A Response to Peter Bolt’s Critique of
Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons
by John Dickson
(I am grateful to Mike Bird for hosting this piece. My preference was to post a guest blog on Mark Thompson’s site – keeping it in the family, so to speak. I wrote to him via the comments function on his blog and received no response. Nor did the comment appear. I then emailed him on Jan 16 and have not heard back.)
I am glad Peter Bolt, head of New Testament at Moore Theological College, has chosen to engage with the argument of my recent Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons. The first three reviews appearing on the blog of Mark Thompson, the incoming Principal of Moore College, offered socio-rhetorical critiques of the new Zondervan eBooks on women’s ministry. Mark Thompson’s opening piece appeared the day after publication and warned readers of publishing “egos” and author “hype.” In my case, I had not even mentioned my new book (on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else), let alone hyped it up, until after Mark’s blog alerted me to its publication.
The next two posts on Mark’s blog were by Peter Bolt. They raised suspicion over the books’ use of ‘shift-narratives’ and feminist calls for ‘justice’ in the church. I felt these missed the mark. I say almost nothing about my ‘shift’ on this issue (two or three paragraphs at most) and absolutely nothing about equality between the sexes. My case involves a Bible study and a little history. It is a form of argumentation I learned from Moore College. I am pleased to interact with Peter at this level.
Two socio-rhetorical criticisms
Before Peter lists the four “major flaws” of my argument, he provides two further pieces of socio-rhetorical criticism.
First, he sets my argument in the context of my experiences with women. “Each of our authors,” he says of Kathy Keller, Mike Bird and me, “began with questions and problems raised by their own beliefs about and experiences of women in churches, and then, subsequently, turned to a re-examination of the Scriptures.” It is possible Peter did not intend to include me in this description, or perhaps he transferred to me what is true of the others, but this is not an accurate reflection of anything I say in the book (or have experienced in life).
My move to ‘soft-complementarianism’ had nothing to do with experiences with women and everything to do with a series of lectures at Moore College by Donald Robinson, the former Archbishop of Sydney and one of the most careful New Testament exegetes Australian Anglicanism has produced. He explained how Pauline ‘teaching’ does not refer to the authoritative communication of Christian truths generally but to the authoritative transfer of ‘the apostolic deposit’, the fixed collection of remembrances and rulings of the apostles, which stands as the measure for all Christian thought and practice (and preaching). He made the point laconically but forcefully, and I remember wondering at the time how this understanding of ‘teaching’ could be equated with what I did on Sunday or what I was learning about sermons in the Preaching class.
I am quick to point out in the book that the former Archbishop probably would not agree with my extrapolation of his insights, but Robinson family members have since told me that he did in fact once suggest that the closest thing to ‘teaching’ might not be the sermon at all but the design of the sermon roster. Moreover, I am told he has happily sat under the preaching of women at his local church for more than a decade.
In any case, it is not correct to say that my reexamination of 1 Tim 2:12 had something to do with my experiences with women. My thoughts grew from a seed planted in second year Moore College.
Peter Bolt’s second introductory criticism claims that “our two friends (Bird and Dickson) offer different revisions, which actually conflict with each other.” Indeed, “one of the features of the last forty years is that, despite being united by a common need to revise this text, the revisions have been multiple and contradictory.” Because each new proposal cancels out the other, none of them attains plausibility against the standard view. I feel this overstates things. Mike Bird and I (and Kathy Keller, for that matter) essentially agree that Christian ‘teaching’ in the Pastoral Epistles involves preserving and passing on what the apostles said concerning the truth of Jesus, i.e., the ‘apostolic deposit’. The difference in our views has little to do with the definition of Christian ‘teaching’; it concerns the rationale for Paul’s prohibition on women teaching. Mike believes Paul forbade women to teach in Ephesus for a contextual reason, because their teaching had become corrupted. Bird and I agree that the task of laying down the Jesus tradition was being perverted at the time of Paul’s writing. Though unlike Mike, I am not persuaded that the prohibition was historically conditioned and I follow the standard complementarian explanation that it has to do with the created order. Incidentally, Kathy’s account of teaching is almost identical to my own. Where she and I differ is that she believes the ‘teaching authority’ of 1 Tim 2:12 is rightly equated with contemporary theological correction performed by elders. I’m not so sure.
