Co-Addict or Trauma Victim? Secondary abuse of spouses and partners of sex addicts


I wish someone had warned me that both COSA (Co-dependents of Sex Addicts) and S-Anon (a sister organization to Sexaholics Anonymous), the two largest 12-Step programs supporting the partners of sex addicts, subscribe to the notion that we partners are “co-addicts” or “codependents.”  The emphasis of their programs is our “recovery” from co-addiction. If you tell them that you are not a co-addict or codependent you are told that this is a typical response from a co-addict, as we are always in denial to begin with. In other words, we have no insight into our behavior and are blind to our illness.

Living with a Sex Addict

Not all help is helpful. Sometimes the best-intentioned efforts to help one spouse hurt the other. This is especially true for the surreptitious yet destructive phenomenon of victim-blaming.

On 6 August, The Grand Opera House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin aired a documentary entitled The Heart of the Matter about Christians addicted to pornography. Describing it as ‘a film documentary offering a compassionate response to Christians addicted to pornography and sex’, Chelsen Vicari writes,

The issue of pornography and its devastating impacts has certainly gained wider attention in our culture. From the pulpit to the blogosphere, we’re hearing more and more conversations about how porn harms people.

In a similar vein, this past Friday, Christianity Today published a piece singing the praises of ‘Celebrate Recovery,’ a Christian program for addicts developed 25 years ago by John Baker. According to CT, 29,000 churches host CR meetings, and 100,000 pastors have been trained in its 12-step recovery process.

These two recent examples are part of a growing effort to raise awareness about addiction among Christians and to combat the culture of shame that surrounds it. Hundreds of thousands of individuals struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, compulsive sexual behavior, compulsive gambling, and other serious problems, have benefited from Christian support groups, websites, articles, pamphlets, and books offering encouragement, exhortation, and advice. Many of these materials are written by recovering addicts themselves, who talk openly about their process of recovery. However, in many circles, those advocating for addicts are excluding and harming some of addiction’s other victims: the spouses and partners of addicts.

Blaming the Victim

… very often innocent victims are treated as if they were responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. This means that, besides having to deal with the negative consequences arising from the event that victimized them (primary victimization… ), they are victimized once again (secondary victimization… ), which also implies an absence of the social support which research has shown to be so crucial for the victims’ physical and psychological well-being.

Isabel Correia and Jorge Vala

Victim-blaming is both widespread and deeply anti-Christian in its philosophy. The number of studies documenting its nature, causes, and pervasiveness exploded after Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons published their seminal 1966 work, ‘Observer’s Reaction to the “Innocent Victim”: Compassion or Rejection’. In it, Lerner and Simmons provide compelling evidence that we have a propensity to believe in a just world, where the innocent do not suffer unjustly and where the guilty get their due punishment. When faced with injustice, they argue, many of us are tempted to devalue and reject innocent victims to maintain our belief in a just world. This secondary victimization is particularly exacerbated when an innocent victim’s suffering is ongoing, with no end in sight (see here).

Cited by nearly 1,000 studies to date, Lerner’s and Simmons’ findings were more recently re-confirmed and extended by a study by Isabel Correia and Jorge Valaaside entitled ‘When Will a Victim Be Secondarily Victimized? The Effect of Observer’s Belief in a Just World, Victim’s Innocence and Persistence of Suffering’. Correia and Vala examine the relationship of three factors which existing research has demonstrated tend to influence reaction to a victim:

  • the observer’s belief in a just world,
  • the innocence of the victim, and
  • the persistence of the victim’s suffering.

They find that for those who believe in a just world,

the most threatening victim is the innocent victim whose suffering persists.

Victim-blaming persists in a wide variety of contexts, including the Christian church, directed towards, for example, such victims as sexually abused women and children and women battling other forms of domestic violence. For the majority of these women and children, their suffering persists because the violence is still ongoing and/or the physical and psychological aftermath of such violence continues to cause suffering.

Those who have endured victim-blaming often report that such secondary victimization is even worse than the initial abuse itself. Confirming the significance of secondary victimization are studies which have demonstrated that rape survivors who suffer victim-blaming, for example, have much higher levels of PTSD than do those who are not re-victimized in such ways. In short, victim-blaming is itself a form of violence. Though it would require fuller development elsewhere I suggest, too, that it is rooted in a belief about the world that is not found in Scripture, where God, in His great mercy, demonstrates that

He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.

Victim-Blaming in Sex Addiction Therapy

While victim-blaming has attracted worthy attention by those examining the forms of abuse mentioned above, comparable research and discussion, among Christians and otherwise, about the primary and secondary victimization (often by therapists) of spouses and partners of sex addicts is noticeably absent.

My interest in the topic of compulsive sexual behavior (often called sex addiction) began a year and a half ago when a friend mentioned to me, off-hand, that I might want to look at the literature on sex addiction therapy. I asked what he meant, and he explained that it had something to do with how such literature talked about women. He couldn’t put his finger on it, he said, but something wasn’t right. At that time, I did a little looking around and read a few articles which piqued my interest. I was busy with other projects, though, and had to put it aside.

But a few months ago, hoping to further my understanding, I read Ashamed No More, by T. C. Ryan. I was surprised by how little Ryan–a Christian, a recovering sex addict, and a leader of a ministry for sex addicts–talks about the spouses and partners of sex addicts. I paid attention to the few instances where Ryan mentions those he hurt with his addiction, noting that his descriptions of such wrongdoing were remarkably vague and brief, particularly in comparison to his lengthy and thorough discussion of himself, his personal history, and his own suffering. I took copious notes on his book and compiled and examined word lists and keyword lists as well as key semantic domains, noting the prominence of, for example, first person pronouns and other inward-focused language (self-destructive, self-loathing, self-worthlessness, etc).

I looked for other books written by Christians against which to compare it, compiled some lists, read a few, and began to notice and understand the pervasiveness and potential destructiveness of the concept of the co-addict and the way this label influences language about spouses/partners of sex addicts. I learned that T. C. Ryan is far from alone in his language about spouses/partners. Celebrate Recovery, for instance, the ministry I mentioned at the start of this post, publishes an informational pamphlet for spouses entitled ‘Co-dependent Women in a Relationship with Sexually Addicted Men’. And lest you think this is aimed at a subset of female spouses, the checklist of ‘symptoms’ contained in the pamphlet specifies that a woman need only have a spouse who exhibits compulsive sexual behavior.

Stephanie Carnes, fellow proponent of the co-addict model and writer of Mending A Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts, explains the concept of co-addict.

A co-sex addict is someone who is married to, or in a significant relationship with a sex addict and demonstrates a common set of behavioral characteristics.  These characteristics include: denial, preoccupation, enabling, rescuing, taking excessive responsibility, emotional turmoil, efforts to control, compromise of self, anger, and sexual issues.

Many have credited Dr. Patrick Carnes (father of Stephanie Carnes) both with the identification of compulsive sexual behavior as an addiction and with the now widespread labeling of partners and spouses of sex addicts as co-addicts. Carnes’ model is based on the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has itself been criticized by Christians and non-Christians alike. Carnes writes in his 1983 book Out of the Shadows that his 12-step model for sex addiction therapy, now espoused by T. C. Ryan as well as countless others,

can restore the capacity for meaningful relationships by developing in addicts and co-addicts new beliefs to replace dysfunctional or faulty beliefs.

