A Call to End the Justification of Racism and Sexism through the Abuse of God’s Word

In South Africa, the white leaders of Apartheid, who called themselves “Christian,” defended “white authority” by claiming that it was “God-ordained”:

“According to the theocentric way, which is our church’s way of thinking, the human being receives what is justly his when God gives him his God-ordained share … The rights and privileges of people [are] very different according to God’s free will … Justice in the world does not depend on whether each and every one is treated equally but on whether one is treated according to what God has ordained for him in the light of the inequalities which He Himself has created…”

These white leaders also claimed that they were obeying God by acting as the benevolent “guardians” of other people groups:

“Whether we like it or not, we are the guardians of the coloureds and the natives too, and we shall have the right to give reckoning to God about our guardianship.”

Appealing to the United Nations for equality among people of all races was described by these leaders as “an outrageous transgression of authority.”
http://smu-facweb.smu.ca/~wmills/course322/14aReligion_natm.html

The white leaders of Apartheid also denied that they were claiming a position of superiority over other races: “Say not that we are superior and they are inferior, but simply that we are different…” http://www.projectcensored.org/unfinished-revolution-interviews-white-south-africa/

In his book entitled, “Southern Slavery As it Was,” a complementarian writer for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Doug Wilson, defends the institution of slavery by saying that it produced “a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since.”

He also claims that the institution of slavery was clearly supported by the Bible:

“And nothing is clearer — the New Testament opposes anything like the abolitionism of our country prior to the War Between the States. The New Testament contains many instructions for Christian slave owners, and requires a respectful submissive demeanor for Christian slaves.” https://timfall.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/prominent-pastor-defends-slavery-as-being-good-for-black-people-in-america/

In Doug Wilson’s mind, to advocate for racial equality and the abolition of slavery was to ignore the authority of the Bible.

This same author for the CBMW also claims that women “need” men to function as their providers and protectors (i.e. guardians):

“The best thing in the church for the women is for the men to be men. For a man to teach the word of God with authority (and not as the scribes) is not withholding anything from the women at all — it is a gift to the women. Godly women are grieved by usurping women, and annoyed by effeminate men. They are fed by men who teach the Bible with boldness. They need that sort of provision and protection, and they know that they do. We should know that also.” http://cbmw.org/uncategorized/brothers-we-are-not-sisters/

Though women are depicted as dependent upon male provision and protection, Wilson claims that this does not make them “inferior,” but rather “different”:

“To say that one thing is not another thing is not to register a complaint against either. To say that the sun is not the moon is not to criticize the moon, and to say that the land is not the sea is not to file a complaint against the sea. God establishes differences in the world with the intention of them complementing one another, and not so that his variegated world would try to melt itself down into one great indistinguishable mass.” http://cbmw.org/uncategorized/brothers-we-are-not-sisters/

Another CBMW author attempts to rationalize the subordination of all women to male authority using similar language:

“God said in his word that there are two institutions in which the man is to be the leader. One is the home, and the other is the church. Friend that is not chauvinism, that is not sexism, that is not fundamentalism, that is Bible. Now having said that ladies, let me reiterate a previous statement. This does not mean and it does not imply that women are inferior to men. Paul not only gives the picture of authority, he defends the practice of authority. He reminds us…men and women are different.” http://cbmw.org/uncategorized/the-way-it-is/

In all of the quotations cited above, some men are claiming the right to rule over others on the basis of their race or their sex. Further, they depict their right to rule over others as a “gift” or a benevolent “service” to other people groups, who are portrayed as dependent upon this kind of protective “guardianship.” How do they justify such outrageous racist and sexist beliefs? They claim that they are found in the “Word of God.”

For millennia, human beings have attempted to rationalize injustice and oppression by claiming that they have the support of God.

God does not agree:

“To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3).

“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you” (Psalm 89:14).

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18).

”There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Not only did God extend salvation to Jews, Gentiles, men, women, slaves and free, but we are told that the salvation we have in Christ must be made known through our actions and by the transformation of our thinking:

“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:8-9).

