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.

Eve Alone? The Curious Tale of the Missing Adam

Temptation of EveIn her 2013 Journal of Biblical Literature article, “Blaming Eve Alone: Translation, Omission, and Implications of עמה in Genesis 3:6b,” Julie Faith Parker documents the curious omission of “[her husband who was] with her” (Gen. 3:6b) from many English translations. She carefully explores the biblical text, commentaries, ancient sources, grammars, fifty English translations, and translation committee reports. A well-organized chart documents eighteen out of fifty translations where she has discovered the phrase is missing. The guilty translations in the list include influential and familiar editions of the Bible: Wycliffe, Coverdale, Douay Rheims (both 1609 and the American text of 1899), Challoner, Moffatt, the RSV (1952), New Berkeley, New English Bible, Living Bible, Today’s English Translation/Good News Bible, Bible in Basic English, JPS New Tanakh, the Revised English Bible, Robert Alter (1996), The Message, and the Contemporary Torah (2006).

This omission is not the result of variations in the original biblical texts. As Parker notes, the Hebrew word is undisputed in the MT, and ancient textual witnesses all include it, with the noteworthy exception of Jerome’s Vulgate. And the omission is a critically important one. Without this phrase, the reader is left with the impression that Eve sins alone. Parker is generally persuasive in her argument that the translators appear to be motivated to excuse the man and blame the woman. This certainly comports with history of early and medieval Christian imaginings of the Eden saga, alongside which we see a tradition of female inferiority developing. Jerome’s infamously low view of women may be an example of this, particularly since both the MT and the LXX from which he worked include the phrase, and yet his Vulgate does not. (Readers should consult Parker’s article for a refreshing note from Robert Alter, who had also neglected to translate the word in his edition. In 2011, Alter e-mailed Parker on the matter, saying “I should have written ‘with her’ but didn’t realize I had skipped the word. Thank you for pointing this out.”)

However, the theological consequences of the omission which Parker has capably documented reach more deeply than matters of translation and Edenic mythologies. Without appreciating that Adam was in fact “with her” when Eve was tempted, we lose a critical feature of his sin: he failed to act upon his charge as the priestly guardian (Gen. 2:15, priestly samar) of sacred space, namely, the garden-temple and especially Eve herself. Just as Genesis 1-3 is in many ways written through the lens provided by the center of the Torah, Leviticus, so the Eve of Genesis is conspicuously framed in terms of the Levitical woman (cf. Lev. 12, 15); she is therefore a kind of sacred space requiring priest-like protection and care. Adam’s failure is of the order of a priestly failure to protect sacred space from defilement.

This, in turn, fits the overall biblical trajectory of the eschatologically-ultimate, feminine sacred space which the faithful husband protects and cares for, and who is his glory: from Lady Zion to Lady Wisdom (especially of Prov. 31) to the Church-Bride to Mother Jerusalem, old and new. Without Adam’s presence and failure in these terms, we lose much of what Gen. 2-3 teaches regarding the divine design for fruitful, faithful relations of a husband toward his wife. Indeed we lose much of how Christ is himself the faithful Adam of his Bride, the Church.

It appears that the omission of the phrase from many early modern translations informed the rapidly embraced mythology in which Eve’s sin was taken as an example of feminine inferiority and folly. On this reading, Eve should have stayed by her husband’s side but foolishly wandered off, and it was because of this that the serpent was able to exploit her in her moment of vulnerability. The serpent took advantage of the woman’s independent move away from the side of her protective, stronger man. With the Hebrew phrase of Gen. 3:6b, such a reading is impossible; but without it, as the history of theological anthropology and marriage theory shows, it’s a compelling image ready to be deployed in the service of generalized accounts of the alleged intellectual and spiritual differences between men and women. As a misunderstanding of the Genesis scene, it is quite deeply rooted in the English-speaking conscience because of Milton’s gripping and — as far as biblical understanding goes, fatal — portrayal of Eve’s temptation in Paradise Lost exactly along these mistaken lines. Despite many other ways in which Milton is thought to represent the cause of reform for women’s status and rights, his account of Eve’s fall is, in this instance at least, the example par excellence of imagination untethered by what is in fact the real biblical text.

