ammunition from the New Atheist arsenal, precisely because he showed that we Christians can be honest and condemn what’s wrong with our texts. So, for instance, an atheist recently wrote, in defense of Dr. Rollston’s article, that the predominantly secular readers at the Huffington Post “like reading that someone from a ‘Faith’ tradition has enough humility and honesty to admit that their ‘sacred’ book has flaws and any oppression from it cannot be anything but a condemnable ancient viewpoint. Rollston’s post actually helps Christianity gain respect and a voice within the public sphere.”
That said, Dr. Rollston certainly does have a small agenda here, and it’s a good one. It’s simply to inform or remind people that appealing to “biblical values” does not necessarily also produce the desired result. Now, that’s different from, say, appealing to the values expressed in “historical theology,” whatever those might be (they would of course be as diverse and contradictory as the values found in the Bible). But “biblical values” is the conservative Christian catchphrase here, and Dr. Rollston is rightly making clear exactly what adherence to that term would entail—namely, an incoherent value system, since biblical values do not all exist in harmony. And that’s an important and necessary point to make, that historical theologians don’t tend to make very often for some reason, as much as I appreciate their discipline on its own terms.
As mentioned above, another result of Dr. Rollston’s publication of this article in a public forum is that it will reflect positively, for many skeptics and many struggling Christians alike, on Christian institutions such as Emmanuel Christian Seminary. If someone who teaches at a seminary can confront the realities of the biblical world and its texts without apology, many skeptics will learn that not all seminaries are fundamentalist institutions (a good thing for them to know and a boon to the cause of religious tolerance), and many Christians (especially Christian women) will find relief in the approach taken by Dr. Rollston. While the products of historical theology may work for some women, those same products will appear to others (legitimately or not) as a whitewash. I know women for whom this is true—many women, in fact. A look at Dr. Rollston’s Facebook page will bear this out as well, with the comments he’s received from Christian women who find Dr. Rollston’s honesty refreshing and, for them, faith-sustaining. In response to my own writings, I have received countless emails and comments from Christian women who tell me that my honest approach to the biblical texts helped save their faith.
Whether others will have different reactions to Dr. Rollston’s article is irrelevant. We cannot withhold the realities of the Bible from public space for fear that some people will like our religion less, or feel more empowered to reject it. In class, Dr. Rollston spends a good deal of time helping students find ways to manage the findings of critical scholarship in cooperation with their faith. In that setting, you might say, Dr. Rollston has a sense of pastoral responsibility. In a public space such as the Huffington Post, it is, conversely, perfectly appropriate for him simply to lay out the facts and let the chips fall where they may.
Indeed, I would argue that Dr. Rollston’s approach in this article is the more appropriate approach in a setting such as the Huffington Post. Dr. Rollston’s agenda was not to offer an apologia for Christianity, or to convert readers to the Christian faith. Rather, his agenda was to advocate for women’s liberation and to point out that the Bible cannot be used uncritically in service of this agenda. In other words, in a public forum Dr. Rollston’s agenda was to show the public that ethics should trump blind and easy fundamentalist approaches to the Bible. This is something I should hope non-Christians would hear very often from scholars at Christian educational institutions. And of course, Dr. Rollston did all of this without rejecting the Bible wholesale, and without disparaging Christian faith in general.
Dr. Blowers continues:
(4) Semitics specialists do wonderful and important work but it doesn’t necessarily make them good theological interpreters for religious communities, or good bridge-persons between “the academy” and religious communities.
What is entailed in this backhanded criticism is that biblical critics are less capable of communicating theological truths than are, say, theologians. It’s almost tautologous. But of course, Dr. Rollston (a) wasn’t attempting to do theology (he was talking about texts and what they say from a historical-grammatical vantage point), and (b) wasn’t speaking specifically to a “religious community.” Dr. Blowers’ sentiments here are quite simply another example of academic prejudice. Dr. Blowers believes that instructing the church should really be the domain of theologians and not mere Bible scholars. But why? I’m not denying that theologians often make excellent teachers for the purposes of religious communities (of course, they often make terrible teachers). But why the prejudicial pecking order? What, specifically, was wrong with the observations made by Dr. Rollston about the status of women in the Bible? Were his observations problematic only because it might create confusion among some members of a religious community who adhere to, say, an inerrantist interpretation of the Bible? Fine. Granted. Of course, I would argue that such confusion is absolutely necessary for there to be spiritual growth in an individual who adheres to such a misguided view of the Bible (and I suspect Dr. Blowers would agree). Dr. Rollston may not be the ideal candidate to walk a believer from fundamentalism to a robust, er, postliberal sort of faith. But neither is he claiming that mantle for himself.
I remember during my tenure at Emmanuel literally dozens of instances in which Dr. Rollston would refer individual students to other professors in order to find answers to questions more theological than textual in nature. And he did so by heaping praise on those professors. “Dr. Elolia will really be able to help you out with that. He’s superb at wrestling with those sorts of questions.” I’ve even heard Dr. Rollston on more than one occasion refer students to Dr. Blowers for the same reason. It is therefore excruciatingly ironic that Dr. Blowers now suggests Dr. Rollston may be overstepping his bounds simply by writing an article for the Huffington Post—and one in which Dr. Rollston does not pretend to engage in theology, and in which he makes no claims to special theological or ethical expertise, other than to assume the basic ethical position that women and men deserve equal rights and opportunities. Dr. Blowers continues:
(5) when you teach in a seminary your first audience (and responsibility) is the religious community, not the secular blogosphere, and the expectation is that what you publish “out there” will still reflect that responsibility responsibly (i.e. putting things “out there” in fairly blunt and minimally nuanced form, without due consideration for the hermeneutical complexities within the interpretation of ancient texts received as sacred within faith traditions, does not seem, in my humble judgment, to meet that responsibility).
Now, here we arrive at the heart of the “controversy.” According to Dr. Blowers, because Dr. Rollston teaches at a Christian seminary, anything he publishes for public consumption must be, essentially, pastoral in nature. Dr. Rollston has to write to a secular audience in the same manner, or at least in a way not at odds with, the manner he would write or speak to a religious community.
I find this absurd, not necessarily in principle, but absurd here in this case at the very least. Yes, as a faculty member at a faith-based educational institution, Dr. Rollston should not publish something in the public square that, say, contradicts anything he would teach in class or say to a Christian community. For instance, Dr. Rollston should not write a Huffington Post article in which he rejects Christianity or rejects the Bible. Of course, Dr. Rollston didn’t do that, nor would he. He wrote a balanced and uncontroversial piece in which he displayed that the Bible has at least two contradictory values when it comes to women: patriarchy, and liberation. This observation is, in fact, openly made in most churches I’ve been to, even in more conservative ones. Christians have different ways of dealing with this, often by reference to different dispensations or by reference to non-binding cultural norms. But some, even some moderate churches, put the matter no less bluntly than Dr. Rollston has here: patriarchy is sanctioned in many places in the Bible, and that’s a bad thing; but it is also overturned in other parts of the Bible, and those texts are our guiding light on the matter.
Dr. Rollston would certainly have added that last caveat were he speaking to a faith community rather than the “secular blogosphere.” But what he said in the “blogosphere” is not in any way inconsistent with what he would uncontroversially say (and has said, as a representative of Emmanuel) in church. Based on what I heard in the classroom, I suspect that many of Dr. Rollston’s colleagues at Emmanuel have also, at one time or another, or on many occasions, communicated to faith communities precisely the same thing: that there is patriarchy in the Bible, and there is also women’s liberation in the Bible. And many of them agree that the patriarchy clearly dominates the liberation. I know at least two or three others who have done so (and it’s not a very large faculty).
But Dr. Blowers’ criticism further entails that the reason Dr. Rollston has failed to live up to his responsibilities is that his Huffington Post article was “minimally nuanced.” Not “without nuance,” but just “minimally nuanced.” Dr. Rollston lists numerous positive biblical passages on women, and praises them as “wonderful,” “quite progressive,” “stunning.” But he correctly says that the patriarchal voice sings louder (or at least more often) than the voice of women’s liberation. This, to me, sounds like nuance. But perhaps it’s a nuance that Dr. Blowers would not wish to share with his religious communities. Perhaps the problem is not that Dr. Rollston wasn’t nuanced enough, but that he was nuanced in an uncomfortable direction. I don’t know. The whole thing seems petty and baffling to me.
Of course, no surprise, what Dr. Blowers really wants is not so much “nuance” as “due consideration for the hermeneutical complexities within the interpretation of ancient texts received as sacred within faith traditions.” In other words, Dr. Blowers wants Dr. Rollston to be a historical theologian rather than a biblical critic. I’m sorry, but if there is anything that Dr. Rollston is allowed and, indeed, expected to say within the walls of the seminary that he is not allowed to say outside its walls (whether in religious communities or in the “secular blogosphere”), then that’s a problem with the educational institution and not with Dr. Rollston—or at the least it’s just a problem with Dr. Blowers.
If a religious community has a problem with what Dr. Rollston has said, the institution’s proper response (and, indeed, its consistent response in similar times past) is to say that Dr. Rollston (or whoever) is operating within the parameters of his (or her) discipline. They could add, of course, that Dr. Blowers will have much more to add to the discussion to complement Dr. Rollston’s findings. There is no controversy. There is, however, presumption.
Finally, Dr. Blowers concludes that, for the reasons he’s stated, Dr. Rollston’s article “does not seem, in my humble judgment, to meet that responsibility.” As I will show much further below, Dr. Blowers’ “humility” here is only feigned. There is nothing at all “humble” about the judgment Dr. Blowers has made about Dr. Rollston’s choices.
But first, the “controversy” gets a massive injection of stupidity over on the Blog of the Three Young Men.
The Blog of the Three Young Men
In response to Dr. Rollston’s article, some former Emmanuel students wrote a blog post intended to slam the article, as well as Dr. Rollston. While it is an attempt at a critical review, it is, to be precise, a bloviating, self-important, contemptuous, slanderous, malignant, condescending, pretentious, cynically dishonest, and ironically oblivious piece of garbage. But it’s mostly well written.
In their blog post, “Listening to the Bible When You’re Hard of Hearing: A Response to Chris Rollston,” former Emmanuel students Nathan Gilmour, Wes Arblaster, and Micah Weedman attempt to make the case that Dr. Rollston’s article is not only incompetent and severely destructive, but also a bona fide moral failure. Piece by piece, I’ll show why they fail to achieve their aims, and only expose themselves as dishonest ideologues in the process.
They begin thus:
It was 1851, at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio that a former slave stepped up to the platform and became one of the most powerful voices for Abolitionism and Women’s Rights of the era. Her chosen instrument of liberation? The Bible. Without any historical, literary, or hermeneutical expertise she discovered in its pages a message that would turn a male-dominated culture on its head. As she declared in that famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech,
“…that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”
First, what is it that makes the Three Young Men assume that Sojourner Truth, while fashioning this powerfully creative argument from biblical imagery, would not also have condemned the patently patriarchal texts in the Bible had she possessed the ability to read them? When asked if she preached from the Bible, Truth said no, because she couldn’t read. “When I preaches,” she said, “I has just one text to preach from, an’ I always preaches from this one. My text is, ‘When I found Jesus.’” It seems to me Sojourner Truth had what theologians call a “canon within the canon” (generally a big no-no among theologians like Blowers &co.), and it was pretty small—necessarily so.
