Theological Education and Identity Politics: On Listening Carefully

This post is just a sketch of a major issue that looms in the background of my doctoral studies. As the landscape of twenty-first century theological education is rearranged by seismic cultural forces, one of the major shakeups is precipitated by the larger conflict about identity politics in American culture.

In this context, I believe it is imperative for me to assume the posture of a careful listener. So I’ve been thinking about what that means.

Who Is Listening?

I’m a straight white guy. Confession: I don’t accept that as my identity. I do accept that those characteristics shape my experience of everything else that defines my identity.

I’m an aspiring professor. I will, God willing, be writing syllabi and assigning reading soon. I will be interacting with all sorts of students, and leading class discussions in which identity politics is inevitably at play, for good or ill.

I’m a missionary and a student of missiology and theology. I have lived as a minority in a dominant culture that was not my own. I have confronted consciously and conscientiously the issues of race, nationality, economic privilege, and cultural difference—not to mention gender dynamics in a machista culture—that haunted me in missional and ecclesial contexts. This means, first and foremost, that white normativity makes perfect conceptual sense to me. It’s the very thing I was trained to divest by becoming a humble learner and vulnerable participant in Peruvian culture. As a student of missiology, I listen with an ear attuned to postcolonialism, which is more at home among intercultural studies (the a la mode name for missiology) than anywhere in the theological academy. As a student of theology, I listen with many commitments that necessarily shape my interaction with the commitments embedded in identity politics. The latter do not control the former, but listening carefully means they do get a critical hearing.

Listening From Where?

I’m a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary. Conversations about race have been tense on campus since I arrived in Pasadena. Recently, they have reached a fevered pitch.

A couple of articles reporting the situation, including links and video:

Fuller’s official responses:

The ongoing forum in which I’ve participated (note the useful bibliography at the bottom of the page):

In this context, I’m listening in order to understand what is really at issue. It doesn’t seem straightforward to me, nor does it seem that the public articulation of the problem has progressed to anything like a meaningful dialogue. I’ve been required to read pretty broadly throughout my graduate and postgraduate education—despite the fact that my MDiv program could be taken as a paradigm for white male homogeneity—and encouraged to recognize the white, Western, male character of dominant theology. So I’m trying to understand what, on a class-by-class and an institutional level, should be happening. But I’m listening as someone who has felt chastened all along and is somewhat perplexed by the idea that my institutions have failed to challenge my white normativity or teach me about institutionalized racism or give me the tools for ideological self-critique. I suspect, therefore, that the root issue is the experiences of minorities, so that’s what I’m listening to understand.

Listening How?

I’m listening as someone who believes that listening carefully involves asking questions. Yet, in the current milieu, it feels like I’m expected to shut up and listen. It feels as though any question I might ask sincerely in search of clarification will be thrown back at me as evidence of my white normativity. I often get the sense that, because I’m a straight white guy, asking questions is a micro-agression or a power play. So I’ve been listening sort of desperately, without asking questions.

I also think listening carefully involves attending to multiple perspectives. And this is the real sticking point with identity politics. It is all knotted up with tensions between free thought and advocacy, and it is prone to reflexively dismiss or even demonize those who tend toward thought that is free from advocacy. While I think the claims of the free-thought camp are sometimes naïve and overblown (I’m thinking of Paul Griffiths at Duke last year), to say nothing of those who are outright disingenuous, I also recognize a growing tendency among the advocacy camp to shut down interlocutors who don’t fall in line, by bullying or political brute force if necessary. So I’m also giving a hearing to those who reasonably critique the excesses of identity politics. This Quillette article, “Identity Politics Does More Harm Than Good to Minorities,” is an exemplar:

Conceiving identity politics

I’ll end this patchwork of thoughts with some information for those who might be wondering just what identity politics is. The term gets bandied about a lot these days, often vaguely. The quoted definition in the Quillette article is helpful, but a broader perspective might be of more use. (The following is adapted from a group project completed for my Methods for Observing and Interpreting Culture seminar, used with the permission of my colleagues.)

Cultural studies is the broader context of identity politics.

Generally, cultural studies is what it claims to be: the study of culture. But in particular, it is the study of the dynamics of power and authority in sub-cultures and emphasizes gender, race, class, and sexuality in everyday life. Cultural studies isn’t neutral but is biased toward the margins or fringes of society. It is a “radical anti-elitist critique” (Miller 2001, 11) and is shaped by the following concerns: (1) The focus on everyday life and its practices; (2) a shift away from classical or elite cultural forms to popular or industrially produced forms (such as cinema, television, radio, popular magazines); and (3) the focus on ways in which power and authority are exercised in cultural practices.

Experience is the vital concern of cultural studies.

“Experience acts as a methodological touchstone in sounding an insistence on the significance of listening to others and attending to what is relatively distinctive in their way of knowing their immediate social world, for it is only by doing this that we can glean any sense of what is involved in their subjectivities, self-formation, life histories and participation in social and cultural identities. . . . What is crucial is how we understand the bearings which any expressive cultural form has on socially and historically specific experience and how this articulates with broader determinate structures of social life. . . . It is the subjective dimension of lived social worlds that experience occupies, and it is this which is central to the concerns of cultural studies.” (Pickering 2008, 23–24)

Identity politics is a subset of cultural studies.

“In literary and cultural theory, discussions of identity politics have focused on the link between subjective experience and social identity as the central issue that needs to be analyzed.” (Mohanty 2011)

Identity Politics entails a theoretical concern with the tensions involved in the construction of, for example, racial identities: between “subjective experiences and objective social locations” (Mohanty 2011), identification and representation, “my public identity and my lived self.” (Alcoff 2000)

The social construction of identity does not preclude its “reality.”

“Identities refer outward to objective and causally significant features of the world, . . . they are thus non-arbitrary, and . . . experience provides both an epistemic and political basis for understanding.” (Alcoff 2000)

“Social identities are often carried on the body, materially inscribed, perceived at a glance by well-disciplined perceptual practices, and thus hardly the mere epiphenomena of discourse.” (Alcoff 2000)


Alcoff, Linda Martín. “Who’s Afraid of Identity Politics?” in Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism, edited by Paula M. L. Moya and Michael Hames-García, ch. 10. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.

Miller, Toby. “What it is and what it isn’t: Introducing . . . Cultural Studies.” In A Companion to Cultural Studies, edited by Toby Miller, 1–20. Blackwell Companions to Cultural Studies 3. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.

Mohanty, Satya P. “Identity Politics.” In The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, edited by Michael Ryan. Wiley, 2011.

Pickering, Michael. “Experience and the Social World.” In Research Methods for Cultural Studies, edited by Michael Pickering, 17–31. Research Methods for the Arts and Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

What the Intellectual Dark Web understands and churches need to consider

A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. (Acts 20:9)

What is the Intellectual Dark Web (I.D.W.), you ask? It’s the silly, tongue-in-cheek name for a groups of “intellectuals” on both the right and left (in political terms, since that’s what they care a lot about) who have found themselves embattled with their own sides of the isle in recent years for trying to express nuanced or (to borrow another politicized term) less-than-PC opinions. This PC policing applies to both sides of the political divide, because it basically amounts to not towing the party line, and these days, the party line is drawn by the most radical voices in either party. Moderates, in other words, tend to find them selves surprised to be alienated from their own tribes.

That’s interesting, but it’s just an explanatory note. I continue to care little about politics in the conventional sense. It’s the related cultural phenomenon that has captured my attention.

The I.D.W. is taking advantage of alternative media—meaning, the internet—to talk about their views. The point of this seems to be, aside from the fact that they aren’t especially welcome in many traditional media outlets, that podcasts and online video interviews afford time to explain the nuances of their positions. Traditional media is inimical to complexity. Think of a typical news segment or panel-style program. Talking heads disagree, and some viewers find it entertaining, but no one has the chance to explain anything complex. This feeds the tendency to spout scripted talking points and encourages viewers simply to line up on their respective, predetermined sides.

Enter the long-form podcast. I’ve written before about enjoying the Joe Rogan Experience. I’ve thought a lot about why I like it. The thing is, JRE episodes are long. Granted, there are lots of episodes that I don’t care to watch. He has all kinds of guests, and a lot of them are just comedians shooting the bull for a few hours, sometimes funny, sometimes not. Astonishingly (to me), when he has on writers, academics, and public intellectuals, the episodes are not less viewed. Millions of people watch this stuff for hours. Why? How?

Doesn’t conventional wisdom tell us that the American attention span is too short? Shouldn’t a podcast be 20 minutes, maybe 30 if it isn’t to transgress the sensibilities and time constraints of a distracted, overly busy audience? Doesn’t a TED Talk have to be 18 minutes by divine decree?

The I.D.W. is following the lead of podcasters like Rogan (and he has hosted a lot of it’s leading figures). Of course intellectuals want to take a long time talking about things. The crazy thing about it is that millions of people are taking the time to listen. (Here’s an example of such a conversation, with a half million views.) More than that, people are paying money to watch these conversations live. Jordan Peterson, for example, has recently gone on tour, and he’s filling auditoriums with people who want to listen to intellectuals discuss their complicated views. Not teach. Not debate. Discuss. Here’s how he explains the phenomenon I’m talking about:

The problem with books and videos is that you can’t do anything else while you’re doing them, right? When you’re reading, you’re reading. When you’re watching a video, you can be distracted, but you have to pay attention to the video. But, if you’re listening to a podcast, you can be driving a forklift or a long haul trunk, or you can be exercising or doing the dishes. And so what that means is that podcasts free up, say, two hours a day, for people to engage in education activities that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to engage in, and that’s about 1/8th of people’s lives.