There is a high degree of agreement between the three authors Peter pits against each other: ‘teaching’ in the Pastoral Epistles principally refers to passing on the Jesus tradition. The reason for this agreement is that it is a fairly standard view. Some reviewers have accused me of ‘novelty’. This doesn’t seem right. Similar accounts of ‘teaching’ can be found across a diverse spectrum of scholarship—in Klaus Wegenast’s article on the topic in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, in Donald Robinson’s lectures at Moore College or in Howard Marshall’s magisterial ICC commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. To quote from Hearing Her Voice:
If there is anything novel in what I am claiming—and I suspect there isn’t—it is not a particular historical or exegetical insight, less still a new linguistic definition. The only odd-sounding thing I am proposing has to do with the logical implication and application of these realities. If this is what Paul meant by “teaching,” why do we give the same name to a modern sermon? A sermon doesn’t really preserve and lay down the apostolic traditions; it expounds and applies the Bible text where those traditions are already preserved and laid down.
The rest of Peter’s piece focuses on his four complaints. I will explore just two of them because the others can be dealt with by pointing out that I agree with him.
The truth of oral tradition
Peter dislikes what he perceives to be my (and Keller’s) emphasis on a “hypothetical lengthy time gap” between when the apostolic material circulated orally and when it was available in written form in the canon. “Historical studies can be done well,” he remarks, “and they can be done badly.” He further distinguishes between “older scholarly theories” and the newer “scholarly trend … towards earlier dating” of New Testament documents—no prizes for guessing where I sit along these two axes.
I cannot think of anything in my book remotely resembling this historical anachronism Peter describes. My arguments are based on the standard evangelical dating of the Pauline epistles, on the one hand, and the widely acclaimed accounts of oral tradition and the Gospels offered by James Dunn (2003), Richard Bauckham (2006) and Craig Keener (2009). I may have missed some even more recent scholarship on these questions but I feel I have to press Peter a little here: Which New Testament specialists do you follow who argue there were written Gospels prior to the mid-60s when Paul wrote to Timothy? And which scholars believe that the apostolic remembrances and rulings were not preserved principally in oral tradition before the AD 60s? For my argument to work, these are the only historical conditions required, and these are the only ones I insist upon. As far as I can tell, apart from one or two idiosyncratic works that hardly amount to a scholarly trend, pretty much everyone writing on the topic accepts these realities.
The fact that certain apostolic letters circulated at this time—as I discuss in the book—does not change the situation. The ‘oral’ and ‘written’ periods did not exist “end-on-end”, as Peter claims I argue; rather, the apostolic letters provided an important supplement to the existing oral tradition. That is exactly what I argue in the book, even if Peter repeats the insight as a ‘correction’.
I have to take issue with Peter’s contrast between ‘oral culture’ and ‘manuscript culture’. He cautions against stressing the former at the expense of the latter. I see this as a false dichotomy. The presence of an authoritative text (the Old Testament) in Israel and the early church does not transform an oral culture into a manuscript culture. They were oral and manuscript cultures at the same time. The Jewish situation is clear, as I lay out in the book. The written Torah was a fixed and central reality in the synagogues of our period, but in no sense did this diminish the importance of the vast body of oral traditions taught by the Pharisees, as amply attested in the New Testament, Josephus and the Mishnah. This ‘oral torah’ was not a series of expositions of the Old Testament; it was a parallel tradition of rabbinic remembrances and rulings preserved through repetition and rehearsal until it was all finally fixed in a book of near equal size (and importance) to the Old Testament. This Mishnah, codified around AD 200, offers a clear historical parallel to the New Testament. The apostolic tradition was laid down by apostles and teachers until it became fixed in writing in the New Testament. Between Jesus’ crucifixion and the writing of the Gospels—the period when Paul forbade a woman to ‘teach’—the early church was a ‘manuscript’ culture with respect to the Old Testament and a few apostolic letters, but they were a predominantly ‘oral’ culture with respect to the bulk of the new covenant deposit.
If any of this history can be challenged, I would ask Peter to provide details.
How to define teaching
Peter’s next complaint concerns my definition of teaching—a central point of Hearing Her Voice. He concedes that the basic content of ‘teaching’ is the apostolic tradition but counters that “the activity of teaching is not defined by its content.” He explains “’to teach’ (whether in English or Greek) refers to the relational activity between teacher and learner, so that the teacher moves the mind of the learner, so that they arrive at a better understanding of that content.” No evidence for this account is offered; it is simply stated as the commonsense definition of the word, suitable for both the Greek didaskein and the English ‘to teach’. But surely this is the point in dispute.