Where, then, did we get the idea that Adam wasn’t there? The early modern version of Eve’s fall is familiar to us, but the hermeneutical roots of the omission are in fact much, much older. Parker notes a wide range of examples of this reading of Genesis, ancient and modern, Jewish and Christian. While researching Matthew’s divorce material I, too, came across a very early instance of this curious reading. In the very early Protevangelium of James (late 2nd c.), the author casts Joseph of Matthew 1 as an Adam-figure confronted with a newly soiled Eve, writing (from the imagined perspective of Joseph):

(13:4) Who has set this trap for me? Who has done this evil deed in my house? Who has lured this virgin away from me and violated her? (13:5) The story of Adam has been repeated in my case hasn’t it? For just as Adam was praying when the serpent came and found Eve alone, deceived her, and corrupted her, so the same thing has happened to me.

The relationship between this reading of Genesis and the history of theological models of male and female merits close investigation, but will have to await treatment elsewhere. But for now, I suggest the consequences of the curiously missing Adam merit attention.

For more on the Genesis passage, on Milton, and on the ancient and modern features of this gender and theology question, join the Milton class this summer or the Theological Anthropology class starting this fall.


To Be Pompilia: Reading the Abedini Saga Virtuously

PompiliaThe Plight of Pompilia

If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, Anthony Esolen’s (characteristically) outstanding book, Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (ISI Books, 2007), should rush to the top of your reading list. I often recommend the opening essay, “To Be Pompilia, Not the Fisc: Browning and the Irony of Humility,” to ministerial and theological students. It is a meditation on Robert Browning’s long poem The Ring and the Book, a stunning, unnerving lesson in the ethics of reading — texts, persons, situations, anything. Esolen’s essay on Browning’s poem is on my mind today as I reflect on another recent story about Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini. More on that shortly.

As Esolen masterfully explains, Browning’s poem exposes a great and chronic human weakness: our laughably tragic inability to read others accurately. In this strange tale we discover that this inability is seldom due to a lack of sufficient information, as we all would wish, but to something more sinister: pride.

Set in seventeenth-century Italy, the poem weaves together the lives and (mis)fortunes of figures both religious and comical. Pompilia, purchased in secret as a baby by Violente, the childless wife of Pietro, is pushed to marry young and well in order to secure financial stability for the house and prevent discovery of the family secret. Guido–as Esolen says, “no priest but enough of a cleric to claim ecclesiastical privilege”–proves suitable enough in the eyes of Violente and Pietro, despite a wide rage of physical and moral deficiencies. Taking Pompilia as his own, the greedily ambitious Guido thinks he has married up. In fact he has been tricked, Pompilia’s family’s wealth proving far more mirage than reality. The sting of bitter disappointment leads him to torment Violente and Pietro, driving them to Rome, leaving young Pompilia alone to suffer at the hands of the monster, Guido.

In time her parents return, seeking revenge on Guido in the only form available to them: they tell him Pompilia is not in fact their daughter, and therefore he has no claim to her dowry. Furious, Guido falsely accuses Pompilia of being an adulteress, and takes steps to lure her into questionable relations with other men, including a local priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. But Caponsacchi, having only seen lovely Pompilia once and from a distance, resists the ploy and Guido is foiled.

What, then, of Pompilia? She pleads for help, first with the governor, then with the archbishop, but to no avail. Finally she turns to her only remaining hope: Caponsacchi, and sees in him, finally, a true man. He rescues her, hiding her away in Rome where he looks after her, but Guido finds them. The coward Guido is met by valiant Caponsacchi, sword in hand, ready to protect Pompilia. But Guido’s men pin down Caponsacchi’s arms, and it is Pompilia who grabs the sword and moves toward Guido. Guido flees from the girl and to the courts, where the verdict is the non-verdict of the stalemate, and justice is delayed.

Guido learns soon after this that Pompilia has borne his child but named him after a recently canonized saint, providing no link to Guido. Insulted and outraged, Guido, ironically assuming the name “Caponsacchi” to gain entry to the family home, murders Pompilia’s parents and injures her with a dozen stabs. Now the real trial in the story takes place, and Browning’s message becomes clear. Esolen writes,

The priest and Guido testify; and Browning provides us with the ‘opinions’ of the half of Rome that is for Guido, and of the half of Rome that is for Pompilia, and also of what he calls ‘Tertium Quid,’ the sophisticates who see more keenly, so they think, than does either side of the rabble. We are likewise presented with the trial preparations of the prosecutor (the grandly titled Fisc) and the defense attorney–worldly men, not exactly bad and not exactly good, full of themselves, and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.

These words recall Esolen’s description of the governor and archbishop, whom Pompilia had earlier entreated without effect: “But they are worldly men and cronies of her husband. They know better. They wink at the wickedness and tell her to go home. They have no ears to hear.”

