October 19, 2015

Servants of the Servant: Second Readings about Suffering

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 2:07 am

Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:35-45

agnus deiIn this sermon, I am going to pursue two different, but related themes from this morning’s lectionary readings – first is the theme of suffering, which I think is common to all the readings. The second theme is “how do we read the Bible?,” or, more specifically, “how is it that the New Testament writers read the Old Testament, and how might that affect how we read the Bible today?”

The problem of suffering is one of life’s perennial problems – perhaps the basic problem with which we are always trying to cope. It has perplexed philosophers, and is explored in all religious traditions. When we turn to the Old Testament readings, we notice that both are dealing with this common theme of suffering, but they give very different answers to the question, answers that at first seem contradictory.

One solution to the problem of suffering is what I call the moralistic solution. The moralistic solution says that there is a direct correlation between suffering and evil and human behavior, and the simplest and most straightforward example of the moralistic solution is what I call the “good things happen to good people” scenario. The Psalmist writes: “Because you have made God your refuge and the Most High your habitation, There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.” (Ps. 91:9). On a straightforward reading, the passage seems to be saying that if we have faith in God, nothing bad can ever happen to us. Or, at the least, if something bad happens, we can trust that God will deliver and protect us from misfortune: As the Psalmist says, “Because he is bound to me in love, therefore I will deliver him . . . I am with him in trouble, I will rescue him and bring him to honor . . . with long life will I satisfy him.” (Ps. 91:14,15,16).

In the Isaiah reading, we find the central text of a group of what are called the “Suffering Servant” passages. In the second half of the book of Isaiah that begins with chapter 40, there are a group of passages that describe someone whom the prophet calls the “Servant.” The Servant first appears in chapter 42: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” (Is. 42:1). In chapter 44, the servant is identified with Israel: “But now, O Jacob, my servant, Israel whom I have chosen.” (Is. 44:1). Beginning with chapter 49, however, the servant seems to be distinct from Israel, and God speaks of bringing salvation to Israel through his servant. The servant’s obedience is contrasted with Israel’s disobedience. In chapter 50 and this morning’s reading, chapter 53, the prophet describes how the servant’s suffering brings salvation to the people of Israel. In this morning’s reading, we hear the well known description of the servant: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed . . . he was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth .” (Is. 53:4-5,7).

Again, on a straightforward reading, the two Old Testament passages seem diametrically opposed to one another. The Psalm says that if we make the Lord our refuge, no evil will happen to us. The Psalmist is clear that if we call upon God, we can expect long life. On the other hand, Isaiah not only says that the Servant suffered, but actually goes so far as to say: “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief, when he makes himself an offering for sin . . .” (Is. 53:10). Far from having long life, the servant is put to an ignominious death: “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death . . .” (Is. 53:9).

The Isaiah passage points to a problem with the moralistic solution. Insofar as the moralistic solution encourages us to trust in God and God’s providence, that is all fine and well. At the same time, the moralistic solution is problematic for the obvious reason that its central premise – that good things happen to good people – does not always hold true. (more…)

September 26, 2015

Bought With a Price: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons,Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 3:06 am

1 Corinthians 7:1-9

weddingSometimes a preacher looks at the lectionary passages and finds himself tempted to preach on the Psalm. I am going to look at the 1 Corinthians passage this morning – precisely because it is such a difficult passage, and precisely because it is so misunderstood. The apostle Paul is sometimes accused of being a misogynist sexist and of being against sex in general – and some consider this first verse in 1 Corinthians 7 as a prime example because it has both – a negative statement about women and a negative statement about sex. But modern commentators tell us that this is almost certainly a misreading. The clue is what comes first in the passage: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.” In 1 Cor. 7-8, Paul is responding to a letter that has been written to him by the Corinthians in which they ask a number of questions. What follows is his response to these questions.

In chapter 7, verse 1, most scholars agree that Paul is almost certainly quoting from the Corinthians’ letter to him. In the original Greek, the sentence can either be a statement or a question. So the Corinthians were either offering their opinion: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” or asking the question “Is it good for a man not to touch a woman?” In light perhaps of Paul’s own example of celibacy, and perhaps in response to Paul’s warnings not to follow the bad examples of pagan culture, some of the Corinthians apparently thought that it might be good advice to avoid sex altogether – perhaps even for married people.