So podcasts hand people 1/8th of their life back, to engage in high-level education. I thought, “well, people actually want to do this. There’s a massive market for high-level intellectual engagement, that’s much deeper and more desperate, let’s say, than anyone suspected.” We really saw that in Vancouver. I mean, the discussion I had with Sam Harris, the two discussions—we talked about the relationship between facts and values, and science and religion more peripherally. But the dialog was conducted approximately at the level, I would say, of a pretty rigorous PhD defense.

We were only suppose to talk for an hour and go to Q&A, but the crowd didn’t want us to stop, so we talked, the first night, for two and a half hours, and the second night for two and a half hours. The crowd was 100 per cent on board the entire time. It wasn’t because Sam was winning or I was winning. Neither of us, in fact, were trying to win: we were trying to learn something, and we were actually trying to learn something. We weren’t just pretending to do that. The place erupted at the end, and I think one of the things I’ve realized in the last couple of days, as I’ve been thinking this through, is the narrow bandwidth of TV has made us think we’re stupider than we are. People have a real hunger for deep intellectual dialog, and that can be met with these new technologies. That has revolutionary significance, and that’s starting to unfold. (; emphasis added)

Okay, so this is really optimistic. (And that’s one of the hallmarks of the secular humanists who populate the I.D.W.) But the fact of the audience’s paid attendance is incontrovertible. If you watch these folks talking on a YouTube channel with a recorded live comments feed, you’ll quickly see that far from every view counts as intellectual engagement. Trolls will congregate. Still, the numbers are still staggering for the kind of discussion it is (and trolls won’t bother where there are no numbers in the first place).

I think Peterson is basically right about traditional media formats convincing us we’re stupider than we actually are—or more to the point, that our attention spans can only span out for binge-watching Netflix. And I think he’s right that there is really an appetite for deep intellectual dialog.

But the key factor, I suspect, is the intersection of the long-form intellectual dialog with the cultural value of authenticity. It is not just that the format gives participants room to nuance their complex viewpoints, nor just that audiences are very hungry for a higher level of discourse. Lectures, educational seminars, and debates are all available on YouTube and podcasts. Those are not commanding attention. Instead, it is live discussion with sincere attempts to understand one another, push each other for clarity, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and respond to the strongest aspects of each other’s arguments that combines with the length of the format to force participants off script.

An audience gets to watch how an intellectual forms an argument, processes pushback, clarifies an interlocutor’s point, and even changes his or her mind in real time. And we’re sure this is real because it goes for so long, there is just no way it’s scripted. Of course, going on tour (for example) means the conversation will take on a rehearsed quality, and we all end up saying repeating ourselves if we have have the “same” conversation enough times. But lengthy discussion has an interesting effect on even the most rote thoughts. Granting the intention to explain, clarify, and revise understanding, extended conversation generates a zone of intellectual honesty.

That is what I think the unexpected appetite for the long-form intellectual discourse is really about—a social need not just for complexity and nuance but for authentic dialog.

These folks are agile enough thinkers to handle a long discussion without jumbling things too badly or boring us, but there is little entertainment value in it. Rather, the authenticity of the exchange, when the goal is not to score points or dispense a canned view but to think well, is riveting.

I headed the post with reference to the Eutychus story because the phenomenon I’ve been exploring prompts me to wonder: When was the last time that someone fell of out of the second-story window of a church gathering because they were willing to be taught to exhaustion?

Eutychus is the butt of many jokes about too-long sermons and boring teachers. That’s cute, but we have to recognize that it plays into a cultural narrative about attention spans and the entertainment value of Christian preaching. More importantly, I don’t think it does justice to how deadly seriously the early church took teaching and learning.

When was the last time you even had the opportunity in church to learn more than you could stay awake for?

I have the idea that the church’s traditional media formats too have convinced us that we’re stupider than we actually are. And I also have the suspicion that the appetite for authentic theological dialog is just as great among church people as the political discussions of the I.D.W. are among their growing audience. We have a lot of tacit pedagogical rules for church that basically equate to dumb it down. And there are good (or at least reasonable) explanations for that fact. But I’m not convinced it is either necessary or useful to keep dumbing things down, compressing teaching time, and canning “our” positions for easy consumption.

The question I’m starting to ask is, how can we force ourselves off script? Because I think the church needs to recognize not only that nuance and complexity are absolute ineradicables of Christian thought but that they will also be welcome among American Christians in a context of authentic dialog in which we can all learn to think well together in the midst of substantive disagreement and misunderstanding, even though—and precisely because—it must take a long time to do so.

On Women in Church Leadership: 1 Tim 2:8–15

I began writing publicly about women in church leadership in 2014, while my family was still in Peru. I was applying to doctoral programs with the intention of studying biblical interpretation, and I was thinking a lot about the role of the biblical text in my tradition (Churches of Christ). Megan and I were also preparing to return to the US and discussing our fit among the churches that raised us, as well as our children’s future experiences. To that point, their primary experience of church had been in fully egalitarian house churches, and we grieved at the thought of ushering them into a more restrictive vision of God’s gifting of women. In that context, I wrote some preliminary thoughts about the issue (here and here), and then we got busy with the business of finishing up our time in Peru.

As it happened, we moved back to a church that was on the cusp of confronting the question of women’s roles in church, and in that context I wrote on 1 Cor 11 and 1 Cor 14. It was an opportunity for me to articulate my understanding of some key texts and to put into practice some hermeneutical commitments that I had been working on. This was an exercise as a participant observer in a church where I was both a returning missionary and an interloper, not a formal leader. I had every intention of moving on to 1 Tim 2, but I was accepted to Fuller, and once again we got swept up in a transition.

Once more, we landed at a Church of Christ that was gearing up for a long and arduous process of confronting the question of women’s participation in the body of Christ. We have had more of an insider role here, though still not a position of formal leadership. For me personally, though, there has been a strong sense of observing the process—now in another church in the same tradition with much of the same baggage, but in a very different US context. This experience has happened in parallel with my doctoral studies in theological interpretation of Scripture, so I have been, I think, an keen observer. Aside from caring deeply on a local, personal level, I always have a theoretical eye on the uses of Scripture in the tradition I feel called to serve.

This church situation has also made me hesitant to continue writing on the subject. I have expressed my opinions as a participant in the discussion, but I have been cautious about putting my thoughts in writing. Rightly or wrongly, online publication has felt risky in the contemporary social media context, even though my writing style (long words, long sentences, long paragraphs, long posts, long everything) hardly lends itself to the kind of sniping typical of the Twitter age. That is to say, I’ve been observing and reflecting on the nature of public discourse, not least in light of the current presidency. These broader dynamics have a great deal to do with the way biblical interpretation and theological leadership is unfolding in the twenty-first century—just as they did in nineteenth century during the formative era of the Stone-Campbell movement and the twentieth century during the emergence of Churches of Christ (more about which is for other posts).

Now, however, it has been over three years since my last post on the subject, and I feel ready to pick up where I left off. What animates this post in particular is a concern I believe to be at the heart of 1 Tim 2: the vital importance of Scripture’s role in the life of the local church and, by extension, the role of the church’s teachers. In the discussion about women’s roles, we find ourselves in a potentially vicious circle: to a great extent the question is about women interpreting Scripture as teachers in the church, and in order to deal with the question, the church must interpret Scripture. This circle is part of a larger one in which 1 Tim 2 takes part: the riskiness of interpreting Scripture in the context of mission raises its own challenges, and in order to deal with them, the church must risk interpreting Scripture in the context of mission.

What I’m doing and what I’m not

Let me start with some big-picture pointers.