They have no ears to hear. But this is not only true of the characters in the story: it is Browning’s question to the reader. Do you have ears to hear? The story surges forward, stage by stage, through further tragicomical scenes of human beings thinking they know, but not knowing, and showing themselves the fools for it. And with each ov6983306-merconfident read, the tentacles reach, the net spreads, and Pompilia withers.

Browning’s vivid description of the poisonous swirl of “knowing” confidently yet wrongly is compelling for its familiarity. The devolution at the heart of Pompilia’s social relations and the members of her religious community is common to all tormenting dramas like hers. Incriminating appearances are enough for the simple-minded; skewed and incomplete trial arguments satisfy others; “where there is smoke there must be fire” is the ignorant thinking of many; “it takes two to tango” is the assumption of most; and the ultimate legal stalemate satisfies no one. The prosecutor (the eminent Fisc) and the defense attorney are, says Esolen, “worldly men, not exactly bad and not exactly good, full of themselves and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.” They have no ears to hear. Guido is convicted, sentenced to death, and appeals to the pope, Innocent XII. Reflecting at the end of his days upon his many years of ministry, wondering what fruit, if any, will come from his labors, the pope sees through the layers of Guido to the surly, sinister, seditious snake beneath, and sends him to his death.

Only the priest Caponsacchi and the dying Pope emerge as wise from the widespread rubble of slanderous, cancerous, and ultimately murderous folly in the story. They are exposed as wise by their relationship to the purity of simple, suffering, quiet, notoriously scandalous yet innocent Pompilia herself. The end of Pompilia is resurrection, at least in part, in the form of her ironic vindication through the luminous virtue of her lonely yet truly wise supporters. The end of the foolishly confident accusers and the cooly neutral “Tertium Quid” is, for the reader, shame.

Browning’s tale teaches readers, in a most disconcerting way, about the contortions of wicked dishonesty, the mixed-up realities of a seldom black-and-white world, and the difficulties for any one person to read another person rightly.

To pile on, Browning subtly yet irresistibly pushes us to acknowledge the folly of our own all-too-confident judgments, and the moral catastrophe of flawed, hasty conclusions. Yet he will not leave us even there. The poem depends on our appreciation of one great moral lesson above all others: darker than simply “getting it wrong” is moving others to do so as well. The Ring and the Book is more than a warning against impatient folly in judgment. With a series of interlinked baited hooks, the reader is led into complicity. The reader hears often from the ignorant yet confident know-it-alls, and listens in on apparently sensible and pious discourse that imagines every “rational” possibility yet never assumes the place of Pompilia (it is only sensible to think they must both be at fault to some degree, believes the “Tertium Quid”). The poem ruthlessly treats the thinking, interpreting, assuming reader as, for far too long, always potentially and probably complicit in the folly, which is itself a stirring indictment of those who lead the way to folly for others.

To Be Naghmeh, and Not Only Saeed

This brings me back to the Abedini situation, one which troubles many, as it should. The story has been told and retold now, and with evident continuing public interest. Persecuted preacher in an Iranian prison, the prayers of the saints, the release of the martyr, the homecoming, the stunning marital abuse allegations, the moral trickiness of reporting the “rest” of the story. But this only makes it easier to forget, dangerously, that this is not merely a story; for Naghmeh, it is a reality. The asterisk by Saeed Abedini’s name concerns a person, not a minor detail. Exactly what reality is impossible for blog and newspaper readers to know with the kind of certainty easily found among pundits and would-be trial judges. Yet for this very reason, among innumerable others, the storyteller must be wildly conscientious in telling the tale.

The question to ask is simple. Does the storyteller give us ears to hear? Yes, invariably, but to hear whom?

In our last post on this evolving saga, instead of providing a verdict of our own, we deliberately drew attention to the way the story has often been told thus far. This remains our concern. We may put the matter this way. Since the disclosure of the marital abuse allegations, the public identity of Saeed Abedini commended in print and online has persistently been one with a center and a circumference: at the center, the near-martyr and imprisoned, persecuted preacher in a hostile foreign land. At the circumference, the accused and–in at least one legal context, the admitted–wife-abuser whose wife remains afraid of him. This remains the public Saeed Abedini. Center, and circumference.

And the center has held thus far. Perceptive observers of the western evangelical machine are not surprised that the center of the Abedini portrait remains his identity as imprisoned, faithful preacher. The American evangelical soundtrack has long been Bonnie Tyler’s, “I Need A Hero,” after all, and we have found a candidate who fits the profile of what we most admire in a Christian. The public evangelical sense of familiarity with and affection for Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks, at least partly, to the same hero-longing.