Second, yes, everyone knows that both slave owners and abolitionists used the Bible to justify their polar opposite positions. That this is possible, in fact, was the point of Dr. Rollston’s article in the first place. Nevertheless, as much as I love and admire and kneel before Sojourner Truth’s awesome resistance to race and gender inequality, and as powerful as the point she makes really, really is, it is not a point ever made in the New Testament itself. The Bible does not say that women deserve equal rights because God was in Christ born of a woman. That’s a theological extrapolation from a biologically necessitated historical contingency, and one that no one in the Bible ever makes explicit or even insinuates. In fact, Jesus is said to have rebuked his mother for presumptuousness, and to have dissociated himself from her. So while Sojourner was using the Bible as her weapon, she wasn’t using, in this case at least, anything that the Bible actually taught as a weapon. Don’t hear me wrong: I see nothing wrong and a whole lot right with this kind of use of the Bible. This kind of use is, in fact, perfectly biblical. The biblical authors used symbols and images from their own scriptures very often by taking them out of their historical context, ignoring or contradicting their original meaning, and investing those symbols and images with new, often liberative, but also often oppressive, meaning. She’s reading the Bible like a theologian. Great! We need theologians. I love theologians. But she’s not reading the Bible like a historical critic, and one of the great things about Chris Rollston is he doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what he is. He’s a biblical critic. That’s his discipline. He evaluates the Bible as a biblical critic, and he doesn’t pretend to engage in theology. Of course, from time to time he’ll derive an ethical point from the Bible, whether negative or positive, but this he does as a human being, as is his right, and not as a theologian. They continue:
Some may dismiss this as simply one voice crying out in the wilderness, but these are exactly the kinds of voices that the Bible schools its readers to listen to. The God of Biblical witness is one who hears the cries of slaves, outcasts, and the marginalized and who demands justice on their behalf. But to read a recent piece by Emmanuel Christian Seminary professor Christopher Rollston, one would hardly know that the God of the Bible had anything but evil in mind for women.
The blatant dishonesty and ridiculous hyperbole begins with their first mention of Dr. Rollston. First, I’ll point out, again, that what they’re doing here is theology. That’s not what Dr. Rollston does. From here to the end of their piece, the Three Young Men will essentially argue that Dr. Rollston’s article is a travesty because it isn’t theology. It doesn’t get much more presumptuous and self-important than this, folks.
So, they say, “the Bible schools its readers to listen to” voices like that of Sojourner Truth. Well, from the perspective of a historical theologian or a canonical theologian, for whom the Bible is “the Word of God,” singular, yes, the Bible does this. But from the perspective of a biblical critic, the Bible does both this, and its opposite, and shades in between, because in biblical criticism, the Bible does not speak in one voice; it is not one text, but many. And the many texts have many different things to say. And the reality is, from the perspective of Dr. Rollston’s discipline, some prominent voices “school” us to listen to justice-loving prophets like Sojourner Truth, while other prominent voices school us to accept what those same prophets would decry—as injustice—precisely as justice. The Bible is a mixed bag, and as valuable as historical theology is, it also can be very dangerous to fail to pay sufficient attention to the fact that some allegedly divinely-inspired voices in the Bible do in fact advocate for injustice in God’s name. The historical theologian will have various ways to wrestle with this fact, and that’s great, and necessary. But the biblical critic’s job isn’t to do that. Their job is simply to try to describe what the original author(s) meant to say. Any evaluation of biblical claims beyond that is made by human beings with moral agency, not by critics-qua-critics.
They say, “the God of Biblical witness is one who hears the cries of slaves, outcasts, and the marginalized and who demands justice on their behalf.” Again, for a canonical or historical theologian, sure, yes, that’s a true claim. But for the biblical critic, such a claim lacks (and this should appeal to Dr. Blowers) considerable nuance. Biblical critics must operate under the assumption that not all presentations of God in the biblical texts are consistent, and they frequently point out that while one biblical God is a God of justice, another biblical God is one who does things that aren’t very much in the interest of the oppressed, the enslaved, and the marginalized. And sometimes the same depiction of God is inconsistent even with itself. For instance, while Yahweh is the “liberator of slaves,” he is also, in the same text, the endorser of slavery. While the Three Young Men’s proper job is to emphasize the former, the job of biblical critics like Dr. Rollston is to present all the various representations of God even-handedly and with as much perspicuity as possible. As complicated as it can tend to get, historical theology or canonical theology tends to paint God in broader strokes, while biblical scholars are, by the rules of their discipline, obliged to tease out all the differences with a fine-toothed comb.
So, the utter failure of the Three Young Men to acknowledge or even recognize this distinction between disciplines allows them to slam this giant piece of dishonesty down on the table: “But to read a recent piece by Emmanuel Christian Seminary professor Christopher Rollston, one would hardly know that the God of the Bible had anything but evil in mind for women.”
First, it’s confused because it assumes that Dr. Rollston is operating under their working assumption that there is such a thing as “THE God of THE Bible.” He is not, and nor should he be. Second, it blatantly lies because Dr. Rollston plainly spells out numerous examples of biblical texts in which women’s liberation is affirmed, and he revels in these texts. To say that Dr. Rollston’s article leaves us with the impression that the Bible has nothing but evil in mind for women is just an inexcusable and detestable dishonesty. I’m just dumbfounded by their gumption.
If what they wish to argue here is that more space was given in Dr. Rollston’s article to patriarchy than to liberation, well, that’s a problem with the Bible itself, not with Dr. Rollston’s article. It’s a problem with the Bible that is in fact accurately and honestly reflected in Dr. Rollston’s article. Conversely, their assertion that “the God of the Bible” is a God of liberation is the assertion that turns out to be dishonest—dishonest not because it isn’t true, but because it isn’t the whole truth. And that’s a dishonesty that runs right throughout canonical theology as a discipline, despite its other strengths, as I’ve argued in print.
They continue, now launching into a none-too-subtle attempt to attack Dr. Rollston’s character:
Before enrolling at Emmanuel School of Religion (the seminary’s previous name) ourselves, we attended Milligan, a small liberal arts college just across the street. It was here that a wise professor of philosophy taught us to call into question the language of “values.” Anybody can have “values” that don’t actually play out in the way that one lives life. More interesting are virtues and vices, the patterns of excellence and corresponding deficiencies of character that one shapes and learns in the course of one’s life.
I’ll interrupt here to point out that they are taking Dr. Rollston’s language of “values” and suggesting that such language is too easy, because one can have “values” without putting them into practice. Intentional or not, an inescapable insinuation here is that Dr. Rollston has “values” without necessarily having the right “virtues.” This is disgusting. Looking at Dr. Rollston’s article, what is the one value he champions? It’s the value that holds that women must not be subservient to men. It’s the value of women’s liberation. And this is in fact a value that is also a tremendous virtue exercised constantly by Dr. Rollston. He has raised three beautiful and incredibly intelligent and successful daughters and he has treated them with the utmost respect; they are the highest priority in his life. He treats them with dignity, and looks at them not as objects under his authority (as so many, too many, Christian fathers do), but as his equals in every respect. He revels in their achievements and lavishes praise upon them, not for their femininity, but for their full-blown humanity. And he treats his female students with the same respect and dignity. One of his most cherished students, if not the most, is a woman, a woman whom he treats as an academic partner. He constantly speaks out for women’s rights and seeks to instill in his students the value of women’s liberation and equality, hoping that his students will adopt this value and develop it into a virtue, as he has done and continues to strive to do. He does this by assigning books written by women about women in the Bible, academic books from a feminist perspective, and he does this by constantly breaking into feminist homilies in the classroom. While at Emmanuel, I also observed his reading habits, and almost every time I saw him reading a book for pleasure, it was either written by, or written about, a prominent woman in society. I think I wouldn’t be amiss to say that almost all or at least a disproportionate number of his favorite political and cultural icons are women. In short, the primary value Dr. Rollston advocates in his Huffington Post article is a value he has dedicated his life to practicing. He is a virtuous man.
Nevertheless, the Three Young Men go on to accuse Dr. Rollston of lacking in the virtue department:
There are virtues appropriate to particular areas of living, virtues of general moral character, and intellectual virtues. Among this last group was the virtue of intentional listening, which our professor taught us was the willingness and patient capability not to take written and spoken language as pre-text for one’s own performance but as the articulated shape of another human being’s soul.
We point this out because a text like Rollston’s makes listening hard. As far as we can tell, his article seeks to reduce the Bible to something which simply degrades, excludes, and silences women. Even worse, because it is a ‘holy book’ it gives such mistreatment divine sanction. In making his case for the moral bankruptcy of the Bible Rollston seems uninterested in listening either to those he calls the ‘exceptional voices’ of Scripture (one of whom he identifies as the Apostle Paul, the writer of much of the New Testament) nor to the long and diverse history of Biblical interpretation which surrounds those texts he criticizes.
One of the many disquieting ironies in this hubristic, puerile accusation is that it only displays that they lack the same virtue of listening they falsely deny that Dr. Rollston possesses. They didn’t listen to his article. If they did, they could not have said that “his article seeks to reduce the Bible to something which simply degrades, excludes, and silences women.” They could not have said that Dr. Rollston makes “a case for the moral bankruptcy of the Bible.” They accuse him of this even while acknowledging the very portions of his article that belie their jaundiced caricature. As we’ve seen, Dr. Rollston offers a long list of biblical texts in the Bible (including some I hadn’t considered before) in which women are liberated and given equal treatment to that of men. How can he do this, while at the same time declaring “the moral bankruptcy of the Bible” (a phrase that neither appears nor is implied anywhere in his article), while at the same time “reducing the Bible to something which simply degrades, excludes, and silences women.” Their accusation is not only false, it is so obviously and absurdly false, it is difficult to believe that it wasn’t intentionally so. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, however, and conclude that their inability to see the utter emptiness of their accusations is the result of an ideological blood clot in the brain. This, at least, is forgivable.
They claim he is “uninterested” in listening to Paul, whom Dr. Rollston cites as an example of progressive thinking in the Bible. It seems rather to me that they are uninterested in listening to the dominant voices in the Bible who represent patriarchy and misogyny, and uninterested in listening to Dr. Rollston. Conversely, when I posted a link to Dr. Rollston’s article on my Facebook wall, an atheist acquaintance of mine commented: “That one paragraph about the push back against patriarchy was interesting.” So the atheist read Dr. Rollston’s article and what jumped out to him was the very discussion of the liberative texts that the Three Young Men tried to play down in their vituperative caricature.
They also claim that Dr. Rollston is uninterested in listening “to the long and diverse history of Biblical interpretation which surrounds those texts he criticizes.” First, that’s historical theology, not biblical criticism. Second, Dr. Rollston knows (and rightly so) that regardless of the long history of biblical interpretation (which often distorted the meaning of biblical texts, but rather more often approvingly interpreted these texts in the way Dr. Rollston rightly argues they were originally intended—as advocating patriarchy), what the text originally meant is unaffected by its later interpretations, at least, according to the rules of his discipline. So, once again, as with Dr. Blowers, the Three Young Men contend that Dr. Rollston’s article is a travesty because it’s biblical criticism and not historical theology. No matter how many times they try to make this criticism stick (and they will try and try again), it will never be a valid or even a remotely interesting criticism. It only displays the elitist disciplinary bias through which these guys and Dr. Blowers are committed to seeing anything and everything ever said about the Bible.
Finally, let’s revisit one of the stupidest claims in the above:
As far as we can tell, his article seeks to reduce the Bible to something which simply degrades, excludes, and silences women. Even worse, because it is a ‘holy book’ it gives such mistreatment divine sanction.
In nowise can Dr. Rollston’s article be construed by anyone as ascribing “divine sanction” to the mistreatment of women in the Bible. Dr. Rollston expressly rejects that conclusion. He says:
People today often wish to turn to sacred literature for timeless trues about social norms. This impulse is certainly understandable. But that impulse can be fraught with certain difficulties. After all, to embrace the dominant biblical view of women would be to embrace the marginalization of women. And sacralizing patriarchy is just wrong.
Catch that, fellas? “And sacralizing patriarchy is just wrong.” It appears that these gentlemen assume that the only way to prevent people from ascribing divine sanction to patriarchy is to deny that patriarchy is really there in these texts, or at least to downplay its presence, perhaps by means of a christological hermeneutic where the better texts are prioritized by reference to the priority of God’s revelation in Christ, or perhaps by trying (as fundamentalists do) to interpret the problematic texts in less problematic ways by appealing to other texts by other biblical authors and conforming the one to the other, or whatever strategy. Some of these strategies are less dishonest than others, but the fact remains that lots of texts inscribe patriarchy into divine revelation, and in the end we either have to accept that patriarchy is divine, or find some way to conclude that it isn’t. Maybe they just don’t like Dr. Rollston’s way of doing it because it circumvents all their sophisticated hermeneutical techniques and just cuts to the chase: these texts are patriarchal and we can’t say they’re from God because we know that patriarchy is wrong. Dr. Rollston and the Three Young Men end up in the same place, but he arrives there much faster. They accuse him of taking a shortcut fraught with peril. He probably envisions them as the Amish crawling down the two-lane blacktop highway. The difference is that he can respect the Amish; they see him as a threat.
