Hearing Her Voice: A Catholic Perspective

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.

hearing-her-voiceDickson’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.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Preaching of St John the Baptist, 1490 (Santa Maria Novella, Florence)

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Preaching of St John the Baptist, 1490 (Santa Maria Novella, Florence)

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. 

Corinth, Greece

Corinth, Greece

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.


6 responses to “Hearing Her Voice: A Catholic Perspective

  1. This is spine-tinglingly brilliant — the powerful synthesis of two powerful arguments, and a one-two-three beat-down to the sola scriptura kisser. “If the Church was supposed to transition to Sola Scriptura, they clearly missed the memo. (Did someone forget to write it down?” Ouch!!!

    And wow, only 1 percent? What an amazing statement! It makes me pity sola scriptura Protestants even more, who are effectively basing their whole faith on the blurbs from the dust jacket.

    I haven’t studied much the distinction between teaching and preaching in Scripture; I will definitely pay more attention now. I’ve always paid a little more attention to Paul’s statement that women shouldn’t speak in (the public assembly of) the Church. It seems to me that women have and have always had a vital role as catechists and mentors to their children in the home or in more private, more intimate settings as classrooms. Cf. St. Timothy’s mother and grandmother, and the “older women” of Titus 2:3, who alone are mentioned with the role of “teaching” the younger generation.

    • Wow, thanks Joseph! What an incredibly kind comment! I do believe I’m blushing. 😉

      In terms of women teaching, it is all quite complicated because there’s obviously no clear guide in the text about what is culturally constrained and what is universal. Similarly, how do we define “public” and “private”, particularly given the many house churches in the first century. That and the whole dichotomy between public (male) and private (female) is a phenomenon of (post-)industrialized sicietues. Either way, you’re absolutely right that women (and men) have a vital role to play in teaching and witnessing to others in their lives. 🙂

  2. // 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. //

    Total synchronicity, as the New Agers would say. I was just wondering last night how many early Christians could even read Greek (and while I was reading 1 Corinthians). I figured it wasn’t many.

    Awesome post. It’s a good reminder that things I take for granted, like what “teaching” means, may have meant something very different in the Mediterranean two thousand years ago.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 Yes, our levels of literacy these days are completely unprecedented. In the past, literary was associated with religion, such that our word for clerk comes from the word clergy. And also why academic robes look like ministers robes (and vice versa) now I think of it. Anyway, it’s all very interesting! 🙂 How’s 1 Corinthians?

      • Well, I’m kind of tearing through the NT, just for basic familiarity, but two things stand out in my mind: the first is Paul’s condemnation of gay sex, and the second is that bit about the Body of Christ having many members with different functions.

        Honestly, I’m having a really hard time with the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. I live in a very gay-friendly town, and I don’t like how my attitude toward gay couples has started to change in light of that teaching. I never used to feel uncomfortable around gay people, and now — I do.

        As for the Body of Christ, that at least has been reassuring. I feel pretty useless, most of the time. I don’t feel like I have any real skills. I am very preoccupied with “finding my niche.” Paul gave me a tiny measure of comfort about that. No direct answers, obviously, so I still don’t know if I’m, like, a cell wall in His stomach lining or a microbe in His colon or what. But at least I feel included.

  3. Hi J.P. n& Laura, hope you don’t mind my posting two answers in one so to speak. (soerry for the length but it seemed important not to skimp)
    1) Firstly, no one denies that God allows women to teach on scripture; i.e Anna the prophetess at Jesus’ circumcision.
    Second; the priest acts in “persona Christi – the person of Christ.
    The Sanctuary used to be populated only by males because all acolytes and altar servers were stages of the priesthood.
    (The role of altar serves has been somewhat neutralised in that not all servers are called to the priesthood.) Preaching from the pulpit in the sanctuary is one of the priests distinct duties which characterise the definition of “Preist hood”. That is why preaching is a male preserve reserved in the sacrifice of the Mass where the priest acts in the person of Christ, and preaches in that context.
    2) Having studied fashion design, and later sculpture; the very nature of those subjects meant that I had lots of homosexual friends in my youth; and I did love them. They could be really funny and amusing, and also at times their humour could be very cruel. Their lack of control in their lives meant some could be very controlling, and some I knew tended toward the occult to find the power they felt they needed over others.
    I am speaking of men and women who had same sex attraction. The Catholic church does research into such matters, and has its share of ordained professors of psychology and related disciplines. The Catholic church loves homosexuals, and wants to help them to be whole in body and soul.
    Research suggests that there is no homosexual gene, and the tendency for homosexual attraction is more probably the result of sexualising an emotional problem or need in childhood. An example would be a girl who dresses sexually provocative to get attention from men, because she lacked that from her father. Equally sexual attention at an early age when the minor is not mature can lead to the child aspiring to sexual activity rather than the usual ” train driver, nurse etc…so the “girl” enters a life or prostitution as her normative sexual boundaries have been tampered with. For boys, homosexuality has been traced back to lack of affection by a father, or his absence either physically or emotionally; the boy tends to the female persona to achieve this attention from a male. In all these examples there is a broken-ness which Christ seeks to heal through the ministration of his church.
    If you understand anything of the economy of the soul, then when we engage into behaviour God didn’t intend for us; i.e. sinful behaviour, we enter into territories which are injurious to our salvation, We leave ourselves outside of God’s protection by choice, and thereby attract demonic angels (if you like) rather than the angelic ones which aid our salvation.
    3) Finally,as to finding your “Niche” having subjected all I have to God, he led me to use my talents in ways I hadn’t dreamed. ( it took a long wait; 15 years – but submission to God takes practice!) Don’t worry about not knowing your Niche, for now J.P. – God knows it and will show you the way. He made you and your skills for the building of his kingdom. Give that all over to him and he can do wonders with it you could not imagine, he puts things in place for you ; especially if you stay in his territory, and ask the help of the angels to aid you!

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