  1. A prior theological commitment to the mission of God directs my reading of the text. In the simplest terms, I think that Scripture as a whole tells the story of God’s mission, that the church’s life is constituted by participation in that mission, and that Christian theology as a whole is derived from that participation, especially from the church’s interpretation of Scripture in virtue of that participation. This approach to the text is intertextual, because I am connecting 1 and 2 Timothy to both the rest of Scripture and the texts of Christian theology. What I notice and highlight below is a result of the intertextual connections I am making (mostly implicitly).
  2. Explicitly, I am focused on the co-textual world of 1 Tim 2:8–15, which I take 1 and 2 Timothy to comprise. Co-texts are those that surround and connect compositionally to the text being interpreted. This is commonly referred to as “context” (as in, “don’t take that word out of context”). I’m reserving context for a broader usage, however. As the common phrase “historical context” indicates, context refers to anything that goes with the text to clarify its meaning. In contrast, co-text refers only to texts that are connected compositionally to the interpreted text. Since 1 and 2 Timothy are two distinct compositions, they are not technically co-texts, but I am taking Paul’s whole correspondence with Timothy as a single composition anyway (I think there are warrants to do so, but I won’t go into that here.)
  3. The important thing is that the co-textual world of 1 Timothy 2:8–15 emerges from extensive engagement with both books as a whole. As in the previous two posts on female leadership in church, I take my time working through the words of these two books, sometimes quoting at length and highlighting Greek vocabulary that seems pertinent. Readers may find the results tedious, but the procedure is not optional in my view. I am writing within a church tradition that purports to approach the text with the utmost seriousness, and our difficulties regarding women’s roles are ostensibly because the specific words of the text matter. For that reason, the burden of this post rests on the way I understand the words of the passage’s co-textual world to relate to one another.
  4. I am not, however, advancing a historical-critical argument. While I am not only conversant with but indebted to that sort of study, I think that when engaging this discussion on a congregational level (which is where my tradition’s polity makes its decisions), we have to come to terms with the relative impotence of historical-critical methods to settle the dispute(s). I think that is the case for two reasons.
    • Generally, historical-critical scholarship has proven no more able to offer definitive answers than any other method. This is important to note precisely because it plays a modern knowledge game that pretends to offer certitude on the basis of facts (here, historical facts). Take virtually any debated issue in biblical interpretation (and a great many no one in churches bothers to debate!) and you will find a variety of interpretations of the facts. Ultimately, historical-critical scholarship is, like everyone else, playing a rhetorical persuasion game. Who can make the best case for their construal of the evidence? When regular church-goers become exasperated with biblical scholarship because it unendingly multiplies opinions, they’re right. Obviously, I don’t mean that all scholarship is useless. Nor that there aren’t ways to decide which interpretations of the historical data are more plausible. But that is all they are: decisions about plausibility. Take, for example, N. T. Wright’s argument about the significance of the Ephesian Artemis cult for understanding 1 Tim 2:11–12 (article here; video here). I find his argument to be extremely plausible—in fact, the most likely historical explanation of context. But even after reading a lot more than the average church leader or lay person about the alternative arguments, that is still the most I can say: I find X more convincing than Y and Z. That does nothing to settle the matter in a congregation and ultimately only invites the church to argue about what constitutes historical-critical plausibility or despair in the face of inconclusive historical evidence.
    • Specifically, among Churches of Christ, historical-critical scholarship is impotent because it simply is not the way our populist movement approaches Scripture. It is certainly the way our graduate theological programs do, and therefore the way our well-trained ministers might do, but that possibility has proven to have little effect on the way our churches interpret passages like 1 Tim 2:8–15. Now, I’m extremely interested in making an argument (elsewhere) that churches—I mean, the average church member—should be shaped by theological scholarship, including biblical studies. But such an argument would address the reality that the church is generally not well-formed by the tradition’s most knowledgable teachers, and in that situation it matters little what scholars have to say about any given passage. Church members and leaders bent toward study may read substantial commentaries and articles (please God!), but when it comes down to reading the text together and deciding how to live in a local context, we have to learn to approach Scripture in ways that do not depend on the rarified conversations carried out among historical-critical scholars.
  5. In the end, what I’m after here is a close reading of 1 and 2 Timothy that engenders an interpretation of 1 Tim 2:8–15. What happens if we take our time with the text and listen closely? Certainly, we are dependent on translational aids, including the insights of biblical scholars and linguists—this is an absolute fact of the church’s relationship to Scripture. But we readers also necessarily construe the passage one way or another, in relationship to its co-texts or not, with better or worse theological commitments directing our reading. I advocate here an approach that, although not simplistic, I believe congregations can follow if they indeed take the words of the text seriously.

1 and 2 Timothy: The function of Scripture in the context of mission

Yes, mission is the context. Christ “proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world” (1 Tim 3:16) is central to the storyline of every NT text. Even granting that the pastoral epistles are steeped in a period of church institutionalization, there is no part of formalizing roles such as overseer (episkopos) or servant (diakonos) that is disconnected from the pressures and tensions of mission.

“The glorious gospel of the blessed God”  (1 Tim 1:11) has taken root in Ephesus. Now, there is a corollary issue: “sound teaching that conforms” to that message (1 Tim 1:10–11). This sound teaching is the thread that runs through 1 and 2 Tim (1 Tim 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; 4:3). This is not, however, the “sound doctrine” of my youth—the set of positions about which our group was right and everyone else was wrong. Though the language sounds antiquated, we have to rescue Paul’s words from those sorts of connotations so that we can hear the driving concern.

The proclamation of the gospel in historical, cultural, local contexts generates tremendous theological energy. The teaching (doctrines) that consequently come to articulation can never be something like a Platonic ideal, but they do run a massive spectrum of more or less conformity to the gospel. And conformity in turn correlates with the effects of the gospel in the life of the church. These are the stakes of teaching in Ephesus—and in our contexts today.

On the one hand, “the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). These are the proper effects of teaching. On the other hand, the quality of life that results from such instruction “is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3). In other words, this life is what God wants for his people precisely because he wants others to become his people.

Teaching results in life that results in teaching. Sound doctrine does much more than make church people right; “knowledge of the truth” is not an end in itself, because the salvation of everyone depends on the lifestyle of the church that knows the truth.

This interdependence is why the claim in 1 Tim 2:3 (that God desires everyone to be saved) is framed by an account of how Paul acted on the front end and an account of Paul’s role as herald and teacher on the back end. The phrase “I acted ignorantly in unbelief” [agnoōn epoiēsaen apistia] (1 Tim 1:13) is extremely poignant. What God makes of Paul is not a source of information but an example [hupotupōsis] (1 Tim 1:16)—therefore, God appointed him “a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” [didaskalos ethnōnen pisteikai alētheia] (1 Tim 2:7). This interplay of doing and teaching, ignorance and truth, is the weight that rests upon the “then” [oun] of 1 Tim 2:1 and the “then” [oun] of 1 Tim 2:8:

1 Tim 2:1–6
1 Tim 2:8–15
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable [hēsuchion] life in all godliness [eusebeia] and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time.
I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God [theosebeian]. Let a woman learn in silence [hēsuchia] with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This is a single argument, a continuous discourse on the problem identified in the opening of the letter:

I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct [parangeilēs] certain people not to teach any different doctrine [heterodidasalein],  and not to occupy themselves with myths [muthos] and endless genealogies that promote speculations [ekzētēseis] rather than the divine training that is known by faith [oikonomian theou tēnen pistei]. But the aim of such instruction [parangelias] is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk [mataiologian], desiring to be teachers of the law [nomodidaskaloi], without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions. Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately [ean tis autō nomimōs chrētai]. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching [tē hugiainousē didaskalia] that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Tim 1:3–11).

That list of sins at the end of the passage is liable to distract some readers if it activates a mental schema formed by preachers firing lists of condemnations like so much guilt-coated ammunition. Paul’s point, to the contrary, is the one I’ve already highlighted: sound teaching, teaching that conforms to the gospel, is teaching that results in and derives from a kind of action—a poiēsis that I would call missional (again, see 1 Tim 1:13). The driving concern is legitimate use of the law (“law” is shorthand for Scripture, i.e., the Hebrew Bible as it was available to the church at that time).

Who are these Ephesian church members “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions”? The same ones teaching “profane myths and old wives’ tales” as opposed to “sound teaching” (1 Tim 4:6–7). It is not incidental that these “myths” are called graōdēs, which means “characteristic of an elderly woman.”[1. BDAG, s.v. γραώδης] Nor is it coincidental that so much of 1 and 2 Timothy is given to discussing the women of this community (but not all women in general—that is an unsustainable leap).

The women in view here seem to include a group of widows who are “gadding about from house to house [tas oikias]; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say” (1 Tim 5:13). To conclude that this gadding and gossip are a separate issue from the unsound teaching that Paul is worried about would be a failure of imagination. This is a house church scenario. Just as life and teaching can’t be separated, neither can some imagined formal teaching and the house to house life of the church. “For among them are those who make their way into households [tas oikias] and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:6–7). Again, before painting Paul as a misogynist, it is only fair to note that he does not say that all women are silly gossips. In fact, he is confronting the fact of the powerful agency of certain women in Ephesus who presume to teach. The problem is not that they are women but that they are wrong, and they are influential.

More specifically, the problem is threefold: bad conscience (1 Tim 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2; 2 Tim 1:3), deceptiveness (1 Tim 4:1–2; 2 Tim 3:4, 13), and destructiveness (1 Tim 1:10; 4:6; 6:3–4; 2 Tim 1:13; 2:17; 4:3).

Bad conscience refers to the disjunction between teaching and godliness (eusebeia). This is why Paul is so concerned with both Timothy’s teaching and his conduct. As in Paul’s ministry, they are always inseparable.

These are the things you must insist on and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct [en logō, en anastrophē], in love, in faith, in purity. Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching [seautō kai tē didaskalia]; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Tim 4:11–16).

In particular, the monetary support of teachers (1 Tim 5:17–18) is a temptation for “lovers of money” who are “holding to the outward form of godliness [eusebeias] but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:2–5). Thus, Paul writes:

Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness [tē kat’ eusebeian didaskalia], is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness [eusebeian] is a means of gain. (1 Tim 6:3–5).