In the section from this morning’s lectionary, Paul is actually responding to questions about two different groups of people. The first group is married couples; the second group are widows and, perhaps likely, widowers.1 In today’s passage, Paul is then dealing with two sets of questions: 1) Is it better for married Christians to avoid having sexual relations with one another in order to devote themselves to prayer instead? 2) Should widows and widowers stay single? Throughout the rest of the chapter, Paul addresses other questions having to do with marriage or sexual practices: Can Christians get divorced? What about Christians who are married to non-Christians? Wouldn’t it be better to separate from them? What about single people? Is it okay for them to marry or is it better to stay single? Finally, he addresses some other questions: What about slaves? Should they try to obtain their freedom? Is it okay to eat food that has been offered to idols?

When we look at Paul’s responses to these questions, we notice a common pattern. (more…)

August 19, 2015

Objections to My Essays on Women’s Ordination

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 6:39 am

I am pleased to discover that someone actually takes the time to read my blog. An Anglican deacon named Christopher Little has taken the time to address my series of essays on women’s ordination. I am happy to have my views challenged. I believe that what I have written is defensible, but, if not, the sooner I am corrected, the better. Little begins by addressing my first essay, “Concerning the Ordination of Women: Preliminaries.”

I began that essay by noting the names of a number of contemporary orthodox theologians and biblical scholars who embrace women’s ordination: T. F. Torrance, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Michael Gorman, Robert Gagnon, and Alan Padgett.

Deacon Little comments:

Now, it’s of course fallacious to argue or even imply that because a number of noted “orthodox Christians” defend women’s ordination (“WO” going forward) that Witt therefore stands in good company. It may be the fact that each and every one of these ostensibly orthodox Christians happens to be heretical on this particular issue, and defenders of the traditional view believe that they are in fact so, their commendable orthodoxy on all the other issues not withstanding. Also fallacious is the argument that “the number of orthodox Christians endorsing WO is not a small or insignificant group.” Size doesn’t matter in this discussion. What matters is whether or not WO is an unbiblical and uncatholic innovation.

It is of course correct that the number of adherents to a position does not determine its truth. At the same time, the number of those who disagree with a position does not determine its falsity. The point here was not to “count noses.” When there is disagreement about an issue, it does mean something that there is sizable disagreement. It is possible that one side is simply stupid or deliberately deceptive, but charity would not assume that without giving a fair hearing to the opposition.

I deliberately listed the above names because they are some of the most significant and respected scholars in late twentieth century and early twentieth-first century orthodox theological and biblical scholarship. T.F. Torrance was one of the most significant systematic and historical theologians of the late twentieth century. If one wants to know something about trinitarian theology, then one had better know Torrance. Christology, incarnational theology and atonement? Ecumenical theology? Sacramental and liturgical theology? The relationship between theology and modern science? Torrance.

The other scholars I mentioned are all experts on NT scholarship. Hays, Wright and Gorman are recognized authorities on Paul. Witherington has written critical commentaries on every single book in the NT, and his doctoral dissertation (later published by Cambridge University Press) was likely the first ever study of every single passage referring to women in the NT. It is still considered an indispensable work in the field. Gagnon’s book on homosexuality and the Bible is considered the definitive work in the field. Given that so much of the discussion about women’s ordination rests on the interpretation of passages in Paul, it might have some significance that perhaps the majority of contemporary NT Paul scholars say that there is nothing in Paul’s theology that would forbid the ordination of women. It might be significant if the foremost expert on what Paul says about homosexuality also says that nothing in Paul forbids women’s ordination. If we have Wayne Grudem (pretty much alone) on the one side, and a significant number of the most respected Pauline scholars on the other, that alone is worth noticing.

Deacon Little writes:

What matters is whether or not WO is an unbiblical and uncatholic innovation.