Note the language ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘faulty’. The co-addict model frequently paints the spouse/partner as (often purposely) enmeshed in an abusive relationship, needy, controlling, fearful of being alone. Spouses who protest against such broad-stroke characterizations are simply in denial. Speaking about so-called co-addicts, the International Service Organization of COSA puts it this way,

One of the most difficult aspects of what we call co-sex addiction or sexual codependency, is grasping and facing the truth of our own condition. Another is admitting our powerlessness over the addict. The continual attempt to affect or control the sex addict renders our lives unmanageable.

A growing number of spouses of sex addicts have publicly described the co-addict model and its approaches to therapy as a type of secondary abuse, a re-traumatization of already victimized individuals. Some critics have gone so far as to describe it as patriarchal and narcissistic in scope (remember the inward-focused language I mention above?).

Likewise, a small but increasing number of both Christian and non-Christian psychologists, counselors, and therapists have challenged the prevalent addict/co-addict model. Among these is Omar Minwalla, who argues instead for a model that acknowledges more consistently the trauma that sex addicts have inflicted on their spouses/partners. Minwalla writes,

Sexual acting out disorders are not just sexual behaviors (Minwalla, O., 2012), but are also abusive behaviors, which include deceptive compartmentalized sexual-relational realities and systems of abusive covert management (Jason, S., 2008; Minwalla, O., 2012).  These are patterns of methodical planning over time, careful constructions of manipulation of others, and thought systems well maintained in order to keep a compartmentalized reality protected from discovery (Jason, S., 2008).  Managing a secret sexual life and reality takes profound energy to maintain, requiring pre-meditation and an ongoing commitment and intent to deceive, hide and violate others.

Though Minwalla writes from a non-Christian perspective, his views are echoed by Christian critics of co-addiction as well. Dr. Barbara Steffans, for example, notes the misunderstanding and victim-blaming she has witnessed in the co-addiction model, which she argues disrespects the mental health and experience of the spouse/partner.

Let me be clear. The many Christians among us struggling against sex addiction require our love, our time, and our compassion as fellow sinners in need of Christ’s saving grace. However, in my view, this cannot come at the expense of our acknowledgement

  1. of the traumatic effects of sex addiction on the addict’s partner or spouse and
  2. that one of the prevalent models of sex addiction therapy involves victim-blaming, a form of secondary abuse.

As a linguist, I am of course primarily interested in the ways in which language both reflects and perpetuates various perspectives on the spouses of sex addicts (addict/co-addict model vs. trauma model) and the extent to which such language victim-blames spouses. At the moment, there is evidence that victim-blaming does indeed happen in this context.

However,  I start this new series on language surrounding spouses and partners of sex addicts with some trepidation since I presently have far more questions than answers. All that said, please watch this space. There is a pressing need to examine the literature of the addict/co-addict movement, given both the scope of compulsive sexual behavior and the power that language has in facilitating or preventing the repentance, forgiveness, and healing of all parties involved.


‘What Christian is it that beats his wife?’

domestic-violence-infographic1In the last post in this series, I looked at the ways in which pastors preach about intimate partner violence. The examples I examined were, sadly, typical of the rare instances where pastors directly refer to such violence. In this post, however, I will look briefly at a sermon which defies convention by exposing violence, clarifying offenders’ responsibility, and contesting the blaming and pathologizing of victims. Like the previous post, I will rely on Linda Coates’ and Allan Wade’s (2007) analytic framework, ‘The Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance’, keeping in mind the additional category of ‘appeal to authority’ I suggested. This is by no means an exhaustive look at this particular sermon. I use this space to point out striking discursive features I’d like to explore in more detail elsewhere, focusing on the places in the sermon where the pastor mentions abuse explicitly.

The broader context of this sermon is worth noting before we dive in. When I read the transcription of this sermon, it was quickly apparent how different it is to the other sermons on divorce in the corpus. While many of the other sermons rely heavily on discursive features such as the language of constraint, on language describing how husbands and wives ought to behave, on women receiving action vs. men taking action, etc., this sermon stands apart discursively. Only recently did I look up the pastor and discover that apart from being Reformed Baptist, he is also British. This raises a question I had hoped would emerge from my pilot corpus: In what ways do cultural background and context influence discourse about divorce? I can hardly generalize from one sermon, but I’m intrigued to see this issue already popping up.

Exposing the abuser and their violence

Excerpt 1:

This would be a case which perhaps you’ve heard of, such situations where a Christian couple get married together, whatever, then the husband turns out to be abusing the wife, violent, uncaring in that way, deserting, leaving her, going off and behaving abominably, not following their vows and commitments.

(‘Divorce – Remarriage’)

A few things to note straightaway from this excerpt are, first, that the abuser is in subject position, his actions and attributes directly connected to him. He is violent, he is uncaring, he is deserting, he is behaving abominably. Next, see that the pastor begins with the action ‘abusing’, which is somewhat vague. But he doesn’t stop there. Rather, he goes on to specify what that abuse looks like, including a range of actions, both physical and non-physical. By providing this wide range of abusive behavior, the pastor is defining clearly for his congregation what abuse might look like and exposing abuse as not simply an act of physical violence. And finally, notice that the pastor presents this case using the historic present, which has the effect of bringing this event into the foreground and perhaps, as some have suggested convincingly, demonstrating its current relevance. While the other pastors in the corpus also used the historic present, in this case the abusive acts are not only present but progressive. They are ongoing, they are right now, they could be happening as we speak.

Particularly interesting is the way this pastor shifts from male to female when talking about an abuser, as in the following passage. For this pastor, abusers can be either sex, whereas in nearly every other sermon, men are the abusers.

Excerpt 2:

If a husband, oh, well, we can see it here, if a wife is behaving in an abusive way like bad violence or somewhere rather behaving in a drunken fashion and destroying the home, threatening the children, violence in that respect…

In this passage, we see again some of the same discursive features (historic present, progressive, active voice, etc.) which expose both the abuser and the violence, though the pastor expands the concept of abuse to include only physical violence. This is another issue worth exploring in detail later, in an expanded corpus. In what ways is abuse gendered? What might this mean?

This pastor further assigns blame to the abuser towards the end of the sermon, where he asks a series of rhetorical questions, identifying the abuser with an unbeliever, someone who is to be treated like a ‘heathen and a tax collector’.

Excerpt 3:

What Christian is it that beats his wife? What Christian is it that deserts his wife, walks out on her? What Christian is it who acts in such immoral ways and is behaving in a way completely contrary to the Word of God? So they placed themselves there effectively as an unbeliever…

The Victim Isn’t to Blame

Some sermon excerpts also have the effect of challenging anyone who might be tempted to blame the victim of abuse. First of all, notice the verb ‘turns out’ in Excerpt 1 (‘the husband turns out to be abusing his wife.’). Consider in what contexts it is most frequently used. The picture here is not of a woman who knowingly married an abusive man and so was somehow partly to blame for her victimization. ‘Turns out’ indicates the unexpected, the unpredictable.

Also telling is this pastor’s version of evaluative ‘oh’ and the way he combines this with an appeal to authority, both of which you may recall from my previous post. Evaluative ‘oh’ was used with some regularity in the corpus to introduce and cast doubt on invented quotes from victims of abuse and those who might support them. See if you can spot the difference in how this pastor makes use of invented reported speech in Excerpt 4.

Excerpt 4:

What happens then? Is the counsel this? Well, sorry, you’re married, you’re a Christian, he is a Christian, she is a Christian… you have to stay together. Well, actually the situation is far more complex than that.