Again, it is a mistake to imagine that this issue can be partitioned from the widows who are interested in being on the church’s list of financial dependents—the same widows “gadding about from house to house” (1 Tim 5:3–24). The “honor” of “widows who are really widows” (1 Tim 5:3) is synonymous with the “double honor” of “those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17)—not because all are teachers but because all are intertwined in the same church economy in which teaching and leadership are worthy of monetary honor.

Deceptiveness refers to a consequence of ungodliness: “the hypocrisy of liars [hupokrisei pseudologōn] whose consciences are seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim 4:2). Such people are “impostors” [goētes; lit. “swindlers”], “deceiving others and being deceived” [planōntes kai planōmenoi] (2 Tim 3:13). These words are not meant to be personal attacks. Paul is identifying a characteristic that plays an important role in the situation to which he writes. Truth and teaching are intimately bound together, not in the competitive sense (“our teaching is true, theirs is false”) but rather in the ethical sense (“their teaching is a deception, our teaching is not”).

Destructiveness refers to the opposite of soundness. “Sound teaching” is a medical metaphor: the adjectival participle translated “sound” comes from the verb hugiainō, meaning “to be in good physical health, be healthy.”[2. BDAG, s.v. ὑγιαίνω] The health vs. disease motif echoes in the phrases already quoted above in reference to the would-be “teachers”: they have a “morbid [nosōn] craving for controversy and for disputes about words,” and they are “depraved [diephtharmenōn] in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim 6:4–5). The word translated “morbid” indeed denotes morbidity, sickness, and ailment. The word translated “depraved” connotes a sense of destruction as spoilage and wasting away. Thus, Paul associates “wrangling over words” and “profane chatter” with the imagery of destructive ulceration: “their talk will spread like gangrene” [gangraina] (2 Tim 2:14–17).

Because of contemporary usage, it is important to note that “profane chatter” here is not what we call “profanity,” as though the problem were course language or dirty jokes. Paul’s concern is about the effects (destruction, rot) caused by the opposite of “rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). This is the case every time he uses related phrases. Sound teaching is set in contrast with “myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations” (1 Tim 1:4), “profane myths and old wives’ tales” (1 Tim 4:6–7), “profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20), “stupid and senseless controversies” (2 Tim 2:23), and, one last time, “myths” (2 Tim 4:4). For Paul, the stakes of this sort of chatter, gossip, wrangling, and speculating are the health or destruction of the community.

These themes—bad conscience, deceptiveness, and destructiveness—outline the situation that drives Paul to emphasize Timothy’s teaching role as a deacon: “If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant [diakonos] of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching [kalēs didaskalias] that you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6). Paul advises Timothy that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher [didaktikon], patient, correcting opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:24–25). And “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” [en pasē makrothumia kai didachē] (2 Tim 4:2).

(Note, by the way, that Paul’s severe judgment of the situation cannot be taken as meanness. For example, calling the controversies in question “stupid and senseless” is not a failure to be “kindly to everyone.” Paul might, of course, have failed personally in that regard many times. I simply believe that he is too calculating to let his words contradict his instructions to Timothy. Paul is way too concerned about how his conduct bears on the coherency of his message to make that kind of misstep in a composed letter. Some views are stupid, destructive, and deceptive, and Paul seems to think that discussing those sorts of judgements openly is not in conflict with the imperatives of godliness in teaching.)

For the same reasons, Paul is very concerned about Timothy’s endeavor to raise other teachers. Whoever aspires to be a spiritual overseer of the community [episkopos] must, Like Timothy (a deacon), also be “an apt teacher” [didaktikon] (1 Tim 3:2). In the midst of this situation, there is urgency in the instructions about overseers and deacons. “What you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful [pistois] people who will be able to teach [hikanoi . . . didaxai] others as well,” writes Paul (2 Tim 2:2). But the situation also call for caution: “Do not ordain anyone hastily” (1 Tim 5:22)—literally, “do not hastily lay hands on anyone” [cheiras tacheōs mēdeni epitithei]. As with Timothy’s own ordination at Paul’s hands, the requirement is “sincere faith” [tēs . . . anupokritou pisteōs]—literally, “unhypocritical faith” (2 Tim 1:5–6). This brings us full circle to Paul’s stated reason for writing 1 Timothy—the “aim” (telos) of instruction is “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” [pisteōs anupokritou].

All of these dimensions of the argument that binds 1 and 2 Timothy together converge in the famous passage about inspired Scripture:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed [emathes kai epistōthēs], knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings [hiera grammata] that are able to instruct [sophisai] you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture [graphē] is inspired by God and is useful for teaching [ōphelimos pros didaskalian], for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work [pros pan ergon agathon exērtismenos]. (2 Tim 3:14–17)

From beginning to end, these letters are attuned to the “use” (1 Tim 1:8) and the “usefulness” (2 Tim 3:16) of Scripture. Its usefulness for teaching is not absolute (“inspiration” makes no such guarantees!), because it depends on legitimate use—one that results in the equipping of the church for every good work, that is, for mission. Or, to reintegrate teaching and doing once more in terms of Paul’s participation in God’s mission: “my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and suffering” are inextricable (2 Tim 3:10).

This, then, is the context in which 1 Tim 2:8–14 should be read. It is a threefold missional context, wherein: (1) the use of Scripture is rooted in participation in God’s mission, (2) the use of Scripture is for missional ends, and (3) the inclusive nature of mission opens the church to competing claims about the value of (1) and (2).

1 Tim 2:8–15 in its threefold missional context

Returning to 1 Tim 2:8–15, let’s break it down syntactically. This exercise is more helpful using the Greek text simply because translation tends to gloss features of the syntax, but most translations that do not slide completely into paraphrasing can still be put to relatively good use. Here’s how I break down the phrasing:

I desire, then,

that in every place the men should pray,

lifting up holy hands

without anger

or argument;

also that the women should dress themselves


and decently

in suitable clothing,

not with their hair braided,

or with gold, pearls,

or expensive clothes,

but with good works,

as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.

I permit no woman

to teach

or to have authority

over a man;

she is to keep silent.

For Adam was formed first, then Eve;

and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

Yet she will be saved through childbearing,

provided they continue

in faith

and love

and holiness,

with modesty.

To reiterate, “then” in v. 8 is carrying forward the logic of Paul’s apostleship, namely, God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), into this new discussion about men and women. Unsurprisingly, in light of the problem to which Paul is applying that logic—ignorance and unsound teaching—he addresses Ephesian men who are in a state of “anger and argument,” which calls to mind Paul’s self-description as “a man of violence” [hubristēn] (1 Tim 1:13) a few sentences earlier. This is in contrast to the “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim 2:2) that Paul believes to be conducive to his mission and theirs. In other words, just as my reading of the co-textual world indicated, the topic doesn’t change. This is an even more vital point to emphasize as the discussion apparently moves to women’s apparel.

The phrases “that in every place the men” and “also that the women” are in parallel construction, subordinate to “I desire, then.” The “then” carries through both sets of instructions. Whereas the violence of the men is in view, the status symbols of the women are in view, and both are inseparable from the misuse of the law seen in the co-texts. I think status symbols is the right way to characterize braided hair, gold, pearls, and expensive clothes, because (1) the vocabulary (kosmiō meta aidous; v. 9) is laden with connotations of respect and honor and (2) the co-text has already indicated a problematic correlation of money, teaching authority, and honor in this setting. These women “profess reverence for God” [theosebeian] but seem to confuse status symbols with the real qualities of “godliness [eusebeia] and dignity” (1 Tim 2:2) that Paul is after. These qualities correspond not to fashionableness and wealth but to “good works” [ergōn agathōn]—precisely what Scripture rightly used should produce (2 Tim 3:17).

Therefore, the structural and thematic links extend naturally into the discussion of women learning and teaching. The “quiet and peaceable [hēsuchion] life in all godliness and dignity” that Paul wants for the whole church entails the same “silence” [hēsuchia] that he wants for these women who need to learn better how to use Scripture. It is a state of peaceableness in which one can learn to submit to sound doctrine. It should hardly need saying, this does not imply a contrast with men, as though men should learn in a state of disruption with rebelliousness. The point, as the co-texts suggest, is that these women in Ephesus, acting in just these ways, need both an opportunity and a disposition to learn, because they desire “to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions” (1 Tim 1:7).

Since they lack a peaceable environment and a submissive disposition, Paul instructs them not (1) to teach, or (2) to have authority (authentein) but (3) to keep silent (hēsuchia). A few translational issues arise. One, “to have authority” simply does not do justice to the dictatorial connotation that the word authentein carries. It is better translated as “to lord over” and designates a kind of power play that neither men nor women can legitimately make in the kingdom of God. Two, hēsuchia pops up once more (signaling its importance). In order to underline the sense of a peaceable environment, I’m going to use the lengthy phrase, “state of quietness without disturbance.”[3. BDAG, s.v. ἡσυχίᾳ] Three, the translation “I permit no woman” [gunaiki ouk epitrepō] is treacherous, because it conceals the fact that epitrepō is the verb governing all three phrases that follow. The awkwardness this creates is reflected in the NRSV (quoted above), which uses a semicolon to set apart “she is to keep silent” as a separate clause. Translated more rigidly, v. 12 says:

I do not permit a woman

to teach,

or to lord over a man,

but rather

to be in state of quietness without disturbance.

