The Eternal Subordination of the Son, Social Trinitarianism, and Christian Orthodoxy

Steve Holmes has a post worth reading, reflecting upon the recent book, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life. The book in question seeks to defend the ‘eternal submission of the Son to the Father,’ a controversial theological position that nonetheless plays an important role in many contemporary defences of complementarianism. The book presents an assortment of theological, exegetical, and historical arguments for the position, from a number of writers who advocate various—and occasionally opposing—forms of the doctrine.

Holmes is fairly scathing in his treatment of the book, not merely on account of his principled opposition to complementarianism, but also on account of his theological concerns as a leading Trinitarian scholar (I recommend that anyone interested in Holmes’ perspective on the current state of Trinitarian theology read his book The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity). He concludes that the arguments—even the chastened ones—advanced in support of the eternal submission of the Son fail beyond recovery. He wonders why the eternal submission of the Son argument has passed through so many iterations, when it has been disproved every time; one would presume that after a few versions the doctrine itself would have been condemned as beyond salvage. I won’t summarize his arguments here: I suggest that you read his post yourself.

I have also written a lengthy post on my own blog, within which I unpack some of the issues that I believe are at play in this discussion, most particularly the issue of social Trinitarianism. I observe within it that this is a debate that raises challenges that cut across familiar complementarian/egalitarian divides, creating some surprising allies and antagonists.

Based upon my post on my blog, I would like to raise a few possible questions here.

  1. Should we abandon social Trinitarianism, despite the prominent role that it has played in both complementarian and egalitarian theologies?
  2. Can our doctrine of the Trinity illuminate and inform our accounts of society or gender relations?
  3. Is any connection between the relations of the Trinity and gender relations necessarily ‘projectionist’?
  4. How should we handle verses such as 1 Corinthians 11:3?
  5. How do we relate the earthly obedience of Christ to his Father’s command to the life of the Trinity?
  6. Can a doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son be theologically justified or squared with the orthodox tradition of Trinitarian theology?
  7. Do the shifting and varying theological arguments for a complementarian position suggest that rationalization rather than honest and principled theological reasoning is taking place?

Choose the questions that you would like to answer or suggest your own!

Conferences and Catholicity

Many thanks for the welcome everyone has extended!  Hannah raises a really knotty issue, and one which I’m by no means equipped to answer satisfactorily. But a couple of issues spring to mind, which I thought I could use to help me think through the implications: conferences and catholicity.

Whose panels do you speak on? For the last few years, I’ve been hearing the idea that leftish men ought to make it a point of principle that we don’t accept speaking invitations where women wouldn’t be welcome on the platform. If memory serves, I’ve seen Nick Cohen and John Scalzi take this position, amongst others. It has had to be formulated as a principle, not because gender is such an inherent part of discussing science-fiction writing or the history of censorship, but because it’s so easy for men to just remain comfortably in old patterns of male domination.

From experiments on how soon a mixed group is perceived as “mostly women” (way before 50%) to the recent statement read at the Renaissance Society of America, we have plenty of evidence that no-one needs to be prejudiced. We only need to go along with the flow, and men will end up disproportionately represented and powerful under the current system. So appearing at an event where women would explicitly not be able to speak with authority would make me profoundly uncomfortable. It would also, frankly, make me feel slightly that my contribution was being valued more because of my chromosomes than my thoughts. Obviously preaching isn’t quite the same as speaking at a conference or political meeting, but that’s the direction my knee jerks in this case.

Set against that is the awareness that every week I confess my belief in a catholic church. It feels faintly disingenuous to make this profession, and to hum Thou, Who At Thy Eucharist Didst Pray, whilst maintaining that I wouldn’t organise with other Christians. One of the many uncomfortable paradoxes of the Anglo-Catholic tradition is the way our history accidentally produced something like a party within our own national church as a result of our belief in the catholicity of the faith. Another is the way our devotion to the Eucharist brings us closer to our brothers and sisters in Roman Catholicism, whilst it makes us more aware of the official ecclesial divisions between us, because we find ourselves sometimes unable to celebrate the sacraments together. I am certainly happy to worship, study and organize with friends from over the Tiber, so having a reservation about complementarian groups seems inconsistent.