I suggest that the ‘well’ here functions as an evaluative ‘oh’ and indicates negative evaluation of the uncaring adviser, again unlike the other sermons. This interpretation of ‘well’ is confirmed elsewhere in the same sermon, as in the following:

But the Pharisees were not so interested in that. They were rather interested in only certificates that you could sign. Husbands there could say, Well, I detest my wife now, got fed up with her, don’t like her another… And the Lord’s saying, no, not at all.

The implication is that the deserter is the guilty party, and the appeal to authority which follows (‘the Lord’s saying’, a version of ‘Thus saith the Lord’) further condemns him rather than condemning the victim, in contrast with the other sermons.

Still more to say…

This sermon is by no means faultless in its depiction of an abusive marriage and its implications for divorce. Questions remain regarding the aforementioned gendering of violence, and particularly troubling is another point I didn’t explore here: the pastor’s eventual recommendation that the victim use the Matthew 18 principle as a first step to dealing with violence. However, this sermon is one of the only sermons in the corpus in which the pastor explicitly refers to abuse whilst exposing violence, clarifying offenders’ responsibility, and cautioning against victim-blaming. Considering the statistics regarding intimate partner violence, it is highly likely that a victim of violence sat in the pews when each of the sermons we have looked at was originally preached, not to mention the many who have since downloaded one or more from Sermon Audio. As someone committed to the protection of such victims, I know which pew I would prefer to sit in, given the choices so far.

I have only scratched the surface with regard to the discourse of divorce. If you are interested in hearing more, please consider attending the inaugural Lydia Symposium, where I will present my findings in much more detail and where we can discuss these matters in person. And with a glass of wine in hand even!

Image from the Institute of Health

Milton, Poet and Provocateur

Announcing a Greystone Theological Institute event this Thursday:

John-Milton-portrait-008Greystone Study Day: “John Milton, Poet and Provocateur” at Greystone in Coraopolis (Pittsburgh), July 28, 9:30 am – 4 pm.

This one-day seminar will feature Dr. David Head’s survey of Milton’s work as a poet followed by a close examination by Dr. Mark A. Garcia of the bewildering yet influential seventeenth-century models of gender as well as Milton’s controversial teaching on marriage and divorce, which factored significantly in the work of the Westminster Assembly.

Cost: Donation only. Donations help cover the costs of running free events and programs. (Thank you for making your donation here.) 

Announcing the 2016 Inaugural Lydia Symposium

Mark Garcia and I are thrilled to announce the inaugural Lydia Symposium, to be held  16-17 September, 2016 at Greystone Theological Institute in Coraopolis, PA. We intend this event to act as an introduction to our work and an opportunity to engage with and hear from all those who are interested in investigating, discussing, and working towards solutions for issues facing Christian women. We are especially pleased that Dr. Rebekah (Becky) Josberger will be joining us as an invited speaker, delivering two talks connected to her work on the Torah and specifically the father in Israel. (You will learn more about her important work soon.) Please also note that I will be leading a roundtable discussion during this event, intended to provide opportunity for reflection and dialogue amongst attendees and presenters.

This event is free (Register here!), and we hope this will facilitate your attendance. It is our hope that supportive donors will subsidize this event. If you believe in the work of the Lydia Center and would like to attend the event, please consider making a donation in whatever amount you are able. Even if you cannot attend the event, your valuable donation allows us to offer this and other events for free.

I hope to see you in Coraopolis in September.


After Patriarchy, Part 2: The Story of a Model

If I had a flair for the dramatic, I would say patriarchy died on November 23, 2013.

There is some truth in that claim, though it’s a truth having more to do with the world of scholarship than the everyday realities many people live with. Instead of going that route, then, I will suggest that November 23, 2013 is one of the most important dates in the convoluted story of patriarchy in the world of biblical scholarship. It is at least a date students of the topic should try to remember.

On that date, Carol L. Meyers, Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University, delivered her presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Fernando F. Segovia, the SBL Vice-President, introduced Meyers with a truly impressive report of her accomplishments in scholarship over many years. Her address was titled, “Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?” (later published in the Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 1 [2014]:8-27; I will refer to the pages of the published article).  She has published on the question in several places, and those familiar with the literature will know Meyers has long been at the forefront of biblical scholarship on gender and the Old Testament. But her 2013 address focused her thinking on the subject in a new way, placing it helpfully against the backdrop of scholarly work in various related fields.

In his introduction, Segovia highlighted several noteworthy features of Meyers’ career in biblical studies. Meyers entered the world of biblical studies in the 1960s and 1970s, the tumultuous heyday of the sexual revolution and political unrest. She started teaching at Duke in 1976, where she has continued to this day, and her now more than forty years of work bear the imprint of the rapidly changing ideology of feminism. “To my mind,” says Segovia,

“she represents an ideal signifier of the times — a product of and an agent in such years of transformation. In terms of faces and voices, she belongs to the first generation of women who break into the patriarchal world of the academy and the field of studies. In terms of method and theory, she stands with that circle of scholars who begin to reach out to other fields of study, such as the social sciences and feminist studies, for grounding and inspiration of the study of biblical antiquity” (5).

Her often-awarded, critically acclaimed, interdisciplinary publications bear this out. Her very many scholarly articles and essays, and particularly her highly influential 1988 study of women’s roles and everyday activities in ancient Israel, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford), and its later revision and expansion as Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (2013), remain important, even standard and representative examples of the best of feminist-oriented readings of the Old Testament. And they have proven valuable and insightful even for those scholars who work very far indeed from feminist ideology.

I introduce her at such length in order to make her credentials clear as a leading scholar shaped by, committed to, and fueling feminism in biblical studies. Arguably, then, as a representative and ground-breaking scholar identified with feminist hermeneutics, Meyers has as much interest as anyone could in the patriarchy reading of the Old Testament. After all, that critical, negative reading of Scripture’s allegedly patriarchal model of home and society is what gave feminist biblical studies its materials, its vision, its very raison d’etre.

And yet Meyers, the feminist scholar, argues that Israel and her sacred texts are not patriarchal, that examination of the texts themselves indicates “patriarchy” is misleading, and that therefore “patriarchy” in scholarly historical and biblical studies should be left behind.

In what follows I will outline Meyers’ reasons for reaching this conclusion, in which she is in fact far from alone, even among feminist scholars. But I will do so not because I believe Meyers represents the way forward for a more faithful understanding of the biblical text (she does propose an alternative which we will explore in our next post), but because such a highly qualified, scholarly voice against the idea of a biblical “patriarchy,” in the context of a programmatic, agenda-setting, state-of-the-question presidential address to SBL, should give us pause. And when we discover in the literature that hers is a conclusion long in the making, and has been voiced by a wide variety of scholars (both “conservative” and “liberal”), the “patriarchy” question becomes its own kind of educational window into biblical topics the wider literature has been exploring fruitfully for the last several decades.

Patriarchy as a Social Science Theory

Put most succinctly, “patriarchy” denotes the social-science concept of male dominance. In most dictionaries, patriarchy is a system of male power or authority in any form of social structure which, either as a matter of principle or only of practice, includes the relative or complete exclusion of women from that system of power. Meyers opens her lecture with a reference to its use as a descriptor in biblical studies for ancient Israel, a use which appears to date only to the late nineteenth century.