And, of course, that is correct. However, it is also the case that the people I mentioned are in fact experts in the area of both biblical studies and (in Torrance’s case) evangelical, ecumenical, and catholic theology. It is, of course, possible that these intelligent  orthodox theologians and biblical scholars suddenly become either “dunces,” dishonest, or “heretics” when they discuss the issue of women’s ordination, but it would be presumptuous to make such an assumption without first hearing what they have to say.

August 5, 2015

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ordination and the Priesthood of Christ (Biblical and Patristic Background)

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 2:48 am

Lamb of GodThis is the first in a multiple part series of essays in which I intend to address the definitive Catholic objection to the ordination of women. This first essay will be introductory: I will summarize the rise of the objection and look at the relevant biblical and patristic background. In summary, the objection is as follows: Women cannot be ordained because during the celebration of the eucharist, the priest represents Christ. During the eucharistic prayer, the priest recites Christ’s words – the “words of institution” – “This is my body,” “This is my blood” – and thus makes Christ present by acting as a representative of or “in the person of” Christ (in persona Christi). Because Jesus Christ is a male, only a male priest can exercise this representative function.

In previous essays concerning Protestant objections to ordination, I have focused on arguments based on hierarchical authority: women cannot be ordained because of a permanent hierarchical oversight or “headship” of men over women. Although ontologically equal, men and women have different roles: men always lead and women always follow; men always command, and women always obey.

Catholic objections are distinct from this Protestant hierarchical understanding based on authority in that Catholic objections focus not on authority per se, but on issues of sacramental and, in particular, eucharistic theology. Catholic objections rest on the following assumptions not usually shared by those whom I have referred to as “Protestants.” First, while the priesthood of Christ is unique, ordained clergy in some manner participate in Christ’s priesthood. The clergy are not simply members of the congregation who have been delegated to perform a function, but have a distinct ontological status bestowed on them through the laying on of hands in ordination. The clergy are not simply “elders” or representative members of the congregation, but are in some sense, “priests.”1 Second, while the primary duty of ordained clergy is to proclaim the Word and to celebrate the sacraments, the eucharist has the distinct purpose of making the risen Christ sacramentally or “really” present in a way that he is not present in creation in general. The eucharist is not simply a memorial or “nothing more” than a symbol (as in Zwinglianism), but in some sense, it really is or enables participation in the risen humanity of Christ. The consecrated elements of the eucharist “are” or “become” or “enable participation” in the risen Christ’s body and blood. Third, the eucharist is, in a qualified sense, a sacrifice. Protestant objections at the time of the Reformation to the notion of eucharistic sacrifice as a “repetition” of Christ’s sacrifice seem largely based on misunderstanding – one hopes not deliberate misrepresentation – no one seems ever to have believed that! The patristic and Catholic position is that Christ’s sacrifice took place once-and-for-all on the cross of Calvary, and cannot be repeated. Nonetheless, in the celebration of the eucharist, Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice is made effectively present or “re-presented.” Although Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice is a past event, its effectiveness is not relegated to the past.

Although I am using the adjective “Catholic” to describe this position, I am not assuming that “Catholic” means exclusively Roman Catholic. Broadly speaking, Eastern Orthodox Christians, many Anglicans (particularly “Anglo-Catholics”), Lutherans, and some Reformed could embrace the above three points. (The third point would be problematic for Lutherans [as well as low-church Anglicans and many Reformed] insofar as Luther rejected the “sacrifice of the mass,” but Lutheran affirmation of the “real presence” still makes the Lutheran position fall into the parameters of what I am calling “Catholic.”)2

It needs to be emphasized that is a new argument against women’s ordination. The traditional argument (as noted in this previous essay in this series3) was that women cannot be ordained because they are ontologically inferior. Women are less intelligent, more emotional, and more subject to temptation. Precisely because of this ontological defect, women cannot be ordained and they cannot exercise authority over men. (Traditionally, this restriction precluded not simply ordination, but any position of female leadership or authority over men whatsoever.) Neither Protestant “complementarians” nor Catholic sacramentalists any longer hold to this traditional position. Both now affirm the ontological equality of women – which is all to the good. Accordingly, there has necessarily been a need for new arguments. The new argument for Protestant complementarians has to do with distinct gender “roles.” Although ontologically equal, men and women have different roles, and it is the role of women to be subordinate to men and never exercise authority over them. It is the role of men to exercise authority and leadership over women. (I have addressed this position at length in previous essays.)

