During my one year of seminary I had to do a group project on a theological system; my group ended up with Covenant Theology. The project required us to teach an entire class session on Covenant Theology at some point during the semester, so we had to know what we were talking about. When we split up the work, I took the history section, because I like history.
Covenant Theology, for those unfamiliar, explains God’s interactions with humanity by referring to three covenants he has made with his people: the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption. While too multi-faceted and nuanced to discuss here, the important thing to understand is that Covenant Theology is a framework for interpreting the Bible. One of the expressions of that framework, Calvinism, claims over 75 million adherents worldwide.
Most people boil down Calvinism to its Five Points, known among Calvinists as “the doctrines of grace”. While somewhat reductive, they are not inaccurate and do provide a simple shorthand for the ideology. The Five Points are:
- Total Depravity: All people are inherently sinful and unable on their own to choose God.
- Unconditional Election: God has, from eternity past, chosen those to whom he planned to give salvation (“the elect”).
- Limited Atonement: The atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death applies only to the elect.
- Irresistable Grace: God’s calls the elect to himself through the Holy Spirit regardless of their own resistance to his call.
- Perseverance of the Saints: The elect cannot thwart God’s calling by falling from grace.
If some of that sounds a little extreme, that’s partly because I left out all the nuance for lack of space. Unfortunately, it’s also because Calvinism is a little extreme, due mostly to the hermeneutic of its era of origin.
Calvinism (and Covenant Theology) developed during the Reformation, beginning as an argument over double predestination, the belief that God has pre-determined the eternal destiny not only of the elect but also of the non-elect. In other words, God has already decided (quite some time ago) whom he is going to save and whom he is going to condemn to hell. This belief derived from parts of the Bible such as Romans 9:14–18:
Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,
“I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”
So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.
For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.
On the other hand, the Bible also contains repeated calls for people to repent and accept God’s offer of salvation:
Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. (Acts 3:19)
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” (Acts 16:31)
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. (Revelation 22:17)
If we are so fatally flawed that we are incapable of choosing God, why does God ask us to choose him? And if God has already determined who he will save and damn, why does he urge us to repent and be saved?
John Calvin responded to this dilemma with a theology that his followers eventually distilled into the above Five Points. (Calvin’s actual theological writings are much longer, more thorough, and more nuanced.) That theology ushered in modern Covenant Theology.
At this point you might be asking why all of this overly-analytical academic discussion was even necessary, since the important thing is that God does call people to himself, and they do come. The answer: scholasticism, the then-prevalent approach to interpreting the Bible, which focused on resolving apparent paradoxes in order to construct a watertight system of theology.
The idea that God might say two contradictory things could not be allowed to persist in under scholasticism, which therefore developed the habit of approaching the Bible itself as a systematic theology whose components needed to be analyzed and rationalized in order to attain cohesion. Unfortunately for all of us, this kind of hermeneutic has persisted into the present, eroded slightly along with our general capability for academic rigor of any kind.1
I just finished A Year of Biblical Womanhood, a new book by Rachel Held Evans chronicling the 12 months she spent studying the Bible’s statements to and about women, interpreting them all as literally applicable to our time, and attempting to follow them all according to this understanding. Along the way she interviews a sister wife in a polygamist family, attends a Quaker service, corresponds with an Orthodox Israeli Jewish woman, spends the first three days of her period living in a tent, prepares and hosts a Passover meal, calls her husband “Master” and praises him at the entrance to their town, and cultivates a gentle and quiet spirit by refraining from yelling at the TV during football games. I highly recommend the book, which is both instructive and entertaining.
While Evans was primarily searching for a biblical description of what it means to be a woman, this quest involved significant Bible study, and the question of competing hermeneutics is resultingly a strong secondary theme of the book. Not content with simply reading the Bible, Evans consulted every resource she could find to inform her interpretation:
I took my research way too seriously, combing through feminist, conservative, and liberal commentaries, and seeking out Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant perspectives on each issue. I spoke with modern-day women practicing ancient biblical mandates in their own lives—a polygamist, a pastor, a Quiverfull daughter, an Orthodox Jew, an Amish grandmother. I scoured the Bible, cover to cover, isolating and examining every verse I could find about mothers, daughters, widows, wives, concubines, queens, prophetesses, and prostitutes.
This research proved the most fascinating part of the book to me, information-driven Christian that I am. I discovered early in my adulthood that acquiring new facts about the Bible significantly alters my perception of its message and meaning and, correspondingly, the expression of my faith.
For example, early in Biblical Womanhood, Evans learns from an Orthodox Jewish woman named Ahava that the Hebrew expression in Genesis 2 translated in the King James Version as “help meet” is Ezer k’gnedo. Modern Jews translate these words as “the help that opposes”. Evans further discovers that Ezer (the “help” part of the phrase) most frequently occurs in the Old Testament with reference to “God as the helper of Israel”, more than suggesting that the complementarian concept of the woman’s role as subordinate helper to her husband must look outside Genesis 2 for its foundation.