However, it seems less inconsistent when considered in terms of social justice, and this is where I eventually land. The operations of gender and power in our society don’t seem simply something on which I have a certain opinion, and other people have different opinions. They are a system which places me in a position of relative power, and in doing so makes me less able to appreciate the lived reality of others. I do not know what it is like to have a vocation which is denied because of my gender (or indeed because of my sexuality.) There are other people who can tell me what it’s like, but they can only do so if I’m quiet for a while and let them speak. This doesn’t mean that I think men’s ministries or complementarian groups should be banned or disallowed. But it does mean that my decision to participate is made under an awareness that I don’t have all the information necessary.

And to actually answer Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are?

Luckily for me (and others!) I’m not in a position to allow or disallow.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

It sounds quite weaselly to say “depends what the greater something was”, but without knowing, I would say probably not. I would worry that the principles behind that restriction would have other effects.

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?

Probably the latter, though the further we get away from application, the more core beliefs seem to converge in the far horizon of parenthood and fruit-based pies. We can all agree that men and women are made in the image of God, after all…

Is Complementarianism A Gospel Issue?

Hannah A raised a great question in her discussion of Jen Michel’s post at Her.meneutics: How far does Christian liberty extend in gender applications? The issue of a woman finding one’s place in a complementarian church is a different one from finding one’s place in a parachurch organization, which is by nature a less-organized (in the sense of less strictly governed, not in the sense of being administratively handicapped).

It was St. Augustine who wrote “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” It seems to me that Christians in church and para-church alike all agree with Augustine. We all want unity on the essentials, and liberty on the non-essentials. The underlying issue, then, is whether we consider the question of  roles and relationships of men and women in the church to be an essential, or non-essential doctrine. 

In other words: is the issue of women in the church a ‘gospel issue’?

I believe that the amount of liberty we are willing to extend in gender applications is directly proportional to how firmly we believe our theology of gender to be an essential to the Christian faith. Owen Strachan, President of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, certainly sees complementation theology as  quintessential to the Faith. “Complementarity is a simple biological fact and a core biblical teaching. This is not a fourth-order doctrine,” he writes, adding in parenthesis: “as if we can rank any teaching of Scripture.”

It is hard to disagree with Strachan on this. After all, James tells us that whoever keeps the law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking the whole of it (James 2:10). Who are we, then, to decide what is “important” in the Word of God?

Firm egalitarians face the same issue: that being that their understanding of the gender passages is intrinsically tied into their hermeneutic and understanding of the gospel as a whole. As such, for writers such as Sarah Bessey, seeing the Kingdom value of women and their call to discipleship is innately woven into the redemptive message of the Gospel. “There is Scriptural justification, historical justification, Spirit justification, traditional and communal justification for women preaching and pastoring and leading,” she writes.

Both complementarians and egalitarians have this right: that salvation is not an abstract concept for neutered souls. Rather the gospel of God’s Kingdom is for men and women (not gender neutral people), embodied souls who are saved in their maleness and femaleness – and somehow we must live our understanding of the Kingdom out in our gendered reality.

In a real way, this is so much more than a question of what women and men can and can’t do in practice – it is a more fundamental question of identity and finding our place in the narrative of God’s Kingdom. Looking at it this way, it seems that it is a essential issue in the Augustinian sense – something in which we should seek unity. And if that’s what we mean by essential, then we will not be able to afford one another much liberty on gender applications.

And yet.

Yet—all of life is undergirded by theology, and our hermeneutic of the Kingdom should affect every aspect of our life and practice. In some sense, everything we do is essential in as much as it is colored by our allegiance to Jesus; and even so we see the Scripture itself tolerating a variety of non-essentials, each of these shaped by the theological scruples and contextual background of the people in question. Is it okay to eat meat? Well, that depends. Are you Jewish? Were you an idol-worshipper? Who are you eating with? The apostle Paul had clear gospel-shaped convictions on this issue (1 Corinthians 8-10), and yet declared it to be a non-essential: an issue we dare not draw a line in the sand on and thereby judge those for whom Christ has died.

Must one observe the Sabbath? Well, that also depends. What do you understand by Sabbath? Are you a Gentile? Are you keeping with the intention of the sabbath and rescuing a fallen ox, or are you defying it an working? Do you mean Saturday or Sunday? And how does Jesus’ resurrection change that?