Incidentally, this timetable seems to hold true inasmuch as other scholars have noted how the impact of Darwin’s theories included the search for a biological grounding for traditional assumptions regarding the ontological superiority of males. Though Darwin himself never went the Social Darwinism direction, others quickly did, most notably Alfred Russel Wallace. As recently as 1973, Steven Goldberg, a sociologist at the City College of New York, published The Inevitability of Patriarchy, arguing along Social Darwinian lines for a biological interpretation of male dominance.

As Meyers notes, the term “patriarchy” does not appear in the Bible. It is a social science construct, not a biblical one. It derives, too, not from biblical studies at all but from other fields of study, and so its usefulness must be evaluated against the background of developments in those fields as well as growing knowledge of the ancient, and in our case especially biblical, societies to which the term is applied. Thus Meyers explores its use in the study of ancient Israel, and then notes challenges to the patriarchal model that arise from three areas: classical studies, research on women in ancient Israel, and feminist theory. I will summarize Meyers’ remarks along these same lines. Note that, for accuracy’s sake, I will follow her order and prose as closely as possible, and follow the survey with a few of my own remarks.

Patriarchy in the Study of Ancient Israel

Meyers notes that the use of “patriarchy” in the study of ancient Israel is rather recent and emerged within a clearly definable setting, namely nineteenth-century anthropology. The rise of historical criticism in biblical studies yielded a fresh interest in the social world of the biblical texts, but the challenges and apparent contradictions of the biblical materials proved so frustrating to scholars that they turned to the social sciences for help. This turn by nineteenth-century biblical scholars to the social sciences, says Meyers, “was the first of two ‘waves’ of biblical scholarship that turned to social-science disciplines” (10).

The anthropologists to whom the biblical scholars turned worked from an evolutionary perspective, assuming that human beings pass “through stages of development, from the primitive to the civilized.” Crucially, in the absence of direct evidence from ancient societies, they drew extensively from the then-available body of Greek and Latin sources to construct their theories about the development of family structures. Most scholars concluded from these Greek and Latin texts that the father must have dominated in the original form of the family, and they called this “patriarchy” (as, most essentially, father-rule), though they applied this term only to the family, not to society as a whole.

Meyers notes three figures who were especially important to this development. The first of these is the English classicist and law professor Henry Sumner Maine (1822-1888), who published on ancient (i.e., Greek and Roman) law. He examined and enlarged the classic notion of patria potestas (“the father’s power”) as an instance of “paternal despotism,” arguing that the father had vitae necisque potestas (“power of life and death”) over his servants, wife, and children.

The second figure Meyers mentions is the Frenchman Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges whose 1864 book on the family stresses that the word pater (father) means absolute authority, not just biological paternity, and is practically synonymous in meaning with “king.” As Meyers explains, De Coulanges claimed that the father held all judicial authority in the household and a woman was considered a “mineure” (a minor) with no household authority whatsoever.

The third figure Meyers notes is Lewis Henry Morgan, an early American anthropologist and lawyer whose 1877 book, Ancient Society, explicitly linked the presumed patriarchal family model of the Greeks and Romans to the family type of the “Hebrew tribes.”

Shortly after these scholars did their work, Bernhard Stade, a prominent German historian and theologian (and founder of the biblical studies journal ZAW), published in 1887-88 a two-volume history of Israel which is as much social and political history as anything else it purports to be. Meyers suggests this “is probably the first publication by a biblical scholar in which the terms ‘patriarchy’ and ‘patriarchal society’ are used for ancient Israel” (12). It is a work deeply influenced by the new social scientists and their assertions regarding the Roman patria potestas and paterfamilias. “Stade’s reconstruction of Israelite society and religion,” says Meyers, “had a significant impact on biblical scholarship, especially in Germany, where Julius Wellhausen was among those whom he influenced” (12).

After nearly half a century of strange silence on this front, a new wave of interest in social scientific models of ancient Israelite society emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, but now with a focus on prophecy and apocalyptic movements rather than the household. (Meyers refers to Robert R. Wilson, “Reflections on Social-Scientific Criticism,” in Method Matters: Essays on the Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David. L. Petersen [ed. Joel M. LeMon and Kent Harold Richards; SBLRBS 56; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009], 507–10 for discussion of why this is the case.) An exception to this shift is Roland de Vaux whose Ancient Israel (1958, 1960; in English, 1961, rep. 1997) became a classic. De Vaux repeated many of the older assumptions regarding Israel as patriarchal, including the notion that fathers held the “power of life and death” over their wives and children.

Major studies and reference works from this period (so formative for twentieth-century evangelical biblical studies and its new interest in ancient Near Eastern contextual topics) contain similar assertions drawn from the older social scientific model. Meyers points to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1976) and the entry for “father” in the first volume of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (1974) as examples. In addition, Max Weber’s 1921-22 work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society), which Meyers says “was arguably the most important sociological work of the twentieth century,” likely contributed to this growing consensus on Israel’s patriarchy (13). Weber influenced the great Old Testament scholar Martin Noth and, it appears, Norman Gottwald as well.

From here, the number of scholars repeating the patriarchy descriptor for Israel multiplied throughout the later twentieth century and into the twenty-first, including such recent examples as Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager (2001), the Pentateuch volume of the Dictionary of the Old Testament (2003), and the article on households in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (2006).

However, Meyers explains that “adherence to the patriarchal model did abate somewhat in the late twentieth century, perhaps because studies of women’s roles in ancient Israel had begun to contest aspects of the patriarchal paradigm” (14). She points to the entry on “family” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (ABD) (1992), the Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin work Social World of Ancient Israel (1993), the chapter on the monarchic period in the 1997 book Families in Ancient Israel, and the essay on marriage and family in ancient Israel in the 2003 publication, Marriage and Family in the Biblical World (IVP).

As I will note again at the conclusion of this post, I suggest it is a shame that Meyers does not give more space and attention to this last essay, which is by the evangelical biblical scholar Daniel Block (we will return to Block’s work at some length in our next post). She notes correctly that Block

“takes to task interpreters who consider certain biblical narratives to be ‘normal expressions of patriarchy,’ asserts that ‘father’ does not mean ‘ruler,’ and proposes that the term ‘patriarchy’ be avoided altogether” (14).

Despite these dissenting voices, Meyers notes that feminist biblical scholars have persisted with the “patriarchy” reading, and points to several familiar names in feminist biblical studies such as Phyllis Bird (particularly her entry on women in ABD 6), Alice Bach, Esther Fuchs, Kathleen M. O’Connor, and Sharon H. Ringe. Importantly, though, these more recent feminist voices reflect a second wave of the patriarchal model in which the original application of the term to family structures only has been expanded to become a societal structure. In this second wave, patriarchy became a model pervading family as well as all social structures driven by ideologies “that have enabled men to dominate and exploit women throughout recorded history” (so stated by highly influential Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, cited by Meyers [15 n. 47]).

“In sum,” says Meyers,

“the concept of patriarchy taken up by Hebrew Bible scholars in the nineteenth century still influences the understanding of Israelite households. We still see references to patriarchy and the appearance of paterfamilias and pater potestas. And the all-inclusive concept of male dominance and concomitant female victimhood, as articulated by second-wave theorists, appears in the publications of many feminist biblical scholars” (16).

But Meyers believes this understanding is no longer justified. She argues that “developments in three areas… challenge its appropriateness as a descriptor of Israelite society.” Again, these three areas are studies of classical society, research on Israelite and biblical women, and third-wave feminist theory. I will summarize Meyers’ treatment of those developments more briefly than I have summarized her presentation so far.

