A few months ago, John Dickson released a small book called Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons. It caused a bit of a stir in Sydney Anglican circles but what I’d like to give here is a Catholic perspective because as a Catholic, I found the book fascinating.
Dickson is a Sydney Anglican, just like I was. He is a senior minister at a nearby church, and I’ve been lucky enough to hear him speak many times. I have huge amount of respect for him as a preacher, an historian and a Christian. At the same time, the belief he challenges – that “it is sinful for a woman to preach, and sinful for a man to let her” – could easily have come from the pulpit of my old church. So all this is very close to home.
Dickson’s argument is deliberately limited. He’s not addressing the question of ordination or leadership or pastoral authority at all – just preaching: can a woman give a sermon in church? His argument is also relatively simple. He argues that the Bible forbids women from teaching but that what goes on in our pulpits isn’t properly “teaching” in the biblical or Apostolic sense; and therefore, women definitely can preach a sermon as we understand it today.
Modern evangelicalism equates preaching with teaching, specifically with the sermon. Dickson argues that our sermons are far closer to what St Paul would could exhortation and even prophesy. He gives a number of arguments, concluding that, “when Paul refers to “teaching,” he never means explaining and applying a Bible passage; rather, he consistently means carefully preserving and laying down for a church what the apostles had said concerning Jesus and his demands.” (For the actual arguments, you’ll have to read the book. It’s only a few dollars as an ebook on Amazon and well worth it!)
Dickson’s argument appeals to the importance of oral tradition for early Christians. The task of “teaching” was so important because it preserved the oral traditions from the Apostles.
Christian doctrine in the early decades of the church was maintained, for the most part, not in writings but through the memorizing and rehearsing of all of the fixed information the apostles had laid down for the churches. […]
The significance of oral tradition for earliest Christianity is widely acknowledged. In a society where only about 15 percent of the population could read, oral tradition was the most effective and trusted means of preserving and disseminating important material.
In fact, so substantial was oral tradition to the Early Church that “[w]e can safely say, on biblical and historical grounds, that 1 and 2 Corinthians probably represent less than 1 percent of the words the Corinthians received from their apostle.”
The linchpin of his argument is that this sort of oral Tradition, the deposit of Faith handed down by Apostolic teachers, stopped when the Bible was compiled. (And thus, so did the role of authoritative teacher which was limited to men.)
Only when all of the books of the New Testament had been written (by the 90s) and made available as a “collection” (sometime in the second century) did written tradition come to replace oral tradition in the way we now take for granted.
But my question is, did such teaching stop?
In the footnotes, Dickson responds to Douglas Moo, a prominent Evangelical New Testament scholar, on this very question.
Moo argues that, contra Dickson, teaching in the New Testament did mean expository preaching as we understand it today and thus the prohibition against women preaching stands. Why? Because the “addition of an authoritative, written norm is unlikely to have significantly altered the nature of Christian teaching” and Paul’s own words in 2 Tim 2:2 suggests that it “would continue to be very important for the church. Moo clearly thinks that whatever teaching was, it still is and since we know teaching today isn’t authoritative (in the sense that Dickson uses it), it never was.
This is when I started getting very interested.
To recap, Dickson says “teaching” was authoritative but ceased. Moo says it did continue but wasn’t authoritative. The Catholic Church, however, says they are both right… kind of. Dickson is right that the teaching is authoritative and Moo is right that it continued in the same form it began. This the Catholic teaching on teaching.
We Catholics still believe we have the content of this authoritative teaching which is Sacred Tradition, the word of God transmitted by the Apostles through their preaching and practices etc. We also believe we still have the office of being able to teach authoritatively through its bishops. This is transmitted through Apostolic Succession, as each bishop receives the laying on of hands from another bishop, going right back to the Apostles themselves. The teaching office itself is called the Magisterium, (which is Latin for teaching) and its role is to guard the good deposit (both written and oral), clarify its meaning and proclaim it to the world.
I think Dickson does a fantastic job of demonstrating that authoritative teaching did exist and that, moreover, it was incredibly important for the Early Church. So I won’t go into that now. (Again, you should read the book!)
What I don’t understand, though, is why either the authority of the taught content itself (Tradition) or the role of authoritatively teaching (Magisterium) would cease, leaving us with Scripture alone?
As Moo points out, the Bible gives no indication that there will be a transfer from oral to written authority nor that the role of authoritative teachers would cease. At no point in the Early Church either does anyone seem to breathe a sigh of relief because now we’re got the New Testament and can dispense with all that apostolic tradition and whatnot. If the Church was supposed to transition to Sola Scriptura, they clearly missed the memo. (Did someone forget to write it down?)
Shouldn’t we expect that the role of authoritative teacher would be alive and well today? Dickson’s response is that, just like the widow’s roll Paul also mentions (1 Tim 5:9-12), the important thing is that the teaching is preserved, not the way that it is preserved.
“[W]hat Paul was mandating in his injunctions about “teaching” in the Pastoral Epistles was the careful transmission of the apostolic deposit itself. That does continue today, in a greatly improved manner, whenever the New Testament is reproduced and read out.”
That would be a valid argument only if the entirety of oral tradition was preserved in the New Testament. Then, it really would be about a means, not the content itself. But we have no reason to believe this is the case. The Bible certainly never says so. If Dickson is right (and I think he is) that we “can safely say, on biblical and historical grounds, that 1 and 2 Corinthians probably represent less than 1 percent of the words the Corinthians received from their apostle”, on what possible basis can we assume all – or even most – of oral tradition ended up in Scripture? When we consider that 1 and 2 Corinthians make up more than 10 percent of the New Testament, the maths doesn’t look so good for Sola Scriptura.
And if he is also right that in a predominantly oral society where few could read, “oral tradition was the most effective and trusted means of preserving and disseminating important material”, surely oral tradition would have kept being important precisely because Christian societies stayed overwhelmingly oral? Orality did not cease in the 2nd Century; it continued for centuries – until the last few centuries. Actually, it wasn’t until the 16th Century with the invention of printing press, that it even began to become feasible for more than a tiny minority to “read the Bible for themselves.” Which is funny timing considering that that is when we first see the thoroughly modern doctrine of Sola Scriptura emerge. Huh…
In short, I can see no reason why authoritative teaching would have stopped or why we should assume the entirety of such teaching ended up in written form in the New Testament. Without a good reason to the contrary, I have to assume that things continued as they were in the First Century, and as all Christians thought they did for the first fifteen hundred years after that.
The irony of all this is that because Catholics believe authoritative teaching continued, and that it belongs to the bishops (and their co-workers, the priests), no women end up giving a sermon or homily in church anyway. From a Catholic perspective, even if Dickson is completely right, we still wouldn’t be “Hearing Her Voice”.
I’m not sure how I feel about that.