I do believe Scripture has something to say about the place of men and women in the Kingdom (and I believe it has something specific to say to each, since it was God’s delight to make us different), and I deeply believe that the Gospel should undergird and inform our hermeneutic and application of this question.

But do I think this is an “essential” question, one in which we must have unity? No, I don’t (and neither do any of our Creeds). I would put this into the non-essential category – an area where we have liberty, subject to the Word of God and our Spirit-led consciences. But, there’s still the matter of how we do church in practice. And so to answer Hannah’s more specific questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you? Yes.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake? Yes, I would participate. But I do not have a clear conscience about teaching men, so at this point would decline an invitation to preach to a mixed congregation. My own conscience is captive on this issue, but I do not feel a conviction to persuade others on it.

Thanks for opening up a good discussion, Hannah.

Now, would anyone else like the saltshaker?


‘Priestly’ and ‘Prophetic’ Forms of Ministry

I want to join April and Graham in welcoming Jem to the discussion! I’ve followed Jem’s blog for a couple of years and, although I come from quite a different perspective in these debates, I have found him to be an incredibly stimulating and worthwhile person to listen to. I look forward to hearing from him as the conversation develops here.

Hannah mentions the way the distinction between church and parachurch featured within the discussion following Jen Michel’s post. I believe this distinction is a crucial one to reflect upon, especially as it relates to evangelicalism’s identity. Evangelicalism has, I would suggest, always tended to find its centre of gravity in the parachurch, in the wider world of revivals, missions, movements, and faithful sodalities, and the way that individual faith draws from these sources.

It is easy to forget, for instance, that the Methodist movement was originally intended to exist alongside the ministry of the established Anglican church. It exercised a more expansive, footloose, and informal ministry that supplemented the more rooted and priestly sacramental ministry of the local Church of England parish.

I have compared the distinction here to the distinction between ‘priestly’ and ‘prophetic’ ministries within Israel. The former ministry was a ministry of ritually ordained persons, which exercised a highly representative and ‘official’ role and focused upon highly ritualized worship and authoritative community oversight. By contrast, the latter was a gift-driven ministry that included and addressed God’s word more generally both to Israel and to nations beyond it. While priestly ministry was highly ‘institutional’ and official ministry, prophetic ministry was in many respects more analogous to what we would class as parachurch ministry.

Evangelicalism’s history is, I believe, characterized by a forgetfulness of the priestly character of pastoral ministry and a tendency to universalize the logic of prophetic ministry. That which was once intended to supplement the liturgical worship of an assembled congregation under priestly oversight started to supplant it. Within this logic, the pastor is seen primarily as a preacher, a prophet-like figure, much less as a ‘priestly’ guardian of the holiness of the community, the symbol and enforcer of the authority of Christ within a specific congregation, and the officiator within the divine service of the corporate liturgy in the sanctuary.

There has been a forgetfulness of the contrasting logic of two forms of Christian ‘space’—the space of the priestly ministry and the space of the prophetic ministry. This is reflected in shallow ecclesiologies and in a failure to distinguish sharply between the more particular realm of the church and the more general realm of the parachurch.

The lack of a clear distinction here also characterizes evangelicalism’s attitude to the gender debates. Without a strong sense of the priest/pastor as a figure whose significance is chiefly defined by the symbolic and governmental position that he occupies within a defined congregation, the priest/pastor starts to be defined solely by gifts (e.g. teaching ability) and generalized duties (e.g. preaching). One result of this is that, for complementarians, any gendered restriction will tend to bleed into all sorts of other areas. Recalling this distinction will, I suspect, allow complementarians a much more accommodating theology for women’s ministry, especially in the area of the parachurch and, consequently, much greater latitude for cooperation with those who take an egalitarian approach to pastoral ministry.

Now to Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are?

What the accommodation of diverse practice looks like will vary from context to context. I think that there is lots of room for diverse practice in a parachurch context, somewhat less in a single denomination, and considerably less in a specific congregation. In the parachurch and denomination contexts in particular, I can tolerate considerable differences, while engaging in respectful dialogue aimed at breaking differences down in size, facilitating principled cooperation, and seeking to persuade those who differ.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

I have been both a member of a denomination and a member of a congregation with female clergy. Being a church leader in such contexts would present different challenges, though.