The closest Peter Bolt comes to a direct counter-argument is when he reminds me that Paul’s preferred technical vocabulary for laying down the apostolic deposit is ‘handing over’ and ‘receiving’ tradition (1 Cor 11:2; 23; 15:3). But, as I have said elsewhere, this is not an ‘either-or’. Both are technical expressions (as I say in the book). To offer an analogy: it is widely acknowledged that the expression ‘the word (of the Lord)’ in Paul’s letters occasionally stands as a technical equivalent for the apostle’s favourite technical term, ‘the gospel’. The technical use of the one in no way diminishes the technical quality of the other: just so with ‘handing over/receiving’ and ‘teaching’.
Secondly, as Peter himself acknowledges, ‘hand over/receive’ language can be used by Paul in direct parallel with ‘teaching’. “On one occasion,” he writes, “Paul speaks of the traditions his audience had been ‘taught’.” Peter cites 2 Thess 3:6 but he means 2 Thess 2:15, where both technical terms appear side by side. But this is not the only example. In Gal 1:12 the apostle insists that he came to know the gospel through a direct disclosure from Jesus and not in the normal way: “I did not receive it, nor was I taught it.” For Paul, ‘to be taught’ is a perfectly apt alternative technical description for ‘receiving’ the apostolic tradition.
Thirdly and most significantly, it would be wrong to think that I am saying ‘teaching’ is an exact synonym for ‘handing over/receiving’. The latter always refers to the initial laying down of apostolic material (which is why it can also be paralleled with ‘evangelizing’, as in 1 Cor 15:1-3). ‘Teaching’, on the other hand, refers to laying down the deposit per se, whether for the first time or for the hundredth. To repeat a crucial reality: Christians between AD 30 – 70 had very, very little written apostolic material in their hands. They were heavily dependent on reliable men who could repeat the apostolic tradition on a regular basis. That’s what teaching was about.
Christians in this period could not ‘receive’ the deposit once and be expected to remember and apply it for the rest of their lives. They needed a formal repetition of the material. Just as we need the regular reading of the New Testament to keep the apostolic deposit ringing in our ears, so first-century believers needed teachers to lay down the tradition over and over. This provided the standard against which all other speaking in church—prophesying and exhorting—could be ‘weighed’ (1 Cor 14:29). In a similar way, sermons today need to be ‘weighed’ against the New Testament in a manner that was unnecessary and impossible when Timothy taught Christians in Ephesus in AD 60. To what could the average believer appeal? Timothy (and those he trained as teachers) were the official guardians of the apostolic words: “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you” (2 Tim 1:13-14).
Evidence and assumptions
It is significant that Peter neither discusses any of the evidence I lay out in the book for a specific understanding of teaching, nor offers any evidence for his own broad definition. He simply declares that ‘to teach’ is a relational activity between teacher and learner that moves the latter to a better understanding of the content. The problem with this definition is not that it is wrong; it is that it climbs so far up the ladder of abstraction that it loses usefulness. It is broad enough to be true but not specific enough to be accurate. It is no better than someone saying that ‘to teach’ is to cause someone to learn something about God.
Peter assumes what needs to be established when he says, “what else would be taught within the Christian community? If the apostolic deposit was not the content of any kind of teaching, then that teaching would not be Christian teaching.” This sounds plausible enough, but only because he has inserted his definition of teaching and declared that anything less wouldn’t really be Christian. But what Peter calls teaching in this sentence I would call exhorting. So, I could change the wording slightly and Peter’s point evaporates: If the apostolic deposit was not the content of any kind of exhortation, then that exhortation would not be Christian exhortation. How can one argue with that?
What I am saying is that ‘teaching’ never referred to the speaking one does on the basis of the apostolic deposit; it refers to laying down that deposit (regularly) so that it becomes more and more fixed in the hearts and minds of believers, providing the foundation and the parameters for the ‘exhorters’ and ‘prophesiers’ (Rom 12:8). Of course there is overlap between these three speaking activities, but their constitutive cores are different. The core of teaching, according to the evidence of the Pastorals Epistles, is rehearsing, or laying down, the words of the apostles.
I detect another invalid assumption on Peter’s part when he claims that my distinction between ‘general teaching’ in Col 3:6 and ‘specific teaching’ in 1 Tim 2:12 “skews the subsequent argument so that it misses the point.” But this is only the case if one smuggles in Peter’s broad definition of teaching and imagines that this is what I mean by ‘general teaching’. It isn’t. I describe Col 3:6 as ‘general teaching’ because it was an activity permitted to everyone and conducted through song (“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts”). This is a type of teaching open to all. It did not carry the individual authority invested in the qualified men of 2 Tim 2:2. In point of fact, however, I have long believed the songs of Col 3:6 were fixed pieces of apostolic hymnic material, similar to what we find in Phil 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20. They were thus examples of the apostolic deposit; it is just that they had been fixed in a manner that allowed everyone to ‘teach’ without anyone engaging in the ‘teaching authority’ that Paul did not permit to women. Whatever the case, Peter’s point is misplaced.
