In my introduction to this series on problem Bible texts, I discussed a few such texts we might examine, and I settled on Ephesians 5:22-24, about how wives must “submit” to their husbands “in every thing”. As I discussed last time, this passage is often used as a weapon against women. How do we address these kinds of problem texts?
Let’s walk through five common techniques used with problem Bible texts. I want to deal with these five techniques together, because I don’t think any of them work. I admit that I’ve employed one or all of these techniques on occasion.
One note before I get started: my thoughts here have been influenced by a talk given last month by Amy-Jill Levine, so it would be well worth your while to listen to what she had to say.
I think this approach is fine for those who view the Bible purely as an historical artifact, about on par with the Hammurabi Code in terms of present-day relevance. But if that is how you view the Bible, then problematic Bible texts are not your personal problem. For those of us who feel the Bible tug at us in this or that direction, we need another approach.
2. Partial Dismissal. Those not ready to dump the whole Bible are sometimes willing to dismiss pieces of it. Take our primary problem text, Ephesians 5:22-24. Is there a way to exile this text from our personal Bibles? Well … many scholars say that Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians was not written by Paul. So, perhaps we should focus solely on the seven letters that nearly everyone thinks were written by Paul, and toss out Ephesians. If we look just at those seven letters, then Paul seems considerably less misogynic. For example, Paul’s letter to the Galatians says that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That sounds pretty good, equality-wise. Better, Paul’s letter to the Romans greets two women by name, one of whom – Junia – is called an apostle, and another – Phoebe – may have been called a deacon or minister. Gender equality and women in positions of power – what’s not to like here? Granted, 1 Corinthians says that women should not speak in church … but many scholars view this particular passage as an interpolation. If we just focus on what Paul wrote, and ignore the deutero-Pauline stuff, have we solved our problem with Ephesians 5:22-24?
I think the problem remains. Some scholars think that Paul did write Ephesians. Besides, whoever it was that did or did not write Ephesians, this text is in the Bible. Christians regard Ephesians as divinely inspired, regardless of origin. Nothing guarantees that every troublesome text we may encounter will be found in something attributed to Paul that he may not have written.
Once we start dismissing texts that strike us as inauthentic, I’m not sure where we stop. Some argue that Peter did not write 1 Peter, or John did not write the Gospel of John, or Moses did not write Leviticus. Famously, Martin Luther held a low view of the letter of James, the letter to the Hebrews, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation. But the Bible canon is the canon, and the canon is closed. If the book is in the Bible, then we have to deal with it.
3. Total Obedience. There are folks out there who take a Will Rogers approach to the Bible: they’ve never met a Bible text they didn’t like. If God ordered the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites, then the Canaanites must have deserved to be slaughtered. Or maybe it doesn’t matter what the Canaanites deserved – as John Piper put it, “[i]t’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.” This approach can be applied to Ephesians 5:22-24. If Paul said that wives must submit to husbands, then wives better get busy submitting, without trying “to dull the edge of submission”.
When it comes to Ephesians 5:22-24, the “Total Obedience” approach can become “a sort of abuse apologia”. Take, for example, Created to Be His Help Meet by Debi Pearl, a manual setting forth “God’s plan for obtaining a heavenly marriage.” Here is Pearl’s advice on what a wife should do when submission to her husband gets difficult:
There will be times in your marriage when it will take faith and wisdom to believe that God is good, kind, and just in his command for you to submit to your husband in everything. Note that what God commands a woman to do does not hinge on the man loving his wife as Christ loved the Church. If it did, there is not one single husband who ever lived and breathed who would be worthy of his wife’s submission or reverence. … What God says stands, regardless of the man’s goodness or the apparent lack thereof. You were given your blueprints with words like honor, submit, and reverence. This is God’s will and … it is up to us to believe and obey God.
Pearl sorely tempts me to lecture against blind obedience to anything, even to the purported word of God. Instead, I’ll guess that those who advocate such obedience should have no interest in this discussion. If “what God says stands”, then there are no problem Bible texts; there are only the problems that follow from our failure to obey. The “Total Obedience” approach can be classified along with the “Total Dismissal” approach I discussed above: the “totality” in each approach eliminates recognition of the problems we’re trying to discuss.
4. Apologetics. Apologetics – systematic argumentation in defense of a position or system – has a fine and proud history within religion, from Philo to Franz Rosenzweig in Judaism, and from Justin Martyr to C. S. Lewis in Christianity.
I am reading Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan. There’s good stuff in Copan’s book, and a lot of apologetics that leave me uneasy. For example: are you troubled by the idea that God is described in the Bible as “jealous” or “proud”? Don’t be! Copan says that jealousy is a good thing, at least when it’s God’s jealousy, because it shows that God loves us and is concerned for our well-being, and God knows we’re better off not straying into worship of other gods. As for God’s pride … well, this is God, after all. According to Copan, “God doesn’t take more credit than he deserves.”
We can take an apologetic approach to Ephesians 5:22-24, to explain the text in ways to make it less troubling. For example, we might take “for granted” that the Bible could never empower a husband “to ask of his wife something which is morally wrong.” We might argue that, even if the Bible gives husbands authority over wives, God has authority over both husbands and wives, so a wife should not submit to a husband who is not following God. We can go further, and say that “submission is actually a voluntary action by the wife.” So using apologetics, we might say that Ephesians 5:22 requires a wife to submit, but only if she wants to, and only when she agrees that the husband is acting correctly. Wow! That’s quite a change. Using this approach, “submission” doesn’t seem all that submissive.
