Book – Women, sermons and the Bible: Essays interacting with John Dickson’s “Hearing Her Voice”

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Women, sermons and the Bible: Essays interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice. Edited by Peter G. Bolt and Tony Payne. Sydney: Matthias Media, 2014.

In late December 2012, John Dickson published an eBook entitled Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons.1 In his book, Dickson presented a novel proposal concerning the Greek term normally translated “teach” (didaskō) in 1 Timothy 2:12. Dickson argued that the term didaskō does not mean “teach” in the sense that our English translations would lead us to expect in this context (i.e. formal instruction by church leaders in a congregational setting), but rather is a technical term for the process of passing on oral apostolic tradition prior to the formation of the New Testament canon. On the basis of this proposed new meaning of the word, Dickson concluded that Paul’s injunction in 1 Tim 2:12 does not apply directly to anyone alive today.

In early January 2013, about a week after Dickson’s book was published, I wrote an initial response entitled “What’s happening to our preaching?”. I began by discussing four things I appreciated about Dickson’s book, then raised two key questions about the argument. Firstly, I was not convinced that Dickson had provided sufficient evidence that we should adopt his new meaning of this New Testament term. Secondly, I did not think that Dickson had properly understood the nature of modern preaching and its link to New Testament “teaching”. Since I wrote my response and participated briefly in the ensuing online discussion, I have had personal requests from various readers asking me to follow up with further detail. I have now had an opportunity to contribute to a book of essays in which various authors interact in depth with Dickson’s proposal.

Why I contributed to this book

In one sense, I don’t want to get too caught up this discussion or allow it to dominate other issues. I want to be spending as much time as possible speaking directly about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose death and resurrection secures life and relationship with God for all who trust in him. Nevertheless, the Bible shows us that when we trust in Christ and follow him as our personal Lord and saviour, this will have implications for the way we relate to others. These implications include the way we relate to each other as men and women, especially when we gather together to hear and respond to God’s word. So it is right to seek to understand what the Bible says about these things, and to work out how to put them into practice in our lives together. I have experienced an immensely valuable pattern of evangelical complementarian ministry by churches in Sydney and elsewhere. This pattern of ministry sees men and women working together in complementary partnership for the cause of proclaiming Jesus Christ to the world and growing together in him. There are many who are working to strengthen those partnerships and make them work better–for example, the Priscilla and Aquila Centre at Moore College. Although I respect and value Dickson as a Christian brother, fellow gospel minister and effective apologist, while I acknowledge that he is also, in his own words, trying to promote a form of complementarianism which he describes as “soft” (in his original edition) or “broad” (in a subsequent edition), and while I also acknowledge that he is seeking, like many of us, to to promote the practice of women speaking encouraging words in church in a biblically appropriate way, nevertheless I believe that the key arguments and premises of his book are incorrect and therefore ultimately a distraction from and a hindrance to evangelical complementarian ministry. Thus we cannot avoid talking about these things, nor can we avoid responding when an author as prominent as Dickson has raised them for discussion in such a public way. While I wish Dickson no ill-will as a Christian brother and gospel minister, I believe it is important to help to demonstrate the problems with this particular thesis that he has been promoting.

Indeed, Dickson himself has issued a public invitation to others to write a detailed and critical rebuttal of his proposal. Soon after he had published his original eBook and then sent a complimentary copy to every senior minister in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney to persuade them to adopt his view, John wrote the following on my blog:

Here is my final point, and it is one that has frustrated me and given me great cheer throughout the month of January: Why aren’t the biblically-focused evangelicals arguing with me from the Bible? Where is the counter-analysis of the use of didaskein and cognates in the Pastoral Epistles? Where does this terminology in the Pastorals clearly NOT refer to laying down the rulings and remembrances of the apostles? These are the key questions [. . .] I just want to raise this obvious point and invite others—especially senior ministers—to engage with the argument itself, pretty please.