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). Paul wrote these comments to a patriarchal culture that was sustained by slavery.

God stands against those who misrepresent his words to justify evil:

“How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,’ when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?” (Jeremiah 8:8).

“Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6).

If you are using the Bible to justify racism, sexism or any other form of injustice, you should know that God wants you to stop. He wants you to admit to yourself the error of your ways and humbly ask him to help you change. He wants you to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He wants you to follow the example of the one you claim to serve:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”
(Philippians 2:5-8)

If you do not listen to what God has to say about racism, sexism or any other form of oppression; and if you continue to misuse the Bible to rationalize doing harm to others, you will one day stand before God to give an account: “And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me’” (Matthew 25:40&45). The way you treat your neighbor–and every human being is your neighbor–is the way you treat God.

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A “Biblical” View of Men and Women?

According to the “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (CBMW) the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV) presents an “unapologetically biblical stance on God’s gracious plan regarding the complementary roles of men and women” (http://cbmw.org/uncategorized/literary-esv-is-unapologetically-complementarian/).

In the eyes of this Council, the biblical role of men is to be leaders, whereas the role of women is to submit to this leadership. Female leadership in the church is bluntly described as “unbiblical” (http://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/50Q_contents.pdf).

The following passage from the ESV translation seems to support this viewpoint:

“My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, your guides mislead you and they have swallowed up the course of your paths” (Isaiah 3:12).

It appears from this passage that God stands opposed to female leadership. If women usurp male authority, God’s people may be led astray.

What the CBMW does not seem to make clear is that this translation of the Bible is based on the work of Jewish scribes from the 7th-10th centuries A.D. known as Masoretes. One of the jobs of these scribes was to add vowel marks to the Hebrew text, which originally consisted only of consonants (https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/masoretic-text-vs-original-hebrew/).

Depending upon which vowels were added to Isaiah 3:12, “infants” could be translated “extractors,” and “women” could be translated “extortioners.” Which translation is accurate? This is an important question.

Is God opposed to women ruling in Israel…or extortioners? A much older version of Isaiah, translated from Hebrew, is found in the Greek Septuagint of the 2nd century B.C.. Please note that the writing of this translation predates the oldest available copy of the Mosorete’s text by roughly 1000 years. This version (the Septuagint) was also quoted directly and extensively by the writers of the New Testament (including Matthew, Luke, John and the apostle Paul) (http://www.bible-researcher.com/quote01.html).

How did the Septuagint translate Isaiah 3:12?

“O my people, your extractors πράκτορες strip you, and extortioners ἀπαιτοῦντες rule over you: O my people, they that pronounce you blessed lead you astray, and pervert the path of your feet.”

A much older version of the Bible, frequently quoted by the New Testament authors, says nothing about “women” in leadership.

In fact, in the Old Testament we see that God himself appointed Deborah as a judge, leader and prophet of Israel. She did not lead God’s people astray:

“Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:4-5 NIV).

The CBMW also claims that female leadership is prohibited by the New Testament passage found in 1 Timothy 2:12:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…” (ESV)

What the CBMW doesn’t seem to clarify is that this translation of the passage is based upon Erasmus’ Greek/Latin version of the Bible from the 16th century A.D.. Specifically the notion that women may not “exercise authority” over a man comes from Erasmus’ Latin “auctoritatum” (Wilshire, 2010, Insight Into Two Biblical Passages). The Greek word he was translating was “authentein.” It is used only once in the New Testament, so it is difficult to grasp its meaning…unless we once again look to the Septuagint for assistance.

In the Septuagint Book entitled “The Wisdom of Solomon” the word “authentas” is used to refer to those who engage in pagan sacrifices to idols (12:6). The “authentas” were parents who sacrificed their children to a false god. What does this word actually have to say about women in leadership?

Absolutely nothing at all.