But here is the rub for the journalist, the commentator, the writer. A story only works to the extent the reader is successfully invited into a degree of sympathy with one or more characters (or none, as sympathy either with the author or the anonymous observer). Reading the stories that continue to flow regarding the Abedini situation, this is what we discover: In the myriad choices made about names to use, titles to include, headlines adopted to capture attention, details to proportionate, and on and on and on, writers continue to link the reader with Saeed, and not with Naghmeh. Browning’s Pompilia reminds us, though, that these choices have moral status.

In the Abedini case it’s a costly move, prompting hard questions. When it’s a story like this, when the stakes are this high if we get it wrong, what kind of reader should Christian storytellers want to create? One who identifies with Pompilia, or with the Fisc? The Ring and the Book is a clarion call to ask hard questions about our storytelling. Are we certain of the real Saeed Abedini center, and of the circumference? Might it be that the allegations are true, and that what we thought was the circumference proves to be the center? Should we sound like we are justly confident? What is the cost of being wrong, not only for us, but for Naghmeh, who may prove to be a Pompilia in this dark tale?

The Christianity Today Interview

On April 24, Christianity Today published an interview with Saeed. In some ways it escapes the criticisms inherent to the foregoing. In other ways, however, it illustrates our concerns.

Firstly, to the considerable credit of the interviewer, Katelyn Beaty (CT print managing editor), “the topic” is not avoided as it has been in other outlets. Mr. Abedini is asked about the status of his marriage, what he means by “false accusations” in light of his 2007 guilty plea of misdemeanor domestic assault, and if he has anything of which to repent in his marriage.

Secondly, the interview is printed as a series of questions with Mr. Abedini’s apparently unpolished and unedited responses. This encourages readers’ confidence that we have access to his genuine reactions. But out of 18 questions, I see only six that clearly concern the specter of spousal abuse. The six questions are these:

What is the status of your and Naghmeh’s marriage?

You said “false accusations.” Does that mean you are saying that Naghmeh’s accusations are false?

Can you talk about the misdemeanor domestic assault charge in 2007? You pled guilty to that, and that suggests there was at least one instance of marital abuse.

You don’t remember going to court in 2007?

Did you go to jail in 2007?

Is there anything you need to repent of in your marriage?

The opening question of the interview asks Mr. Abedini what life has been like for him since prison. Another question asked in the flow of the six pertaining to the abuse allegations, but not included in them, focuses on whether Mr. Abedini feels more support out of jail than when he was in. These two early questions lead the reader to join with the interviewer on the path of interest in how Mr. Abedini feels.

The question regarding felt support prompts Mr. Abedini to describe the abuse allegations as a matter of great confusion: his longtime praying supporters are now justly confused about the man they’ve been praying for, and the churches around the world who rejoiced at the news of his release are confused as well. Mr. Abedini attributes this confusion completely to Satan’s mission of ending Gospel proclamation and killing Christian joy at Saeed’s release. (As an aside, despite what some have suggested, it does not appear that Mr. Abedini clearly attributed his wife’s allegations themselves to Satan. In the flow of his remarks, connecting Satan to the resulting confusion appears to be more in view.) The remaining interview questions explore Mr. Abedini’s thoughts on the living conditions of his imprisonment, his contacts with family during his imprisonment, his perseverance, the future of Christianity, and revival. The impression left for the reader is that it was no longer possible to ignore the abuse allegations, and so they were fronted in the interview, and yet the important material continues to be the inspiring stories of Christian heroism and hope for evangelical renewal in the world. Center, and circumference.

Thirdly, the interview is mysteriously titled, “The CT Interview: Saeed Abedini Answers Abuse Allegations.” “Answers”? Mr. Abedini does no such thing. “Addresses” may have been slightly more accurate, “denies” much more so; either option certainly would not have suggested a definitive response the way “answers” does. From the printed title, the reader should expect that the article puts all those pesky abuse concerns to rest, when in fact the concerns are given precious little weight. As another blog noted,

What both fascinated and horrified me about the Christianity Today interview is the title, ‘The CT Interview: Saeed Abedini Answers Abuse Allegations.’ Saeed simply denies all allegations, attributes them to Satan… and the interviewer apparently assumes that Abedini is telling the truth. He’s a Christian hero, after all.