At the point Dickson issued this invitation, of course, he had been considering and honing his unusual interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12 and the meaning of the term didaskō for years, and his book had only been available to the rest of the world for a month. The initial responses, including my own, were just that–initial responses. It would have been difficult indeed to have provided a response with the appropriate level of deep engagement within that short space of time. However, now after 16 months, this book answers Dickson’s plea for engagement.2 It comprises a substantial and multifaceted answer to Dickson’s thesis, from a number of people, men and women, involved in Christian ministry.

Framing the discussion: Tony Payne, Peter Tong, Dani Treweek

Tony Payne sets the tone of the book in a very important introduction (available for free download). Payne reminds the readers that this book is part of a process that Christians have been engaged in for millenia and will continue to be engaged in until Jesus’ return: “discussing and debating an issue together in order to help one another come to a knowledge of God’s truth that is found in Scripture”. John Dickson has put forward an interesting proposal which, in Dickson’s own words, is intended to be a “thoughtful conversation starter”, and has said that he would like to “receive corrections and criticisms cheerfully”. We are responding in turn, engaging in some depth in this particular conversation which Dickson has initiated, evaluating the evidence and the coherence of his argument. We are certainly not attacking John as a person – we have tried throughout to make sure that we are engaging the arguments themselves, as Dickson has repeatedly requested his readers to do.

Nevertheless, Payne points out, there are also unusual elements in our engagement with Dickson’s argument. Firstly, the topic itself is particularly controversial, and involves quite obvious practical implications for what we do in church week by week. So it’s important to get it right – and to do so needs careful and in-depth interaction. Secondly, the nature of the engagement is made more complex by the fact that Dickson made significant revisions to his book in a second edition nine months after he released his first eBook edition (indeed, there appear to be further “revised” editions now available).3 [Update: a history of the publication of the book and responses is available here] So we needed to engage not only with Dickson’s original proposals, but also with his relatively quick modifications to his original proposals.4 [Update: a discussion of one of the key changes is available here]

Part I of the book, consisting of the first two chapters, acts as prolegomena, orienting the reader to certain elements of the discussion and the way it has been engaged over the last 12 months or so. In chapter 1, “Doing theology in a digital culture” (available for free download), Peter Tong reflects on what it means to engage in theological discussion given the rapid-fire and fragmented nature of online media. Tong’s essay also serves as a rationale for why we as authors have not been content simply to respond to Dickson’s book through short pithy sound bites or blog posts or Facebook discussions, but rather have, in turn, produced a further book. We believe that the best way to engage in an important and complex discussion on a topic like this is by carefully engaging with Dickson’s original book (and its revision), and writing a book-length response. Online discussion is necessarily secondary to this endeavour. In other words – read the book! In chapter 2, “One woman’s voice: some personal reflections on the realities of complementarian ministry”, Dani Treweek offers a personal reflection on the rhetoric of Hearing Her Voice. The title and argument of Dickson’s book imply that women’s have been silenced by their male counterparts and that these women need to be liberated by having their voices “heard”. Treweek observes, rather, that thoughtful complementarianism in her own context (the Anglican Diocese of Sydney) actually strengthens ministry partnership between men and women, and leads to increased opportunities for rich, diverse and vibrant word-based ministry by women.

The core of the response: Claire Smith and Peter Bolt

The heart of the book is Part II, “Biblical and historical arguments”, which consists of three substantial essays by Claire Smith and a fourth by Peter Bolt.

In chapter 3, “Unchanged ‘teaching’: The meaning of didaskō in 1 Timothy 2:12″, Smith provides a detailed, lengthy, academically rigorous yet accessible critique of Dickson’s proposed new meaning of the word normally translated “teach” in our Bibles. I will not go into the details of her argument here–you really need to read the book if you want to engage with the exegetical issues properly–but here is a rough outline.