Catholics have not endorsed this hierarchical opposition to women’s orders. To the contrary, the modern Roman Catholic church has fully embraced women’s equality – including the assumption that women are fully equal to men in exercising leadership and authority. Thus, Pope John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem adapts what could be called an “egalitarian” interpretation of Paul’s exhortation to husbands and wives in Ephesians 6. The “submission” that Paul enjoins to wives is a “mutual submission”: “However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the ‘subjection’ is not one-sided but mutual.”4 Sara Butler notes: “Because the contemporary magisterium has abandoned the view that women are unilaterally subject to men, it obviously does not supply this as the reason women cannot be priests.”5

Accordingly, the Roman Catholic Church embraced a new argument against the ordination of women – rooted in sacramental theology. Only a male can be ordained because only a male priest can represent Christ (act in persona Christi) in the celebration of the eucharist. That this position is indeed a new position is evident in that it first appears in Pope Paul VI’s Inter Insigniores (Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood) in 1976. In the Declaration, the Pope states first “that the bishop or the priest in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, in persona propria: he represents Christ, who acts through him: ‘the priest truly acts in the place of Christ’. . .” The Declaration associates this representative stance particularly with the celebration of the Eucharist and the “words of consecration”: “the priest, who alone has the power to perform [the eucharist], then acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.” Finally, the pope draws the evident conclusion. Only a male priest can represent Christ in this way because Christ is a male: “The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.”6


July 13, 2015

Called to be Servants: An Ordination Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 3:29 am

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 119:1-8
Acts 6:1-7
Luke 12:35-40

St. Stephen As a theology professor, I have many favorite moments. I love the first day of class in the fall when I meet new students for the first time and we go over the syllabus for the next semester. I love those moments in class when a lecture or discussion is going particularly well and I find myself thinking “This is why I love teaching.” I love lunches in the Commons Hall when I’m sitting together with students or faculty and we’re laughing together. I love that moment at the end of graduation when all of the faculty process out of St. Stephen’s Church wearing our academic regalia and we look back at the faces of the graduating seniors and the hundreds of parents and friends who have come to celebrate. But I think that this is my absolute favorite moment – when I attend the ordination of former students whom I have seen come to the seminary as new students, watched them become part of the Trinity community and progress in their coursework and spiritual formation over a period of years, and, finally, after graduation, the church recognizes their vocation when the bishop lays his hands on them and prays for them to “Receive the Holy Spirit” for the ministry to which they have been called. I want to thank Jared and Rebecca for inviting me to preach this sermon, and Bishop Duncan for allowing me to share in this service.

I first became acquainted with Rebecca and Jared on separate occasions. I became acquainted with Rebecca because of an email she sent out on “Campus News” asking if anyone could help her to locate some poison berries she needed. My wife Jennie knew where some were growing so she emailed back, and I assume Rebecca got her berries. Jared and I are both alive so the berries went for a harmless purpose. As many of you know, Rebecca knits and she needed the berries to make a dye for her yarn. My first real acquaintance with Jared began during a walk for coffee after lunch that I took with Professor Leander Harding, who invited Jared along. During that walk, we asked Jared about why he had come to seminary, and we found out during that talk that Jared saw his vocation as a shared vocation with his wife Rebecca. Some students come to seminary, and their spouses come along as well. Jared made clear that Rebecca and he had come together, and that they shared a common vision of ministry as something to do together. I got to know Jared and Rebecca over the next several years as they were students in my classes, and both were exceptionally good students. For the first couple of years they were here, both worshiped at Grace Edgeworth where Jennie and I attend, and I found out that they were not only good students but very good cantors. Jared and Rebecca struggled to have children, and we all rejoiced when first Naomi and now Martha were born. Jared and Rebecca formed friendships with students whom I got to know as friends as well, and some of them are here today. I can honestly say that I do not only think of Jared and Rebecca as my students, but as special friends whom I have come to love and respect. I am greatly honored to be able to preach at their ordination to the diaconate this morning.