Later, Evans tells the story of Huldah, the prophetess who validated the discovery of the Book of the Law during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. I’ve always been bad at keeping biblical timelines straight in my head, so I had never realized before that Huldah lived concurrently with the prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk—all men. Far from being a last resort, Huldah was approached instead of four other male prophets so important they each authored books of the Bible. Yet I’ve never seen or heard her name mentioned by a pastor, professor, or writer except when reading aloud from 2 Kings 22. Although Evans does not say it explicitly, it’s hard not to feel that conservative Christians have unofficially erased Huldah from the Bible, along with the other nine female prophets it mentions.
While I probably could have figured out Huldah’s chronology with a short perusal of an Old Testament timeline on the internet, learning the background of 1 Timothy 2, in which Paul informs Timothy that he does not let women teach or have authority over men, requires more scholarship than most Christians have time for:
Of particular concern to Paul was a group of young widows who had infiltrated the church and developed a reputation for dressing promiscuously, sleeping around, gossiping, spreading unorthodox ideas, interrupting church services with questions, mooching off the church’s widow fund, and generally making common floozies of themselves (1 Timothy 5). Scholars believe these women may have been influenced by the popular Roman fertility cults of Artemis that encouraged women to flaunt their sexuality and freedom to a degree that scandalized even the Roman establishment, hardly known for its prudish morals.
Knowing this bit of historical information helps us understand Paul’s instruction that women should remain silent: concern for maintaining the Church’s reputation to outsiders and preventing paganism from contaminating the true Gospel:
“We are thus led to the conclusion that when Paul asks women to be silent… he is not talking about ordinary Christian women; rather, he has a specific group of women in mind,” wrote theologian Scot McKnight. “His concern is with some untrained, morally loose, young widows, who, because they are theologically unformed, are teaching unorthodox ideas.”
Oddly enough, as Evans points out, no one ever preaches on another verse in 1 Timothy 2: verse 8, in which Paul says, “In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy.” In addition to ignoring the exhortation to avoid anger and controversy among believers who worship together—probably the real point of this verse—nearly every Christian man disregards the instruction to lift up his hands when praying. Literal interpretation apparently does not extend quite that far.
Nor do you ever hear, at least in most evangelical or mainline churches, a biblical apology for polygamy, requiring women to cover their heads during church services (or possibly all the time), forcing virgins to marry their rapists, or fathers selling their daughters into slavery to escape poverty. As Evans says in her introduction:
Despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity.
Taking everything in the Bible at face value, as Western conservative Christians—still living in the shadow of scholasticism—claim to do, would result in the kind of bizarre lifestyle that Rachel Held Evans imposed upon herself for a year. No one actually interprets every part of the Bible as literally applicable to our culture and time, though; we tend to find in it the things we expect or want to find, conveniently validating the habits and values we already have.
But even to be totally consistent about interpreting the Bible “literally” would only camouflage the true flaw in our whole hermeneutic: that scholasticism, with its systematic, analytical, paradox-allergic approach to interpretation, has no business anywhere near the Bible. Our scriptures are a big, messy collection of many authors writing to varying audiences in diverse cultures at disparate points in history and in multiple genres. They are not a book of facts or list of rules written down in an orderly fashion by God so we would know exactly what he wanted us to do in every situation at every time. Jesus came (and will eventually return) for the very opposite purpose—to free us from the sort of relationship with God that survives through rigid structures and fear-based commandments. God is not interested in telling us what to do; he is interested in us, and by extension, what kind of people we are.
And fortunately, the Bible is much better at telling us what kind of people to be than it is at telling us what to do, being a story of stories about God and his interactions with us and those who preceded us. By telling us about himself, God is indirectly describing who he wants us to become. Sometimes he does this by sharing poetry; other times he tells us fantastical or shocking tales.
In both the Old and New Testaments, God often described to our spiritual ancestors exactly what he wanted them to do in their specific situations. When we interpret these parts of the Bible, slavish adherence to the exact instructions issued may well lead us in the wrong direction. Instead we ought to recognize that some, possibly many, parts of our scriptures contain more fundamental but less specific truths, and we must identify for ourselves how to best express those truths in our own lives.
I’ll finish with Evans’ quotation of philosopher Peter Rollins:
“By acknowledging that all our readings are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.”
- In thus reducing the history of both scholasticism and Covenant Theology, I have most certainly done something of a disservice, if not to those ideologies, at the very least to history. I encourage anyone curious about Church history to investigate further for themselves. Further, since my scholarship is a little rusty, I invite correction about any facts I may have mixed up.