He also chooses not to give voice to those alternative interpretations concerning women that are by no means novel but which have followed the Bible across the centuries as Rabbis, theologians, and ordinary folk have grappled with these sacred texts.
Again, so the hell what. Obviously, if Dr. Rollston is writing an exhaustive commentary on a text, he will include historical interpretations of a given text he deems germane to his discipline’s task of determining author’s original intention, but this is a Huffington Post article, and his aim in this popular-level, very short piece, was not to display the interesting insights or the hermeneutical gymnastics of later theologians, but to make the simple point that if you want to appeal to “biblical values,” bear in mind that parts of the Bible espouse some values that we should reject. Their whole line of attack is ludicrous. It amounts to this: Dr. Rollston doesn’t have the virtue of listening because he didn’t make the point we wanted him to make. The irony, of course, as I will spell out further below, is that for all their appeals to the history of Christian interpretation on these particular texts, it is the Three Young Men who end up shutting their ears to some of the most important voices in the long history of Christian theology. I’ll get to that in due course. Meantime, they continue:
Despite the fact that Rollston is himself seminary-educated and privy to the many ways the Bible has been understood throughout the ages, he seems to want us to believe that “what the Bible says” about women amounts to only what the most trenchant fundamentalists would today take to be its meaning.
Ah, so now Dr. Rollston is siding with the fundamentalists by articulating the consensus findings of critical Bible scholarship. On the contrary, of course, it is the fundamentalists who try to conform all the different and conflicting voices in the Bible to one another. One fundamentalist will insist that patriarchy is consistently maintained throughout the Bible and it is right and proper that we should all maintain patriarchal institutions and relationships. Another fundamentalist will insist that all these texts consistently espouse something called “complementarianism,” in which men and women have distinctly assigned roles to fulfill according to gender delineation, but they are nevertheless equal in terms of dignity, or whatever (blah, blah, blah). Then, there’s another fundamentalist position that tries to contort all these different texts into a consistent egalitarian position, or, alternatively, is able to prioritize the different texts by reference to some form of dispensational morality. These are fundamentalist readings of the text. What Dr. Rollston has concluded (correctly), is that none of these fundamentalist positions can be sustained. There are in fact conflicting voices in the Bible on the issue of the status of women. There is nothing fundamentalist about Dr. Rollston’s reading. Granted, the “most trenchant fundamentalists” who actually advocate for patriarchy have a better reading of, say, the patriarchal texts in the legal corpora than do, say, the egalitarian fundamentalists. But a broken clock is right twice a day. Just because fundamentalists read some texts rightly doesn’t mean there’s anything akin to fundamentalism in Dr. Rollston’s critical reading of these texts. Give. Me. A. Break.
While Rollston believes he is showing us what some of the Biblical authors originally intended in their writings (and attempts such as this are important) in any tradition as rich as Christianity or Judaism speaking for these “original” voices amounts to speaking for only a few – even if an important few – among many.
Ah, yes. “And attempts such as this are important.” Canonical and historical theologians often pay such great lip service to the work of critical scholars, but it is by no means clear to me how the conclusions of critical scholars are in any way “important” to so many of these theologians, especially these clowns. If the work of critical scholars in ascertaining the original intent of authors is important, then why are the Three Young Men condemning Dr. Rollston for doing just that? I’ve found that when historical theologians say things like that, “oh, their work is important,” more often than not, it doesn’t mean anything other than that these theologians don’t want to give off the impression that they’re fundamentalists. One of the few distinctions between a fundamentalist and this type of traditionalist theologian is that the latter doesn’t have a faith crisis when they hear what historical critics have to say about the texts. But apart from that, the findings of critical scholars tend to play little to no role in their work (there are of course important exceptions to this). While some elements of critical scholarship plays a role, most of the work of critical scholarship is just sidelined—vaguely interesting curiosities but of no real value to the “real” work of doing Theology-with-a-capital-T.
And again, I love Theology-with-a-capital-T; what I don’t love is the barely-hidden disdain so many of these capital-T theologians have for the work of biblical critics. They can’t see that the disciplines are sharply divided, not just by basic philosophical assumptions, but by the fundamentally different natures of the tasks themselves: biblical criticism seeks to find what original biblical authors were trying to say; canonical and historical theologians are trying to hear a coherent voice of God out of a cacophony of voices over a timespan of about four thousand years. Biblical criticism is scientific. Historical theology is artistic. Biblical criticism wants to know what the texts say. Historical theology has at best a condescending interest in what the texts say, but really only wants to know what God says. Don’t get me wrong: historical theologians have to use the same scientific tools used by biblical critics to figure out what Jeremiah, Paul, Augustine, Anselm, Luther, etc., were saying. But that’s only the first step of a long process of creative engagement with these voices in order to arrive at something like the voice of God. Biblical critics are often way more fascinated with theology than theologians are with biblical criticism, but nevertheless, the biblical critics’ job is done when the author’s intended meaning has been ascertained. It isn’t the job of the biblical critic to tell us what God says. It’s their job to tell us what the texts say, what the texts say about God or whatever else. Dr. Blowers and the Three Young Men don’t like that, and that’s fine. They don’t have to. That’s why they’re not in that discipline. But just because they don’t like it doesn’t mean biblical criticism is flawed or incomplete simply by virtue of the fact that it’s not theology.
Dr. Rollston is not a theologian. He’s a biblical critic and an epigrapher. Texts, not God, are the object of his discipline. But according to Dr. Blowers’ standards, Dr. Rollston’s in a catch-22. He can’t publish anything in a public space if he’s going to stick to the confines of his discipline, but he also can’t branch out into doing the theology that Dr. Blowers requires because, well according to Dr. Blowers, Dr. Rollston isn’t competent to do so. So I guess Dr. Rollston is really just obliged not to be a biblical scholar in public.
Sigh. Moving on, they continue:
The Bible itself is a collection of voices expressed through innumerable stories, literary forms, and linguistic devices many of whom give voice to the dignity and integrity of women and other marginalized persons.
No argument from Dr. Rollston.
Rollston seems uninterested in these other voices, however. He seems more concerned in perpetuating an especially constrictive (and ugly) debate about “what the bible says,” the rules of which have been drafted between fundamentalists and those who regard fundamentalist readings the only ones worth mentioning. If Rollston’s essay seeks for possibilities other than this, none of us have the power to discern them here.
I’ll grant them the truth of the last sentence. None of them seem to have the power to discern what Dr. Rollston is doing with his article. I can’t get my head around how Dr. Rollston’s description of numerous biblical texts in which women are presented as equals or are offered liberation, and his praise of those texts, can be interpreted as a “lack of interest.” I suppose what they mean is that Dr. Rollston chose not to write an apologia, but instead to write the facts as they stand in reality. His point was not that there are no resources for women’s liberation in the Bible, as the Young Men have falsely claimed several times already—and as his article clearly belies. Rather, his simple and obvious point was that those who simplistically appeal to “biblical values” are, if honest, going to find out that the reality in the Bible is more complex and messy than they’d prefer. Why should Dr. Rollston be prevented from making this point the central point of his article? What in the wide world is wrong with this point? The Young Men take issue with it because they want the Bible to be a book essentially about liberation. But it’s not. Of course, liberation is a prominent theme in the Bible, but we’re lying if we deny that oppression and patriarchy (and slavery and genocide) aren’t also inscribed in these texts as the purported will of God.
To say that Dr. Rollston is uninterested in the voices of liberation is simply ludicrous. In the classroom, he constantly highlights the liberative texts and foregrounds them, and advocates to the students the foregrounding of these texts as a way of reading the Bible as people of faith. He didn’t discuss this in his online article, sure, but it wasn’t the point of the article to do so. Dr. Rollston was first of all tailoring his article to the broadest possible audience, and what he showed non-believers is that Christian seminary professors can be matter-of-factly honest about the problematic texts in the Bible, without rejecting it wholesale or being in any way antipathetic toward faith. The point of his article was to highlight the problematic nature of any simplistic appeal to “biblical values” in order to justify, in this case, a regressive patriarchy flailing and clawing for its survival in the twenty-first century. Is this ammunition in the hands of atheists and skeptics? Perhaps it is. But guess what! It’s ammunition produced by the Bible itself. It happens to be the truth. And if some of these truths, when told in public, provide ammunition to opponents of our faith, well, that’s an issue with the faith itself, not with its representatives. But on the other hand, let’s be one-part less reactionary and three-parts more realistic: atheists and skeptics already have this ammunition. They don’t need Dr. Rollston to tell them it’s there. But what Dr. Rollston has done is shown that Christians can be aware of it too, and honest about it. And he’s reminded everyone that there’s more to the Bible than just the bad stuff, even if (honestly) the good voices in the Bible are outnumbered and sandwiched in by the bad (as is the case with patriarchy and women’s liberation).
The Three Young Men claim that Dr. Rollston is “more concerned in perpetuating an especially constrictive (and ugly) debate about ‘what the bible says,’ the rules of which have been drafted between fundamentalists and those who regard fundamentalist readings the only ones worth mentioning.” They seem to be implying here that historical critical scholarship is essentially a fundamentalist enterprise. This is a common sentiment among pseudo-postmodern sorts. It’s true that (in theory) historical criticism and fundamentalism both seek to conclude with “what the text says,” as a historical document. But of course the similarities really end there. Historical critics are free, after having established the meaning of the text, to disagree with it. Meanwhile, fundamentalists very rarely actually get the meaning right in historical-grammatical terms, precisely because they’re not permitted to disagree with it.
As for this attack that Dr. Rollston is one of those “who regards fundamentalist readings as the only ones worth mentioning,” this misses its mark. First, it isn’t true. Second, in the case of this article, Dr. Rollston is responding to a relevant contemporary problem in our society—the persistence of fundamentalist patriarchy even in the midst of widespread advances for women—spreading out now even as far as the golf course. (And anybody who thinks this is just a “personal agenda” on Dr. Rollston’s part obviously has no concern for the plight of women in America.) Dr. Rollston is responding to a fundamentalist approach to the text because present-day fundamentalist Christians in politics are trying to do real harm to women—that’s the inciting incident giving occasion to the article itself. Dr. Rollston’s point is not that they are misinterpreting some texts as patriarchal, but that “biblical values” are a mixed bag, and we have to use critical reasoning if we’re going to appeal to them—a practice he expressly wants us to engage in cautiously, and not a practice he calls upon us to abandon, as the Three Young Men imply when they falsely ascribe the view that the Bible is “morally bankrupt” to Dr. Rollston.
Perhaps Dr. Rollston isn’t concerned about giving “ammunition” (in Dr. Blowers’ self-defensive language) to skeptics and atheists because Dr. Rollston sees that the bigger threat to Christianity is fundamentalists like Todd Akin and Michelle Bachmann, who are encouraging Christians all over the country to embrace utter insanity. Perhaps Dr. Rollston thinks (consciously or not) that giving skeptics and Christians alike ammunition to use against the likes of Todd Akin is better for Christianity than attempting to hermeneuticize that ammunition into ploughshares and remain pacifistic while Christianity is destroyed from within by the nutjobs. Perhaps skeptics are more empowered by fundamentalists than by honest, self-critical Christians, and perhaps secular humanists are more of an ally to Christianity than Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and James Dobson. So perhaps it’s for the good of Christianity that secular humanists and Christians unite against dishonest and immoral fundamentalist Christians. Perhaps our enemies aren’t the ones trying to hold our feet to the fire but the ones who are burning our house down from within—not the Other, but ourselves. But what do I know.
I do know that religion in general and Christianity in particular is something that Chris Rollston wants to see flourish. He may not be a traditional man, but he’s a man who loves tradition. And there is, contrary to the claims of Dr. Rollston’s irrational critics, nothing to the contrary expressed in his article. Nevertheless, back to those critics we now turn:
The pity of such broad omissions is in the riches that Rollston discards. If only he could recall some of the readings that he most surely picked up along the way he might remember that some of the earliest stirrings of what would afterwards be called feminism happened through people’s engagement with the Bible. He might recall the strong mix of Roman and Biblical imagery that lent Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Defense of the Rights of Woman” its power. He might give a thought to the Quaker women who boldly stepped forward to preach the very Bible that Rollston blames for the oppression of women (they did not do so disingenuously). For that matter, he might remember that the early Church, Old Testament and all, was sneered at as a religion for slaves and women. These observations might lend a bit more nuance to his broadside.