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?

It really depends. I think that it is important to bear in mind that the level of an obstacle that a belief or practice presents to Christian fellowship or cooperation isn’t always proportional to its significance in the larger scheme of Christian doctrine and faithful practice. Also, our problems often tend to lie more at the level of irreconcilable practices than contrasting beliefs (Steve Holmes has some helpful thoughts here).

As a Female Pastor, It’s Complicated

Welcome, Jem!

Thank you, Hannah A. for your insightful and important questions. And thanks, Graham for wrestling openly and sharing your “I don’t knows.” I appreciate you both so much.

These questions are difficult, and are ones that I encounter and wrestle with on a regular basis. As I read both Hannah’s questions and Graham’s response, I wondered if my answer might need to be different from answers others find acceptable when it comes to Christian liberty – both in belief and in application.

To get to the point directly: I am an ordained minister serving in church leadership. I am also a woman. My very presence at an event has the potential to communicate something about the beliefs undergirding the event, or the theological beliefs and practices of the sponsoring organization. Even if it is believed that I might have something to contribute at a conference on a particular topic, I realize that my very presence could be divisive.

In these kinds of situations, I absolutely extend liberty to my brothers and sisters in Christ who are trying hard to maintain the unity of the faith. I also believe that my brothers and sisters in Christ who do not believe women should serve in positions of ordained leadership belong to God in Christ just as much as I do.

So, to answer the questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are? 

I absolutely do allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than I am. I’m honestly not even sure where to place myself on the conservative-liberal spectrum, as there are many who would be far more conservative, and many who would be far more liberal than I would consider myself to be. To me, the most important thing is that we are all trying to be faithful insofar as it is possible for us.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

This is where I wonder if my ordination muddies the waters a bit. While I would possibly consider participating in an organization that did not support female ordination, my guess is that my participation would be very complicated for that organization. My participation could very well undermine the message they are hoping to convey, and I would not want to cause difficulty for them in any way.

I would not belong to an organization that did not support the ordination of women, but I would not shut the door on participating from time to time.

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?

This is a tough one. I’m not sure if there is one that I view as more important than the other, in part because I think they work together. What’s most important to me is that, when it comes to Christian liberty, Christian organizations view both men and women as created in the image of God. This may find itself applied in a variety of ways, and I would allow for latitude in that application.

Christian Liberty in the Gender Debate: A Case Study

Before starting into my thoughts on Hannah’s post, welcome Jem Bloomfield to the discussion. Looking forward to your participation.

Now, on to the topic at hand; Hannah A has brought up some thoughts which hit at the heart of what we’re up to here (in my own thinking and desire for PTSS at least). She asks about how far do/should we extend liberty on differences of opinion on gender. In other words, to what extent can people of differing views continue in partnership. I am glad Hannah brought this up, because at present some within my own “tribe” are asking this very question (or at least a very similar one); can complementarians and egalitarians function together in a missional body. I am part of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (CBOQ). CBOQ approved the opening of ordination to women at our Annual General Meeting in 1947. It was not unanimous, and even now, the differences of opinion persist. There are some (I don’t really now what the numbers are like) pastors, laity, and congregations which believe ordination ought to be restricted to men only. These people/congregations continue to function within CBOQ, even though they disagree with this position. A “live and let live” approach has typically been the norm. But periodically the question pops up again.

So the question which Hannah asks “Where do women belong in complementarian organizations?” can also be expanded to say “Where do egalitarians belong in complementarian organizations?” and also tweeked a bit to ask “Where do complementarians belong in egalitarian organizations?”. In other words, yes, complementarians need to wrestle with the question of what freedoms women have to use their gifts, and whether they can function within organizations which have policies which are contrary to their convictions. And egalitarians need to ask similar questions. One Complementarian pastor recently spoke out in a blog post about what the lines in the sand for his continued affiliation with CBOQ are. One of them was if CBOQ declines to ordain someone because they hold to complementarian convictions. Of course, CBOQ has never done so, but our official policy is that women are free (and encouraged) to pursue ordination if they are convinced of a calling. I am not sure how complementarians process this tension, since they are part of a body which encourages something which they find to be contrary to Scripture. When I try to reverse the situation- in other words, if I, as an egalitarian, were part of a complementarian body- I struggle to see how I would continue to remain within that voluntary association.