June 20, 2015

Yes, Virginia, There is Such a Thing as Fundamentalism or The Subject Matter of Christianity is the Subject Matter of Christianity

Filed under: Anglicanism,Ecumenism,Theology — William Witt @ 5:00 am

Melancholy Much of what I have written on my blog has been addressed against what is called either (depending on which side of the Reformation one hangs one’s hat) Liberal Protestantism or Catholic Modernism. (One of the advantages of being Anglican is that one can embrace either heresy. When Anglican Evangelicals go bad they become liberal Protestants. When Anglo-Catholics go bad, they become Modernists.) Within the parameters of the church, I consider liberalism to be the greatest heresy today because it denies the central subject matter of the Christian faith as taught in the Scriptures, and summarized in the ecumenical creeds: the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation of God in Christ, the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Numerous essays on my blog address this heresy in one way or another. Even the issue of same -sex sexual unions, which is the key issue of controversy dividing the Western churches these days, I regard as church dividing precisely because I see an inherent connection between affirming same-sex activity and denying key doctrines of Christian faith. It is not a coincidence that the leading advocates of SSUs have also been functional unitarians and/or panentheists. (I think of people like retired Bishop John Spong, the late Marcus Borg, and Sallie McFague. Despite a caginess that makes her hard to pin down, I think it clear that Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori is solidly in this camp.) There are, of course, exceptions, including some theologians whom I have admired and who have influenced me: Stanley Hauerwas and George Hunsinger, in particular. However, they really are exceptions. Precisely because Scripture is so clear on this issue and it is tied so closely to the doctrine of creation (and, I would add, even the doctrines of the Trinity and ecclesiology), where one stands on SSU’s predictably indicates where one stands on creedal issues.

Advocates of theological liberalism/modernism in the church regularly refer to those who disagree with them as “fundamentalists,” and I have been the recipient of this accusation myself. John Spong’s book Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism is a typical example. The joke is, that for theological progressives, a “fundamentalist” is anyone who believes more of the Christian faith than the one using the epithet. For Spong, Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham were “fundamentalists,” but so was Karl Barth, and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. If a fundamentalist is anyone who believes more than Bishop Spong, then the term is vacuous. To refer to N.T. Wright as a fundamentalist is just another way of saying that one disagrees with him, and, because he does not affirm one’s views, he must be either evil or foolish or both. The fundamentalist accusation saves the time of actually having to address the arguments of someone like Wright. (I have used Wright as an example precisely because his position is ambiguous. Wright’s “New Perspective” work on the apostle Paul has led him to be labeled a dangerous “liberal” by some advocates of a traditional Reformation reading of Paul.)

That a term can be misused does not mean that it cannot be used meaningfully at all. That Karl Barth and N.T. Wright are not fundamentalists does not mean that there are no such people. What is a fundamentalist? Historically, the term originated early in the twentieth century with the publications of a series of books entitled The Fundamentals, written by a number of conservative Protestant theologians in response to the rise of liberal Protestantism. With the separation of J. Gresham Machen from Princeton Seminary, the founding of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, fundamentalism became associated with conservative separatist Protestantism. In the mid-twentieth century, the rising movement then known as Neo-Evangelicalism (associated with Billy Graham and institutions such as Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today magazine) distanced itself from fundamentalism as a conservative Protestant movement that was more academic, more ecumenical, and open to aspects of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. With the rise of the (political) religious right in the early 1980’s and the social and political division of the culture wars of the late twentieth century that divided not only political parties but also religious denominations, internal divisions over issues such as the inerrancy of scripture and women’s ordination, clear-cut divisions between what were now called conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists once again tended to blur.

To describe fundamentalism by its history in this way could lead to the impression that fundamentalism is restricted to a particular historical phenomenon within a specific religious tradition – that of conservative Protestantism. To do so would be to fail to locate the theological nature of fundamentalism, and would view it as an isolated phenomenon – which would be a mistake. Fundamentalism is not so much a particular movement within the specific religious tradition of Protestantism as a type that has appeared not only within Protestantism, but in other Christian traditions as well.

