Numerous complementarians have critiqued my last book, saying that I use egalitarian hermeneutics. It made me raise an eyebrow, wondering what they meant exactly. I think the charge is that I’m reading/interpreting Scripture with the presupposed lens of the tenets of egalitarianism. Maybe they are claiming that I read Scripture with some of the same hermeneutical methods as egalitarians. The former is not accurate; the latter could be partially true, as I’m sure there are some intersections. Although, egalitarians do not all use the same hermeneutical methods. I figure it is time to address this and share what framework I use in my hermeneutical toolbox. So here goes. These are very brief descriptions that could each have a chapter in a book to unpack:
Trinitarian hermeneutic: The Scriptures are a communication from the triune God to his people. There is an ecclesial reception, then, that faithfully works as an interpretive community of his living word. Knowing the triune God and his redemptive purpose in communicating to us shapes our reading of Scripture. The Bible isn’t like any other book. Moses or Paul’s authority is not granted autonomously. Scripture is God-breathed. We must always read Scripture with the Divine Author in mind. This does not take from the human element of authorship and the reasons why we would want to study their literary styles and context. But the human authors of Scripture are authorized to write parts of Scripture by the inspiration of the Spirit. So even as we look at the literary sense and the intent of the human author, from our perspective we need to explore the divine intent within it. We see Jesus and the apostles using this hermeneutic when interpreting the Old Testament. There’s other fun stuff to explore here, like allegory, typology, or prosopological exegesis, but I am trying to be basic and brief. The rest of these methods could all fall under this overarching method of trinitarian hermeneutics.
Canonical hermeneutic: Verses are not isolated, chapters are not isolated, books do not stand alone. They are woven into a whole canonical corpus. We read Scripture with what Richard Hays calls a “portable library” of all of the Scriptures in mind. So, to get more specific on a complicated and contentious text, when we read 1 Tim. 2:12, we need to wrestle with what that means in the context of Paul’s writing to Timothy as he is pastoring the church in Ephesus, his appeal to the creation narrative, as well as how this restriction jives with all the other exhortations to men and women to teach such as Col. 3:16, Heb. 5:12, Rom. 12:6-8, 1 Cor. 12:31, 1 Cor. 14:1 & 26. We also need to consider examples where women are exercising authority with men such as Huldah and Deborah, and why this verse in 2 Timothy is the only instance in Scripture where that specific Greek word is used. A canonical hermeneutic will also consider the nature of revelation in Scripture and along with that, any intertextual references, allusions, or echoes that activate other verses and enhance how we read them.
Theological hermeneutic: In reading canonically, we need to recognize that there is a metanarrative being told in the whole corpus of Scripture. Revelation of that unfolds for us, book by book. This is what Jesus explains to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like the disciples on the road, we can have the word of Christ and miss the Word himself. And we can also know all the verses addressing men and women and miss the beautiful typology we represent—the true beauty of complementarity.
Eschatological hermeneutic: Scripture is dynamic, moving us forward to its teleological aim: eternal communion with the triune God and one another. The metanarrative in its pages tell the story of the gift of a bride that the Father gave to the Son, the spousal love of God, and his work to usher his people behind the veil to the spice laden mountains of Zion. Beauty itself is eschatological. As Robert Jenson says: “beauty is realized eschatology, the present glow of the sheer goodness that will be at the end” (Song of Songs, 46). Don’t miss the beauty in interpretation! And don’t miss the dynamism.
Faith-filled hermeneutic: The Bible is a spiritual book, written to God’s people. It must be spiritually discerned. Jeremiah 33:3 is quite a wonderful invitation: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and incomprehensible things you do not know.” God’s word is filled with incomprehensible things that we need to know. Things that we could never imagine on our own. Things that we need the new life of the Spirit to begin to understand. And so a faith-filled hermeneutic recognizes this dependance on the Spirit and is prayerful.
Confessional hermeneutic: The Holy Spirit wasn’t only working in the human authors of Scripture. He works in the reader as well. While he works in individual readers, his word is addressed to the whole church and is meant to be read as a church. He has been working in his church in preserving an orthodox confession of the faith. And so we have the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, more popularly known, and the Chalcedonian and Athanasian Creeds as well, that play an active part in our hermeneutics as teachers to us. They inform our approach to the word. They help us to understand, giving us categories to frame our reading. Furthermore, speaking as a presbyterian, the Westminster Standards also help the church in guiding our reading and understanding of the word and can even function as guard rails to keep us on the highway of biblical understanding. There are of course other good denominational confessions offered to the church.
Imaginative hermeneutic: God doesn’t spell it all out for us. He gives us imaginations and he evokes them in the narratives, prophets, wisdom writings, poetry, psalms, gospels, epistles, etc. Since we are aided by a confessional hermeneutic, we are free to explore the backroads and look for all kinds of treasures in the word. Let’s not lose our wonder and read Scripture as if it is merely made up of sentences that can all be parsed and diagramed for flatfooted meaning. There’s meaning all over the place! Sadly, many Christians read Scripture with no imagination—like there are no heavenly realities concretely working through the text in our lives today. They read with modern metaphysical and critical methods, believing they are being faithful to the plain sense of the text. We surely do not want to incorporate meaning into the authoritative text of Scripture that is not there, but our good intentions have not taken into account the providence of God in divine authorship. In this we not only consider what the text means, but what it is doing.