PTSS is an experiment in such thinking. Can egalitarians and complementarians (with varying gradations within those two broad groups) discuss in Christian unity and grace the implications of our views? So far, I think the answer has been yes. This gives me a great deal of hope. But this is an online project. What happens when we move this to body like TGC or CBOQ? As of right now, a complementarian view of gender is a line in the sand for TGC, but a difference bridged by Christian liberty within CBOQ (although this isn’t always done well).

I think Hannah has captured the tendency well, saying “For many complementarians, egalitarians have been reduced to “liberals” and for egalitarians, complementarians are oppressive chauvinists.” This is the big issue. Can complementarians and egalitarians drop the labels and assumptions they’ve built about the folks on the other side of the conversation? Can we become people who graciously disagree? In denominational bodies where ordinations are overseen and performed, the issue comes into sharp conversation. But in non-denominational or inter-denominational parachurch bodies, this seems more like a possibility.

One nitpicky item to note, Hannah writes “The current debate between egalitarians and complementarians began when feminist theology started making inroads into evangelicalism in the 1970s.” This is only partially true. In some cases, in was after the new wave of feminism in the late 60s/early 70s which saw big shifts, in other cases, it was much, much earlier when egalitarian views began to gain real traction (like for e.g. CBOQ who began a conversation much earlier which culminated in the decision to ordain women in 1947.

But in answer to Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are? I certainly aspire to this as best I can. I have complementarian colleagues who I continue to interact with, continue to pray for and with, and continue to break bread with. I have no intention to change this.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake? I can’t say for sure. This is the part I am wrestling with. A pastor friend of mine from another denomination asked me to apply for a Sr. Pastor job at his church. I declined because a) I am currently planted in a call, and haven’t felt the conviction that it’s time to leave and b) I would inevitably run into problems because I have trouble keeping silent on the issue (the church in question allows women in all positions except Sr. Pastor and Elders, and the denomination does not ordain women). Would I speak at a TGC conference if invited? Probably (of course, I doubt they’d invite me for various reasons). Would I join? No (for various reasons). Would I join another organization that I agreed with on every front but this issue? There’s where things get tricky, and in all honesty I can’t answer right now. Luckily, I am quite comfortable with tensions and “I don’t know”s.

 

Christian Liberty in the Gender Debate

A few weeks ago, Jen Michel posed a necessary and somewhat surprising question in a piece at Her.meneutics, a blog hosted by Christianity Today. Michel, a self-avowed complementarian, had recently returned from The Gospel Coalition National Conference and was struck by the lack of female representation, both among attendees and speakers. “Where do women belong in complementarian organizations?” she wrote.

Michel’s question sparked vigorous, if not predictable, debate in the comment section and was followed up by questions about the relationship between the local church and parachurch organizations. Some took the opportunity to turn the conversation toward the legitimacy of complementarianism as a paradigm in the first place.

I found Michel’s question fascinating because it hit a point of the debate that is often minimized but is essential to our living and working together: How far does Christian liberty extend in gender applications?

On the surface, the issue of Christian liberty may not be obvious in Michel’s question. But when you begin to understand the cross-denominational nature of parachurch organizations like TGC, you also begin to understand how significant a certain level of tolerance becomes. Differences will either be bridged by Christian liberty (as the questions of church polity and baptism are within TGC) or they will become a line in the sand.

But lest we think that this question only extends to conservative groups, egalitarians must also determine how significant gender applications are to them. Should an openly egalitarian organization consider the effect their stance will have on potential participants who are complementarian? Are they willing to put pressure on more conservative brethren simply for the sake of gender applications? Or, perhaps, more difficulty, will they themselves participate with an organization that is more conservative than they are all for the sake of the gospel?

Part of what makes this conversation difficult is that it has been reduced to applications (e.g. Do you or do you not allow women to preach, be ordained,  etc?) rather than a nuanced discussion of how and why you get there. For many complementarians, egalitarians have been reduced to “liberals” and for egalitarians, complementarians are oppressive chauvinists.
And this is where history and understanding denominational differences becomes helpful. The current debate between egalitarians and complementarians began when feminist theology started making inroads into evangelicalism in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, new theology affected practice and soon churches and ministries were wrestling with the question of whether women could (and should) hold positions traditionally reserved for men. With the lines drawn around applications, folks quickly took sides.