All three infinitives—to teach, to lord over, and to be—depend on “I permit.” But, of course, for Paul to say he “permits” a woman to be in state of quietness without disturbance undermines the force of the command. Notably, a secondary definition of epitrepō is “order, instruct”[4. BDAG, s.v. ἐπιτρέπω]. The sense of the sentence is that Paul is ordering these women to stop teaching and lording over the men of the church (apparently using their status symbols as a cudgel in service of the ambition to be teachers despite their ignorance) and to start assuming the disposition of a learner. Again, I find it impossible to think Paul would give different instructions to men who acted as these women were.

Finally, coming to the most peculiar aspects of the passage, we find the theme of deception so prominent throughout the passage’s co-textual world. If we needed more proof of how tightly connected this passage is with the problems of unsound teaching that run through both books, we find “deceiving others and being deceived” [planōntes kai planōmenoi] in 2 Tim 3:13 to be synonymous with the terminology of the biblical story that Paul uses to interpret these women: “the woman was deceived [exapatētheisa] and became a transgressor” (1 Tim 2:15). For that is what Paul is doing: interpreting them with the biblical story—reading them into Eve’s being deceived.

The point needs some emphasis. It is a mistake to take Paul’s use of Scripture here simply to be an exegesis of Gen 3, as though he were finding in the story of Adam and Eve a set meaning like, “Women are prone to deception, but men are not, therefore women should not teach in the church.” He is not taking a universal meaning from Genesis and applying it to all women; rather he starts with the specific problem of these Ephesian women and holds the biblical text up to them as a mirror. He does the same with the entire Corinthian church, men and women: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). The reason Paul can use Gen 3 for both women and men here, then women alone in 1 Tim 2:14, is that he is not excavating a single, determinate meaning and “applying” it. Rather, in both cases, being deceived is the situational concern, and he is calling for those who are deceived to identify themselves as deceived by finding themselves in the symbol of Eve.

Of course, the gravity of that identification is not the status “deceived” but the consequences it carries. We have already seen that the consequences of unsound teaching are, for Paul, the driving concern. Sound teaching results in the equipping of the church for good works—for mission. Unsound teaching results in decay and destruction of the community. The pivot in v. 15 (“yet”) is Paul clarifying that finding themselves in the symbol of Eve does not mean that they should also read themselves into the “curse” of Gen 3:16. This clarification is necessary because Eve’s confession, “The serpent tricked (ēpateēsen; LXX) me, and I ate” (the only place where Paul’s deception vocabulary appears in the Greek Old Testament version of the story) leads directly into God’s declaration of the consequences. The last thing Paul wants is to suggest that the “faith and love and holiness” (2 Tim 2:15) of a Christian woman make no difference for the story of humanity’s being deceived. Quite the opposite: the sound teaching that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save (sōsai) sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) is what will lead “everyone to be saved (sōthēnai) and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), including women who “will be saved (sōthēsetai) through childbearing.” The details of this expression have confounded biblical interpreters since shortly after Paul penned them, but I’m not worried about a solution, since it does not bear directly on the question of female leadership. It seems clear to me, in any case, that Paul is nuancing his use of the Eve story: identify yourself in Eve’s being deceived, but do not forget that we are in Christ, the new Adam (cf. “in the Lord” in 1 Cor 11:11). Paul wants these women to start acting and thinking like they are “in Christ.” To do that, they need to recognize that they have been deceived, but that recognition should not lead them to think they are “in Eve.”

So how have they been deceived? The same way we all are—by competing accounts of truth. Paul’s persistent criticism of controversy, disputes, wrangling, chatter, contradictions, and, above all, myths signals the powerful presence of competing claims “falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20). Who calls them knowledge? Obviously, the women in question, but more importantly, the intellectual and cultural leaders who have shaped their thinking. In other words, as in every mission context, we are dealing with the collision of worldviews (“myths” is a key word here) and, more to the point, the use of Scripture in the midst of that convergence.

Let me repeat the threefold missional context of biblical interpretation outlined above: (1) the use of Scripture is rooted in participation in God’s mission, (2) the use of Scripture is for missional ends, and (3) the inclusive nature of mission opens the church to competing claims about the value of (1) and (2). The major issue in Ephesus is (3). The major issue, in other words, is not simply that converts in the cultural context of Ephesus carry residual beliefs and practices that are incompatible with the gospel. That is always the case in every culture—it is a boring observation. The major issue is that certain women holding to these beliefs and practices are also making a bid to become teachers, directly undermining both the use of Scripture rooted in participation in God’s mission and the equipping of the church for participation in God’s mission. In this context, Paul commands these women not to teach but to learn.

Back to the tensions of a missional reading

In our current context, a similar dynamic prevails. Because the same theological impulse that brings Paul to say that in Christ there is neither male nor female (again, see here) animates missional theology, missional ecclesiology is essentially inclusive, so a missional reading of 1 Tim 2:8–15 might result in a gender-inclusive interpretation. Yet, I think the dynamic in contemporary missional ecclesiology is actually more complex than simply letting that theological anthropology guide the reading (which is also a legitimate move for a congregation at a different place in the hermeneutical circle).

In the present context, it is not simply that patriarchy is a false understanding of the relationship between men and women in Christ, though it is that. Egalitarians will call patriarchy an invasion of cultural values foreign to the gospel, and complementarians will say the same of the apparently late-modern gender roles that egalitarians espouse. But I think the subtler issue is that missional ecclesiology today comes after the fact of church patriarchy, which means that the inclusiveness of the ecclesiology that would affirm the equal calling and gifting of men and women in Christ also entails inclusiveness toward those already in the church who are carrying forward a commitment to the tradition of patriarchy. Not for nothing, it is often traditionalist women who insist that women must not teach (yes, the irony should be palpable).

Let me be more specific. Sound missional ecclesiology entails the practice of inclusive, communal reading and interpretation of Scripture, a practice in which the whole community, gifted for participation in God’s mission, reads Scripture as participants in God’s mission, in order to equip one another for participation in God’s mission. By virtue of that commitment, missional churches are necessarily inclusive toward those who would advance an inherited patriarchal understanding of 1 Tim 2:8–15.

In other words, as 1 and 2 Timothy has taught us, a missional hermeneutic leaves us open to viewpoints are in conflict with the use of Scripture rooted in participation in God’s mission and with the use of Scripture for missional ends. This is no less the case when the competing claims are brought forth from church history.

The inclusiveness of missional ecclesiology occasions another problem consonant with those in Ephesus: the ignorant are included. I’m taking a page from Paul here, so “ignoran” is not an insult but a description. Ignorance is the state of lacking knowledge. It is a natural state. We all begin there in regard to everything and remain there in regard to many things. But that doesn’t make it virtuous or desirable.

In my tradition, however, the cultural current of anti-intellectualism that pervades our approach to spirituality and, in particular, biblical interpretation makes ignorance into a virtue. This is a huge topic on which I intend to write a lot more, but the short of it is that our profoundly populist movement believes in the capacity of the average, uneducated Bible reader to find the “plain” or “simple” meaning of Scripture. The Bible “says what it means and means what it says.” The meaning is “black and white.” In the case of 1 Tim 2:12, the meaning is plain: “I permit no woman to teach.” Simple. Done.

Any claim to a more complicated interpretation of 1 Tim 2 crashes into the cultural commitment to the virtues of uneducated readers and the simplicity of Bible reading. And any more complicated missional interpretation of 1 Tim 2, by virtue of its inclusiveness, opens itself to the ignorance inherent in this anti-intellectual church culture. This dynamic is not identical to the situation in Ephesus, because these women may have been very well educated in the so-called knowledge that Paul rejects. In fact, that may be what made some of them think they should be teachers. Nonetheless, I see a striking parallel between their ignorance of sound teaching and the ignorance that traditionalist, anti-intellectual church culture promotes.

So, I think Paul would say something similar to the church today: women should use Scripture as participants in mission, women should use Scripture to equip the church for mission, and whoever teaches that women should not use Scripture in these way needs to stop teaching and find a quiet place to learn.

A missional reading of 1 Tim 2:8–15 reveals a tension inherent in reading Scripture missionally: The exclusion of people from full participation in the life of the church—including congregational interpretation of Scripture—on the basis of gender or education is incompatible with missional theology. Yet, Paul excludes some from teaching because of their ignorance—ignorance about the gospel, about the inseparability of teaching and participation in mission, and about the legitimate use of Scripture. The ignorance of church members is a missiological problem, then and now. We have to ask: Who is able to handle the law? Who is able to teach faithfully? Who is able to equip the church for good works? Our inclusiveness must live in tension with the requirement that some members of the community learn instead of teaching—whether that teaching would be done from a formal position of authority, as participants in a Bible study, from house to house, or through any of the many ways that theological influence is actually exercised. This tension between inclusiveness and legitimate use of Scripture is vital for missional hermeneutics, especially in populist, congregationalist traditions like mine.


Worldview in Grenz and Franke’s Postfoundationalist, Postmodern Method

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 9)

The next two parts of the series consider what significant evangelical theological methods with underdeveloped conceptions of worldview stand to gain by working with a missiological understanding of worldview. I consider the use of worldview in Grenz and Franke’s Beyond Foundationalism and in Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine. They deserve consideration in the present argument for three reasons. First, both are widely recognized as noteworthy evangelical expositions of theological method. Second, they are already attuned to missional concerns. Third, they engage profoundly with the post-everything context that concerns missional theology.

