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What does scripture prove? From 'Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?' by John Wijngaards

5. What does scripture prove?

From Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests? by John Wijngaards (McCrimmons 1977, 1986).

In doctrinal arguments of any sort, writers will quote Scripture to prove their point. But those who hold opposing views will also quote Scripture passages or even the same ones with another interpretation. As I've heard it said, even the devil can quote Scripture. And throughout the centuries heretics have based their teachings on Scriptural texts.

In the debate whether women could be priests Scripture is quoted with equal fervour by both sides. I fail to see the use of quoting Scripture at all if its meaning can so easily be twisted. What is the use of an umpire if, at each of his decisions, the players are not clear in whose favour the decision was made? It seems to me that the debate will not make any progress until the parties agree on accepting the objective teaching of Scripture as the norm.

I am not surprised if people are sometimes exasperated by the ease with which Scripture scholars can out-quote one another. The discussion about women priests may seem to some an illustration of the same thing. One group of theologians maintains that Christ acted deliberately when he chose only men; another group maintains that he did so because of contemporary conditions. Who is right and who is wrong? I will have to go into this question, otherwise the force of my argument in the previous chapter will be lost.

It is not a waste of time to reflect a little on the nature of Sacred Scripture, on the kind of book it is. Contrary to a superficial impression some people have, the inspired message is rarely couched in simple and dogmatic statements. God's Word became human in its forms of expression. Teasing out the divine message from the form in which it was embedded is not always easy. But it is absolutely essential in theology. The question whether some word or deed is intentional, or only part of the frame-work, spells life or death for theological meaning. When Jesus addressed Mary as 'Woman' and added 'What have you to do with me?' (Jn 2, 4; RSV version), we have to unearth his intention from beneath the contemporary form of speaking that would seem rude to us now.

The biblical authors were inspired to teach about God and man's relationship to God. They were speaking to people of a particular culture and a particular time. Of necessity their message had to be coloured by the popular beliefs that characterised the thinking of their own contemporaries. Although the inspired message is firmly rooted in such time-bound social thought, it should not be confused with it. It would be a mistake to consider social myth, or part of it, as the message itself.

An easy example that springs to mind is the world view of the ancient Hebrews. As is well known, the earth was considered to be a flat disc with heaven, God's abode, high above it and the land of the dead in waters underneath it. The sun and the moon were looked upon as lamps that ingeniously trailed along paths across the sky. God the creator was thought of as a supreme craftsman and super-manager who called created things out of nothingness and kept them in repair by his day-to-day providence. It is now generally recognised that all this constitutes a social myth and that the details of the myth do not enter into the message itself of Scripture. God exists. He is the cause and origin of everything. This is what Scripture affirms. But how he created the world, whether by instant creation or through gradual evolution, is not decided by the scriptural text. Such details belong to the social myth, not the contents of revelation.

When the question of evolution arose, it took the Church almost a century to unravel the core of inspired teaching from the Hebrew myth of creation. The reason was that scriptural texts had always been read in such a way as to blur the distinction between message and myth. One could even say that the Church could not see the distinction clearly before the problem had been raised. The same is true of other aspects of social myth. To illustrate how complicated this can be, I will refer to the question of slavery, touched on in chapter 1.

Scripture proofs for slavery

At first sight the Scriptural evidence justifying slavery seems overwhelming. The fundamental right of one person to own another as slave was accepted and endorsed by Hebrew law. Slaves were protected by law in certain cases (Ex 21, 2-11; 21, 26-27; Dt 23, 16-17). If the slave belonged to the Jewish people, he had the right of being liberated in a number of circumstances (Lev 25, 39-46; Ex 21, 2; Jer 34, 14). The institution of slavery itself, however, was never questioned. Before telling masters how to treat their slaves (Sir 33, 24-31), Sirach bases the inequality of free men and slaves on a disposition by God himself (Sir 33, 7- 15).

From a religious point of view slaves are given some rights by way of concession. The slave or the handmaid should be given rest on the sabbath day, like the ox and the ass for that matter (Ex 20, 10; Dt 5, 14). Slaves are allowed to share in the meals concluding the peace offering (Dt 12, 18), in the paschal celebration (Ex 12, 44) and in the feasts of pentecost and tabernacles (Dt 16, 11-14).

The concept of slavery was so fundamental that it was used to characterise the relationship between God and man. Yahweh was considered the universal master, 'the Lord of lords', who owns property rights over the whole world and all men (Ps 96, 1-18; 10, 14-17). Human beings are God's slaves whose main duty it is to serve him in total obedience (Ps 123, 1-4; Is 5, 2-7; Sir 2, 1-6; 3, 17-24; 10, 8-18). Slavery was such a natural thing that the Psalmist could pray, 'As the eyes of a slave are on the hands of his master, so our eyes are fixed on the Lord our God until he has mercy on us' (Ps 123, 2).