Unfortunately, the current iteration of the debate can obscure how often these applications are influenced, not simply by progressive theology, but by denominational differences in church polity, authority, and history. A conservative Pentecostal woman—who has shunned all things worldly—would be surprised to learn that she is considered a “liberal” simply because her church has been ordaining women since the early 1900s.

If gender roles could simply be reduced to a question of orthodoxy, we wouldn’t have to worry about Christian liberty.  But what if, through the process of dialogue, we discover that some folks hold an opposing view AND an orthodox reading of Scripture? Suddenly the question of who to work with becomes much more complicated. If it is not a question of orthodoxy (which it still may be—on both sides!), then how much liberty can we and should we extend to each other?

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are? 


Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?

Introduction: Jem Bloomfield

I was brought up in an evangelical Anglican family just south of London.  My parents had met at Baptist Sunday School, I went to a rather ultramontane Roman Catholic prep school and we were part of the local Church of England parish.  I left Christianity in my mid-teens, and in fact I was only baptized a couple of years ago.  Coming back to the Church was the result of a long process, which only makes sense in retrospect.  As an undergraduate there were isolated moments when I glimpsed the excitement and depth of Christianity: hearing Nick Shrimpton lecture on the Tractarians, or Peter McCullough preach, or Rowan Williams speak on the poetics of the Book of Job.  But it wasn’t until I was doing postgraduate work that I began to pay more attention.  Preparing a seminar on Genesis for a first-year course I was teaching brought me into contact with Biblical Criticism, when a colleague was kind enough to share her notes and a whole field opened up which I hadn’t known about.

For the next few years I slunk round the cheaper pubs in Exeter during my spare time, with paperback editions from the library on theology, church history and Biblical scholarship.  If asked, I would have explained I was interested in a remarkable historical tradition, though it wasn’t officially my field.  At the same time, I was starting to engage with feminism, and gradually getting a sense of basic injustices in society.  Work took me back to Oxford, and I fell in with some people who had been friends of friends when I was an undergraduate.  They were mostly Christians, and all feminists, and I was interested by their assumption that being either was reasonable and unremarkable.  Not to mention being both.  I started attending a church regularly, though a very different kind of church than I had been used to.  St Mary Magdalen’s in the centre of the city has brought an awful lot of people to God over the centuries, and I became one of them.  Like many before me, I found the Catholic tradition’s intensely spiritual and intellectual faith spoke to something inside me which I had not really known was there.

I was also aware, though, of divisions within the Church.  I was coming to faith around the time of the debates in the Church of England over the consecration of women as bishops, and over the ministry of gay clergy.  As a straight man I was dimly conscious that others were being told they had to make choices – between their love and their faith, between their vocation and their church – that would never be forced upon me.  In my professional life I could see a backlash against women’s rights making itself felt on campus, and in society at large gender and sexuality were the basis for the abuse and degradation of marginalized groups.  I come to these discussions with a lot to learn, and a hope that both experience and scholarship can be shared in ways which will enable us all to take part in the work of reconciling.  My research often involves setting the characteristic languages of different fields in dialogue with each other, and the work of some of my favourite theological thinkers – Rachel Mann and Rowan Williams spring to mind – provides a model for this activity.  That’s one of the reasons why I like the metaphor of the conversation around which this project is structured, and am looking forward to listening to the others around the table.

Disentangling conflations in popular conversation

Alastair’s response has raised precisely the concern that I think I was trying to get at, but didn’t perhaps make entirely clear – that words like ‘biology’, ‘nature’ and ‘creation’ get conflated in these conversations in an unhelpful way.

