Because Mrs. Miller has neglected to deal with the relevant ontology, the thesis of her book is unproven and hence fails. However much we may agree on the equality of men and women as images of God, as fallen, and as redeemed in Christ, that does not remove the stubborn reality of ontological differences. At the most basic level, human ontology is composite of body and soul, biological and psychological. It is the intimate union and interpenetration of these two facets of being human that constitute the created ontology of “humanness.” The differences in our biology reflect differences in our souls.
We will first look at biblical themes that will help us in our discussions about women and men. Then we will look at how various historical cultures and developments have influenced our beliefs. In the second half of the book we will look at prevalent teachings about the nature of women and men and how these views affect our interactions in marriage, church, and society. We will also consider what the Bible teaches on these topics and how we can apply its truths to our lives.
Rachel Green Miller
With this paragraph, Mrs. Miller sets out her agenda in the recently published book “Beyond Authority and Submission.” Her goal is to clear up the church’s witness on topics related to the roles of men and women. She hopes to do this exclusively from the Bible. In her attempt, she posits a need to clear away the detritus we have inherited from the Greeks, Romans, and Victorians. With this heuristic, she hopes to sift out “unbiblical and extrabiblical” teaching in conservative churches on these topics. Finally, her desire is to reexamine the Bible’s teaching on men and women and apply that teaching to the lives of Christians.
Her thesis is that men and women should be co-laborers in all of life. On the surface this thesis is not controversial. Everyone who holds the Bible as the Word of God agrees that men and women were created to work together. The controversy does not lie here. The controversy resides in how one defines “co-laboring.” This, in turn depends on how one defines men and women. It is evident that Mrs. Miller defines men and women as substantially equivalent and that the “co-laboring” she sees in Scripture is a partnership of ontological equals. The only differentiation she allows is found in the stubborn realities of biology in the home and ordination in the church. Biology plainly teaches that women are built to bear children, and one cannot contradict biology. Paul plainly teaches male only ordination, and one cannot contradict the apostle.
But wisdom is found in knowing the causes of things. Why did Paul teach what he did? This is never addressed in Mrs. Miller’s book. The reason for this lacuna is a failure to wrestle with relevant ontology. There is some ontological discussion in chapters 1 and 7, but none of it is relevant to the question of men and women, masculinity and femininity. This is where Mrs. Miller’s book fails. This is also where most of today’s voices who speak to this question are failing as well.
Seeing that Mrs. Miller wishes to avoid the traditional categories used in this debate, I will respect her wish and avoid labeling her with them. The project of dogma is not advanced through a lack of civility. I merely wish to elaborate the problems with Mrs. Miller’s argument as presented in “Beyond Authority and Submission” and to open up an avenue of discussion which I believe will bring a conclusion to these taxing debates over men and women. The avenue of discussion for these questions is the avenue of relevant ontology.
Mrs. Miller gives her view on the nature of authority and submission as being functions of relationships. “As we have seen, authority and submission are a function of our relationships. The nature of each relationship determines who should lead and who should submit.” While it is in the context of a relationship that authority and submission manifest themselves, authority and submission cannot be reduced to mere functions of how we relate. In another place, Mrs. Miller refers to the 5th Commandment as expounded by the Westminster Larger Catechism (Beyond, 25.). What Mrs. Miller misses is that the command is to honor “father and mother.” That is, there is not merely a relation in view, but an ontological reality that grounds the relationship and furnishes the reason for the honor due. Your father and mother are ontologically prior to you and ontologically necessary for your existence. Therefore, honor them. The honor that is due to them is due to their ontological priority which, in turn, grounds their relational position. John the Baptist operates with relevant ontology as it bears on authority and submission when his testimony to the Christ is summarized by St. John, “John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me” ‘ “ (John 1:15). John says that the Christ is more honorable than him (and thus has more authority than him) because the Christ is ontologically prior to him. He is the Incarnate One. What all this amounts to is that ontological priority confers relational authority.
Mrs. Miller seeks to bring forward biblical themes that bear upon her thesis. She does this in chapter 2. Using an illustration drawn from the “Magic Eye” fad of the 90’s, Mrs. Miller reduces interpreting Scripture to understanding the biblical theological themes of Scripture. The trick to a Magic Eye poster was to let your eyes relax enough to perceive the overall pattern and then a 3D image would pop from the poster. If you tried too hard and focused too much on the details, all you would see was a confusing jumble of colors and shapes. This is Mrs. Miller’s metaphor for understanding Scripture. By using the ideas of “biblical themes” and the over all picture of Scripture, Mrs. Miller is trying to tap into the hermenutical discipline of biblical theology.
Whereas biblical theology is a burgeoning trend in reformed circles, it is only half the story. Biblical theology and systematic theology are both tools that the church employs to understand Scripture. Biblical theology takes account of Scripture as literature and seeks to understand Scripture according to the literary tropes and biblical themes that biblical authors use to convey meaning. This is far more than simply seeing Scripture as a grand story. For narrative is but one trope an author can use to convey a message. Biblical theology looks at literary devices and tropes in Scripture and seeks to understand how they bear upon and enrich the overall message. This is taking account of the forest.
But a forest is nothing without trees. This is what systematic theology attempts to understand. Individual elements of God’s revelation need to be understood and brought to bear upon other elements revealed in Scripture. Systematic theology does this by deducing propositions from Scripture and connecting them logically with other revealed propositions. Just as you cannot have forestry without an appreciation of the forest as an ecosystem and an appreciation of the individual trees as discrete biological elements that contribute to the forest, neither can we understand Scripture solely by focusing on biblical or systematic theology. The church needs both. But Mrs. Miller is focused on biblical theological themes to the neglect of a systematic framework within which her exegesis can be controlled.
Another area of revelation that is neglected by Mrs. Miller is that known as natural. God has revealed his will in both natural and supernatural modes; creation/providence and Scripture. Natural revelation includes the created order itself, the providential government of that created order, and man’s own being. That which is revealed in the natural is either repeated by the supernatural or assumed. The existence of God is never argued for in Scripture. The reason for this is that He is sufficiently revealed in nature (Psalm 19, Romans 1, WCF 1.1). But the existence of God is stated and assumed in all of Scripture. I cite this one example of supernatural revelation incorporating the content of natural revelation to prove this point: in order to understand Scripture you must have an eye to nature. For it is nature as created and fallen that the revelation of the Gospel is directed at redeeming. Mrs. Miller neglects this portion of God’s revelation to the detriment of her argument.
This highlights the problem in modern discussions among the Reformed. Just as God has not limited himself to Scripture in revealing his will, so also modern debates within Reformed theology ought not to be limited to determining what is “biblical or extra biblical.” The Bible is not the only book God has given us. But, to elaborate this topic would require another paper for another time. Suffice it to say here that it is an unbiblical standard to restrict a discussion about the nature of men and women to the Bible. “Does not even nature itself teach you…” (1 Cor. 11:14)?