Fundamentalism has at least two characteristics: first, it is a distinctly modern phenomenon. It appeared at a time when Christian identity was threatened by the rise of modern secularism that has its origins in the Enlightenment, and when secularism was perceived to have infiltrated even the Christian churches. And, second, fundamentalism is reactionary. Fundamentalism identifies itself in terms of that which it rejects as much as or more so than what actually defines it. Once one recognizes that fundamentalism is both modern in origin and reactionary, it becomes evident that fundamentalism is not simply identifical with conservative or orthodox Christianity; one can also speak of fundamentalism outside of the narrow historical parameters of twentieth and twenty-first century American Protestantism.

How to identify fundamentalism? I have found the following three descriptions to be at least helpful. (more…)

December 25, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: A Presbytera is not a “Priestess” (Part 1: Old Testament Priesthood)

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 12:16 am

In Memory of Martha

Jairus ' DaughterIn previous essays in this series on women’s ordination, I have focused primarily on Protestant objections against the practice, dealing especially with issues of biblical exegesis. Beginning with this essay, I will be addressing Catholic objections, focusing primarily on issues dealing with sacramental integrity.

Strictly speaking, this first essay should not be necessary. As with a previous essay addressing non-theological objections to women’s ordination,1 I will be addressing an objection that is not actually a theological objection. Stated as succinctly as possible, the objection is that an ordained woman would be a “priestess,” and the Christian church does not have “priestesses,” but “priests.” This is an objection that one does not hear among Protestants, since Protestant churches do not refer to their clergy as either “priests” or “priestesses,” but as pastors. It is not an objection that is encountered in the theological literature, as, I think, most theologians realize that the term “priestess” is offensive, and those who advocate women’s ordination are not advocating the ordination of “priestesses,” but the ordination of women who will fulfill the same roles as male clergy, who, in Protestant churches are referred to as “pastors,” and in churches of Catholic tradition (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, many Anglicans) as “priests.” In personal experience, I have encountered the objection primarily in two venues: (1) on the bad-mannered no-holds-barred free-for-all of the internet, where the term is used regularly by those opposed to women’s ordination, and (2) in private conversation, where those opposed to women’s ordination are referring out of earshot to women clergy, for whom they use the term “priestess.” In both cases, the term is used disparagingly, with the conscious realization that the women to whom reference is being made would not use the term to describe themselves, and would find the term offensive. It is significant that those who use the term “priestess” are assuming as valid assumptions about women’s ordination that they know those who are in favor of women’s ordination would reject, and are addressing arguments that they know that those in favor of women’s ordination would not make. Since advocates of women’s ordination do not believe that ordained women are “priestesses,” to argue against “priestesses” is a classic example of a “red herring” argument. Nonetheless, since the argument does raise issues concerning the continuity between the Old Testament priesthood and New Testament church office, and the differences and similarities between Old Testament priesthood and pagan religions, it provides a helpful introduction to this next group of essays.

Lions and Tigers and Priestesses and Goddesses, Oh, My!

The first formal use of the argument of which I am aware is found in an essay by C.S. Lewis, “Priestesses in the Church?”2 As an Anglican, Lewis was objecting in 1948 to the possible ordination of women in the Church of England. In a short six pages, Lewis raises many of what will become the standard Catholic objections to women’s ordination, particularly issues about language and imagery concerning God as male and the symbolic implications of female clergy, objections that will be addressed in a later essay. Most significantly, Lewis uses the term “priestesses” and makes the argument I will be addressing in this essay. The single issue that is at the heart of his essay can be found in a succinct statement: “Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped; many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character than Christianity.” Lewis goes on to say that the ordination of women “is an argument not in favour of priestesses but against Christianity.”3


October 15, 2014

Reflections on the “new” Vatican position about homosexuality

Filed under: Ethics,Theology — William Witt @ 7:35 pm

Melancholy I‘ve been noticing a lot of conversation in the last few days about the Vatican’s apparent “shift” regarding homosexuality, both in the secular press and among Christians. There is both celebrating (by secularists) and gnashing of teeth (by traditional Christians). Before they conclude either that the Vatican has finally “seen the light,” or that “the sky is falling,” people should read the document in its entirety: Relatio post disceptationem.