This social myth of slavery was still very much in force at the time of Christ. He himself does not contradict it in any single text. In fact, he introduced slaves into his parables for the sake of comparison. We are told to be like slaves that are faithful to their master even when he is not at home and who stay up to welcome him on his return (Lk 12, 42-48). Jesus seems to condone the custom of slavery when he says, 'Which of you, with a slave ploughing or minding sheep, would say to him when he returns from the field, "Come and have your meal immediately"? Would he not be more likely to say, "Get my supper laid; make yourself tidy and wait on me while I eat and drink. You can eat and drink yourself afterwards"? Must he be grateful to the slave for doing what he was told? So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say "We are merely slaves; we have done no more than our duty" ' (Lk 17, 7-10). Christ simply accepted slavery as a reality.

The same must be said about the early Church. The apostles instructed their christian slaves to be obedient to their masters, not to rebel against them. 'Slaves must be respectful and obedient to their masters, not only when they are kind and gentle but also when they are unfair' (1 Pet 2, 18-20). 'Slaves, be obedient to the men who are called your masters in this world; not only when you are under their eye, as if you had only to please men, but wholeheartedly, out of respect for the Master' (Col 3, 22-25). 'Slaves, be obedient to the men who are called your masters in this world, with deep respect and sincere loyalty, as you are obedient to Christ' (Eph 6, 5-8; see also 1 Tim 6, 1-2; Tit 2, 9- 10). Also the terminology of slavery is often used in religious symbolism. Redemption is understood as a liberation from the slavery of sin (Rom 6, 6; Jn 8, 34; etc). Christians are called the 'slaves of Christ' (Gal 4, 5; 3, 13; Rom 1, 1; etc). Even the Incarnation is formulated as the Son assuming the form of a slave (Phil 2,7).

Now it would be easy to argue from all this scriptural material that the institution of slavery is part of revealed doctrine. God himself wanted slavery: 'In the fullness of his wisdom the Lord has made distinctions between man and man and diversified their conditions' (Sir 33, 11). Christ could have spoken out against slavery but did not do so. This must have been deliberate and so, accepting slavery, he established it as a norm according to which society should be judged. The apostles recognised the distinction of masters and slaves among their own Christians as a valid one with corresponding duties devolving on each according to his status. Such were the arguments of traditional theology that remained unchallenged until abolitionists forced the Church to re-examine its doctrine on the matter.

Recognising social myth: the dawn of light

It is amazing how long the official view of the Church concerning slavery was maintained and also how quickly the new insight took over once it had gained ground. As late as 1866 the Holy Office issued an Instruction that justified slavery. After mentioning that the Holy See had often forbidden the negro slave trade as unjust kidnapping, the document proceeds:

'Nevertheless, slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons... It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given...'.53

The Holy Office thus declared ordinary slavery to be sanctioned by Scripture (divine law). Twenty-five years later, in 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum in which any legitimate excuse for slavery was denied. In 1918 the new Code of Canon Law imposed heavy ecclesiastical penalties on whoever 'sells a human being into slavery' (can. 2354). In 1965 Vatican stated:

'All offences against human dignity: such as... arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery... the traffic in women and children... all these and the like are criminal. They poison civilisation; and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honour of the creator.'54

Behind these dates lies a dramatic evolution of thought. Contemporary social liberation acted as a welcome stimulus. From accepting (domestic) slavery as a normal feature of life people changed to seeing if for what it is: an injustice against human persons. But it also involved the recognition that Scripture had been read the wrong way. That, although Christ accepted slavery as a reality, he did not thereby condone it as a legitimate practice.

The basic equality of all human persons was implicit in the fact that Christ's redemption was meant for every creature (Mk 16, 15). For Christ redemption meant liberation from any form of slavery. All differences of status between men are broken down. Strictly speaking, a christian should not be a slave. All this, we now recognise, is closer to the heart of Christ's message than the acceptance of slavery. The lesson is that we should be extremely careful when scriptural authors speak from a social myth of their own times. The myth itself is not part of the doctrine.

Theologians come to their senses

To come back to the immediate topic in hand, we observe that a similar process is at work. There are quite a few scholars who continue to consider the traditional arguments from Scripture against the ordination of women as valid as ever. To mention a number by name: Ph. Delhaye (1972), F. P. Chenderlin (1972) and J. Galot (1973).55 We may also safely reckon that those inclined to hold on to the old arguments may not feel the need to publish their views as much as do those who disagree.