As I’ll show further below, the irony here are the voices the Three Young Men forget to mention, the voice to whom they fail to listen—the very voices to whom Dr. Rollston has listened closely and to whom his critical scholarship owes the lion’s share of its debt. But for now, suffice it to say yet again that Dr. Rollston is not a historical theologian. He is a critical Bible scholar, doing what critical Bible scholar’s do. It’s his job description.
To mention such examples is not an attempt to whitewash the history of Christian (or Jewish or Islamic) biblical interpretation.
This misses the point. The appeal to the history of Christian interpretation is very often the attempt to whitewash the biblical texts. Since Dr. Rollston is not a church historian or a historical theologian, I’m sure he has no interest in whitewashing the history of biblical interpretation. But what he rightly refuses to whitewash is the Bible itself.
Throughout its long and complex history the Bible most certainly has been used to justify the marginalization of women. There are many scriptural texts that have been appealed to time and again to sanction male superiority and justify exclusion.
Once again, the critics of the biblical critic fail to confront the reality. To say simply that “the Bible … has been used to justify the marginalization of women” is a whitewash. Yes, it has been so used, and there’s a very good reason for that: the most plentiful voices in the Bible do in fact marginalize women. Very many of those “scriptural texts that have been appealed to time and again to sanction male superiority and justify exclusion” do in fact sanction male superiority and justify exclusion. The biblical critic can acknowledge this. For some reason, theologians of a certain stripe struggle to be as honest. The absurd and jejune reaction of the Three Young Men to Dr. Rollston’s uncontroversial and balanced short article evinces an inability, likely based in fear, to allow these biblical texts to speak on their own terms and to let those voices stand. Dr. Rollston does nothing to deny the right of later biblical interpreters to add their voices to the mix; but those voices aren’t the ones to whom people like Todd Akin are appealing when they call for a return to “biblical values.” And neither are they the voices that are the central occupation of Dr. Rollston’s academic discipline.
And yet it is only historically responsible to note that this same text has, time and again, also been one of the most important sources for resistance to this same mistreatment.
If Dr. Rollston were writing an article on how the Bible has been used throughout history either to justify injustice or to resist it, no doubt he would have made reference to those who have used it in service of liberation. But of course, that would be a different article. What Dr. Rollston did provide, very responsibly, is reference to and praise of the liberative voices found in the Bible itself.
To borrow a term from the philosophy of history, the Bible has often if not always been part of a dialectic, moving in the name of the God who would order the world and at once moving in the spirit of a God who would take a stand in behalf of the oppressed. It was slave-owners who used the Bible to salve their consciences, and it was slaves and women who turned to the Bible as a guide and inspiration for social change.
Of course. Dr. Rollston would have no argument with these fine sentiments. These are things Dr. Rollston taught in the classroom from time to time on some of his tangents. But, again, they’re outside the purview of his discipline, and not the point of his article, which is about the biblical texts themselves, and not the history of their interpretation in the church. Please, get over yourselves.
But no, hold on. They’re not getting away with this. This whole line of reasoning from the Three Young Men just further displays their own biases. The fact is, virtually every religion in history has had both oppressive and liberative elements, and usually it is the case that the oppressive elements tend to overpower and dominate the liberative ones. The liberative ones arise in response to oppression, and are almost by definition minorities. But more importantly, every religion with these bi-polar elements uses its commonly-owned sacred texts or sacred canons of oral traditions in order to justify either oppression or liberation. This is true of Islam; it’s true of Buddhism; it’s true of Hinduism; it’s true of Judaism; it’s true of animistic and tribal religions; and it’s true of Christianity. The fact that Christians have a long tradition of “wrestling” with their sacred texts and using them to justify either oppression or liberation says absolutely nothing unique about Christian scripture itself. All of these sacred texts and traditions contain elements of oppression and elements of liberation within them precisely because these texts reflect the power struggles of the religious communities who produced them. So I am unsure how pointing out that Christianity has a history of doing this is meant in some way to chasten Dr. Rollston in his willingness to identify the oppressive voices within the Jewish and Christian scriptures. This does not compute.
Rollston may of course respond that he was not speaking of the history of Biblical interpretation but only of those specific texts in their original historical contexts.
Ah. The light has turned on.
The question remains, however, when speaking of issues of such vital importance as the place of women in the Bible, is such a limited reading ultimately adequate?
A limited reading of what? A limited reading of the Bible, or of what others have said about what they think the Bible says throughout history? If the former, Dr. Rollston gave a more than adequate, if not exhaustive, list of texts to display the fact that some voices in scripture are patriarchal, while some are not—the only point he wished to make. But they mean the latter, and proceed to legitimize this presumptuous question with a fundamentally flawed analogy:
Would we, for example, consider this same kind of reading of The Declaration of Independence to be fair? Dr. Rollston accuses the Bible of being “written by men and for men.” Could not the same be said of that founding document of the American republic? Its enshrined declaration that “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was certainly not intended by its authors to apply to women and slaves, and yet this document stands today as one of defining texts for modern liberty and equality. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just to cite one memorable example, grabbed hold of that document’s powerful phrases (and those of the Bible) to combat the injustices perpetrated in his own day. Rather than dismiss the Declaration as a document by slave-owners for the sake of slave-owners, King (among others) saw in the document a spiritual force, one that could turn against even its original situation for the sake of a better America.
If one were to ask how The Declaration of Independence should be evaluated concerning the question of women’s rights certainly one would find it necessary to consider how it actually has been used throughout its history of reception and interpretation. One would need to ask how this document was read as part of a tradition of law and a history of social change. How did it come to be read differently amidst changing conceptions of personhood? It would also be important to recognize that this document, while “foundational” and “normative,” is also “living” for what it is believed to say grows and changes as part of the history of those people who are committed to it. Generations turn over texts like The Declaration of Independence and The Bible as they are presented with new challenges and discover in them new possibilities and new self-understandings. That is in part what makes these texts exceptional.
Let’s step back and analyze the rhetorical move they’ve made here. They begin with the brilliant observation that “Rollston may of course respond that he was not speaking of the history of Biblical interpretation but only of those specific texts in their original historical contexts.” They then ask whether such a “limited reading” is adequate. They proceed to argue that the Declaration of Independence is a living document among American citizens much as the Bible is a living document among Christians. Let’s grant that for the time being. Would Dr. Rollston necessarily have any objection to this? No. But the question they ask (“is Rollston’s reading adequate?”) presumes an understanding of “adequate” that applies to their discipline and not to Dr. Rollston’s. Pointing out that the way the Declaration of Independence has been interpreted over the past two hundred and thirty-two years is analogous to the way the Bible has been interpreted over the past two thousand years doesn’t mean that the only way to read the Declaration of Independence is on the model of historical theology. An American academic activist (i.e., a historical theologian) can write a history book detailing the history of interpretation of the Declaration of Independence with an aim to establish what its meaning should be for American citizens today, or a historian can write a history book dedicated solely to the historical circumstances that produced it and to its original intent. Is one less valid than the other? Is one less adequate? Adequate for what purpose? This of course is hardly the only problem with the Declaration of Independence analogy. It’s fundamentally flawed in another way: the history of feminist struggle in America flatly contradicts their analogical use of the document, as I will discuss much further below.
For now, suffice it to say that Todd Akin and fundamentalist Christians like him do not subscribe to the view that the Bible is a living document whose meaning evolves over time as more and more Christian voices join in the sublime hermeneutical chorus. Successfully or not, they wish to ascertain its fixed meaning in history and to replicate its prescriptions today. And the biblical texts do have fixed historical meanings. They also have new meanings in the context of the canon. And they have new meanings in the context of historical theology. All of these are legitimate, but only one is the domain of the historical critical Bible scholar. Again, Dr. Blowers says that Dr. Rollston is not qualified to make a foray into theological territory, but he and the Young Men at the same time fault him for failing to do so, all the while assuming that Dr. Rollston must have been attempting to do so, and failing miserably, when in reality he was simply doing what historical critics do, in abbreviated form.
But at the same time, I would argue (and have argued at length on many occasions in the past and in print) that while the kind of theology that Dr. Blowers &co. privilege is perfectly legitimate and very important, historical critical Bible scholarship must play a more influential role in their creative theology than it usually does. The theologian should incorporate the findings of critical scholarship, whenever possible, into the theological process in a much more robust way, if the theological enterprise is to remain grounded and honest. It is not adequate to appeal to the voices of the Bible’s interpreters as a way of maneuvering around problematic biblical texts in order to produce a theology that is morally sustainable. We must go through the problematic texts by first and foremost allowing them to speak to us in their own voices. If those voices are patriarchal or misogynistic or racist or bigoted or bloodthirsty, we have a moral and academic responsibility to allow them to be just that. That is our starting point. From there, a theologian would turn to the history of interpretation and evaluate later voices according to how well they manage these texts. If they are dishonest with the texts, the theologian should be obliged to say so, without, however, necessarily rejecting wholesale every insight they might have about the text. If the Bible, even as a living document, truly has pride of place in a theological hermeneutic, then its own voice must guide our engagement with other voices. The voices of the biblical authors aren’t the only voices that matter, but any theology that runs roughshod over those voices by allowing them to be drowned out in the cacophony of later voices is an inadequate theology, at least for Christian purposes in that Christianity gives the Bible pride of place in theological discourse. So, if a text is patriarchal, that reality guides our engagement with other voices and frames the way we evaluate and appropriate the history of interpretation.
I’m not saying this is the only way to do theology, but I am saying that it is absolutely essential if our theologies are to have any integrity and not descend into mere apologetics. And I am saying that far too rarely do theologians do this.
What I am describing, of course, is not new, and this speaks to the grandest irony present in the Young Men’s attack on Dr. Rollston for refusing to listen to the history of theology. What I am describing is liberation theology, and particularly feminist theology. Not all feminist theology takes this confrontational approach to the biblical texts, of course, but the best and the bulk of it does. And these are the voices that have gone unmentioned by the Three Young Men, and these are the voices to which Dr. Rollston has been listening very carefully throughout his career, and from whom he has learned so much.
In his article, Dr. Rollston’s critique of patriarchy is right out of the annals of feminist theology and feminist Bible scholarship. These are voices in the history of Christian tradition, and they are voices that, like Dr. Rollston, think it essential to confront patriarchy and misogyny in the biblical texts without apology. I’ve read countless essays and articles by feminist scholars whose only agenda in the essay is to confront the problematic texts, to name them patriarchal, and to let them stand as such. To let them stand as such. Why? Isn’t this destructive to the faith? No. It is absolutely essential to the integrity of the voices of women of faith. That so many of these texts are patriarchal is precisely what the feminist theologian wants to say about them. Because the relationship between the woman and the patriarchal text is precisely what the church needs to come to recognize. While all of scripture belongs to the whole church, some texts belong more so to women (or to immigrants, or to slaves, or to minorities, or to children) than to the church. The women in the Bible are the church’s second, and women’s first. And while the history of the whole church’s interpretation of these texts is valuable, it is the history of women’s interpretation of these texts that must be foregrounded in any kind of faithful theology.
And what do the voices of these women say about our patriarchal texts? Here are a few representative examples:
Feminist theory insists that all texts are products of an androcentric patriarchal culture and history. . . . Analysis of history and the Bible must critically reveal patriarchal history for what it is and, at the same time, reconstruct the history of women in early Christianity as a challenge to historical-religious patriarchy. . . . A Feminist hermeneutical understanding that is oriented. . . toward a critical evaluation of [biblical Tradition] must uncover and reject those elements within all biblical traditions and texts that perpetuate, in the name of God, violence, alienation, and patriarchal subordination.4
Sexual-role stereotyping has been legitimated by many religions and by Western society for thousands of years. Women who break out of “their place” and assume positions normally reserved to men are “exceptions.” The exceptions may even be lauded by men—as long as they remain exceptions. But whenever there is danger that the exception will become the norm, men rebel. Accordingly, patriarchy functions best when the oppressed sex, the women, support the status quo and choose for themselves the security their role provides.