Stanley Grenz and John Franke’s book Beyond Foundationalism already bends toward missional theology, claiming the “final purpose of theology” is “the church’s mission.”[1. Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2001), 26, 50, 273.] This phrasing still reflects an ecclesiocentric missiology that has not been restructured by the priority of God’s mission, but the trinitarian and participatory theology they elaborate resonates with missional theology nonetheless.[2. One reader asked whether we shouldn’t read this phrasing more generously. I can’t disagree: Franke is a missiologist and currently serves as General Coordinator for the Gospel and Our Culture Network; see The Gospel and Our Culture Network, GOCN Board, My concern here, however, is the broad tendency of evangelical theology into which this phrasing still plays and which, undoubtedly, many still bring to their reading.] Their proposal is particularly attentive to culture, engaging missiological concerns more than most theological methods. Yet, a clearer conception of worldview could resolve a critical equivocation in their method and make an already fruitful work even more valuable for missional theology.

The authors identify their context as “postmodern,” which they take to designate a “rejection of certain central features of the modern project” that unifies the work of deconstructionists, postliberals, and posconservatives alike.[3. Grenz and Franke, 21.] As the book’s title indicates, their “especially crucial” theological concern is the demise of modern epistemological foundationalism.[4. Ibid., 28.] This is the primary sense of their question, “How should theology respond to the collapse of the modern worldview?”[5. Ibid., 11.]:

The results of the foundationalist approach of modern liberals and conservatives have been astounding. In different ways both groups have sought to respond to the challenge of the Enlightenment and rescue theology in the face of the secularist worldview of late modernity. Although the liberals and conservatives routinely dismiss each other’s work, they share the single agenda of seeking to maintain the credibility of Christianity within a culture that glorifies reason and deifies science.[6. Ibid., 37.]

The question, in other words, is how to do theology when the theological appeal to foundationalist epistemology is no longer culturally appropriate, because the worldview that theology needs to address has passed from modern to postmodern.

Their suggestion for theology “beyond foundationalism” begins with the work of Reformed epistemologists, “which raises the question as to what—if anything—might be deemed basic for Christian theology.”[7. Ibid., 47.] Grenz and Franke’s point of departure becomes, therefore, the “communitarian turn” of Reformed epistemology, identifying as “basic” for theology the “interpretive framework” of the Christian community that shares the experience of the “encounter with the God of the Bible through Jesus.”[8. Ibid., 48–49.] It is here that the confusion about worldview begins, however, because Grenz and Franke are now using the conception of worldview typical of the Reformed theologians discussed above: worldview is “basic beliefs.” Hence, “any such interpretive framework is theological in nature, for it involves an understanding that sees the world in connection with the divine reality around which that tradition focuses.”[9. Ibid., 49; emphasis added.] This “cognitive framework” is not foundationalist, because it participates in a hermeneutical circle in which the articulation of a theological understanding already presumes a theological understanding.[10. Ibid., 49–50.] Worldview is now essentially synonymous with a product of a coherentist theological method, a “belief-mosaic”:

Therefore, while we might view the Christian interpretive framework as in a certain sense foundational for theology, we could more properly speak of theology as the articulation of the cognitive mosaic of the Christian faith. This mosaic consists of the interlocking doctrines that together comprise the specifically Christian way of viewing the world. This worldview is truly theological and specifically Christian because it involves an understanding of the entire universe and of ourselves in connection with the God of the Bible and the biblical narrative of God bringing creation to its divinely destined goal.[11. Ibid., 51.]

The shift in the usage of worldview is subtle and easy to miss: from a description of a culture (modernity) in which an epistemological presupposition set the agenda for theology to an alternative epistemology based on experience and theological reflection among a religious community. The key to this shift is twofold: the conflation of culture and community and the conflation of epistemology and worldview.

A community may be monocultural, or not. The sharper point, however, is that a Christian community always participates in a larger culture. Conflating culture and community, therefore, obscures the extent to which the “theological worldview” of the Christian community does not account for the total worldview of the culture in which it is a participant. Likewise, a worldview serves an epistemological function in the broadest sense: it may be considered comprehensively as the way that a person knows. Yet, reducing worldview to epistemology proper obscures the other theologically determinative dimensions of a worldview.[12. See, e.g., Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 46, where epistemological assumptions are only one aspect of worldview.] Thus, the claim that “scripture mediates a specifically Christian ‘interpretive framework’” that consists of a  “set of categories, beliefs, and values—whether consciously formulated or merely unconsciously presumed—which forms one’s perception of reality and life” may be true as far as it goes.[13. Grenz and Franke, 81.] But identifying this as a worldview[14. Ibid., 85–86.] derails the book’s vitally important discussion of culture in theological method.

Grenz and Franke rightly assert, “Theology emerges through an ongoing conversation involving both ‘gospel’ and ‘culture.’”[15. Ibid., 158.] They characterize this process by contrast with both liberal correlation and evangelical contextualization methods that rely on foundationalism. So far, so good. They continue:

Discerning what characterizes the socially constructed worlds people around us inhabit places us in a better position to address the generation God calls us to serve. Doing so, however, necessitates that we conceptualize and articulate Christian beliefs—the gospel—in a manner that contemporary people can understand. That is, we must express the gospel through the “language” of the culture—through the cognitive tools, concepts, images, symbols, and thought forms—by means of which people today discover meaning, construct the world they inhabit, and form personal identity.[16. Ibid., 159.]

This sounds identical to typical accounts of contextualization, but the contrast they wish to draw is that the “gospel” to be articulated is not a “Christian universal, which in turn functions as the foundation for the construction of the theological superstructure” but an understanding of the gospel that only emerges on the basis of the interaction with culture.[17. Ibid., 158. Their characterization of foundationalist contextualization, taking Kraft as an example, is dubious. By their own admission (citing Bevans in fn. 139), there are exceptions, leaving one to wonder why they do not retrieve a nonfoundationalist account of contextualization given its anthropological sophistication. In one sense, that is what I am proposing.] As I stated in regard to the development of the cognitive framework (which is the theological belief mosaic), this is a hermeneutical circle in which the articulation of a theological understanding already presumes a theological understanding—which is now seen to be a culturally determined theological preunderstanding. This is correct. Yet, by (a) defining worldview as a system of Christian beliefs that function epistemologically, (b) defining the Christian community constituted thereby as a culture, (c) identifying Christian beliefs as the gospel, and (d) stating these beliefs must be conceptualized and articulated through the language of the culture, they have crippled the method. If the gospel is the beliefs that constitute the worldview of Christian culture, then it cannot be conceptualized in another culture, for that would logically be constituted by other beliefs. If the “set of values, beliefs, and loyalties”[18. Ibid., 163–64.] that make Christian community a culture are, as already stated, also an epistemology, how can an epistemology be articulated in terms of “the cognitive tools, concepts, images, symbols, and thought forms” that are by their definition a different epistemology?

The only way to make their method function, I believe, is to clarify the conception of worldview missiologically. This does not entail attributing “neutrality” to cultural forms, but it does require a more anthropologically nuanced account of worldview that does not confuse the pretheoretical dimensions of culture by which communities may speak in a variety of ways with the content of Christian theology. Grenz and Franke go a long way toward a missional theological method, identifying the style of Christian theology as “trinitarian in content, communitarian in focus, and eschatological in orientation,” recognizing the purpose of theology as missional, and indispensably requiring a culturally dialogical method. But they also demonstrate that such a method cannot proceed without a clearer conception of worldview. Only by dealing explicitly with the pretheoretical dimensions of meaning-making can intercultural, interreligious, and interconfessional theological dialogue result in mutual understandings that might serve God’s mission.


Ricoeur on Biblical Interpretation and Resurrection Hope

Some excerpts from two essays. I highlight the thread of “new creation” that ties them together.

From Paul Ricoeur, “Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation”:

“What is finally to be understood in a text is not the author or his presumed intention, nor is it the immanent structure or structures of the text, but rather the sort of world intended beyond the text as its reference. In this regard, the alternative “either the intention or the structure” is vain. For the reference of the text is what I call the issue of the text or the world of the text. The world of the text designates the reference of the work of discourse, not what is said, but about what it is said. Hence the issue of the text is the object of hermeneutics. And the issue of the text is the world the text unfolds before itself.

. . .

Religious discourse is poetic in all the senses we have named. Being written down as scripture removes it from the finite horizon of its authors and its first audience. The style of its literary genres gives it the externality of a work. And the intended implicit reference of each text opens onto a world, the biblical world, or rather the multiple worlds unfolded before the book by its narration, prophecy, prescriptions, wisdom, and hymns. The proposed world that in biblical language is called a new creation, a new Covenant, the Kingdom of God, is the “issue” of the biblical text unfolded in front of this text.”

From Paul Ricoeur, “Freedom in the Light of Hope”:

“The task of a hermeneutics of the Resurrection is to reinstitute the potential of hope, to tell the future of the Resurrection. The meaning of the “Resurrection” is in suspense insofar as it is not fulfilled in a new creation, in a new totality of being. To recognize the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is to enter into the movement of hope in resurrection from the dead, to attain the new creation ex nihilo, that is, beyond death.