Humble hermeneutic: We need to consider our posture in hermeneutics. While we have the first order doctrines of orthodoxy upheld and confessed in our creeds, the church has gotten it wrong on other hermeneutical issues. Remember when Galileo was charged as a heretic? Remember when not long ago, slavery was considered “biblical”? Sometimes we are very wrong about what “biblical” means. And so we need to read with humility, recognizing that we don’t always read rightly. We read with cultural goggles and don’t even realize it. Therefore, we need to take other interpretive voices in the church into consideration, seek them out even, as our eyes only see from our own perspective.
None of these hermeneutical tools are brought up in the critique of my book. I’m sure that there can be some profitable critique of my writing as we consider them. But it is revealing to me that the one thing brought up over and over as a concerning indictment is that I am employing an egalitarian hermeneutic. That just isn’t a primary interpretive framework for me. It is rather frustrating.
I want to ask if those saying this are recognizing that a so-called complementarian hermeneutic isn’t such a great framework either, whether it is working from the historical, Aristotelian framework of male superiority or the novel repackaging by CBMW over the last 30 years or so. This complementarian hermeneutic then charges anyone who finds different meaning or possibilities of meaning in a text beyond male authority and female submission guilty of an “egalitarian hermeneutic.” All these other important factors in hermeneutics above are ignored; it must be an egalitarian hermeneutic if it is not theirs. And that is bad. Very, very bad. Maybe this is the case because the unnamed complementarian hermeneutic is a Biblicist hermeneutic. I talk about this in RFBMW:
Biblicists rightly uphold the authority of Scripture but often read the Bible with a narrow, flat lens of interpretation, zooming in on the words in the texts themselves while missing the history, context, and confessing tradition of the faith. Biblicists emphasize proof texting over a comprehensive biblical theology. What often happens unintentionally is that the Biblicist readers become their own authority, since they often don’t notice they are also looking through their own lens of preconceived theological assumptions. Indeed, this is something we all need to be aware of in our Bible interpretation. The troubling teaching of biblical manhood and womanhood has thrived under this rubric of popular Biblicist interpretive methods.
Complementarian hermeneutical methods have led to some serious interpretative errors, such as Eternal Subordination of the Son (or EFS, or ERAS) and denying eternal generation. Or, even changing the name of Junia to make her a man. Or, changing the woman’s desire for or toward her husband to translate as contrary to. I could go on. And yet, somehow the bigger threat to the church is supposedly egalitarian hermeneutics. There needs to be some self-examination. My book in a sense is revealing what is lacking in the way complementarians read Scripture and is a plea to stop using interpretive methods based on movements. Calling that egalitarian hermeneutics just assumes there are these two methods. It also appeals to the good-guy/bad-guy mentality that is so popular in discourse today.
So, I cannot help but see this accusation as slapping an unfounded bad-guy label on me to dismiss my work and all the actual hermeneutical methods described above that I try to use as a guide. It’s a boogeyman accusation. And there is nothing helpful about it.
8 thoughts on “The Egalitarian Hermeneutics Boogeyman”
Aimee, I wonder what you would make of this category: “New Covenant Hermeneutic” — in the Old Covenant, a select few had special privileges in the covenant community (prophets, priests, kings), but in the New Covenant, “No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest to them” (Jer 31:34). Jonathan Leeman unpacks this in his _Don’t Fire Your Church Members_, and I know you would deny his conclusion (congregationalism v. your presbyterianism), but I heard a similar emphasis in RBMW, namely, that in Christ, in one important sense, there is no male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, [we could add PhD nor GED] (Gal 3:28), but rather *all* are filled with the Spirit, *all* know the Lord, and *all* have something vital for the growth and sanctification of the whole community, since *all* now are part of the “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9), and therefore *all* are able to interpret Scripture by the Spirit’s help and contribute to the life and health of the church (though not in isolation from the tradition and the confessions and the community, as you’ve already stated above — there’s a healthy tension there, I think) — hence the category “New Covenant Hermeneutic.” Yeah? No?
Thanks for the thoughtful, engaging comment, Daniel. I’m not sure that is a hermeneutic within itself, but what you are saying does address what underlies the thrust of my writing: what does a disciple do, where is one discipled, how do we invest in them, how do they contribute to the household of God, is this different for men and women? I haven’t read Leeman’s book, but what an interesting title.
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If the point of the “complementarian” or “egalitarian” (or socialist or antinomian or whatever) hermeneutic is to affirm the reader’s pre-existing convictions, then it’s not a “hermeneutic” at all … more like a mirror or a Netflix algorithm that’s designed to keep showing you the same things.