Since the Old Testament was produced between the tenth and the second century B.C., and its oral traditions even earlier, and since that period in ancient Israelite history was undoubtedly patriarchal (one need only survey the texts to recognize that it is men’s history which is recorded; women are relegated to ancillary roles), any historical critique of the texts needs to make explicit their patriarchal bias. This is a function of feminist interpretation.
The underlying presupposition of feminist interpretation is that women are equal to men. It insists that all texts be interpreted by this principle. Since the biblical texts are historically conditioned and were produced by a patriarchal society, they are patriarchal in character. They must, therefore, be approached with suspicion. Whenever, and in whatever ways, the biblical texts undermine the full humanity and equality of women—by their allusions, their assertions, or their omissions—interpreters have the obligation of unmasking their patriarchal bias. Those aspects of the texts that reinforce the church’s and society’s relegation of women to an inferior status (i.e., everything from polygamy to the equation of Israel’s sinfulness with harlotry) must be uncovered, and if possible, reinterpreted. . . . And when one discovers just how permeated with patriarchal bias the Old Testament is, one may be tempted to reject it totally. Such a direction, however, is not the one this author has taken. . . . Rather, one learns from history as well as from experience. . . .
Who are the heroines who emerge in the biblical texts in spite of — ? Who are the women one glimpses whose images are distorted? Who are the nameless ones who live in the texts only through their husbands and their sons? Who are the exceptions who survived, those even who are lauded? . . .
Similarly, attention to the “exceptions” which emerge in spite of the pervasive patriarchal bias testifies to a struggle for women’s liberation even within the ancient culture.5
These are standard representations of the kind of approach those with the ability to listen will find among a majority of feminist scholars who are women of faith, and a comparison of the language sampled here with the language of Dr. Rollston’s article will bear out his commitment to hearing and heeding these voices. While feminist theologians have no dearth of scriptural resources for positive affirmations of women’s liberation, they have a lot more to contend with in terms of texts that stand against them. Feminists are committed to “reinterpreting” these texts, but to “reinterpret” them does not often mean that such texts are no longer read as patriarchal. Rather, in their reinterpretation, the patriarchal texts take on new significance; for instance, they are negative examples of oppression rather than affirmations of a patriarchal moral order. Thus when feminist theologians and feminist biblical scholars choose to confront patriarchal texts and insist that they stand as patriarchal, they are establishing not necessarily the only reading, but certainly the most authoritative reading of the text for the life and health of the church, because if the texts are allowed to become something wholly other than patriarchal, the status of women is diminished once again, “there is no longer male nor female” becomes a lie, and the church grows sick in the womb of its women of faith.
All this is not to say that Dr. Rollston was engaging in theology, but he was most certainly engaging in feminist biblical scholarship, and I have no doubt that he was doing so consciously. Thus, when Dr. Rollston confronts the patriarchal texts as patriarchal, and insists that they stand as such, and when after highlighting many of the liberative texts in the Bible, he returns to say that the dominant voice is the voice of patriarchy, Dr. Rollston is allowing the historical voice of women theologians and scholars to stand as authoritative.
Dr. Rollston began his article by highlighting the long struggle that women in America have undergone in their fight for equality and liberation, and rightly emphasized that for all the progress that has been made, it has been slow, and it is still under real threat—for Christ’s sake, some of the loudest voices in our government want to differentiate between violent rape and “lesser” forms of rape, and want to force women to carry to term the children of their rapists. These voices belong to Christians. And now more than ever, we need to be confronted with the truth that the biblical texts to which these Christians appeal to justify their view of women are not good. The values in these texts are not good. They are patriarchal, and patriarchy is evil. Sometimes, that is all that needs to be said; it is the most precise theological statement we can make. And the church needs to hear it. And the secular world needs to hear the church saying it. They need to hear us saying it, and to watch us as we let it stand. They do not need to see us, yet again, maneuver around the patriarchal reality of these texts by reference to the history of Christian interpretation. Feminist Jews and Christians have had enough of that. And the world has seen enough of that. Sometimes, the most faithful theological statement we can make is that our sacred texts have too often been wrong. And Emmanuel Christian Seminary should be proud and should stand behind Dr. Rollston for saying it in public. Damn the chips and where they fall. Either we’re in this Christian tradition or not; either these texts are ours or they’re not, and if they are, then we own the blowback. Stand up and face it. Stop whining that those who justify their insanity by reference to the Bible are “abusing” it. Stop trying to relativize the significance of the texts of terror by reference to the texts of truth. Stop trying to relativize the significance of our moral failings throughout history by reference to our moral victories. That is dishonesty, and it is cowardice. Stand up and take ownership. Call evil what is evil and take full ownership of it. Call good what is good and count it as no merit to ourselves. Stop defending the faith. Instead have faith that we will survive the confession of our sins.
What we find lacking in Rollston’s comments is not only a willingness to listen to history but also to theology. For persons of faith the Bible is always read as part of a larger collection of beliefs, actions, and ways of life. Certainly there are those who neglect this larger picture, but they do so at the expense of intellectual breadth. Rollston seems to assume that reading the Bible by separating it from its context of faith and speaking of it as an isolated artifact is the only way that’s worth mentioning.
Or perhaps Dr. Rollston just thought he’d write the article he set out to write, rather than the article some deaf Christians wish he would have written.
Approaching a text that people claim to be holy because it is an important part of their lived relationship with God, and then reading it by bracketing out this relationship, is odd.
Not for a critical Bible scholar it isn’t. That’s the job description.
Surely the faithful’s confessions as to the nature of God should be taken into consideration when interpreting texts that are attributed to him [SIC]. For example, when asking whether “the Bible marginalizes women” certainly it is also important to ask, “And what does the God of the Bible charge us to do concerning those who are marginalized?” The answer to this is one that anyone who has spent time in Sunday School should be able to answer.
First of all, I never learned anything about God’s heart for the marginalized in Sunday School. But even if I had, therein lies the problem. Dr. Rollston isn’t in Sunday School any longer. He’s graduated Sunday School. And now he’s a chaired professor in a graduate educational institution where it is expected that he engage the Bible critically, and where his discipline demands that he not approach the text on the assumption that it is internally consistent and presents a coherent view of God. While some parts of the Bible command us to care for the marginalized, other parts command us to marginalize women. Sometimes, both commands coexist in the same damn part.
Why should a historical biblical scholar take into consideration “the faithful’s confessions as to the nature of God” when that scholar’s discipline requires that s/he be aware that what the faithful confesses about God and what the Bible says about God often aren’t the same thing? Why should Dr. Rollston, who is not qualified to be a historical theologian, be required to be a historical theologian in order to present his work to the public? What possible kind of sense does that make?
This response, of course, doesn’t get the Bible off the hook, but it certainly shows that the matter is much more complex than whether the Bible deserves a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” when it comes to women.
Fortunately, Dr. Rollston didn’t give the Bible either a thumbs up or a thumbs down, as if the two were mutually exclusive. He expressly gave the Bible both. The Young Men can’t abide this, so they must distort Dr. Rollston’s position by claiming he declared the Bible “morally bankrupt,” when he did no such thing.
Concluding Rollston’s article we were left wondering whether Rollston had really lost sight of such basic observations in the rarefied air of specialized ancient history (he is one of the world’s leading authorities in his field) or whether his apparent ignorance was feigned.
The maddening conceit persists. Dr. Rollston is not ignorant of what theologians do and say, but neither is he responsible, as a biblical scholar, to do what theologians do. He was not speaking as a theologian, but as a biblical scholar and a human being. What about that is so difficult to understand? What’s with this pompous assumption that Dr. Rollston cannot critique the Bible unless he does so as somebody other than who he is? Why are these “theologians” trying to force biblical scholars to conform to their own image? What’s with the disdainful dismissal of Dr. Rollston’s expertise in ancient history on the grounds that it isn’t an expertise in theology? If you have more to say about patriarchy in the Bible, by reference to historical theology, then by God say it. Otherwise, thank Dr. Rollston for his insights from his discipline, and shut up.
Either possibility is a painful one, an indictment of the scholarly guilds’ prominence in the life of the seminary as much as a warning in the person of Rollston.
What oblivious arrogance! And what utter stupidity! A seminary is comprised of numerous scholars from different disciplines within the fields of biblical studies, theology, and Christian ministry. Dr. Rollston’s field is biblical studies. His field is not theology. His field is not Christian ministry. Dr. Rollston wrote an article as a biblical scholar, and did not venture outside his field, except as a human being with basic ethical assumptions about gender equality. Writing a biblical studies article as a biblical studies professional is exactly what we would expect Dr. Rollston to do. We would not expect him to write as a theologian. How on earth can Dr. Rollston’s writing within his field amount to “an indictment of the scholarly guilds’ prominence in the life of the seminary”? If Dr. Blowers published a theological article on Huffington Post, would we conclude this constituted an indictment of historical theology’s prominence in the life of the seminary over the other disciplines? What complete and utter drivel.
Much more, how can Dr. Rollston’s writing a biblical studies article as a biblical studies professional constitute a “warning in the person of Rollston”? Dr. Rollston’s character is now called into question because he isn’t a theologian and didn’t write theology? I’ve never in my life heard such an insane, such an arrogant, and such a fatuous argument as this.
Either way, in Rollston’s article, there’s no history, and there’s no theology. But finally, there’s no reverence. And reverence (despite the fact that it is often scoffed at today) remains one of those postures that is most important for listening well.
What there is none of is sanity. There is no sanity in this—yet another false claim. Dr. Rollston’s article is full of reverence, but the Three Young Men’s commitment to whatever strange kind of traditionalism this is simply blinds them to it. First, there is reverence for truth in Dr. Rollston’s article. The truth is that the dominant voice in the Bible regarding women is the voice of patriarchy. And yet a group of male “authority figures” insist it is the other way around. Go figure. Dr. Rollston, who knows full well he’s employed at a Christian seminary, shows reverence for the truth when, for the sake of self-interest, he might just as well have felt the need to whitewash it just a little bit. Second, there is reverence for womankind in Dr. Rollston’s article. Out of his reverence to women, Dr. Rollston refuses to cover up or gloss over the reality of the patriarchy so pervasive in our texts—patriarchy that has been used legitimately used to justify the oppression of women for thousands of years, and to this day. Third, there is reverence for the liberative texts in the Bible. He calls them “wonderful,” “stunning,” “progressive,” and so on. He appears genuinely amazed at the capacity of the author of Job to give full equality to Job’s daughters despite the social norms of that time and place. He praises these texts. There is reverence there. There is celebration there. But his refusal to forget that these texts are fewer and further between than those representing patriarchy is, once again, reverence for the truth, and a profound respect for the plight of women. Finally, there is reverence for justice. Dr. Rollston writes:
sacralizing patriarchy is just wrong. Gender equality may not have been the norm two or three millennia ago, but it is essential. So, the next time someone refers to “biblical values,” it’s worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that’s not something anyone should value.
Note also that Dr. Rollston’s conclusion is not that the Bible’s value when it comes to the status of women is patriarchy, as the Young Men have so frequently claimed. Dr. Rollston has pointed out that the Bible contains many liberative texts, and he has celebrated them. And his conclusion is measured: “it’s worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women.” He didn’t say “always,” and he didn’t leave it unqualified. He said, “often.” That obviously means that it did not always do so. It’s honest. It’s balanced. It has integrity. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It’s right.
Certainly one would expect that an atheist writer like Richard Dawkins would ridicule the Bible as a litany of backward and offensive opinions. Reductivism is the modus operandi of the irreverent because it enables them to level their own best attacks against said reductionist reading.