In fact for hundreds of years leading up to the New Testament era, the word “authentein” nearly always referred to perpetrating or supporting violence, murder or sacrilege (Wilshire, 2010). Not surprisingly, ascetic cults in Ephesus, the destination of Paul’s letter to Timothy, had a long history of performing violent ritual sacrifices involving men. Diodorus Siculus, a historian from 30 BC, explained that one of these cults originally sacrificed male children to their goddess, Cybele. In the New Testament era, male genitalia were offered to the goddess (an idol) during an annual ritual. Men not willing to participate in this ritual were perceived as “unclean” and therefore unfit for spiritual service. Is Paul really writing about “women in authority” here? Not if we look to the Septuagint to help us understand his language, and not if we take the religious history of Ephesus seriously.

So, is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood correct in saying that the leadership of women in the church is “unbiblical”? No, I don’t believe they are. In fact, older manuscripts of the Bible strongly suggest that scribes and translators later distorted God’s message with their own sexist bias.

“‘How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,’ when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?” (Jeremiah 8:8)

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Ephesians 5: a mandate for male authority?

To answer this question, I’d like to share a portion of chapter 5 of my new book entitled, “A God I’d Like to Meet: Separating the Love of God from Harmful Traditional Beliefs”:

Reading the Bible through the lenses of Plato’s philosophy, St. Augustine came to believe that his mind (or spirit) must be completely in control of his body (or flesh) and its emotional responses. Understandably, he found this goal difficult to achieve. As we’ve seen (in chapter 4), he was especially troubled when his body would respond to a woman he found sexually attractive. Rather than learning to accept and regulate his emotions, he believed that hierarchical control of his environment was the solution to his problem. He concluded that women should not be allowed to stimulate “sinful concupiscence” in men.[1]  To prevent this from occurring, men needed to exercise absolute control over women. Augustine did not find this teaching explicitly stated in the Bible. Rather, he inferred it from passages in the book of Genesis that were cited by the apostle Paul:

The apostle puts flesh for woman; because, when she was made of his rib, Adam said, “This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” And the apostle saith, “He that loveth his wife loveth himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh.” Flesh, then, is put for woman, in the same manner that spirit is sometimes put for husband. Wherefore? Because the one rules, the other is ruled; the one ought to command, the other to serve. For where the flesh commands and the spirit serves, the house is turned the wrong way. What can be worse than a house where the woman has the mastery over the man? But that house is rightly ordered where the man commands and the woman obeys. In like manner that man is rightly ordered where the spirit commands and the flesh serves. (Augustine, On John Tractate 2, § 14)[2]

The passages of the Bible that St. Augustine is referring to are Genesis chapter 2 and Ephesians chapter 5. I believe it is important to note that in neither of these chapters (nor anywhere else in the Bible) is a husband, or a man, compared to “the spirit.” In fact, the biblical authors are not discussing the importance of a mind over body hierarchy at all. Further, they are not projecting this hierarchical paradigm onto the manner in which men and women should relate to one another. The notion that women (representing the lower part of human nature) must be ruled over by men (representing the higher part of human nature) does not have its origin in the Bible. This dualistic, hierarchical and sexist paradigm can, however, be found in Plato’s work of philosophy entitled, “The Republic”:

Let me further note that the manifold and complex pleasures and desires and pains are generally found in children and women and servants…. Whereas the simple and moderate desires which follow reason, and are under the guidance of the mind and true opinion, are to be found only in a few [all of them men], and those the best born and best educated…[3]

Very true. These two, as you may perceive, have a place in our State; and the meaner desires of the [many] are held down by the virtuous desires and wisdom of the few…

Seeing then, I said, that there are…distinct classes, any meddling of one with another, or the change of one into another, is the greatest harm to the State, and may be most justly termed evil-doing? This then is injustice…[4]

You are quite right, he replied, in maintaining the general inferiority of the female sex….”[5]

In Plato’s Republic, a dialogue between two philosophers (above) is used to express the notion that women are governed by emotion, whereas men are governed by reason. In light of this assumption, both conclude that men must rule over women. The so-called “meaner desires” of the many (women, children and slaves), must be “held down” by the “virtuous desires and wisdom of the few” (the allegedly best born and best educated men). I believe it is important to notice how Plato defines the term “injustice” here. In his mind, violating a male-dominated social hierarchy was the definition of “injustice.” It was referred to as “evil-doing,” and was regarded as a great threat to the well-being of the State.