In a similar way, the line between ‘description’, ‘explanation’ and ‘prescription’ is very often blurred. Thank you Alastair for drawing out those distinctions – that is really helpful. (For a popular example in media currently, see this video on why Hilary Clinton shouldn’t be president because of female hormones and the Bible)

I am by no means saying that this kind of flawed reasoning is the norm on the conservative end of this conversation, and I’ve certainly also experienced some very awkward line blurring from liberals. I suppose my broader question is – if we can’t seem to clarify these differences in popular conversations, as Christians, should we be making use of them at all? And, if so, how? What are the limits we should impose on referencing any kind of ‘natural’ (here meaning not scriptural – e.g. the ‘two books’ or revelation, nature and scripture) argument when trying to dialogue? And how can we avoid getting into extended debates about defining terms, rather than making genuine headway in our understanding? We have to assume that most people who are taking up this conversation do not have degrees in biology, or theology, or human psychology – and yet will often encounter these very different disciplines mixed up in each other. How much disentangling do we need to do?

Understanding Nature

Thanks for starting us off, Hannah. I want to focus particularly on your first question, as I fear you conflate some things that might need more careful distinction.

First, ‘nature’ isn’t the same as ‘biology’, nor is ‘nature’ simply creation as it appears to a narrowly scientific method. While biological processes are an integral part of nature, nature isn’t reducible to them. As a natural reality, for instance, sexual relations are more than just a biological fact.

Second, there seems to be some equivocation here over the meaning of ‘nature’. ‘Nature’ as it functions in discussions of natural law, for instance, is not simply what can be observed to exist or occur in the natural world (let me introduce you all to the homosexual necrophiliac duck), nor does it just refer to the typical form that things take (e.g. people being right-handed), or to our personal desires, instincts, and interests divorced from a wider reality and moral order.

‘Nature’, as it functions within most forms of natural law, has directivity as an integral element and not just something appended in the form of positive command or personal volition or determination. For instance, in saying that the eye is an organ of sight, we are saying that it is natural for the eye to be able to see and that an eye that cannot see is not a good eye, even though blind eyes can readily be found within the world.

As human beings, we are person-bodies embedded in a larger natural world and moral order in which we participate. We have both forces at work within us that are greater than us and natural orientations towards expression of, participation in, and realization of realities that exceed ourselves. The natural order beckons to us from both within and without. Living according to natural law is more of an art than a matter of speculative science. It involves deepening our acquaintance with and honing the directivity of the natural order that is already incipient within and operative upon us, through the feedback loop of participation in and reception of a natural reality that exceeds us. It also involves recognizing that we are not just brute creatures of instinct and need to act in accord with the personal and moral character of human nature (for example, recognizing that as we are personal beings, we cannot approach sexual relations in a purely animal fashion without morally injuring ourselves). In such a manner we pursue the flourishing of our nature in unity with other persons and the created order more generally.

Nature—as a force that is other and greater than ourselves, yet which is at work within us and which places constraints and demands upon our behaviour—is threatening for many. We may wish to cut ourselves off from its operations, exercise control over it, and autonomy over against it (C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man is worth reading on this, especially the third chapter). The only nature that will be acknowledged is the ‘nature’ that surfaces in our private desire. And, as we are living in a world that hasn’t been perfected and which is broken and sinful—where persons can experience an unchosen predilection for the most wicked acts, for instance—our own natures viewed in such detachment are hardly a reliable source of moral norms.

Finally, I think you might be eliding explanation, description, and prescription. Natural description would readily seem to support the notion men are the physically stronger sex and that, despite overlap in the bell curves of male and female strength, sex is easily one of the most crucial variables underlying strength differences in humans. Evolutionary psychology is one discipline that seeks to provide us with explanations for this fact (whatever their merits might be). Neither, however, provide us with the prescription that men must be stronger, although their observations and explanations may inform our moral and social practice.

I think Jem’s piece on evolutionary psychology misrepresents academic forms of it (the first comment beneath it raises important objections, I think). Evolution’s mechanism of natural selection centres the importance of processes surrounding reproduction—mate selection, successful mating, the bearing of offspring, the rate of offspring survival, their reproductive success in particular environments, etc.—as an explanatory tool for the different forms of species. Men and women are implicated in these processes in very different ways. As in other species, we should expect sexually divergent forms, behavioural tendencies, and social outcomes to accompany the contrasting parts that men and women play in the central species task of bringing other human beings into the world. Maleness and femaleness is a primary example of the way that we are confronted by a natural order that exceeds us, an otherness operative and present in our most intimate selves, an otherness with which disciplines such as evolutionary psychology seek to acquaint us.