First, Smith establishes the generally accepted meaning of the word didaskō in both the New Testament and in thousands of places outside the New Testament: it does not mean preserving a tradition, but causing a learner to learn something in an educational setting. This is why, of course, the word has been translated “teach” in our English versions. She rightly insists that the burden of proof rests squarely with anyone who seeks to show that the usual, well-attested meaning of the word does not make sense in 1 Timothy and should be replaced with a new meaning. She goes on to show that there are multiple problems with Dickson’s attempt to replace the well-attested meaning with his new meaning, “preserving and laying down the traditions handed on by the apostles”. The problems include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • misrepresenting Josephus’ (ancient) use of the term didaskō.
  • relying too heavily on a controversial theory by Klaus Wenegast, whose understanding of the meaning of “teach” is caught up with liberal views that Paul did not write the pastoral epistles.
  • employing circular reasoning in interpreting 2 Timothy 2:2 – i.e. importing assumptions directly into conclusions
  • committing basic linguistic errors in 2 Timothy 2:2, e.g. illegitimately identifying words used in parallel as synonyms.
  • failing to note the important reciprocal relationship between the terms “teach” and “learn”. This relationship is clear in 1 Timothy overall and especially in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, and a proper account of this relationship renders Dickson’s proposal unsustainable.
  • failing to distinguish between parts of speech (nouns and verbs), and so repeatedly and illegitimately using the referents of particular instances of the noun “teaching” or “doctrine” to determine the meaning of the verb “teach”.
  • misrepresenting Donald Robinson’s (modern) use of the term didaskō as if it supports his view, when in fact it contradicts it.
  • selectively using James Dunn’s work without regard to elements of Dunn’s work that contradict his thesis.
  • proceeding as if his own view is the benchmark or standard to which all other interpretations must answer, when in fact the opposite is the case.
  • failing to explain adequately why Paul would choose to use a word that normally meant “teach”, didaskō, to refer to laying down and preserving traditions, when there was other vocabulary available to him for this process (such as paradidōmiand paralambanō)
  • etc.

Smith, of course, does not only show that Dickson’s attempt to replace the well-attested meaning of the word “teach” with his new meaning (“preserving and laying down apostolic tradition”) is highly problematic. She also demonstrates that the well-attested meaning, “teach”, makes far better sense of its usage throughout 1 Timothy, with a particular and understandable referent. The word “teach” is referring in 1 Timothy to a particular kind of teaching – the formal instruction in God’s truth from God’s word undertaken by church leaders during the regular community gathering.

In chapter 4, “Can the Old Testament be ‘taught’?”, Smith mounts a strong exegetical case against Dickson that the content matter of early Christian “teaching” included the Old Testament. She examines 2 Timothy 3:16 and Romans 15:4 in detail, pointing out numerous basic exegetical and logical fallacies in Dickson’s arguments concerning these texts. Thus there is no reason to reject the idea that God’s word, once it is written and preserved and collected and canonized (in either Testament), can be the subject of ‘teaching’.

In chapter 5, “Is the modern sermon an ‘exhortation’?”, Smith takes issue with Dickson’s claim that modern sermons are more akin to the activity described in the New Testament using the parakaleō (“exhort”) word-group than they are to that described by the didaskō (“teach”) word-group. She examines the four texts which Dickson uses in support of his thesis that the “exhort” word-group refers to an exposition or explanation that follows the public reading of the Old Testament or apostolic letters (Acts 13:15, 15:22-35; 1 Tim 4:13; Heb 13:22). She demonstrates in each case that Dickson’s thesis is linguistically naive and exegetically unsustainable, and that the activities on view in the former three texts depart at numerous points from what we would regard as a modern sermon. Furthermore, Luke 4:15, 17-21, 31 provides evidence for the term didaskō being used to refer to a speech based on a Scripture reading. Smith notes in her conclusion: “Granted, it may be that some sermons in some churches today do more closely resemble exhortation than teaching, but that does not mean that sermons should be like this! Contemporary (and inadequate) practice must not determine the meaning of the biblical text”.

In chapter 6, “Reading God’s history as our good news”, Peter Bolt examines the historical model underlying Dickson’s interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12, a model which has had number of proponents prior to Dickson. According to this model, “the closing of the canon and/or its wider availability via printing and increased literacy brought about a significant change in the status or place of Christian teaching, such that the situation that prevailed prior to those events is entirely different from the state of play subsequent to those events.” Bolt finds that the model fails on a number of fronts: for example, it stands at odds with overwhelming evidence from patristic sources, and it assumes a large gulf between “oral” and “written” media which cannot be sustained.