When Augustine teaches the importance of male authority and female submission, he uses concepts and language derived from Plato:

It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater…. This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power. (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153)[6]

In the eyes of Augustine, “justice” consisted of so-called lower classes (women, slaves and children) being subject to the authority of a higher class; specifically, men. He viewed this class-based, hierarchical society as the “natural order” of things.

Intentionally following in the philosophical footsteps of St. Augustine, John Calvin also inferred a doctrine of male authority from language used by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

[Regarding Ephesians 5:22] Wives, submit yourselves. He [the apostle] comes now to the various conditions of life; for, besides the universal bond of subjection, some are more closely bound to each other, according to their respective callings. The community at large is divided, as it were, into so many yokes, out of which arises mutual obligation. There is, first, the yoke of marriage between husband and wife; secondly, the yoke which binds parents and children; and, thirdly, the yoke which connects masters and servants. By this arrangement there are six different classes, for each of whom Paul lays down peculiar duties. He begins with wives, whom he enjoins to be subject to their husbands, in the same manner as to Christ — as to the Lord. Not that the authority is equal, but wives cannot obey Christ without yielding obedience to their husbands.

[Regarding Ephesians 5:23] For the husband is the head of the wife. This is the reason assigned why wives should be obedient. Christ has appointed the same relation to exist between a husband and a wife, as between himself and his church. This comparison ought to produce a stronger impression on their minds, than the mere declaration that such is the appointment of God. Two things are here stated. God has given to the husband authority over the wife; and a resemblance of this authority is found in Christ, who is the head of the church, as the husband is of the wife.

And he is the savior of the body. The pronoun HE (αὐτός) is supposed by some to refer to Christ; and, by others, to the husband. It applies more naturally, in my opinion, to Christ, but still with a view to the present subject. In this point, as well as in others, the resemblance ought to hold. As Christ rules over his church for her salvation, so nothing yields more advantage or comfort to the wife than to be subject to her husband. To refuse that subjection, by means of which they might be saved, is to choose destruction.[7]

When John Calvin read the 5th chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he believed he “saw” a class-based society, with a higher class (men) ruling over a lower class (women). He believed that wives—because they are women—were obligated to “obey” their husbands, just as the church is obligated to “obey” the Lord. Speaking of the importance of obedience, for the church and for wives, Calvin issues the following warning: “To refuse that subjection…is to choose destruction.”

It is not difficult to see the influence of Augustine’s dualistic, hierarchical and sexist philosophy on John Calvin’s commentary. The notion of classes is present, as is the emphasis on the alleged importance of male authority and female obedience. Both Augustine’s and Calvin’s interpretations of the same portion of the New Testament are thoroughly Platonic. What they may not be, however, is an accurate reflection of the Bible’s intended message.

Just as the apostle Paul nowhere refers to husbands in Ephesians chapter 5 as “the spirit” (St. Augustine’s inference), he also nowhere commands that wives must “obey” their husbands.[8]  The idea that women must “obey” men in Christian marriage is an inference that is supplied by John Calvin.

The apostle Paul does write about “submission,” but he by no means directs these comments to wives (or to women) alone. He tells all Christians, male and female, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21, NIV). In John Calvin’s commentary, he cites Ephesians 5:22 as supplying an additional command: “Wives submit yourselves [to your husbands].” In the oldest Greek manuscripts available to us today (P46 and Codex Vaticanus), the additional imperative verb “submit,” directed exclusively to wives, is not present.[9]  The only command, “submit to one another,” is directed to all Christians, regardless of their sex.

John Calvin was not, however, reading Greek manuscripts of the New Testament written in the 3rd or 4th centuries A.D.. He was citing the 16th Century Greek/Latin Bible compiled by a scholar named Erasmus. Erasmus’ Bible was compiled using only a few Greek manuscripts written in the 12th century A.D. or later. Erasmus also made use of St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, sometimes translating from the Latin back to the Greek. As a result of this unique process, the Greek edition of Erasmus’ Bible has words and sentence structures that cannot be found in any Greek manuscripts of the New Testament whatsoever.[10]

Contrary to the commentary work of John Calvin, the apostle Paul nowhere instructs husbands to rule over their wives, either in his letter to the Ephesians or anywhere else in the New Testament. In fact, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, he emphasizes Christ’s suffering and sacrificial service as an expression of love. He then commands that husbands love their wives in the same manner: “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25, NIV).

Paul provides the same instructions to all Christians, regardless of their sex or marital status, in his letter to the Philippians:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (2:5-8, NIV)

Jesus similarly describes his earthly ministry as one of sacrificial service:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45, NIV)

When the apostle Paul tells husbands to emulate the sacrificial love of Jesus in his letter to the Ephesians, is he truly establishing a mandate for male authority? No, I don’t believe he is.

References:
[1]R.R. Reuther, “Augustine: Sexuality, Gender and Women,” Feminist Interpretations of Augustine, ed. J.C. Stark, (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007) 56.

[2]Augustine, On John Tractate 2 § 14, ed. John Wijngaards, http://www.womenpriests.org.

[3]Plato, The Republic, 117.

[4]Plato, 120.

[5]Plato, 138.

[6]Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I § 153, ed. John Wijngaards, ww.womenpriests.org.

[7]John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, trans. William Pringle, 1 June 2005, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 19 August 2014, <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.iv.vi.v.html&gt;

[8]The Greek New Testament: Third Edition (Corrected), eds. Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger and Allen Wikgren, (Stuttgart, Germany: United Bible Societies) 676-677.

[9]Harold H. Buls, “Ephesians 5:21-31,” Pericope.org, 19 August 2014, <http://pericope.org/buls-notes/ephesians/ephesians_5_21_31.htm&gt;.
John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians.

[10]Bruce Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: It’s Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (4th Edition), (New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.) 142-145.

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The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: Examining the origins of their beliefs, and calling for repentance

Where does the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood get the notion that women must be subject to male authority in the church and in the home?

An examination of the book entitled “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” provides an indication:

“John Calvin…alludes” p. 150

“Calvin comments” p. 151

“In Calvin’s terms” p. 151

“Calvin properly interpreted” p. 260

“Calvin says” p. 260

“Calvin remarks” p. 263

What did John Calvin say about women?

“[A woman] is formed to obey; for gunaikokratia (the government of women) has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing; and, therefore, so to speak, it will be a mingling of heaven and earth, if women usurp the right to teach” (Wilshire, 2010, p. 79).

Where did Calvin get the idea that “the government of women has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing”?

An examination of his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” provides an answer:

”Augustine expresses” p. 45

“Augustine considered” p. 52

“Augustine…says” p. 53

“Augustine therefore” p. 54

“Augustine justly calls” p. 62

“Augustine reminds us” p. 63

“Augustine distinctly declares” p. 71

“Augustine tells us” p. 74 (and so on, for another 900 pages).

What did Augustine say about women and authority?

The apostle puts flesh for woman; because, when she was made of his rib, Adam said, “This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” And the apostle saith, “He that loveth his wife loveth himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh.” Flesh, then, is put for woman, in the same manner that spirit is sometimes put for husband. Wherefore? Because the one rules, the other is ruled; the one ought to command, the other to serve. For where the flesh commands and the spirit serves, the house is turned the wrong way. What can be worse than a house where the woman has the mastery over the man? But that house is rightly ordered where the man commands and the woman obeys. In like manner that man is rightly ordered where the spirit commands and the flesh serves. (On John, Tractate 2, § 14, ed. J. Wijngaards, for womenpriests.org)

Where did Augustine get the notion that men represent “the spirit” and that they must “rule” over women, who represent “the flesh”?

He tells us in his “Confessions”:

“certain books of the Platonists” p. 86

“the books of the Platonists” p. 92

“the study of those [Platonist] books alone” p. 94

“certain books of the Platonists” p. 96

What did “the Platonists” say about women?

Let me further note that the manifold and complex pleasures and desires and pains are generally found in children and women and servants…. Whereas the simple and moderate desires which follow reason, and are under the guidance of the mind and true opinion, are to be found only in a few [all of them men], and those the best born and best educated…

Very true. These two, as you may perceive, have a place in our State; and the meaner desires of the [many] are held down by the virtuous desires and wisdom of the few…

Seeing then, I said, that there are…distinct classes, any meddling of one with another, or the change of one into another, is the greatest harm to the State, and may be most justly termed evil-doing? This then is injustice…

You are quite right, he replied, in maintaining the general inferiority of the female sex….” (Plato’s Republic)

Conclusion

The belief that women must be subject to the authority of men does not have its origin in the Bible. In other words, it is not properly called “biblical” at all. Rather, it has its origin in the human philosophy of Plato. This philosophy was incorporated into Christian theology by St. Augustine, a Roman Catholic Bishop of the 4th Century A.D.. It was carried into the Protestant Reformation by John Calvin, and today it remains alive through the work of the “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” and other similar organizations.

What does the Bible say about basing our beliefs on human philosophies such as Platonism?

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8, NASB).

It’s time for the church worldwide, and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in particular, to stop confusing sexist human philosophies with the will of God.

“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (The words of our Lord, Mark 7:8, NIV).

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In Theology We Trust: Confusing Human Tradition with the Will of God

The following article is taken from chapter 2 of my new book entitled, “A God I’d Like to Meet: Separating the Love of God from Harmful Traditional Beliefs”:

“It is the studied judgment of this writer, and he is by no means alone therein, that doctrinal preaching is the most pressing need of the churches today.”[1] These words were originally written by an Evangelist named Arthur Walkington Pink. They can currently be found on a website for Providence Baptist Ministries.

According to Pink, sound doctrine is specifically derived from a system of theology known as “Calvinism.” Preaching based on this systematic manner of interpreting the Bible was believed to safeguard the church against moral lapse:

There is a solidity and soberness, a stability and godly fear seen in real Calvinists, which are not found among Arminians. There is an uprightness of character in those who espouse the Truth which is lacking in those who imbibe error.[2]

Pink’s emphasis on the importance of Calvinism to establish and maintain “truth” and “uprightness of character” in the church is not unique. It is shared, for example, by contemporary Christian leaders such as John Piper. In his book entitled, “The Pleasures of God,” Piper (2003) explains,

…this truth tends to preserve the church from slipping toward false philosophies of life. History seems to show that this is so. For example, toward the end of the eighteenth century, “Calvinistic convictions waned in North America. In the Progress of a decline which [Jonathan] Edwards had rightly anticipated, those Congregational churches of New England which had embraced Arminianism [another interpretive system of theology] after the Great Awakening, gradually moved into Unitarianism and universalism…. It seems as if there is something about the truth [of Calvinism] that stands guard over the mind and heart of the church and keeps her alert to tendencies and shifts that swing wide from the plumb line of God’s Word.[3]

In the eyes of A.W. Pink and John Piper it seems that the only thing preventing the church from falling away from God into error and immorality is Calvinism.

To help us understand what Calvinism is exactly, I think we can turn to no better source than John Calvin himself. In a letter to readers of his work entitled, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Calvin describes the objective of his efforts in the following terms:

In order that my Readers may be the better able to profit by the present work, I am desirous briefly to point out the advantage which they may derive from it. For by so doing I will show them the end at which they ought to aim, and to which they ought to give their attention in reading it.

Although the Holy Scriptures contain a perfect doctrine, to which nothing can be added—our Lord having been pleased therein to unfold the infinite treasures of his wisdom—still every person, not intimately acquainted with them, stands in need of some guidance and direction as to what he ought to look for in them, that he may not wander up and down, but pursue a certain path, and so attain the end to which the Holy Spirit invites him.

Hence it is the duty of those who have received from God more light than others to assist the simple in this matter, and, as it were, lend them their hand to guide and assist them in finding the sum of what God has been pleased to teach us in his word. Now, this cannot be better done in writing than by treating in succession the principal matters which are comprised in Christian philosophy. For he who understands these will be prepared to make more progress in the school of God in one day than any other person in three months, inasmuch as he, in great measure, knows to what he should refer each sentence, and has a rule by which to test whatever is presented to him.[4]

What then is Calvinism? Simply put, it is an interpretive framework that tells people what to look for in the Bible, where to look, and how they should make sense of what they find. This interpretive framework consists of what Calvin referred to as “the principal matters” of “Christian philosophy.”

Given the period of history in which John Calvin completed his work, he was likely unaware that in setting up “the principal matters of Christian philosophy” as an interpretive lens for the Bible, he was facilitating what cognitive psychologists today refer to as “top-down processing.” Cognitive psychologist Robert Solso (1988) helps us understand what this process is and how it works:

Top-down processing is an important perceptual theory in cognitive psychology. The theory establishes the paradigm that sensory information processing in human cognition, such as perception, recognition, memory, and comprehension, are organized and shaped by our previous experience, expectations, as well as meaningful context.[5]

Psychologist David G. Myers further explains,

Our brains do more than merely register information about the world. Perception is not just opening a shutter and letting a picture print itself on the brain. We constantly filter sensory information and infer perceptions in ways that make sense to us.[6]

According to a well-known researcher in the field of cognitive development—Jean Piaget–previous experiences lead to the formation of basic assumptions about the world. These assumptions function like interpretive molds into which new sensory experiences are poured. He called these molds “schemas.” Schemas don’t simply help us organize new information. They actually affect how we see, or perceive, the world around us.[7]  What John Calvin may not have realized is that our previous experience and learning even affect the way we perceive (i.e. make sense of) things we read, including the Bible. Information that does not fit with our pre-existing schemas can be overlooked. Information that is not overlooked may be modified so that our current schemas (basic assumptions about the world) remain intact. When information that does not conform to our pre-existing beliefs and assumptions is overlooked or modified, psychologists refer to this as a “confirmation bias.”[8]

Myers (2007) explains that schemas and confirmation bias contribute to a psychological phenomenon known as “belief perseverance.” Rather than seeing new information objectively, human beings are strongly inclined to perceive and interpret the world around them in ways that confirm what they already believe.[9]

The realities of human perception have great bearing upon our understanding of John Calvin’s interpretation of the Bible. In his own words, he explained that “the principal matters of Christian philosophy” serve to guide readers of the Bible to what they should look for, where they should find it, and how they should interpret what they find. I can think of no better example of top-down processing than this. To understand Calvin’s interpretive schemas, though, we must understand exactly what he means when he refers to the “principal matters of Christian philosophy.” Fortunately, Calvin explains to us the origins of this philosophy in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”:

It is unnecessary to spend much time in investigating the sentiments of ancient writers. Augustine alone may suffice, as he has collected all their opinions with great care and fidelity. Any reader who is desirous to know the sense of antiquity may obtain it from him.[10]

Calvin’s dependence on the philosophical work of St. Augustine as an interpretive framework for the Bible is discussed at length by Alister E. McGrath, in his book entitled, “A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture”:

While Calvin’s major concern was the interpretation of scripture, his reading of this text was enriched and informed by the Christian tradition. He had no hesitation in developing the thesis he originally defended at the Lausanne Disputation—that the Reformation represented a recovery of the authentic teaching of the early church, with the distortions and spurious additions of medieval period eliminated. Above all, Calvin regarded his thought as a faithful exposition of the leading ideas of Augustine of Hippo.[11]

So, the interpretive lens through which John Calvin made sense of the Bible was the commentary work of St. Augustine, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hippo, whose work originated in the 4th Century A.D.. That’s important information for anyone interested in understanding how and why Calvin arrived at certain theological conclusions, but the investigation doesn’t end there. St. Augustine also thought that the Bible should best be understood through the lenses of the principal matters of philosophy. He didn’t call it “Christian philosophy,” however, because the system of thought he relied on to help him interpret the Bible was written long before the advent of Christianity. It can be found in the distinctly non-Christian writings of a renowned Greek philosopher–from the 4th Century B.C.–named Plato.

Augustine discloses his affinity for Platonism in his 8th book of Confessions:

Simplicianus congratulated me that I had not fallen upon the writings of other philosophers, which were full of fallacies and deceit, “after the beggarly elements of this world,” whereas in the Platonists, at every turn, the pathway led to belief in God and his Word. (Augustine’s Confessions, Book VIII, Chapter II)[12]

The importance of Augustine’s introduction to Plato’s worldview is also documented by Michael Mendelson in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The single most decisive event…in Augustine’s philosophical development has to be his encounter with those unnamed books of the Platonists in Milan in 384. While there are other important influences, it was his encounter with the Platonism ambient in Ambrose’s Milan that provided the major turning point, reorienting his thought along basic themes that would persist until his death forty-six years later. There has been controversy regarding just which books of the Platonists Augustine encountered [O’Connell 1968, pp. 6–10; O’Donnell 1992, vol. II, pp. 421–423; Beatrice, 1989], but we know from his own account that they were translated by Marius Victorinus [Confessions VIII.2.3], and there is widespread agreement that they were texts by Plotinus and Porphyry, although there is again controversy regarding how much influence is to be attributed to each [O’Connell 1968, pp. 20–26; O’Donnell 1992, vol. II, pp. 423–4]. These uncertainties notwithstanding, Augustine himself makes it clear that it was his encounter with the books of the Platonists that made it possible for him to view both the Church and its scriptural tradition as having an intellectually satisfying and, indeed, resourceful content.[13]

To whom do some Christian leaders, pastors and evangelists turn for an understanding of the Bible that they trust to safeguard the church from immorality and error? John Calvin.

Upon whose philosophical principles did John Calvin rely to help him systematically make sense of God’s revelation in the Bible? St. Augustine.

Whose philosophy did St. Augustine use to help him derive “intellectually satisfying” and “resourceful content” from the Bible? Plato of Ancient Greece.

Calvinism, then, is a systematic method of interpreting the Bible through the interpretive lenses, or schemas, of a philosophy that predates Christianity by approximately 400 years. Do these lenses impact the way some Christian leaders today understand, preach and practice Christianity? Yes, they certainly do. In the next chapter we will begin explore exactly how.

[Chapters 3 through 5 explore the doctrines of predestination, dying to self, and the subordination of women to male authority.]

End Notes

1 Arthur W. Pink, “Practical Christianity; Part 2: Progress in the Christian Life; Chapter 7: The Doctrine of Mortification,” Providence Baptist Ministries, 7 January 2014, <http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Practical/prac_07.htm&gt;.

2 Pink, “The Doctrine of Mortification.”

3 John Piper, The Pleasures of God, (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 2003) 144-145.

4 John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002) 22.

5 “Top Down Processing in Cognitive Psychology,” 17 March 2014, <http://home.gwu.edu/~droliver/TopDown/&gt;.

6 David G. Myers, Psychology: 8th Edition in Modules, (Holland, MI: Worth Publishers, 2007) 237.

7 Myers, 142.

8 Myers, 400.

9 Myers, 408.

10 Calvin, Institutes, 371.

11 Allister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin, (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1990) 131.

12 Augustine, Confessions, trans. Albert C. Outler, 12 January 2013, <http://www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/hum100/augustinconf.pdf&gt;

13 Michael Mendelson, “Saint Augustine,” ed. Edwards N. Zalta, Winter 2012, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 26 November 2013, <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/augustine/&gt;.

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