Lastly, then, we must ask of Naghmeh in this interview. Literarily and personally, as a character in the real world depicted by this exchange, where is she? She is not in the story’s details so much as in the air, the environment, the world that the interview commends. There is no mention of an attempt to interview Naghmeh, no exploration of what her experience or feelings may be, no interest in what her own hopes for evangelical renewal may entail. (Perhaps, after all, they would include hope for greater church and public support for abused spouses of professing Christians.) When the story is told the way the CT interview tells it, with whom is the reader led to identify? Is the reader expected to “know” that this abuse allegation “stuff” is, yes, out there, but almost certainly not as serious as it’s made out to be?

At least this much seems clear. In accounts like this, we readers are repeatedly invited to an imaginary table where we sit with Saeed but not with Naghmeh. If writers allowed for the possibility that the reality behind the allegations is that serious, thereby at least withholding judgment until more is known, would they tell this story the same way? Would they continue to tell a story of asterisked heroism, or would it become asterisked spousal abuse?

To be sure, there remains a Christian hero in the story being told, and it is not Naghmeh. The intractable, stubborn challenge for the reader, the listener, the observer of these stories is that human pride that pretends, always, to “know” what’s really going on here, and thus in figuring out how to read this ongoing saga, and all others, as Pompilia, not the Fisc.

Milton, Gender, Marriage, and Divorce: A Greystone Course

The Westminster Assembly famously treated the topic of divorce grounds in the Confession of Faith XXIV:5-6, which read as follows:

5. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.

6. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.

We do not have a lot of information regarding the Assembly’s deliberations regarding this topic, and mapping out divorce theory during this period – in exegetical, theological, moral-theological, and civil forms – is among the most complicated and difficult areas of post-Reformation and especially seventeenth-century research.

John-Milton-portrait-008However, there is more evidence than many students of the question have assumed. Indeed, alongside the writings of the Divines themselves, the writings of the great moral theologians such as Ames and Perkins, and the twists and turns of evolving canon law, one of the most important contextual features in the Assembly’s statement is the series of publications on divorce written by the great English poet John Milton. Milton produced five different tracts on divorce over a period of eighteen months, all in the early years of the Westminster Assembly: The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: Restor’d to the Good of Both Sexes, From the Bondage of Canon Law (1643); Judgment of Martin Bucer (1644); Tetrachordon (1645), meaning “four-stringed” because Milton was able to harmonize four principal divorce passages in Scripture; and  Colasterion (also in 1645), meaning “rod of punishment,” in response to an anonymous critical response to his work. In at least one place (Doctrine and Discipline) he addresses the Assembly directly.

Alongside infidelity, desertion, and/or abuse, Milton argued for divorce on the grounds of what moderns have since called personal or emotional “incompatibility,” although the thin way this language is used in our day doesn’t do full justice to what Milton envisioned – although it isn’t far off either. The tracts are representative of seventeenth-century controversial polemic, and Milton’s proposals provoked plenty of predictable critical reaction. The Assembly included several members who had thought long and hard about the divorce question, particularly the eminent Hebraist and jurist John Selden, and they did not all see the same way on the matter either. At this point in a long period of studying the question, I’m inclined to propose that the Assembly rejected Milton while not rejecting all of Milton’s controversial ideas, and certainly did not reject those ideas when they were discoverable in Milton’s and the Assembly’s shared sources. This is especially important when Milton’s sources are Continental, for as many scholars are noting these days, the Assembly was driven by a desire to maximize, in a public way, the Reformed catholicity they shared with their Continental brethren.

Milton’s biography is often linked very closely to the publication of these tracts. Newly married, his wife, Mary Powell, deserted him. It is no coincidence, to be sure, that Milton wrote on divorce during this period and stopped doing so when she later returned. However, his biography is not the only factor which accounts for Milton’s tracts. He had shown interest in the question years earlier, and his divorce tracts reveal a lively, restless, though mildly anarchic mind captivated by the diversity of the Christian tradition on the question as well as the power of more recent Reformed works which treated it, especially Martin Bucer’s. Bucer was a focus of Milton’s thinking on divorce, though his treatment of the Strasbourg reformer’s thought is not always on target. But Milton was also strongly indebted to William Ames and Theodore Beza, and showed close knowledge of an impressive range of patristic and medieval sources, Christian and secular. Beyond these, Milton showed strong familiarity with the serious questions that belong to any patient consideration of the biblical divorce texts.

Another factor, and in my view the most important one for reading Milton and Westminster, is Milton’s role in pushing forward the emerging early modern mythology — often as bewildering as it has proven influential — of gender and sexuality. His divorce tracts simply must be read alongside the story of Adam and Eve in his Paradise Lost, at least. His account of Eve’s folly is particularly noteworthy. Milton seems to bear the larger burden of guilt in popularizing the fiction that the Fall occurred because Eve wandered from her man in the Garden and thus became vulnerable prey to the serpent. Interestingly, many early modern English translations of the Bible reflect the same wildly wrongheaded reading of Genesis 3 by omitting (!) in their translations what in the Hebrew is quite explicit: Adam was “with her” (Gen. 3:6). Much more on that another time.