Challenges to the Patriarchal Model in Classical Studies

In classical studies, where the concept of patriarchy originated, the challenges to the model have been monumental. As early as the 1960s, reports Meyers, scholars were noting that the idea of the Roman “all-powerful pater familias” doesn’t fit reality. “Perhaps most
important,” says Meyers, “was the realization that different areas of household life cannot be lumped together; that is, male control in one area does not necessarily mean control
in all areas,” and the idea of a father’s life-and-death power was also shown to be a conceptual abstraction rather than a fact of social history (16).

Most significantly, says Meyers, in the 1990s the growing guild of historians of classical societies, no longer made up of legal historians as in the heyday of patriarchy’s scholarly life, demonstrated clearly that the traditional view of patriarchy is not supported by the social and cultural realities evidenced in the texts. Instead of focusing only on legal texts, as the earlier generations of scholars had done, scholars were now examining a broad range of materials, including ones from daily life, and the result was a widely different picture of fathers and their power from the one that had become conventionally assumed to be true.

Meyers points especially to the 1994 work of Richard Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge). One important outcome of this scholarly development was the recognition that “the relationship between a man and his wife in Roman society did not involve the same absolute authority that a father may have had over his children,” and that “the term ‘patriarchy’ does not apply to the husband-wife relationship.” Instead, evidence examined by Saller and others, including Xenophon’s treatise on household management, points to the managerial authority or power wielded by Roman women in their households, “sometimes even ‘exercising authority over her marital partner'” (18).

Feminist archaeologists have themselves also challenged the patriarchy model. Meyers summarizes their findings (in words which remind us of recent historical scholarship on the roots and development of twentieth-century evangelical patriarchy). She says these archaeologists dismantled the older patriarchal reading of the Roman household and showed that

“capitalist Victorian household patterns, in which the workplace was outside the home and men had control over their wives and children dependent on their earnings, had been superimposed on premodern societies in which the household was the workplace for all family members.”

Though I won’t go into detail here, Meyers then documents the work of classicists who also challenge the more expansive view of patriarchy as applicable to society and its institutions. These scholars, working with texts, inscriptions, and iconography, have demonstrated that women were not in fact excluded or subjugated in the ways formerly thought.

Challenges to the Patriarchal Model in Scholarship on Israelite Women

Recall that the scholarly concept of patriarchy originated in a reading of ancient Greek and Roman households, a reading that has been found wanting. What, then, of the ways that concept was transposed into the biblical materials?

Meyers participates in the (in my view questionable) practice among biblical scholars of treating biblical materials as windows into ancient social realities. (While it is of course reliable and valuable for these purposes to an extent, I would argue that the Old Testament is redemptive revelation for God’s covenant community, not a history of Israel in a social-scientific or any other scholarly-conventional sense, and this unique ontology of Scripture means it cannot be treated the same way other texts are.) Nevertheless, Meyers accents features of biblical scholarship on the Old Testament that have dislodged the conventional patriarchal reading of the Israelite household.

Meyers also deploys the results of archaeological research, particularly gender archaeology — a discipline which, as Meyers notes, is concerned with people, their domestic and social lives as men and women, rather than only their artifacts and dwellings. Meyers provides an extensive report on findings regarding household remains, the contributions of women to household life, the forms of their activities, and their areas of responsibility. She concludes, with specialists in the field, that women had managerial roles in ancient Israel, supervising the personnel and resources of their own households and occasionally across households (21). They were not the oppressed and powerless women of patriarchal expectation, subjugated to males in all aspects of household life.

More significantly, of course, are the biblical materials themselves. These materials support the same conclusions reached in other disciplines. Meyers briskly points to the managerial agency of women in some legal stipulations of the Covenant Code, in narratives, and in Proverbs; notes the two legal stipulations (Ex. 21:15, 17) which mandate capital punishment for offspring who strike or curse mother or father; includes the narrative of Micah’s mother (Judges 17) wielding decision-making power of various kinds; mentions Abigail (1 Samuel 25) using resources on her own initiative without consulting her husband and exercising diplomatic skill in talking with David; and notes, too, the Shunammite narrative (2 Kings 4 and 8) and the Proverbs 31 woman.

I could wish she had pointed to other, arguably more pertinent examples, and had explained the relevance of these more fully, yet those who read the literature will recognize that her examples function more like indexes to available scholarship than arguments on their own. Reading her list one thinks immediately of specific examples in the literature where these passages are developed at length along these lines. And it should be granted that, against the backdrop of the real history of patriarchy as a concept and hermeneutical model, the mere mention of them does indeed go a long way toward putting at least some errant assumptions to rest.

Meyers’ conclusion is fairly straightforward, even predictable in light of this story of the most relevant scholarly developments over the last century:

“In sum, gender archaeology and biblical texts together provide compelling evidence for the managerial power of Israelite women in the household setting. In addition, the use of bet ’em (‘mother’s household’) as a counterpart to bet ‘av (‘father’s household’) in several women-centered passages also suggests women’s household authority. The term ‘patriarchy,’ as a designation of general male domination and the oppression of women, would thus be inappropriate and inaccurate. Identifying female agency challenges the idea, embedded in the patriarchy model, that women were helpless victims of a male-dominant system” (22-23).

Meyers goes on to note other familiar examples in the Old Testament of women’s community roles, both professional or leadership positions and “lay” ones, their contributions to politics, culture, and their religious activities.

Feminist Challenges to the Patriarchal Model

Further, Meyers also outlines ways that “third-wave” feminist theorists have sought to correct the mistaken assumptions of their earlier, “second-wave” forbears. Interestingly, this has included feminist criticism of patriarchy as a notion resting on a “naturalized” view of women’s inferiority, and according to Meyers and the scholars she cites, the residue of this same notion are present in earlier feminist readings of the evidence. Related to this is the mistaken assumption that if patriarchy, or something approximating it, can be found somewhere it can thus be found everywhere: the universalizing error. Recent feminist scholars have pushed back against this uncritical superimposition of patriarchy upon the ancient world. Just as there is a universalizing tendency, so there is also a tendency to flatten out differences: the assumption that household roles and dynamics are monolithic has also been challenged.

Finally, (though Meyers notes other arguments), and maybe most surprising to those who thought they knew what feminism was, some feminist scholars are pointing out that gender isn’t everything: what may appear in the biblical texts to be a difference in role or function along the lines of gender may not be gender-related at all, and it’s irresponsible to assume that it is. There may be other factors (racial, economic, social, family, health, etc.) which account for things we see in the evidence for particular cases.

Taking Meyers’ presentation into view, we can summarize that she argues that patriarchy should be discarded because, as a

  • scholarly convention rooted in the mistaken nineteenth-century reading of classical Greek and Roman texts,
  • itself limited in a myopic way only to select legal texts read with legal eyes,
  • absorbed from the nineteenth-century ascendance of the evolutionary social sciences, and
  • translated into the very different discipline of biblical studies as part of an effort to describe biblical and ancient Israelite realities (rather than being itself a directly biblical notion),

it has proven to be

  • incompatible with the wider evidence of the classical texts and artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome,
  • incompatible with the wider evidence of the artifacts of ancient Israel,
  • incompatible with the Bible’s own vocabulary and descriptions of male and female roles and activities,
  • and thus inaccurate, inadequate, and misleading.