On the other hand, no one familiar with the theological scene can deny that among scholars a landslide is taking place in favour of a new scriptural understanding. Theologians doing independent researches all over the world come to the same conclusion: Christ adapted to the custom of his time; he did not lay down a norm regarding women priests. To ascribe this to 'an itch for novelty' or 'a desire to accommodate', is to do an injustice to many conscientious men. As in so many other instances of the past, we are witnessing a moment when theology comes to its senses.

Why did Christ not choose a woman for the college of apostles? G. R. Evans, Bishop of Denver and member of the USA Bishops' Subcommittee on Woman in Church and Society, writes (1972):

'The sociocultural pattern of his time has to be kept in mind. Why did Christ not choose a slave for the apostolic college? Such a choice would have halted the practice of the Church refusing to ordain slaves for a long time. Why did not Christ choose a gentile for the college? Such an action could have more easily avoided much bitter debate in the early Church. A matter of fact need not be a matter of right. One cannot draw conclusions as to the rights involved from the mere observation of the state of affairs.'56

The non-fact of Christ not having selected women should not be seen as expressing Christ's mind and will.

'If Jesus had lived in a society in which the cultural status of the two sexes had differed from that of his own time, would he not have made a different choice? A choice that was already beginning to show itself in the completely new approach which he adopted toward women in a patriarchal society?' (H. M. Legrand 1977).57

'To have gone further and called six men and six women to make up the twelve would have outraged his contemporaries to the point of destroying his work from the outset.' (G. O'Collins 1974).58

There is just this fact: Jesus chose only men to be his apostles. We are left to discern why. And I would contend that it is gratuitous to assert that this was because it is the will of God that for all time only males be chosen for the role of apostle or bishop or priest, i.e. for the ministry of leadership in preaching the gospel and celebrating the liturgy and governing the community. Rather I would argue that it is much more cogent to surmise that Jesus chose only men to be his apostles simply because only men could then function in such a role of leadership due to the cultural conditions of the age. However, it is quite obvious that such cultural conditions can pass; and so with them can pass also the rationale for limiting this ministry of leadership to men only.' (E. C. Meyer 1976).59

The number of theological studies confirming this trend of thought increases year by year. To restrict myself to a few examples from the seventies, in chronological order: J. L. Acebal, J. J. Begley-Armbruster, R. Gryson, I. Raming, J. M. Ford, R. Metz, F. Klostermann, J. M. Aubert.60 Y. Congar hesitates. In 1970 he wrote: 'It is not certain that the exclusion of women is of divine law'.61 In 1971: 'I would simply say that, to my view, the prohibition of the feminine priesthood is not of divine law. But I add: what authorises one to say that this restriction is only of a socio-cultural nature? I deny that one can say this with absolute certainty.'62 Cardinal J. Danielou on the other hand was quite outspoken on seeing no theological obstacle to the ordination of women.63 K. Rahner, who had guided H. van der Meer in his thorough doctoral study on the subject (published in 1962), stated recently:

'The practice which the Catholic Church has of not ordaining women to the priesthood has no binding theological character... The actual practice is not a dogma. It is purely and simply based on a human and historic reflection which was valid in the past in cultural and social conditions which are presently changing rapidly.64

At this juncture some of my readers may suspect that I am bolstering up my own arguments with an appeal to other scholars. Although such confirmation is of course always welcome, it is not the reason for the incomplete survey of literature given above. The theme of this chapter concerns scriptural argumentation itself. The question asked was: why do scholars disagree among themselves? The implication is that, as long as theologians take different sides, the scriptural evidence remains undecided. It is this question I should now like to tackle.

It is only natural that there will be discussion among theologians for a long time to come. Old ideas are not easily abandoned. It takes much thought and research before a new scriptural insight is universally accepted. Theology is slow by nature. If I may refer once more to the theology of slavery, we find that some Catholic theologians continued to defend slavery until the middle of the XXth century.65 What A. Cochin remarked in the course of his plea for changing one's view on slavery (in 1861) still holds good:

'Predisposed to show respect for tradition, theologians are especially anxious to attach themselves to the chain of the past, and to rest their doctrines on those which were professed before them; a valuable, or rather, indispensable, tendency when points of faith are in question - a dangerous tendency when it regards open questions, the solution of which changes and is susceptible of progress. They teach concerning slavery what was taught yesterday and the day before, but what no priest or layman believes any longer today ...'66

In other words: we need not be surprised if some theologians still continue to reject the insights of new research. What should decide the matter is the value of the scriptural arguments themselves. The fact of disagreement on interpretation, of search and debate, does not by itself invalidate the scriptural evidence. We need the courage to look afresh at Scripture and to ask new questions.

Go to Chapter 6?

© Copyright 1986 by J.N.M.Wijngaards
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