If an apologetic approach eliminates any ability to use the Bible to justify spousal abuse, that would be a very good thing. Perhaps I should stop here, endorse this technique, and move on to another topic.
But I can’t do this. I have a problem with the apologetic approach, one that’s similar to the problem I have with the “Total Obedience” approach: using either approach, everything in the Bible becomes OK. Granted, the “Total Obedience” approach assumes that everything in the Bible is OK as is, while the apologetic approach searches for the right approach to make everything in the Bible OK. But the bottom line assumption for both approaches is the same: the Bible is OK, it must be OK, because it is the Bible.
I cannot go along with this assumption. An honest exploration of problem texts requires us (in my opinion) to at least consider the possibility that some texts might be problems that cannot be made OK. Please don’t misunderstand: if we can make the problem go away, that’s fine by me! I’m not looking to create problems where they don’t exist, and I’m willing to solve them when I can. But I’m not willing to assume in advance that all Bible problems can be made to disappear.
5. Canon Within The Canon. You’ve probably heard or read about the Bible “canon”. The “canon” is a fancy word we use to refer to the books that made it into the Bible. There are great books out there that discuss which books made it into the canon, and why.
You may also hear people speak about a “canon within the canon” of the Bible. The idea here is that some books of the Bible might be preferred over others. So for some, the canon within the canon consists of personal favorite Bible books: the Gospels perhaps, or Paul’s letter to the Romans, or the Psalms. Everyone who likes the Bible likes some Bible texts better than others; that seems only natural.
But some people use the phrase “canon within the canon” to refer to a particular concept, or book, or group of books, that they use to guide their interpretation of the entire Bible. This kind of canon within the canon is a sort of Biblical key, or lens, to use as a guide for interpretation. Such a key might be God’s grace to sinners, or the proclamation of Christ, or the Gospel message.
(Yes, the canons within canons I mentioned above are all Christian. For whatever reason, I don’t see Jews using canons within canons. For certain, Jews use Bible texts to understand other Bible texts, but I don’t see Jews giving priority to any particular Bible texts. It might be argued that Jewish interpretation imposes a sort of equality on Bible texts, so that any text can be used to explain any other.)
Using a canon within the canon might allow us to relegate a text like Deuteronomy 20:16-17 to the periphery of our personal Bibles, because how could a God of Love have ordered some his children to “annihilate” others of his children? It doesn’t seem possible.
We might try a canon within the canon to interpret, and tame, Ephesians 5:22-24. For example: if our canon within the canon is the requirement from Ephesians to speak the truth in love, then “anything that happens within marriage that might nullify love as a way of life should be off the table.” Or we might try the path followed by some feminists, and appeal to Galatians 3:28 as our canon within the canon. If our Bible key is that “there is neither male nor female”, then that could put an end to the kind of “gender role distinction” that allows the abuse of texts like Ephesians 5:22-24.
Some say that everyone has a canon within the canon. Some even question whether we can understand the Bible without one. Others say that the entire Bible comes from God, and that we shouldn’t play favorites. There’s a concern that the canon within the canon gets in the way of our understanding of the Bible, that it leads to blind spots, that it allows the Bible “to teach anything whatever”, and that it is “cherry-picking plain and simple.”
I side with those who don’t like canons within canons. The whole business of basing Bible interpretation on our favorite Bible passages strikes me as narcissistic – if we read the Bible through our own personal lens, we may “begin to hear our own voices echoing back from our self-selected favorite verses.” (Another way to say the same thing: what’s to stop folks like this from making Ephesians 5:22 their canon within the canon?) Also, I’m concerned that there may be a subtle kind of anti-Judaism at work in this approach. I frequently encounter problem verses in the Old Testament being handled by using a canon within the canon derived from the New Testament. I know I shouldn’t equate the Old Testament with Jews and the New Testament with Christians, but I do so anyway, and there are uses of the canon within the canon that make me feel as if (once again) Christians are trying to school Jews about the true nature of God and scripture.
But my biggest issue with the canon within the canon is in the danger I see in relegating problem Bible texts to a sort of second-class citizenship. I understand the desire to deal with problem Bible texts by pushing them off to one side, and focusing solely on the stuff we’re comfortable with. But I think the better approach is to understand the Bible as it is: a big, sprawling, diverse collection of texts that sometimes should make us uncomfortable. If a text is in the canon, I think we have to deal with it. Moreover, there’s something to be said for Bible diversity, because it reflects our own diversity – when we tune out Bible verses we don’t like, we run the danger of tuning each other out. This argument is made by D. A. Carson, who argues against canons within canons by noting that “we badly need to listen to one another, especially when we least like what we hear”.
So … I’ve spent all this time telling you how I don’t want to handle problem Bible texts. You might wonder whether there’s any approach to these texts that I am willing to say something nice about. In my next post in this series, I’ll discuss a few techniques that I do find helpful in dealing with these texts.
A reminder: this series is intended as part of an interfaith exchange with Anthony Le Donne, so it will be interesting to see where Anthony disagrees with me.