Some Brief and Transitional Reflections

As a confessional presbyterian and a Reformed theologian, I differ with Professor Meyers on a wide range of matters, in this area and others. These include our views of Scripture, authority, evidence, gender, and ethics. Neither do I find her alternative to patriarchy sufficient, either to move past the problems inherent to the “patriarchy” model or to more faithfully describe the witness of Holy Scripture. I will come to this matter in the next post. Still, I suggest that her analysis is worth our very careful consideration, not least because her work as a highly regarded feminist scholar in biblical studies means her arguments push against the grain of her own scholarly world in a rather fundamental way.

I offer the following concluding remarks for consideration:

Firstly, Meyers’ definition of “patriarchy,” accurate as it is at the level of dictionary definition, is not as helpful as one would like. It is understandable that she begins its story in the nineteenth century, and that context is undoubtedly immensely important for understanding much of what has functioned as a conventional assumption in many religious circles. Still, as scholars of this development appreciate, the nineteenth-century change amounted to a shift from a “naturalized” notion of masculine superiority to a biological one afforded by Social Darwinianism and its disciples.

But what about that older, preceding, “naturalized” notion? And what about versions of patriarchy to be found in other ancient cultures, such as India and China? To understand the patriarchy topic fully, one must account, too, for the longstanding (though hardly universal) assumption of an ontological superiority of the male, an assumption which is inescapably present in many patristic, medieval, and early modern theological and philosophical texts. To be sure, this is very complicated topic, and it is important to note quickly that we must not confuse this older religious model with today’s very different evangelical patriarchies, but the difference is itself something requiring scholarly exploration. This background, however, is largely overlooked by Meyers and the majority of feminist scholars who treat the idea as though it were in fact birthed a little more than a hundred years ago.

Secondly, and only apparently in contradiction to what I’ve just said, patriarchy — as an assumption that this is what the Bible is teaching prescriptively in some way — is in fact very young, and the nineteenth-century episodes recounted by Meyers (not the older, pre-modern iterations of male superiority) are in fact the ones most proximate, in terms of pedigree, to patriarchal readings found among evangelicals today. The reference works produced in this period up to the mid- to late twentieth century were formative in their effects upon evangelical biblical scholarship, and those reference works were themselves (and sometimes still are) dependent upon an erroneous older scholarship which should be recognized as such.

Lastly, too much feminist scholarship confuses the topic of patriarchy with any notion of uniquely male responsibility or authority. This is worse than unhelpful, and ensures a growing distance between our vocabulary and the beauty of the biblical witness. The value of this scholarship is in exposing the roots, the originally limited but eventually expanding applications, and the liabilities of the “patriarchy” term and model. It serves well to alert us to ways we must rethink our assumptions.

But it does not point the way forward. If scholars working on biblical domestic materials (feminist or not) would consider more patiently the work of Daniel Block and others, perhaps more of the scholarship would appreciate another way of reading these biblical texts. Perhaps they, and we, would see how, biblically, the error of confusing the male role with a role of power is both anticipated in the biblical texts themselves, as well as fruitfully and beautifully overcome.

It is overcome, I will suggest, by a graciously reordered mode of domestic relations which does not in any way involve the displacement of the divinely-ordered unique responsibilities of the husband and father. And I suggest this alternative to the now defunct patriarchy model can be articulated most compellingly not only with a view to quality work in biblical studies but also within a confessional Reformed theological framework of gender and family relations.

We will note some of the important work done along these lines in the next post in this series.

After Patriarchy, Part 1: Now What?

The curtain has been drawn. The questions have been sharpened, the stakes clarified, and the issues focused. And the dust is starting, it seems, to settle. Now — now — is the time to stretch our reading to the other side of this debate, to add Davidson to Davenant, Block to Bavinck, Collins to Cyril, Milgrom to Monothelitism. Now, in short, is the time for those who are able to begin to attend to the large and important scholarly literature in the areas of gender, sexuality, marriage and divorce, abuse, and related areas in the same way we ordinarily attend, with delight, to the literature on other theological topics.

The discussion underway, after all, needs to go somewhere constructively. Having worked in these areas intensively for the better part of the last decade, I can’t help but hope that many will do so. Has this debate led to better reading in the doctrine of God? Likely so. But those who now know Ayres on the trinity might also consider picking up Loader on sexuality. Have we rediscovered the deep wisdom of the early Reformed orthodox who taught with profound nuance about trinitarian relations? Undoubtedly. And those who know Muller on Reformed Orthodoxy might now also take some interest in the longstanding scholarly discussions over the status of women in biblical legal texts. Those who know Gregory of Nyssa on the trinity could now also read him on gender. And so on. No, not everyone needs to become a scholar of such things, but some familiarity goes a long way. Pretend it has to do with the extra Calvinisticum if you have to, but take an interest. Become generally familiar with a body of literature that is arguably at least as relevant and useful for everyday life as most of the other things we study. The fruit of many years of scholarship are ripe for picking, and the ears of many have been newly opened to the urgency of these topics. Having been awakened to the importance of these areas of life and fellowship, perhaps now is the prime opportunity to advance understanding along positive lines.

It is important to remember why this recent trinitarian debate began. The original concern was not trinitarianism per se, or more specifically subordinationism as a lone controversial idea, but the translation of trinitarian subordinationism into prescribed norms of marital, domestic, ecclesiastical, and societal patriarchy. As the subordinationism debate now seems to be resolving somewhat, I suggest that we keep in view the need to be positive rather than only negative. Rather than content ourselves with having learned more of what we should not say and do along these lines, I ask us to account now for the great need of our time, which is to take steps in the direction of what we should say and do.

This is all the more important in light of the collapse of complementarianism as a useful category. Like some others, I no longer identify myself as a complementarian, not because I reject the complementarian conclusion on ordination to certain church offices, but because the term itself has come to include many ideas and commitments I do not and cannot share. Whatever one’s position in these debates, the usefulness of “complementarian” and “egalitarian” is now rather narrowly limited to the question of female ordination to certain church offices. Even then, however,  the terms are arguably far too risky to be serviceable because they are regularly confused with certain specious arguments used in support of those conclusions. Much complementarian scholarship has proven to be question-begging and weak while other examples have been strong. Yet the same can be said of egalitarian scholarship in both respects. Rejecting bad arguments for complementarian conclusions on the ordination question, therefore, is not the same as rejecting that complementarian conclusion. Again the same holds for egalitarian scholarship which one may find compelling on any number of points without thereby being “egalitarian” as a result. Sound scholarship cannot hesitate in the very democratic rejection of bad scholarship of any sort and from any source. It proceeds with a willingness to be perhaps most critical of those with whom we know we agree in the end. It is not only the conclusion that matters, after all, but the way there as well.

What now, then? I offer a few remarks here to open a series of posts on our thinking and practice “after patriarchy,” itself an idea which requires careful explanation (and will receive it starting in the next post).

Firstly, the positive alternative to complementarian patriarchy as a program or vision for gender relations must be driven by careful, informed thinking of a biblical and theological sort, and fueled by wide reading, humble conversation, and patience in prayer. As I have said on many occasions in conversations with those who labor in church contexts, the debates over gender relations, spousal abuse, divorce, and the like are among the most immediately consequential debates the church has. Unlike certain debates over, say, the varied functions of the Mosaic law or even subordinationism itself, the outcome of these debates immediately affects real people on the proverbial ground. We must tread very carefully, for lives are ruined or reclaimed by our behavior here.

