When I wrote my previous post on gender and the Bible I assumed I had settled the matter once and for all. It turns out that not everybody agrees with me. Hard as it is for me to accept that that’s true, it has also forced me to turn my gaze on my own position and work out exactly where I stand. This post will hopefully help me move toward that end. I will offer a very brief “history of exegesis” of 1 Corinthians 11 based on the commentaries that are available to me. Sound boring enough for you?
The “ancient commentary on scripture” series present a smorgasbord of early Christian interpretations of 1 Corinthians. The dominant thread running through these comments is that man and woman are equal in substance but different in terms of their relationship to one another. For some, the equality is stressed. For others, it is the difference that matters.
Chrysostom states that “Christ and God are equal in substance but different in relationship, and the same applies to man and woman” (105). Severian of Gabala insists that “the nature of man and woman is the same,” just as the nature of God and Christ is the same (105). The difference, then, is one of relations – the woman submits to the man. “For just as God has nobody over him in all creation, so man has no one over him in the natural world. But a woman does – she has man over her” (107).
Augustine is clear that both man are woman are images of God – images of the Trinity, in fact. But man is that part of humanity that has “the power of ruling” and woman is that part of humanity “that is ruled” (107). Ambrosiaster, while affirming the equality of substance between man and woman, claims that “the man has relational priority because he is the head of the woman. He is greater than she by cause and order, but not by substance” (107). The woman is “dependent,” whereas the man is “responsible” (108).
Epiphanius uses this text (along with 1 Tim. 2:12 and Gen. 3:16) as justification for denying women the office of bishop or presbyter (107-8). Theodoret of Cyrus appeals to the “order of creation” evident in this text as a way of explaining “the primacy of man.” After all, “the woman was created to serve him, not the other way round” (108).
Interestingly, out of all the texts given, only Pelagius references the new creation in Christ. He says that “The man is the head of the woman in the natural order but not in Christ, in whom there is neither male nor female” (104).
The problem with the “equality of substance” argument is that it tends to be largely meaningless. All it usually affirms is that both man and woman are homo sapiens. You could just as easily say that “Wuthering Heights” and “PS – I Love You” are equal in substance. They are both books, made out of paper with ink printed on them. But that doesn’t get us very far. It is the content that matters. And the content for humans is relational all the way down. Affirming the equal humanity of women is certainly a start. God knows that powerful humans often try to deny the humanity of those they seek to dominate and exploit. But humanity is always co-humanity, and these interpretations almost unanimously present co-humanity as men being the responsible rulers and women the dependent subjects. It is hard to argue that they have read Paul irresponsibly; his language, at the very least, makes these readings almost natural. But it is relatively easy to argue that they have not taken the “counter-testimonies” of the canon into account, as Pelagius did.
Skipping on a few centuries, Calvin, like Pelagius, notices an apparent contradiction in Paul’s thought. How does he reconcile 1 Corinthians 11:3 with Galatians 3:28? Calvin does so by appealing to the “spiritual kingdom” which is only in view in the Galatians passage. Here the equality between man and woman has nothing to do with their bodies, or with “the outward relationships of mankind.” Rather, it has to do with the mind and the inward conscience (354). 1 Corinthians 11, on the other hand, has to do with “civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life” (354). So while “spiritually” there is no regard paid to the difference between male and female, “external arrangement and political decorum” dictate that a relational “inequality” exists, such that woman follows man.
Calvin also addresses the discord between Paul telling women to cover their heads while they prophesy (1 Cor. 11:5) and Paul telling women to be quiet in the Church (1 Tim. 2:12) by claiming that Paul was simply delaying his condemnation of female prophesying for another date, and that by condemning their uncovered heads he does not commend the prophesying (356). This, it must be said, is yet another disastrous example of the kind of exegesis that happens when scripture must be perfectly squared with itself. Calvin’s logic is flawless, but it only serves to show how limited the role of logic is when it comes to faithfully reading the text.
In relation to Paul’s phrase that man is the image and glory of God, and woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7), Calvin is pretty much in line with early Christian interprets: substantial equality but relational inequality. The man is therefore “superior” to the woman and has “pre-eminence” over her (357). The woman is the “distinguished ornament of the man” (in The Message translation of Calvin, she is “the man’s trophy wife”), the “product” whose “cause” and whose “end” is man (357-8).
This is a brief selection of the interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11 which the Church has produced and inherited down through the ages. I will tackle some of the more modern interpretations in another post, but I will make three comments based on the above snippets.
First, early Christian interpreters were well capable of criticising the literal meaning of biblical texts when they didn’t conform to reason or moral sensibilities. There is no such criticism levelled at this passage, however. The “order of creation” argument made sense in their world. The relational superiority of men made sense. Indeed, texts like 1 Corinthians 11 perpetuated that norm.
This raises a question which was also raised in the comments section of the first post on this topic: on what grounds can we criticise this norm? Is patriarchy “normalised” by the scripture’s rootedness in patriarchal societies? If Paul was patriarchal, does this make patriarchy the norm? And if he was patriarchal, on what grounds can we criticise his patriarchy? Paul, after all, told us to imitate him. Does that mean we should imitate his patriarchy?
Second, the witness of the canon is acknowledged by both Pelagius and Calvin to be in (apparent) tension. Calvin resolves this tension in the interest of preserving a univocal canon. Pelagius’s brief comment lets the tension hang in the air. Should this canonical tension be resolved? Or can one part of scripture be countered by another part of scripture without losing the authority of scripture? What would the authority of a diverse and “tense” canon look like? How would this authority be exercised?
It should be no secret by now that I think that scripture is countered by scripture in numerous places. I think a doctrine of scripture (and a hermeneutical method) have to reflect this diversity. The principle of scripture interpreting scripture is a sound one, provided it is not used to explain away the troubling nature of certain texts.
Third, Calvin’s distinction between the spiritual kingdom and the “ordinary life” which we live in the world has had a long shelf life. I have had plenty of conversations with people where we largely agree on the radical message of the gospel and yet disagree over whether this radical message can or should have any impact in the here and now. In theological jargon, there is very little realized eschatology around today. Paul, who said that “if anyone is in Christ, there is new creation: the old has gone and the new has come”, would surely be horrified at Calvin’s exegesis, and his relegation of the kingdom to the human conscience.
As I said in the original post, Paul should be read graciously and critically. Critically, because he was unable to see the full extent of the “crater” that was created by the explosion of his gospel message. Graciously, because the gospel which he preached was the gospel of Christ, who is the good news.