Was Milton right about divorce? In many places, no, he was quite wrong. On incompatibility especially, he is often dangerously unhelpful. Yet incompatibility-as-ground is not the whole picture of his argument, and scholars of the question have ignored him to their detriment. He is a great deal more nuanced than he is given credit for, and one simply cannot understand WCF XXIV fully without taking a lot of time with Milton and other contemporary texts. Importantly, that Milton found in the sources of the Christian and particularly Reformed tradition is truly there, too, and not without careful biblical and theological reflection. What is often regarded in our day as “the traditional” Reformed position on these questions is, after little more than a moment’s investigation, one point in a constellation, and nothing like the entire cosmos. In light of the hefty and truly rich body of scholarly literature on the biblical divorce texts in the last few decades, Milton’s reading of Scripture in some ways bears the marks of fairly standard mistakes, yet in other ways is well ahead of its time.

The foregoing is one long way to introduce this summer’s Greystone Milton course. It is a one-week modular course on Milton as poet-theologian. The course title and description are as follows:

“Milton in Literary and Theological Perspective” – David R. Head and Mark A. Garcia, July 25-29, 2016

After a survey of Milton’s biography, the political and historical contexts of his work, and key ideas in Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, and select sonnets, this course will turn to a focused analysis of Milton’s controversial and influential theology of gender, marriage, and divorce, with a view to its impact on the Westminster Assembly and the Christian tradition generally.

Consider auditing the course, at least, so you can listen to the audio files and try to make sense of it yourself.

Contact to register or for more information.


Book Note: When Children Became People

O. M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, trans. by Brian McNeil (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).

Bakke book imageWhat is a child, and what is a child for? What qualities identify a child as such? Are they desirable or undesirable? Is a child an image of folly or of innocence, of weakness or of strength? An old Greek adage said, “Old men are like children once more.” In our day we might think that endearing, and an image of innocent simplicity may come to mind. In the ancient world, however, the adage reflected the connection of children with ignorance.
In eight chapters, O. M. Bakke explores the development from this ancient, negative model of childhood to the more familiar positive one, and he identifies the emergence of Christianity as the difference maker. He correctly identifies his topic as a largely neglected theme in theological disciplines: the nature and value of childhood. New Testament studies — especially studies of children as models of the Kingdom in the Gospels — is the exception in the literature (3). Bakke investigates each of the main topics in his field, all of which are familiar to those who read in this area: the nature and qualities of a child according to Greco-Roman philosophical traditions; children in pagan antiquity; patristic teaching; and abortion, infanticide, expositio, and sexual relations between adults and children. Bakke then adds a few interesting studies of the upbringing and education of children, children in worship, and the challenge posed to ancient models of religious perfection by the need to care well for children.
There is much in Bakke’s book that is easily found elsewhere, yet his investigation of Christian commitments over against prevailing Greco-Roman sentiment is frequently insightful. Every page contains interesting information and merits patient pondering, especially for those reading Bakke as an introduction to the question. Still, several reviewers have raised legitimate concerns about Bakke’s handling of his material. Passages from the church fathers (and the range is impressive) are quoted frequently but they are disrobed of context, both the contexts of the writings themselves and of the larger development of doctrine. This is a notable weakness. Invariably, when an author fails to note contextual features of a quoted passage, the reader happily supplies his own. In this case the weakness could potentially rob the author’s argument and the patristic writer of due force. Further, scholarly literature is ably summarized and the standard terrain of the topic is well covered, but Bakke does not account for the scholarly conversations to which his secondary sources belong nor the conversations which were generated by those publications.
But these oversights are fairly banal compared to another, namely Bakke’s understanding of what qualifies as the principal context for the New Testament and early Christian writers. Bakke appropriately details the Greco-Roman intellectual, legal, and family environments which were subverted by the characteristically high Christian views of childhood. However, while Bakke aims to offer a partly theological justification for Christian perspectives on children, this amounts to little more than appeal to statements by early Christians, and the conceptual critiques at work between Christian and pagan sources are investigated too thinly. Most importantly, the principal resource for very early Christian conviction regarding children – the Scriptures of the Old Testament – does not figure meaningfully in Bakke’s account.  This is a deeply regrettable lacuna in an otherwise stimulating and frequently compelling portrait of early Christian thinking.
What might have strengthened Bakke’s thesis is a consideration of the way biblical language regarding children and parents functions to interpret and delimit the other reciprocally. Each serves to inform the nature and significance of the other, circumscribing otherwise abstract and amorphous ideas such as headship, submission, obedience, nurture, education, authority, etc. Biblical language and expectations of children regularly entail features of Scripture’s distinctive model of motherhood and a Christian mother’s authority in the home. As scholars have noted, not only the Apostle Paul’s famous language for the mother as house-ruler in 1 Tim. 5:14, but its deep roots in the explicit mention of the mother in the Decalogue and her roles in Israel’s Torah, wisdom tradition, and narratives (educator, household manager, nurturer, negotiator) inform the theological significance of a child in biblical thought. The child is what a child is in relation to what a mother is and what a father is, and as Bakke’s and other scholars’ work has shown, early Christians demonstrated an appreciation of the effect of the Gospel upon those designations in relationship to one another. (This is a topic explored somewhat in a recent excellent monograph by Margaret Y. MacDonald, The Power of Children: The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World [Baylor, 2014], among many other places. MacDonald explores children in the Haustafeln or household codes of the New Testament.) This mutuality of value and importance within the Christian household, alongside rather than in competition with notions of difference and variety in roles and responsibilities, is a fruitful phenomenon only possible on Christian commitments regarding creation, the human person, and the theological significance of the distinction of the sexes — all of which are deep Old Testament motifs intimately known by New Testament and early Christian writers.
These vulnerabilities noted, they do not disturb the value of Bakke’s central thesis, which is simply that early Christianity was a major contributing factor, and arguably the chief one, for the development in western culture of a positive notion of childhood. In this respect, Bakke’s thesis accomplishes what quality scholarship often does: it alerts us to the fact that what we take for granted as true in our own day regularly has its own, often bewildering history. Children were not always prized, protected, or held up as models of innocence or purity. The cultural idea of a child as a human person with personal integrity, demanding protection and preservation, is new with the emergence of Christianity. The idea itself isn’t new with the Church, but a culture informed by the idea is. To be sure, it remains important to distinguish the Christian interpretation of childhood from modern western sentimentalized, idolized fictions of youth (and Bakke is silent on this important difference), yet the reminder in this study of the uniquely positive place of the child in Christian thought is a welcome one. His book serves well to introduce clergy and students to a topic of wide and pressing importance.