For this reason among many others, the positive alternative we propose in the context of this recent subordinationism debate must be of a certain sort. Most urgently, perhaps, it must not be driven by cultural pressures, as reactions to complementarianism often are. Critics of those who demur from complementarian patriarchy often assume that objections to that model must be driven by the sexual revolution of our day and age. “There you go again,” they say, “letting the world tell the Church how to think.” Usually they are wrong, but sometimes they are right, and the possibility is always there to err in this direction. I cannot put this strongly enough: in proposing a better way, we must not be driven by mere cultural pressures toward inclusivism, gender confusion, and the like. To listen to the cries of the culture is one thing, to have our thinking determined by cultural pressures is quite another.

Neither do we have to be in order to point to the better way. The positive alternative to complementarian patriarchy is better, but not because it is more fitting in our world today, not because it is more agreeable to contemporary sensibilities, and not because it solves all our problems and answers all our questions. It is better because it is more faithful to Scripture and the gospel. Only if this is true can it be better at all. And in fact a vast amount of solid biblical and theological scholarship over the last several decades warrants — no, demands — the responsible and patient reconsideration of some ideas the complementarian patriarchalists have taken for granted. Not only is it possible to suggest ways forward that are more faithful to Scripture and our Christian confession in biblical and theological terms; it is also a wonderful time to do so. The nature of recent research across the confessional spectrum, the advances in understanding of the tradition and of certain key biblical texts, and the astonishing availability of high quality resources put us in a position of great opportunity to do this work. (See the bibliography to come here soon.)

Secondly, we must not forget that arguing biblically and theologically, in a relentlessly humble and listening way, means being willing for Scripture to require the conclusion we least wanted to reach. This is the way of integrity, and I have been blessed to see it happen in many brothers and sisters who have revisited these questions themselves in recent years. (Speaking for myself, I have often been haunted by mistakes made on this front in the first years of my own pastoral ministry. I have also learned I am far from alone in this.) This is also the way of lasting success: rather than simply translating the gender idols of our society into Christian terms, speaking and thinking responsibly with the grain of Scripture puts the Church in the best possible position of strength for dealing faithfully with those rapidly changing cultural pressures.

Thirdly, the positive alternative must be restrained and careful, not reckless and reactionary. The destructive effects of patriarchy in recent decades have left our churches full of wounded, confused, and hurting men, women, and children. The faces of the problem we have on this front are very, very many. Yet we must take great care not to confuse the painful anecdote with the theological answer. Given the recent interest in rejecting unhelpful and unpersuasive models of complementarian patriarchy, we should acknowledge the temptation to identify with every idea, book, blog post, or social media remark which affirms women in some way, no matter the context or circumstances. Sometimes those affirmations are useful and sober; sometimes they are not. To avoid the dangers of reactionary error, the most responsible and well-informed voices need to be clear that, for example, our rediscovered sensitivity to the dark reality of spousal abuse does not mean we do not need to be very careful in identifying spousal misconduct as “abuse.” Our most responsible reading of what “submission” does and does not mean should not somehow entail, for our thinking or our rhetoric, that Scripture does not in fact teach that wives should “submit” to their husbands in the Lord. The fact of nuances and richness in biblical teaching on the grounds for a valid divorce does not mean divorce has limitless grounds (it does not), that divorce is no longer a significant problem in our day (it is), or that divorce ever takes place without the serious sin of at least one, though maybe only one, spouse (it only ever does). In these examples and many others, we must be painstakingly careful not to confuse our rejection of a bad idea or framework with the acceptance of every possible opposing one.

Put differently, it is important not to over-reach in interpreting the recent exposé of the deficiencies of subordinationist trinitarianism. Importantly, the rejection of subordinationist trinitarianism as a ground for male-female relations does not entail the rejection of any theological rationale for gender relations. Related to this, our vigorous rejection of distortions of headship need not include our rejection of the very notion of head or the neologism of “headship” itself. In my view, it requires instead our thoroughgoing reformation of the notion in the plentiful light of authoritative Scripture.

The opportunity is before us to take steps in the direction of humble faithfulness which serves Christ and his church well. We must remember that the most faithful thinking and practice in service of women and children in the church is also the most helpful and faithful service to its men. To a great extent, the reformation of our thinking about women and children in the home and church, marriage and divorce, and many related issues, is also the reformation of our thinking about Christian men. There are theological reasons for this which we will soon explore.

Next in this series, we will look at what has happened to the idea of marital and societal “patriarchy” in biblical and historical scholarship, its origins and elusive meaning, and why patriarchal complementarians are apparently the last to realize that this social-scientific convention has been abandoned (and rightly) by just about everyone else.

The Trinity-Subordinationism Debate and the Opportunity Before Us

opportunitiesIn an insightful recent post, Christopher Cleveland explains “Why the Trinitarian Controversy Was Inevitable.” Cleveland’s diagnosis is perceptive, and I would like to extend it somewhat further and also suggest a way forward in terms of the opportunities our situation presents.

Cleveland points to the neglect, and in some quarters the rejection, of properly theological work which lasted decades. This neglect was fueled by distrust of the categories and doctrines of traditional dogmatics, which more and more frequently were run through the filter of modern reconstructive (in fact destructive) criticism. No doctrine emerged from the filter unscathed; everything was reconsidered and the commitments belonging to a new and better “orthodoxy” was up for grabs.

In reaction to these developments within liberalism, conservatives predictably and importantly pushed hard on the doctrine of Scripture itself. Alongside an arguably antinomian and conversion-type model of “salvation by grace,” evangelicalism became, in essence, a position taken on the Bible question, particularly on the nature and authority of Scripture. The Bible question was also, of course, in many quarters a culture question: to affirm the Bible meant ipso facto to take certain positions on a range of cultural, political, and domestic questions. To fail to line up meant coming under suspicion for your doctrine of Scripture, not only your politics. Yet, in this recognizably cultural mode, within the world of twentieth-century evangelical theology, Reformed and otherwise, the doctrine of Scripture was the issue.

This rallying, unifying cry around the doctrine of the Bible resulted in a variety of phenomena the fruits of which account, at least in part, for our situation. (That I note only negative consequences below is dictated by my aims in this brief post. I certainly see many enduring positive consequences as well.) These phenomena include theologians trained primarily or exclusively in biblical studies rather than in traditional dogmatics, itself not necessarily problematic except that its role in the recent malaise of evangelical theology requires that we account for it. Another fruit of that bibliological center was a host of evangelical biblical scholars who translated a “high view” of Scripture’s nature and authority into a particular hermeneutic of Scripture controlled by ancient historical and grammatical, yet conspicuously non-theological or ecclesial, concerns. The result was a great deal of helpful material on ancient biblical and non-biblical history, the grammar of biblical and cognate languages, linguistics, and the like, yet little to no meaningful connection of the task of close exegesis to the theological story and categories of the Church catholic.  There are wonderful exceptions to this trend, of course, both individually and institutionally, but they stand out precisely as exceptions.

What, then, about those categories of ancient orthodoxy? They seemed more and more remote from the presumed concerns and issues of the biblical texts themselves. Buying unwittingly into a rather deep liberal theological conviction that the history of the Church’s theology is a truly separable (rather than distinguishable) entity over against the “real” world of the biblical materials, evangelical “theology” widened the gap between the “historic orthodoxy” it was ostensibly interested in defending and the actual materials, vocabulary, and categories of that orthodoxy. As Cleveland remarks, “The problem is that in the rush to defend Scripture, there was not a concurrent push to defend traditional orthodox doctrinal categories.”