Furthering the discussion: Tony Payne, Lionel Windsor, Mark Thompson

By its very nature, the core of our book takes on the form of a critique. This negative tone cannot be helped. This is because the authors have sought to interact with Dickson’s proposal in depth, but have found it wanting on a number of fronts, and have had to say so. So Part III (“Reflections on theology and method”), while also containing elements of criticism, seeks to move the discussion forward in fruitful and positive directions. Tony Payne (chapter 7) examines the question of how we can make the move from ancient text to modern church life. I (chapter 8) examine the relationship between preaching and congregational leadership in the Bible and subsequent theological reflection. Dickson’s argument relies on an assumption that preaching and congregational leadership can be separated in practice; I seek to show that the two are in fact tightly interconnected (I will reproduce this essay here on my own blog). Finally, Mark Thompson (chapter 9) concludes with an affirming and constructive theological statement about evangelical complementarian ministry.

If you engaged with Dickson’s original eBook or its revised print edition, then I hope that this brief summary has prompted you to read our responses. The discussion deserves far more sustained engagement than can be achieved on comment threads or Facebook status updates. The book is available for Kindle and Apple iBooks or directly from the Matthias Media website.

By the way, in case you were wondering, I’m doing this for love not money! My small share of the royalties will go towards reimbursing my parish for my time.


[Update: Soon after I posted this, a Facebook discussion about it occurred on John Dickson’s wall].

[Update: See here for a detailed history of the broader discussion, with links]


Notes:

  1. I was intending to provide a link here to the original eBook but it appears no longer to be available and the links I previously used are broken. See below for the (complicated!) publication history of the volume.
  2. Apart from John’s desire to see senior ministers as the main participants in this discussion–a desire which is counterproductive; for if it were it fulfilled, it would mean that women’s voices would be sidelined.
  3. The publication history of Dickson’s volume is rather complicated. The original 2012 eBook no longer appears to be available, and the links I previously used are now broken. About a month after he released his original eBook, Dickson foreshadowed a forthcoming “revised version”. There is a print version of Hearing Her Voice produced by Dickson Publishing Ltd which simply refers to itself as “the print edition of the Zondervan eBook”, and does not mention any revisions. This might lead a casual reader not in possession of the 2012 eBook to conclude that the only substantial differences between the 2012 eBook and the 2013 print book concern medium and format. However, this is not the case. This print edition contains significant changes, additions and clarifications both to Dickson’s argument and to his conclusions (see below for an example). Thus the “print edition” should really be regarded as a second / revised edition. Zondervan now stocks what it calls a “revised edition”, with a new subtitle: “A biblical invitation for women to preach.” There is also a “revised version” available on Amazon. However, this “revised version” still carries the old subtitle: “A case for women giving sermons”, so it is difficult to discern whether this is the same as the Zondervan eBook without purchasing them all.
  4. As an example of one of the changes made to the eBook: in the conclusion to his original eBook, Dickson lists a possible response to his argument, which he himself rejects:

    I can imagine a third response. Some may conclude that, although the modern sermon cannot be wholly equated with what Paul calls “teaching” in 1 Timothy 2:12, some sermons today may be close enough analogies to the careful transmission of the apostolic deposit that they should only be given by qualified men. I have wondered about this. The problem is, every time I come up with a “for instance”, it smacks of a legalism that does not reflect the gospel. Nevertheless, on this view, sermons are seen on a spectrum…

    However, in the conclusion to the print version of his book published by Dickson Publishing Ltd, Dickson claims that this response is now the one closest to his own current thinking:

    I can imagine a third response (closer to my own current thinking). Some may conclude that, although the modern sermon cannot always be equated with what Paul calls “teaching” in 1 Timothy 2:12, some sermons today may be close analogies to the careful transmission of the apostolic deposit. On this view, sermons are seen on a spectrum…

    John does not explain why or how he has moved from his earlier position, which regarded instances of this response as legalistic and unreflective of the gospel (a serious charge for an evangelical to bring!), to a new position, in which he now favours this kind of response.

    Claire Smith, in an appendix to our book, discusses further instances of Dickson’s modifications to his original book.