Disagreeing to disagree
The final sections of Peter’s critique require little comment—though they read like he is landing his killer blows. I apparently “struggle to understand what contemporary sermons might be” and even offer “trivializing descriptions of contemporary sermons.” Peter, on the other hand, insists that a true sermon is a “relational transaction” in which the preacher helps others to come to a “better understanding” of the very “word of God” in the Old and New Testaments. I will simply agree and explain that ‘exposition and application’ (my frequent description of the form of a sermon) was never intended to describe the extent of my theology of preaching. Peter is quite right that we should see sermons as declaring the very oracles of God (codified in the Bible). I will simply add that Peter gives us no reason to identify this lofty task with ‘teaching’. His excellent thoughts about contemporary sermons seem to have been retrofitted onto Paul’s vocabulary of ‘teaching’. I see it differently, for the reasons outlined in the book. I am content to call these crucial relational transactions ‘exhorting’ and ‘prophesying’, forms of speech in church which, unlike ancient teaching, can and should be weighed against the apostolic deposit codified in the New Testament.
Peter’s last criticism seems equally out of place, and for the same reason: I agree entirely. The issue that shapes the prohibition of 1 Tim 2:11-12, he insists, is that God wants the congregation of his family to “reflect the pattern of male headship that is inbuilt into God’s creational design for humanity.” It is true that I don’t major on this theme in Hearing Her Voice—I wrote it for fellow complementarians, after all, for whom this is entirely uncontroversial—but I do not shy away from saying, for instance, that “Paul’s stated rationale for this ruling (in 1 Tim 2:12) is not some peculiar historical circumstance, as some argue, but the principle of male responsibility established at creation and disrupted in the fall: Adam was created first and Eve was deceived (1 Tim. 2:13–14).”
Yes, the church gathering should reflect the God-given responsibility of certain men to lead. I cannot imagine how Peter gained any other impression. We are on exactly the same page with this principle. We simply disagree about how to apply it. Peter believes that sermons—all of them—are the contemporary expression of this creational “good news”. I do not. While some sermons may, as I explain in the book, provide close analogies to ‘teaching’ and so should be done by qualified men, there is no reason to think that all sermons fall into this category. Prophesying and exhorting are perfectly apt words for what happens in (many) sermons, and neither is restricted to men.
In my book, I have tried to present multiple lines of evidence for the conclusion that ‘teaching’ in the Pastorals and elsewhere refers specifically to laying down the remembrances and rulings of the apostles. I might be wrong but the proper way to undo my argument isn’t to assert broader definitions but rather to show that my account is wrong. To repeat what I have said in response to Lionel Windsor’s critique of my book: To undermine the case put forward in Hearing Her Voice someone needs to show examples of Christian ‘teaching’ in the Pastoral Epistles—and there are many occurrences of the terminology—that clearly do not refer to the transmitted apostolic deposit, and then they need to show why that usage fits 1 Tim 2:12 better than the one I am proposing. Put another way, it cannot be denied that ‘teaching’ is employed in the Pastorals in the technical way I (and numerous commentators) describe, but can it be shown that Christian teaching in the Pastorals necessarily means more than this? If not, the real question is not about the historical or exegetical details but the practical and contemporary application: to what degree is a modern sermon constituted by the act of transmitting intact the apostolic deposit? As I say in the book, those who believe sermons are essentially laying down the deposit should continue to apply Paul’s prohibition. But others find it difficult to see (all) sermons in that light and so happily invite women to give what we think of as exhortations in the power of the Spirit on the basis of God’s written word.
In short, my case is almost identical to that of J. I. Packer, a stalwart of Reformed Evangelical Anglicanism. While he resists the call to ordain women to the priesthood, he nevertheless urges us to invite women into the pulpit:
Since authority resides in the Word of God rather than in preachers and teachers of either sex, it is my opinion that a woman’s preaching and teaching gifts may be used to the full in situations where a male minister is in charge and the woman’s ministry of the Word has the effect of supplementing and supporting his own preaching and teaching. We in the West are no longer in the Bible-less situation to which 1 Tim. 2:12 was directed. None of this, however, requires ordination as a presbyter. A title indicative of rank — deaconess, or pastoral assistant, for instance — would be helpful; surely, though, that is all that is needed. (Honouring the Written Word of God, Vol. 3 of Collected Shorter Writings. Carlisle, Cambria, England, 1999).