Welcome to the Lydia Center for Women and Families

Greystone Theological Institute’s Lydia Center for Women and Families has been formed to advance research and provide resources in the areas of women, marriage and family, and children. The Lydia Center encourages collaboration among scholars in biblical, theological, historical, linguistic, and sociological disciplines for research output that is serviceable to clergy, academic and religious institutions, and families. The mission of Lydia is to develop and foster theologically coherent and Scripturally determined guidance to major questions and concerns in the Christian community, and to do so from within the wide, deep, and rich context of the Christian tradition and with a special interest in confessional Reformed catholicity. While the scope of academic interest is inevitably vast, Lydia organizes research and educational endeavors in the following key areas:

(1) Biblical, historical, theological, ethical, sociological, and linguistic analyses of the nature and telos of man and woman;

(2) Man and woman created as both purposefully distinct and fully complementary;

(3) Marriage roles and responsibilities in history, literature, and Christian communities; models of headship and submission; divorce theory; and the dynamics of destructive uses of authority, particularly the complex dangers of patriarchy in Scripture, history, and society;

(4) The critical importance of biblical hermeneutics of gender and family which distinguish descriptive from normative texts, and which investigate in a theologically fruitful way the Torah-function of biblical narratives regarding gender and household; and

(5) Children as persons with integrity, voice, and status within Scripture, the life of the Church, and the Christian tradition.

Lydia has been formed in a time of great anxiety and uncertainty about the Church’s teaching and practice in the areas of women, family, and children. On many fronts, and in ironic resemblance to a wider cultural unraveling in the areas of sexuality and gender, Church thinking and practice currently admits of great unevenness and instability.

However, while these are days of great uncertainty, they are also days of great opportunity. Biblical and theological research in the last several decades has provided Christian thinkers and clergy with the resources needed in order to reconfigure destructive modes of teaching and practice within classrooms, congregations, and ecclesiastical bodies.