If such is the meaning of hope on its own level of discourse, that of a hermeneutics of the Resurrection, what is the meaning of freedom if it also must be converted to hope? What is freedom in the light of hope? I will answer in one word: it is the meaning of my existence in the light of the Resurrection, that is, as reinstated in the movement which we have called the future of the Resurrection of the Christ. In this sense, a hermeneutics of religious freedom is an interpretation of freedom in conformity with the Resurrection interpreted in terms of promise and hope.

. . .

[Hope] is allied with the imagination insofar as the latter is the power of the possible and the disposition for being in a radical renewal. Freedom in the light of hope, expressed in psychological terms, is nothing else than this creative imagination of the possible.

But we can also speak in ethical terms and emphasize its character of obedience, of listening. Freedom is a “following” (Folgen). For ancient Israel, the Law is the way that leads from promise to fulfillment. Covenant, Law, Freedom, as power to obey or disobey, are derivative aspects of the promise. The Law imposes (gebietet) what the promise proposes (bietet). The commandment is thus the ethical face of the promise. Of course, with Saint Paul this obedience is no longer transcribed in terms of law; obedience to the Law is no longer the sign of the efficacy of the promise; rather, the Resurrection is the sign.

Nevertheless, a new ethics marks the linkage of freedom to hope — what Moltmann calls the ethics of the mission (Sendung); the promissio involves a missio, in the mission, the obligation which engages the present proceeds from the promise, opens the future. But more precisely, the mission signifies something other than an ethics of duty, just as the passion for the possible signifies something other than what is arbitrary. The practical awareness of a “mission” is inseparable from the deciphering of the signs of the new creation, of the tendential character of the Resurrection, to quote Moltmann once more.

The mission would thus be the ethical equivalent of hope, just as the passion for the possible was its psychological equivalent.

This second trait of freedom in the light of hope removes us further than the first trait did from the existential interpretation, which is too much centered on the present decision; for the ethics of the mission has communitarian, political, and even cosmic implications, which the existential decision, centered on personal interiority, tends to hide. A freedom open to new creation is in fact less centered on subjectivity, on personal authenticity, than on social and political justice; it calls for a reconciliation which itself demands to be inscribed in the recapitulation of all things.

. . .

Hope, insofar as it is hope of resurrection, is the living contradiction of what it proceeds from and what is placed under the sign of the Cross and death. According to an admirable phrase of the Reformers, the Kingdom of God is hidden under its contrary, the Cross. If the connection between the Cross and the Resurrection is of the order of paradox and not of logical mediation, freedom in the light of hope is not only freedom for the possible but, more fundamentally still, freedom for the denial of death, freedom to decipher the signs of the Resurrection under the contrary appearance of death.”

Both essays are in Paul Ricoeur, Essays on Biblical Interpretation, ed. Lewis S. Mudge (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980),

Worldview in the Missiological Language Game

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 8)

If anything, my survey of the contours of worldview has only established the dizzying ubiquity and ambiguity of the term. A clarified conceptualization remains to be seen, though perhaps what should be clarified is more evident. Moreover, it is evident that what should be clarified depends on the context of the concept’s use. Therefore, I turn to missiology in order to mark the bounds of a theological language game in which missional theology should further develop, according to its own grammar, a conception of worldview that can serve as a theoretical basis for a constructive theological method. Evangelical missiologists Paul Hiebert and Charles Kraft developed missiological models of worldview over the course of their careers, culminating in two important volumes.[1. Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); Charles H. Kraft, Worldview for Christian Witness (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008).] Their understandings have deep affinities, but they are not identical.[2. See Yoshiyuki Billy Nishioka, “Worldview Methodology in Mission Theology: A Comparison between Kraft’s and Hiebert’s Approaches,” Missiology: An International Review 26, no. 4 (October 1998): 457–76; Kraft, 116–24. Neither of these accounts, however, represent the full disclosure of Hiebert’s thinking in his posthumous 2008 volume.] My purpose here is not to sort out the differences or offer a synthetic account but to suggest that their heuristic models of worldview already establish the bounds of the missiological language game for the purpose of further developing worldview methodologically for missional theology. I propose there are four relevant dimensions of the missiological conception of worldview.

(1) Worldview analysis serves God’s mission. It is participatory in nature, developed only by participation with others’ worldviews and meant to facilitate understanding for a dialogical participant in others’ lives. Unlike worldview in ostensibly secular anthropology, the missiological conception of worldview is not designed for purely descriptive purposes but overtly raises the question of how worldviews change (mutually), in order to participate more wisely in God’s transforming work in the world. (2) A worldview is a human, socio-cultural phenomenon. Because it is a feature of humanity, a person may not choose not to have a worldview. The anthropological elaboration of the concept has philosophical roots but cannot proceed on any basis except rigorous ethnography. As such, it is a pragmatic theory concerned with the way people actually make meaning in cultural contexts. (3) Worldviews are pretheoretical, implicit, and explicable. Cultures have a component that is not what people think but what people think with. As the deep structure of culture, this pretheoretical component is largely tacit. This does not mean simply that people tend to live the unexamined life but that the very act of examining life depends on a mostly implicit worldview. Worldview is by definition presuppositional and predispositional, therefore what a person consciously “believes” and “values” is generally a product, not a statement, of worldview. Yet, worldview can be made explicit. This is the most problematic aspect of the concept, because a worldview can only be conceived and articulated on the basis of a worldview, whether reflexively or dialogically. Moreover, explicated worldview tends to take the propositional form of a “belief” or “core value,” but, as Wittgenstein has taught us, this is deceptive. (4) Worldviews are commensurable. Translatability is the fundamental assumption of the missiological conception of worldview, but this does not gloss radical difference. The rigor of worldview analysis is motivated by the experience of radical difference and misunderstanding. Yet, some form of critical realism, or perhaps ontological monism, makes a sort of triangulation between God, world, and worldviews a working theoretical assumption.

In summary, vulnerable participation in mutual transformation, rigorous ethnographic observation, dialogical explication of tacit cultural phenomena, and a functional critical realism in the midst of deep difference designate the contours of a missiological theory of worldview. Of course, these four dimensions only begin to suggest how worldview analysis might become a methodological crux of missional theology. There is need yet to develop a functional model of worldview for missional theology, but that is an undertaking for another time. The task at hand is to argue for the methodological value of the missiological concept per se.


Worldview in Anthropology

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 7.5)

Within the social sciences too, worldview enjoys a diverse history.[1. Despite the oddly reductive portrayal of Sander Griffioen, “The Worldview Approach to Social Theory,” in Stained Glass: Worldviews and Social Science, ed. Paul A. Marshall, Sander Griffioen, and Richard J. Mouw, Christian Studies Today (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), 90, fourteen years prior Michael Kearney, “World View Theory and Study,” Annual Review of Anthropology 4 (October 1975): 247–70, had already surveyed an expansive amount of worldview study, particularly in anthropology. Mark E. Koltko-Rivera, “The Psychology of Worldviews,” Review of General Psychology 8, no. 1 (2004): 3–58, provides a similarly expansive presentation of worldview in psychology. Annick Hedlund-de Witt, “Exploring worldviews and their relationships to sustainable lifestyles: Towards a new conceptual and methodological approach,” Ecological Economics 84 (December 2012): 74–83, explores a number of more sociologically oriented approaches.] I limit my comments here to anthropology. Clifford Geertz is the best representative of worldview conceptualization in anthropology, both because of his influence (including in missiology) and because his work is dated.[2. His well-known essay “Ethos, World View, and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,” The Antioch Review 17, no. 4 (Winter 1957): 421–37, is nearly sixty years old.] The latter is important because worldview has seemingly become passé in anthropology, raising the question of whether worldview analysis like that of Geertz has been debunked or proven unsustainable in some way. It appears, to the contrary, that worldview as an analytic construct is alive and well at least in American anthropology.[3. Beine, David. “The End of Worldview in Anthropology?” SIL Electronic Working Papers 2010-004 (September 2010): 1–10,] Geertz has also recently been the object of vindication despite significant critique.[4. Kevin Schilbrack, “Religion, Models of, and Reality: Are We Through with Geertz?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73, no. 2 (June 2005): 429–452; Jung Lee, “Ethos and Worldview Reconsidered: Geertz, Normativity, and the Comparative Study of Religions,” Religion Compass 6, no. 12 (December 2012): 500–510.] Furthermore, much of worldview’s decline in anthropology is related to wider philosophical critiques of representationalist epistemology, along with the rise of antirealism. Yet, ethnographers continue to wrestle with the need to affirm both a common world and socially constructed views of the world.[5. Two recent programmatic essays by João de Pina-Cabral, in which he urges the recovery of worldview, may well signal the resetting of the board in ethnography. See João de Pina-Cabral, “World: An Anthropological Examination (Part 1),” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic  Theory 4, no. 1 (2014): 49–73; João de Pina-Cabral, “World: An Anthropological Examination (Part 2),” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic  Theory 4, no. 3 (2014): 149–84.] The conception of worldview must and can find a middle way between skeptical relativism and naive representationalism—which it already needed to do on the basis of early philosophical conceptions—and ethnography and comparative anthropology is in a unique position to “go beyond the limits of speculation to point to the actual empirical conditions under which humans produce meaning.”[6. De Pina-Cabral, “World: An Anthropological Examination (Part 1),” 59.] With that in mind, I summarize the implications of the preceding subsections en route to the missiological conception of worldview.