Physician, heal thyself. Put your own professed hermeneutic into practice when reading Dr. Rollston, if you please. First, Richard Dawkins does ridicule the Bible. Nowhere does Dr. Rollston ever come close to engaging in ridicule of the Bible. I understand how matter-of-fact description of what the Bible actually says can be mistaken for ridicule for those who refuse to see that the Bible can at times be pretty ridiculous. Nevertheless, slanderously and manipulatively comparing Dr. Rollston to Dawkins reveals a great deal to us about the Three Young Men, and nothing whatsoever to us about Dr. Rollston. Dawkins engages in serious, juvenile, vindictive ridicule. He calls God names. Perhaps the Young Men should just look up the definition of “ridicule.” Yes. That’s what Dawkins does. What Dr. Rollston did, uncontroversially, is simply to describe what the biblical texts say and don’t say about women. There was no hint of mean-spiritedness in his descriptions. They were academic. Sure, they weren’t couched in apology, as perhaps the Young Men would prefer, but they never came close to ridicule. The most negative thing Dr. Rollston ever says about the patriarchal texts in the Bible is that the patriarchy found in them is “not something anyone should value.”
Moreover, I fail to see how Dr. Rollston engages in any kind of reductionism. He would have engaged in reductionism if he had done what the Young Men falsely accuse him of doing, namely, declaring the whole Bible morally bankrupt and giving it a “thumbs down.” He would have engaged in reductionism if he had never mentioned the liberative texts in the Bible. Instead, what he engaged in is called balance. Dr. Rollston cited several texts condoning patriarchy, and several texts condoning women’s equality. That’s not reductionism. That’s called describing the existence of two values about women in the Bible. Perhaps for the Young Men, any reading that doesn’t somehow salvage patriarchal texts must by definition be “reductionistic,” because we all know that “the God of the Bible” is a God of liberation, and not a God of oppression. This is one of the sloppiest and most unsubstantiated critical reviews I’ve ever encountered, and believe me (I wrote a book critiquing fundamentalism), I’ve encountered bad reviews.
On the premise that Dr. Rollston, like Dawkins, “ridicules” God and the Bible, and offers a “reductionistic” reading made possible by his utter lack of “reverence,” they continue:
But Rollston is one of the main teachers of Old Testament at a seminary, a place dedicated to the training of Christian ministers and leaders of faith. This is a seminary in a tradition that holds the canon of Holy Writ to be not only the core of Church authority but also the primary the [sic] critiquing agent of theology, that which can call into question any doctrine or ideology or practice of the Church. Rollston’s public attack on the text of the Bible therefore amounts [sic] a radical rejection of his very professional raison d’etre.
This is completely false. Dr. Rollston’s responsibilities at the Emmanuel Christian Seminary entail the critical examination of the biblical texts from a scholarly academic perspective. These entail critical engagements with the biblical texts that are much more trenchant than anything offered up for public consumption by Dr. Rollston at the Huffington Post. All Bible professors are required to do the same. Dr. Rollston’s colleagues in the Old Testament and New Testament departments are no less critical of the biblical texts than Dr. Rollston has been in this article. While Emmanuel is a confessional seminary, it is also a highly qualified and very rigorous academic institution which requires both professors and students to engage the biblical texts critically. It is neither conservative nor liberal. It is a moderate critical academic institution, and Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article made moderate critical claims. If Dr. Rollston had been less critical of the patriarchal texts, that would have been a “rejection of his very professional raison d’etre.”
Professors at Emmanuel in the past have found themselves unwittingly at the center of theological controversy for teaching standard academic material that is critical in nature and that diverges from conservative Evangelical assumptions about the integrity of the biblical texts. And Emmanuel as an institution has rallied around these professors and defended them from outside attacks coming from traditionalist Christians with irrational fears of “liberalism.” One famous example of this would be the Beck Correspondence, the contents of which actually became an entire course at Cincinnati. At Emmanuel, I’ve heard more trenchant critiques of biblical material from professors more conservative than Dr. Rollston than anything found here in this article. And what, precisely, did Dr. Rollston’s “attack” on some biblical texts amount to? Descriptions of patriarchy and the conclusion that patriarchy is not something we should value. How so terribly radical! A “radical rejection of his very professional raison d’etre.” If that’s true, then the entire biblical studies faculty at Emmanuel had better not publish half of what they teach in class.
Throughout our theological and pastoral training at this same seminary we were schooled to understand the Bible as a complex, multi-layered, and hermeneutically “open” book. It has been subject to diverse conflicting interpretations as it has been read throughout countless cultures and historical settings. It has been appealed to for just about every cause around which people have rallied. It has been wielded by the powerful to sanction their power, but it has been upheld by the powerless as a source of strength and resistance. And yet, in all its complexity, its troublesome and awe-inspiring character, almost never have readers so readily dismissed it.
All good stuff, with which Dr. Rollston would heartily agree, as do I, except for the last inexplicable line. First of all, “almost never have readers so readily dismissed it”? Really? If “almost never” means, “quite often actually,” then we’d have a statement grounded in reality, as opposed to soaring rhetoric. But of course, Dr. Rollston did not “dismiss” the Bible. He critiqued certain texts within the Bible while praising others. Only to the fundamentalist mind does a critique of some texts constitute a rejection of the whole corpus. For all their efforts to portray Dr. Rollston as a fundamentalist, these guys seem to have much more in common with the fundamentalists.
What we found so disconcerting about Rollston’s essay is that it seemed to encourage such dismissiveness. He “listened” to the Bible in order to condemn it. Ultimately we found it difficult to believe this was not an effort to marginalize the Bible itself from its revered location as the central moral guide for people of faith.
Surely, yes, a man whose career has been dedicated to teaching the Bible to future Christian ministers is attempting to “marginalize the Bible” from its place in the Christian tradition. I would argue that “theological” attempts to rewrite the Bible are the real attempts to marginalize the Bible. At least Dr. Rollston is letting the Bible speak for itself, in all of its wonder and in all its many contradictions.
In doing this Rollston expresses little of that virtue which we have been speaking of and which has been so central to the cultivation of the Biblical faiths: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
Terrific. Yes. While the Lord may be One, the biblical texts are many.
This attempt at a review presented a jaundiced caricature of Dr. Rollston’s article; it repeatedly lied about what Dr. Rollston did and claimed in that article; it attempted to fault Dr. Rollston for not being a theologian, for no apparent reason other than that, I guess, the Young Men think that only theology, and not biblical criticism, is fit for public consumption. They falsely slandered Dr. Rollston’s character and accused him of being unable to listen to others. And in all of this, they only succeeded in exposing their own inability to hear what the Other is saying.
In the comment thread of their blog post, a commenter with the handle 54Husly54 critiqued their blog post. I’ll post his comment here and then examine the response offered by one of the Three Young Men:
I have a lot of issues with this response – most notably that Rollston has been wildly misrepresented by Gilmour, Arblaster, and Weedman. Secondly, that there are those who have supposedly been trained to be able to read critically who actually think that Gilmour, Arblaster, and Weedman’s post has been cogently argued is of great concern to me as well.
To the authors – you yourselves seem to have succumbed to the very practice you accuse Rollston of. Namely, you have reduced his argument from a nuanced approach to SPECIFIC biblical texts and made his HuffPo article about the entire Bible. Had you understood Rollston’s intent in the first place – and had you actually read the concluding paragraphs to his piece, you would clearly see (assuming you’re not wearing…shall we say, blinders) that Rollston did indeed include in his article biblical counterpoints to his primary thesis. You state:
“As far as we can tell, his article seeks to reduce the Bible to something which simply degrades, excludes, and silences women.”
“As far as we can tell…” which clearly doesn’t seem to be very far at all – as Rollston clearly states:
“Thankfully, some biblical authors who pushed back against the marginalization of women. For example, according to the Bible, Job had seven sons and three daughters and the writer of the book of Job actually names those daughters but not the sons, a reversal of standard practice. Also, these daughters “received an inheritance along with their brothers,” wonderfully subverting the standard legal practice of not giving daughters a share of the family land (Job 42). And the ancients who penned the stunning narratives about Deborah (Judges 4-5) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20) were pushing back against patriarchy as well. The New Testament Paul was quite progressive for his time, as he considered Phoebe to be a “deacon” and Junia to be “preeminent among the apostles” (Romans 16:1, 7). He also wrote: “there is no longer male nor female” (Galatians 3:27). But these voices were the exception, not the rule.”
But I don’t suppose you read that paragraph, did you?
Furthermore, your statement “In making his case for the moral bankruptcy of the Bible…” – nowhere in Rollston’s article does he argue for such “moral bankruptcy of the Bible.” This is a straw man. Furthermore, concerning Rollston’s decision not to interact with the history of interpretation – this was not the point of his piece either. Nowhere does Rollston claim to be speaking “for many;” but, rather, is simply pointing out the representation a verifiable portion of the mind set of people from the ancient world. You claim that “Rollston seems uninterested in these other voices” – yet you fail to realize the medium through which he is communicating. His piece was never intended to be a comprehensive assessment of the idea of women within Christianity – for such a work would be better suited for a book (or even a series of books) rather than an OP-ED piece on the internet. You unreasonably expect far too much of him in your assessment.
“The pity of such broad omissions is in the riches that Rollston discards.” Do tell – where does Rollston “discard” these other voices from Christian History? This certainly can’t be a serious critique, as you have tried to force his article into the paradigm of “history of interpretation” when the piece was never meant to be forcibly inserted into such a genre.
I was brought to tears by this piece – not because it was “beautiful” or “moving,” but because it is such an unreasonable read of a man who is only seeking to be honest about what the text says.
That last reference to having been brought to tears is an allusion to another comment left by Dr. Paul Blowers: “This brought tears to my eyes. What a brilliantly articulated piece, that outlines what responsible theological interpretation of the Bible really entails. You guys were paying attention in class.”
That Dr. Blowers can be moved to tears by such a blatantly dishonest and jaundiced caricature of Dr. Rollston’s article speaks volumes about Dr. Blowers’ stake in opposing his colleague. That he can describe lies, distortions, slander, and a giant adventure in changing the subject as “brilliantly articulated” does as well. That Dr. Blowers continues to expose his disciplinary prejudice is also clear—he says their blog post “outlines what responsible theological interpretation of the Bible really entails,” implying that Dr. Rollston’s article was irresponsible “theological interpretation.” Of course, Dr. Rollston wasn’t doing “theological interpretation” of the Bible at all, nor was he attempting or pretending to do so. He was doing historical-grammatic interpretation of the Bible, because that’s what he’s trained to do and that’s what Emmanuel Christian Seminary hired him to do. Dr. Blowers is free to do theological interpretation; that’s his job. But apparently Dr. Rollston isn’t free to practice his trade, because it isn’t Dr. Blowers’ trade. And while the Three Young Men may have been “paying attention in class”—theology class—it’s apparent they weren’t paying attention in Old Testament Introduction.
So, in response to 54Husky54, one of the Three Young Men, Wes Arblaster, writes:
I’m a little surprised we inspired tears. I never expected that our little response would prompt such a reaction.
If they didn’t want to prompt this kind of reaction, perhaps they shouldn’t have written a character assassination piece against the most well-known and most distinguished professor at their alma mater. This is either naïve, or faux-humility. Regardless, he continues:
To reply to your criticisms let me state a few things. First, each of us read the article from beginning to end multiple times so we did encounter all those statements that you quoted. We also considered them. You are correct that Rollston didn’t suggest the Bible was entirely univocal regarding the marginalization of women. He did note a few exceptions.
First, “a few exceptions.” By my count, Dr. Rollston offered 16 examples of patriarchy from the Bible (15 if we exclude Ben Sira), and 11 examples that run counter to patriarchy. The patriarchal examples include Ben Sira, The Decalogue, three from Proverbs (one of which he spoke of both positively and negatively), Lot’s daughters, the Levite’s Concubine, the law requiring a rapist to marry his victim, Jacob allowing his daughter to marry her rapist, polygyny, the designation “lord” for a husband, the restriction on women’s rights to fulfill a religious vow, 1 Timothy 2’s biblical justification for silencing women, two examples of household codes in contested Pauline literature, and the issue of the bride price.
On the other hand we have the book of Job naming Job’s daughters and not his sons, we have Job giving his daughters a full share of the inheritance along with their brothers. Dr. Rollston named Deborah, Huldah, Ruth, Esther, Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia as examples of positive portrayals of women who either thrive in spite of patriarchy, or are considered at least in some respects to be equal to men in the church. And we have Paul’s statement from Galatians that “there is no longer male nor female.” If only Dr. Rollston had provided five more positive examples! Of course, he routinely provides dozens more in class, and revels in them. But I suppose if he had provided five more positive ones, the Three Young Men would still complain that he didn’t provide more positive than negative.