For example, social and cultural analyses of certain distinctively American notions of female subordination, male headship, and family ethics have demonstrated that many notions deeply embedded in especially evangelical Christian culture are indebted not to Scriptural norms but to nineteenth and twentieth century American mythologies of Victorian and other cultural models. Research in biblical and theological disciplines have alerted attentive readers to issues easily overlooked in the polarizing and, for many, unsatisfying discourse over complementarianism and egalitarianism. The work of biblical scholars across denominational lines has prompted a closer, invigorating look at the canonical significance of the most familiar gender and family texts in the Bible. Work on the eschatology of gender in relation to the biblical ethical world is opening up new understandings of how Scripture’s gender and family ethic is coherent and foundational for human welfare. Pastorally, increasing recognition of a common weakness in evangelical and Reformed communions has fueled interest in better resources than a previous generation enjoyed. In particular, the abundance of Christians seeking counsel and clerical support in circumstances of spousal or other family abuse, or who have withdrawn from church life or involvement because of perceived failures on this front by church leaders, prompts the need for an organized body dedicated to providing and encouraging research and teaching. Reports indicate clergy and church leaders desire guidance in these matters as well, feeling significantly underprepared in the face of complex pastoral situations.

With a view to these developments and the opportunities they present to academic and ecclesiastical institutions, Lydia is developing research programs and organizing events to stimulate top-tier work in these areas of increasingly visible importance for the Church.

A further brief word is in order, though, regarding Lydia’s orientation to its labors.


Biblical study at Lydia proceeds from a Christian commitment to the Bible as Holy Scripture. This is to say that while Lydia research benefits extensively from scholarship produced from all directions and diverse faith commitments (or none), Lydia’s focus is on the Bible as Holy Scripture, not in the Bible as a window into Israelite or Greco-Roman society or record of social-cultural and religious developments in gender and family. Rather, Lydia proceeds from the Christian recognition of the Bible as the Word of God norming and forming the Church’s faith and life.


Theologically, Lydia is committed to exploring gender and family as theologically rooted in God’s good creative and eschatological purposes, purposes revealed supremely in Jesus Christ. As a Center of the Greystone Theological Institute, Lydia works from the vantage point of confessional Reformed catholicity, and with a programmatic vision to advance that tradition. While Lydia will review and commend quality scholarship from any source, Lydia will not adopt a position in contradiction to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. This commitment is not an effort in self-protection. Rather, it reflects the conviction of Greystone that while they do not say all that must be said, the Westminster documents — in relation to their nature as consensus, catholic, and ecclesiastical documents, and in relation the vibrant tradition to which they belong — represent a high point in the consideration of our research questions.

Thus Lydia reads, consults, and interacts fruitfully and openly with scholars across denominational and disciplinary lines, and yet deliberately explores strands of traditional and constructive Reformed thinking. Lydia explores the meaning and scope of theological and ecclesial commitments from within this most basic commitment. Negatively stated, Lydia does not investigate gender and family as mere social or cultural constructs, but positively, as divinely given and ordered for theological ends. Lydia’s mission is to explore those ends with a view to their ethical consequences for, and shape in, the present.


In exploring the significance of biblical and theological insights for life in the contemporary Church and world, Lydia employs various scholarly and heuristic tools. Among these, the tools of linguistic analysis and of the social sciences are not only theologically grounded but also touch on a critical biblical-ethical concern for loving, faithful, and truthful communication which builds up rather than destroys. With regard to (1), (2) and (5) of Lydia’s key activity areas listed above, linguistic analysis can help us understand, for example, what types of actions are attributed to men and women and what characteristics are ascribed to each (favorably or not), as well as in what contexts each are mentioned or excluded. Examination of ways in which other social actors in Christian texts (the Church, for example) are gendered linguistically and/or marked by age offers additional insight into these areas of inquiry. Further, with a view to (3), linguistic analysis (particularly corpus-assisted discourse analysis) and, where appropriate, ethnographic inquiry assist us in understanding how various social actors in Christian communities are given or denied agency within marriage or in social or ecclesiastical environments. In sum, these tools enable us to understand the ethical significance of how church leaders and laity speak and write about men and women within the contexts of such issues as headship, divorce, and spousal abuse.

The foregoing can serve only as a sketch, at best, of the work which must be done and which Lydia is formed to encourage and to resource. Of course, readers will have many questions about issues not noted explicitly above, and this is not only understandable but appropriate. In light of this, we invite your participation at the metaphorical table as the work begins. Predictably, the Lydia vision will be explored more fully in coming posts and events.

To keep in touch with Lydia, we invite you to sign up for the Newsletter (details forthcoming) and “like” the Facebook page. If you believe in the work of the Lydia Center and would like to support its development, please consider donating at the Greystone site: