Nov 24, 2012

Is Wright wrong about women bishops?

So NT Wright (formerly Bishop of Durham and now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College, St Andrews) has declared in the Times newspaper (£) that the argument for women Bishops is to be found in the Bible.

We applaud his rejection of the cries of both media and politicians that the Church must ‘move with the times’ and modernise. CS Lewis was right to reject the myth of moral progress which he described as ‘chronological snobbery’.

So far so good. However Wright’s defence of women Bishops from the text of the Bible is quite something to behold.  He writes ‘The other lie to nail is that people who “believe in the Bible” or who “take it literally” will oppose women’s ordination. Rubbish.’

Nathaniel Dimock in his work on the Atonement argues that three tests can be applied to assess the validity of an interpretation of the Bible. A doctrine should be regarded as orthodox if it can be demonstrated from the Scriptures, but further, interpretations should also be weighed against the church’s teaching across the centuries. Dimock as a good evangelical believed in Sola Scriptura and tradition is in no way a final authority but nevertheless we are right to ask whether a view of the Bible is biblical if it is also not also primitive and catholic.

By Biblical we mean it must find clear support in the Bible itself. By primitive Dimock means we should look to see whether such an interpretation has been accepted from the earliest times of the church and catholic meaning it should have widespread support across the ages of the church. Clearly doctrines (such as penal substitutionary atonement which Dimock defends) are not taught with the same frequency and clarity across all ages but Dimock ably demonstrates a form of the doctrine present in the church from the earliest times to the present day. If a doctrine is clearly taught in the Bible, so much so that it should be regarded as the correct interpretation over other views, we should expect to find the church affirming it to some degree at points throughout history.

So what should we think of Wright’s approach, maintaining as he does, that a doctrine held nowhere in the church for the first 2000 of its existence should be accepted as Biblical? Further a doctrine still rejected by the vast majority of Christians across the world? I hope he can at least understand the  scepticism of many when his judgement is questioned.

Should we not also be a bit apprehensive when it comes to embracing a novel 21st century interpretation that just so happens fits exactly the mood of our own times. It makes me, at least, think there might be some attempt to make an idea ‘fit’ the text at all costs.

We shouldn’t say that Wright is simply wrong it’s rather that his arguments need to be a great deal more substantial than they are if he wishes to persuade that Christians have failed, for 2000 years, to understand and interpret the text of the Bible correctly.


  • I agree that Wright’s arguments are thin and, I think, erroneous.

    However the impressive thing about his Times piece is that, unlike many other church leaders, he has identified the Bible as the place Christians should go to decide such issues and rejected calls for the CofE to “get with the programme” and merely reflect the priorities of the secular society surrounding it.

    • Thanks for the comments so far…

      Andy: the danger of the Wright position, viewed in the least favourable light, is that it appears to reject the secular agenda for women Bishops but may actually adopt the same agenda (flowing with the culture) by suggesting it was all there all along in the Bible when it isn’t! The same logic could and I’m sure will be employed by some evangelicals who want to affirm the culture’s view on sexuality but claim it was in the Bible all along.

  • I’m sure that Wright would take the view that just because something has 2000 years of history behind it doesn’t make it automatically right. Certainly as an Anglican, the three legged stool of ‘Scripture’, ‘reason’ and ‘tradition’ are central to how we deal with all sorts of issues, although as an evangelical the ‘Scripture’ leg is more prominent.

    • Thanks Simon. I think Wright would be right on that but what is at stake is a doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. If we maintain that new, paradigm shifting, views on time-old issues can be found in Scripture the question has to be asked why haven’t they been found before?

  • Interesting article. This may be a thin and spurious comparison so feel free to disagree and my knowledge of both history and theology is pretty poor so please be kind! But is there a precedent for the approach of Wright historically?

    A simplistic example that comes to mind might be the way that slavery was justified by many using traditional biblical interpretations. Many evangelicals taking scripture seriously disagreed and in some way the spirit of the age agreed with them resulting in abolition.

    • thanks Dan. A good parallel because it does test the thesis. It also highlights the difference. For at least two reasons

      1) many in the early church opposed slavery because they found it to be at odds with the Bible. So Wikipedia (I know, I know…) on the article Christianity & slavery states ‘Saint Patrick (415-493), himself a former slave, argued for the abolition of slavery, as had Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-394), and Acacius of Amida (400-425). Origen (c.185-254) favoured the Jewish practice of freeing slaves after six years.’

      2) It was Christians who first proposed the abolition of the slave trade against popular culture through Wilberforce. So his reading of the Bible was profoundly counter cultural rather than reinforcing the culture

  • Thanks Neil.

    Fulcrum have the article free on their site:

    • Thanks for the link Charlie.

  • In trying to justify the ordination of women from Scripture, Tom Wright has adopted a ‘big picture’ hermeneutic that can be used to prove anything and that forces him to ignore or discount specific textual evidence that goes against his thesis. The details get in the way of the overall theory, as they usually do when people take that (essentially Platonic) approach. Tom does this with other things too – notably with justification by faith. New Testament scholars no longer take him seriously but that message has not yet penetrated into the wider world, at least not outside the UK.

    • Thanks Gerald and thank you too for your excellent Facebook posts clarifying exactly what the vote was and was not all about earlier this week. I’ve certainly not seen it expressed any more clearly and with such insight.

  • Wright’s argument is refreshing as he offers a healthy rebuke to those who argue straight from culture but it is an unconvincing exegesis – so much weight being put on the role of two women – Phoebe ‘a servant’ and Mary Magdalene. Using his methods I could equally argue that Jesus entrusted the teaching about his death and resurrection to men – look at who he explains everything to on the road to Emmaus! The resurrection is full of promise – marvelous promises, freedom from the power of sin and death, certainty that Christ the firstfruits will return destroy all his enemies and reign in the new creation (1 Cor 15) and to reduce it to the promise of transformed gender roles is reductionist at best.

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