Second, Arblaster concedes that “Rollston didn’t suggest the Bible was entirely univocal regarding the marginalization of women,” even though they claimed on several occasions that this is precisely what he did. He goes on:
As I read the article it seemed to me that these exceptions were noted merely substantiate [sic] the rule, however. But strictly speaking, you are correct. Therefore, I can accept that it would have been better to write “As far as we can tell his article seeks to reduce the Bible to something which (with a few noted exceptions) degrades, excludes, and silences women.”
That would have been slightly less dishonest, yes. But it would still be a conclusion unsupported by the article itself. Dr. Rollston isn’t “reducing” “the Bible” to anything. His argument is that appeals to “biblical values” are complicated by some of the values we find inscribed in scripture. Arblaster continues:
Concerning our statement about “the moral bankruptcy of the Bible” this is obviously not a quote from his text. Nor need it be.
This may be obvious to them, but it is not obvious to anyone who read only their hit piece and not Dr. Rollston’s original article. They misrepresented him.
Our statement concerns what we understood to be the implications of his essay rather than a reference to any particular claim. It was our understanding of the central argument of his essay was, to quote verbatim, “to embrace the dominant biblical view of women would be to embrace the marginalization of women.” This was written in the concluding paragraph and was the closest thing to a summary statement that I could find. This was followed by the concluding sentence which states, “the next time someone refers to ‘biblical values,’ it’s worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that’s not something anyone should value.”
The fact is, they did not inform their readers that their claim that Dr. Rollston declared the Bible “morally bankrupt” was their interpretation of his article rather than anything like what he actually said in his article, and that is patently dishonest. But let’s examine their reasoning skills. Dr. Rollston said, “to embrace the dominant biblical view of women would be to embrace the marginalization of women.” What does this imply? Obviously, that to embrace the minority biblical view of women would be to embrace the liberation of women. And this is precisely what feminist biblical scholars and theologians are in the business of doing. Dr. Rollston says, “the next time someone refers to ‘biblical values,’ it’s worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that’s not something anyone should value.” He says the Bible often marginalized women, not always, and he clearly gave eleven examples where the Bible did not marginalize women. In short, there is absolutely no basis for their claim that Dr. Rollston reduced the Bible to patriarchy, and certainly no basis for their claim that he declared it anything like morally bankrupt. The only reason they read Dr. Rollston this way is because of the way they read the Bible: as The Word of God, singular. As a biblical critic, Dr. Rollston doesn’t think about “the Bible.” He thinks about the biblical texts in their plurality and in their diversity. That’s what his discipline requires of him. They can’t help but project their own assumptions about the text onto him, and that’s why they’re incapable of reading him fairly and charitably. Arblaster continues:
What is Rollston suggesting here, especially when one takes into consideration his audience? Can it be anything other than ‘the Bible is highly questionable as a moral guide generally, and especially when considering the case of women.”
Once again, Arblaster makes an unforced error and attributes to Dr. Rollston a claim/implication that is nowhere made or implied in his article. Dr. Rollston never speaks of any other moral question in his article; it is solely dedicated to the question of patriarchy. So for Ablaster to conclude that Dr. Rollston is saying that “the Bible is highly questionable as a moral guide generally, and especially when considering the case of women,” is another obvious deception. But Dr. Rollston doesn’t say that “the Bible is highly questionable.” He flat out says that the dominant voice on women is patriarchal, but there are minority voices that are “wonderful,” “stunning,” and “quite progressive.” The Three Young Men seem to assume that biblical authority hinges upon biblical consistency. That’s certainly the dominant view, most pronounced in fundamentalism, but it’s hardly the only Christian view of biblical authority, and it’s not even the dominant view of biblical authority at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. Dr. Rollston teaches that we should foreground the texts that are morally upright, and background the texts that aren’t. But also teaches that we shouldn’t reject the ones that aren’t, because the Bible’s greatest asset is the moral argument that takes place within its pages. If they can accept this view, then they should articulate it rather than impertinently slamming Dr. Rollston for not. But I doubt their ideological blindness will allow them to accept this view, held by more than one professor at Emmanuel who now have more reason than ever to censor themselves for fear of being attacked by petulant former students. Arblaster continues:
This was not followed by any constructive comments regarding how the Bible might in fact serve as a moral guide when it comes to these issues.
Does it take a genius to figure out that if the Bible does contain liberative texts, then these can function as a moral guide on these issues? This is in fact Rollston’s position, and he has adopted it from feminist scholars. Many feminist scholars rightly take for granted that patriarchy is the dominant voice in scripture, but the minority voices or the repressed voices of liberation are the texts appealed to in order to expose and critique the dominant patriarchal voice. Phyllis Trible likens this to a “remnant theology,” wherein the minority voice of liberation stands in authority over the dominant patriarchal voice, much in the same way the “faithful remnant” of Israel, though a minority, stands in judgment over broader Israel and its injustices. This is in fact what Rollston teaches in class, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that by calling attention to the liberative voices in the scriptures, he is highlighting texts that people of faith can use and foreground in critique of the dominant voice of patriarchy. If there are two sets of values found in the Bible (and there are at least two), as Rollston has rightly contended, then obviously the liberative value stands in authority over the patriarchal value system.
In fact, he implies that we stand upon higher moral ground when it comes to these issues. He notes that the Bible “sacralizes patriarchy” (his terms) and that that is “just wrong.” I recognize that Rollston is a historian and not an ethicist, but we must ask where this moral ground is upon which he stands to issue the claim that this is “just wrong?” This question of course is not about the assertion but the grounds upon which the assertion is made. For a Christian to suggest that “the dominant Biblical view” is “just wrong” on anything is to beg the question of where one stands to make such judgments.
I am amazed that Arblaster has attempted to employ this tactic. The whole blog post of the Three Young Men took for granted, just as did Rollston, that patriarchy was wrong and women’s liberation was right. Did they attempt to offer any justification for the assumption they share with Dr. Rollston? No, they did not. On what grounds do they stand in judgment against patriarchy? They appeal to the voices of church history, but they also note that throughout church history, the Bible has been used both by proponents of patriarchy as well as proponents of liberation. And of course, the reality is that throughout church history as well, the voice of patriarchy has been by far the dominant one. So on what grounds do they choose the minority voices from church history over the dominant voices? On what grounds do they take for granted that Sojourner Truth was a hero on the model of biblical heroes? On the grounds that she used imagery from scripture to make her point? Well, so did the “heroes” of patriarchy, from ancient times to the present. This attempt to undermine Rollston by asking him to justify his moral picking-and-choosing is just asinine. They do precisely the same thing. That Arblaster chose to make this argument shows either that he is desperate, or that he is simply and utterly oblivious. He continues:
One of my purposes in introducing some of the examples throughout our response was to show that the Bible has operated as a legitimate moral guide when it comes to the question of women and it can continue to do so if its readers read well and are properly disposed. It was therefore to rebut the dismissiveness of Rollston’s take away suggestion.
They are dismissing patriarchy too, by foregrounding Sojourner Truth and marginalizing John Calvin. They are dismissing patriarchy too, by foregrounding “feminists” (ironically without listening to most of them) and marginalizing James Dobson, or John Piper. By identifying Dr. Rollston’s rejection of patriarchy as “dismissiveness,” does Arblaster mean to imply that he does not reject patriarchy? If he does reject it, then, well, he is dismissing it as well. He’s just grumpy because Rollston was able to dismiss it quicker than Arblaster’s favored discipline allows. But they both wind up in the same place (as far as I can tell): both dismiss patriarchy. And patriarchy should be dismissed. He continues:
And your critique of our statement that Rollston “discards” other voices? I imagine you believe our criticism was unfair because being only a 1,200 word article he could not possibly have spoken of the history of interpretation. His argument was one with a defined purview and our charge that he did not include enough was overly critical. My response to this is when you write a 1,200 word essay to be read by thousands of diverse readers such brevity is simply a matter of being responsible. If you do not intend to include such brevity, then make your qualifications up front. This is a basic practice of any scholar who wishes to be constructive and responsible regarding his statements. Otherwise, you lead your readers to conclusions which are unbalanced and unhelpful. This was why we included the point about the Declaration of Independence. It would be simply irresponsible to speak of that text as a document driven by a patriarchal and racist worldview without also observing its broader history. Certainly making this clear is worth as much ink as mentioning the Hebrew sage Ben Sira.
Ah, yes, the Declaration of Independence again. The meaning of the Declaration of Independence has not in fact changed. It says that “all men are created equal,” and it means males. Equality has been fought for (and the fight continues) since then, but its meaning has not changed, unless we wish to amend the Declaration to say, “All men and women are created equal.” For Martin Luther King, it was easier to make his argument that “men” applied to black males, but Martin Luther King was not a feminist. He was, like most black Christian leaders of his day, patriarchal. He was sexist. So for him, while “all men are created equal” could be read to include black men (and it has that semantic advantage), he did not see it as including women.
Now, when it came to feminists, the reality of history belies the claim of the Three Young Men that it is a living document in the way they suggest. The feminists didn’t seek to reinterpret the Declaration of Independence. Instead, they drafted their own declaration, which they called the “Declaration of Sentiments.” The opening paragraphs of this Declaration of Sentiments included these claims:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. . . .
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.
It seems that the Three Young Men just don’t know their American history very well. (I wonder how well they know their church history.) In the struggle for women’s rights in this country, women chose not to treat the Declaration of Independence as a “living document,” but rather to draft their own declaration. And they did so in part because it is important to let the original, male-authored, androcentric Declaration of Independence stand as a testament to the history of man’s tyranny over woman in America. And that is precisely how many prominent feminists read the patriarchal texts of the Bible (as testaments to patriarchy), and that is how Dr. Rollston reads them as well. And it is vital, vital for the future of the church, that we allow ourselves to do so. To do otherwise is to whitewash our history, and thus open ourselves up to repeating it.
Another “living text” central to the American experiment is the Constitution of the United States of America. This document, in its original form, did not provide for women’s suffrage. Though this document has been called a “living text,” does that entail that it was simply reinterpreted in order to provide for women’s suffrage? No, it patently does not. Rather, the document had to be amended (the nineteenth amendment, to be specific) in order to reflect the changes the nation had undergone as a result of the tireless struggles of those who fought American and Christian patriarchy.
Dr. Rollston’s view of the Bible (and the view of the Bible intrinsic to his academic discipline), in fact, fits this analogy, and not the flawed analogy provided by the Three Young Men. For Dr. Rollston and the vast majority of critical scholars, the book of Job is an “amendment” to the book of Proverbs, an “amendment” to the Law of Moses. Texts that push back against one view or another are “amendments.” Of course, where this analogy breaks down is that, unlike with the Constitution, these amendments need not always be viewed as legally binding. People of faith are required to choose whether they will adopt the righteousness of Job by giving an inheritance to their daughters, or whether they will abide by the standards of the legal corpora. And so on. The Bible is a book that struggles within itself about morality and theology, and it cannot all be harmonized. Some “divinely sanctioned” perspectives just cannot be reconciled to others. The Bible is remarkable (as Dr. Rollston taught us) precisely because it requires the person of faith to struggle with the various biblical authors and it forces us to make moral choices. That is by far preferable to any approach that seeks to harmonize the Bible’s different voices, precisely because it forces us to be conscious of the moral choices we’re making. We all make those moral choices—biblical scholars and theologians alike. But recognizing the contradictions in the text makes us conscious that making moral choices is what we are in fact up to when we use this book as sacred literature, and that is the point Dr. Rollston is making in the conclusion to his article.
As for the rest of Arblaster’s above comments, all it amounts to is this: Dr. Rollston didn’t write the article Arblaster would have written. Arblaster claims that Dr. Rollston has a responsibility at least to allude to the history of the struggle over these texts throughout history. Why Dr. Rollston bears that responsibility, I don’t know. What he did do of course is spend a full paragraph displaying the struggle that took place throughout biblical history over these issues, and highlighted those biblical authors and women of history who pushed back against the dominant voice of patriarchy. And Rollston concluded that patriarchy was in fact the dominant voice, and he refused to relativize it by reference to the bits that make us happier—and that is a responsibility he recognizes, because he knows how to read and listen to feminist theologians.