It seems the Bible translations have been far more impacted by a “patriarchal” hermeneutic/lens/bias… ie… the NIV’s translation use of “because” in Judges 4:9 reframing Barak from a hero into a coward who didn’t do his man’s job, so God used a woman to shame Barak (this narrative of Barak is contrary to him being a hero of faith in Hebr 11)… and various translations using “silent” instead of “quiet” in I Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 referring to women should be “silent” and learn in “silence”…
Sadly, this patriarchal lens has been used to excuse and even justify abuse of women in various ways over the ages.
Reading the reflection on your hermeneutic was refreshing. It is good to hear others talk to the need to understand how it is they go about understanding scripture, that the absence of a deliberative, self-consciousness would weaken this understanding. Of your specific hermeneutics, I cheer most loudly for imagination and humility.
I like to think about understanding scripture as a kind of dialogue, between me the reader and the text. A large part of the dialogue is spent identifying the unstated things that both the text and the reader bring to the dialogue.
As I look at your list of various hermeneutics, theological, confessional and so forth, I see the reader going through a process of understanding some of these unstated elements. They are sometimes core assumptions which we bring to our understanding of a specific text or to entire body. Sometimes, they are ripples that ebb out through the history of interpretation, influencing our understanding, or at times, bringing new discoveries to our study and the dialogue.
The point, for me, is that they are less interpretive principles than indications of interpretive assumptions of which we need to be aware. What do I mean? A key interpretive principle would be identifying the assumptions we bring to the dialogue, and questioning whether we need to retain these assumptions to understand the text. Another interpretive principle, akin to Occam’s razor in effect, is to try to deploy as few assumptions as possible, putting anything aside that is not absolutely necessary to enable the text to speak in its own right.
An interpretive assumption is something we might use to understand the text, that shapes our understanding of it, but may not be organic or integral to the text itself. Frequently these assumptions can be quite unconscious, in that we acquire them over the years of our personal histories. The confessional hermeneutic is a good example of this.
These assumptions tell us much about ourselves, our faith communities, our traditions and histories. Understanding the origin and purpose of the assumptions is crucial in interpreting scripture, less perhaps in the direct dialogue the reader has with the text, than in how the reader then becomes interpreter and relates what she learns from the text back into our communities, as a teacher to her students.
So if I had to spell out my interpretive methodology, it would be,
1. Approach the text with an open mind and spirit, and a box of linguistic, text-critical, historical-critical, literary, sociological and theological tools,
2. Accept this is a dialogue demanding not only close analysis of the text, but also of oneself, the reader, and
3. Do not accept or dismiss interpretive assumptions without first addressing their applicability to the text, and assessing any risk they may pose to obscuring the meaning of the text by pre-supposing an outcome.
I use the metaphor of producing a period drama for television for my hermeneutic. There are many tools I can use to craft and form the scene, the language, dress, manners, characters and story. I draw from historical research of many varieties, to understand what was possible in that time and place, and then use the technologies of the studio to recreate this in a manner that can be understood by persons in my time and place.
Assembling the production team is how I approach any biblical text, with a view to get from then to now; from there to here; from my limited voice to something closer to that which people through the ages have heard in the pages before me.
Thank you for your reflection. It gave me cause to likewise reflect.
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I am visiting from The Wartburg Watch. I am reached a point where I recognize the silence of my local church experience in speaking to manhood, womanhood. I also have become vividly aware of the assumptions and “lens” that gives false comfort but not explanation or justification of how we choose to live our lives. I am humbly seeking to question where all of these bricks in the foundation of my “lens” came from. I am earnestly seeking to understand womanhood as I have three daughters to raise, and I only have a male perspective/experience. My church experience has only “taught” what the genders do, not WHO they are.
I do understand how often we name things to dismiss them. There is a comfort in knowing we have identified something thereby dismissing any need to engage and consider it. I read your post coming away with the thought that the label-ers are only reading enough to dismiss you and not challenging their own assumptions. Comfort, safety, and ease.
Thank you for your explanation of interpretation, It is humbling to realize the tools required are not in my toolbox. I want God’s word to be the Living word, but I am terrified that there is no visible transformation in the lives of many readers. It is far easier to stay discouraged and not struggle with the Word.
I will certainly seek out your books and invite your perspective into our home. Thank you again for your time and effort in sharing your perspective, experiences, and framework. Thank you for earnestly and clearly explaining your approach to the Word
It’s interesting how the Western culture has struggled with domineering and abuse. I find it fascinating how tightly the church holds on to a translational error.
Yahweh is best translated “I AM”, and in fact, in many translations in Exodus, the correct wording is used. For example, NASB “And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “This is what you shall say to the sons of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’””(Ex. 3:14) – the correct translation of Yahweh. Yet in almost all other locations, it is translated not as a concept of eternality and unchangeability, but as one of master/slave/domineering. “The LORD says to my Lord:”(Ps. 110) It’s not surprising, therefore that Western culture has had a generational struggle with abuse, domineering and the like, and it is also not surprising that this is rampant in the OPC, founded on Westminster documents that, following Western tradition, don’t even acknowledge domineering or abuse.