Monday, November 05, 2007

Methods in Theology: Men and Women

Every author is a guide who takes his readers down the paths that he himself has traveled before and that he thinks his readers would do well to travel down as well. This being the case, I’m always interested to see how an author/speaker presents the topic he is addressing.

I’ve discovered that IVP’s Dictionary of Paul and His Letters makes for a good read regardless of whether I agree with all of its articles or not. It’s a compilation of short scholarly, if not introductory, articles on various subjects related to Paul and his writings. The other morning I began reading the article on “Men and Women.” After reading through the first paragraph of the first main section, I could tell that the author’s method would likely lead in a very different direction than I was willing to go. After posting the first paragraph, I’ll highlight a couple things that I think inhibit a proper interpretation of Paul.
Paul’s letters are occasional letters, that is, they were occasioned by specific circumstances and thus address certain situations as responses to them. Paul’s earlier letters (mainly those undisputedly attributed to him) do not deal specifically with women, men or marriage very frequently, but the topic does come up, especially in 1 Corinthians 7.
In this case, the author has framed his discussion by pointing out the occasional nature of all of Paul’s writings. That is, he wants us to realize that each of Paul’s letters addresses specific issues that were confronting the church or person he is writing to. While this observation is accurate, the question arises in my mind as to why this is the place to start when considering this issue of men and women in Paul’s writings.

If I were writing an article on Paul’s teachings on men and women, I would not start here. In fact, I would try to lay a very different foundation. Instead of focusing in on the disparate nature of Paul’s writings, on this or any subject, I would try to show that all of Paul’s writings are written from a coherently biblical worldview, regardless of the specific context into which Paul is writing.

Besides highlighting the occasional nature of Paul’s writings, I see a couple other layers of specificity, which are unnecessary. First, the author draws our attention away from Paul’s works as a whole to focus on Paul’s earlier writings. Why bother doing this unless there is some clearly perceived variation between Paul’s earlier and his later writings?

The range of writings is then reduced again by considering only those texts that are indisputably Pauline. So I came to the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters hoping to find a broad overview of how Paul handles the this topic; instead I am left questioning whether Paul's early letters are different than his later writings and whether Paul actually wrote all the letters which have been attributed to him in the first place.

One other concept in this introductory paragraph indicates to me that the author’s method for handling his subject is not very helpful. He states that Paul’s earlier writings “do not deal specifically with women, men or marriage very frequently.” But here, there are two things that should be pointed out. First, the frequency of Paul’s addressing the issue of men and women is hard to judge. Frequency seems to be in the mind of the interpreter.

I like to think about it this way; we only have thirteen of Paul’s letters, and these are awfully short. At least half of these letters deal with men and women specifically. Many of the others deal with men and women indirectly. If we took a sampling of your writings, a sampling that God found fit to preserve to the end of the age, would we find that your writings emphasize the way the gospel transforms the lives of men and women to the degree that Paul’s did?

Secondly, specificity is not a good measure when doing theology. If we used this standard when dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity, we would be in very bad shape indeed. Yet, with the doctrine of men and women, we not only have a lot of clear and specific passages in the Bible (Peter addresses this issue in half of his writings!), we have a thorough biblical theology that supports all those texts.

We need scholarship that instills trust in God's word. Methods that undermine this trust, will not help develop sound believers.

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