All of this said, I believe our criticisms stand. In all my engagements with people following our response however, I have never heard anyone provide an interpretation of his essay that shows it to engender the posture and convictions of one who has accepted a vocation dedicated to the training of those who uphold the Bible as, “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” to quote that O so problematic Pastoral letter.
Well, yes, that Pastoral letter is O so problematic, as I learned from no fewer than four different professors all at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. Nevertheless, as I’ve said before in print, the texts of patriarchy and texts of terror are extremely “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” How on earth could they not be? Let me ask this of the Three Young Men: is the story of David’s adultery, or the story of Peter’s betrayal, not useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness? Well, of course they are. Why, then, would the story of patriarchal laws, the story that ascribes divine sanction to David’s polygyny, or any other such story be any less useful as warnings to us? Just because they claim to reflect the will of God? That in itself is a story that is useful to us, especially for rebuke, as we continue to claim divine sanction to justify our own unjust practices to this day. That Rollston opted not to spell this out in a short online article (though he often does so in class) should not entail that windbags like Arblaster can’t figure it out by committing two seconds of thought to the question.
But back over on Facebook, another of the Three Young Men further displayed how absolutely committed they are to attacking Dr. Rollston, without any regard for the legitimacy of their attacks. It’s like watching the Romney/Ryan campaign: it’s a post-truth theological world. Another former student of Emmanuel (and a close friend of mine) commented on a link to the Blog of the Three Young Men, and received a response from Micah Weedman:
A response so astonishingly dishonest it can only be explained by chronic delusion. Now Weedman is contending that Dr. Rollston’s article is itself misogynistic? Yes, thank you, Karl Rove. By pointing out and condemning misogyny in the Bible, while praising biblical texts that liberate women, Dr. Rollston was, in reality, exposing his own misogyny.
What this displays, as I said, is how little interest the Three Young Men have in offering an honest critique of Dr. Rollston’s article, and how very invested they are in simply attacking him for writing an article with which they disagreed. Mind you, they offered no biblical arguments whatsoever to substantiate the legitimacy of their disagreement with Dr. Rollston. Essentially the only criticism they make is that he has not engaged the history of interpretation, which, as they know, is just as much of a discordant mess as the biblical texts themselves. Dr. Rollston is dangerously wrong because he’s a biblical scholar, and not a historical theologian.
Yet Weedman goes on to display yet more confusion. Historical critical scholars such as Phyllis Trible, Athalya Brenner, Phyllis Bird, Carol Meyers, and Susan Ackerman are in fact better at feminist biblical hermeneutics than Sojourner Truth. Sojourner certainly was a champion of justice, one whom all of these feminist scholars would praise and before whom they would no doubt kneel, as would I. This does not of course mean that Sojourner Truth’s use of biblical imagery was illegitimate; it wasn’t. It was powerful. But it’s not in the same class as the exhaustive work of these women. And in fact, the women I have just named are the biggest influences on Dr. Rollston’s readings of the patriarchal texts in the Bible. He constantly assigned us readings from their works, and constantly referenced them in his lectures. It is their voices that provide the foundation for the claims Dr. Rollston made in the Huffington Post article.
But just to be clear, the claims Dr. Rollston made in the Huffington Post article are found widely in the annals of critical biblical scholarship; you’ll find them made in virtually every critical introduction to the Old and New Testaments. Dr. Rollston stands on firm ground, inside and outside the realm of feminist biblical scholarship. What Weedman, in his ideology, cannot seem to understand, is that to be able to identify and condemn the patriarchal texts in the Bible is itself liberative for women of faith. What Weedman and the other Young Men have provided us is a sad testament to the ongoing prevalence of patriarchy in contemporary, male-dominated theology. They want to stand up for women’s liberation, but fail to see that this liberation will never be fully realized until the church is able to identify and brand the Bible’s patriarchal texts as patriarchal. Their commitment to a certain conception of biblical authority makes them, and not Dr. Rollston, hard of hearing.
And lest there be any misunderstanding, Dr. Rollston is not the only professor at Emmanuel who both assigned and affirmed this kind of feminist liberation theology. No fewer than three additional professors there, and probably one more, inundate their students with this material as core curriculum in both required courses and special electives. The claims Dr. Rollston has made are uncontroversial in many of the classrooms at Emmanuel.
Dr. Blowers’ “Humble” Judgment
After Dr. Blowers’ Three Young Men published their misfiring blog post, Dr. Blowers proceeded to discuss it on his favorite academic forum, Facebook.
BOOM! A magnificent piece by three Emmanual [sic] amigos on the Bible and the marginalization of women. Really well done, Nathan.
Really? “BOOM”? This is the behavior of a chaired academic professional? This is the kind of attitude a Christian academic exhibits to his students toward his academic colleague? Publicly displayed giddy delight in a dishonest attack launched by former students against an associate? “BOOM”? “A magnificent piece,” yes, of distorted reasoning and jaundiced theological bias. “A magnificent piece” of intellectual garbage, praised unequivocally by an academic professional. No reasoned response to his former students. No push back on their obviously misleading and false claims, no push back against their callow assertions of their own moral superiority, balanced out by support for their overall argument. Just, “BOOM!”
One of the Three Young Men responds to Dr. B:
I really do think that my Mark-Twainish smirk wouldn’t have had nearly the punch that the piece got once you added Micah’s eye for arrangement and Wes’s polemic punch. It was great fun to write with those guys, that’s for sure.
I really don’t think I need to respond to this. The oblivious, deluded swagger speaks for itself. Dr. B will, however, go on to affirm this kind of shallow, self-congratulatory analysis:
The sad thing is that your piece, from a sheer stylistic standpoint, is by far more elegantly written than Rollston’s article, which falls flat.
Yes, Dr. Rollston’s dry, economic, academic style is yet one more reason why his article deserves to be the object of a Rovian assault.
Another former student from Emmanuel, Adam Bean, currently a PhD. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, responded to Dr. Blowers’ unreserved praise of the Blog of the Three Young Men. Adam wrote:
Honestly, this is not that well written. They could have made a much more reasonable counterpoint without the repeated drifts toward ad hominem and overstatement of their case. Clearly, Dr. Rollston’s original piece was spoken into the contemporary world of political ideologies, some of which seek an all too simplistic assertion of “biblical values” without acknowledging a fraction of the complexities of such things. Viewed in that context, Rollston’s piece problematizes simplistic assertions, rather than establishing them (as asserted here). So they advocate an approach that emphasizes canonical reading and history of interpretation more than historical-critical analysis. Fine, focus on that and not exaggerated assertions such as stating that a professor eliminates his own reason for existence just by approaching the Bible critically.
To this, Dr. B responds:
Adam: I appreciate your apologia, but the damage of throwing out in the blogosphere the marginalization of women as a “biblical value” rather purely and simply, and without due consideration of the hermeneutical complexities within the canon and in the history of its interpretation, far outweighs the advantages of dispelling naive approaches to the Bible in a venue like Huffington Post. Do you really think Christian fundamentalists read the Huffington Post for instruction on how to interpret the Bible? I don’t think so. Meanwhile, the Huff Post article will simply serve to entrench many cultural progressives or anti-fundamentalists in their already sour attitudes toward ancient Hebrew and Christian Scripture.
Adam responded, simply, “That’s possible, although I have heard rumors that some folks actually find critical honesty towards even the sacred texts of one’s own tradition refreshing and encouraging.” To this Dr. Blowers offered no response. Adam is of course correct. But, in effect for Paul Blowers, honesty is too great a threat to the unity of the church. But the truth is that dishonesty is too great a threat to its soul.
At any rate, we’ve heard these arguments before, and I’ve already responded to them at considerable length, but let’s examine a few points here. First, note that Dr. Blowers immediately dismisses Adam’s perfectly reasonable, and non-sensational, response as an “apologia.” But also note the lack of clarity in Blowers’ response. Adam never claimed that Dr. Rollston’s intention was to instruct fundamentalists in biblical hermeneutics. Yet Dr. Blowers creates this idea so that he can knock it down just as quickly. Finally, he asserts that Dr. Rollston’s article “will simply serve to entrench many cultural progressives or anti-fundamentalists in their already sour attitudes” toward scripture. While it’s true that Rollston’s article will have this effect on some, that is hardly reason not to publish it. As we have already seen, it has had the opposite effect on others, including atheists. And again, if Dr. Blowers wrote an elegant article defending a position which presents the God of the Bible as a liberator, with reference to “complexities,” and the history of biblical interpretation, it would perhaps persuade some, but also serve further to entrench many cultural progressives or anti-fundamentalists in their already sour attitudes toward contemporary theologians whom they believe cannot be honest about what’s in the Bible. I know for a fact this is true, because I’ve seen this response by hundreds of commenters on numerous well-written theological treatises right there on HuffPo Religion. So by Blowers’ own logic, no Christian should ever post anything about the Bible on the Huffington Post, because it will just serve to entrench negative views of the Bible and of Christianity in those who already hold them.
And then there’s this. Remember very early on, when Dr. Blowers said that in his “humble judgment,” Dr. Rollston had not lived up to his responsibilities as a representative of the seminary? Remember that I said there was nothing at all “humble” about Dr. Blowers’ judgment? Yes, well, here’s why. After the Three Young Men published their blog post, Dr. Blowers wrote on his Facebook wall, in full public view, that he had sent their blog post to the President, Dean, and one other professor. He then wrote, and I quote exactly,
We are looking at disciplinary action in the next few days. I still scratch my head trying to figure Rollston out. He seems to be totally atheological and now interested simply in selling the “Rollston brand,” no matter how it might reflect back on Emmanuel.
Now, Dr. Blowers insists he posted this in public accidentally. It was meant to be posted in a private message to a former student. I struggle to see how that makes this OK. Dr. Blowers has a history of sharing his grievances about Dr. Rollston with students. Dr. Blowers eventually deleted this comment from Facebook, but not before several current students, former students, and God knows who else, saw it and gasped. And not before one former student had the foresight to copy and paste the text of Dr. Blowers’ comments into a document.
Let’s examine what was said here. Dr. Blowers says that Dr. Rollston “seems to be totally atheological.” What might this mean? Technically, it means that Rollston’s work is non-theological, which is another way of saying that Dr. Rollston does not do theology. And Dr. Blowers has to scratch his head over this? That a biblical critic isn’t doing theology? But the careful insinuation is meant to impugn Dr. Rollston—he doesn’t “seem” like an authentic Christian. Another brilliant move on Dr. Blowers’ part.
Next, Dr. Blowers accuses Dr. Rollston of being “interested simply in selling the ‘Rollston brand,’ no matter how it might reflect back on Emmanuel.” This is of course nonsense. Dr. Rollston had no idea, naïve or not, that his tame article would receive such vitriolic response. Nevertheless, it is simply unconscionable for Dr. Blowers to have said these kinds of things to a former student about his colleague, let alone in full public view. What’s more, it’s simply backwards. Many think that Dr. Rollston’s article reflects back very highly on Emmanuel. Several have said so, and more will. I tend to agree. What does reflect back poorly on Emmanuel is Dr. Blowers’ tone, his public displays of disrespect for his colleague, his irresponsible actions, and his over-eagerness to divulge confidential information about a colleague to former students (and, inadvertently, current students).
What would also reflect back poorly on Emmanuel is if they chose to take disciplinary action against Dr. Rollston for saying in public what he is paid to say in the classroom, and something very tame by way of comparison to what I was taught by other professors at Emmanuel.
And what does this mean, “disciplinary action”? A cut in pay? A lighter course load? An unpaid suspension? Probation? Termination? I can only speculate.
Nevertheless, I have every confidence that the fine and discerning leaders at Emmanuel will display moral courage here and come to the defense of one of their finest and most qualified tenured professors, as they have so consistently done in the past. I imagine that the looming financial crisis the school is facing, and the uncertainty surrounding the prospect of a merger with Milligan College, only serves to exacerbate tensions on this matter. But if the school is going to survive, I think almost everyone there knows it has to be with integrity and loyalty. Obviously, if those virtues are abandoned, whatever it is that survives won’t be the institution I know and love, for its strong commitment to academic integrity and equally strong commitment to those men and women who have dedicated their lives to serving and educating students like me, and students like the Three Young Men.