And without that push, without that ecclesial and orthodox consciousness, how could we know where transgressions of that orthodoxy occur, at least outside of the increasingly narrow (and ultimately collapsing) confines of the doctrine of Scripture’s “high authority” and nature? There was now a conspicuously wide culture gap between the Church historic and the Church contemporary, even in the work of theology where such a gap would seem most effortlessly closed. The gap was there, and widening, because we could say a lot about inspiration and inerrancy and evidence and authority, but we no longer spoke the language of the Church, and so we could no longer hear or understand what the Church catholic had long been saying. In the end, it became possible for a big name or two in the evangelical world of bibliological-cultural orthodoxy to push for a version of complementarianism that is rooted in a departure from Nicene orthodoxy, and for no one in that world to notice.

Dissatisfaction with this modus operandi is anything but new; there have always been dissenting voices. The dissent has grown louder with the growth of biblical, historical, and theological scholarship generally. For instance, the more we have learned about the role of the ecclesial community in the very development, organically and formally, of the Bible itself as canon, the more we began to fear that our ostensibly very high view of the Scriptures may in fact prove to be ironically unbiblical. Cleveland appropriately points out, too, the dissonant and welcome voices of several modern (and generally Reformed) theologians who argued in recent decades against the grain for a return to theology in terms of its classic categories and interests.

He also draws attention to one of the most significant developments of the latter half of the twentieth century: the work of scholars like Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, and Carl Trueman who have exposed the cataclysmic failures of various older, ahistorical readings of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, particularly late medieval theology and Reformed Orthodoxy. Today’s theologians and churchmen are discovering the strong, organic, positive ties of the Reformers to the texts and ideas of the patristic and medieval — yes, medieval — eras, and most significantly the similarly strong, organic ties of the post-Reformation periods of confessional orthodoxy to all that came before (not just Calvin and Luther). They are learning of the great diversity of the Reformed tradition historically and confessionally, and of the kind(s) of unity forged in the midst of and without denial of that diversity. They are learning the importance of reading critically yet charitably and humbly outside their own tradition, and reading to learn and not merely to dismantle. They are learning, too, of the difference it makes to read Scripture with the Church in ancient-catholic and (not but) confessionally Protestant fashion, and how far away we have drifted over the years from the discipline of doing so.

This kind of knowledge does not come, however, through surveys and introductory classes. It does not come from seminary classes using a comprehensive textbook but no primary sources. It certainly does not come from a video series from the favorite parachurch organization expounding on the so-called five points of Calvinism. No, it comes only by dealing with the texts themselves, and by reading those who live in them rather than read about them. It comes, then, by listening first rather than rushing to speak, listening to the texts themselves. Further, unlike so many edited collections of essays pumped out by evangelical and Reformed presses, it means listening to those who may be unknowns in the populus of our church circles but are in fact the experts on the topic. These are the ones who can truly teach us from the deep depths of their years of working rigorously and patiently with those texts. The present generation of churchmen and teacher-writers involved in these public debates are no longer content to read about Augustine, but read Augustine, and probably a widely recognized expert in Augustine, too. If they are determined to add their voice to a public debate about the meaning of a passage in Matthew’s Gospel, they are not content merely to refer to Calvin or to Matthew Henry on the passage, but they read the tradition as well as the best contemporary research, and appreciate what the real questions are. Or at least they know to do so. Those who don’t are now fairly quickly and easily recognized.

What does all this mean in terms of the opportunity before us, particularly in the Lydia Center’s areas of research and teaching? If the current trinitarian debate over a version of complementarianism was inevitable, what does this mean for the next stage of faithful thinking and practice? I do, after all, believe it poses great opportunities. I offer three for now for your consideration.

Firstly, debates on these topics (and others) within church bodies and faculty meetings are now possible at a richer and more substantial level of discourse than was previously the case. For the emerging generation of scholarship-oriented church leaders and writers, debates over the particular dynamics of marital relations are no longer decided by, say, the quotation of 1 Cor. 11:3 and the word “head” or Eph. 5:22 and the word “submit,” as though this settles things. There is a fresh appreciation for the danger of such simplistic appeals and for the integrity that belongs to a patient, informed, and circumspect (because churchly) reading and use of Scripture.

Secondly, as capable scholars and responsibly informed teachers who are largely unknown to the hoi polloi have regained some traction in the Church’s labor (a growing number of them happily working as pastors rather than as professors), debates are no longer decided by appeal to personalities. Here I choose my words with care. The historic practice of appealing to a figure in the context of public debate remains valuable, yet I suggest we may be witnessing a slow return to an older way of doing so. It is more complicated that I am suggesting in these few remarks, but as in the tradition generally, appeals to human authorities are now again valuable principally as they function as appeals to a distinctive and well-informed argument or position that figure represents. Put negatively, it is no longer compelling, and in fact is now clearly counterproductive, simply to refer to personalities in a debate as though it carries sufficient weight to end that debate, whether they are admired pastors or conference speakers, teachers, or writers. Because it is now (again) the argument itself that matters, at least more and more often the most compelling appeal to a figure will be to a true scholar of the question, not simply to an admired person.

For example, in the last couple of weeks we have seen how the inserted names, and sometimes voices, of publicly known and admired figures such as Dr. Mohler have proven not to be compelling and arguably counterproductive. Why is this? Because even though he is highly regarded on many church and culture fronts, Dr. Mohler’s views have been measured against the texts of the tradition and the ideas that belong to that tradition, and found wanting. His name is not enough. No name is enough anymore, and this is a healthy development. For many people of an earlier generation who cut their theological teeth at the parachurch conference or the popular Reformed or evangelical presses where names are everything, or who have traded in their associations with influential names in this or that institution, this shift can be rather jarring. An appeal to Jay Adams may begin or contribute in some way to a debate on marriage or divorce, but thankfully it no longer ends one.

Lastly, for decades (but not much longer than that) serious examination of the classic questions of sexuality and family was handicapped by the quiet assumption in conservative circles that the forms and framework of modern western domesticity on the one hand, and the forms and framework of prescriptive biblical sexuality and family life on the other, are one and the same. The chasm-wide difference between the two has long been known to students of these topics, yet the popular misconceptions have survived and persisted despite this. But it is now possible to attend to the highly important questions of sexuality, gender, marriage, divorce, “headship,” abuse, children and related matters as properly theological questions. Now (mostly) on the other side of the decades-long dominant (western, English-speaking, cultural, and church) sociologies which masqueraded successfully as theology in this area, these questions may enjoy meticulous, patient, and properly theological investigation on the terms of the Scriptures and of the Christian tradition.

This meaningful return of the categories and voices of the theological tradition to the table of serious inquiry into sexuality and family means the opportunity to consider, say, divorce as a properly theological question, which it is. It also means the return of Holy Scripture itself — not a bare historical text awaiting our archaeological digging skills, but the living canon of the living Church, whose voice(s) we need.

It also means more hopefully that, despite our anxiety and listlessness in the midst of this contemporary sexual revolution, the Church, dutifully sanctified and reformed by and according to Holy Scripture, may in fact be in a position to survive this cultural upheaval with something to say, both to it and to herself, as the Church. She may yet summon her resources, old and new, and speak positively and constructively of the way of Christ and the way of faithfulness as the only way of human hope and wholeness. This project, at least, is what the Lydia Center is formed to try to help along.