Worldview across Philosophy, Biblical Studies, Theology, and Anthropology

  1. Worldview has gone through various philosophical articulations and critiques. Three important qualifications have resulted. First, having a worldview does not put one in the position of a subject viewing the objective world. The human perception of the world is mediated by perceptual experience, and worldview is a way of designating the total perceptual system of the human being. Second, the state of being-in-the-world is a given for perceptual experience, so the designation worldview necessarily implies a holistic, embodied experience of the world. Third, worldview is pretheoretical and linguistically mediated. Thus, while a worldview is, to some extent, articulable, its first-order function is not as a theory or philosophy but rather as that which undergirds the articulation of a theory or philosophy.
  2. In post-romanticist biblical studies, worldview does not refer to the mind of the author as an object of historical-critical study that, once reconstructed, might render authorial intent. Instead, worldview is the very horizon meditated by an author’s language, which the reader only encounters through her own horizon.
  3. Following the above qualifications, it is a mistake for theology to equate worldview with a Christian philosophy or philosophical theology, or even an explicated set of Christian presuppositions. Because worldview is an embodied, cultural-linguistic, pretheoretical phenomenon, it cannot rightly be reduced to a cognitivist belief system. Furthermore, the narrative dimensions of worldview, which come to the fore in the linguistically mediated horizon of an author, orient theology to human narrativity rather than mere beliefs.
  4. Cultural anthropology’s continued deployment of worldview is concerned with the ways in which humans both inhabit a shared world and socially construct views of the world. This is once again a holistic investigation, whose accent falls on the concretely cultural aspects of perception.


Worldview in Theology

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 7.4)

Since the early 1980s, there has been a flurry of publication on “the Christian worldview.” This has reflected the lack of clarity about the relationship between philosophy and worldview, adding to the confusion the contested relationship between philosophy and theology. Often, worldview is conflated with the articulation of some sort of Christian philosophy or philosophical theology, or at least the mingling of philosophy and theology.[1. See, e.g., William Hasker, Metaphysics: Constructing a World View, Contours of Christian Philosophy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983); Arthur F. Holmes, Contours of a World View, Studies in a Christian World View (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983); W. Andrew Hoffecker, Building a Christian Worldview, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1986); Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992); J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).] Such approaches are generally in search of a comprehensive system of belief or “theory of everything.”[2. James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 93, notes this common misapprehension.] Others, such as Albert Wolters, characterize worldview as pretheoretical basic beliefs, which the “basic concepts” of biblical theology should constitute—at which point they are apparently no longer pretheoretical.[3. Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005; 1st ed. 1985), ch. 1, offers the prime example; Walsh and Middleton do much the same.] Subsequently, the elaboration of “the Christian worldview” as the framework for Christian university education has morphed into an industry all its own.[4. See, e.g., Walsh and Middleton, chs. 11–12; David S. Dockery and Gregory Alan Thornbury, eds., Shaping a Christian Worldview: The Foundations of Christian Higher Education (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2002); Robert A. Harris, The Integration of Faith and Learning: A Worldview Approach (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2004); Mark P. Cosgrove, Foundations of Christian Thought: Faith Learning, and the Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006). This stream seems to originate from the affinity between “basic beliefs” and the notion of “control beliefs” elaborated by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), though Wolterstorff himself is none too fond worldview in the Kuyperian tradition; see Nicholas Wolterstorff, “On Christian Learning,” in Stained Glass: Worldviews and Social Science, ed. Paul A. Marshall, Sander Griffioen, and Richard J. Mouw, Christian Studies Today (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), 66–67.] In the context of this final development, especially in the Reformed tradition, James K. A. Smith registers a significant concern about worldview: it tends to be deeply biased toward beliefs and, therefore, assumes an overly cognitive anthropology.[5. James K. A. Smith, Cultural Liturgies, vol. 1, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 24–25.] There is much in the philosophical conceptions already discussed, and more in the social scientific conceptions below, to suggest that the cognitivist Reformed misconstrual of worldview is not representative, yet given the overwhelming tendency in theological circles to reduce the concept to express beliefs—and, indeed, given the cognitivist bent of Western theology generally—Smith’s warning is weighty. While one might argue that Charles Taylor’s “social imaginary” (which Smith prefers over worldview) is synonymous with worldview properly conceived, the point in any event is that the conception of worldview, if it is to be theologically fruitful, needs to move toward its postmodern realization as an embodied, cultural phenomenon.[6. The missiological account of worldview, attuned to cultural anthropology, already moves in this direction. In fact, the most curious thing about Smith’s discussion is that, in order to undertake a cultural analysis, he invites the reader to imagine being a Martian anthropologist doing ethnography in North America (19). Why not just imagine being an actual anthropologist and appeal to established ethnographic methods? Even when it is reduced to mere “practical theology,” missiology already offers at least that much as a discipline within Christian theology. Its absence here is especially glaring because of Smith’s purported attention to culture, but the lacuna is typical of most theology—and a major contrast with missional theology methodologically organized around worldview.]

A second important development in theology is the use of worldview in theological hermeneutics. The leading representative in this regard is N. T. Wright, whose massive series Christian Origins and the Question of God has made extensive use of Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton’s worldview questions.[7. Beginning with N. T. Wright, Christian Origins And The Question Of God, vol. 1, The New Testament and the People God (London: SPCK, 1992), 123, and continuing through his most recent volume in the series.] As a work of New Testament theology dealing extensively with first-century Christianity through the lens of a worldview model, I might have mentioned it in connection with biblical studies, especially given the hermeneutical concerns that relate so directly to Wright’s endeavor to reconstruct the worldview of, for example, second-temple Jews. Yet, his melding of historical worldview analysis with narrative theology places his work in the no-man’s land of theological hermeneutics. Because other theologians have followed Wright in developing a narrative account of worldview, and because it only seems right to disassociate his biblical theology from the objectivist hermeneutics Gadamer has made untenable, the discussion is best placed here. The upshot is that narrative worldview analysis is now at home in biblical theology and, increasingly, missional hermeneutics.[8. Edward W Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), part 3, have gone so far as to classify an entire approach to biblical theology, following Wright, as “biblical theology as worldview-story.” See also Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004); Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); Michael Goheen, “The Mission of God’s People and Biblical Interpretation: Exploring N. T. Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic,” A Dialogue with N. T. Wright, Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar Meeting, San Francisco, November 18, 2011, Mike Goheen and Al Wolters, “Postscript: Worldview between Story and Mission,” in Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 119–43, even take Wolter’s original proposal in a narrative direction.]


Worldview in Biblical Studies

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 7.3)

Dilthey is also a major worldview protagonist in biblical studies, though for a different reason. Dilthey was the hermeneutical heir of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and together they are the epoch-makers of modern biblical hermeneutics.[1. See, e.g., Anthony C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), ch. 8.] But it was Dilthey who brought worldview to the fore as a hermeneutical concern. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s landmark work Truth and Method takes the romanticist hermeneutics of Schleiermacher and Dilthey to task and, thereby, establishes the essential hermeneutical problem with worldview, including its use in biblical studies. Essentially, Dilthey combined Schleiermacher’s romantic hermeneutics with historical consciousness, which resulted in a conception of all of history as a text to be interpreted through a psychologizing hermeneutic of human “life.”[2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, rev. 2nd ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), 241–43.] While Dilthey’s specific use of worldview is not at issue in this case, his melding of history and hermeneutics to justify the social sciences epistemologically becomes an abiding basis for interpreting historical texts such as the Bible by identifying a “coherence” in the life of the texts’ authors that is not only a matter of their psychological life but is, furthermore, a coherence of significance beyond what they themselves could have articulated. In other words, by reference to the “objective mind” of biblical authors, the historical method becomes a God’s-eye-view of their meaning.[3. Ibid., 231.]

The idea that a text gives access to an author’s worldview (which is related to “authorial intent”) is dubious, therefore, when such interpretation purports, as Schleiermacher put it, “to understand a writer better than he understood himself.”[4. Ibid., 198.] For Gadamer, however, the problem is not that it is impossible to make valid claims about the implications of a text’s historical cultural context. It is, rather, impossible to do so objectively as Dilthey believed the social sciences must, lest their claims cease to be scientifically valid. Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” has been widely influential in biblical hermeneutics as an account of how tradition encounters tradition in interpretation (though naïvely objectivist historical-critical methods still dominate many sectors). But the important observation here is that worldview finds a new lease in Gadamer’s claim that “the linguisticality of understanding is the concretion of historically effected consciousness,”[5. Ibid., 407.] specifically in taking up Wilhelm von Humboldt’s insight that “a language-view is a worldview.”[6. Ibid., 459.] The way this develops is important for missional theology insofar as biblical hermeneutics is a key methodological concern that can be developed in terms of worldview with great sophistication, but the point at present is that Gadamer’s use links worldview to the Sapir-Warf hypothesis of linguistic relativity with its concomitant problems.