The document clearly affirms the historic Christian position on marriage. The key paragraph is probably the following:

Jesus Himself, referring to the primordial plan for the human couple, reaffirms the indissoluble union between man and woman, while understanding that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt 19,8). In this way, He shows how divine condescension always accompanies the path of humanity, directing it towards its new beginning, not without passing through the cross.

What is being addressed seems clearly to be an issue of pastoral response to what are described as “wounded families” and “irregular situations.” A number of such “irregular situations” are referred to: African polygamy, children born outside the context of marriage, civil marriages (a problem for Roman Catholics, since non-church marriages are not recognized), religiously “mixed” marriages, non-remarried divorced, remarried divorced, cohabiting couples, homosexuals.

October 2, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Speaking and Teaching

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 5:50 am

head coveringIn the last few essays in this series on women’s ordination, I have focused on the handful of passages in the writings of the apostle Paul to which complementarians regularly appeal to justify their position that women should always be subordinate to men and should not exercise authority over men in the church. In the previous two essays, I have focused on the two lengthiest passages in Paul’s writings discussing questions of the relationship between men and women: Ephesians 5:21-33, in which Paul discusses the relationship between husbands and wives, and 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, in which Paul talks about disorderly practices connected with the ways in which men and women were leading church worship. I have argued that there is nothing in these passages to suggest a subordination of women to men or a hierarchical order defined by a position of permanent authority of men over women. Appeal to Paul’s metaphor of “head” (Greek kephalē) to justify the complementarian position of “headship” as authority of men over women represents a misunderstanding of how Paul used that metaphor, and is reading into the text something that is not there.

In this essay, I will address two much shorter passages in Paul’s writing which, in the end, provide the strongest biblical warrants to which complementarians appeal, the “last resort” to which appeal is made if all else fails – 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. (Indeed, these two passages are often the first resort in less formal settings.) At first glance, a straightforward reading of English translations of the passages, especially when select verses are read out of context (as they often are), makes it seem as if Paul intended to forbid any public role to women in worship: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.” (1 Cor. 14:34b-35); “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Tim. 2:12.)


September 12, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About Priests?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 12:01 am

Lamb of GodThe New Testament uses the words episkopos (“bishop”) and presbyteros (“elder”) to refer to those who exercised office in the church, along with diakonos (deacon). It uses the word hiereus, equivalent to English “priest” or Latin sacerdos to refer to Old Testament and Jewish priests (Matt.8:4; John 12:51, Acts 5:27, Heb. 7:14), to the High Priesthood of Jesus (Heb. 4:14), and to the priesthood of the entire church as the people of God (1 Peter 2:9, Rev. 20:6). The New Testament never uses the word hiereus to refer to persons who hold office in the church.

Nonetheless, Anglicans have continued to use the word “priest” to refer to those who hold the office of presbyter, to the consternation of some. Richard Hooker wrote that he preferred the word “presbyter” to “priest” because he would prefer not to offend those who are troubled by the word. The Anglican Reformers rejected the notion of eucharistic sacrifice, and so rejected any notion of priesthood that implied sacrifice. As Richard Hooker asked, “Seeing then that sacrifice is now no part of the church ministry how should the name of Priesthood be thereunto rightly applied?” Hooker believed that the term “priest” was permissible in reference to one “whose mere function or charge is the service of God,” and specifically in reference to the celebration of the eucharist: “The Fathers of the Church of Christ with like security of speech call usually the ministry of the Gospel Priesthood in regard of that which the Gospel hath proportionable to ancient sacrifices, namely the Communion of the blessed Body and Blood of Christ, although it have properly now no sacrifice.” In the end, Hooker did not think the word itself is very important: “Wherefore to pass by the name, let them use what dialect they will, whether we call it a Priesthood, a Presbytership, or a Ministry it skilleth not: Although in truth the word Presbyter doth seem more fit, and in propriety of speech more agreeable than Priest with the drift of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ.” (Laws 5.58.2-3.)

There are two key aspects of ordained ministry that touch more directly on the “priestly” aspect of ordination in Anglican tradition than the use of the word “priest” as equivalent to “presbyter.”


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