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Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination (Book Review)

June 8, 2021
By Robert Yarbrough

Editors note: the following book review appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.

William G. Witt. Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020.

The subtitle expresses the book’s main thrust: it makes a case for women’s ordination. “Icons” in the title signals the conviction developed by Karl Barth (348–49) that “there is no man or woman as such”; they are what they are only relationally. The New Testament’s understanding of Jesus Christ as the true image (eikōn) of God modifies Old Testament theological anthropology; both sexes “image Jesus Christ as disciples who are ‘in Christ’ — the image [icon] of God — as they are joined to the risen Christ through the presence of the indwelling Spirit” (341). Being Christian does away with gender distinctions for ministry purposes.

While reading this book, a reverie took me back to grad school. I had determined to specialize in New Testament studies. Excitedly I purchased an assigned textbook that promised to orient me in the history of this enterprise: The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems by famed scholar Werner Georg Kümmel. Everything prior to the German Enlightenment and its immediate precursors was viewed as pre-history. The real investigation of the New Testament started with Germans like J. S. Semler and J. D. Michaelis, David Friedrich Strauss and F. C. Baur. Significantly, what Semler and the others found in the Bible did not much resemble what all prior ages found. Only much later was I able to grasp how skewed was the view I received.

Icons of Christ is skewed in its starting point of declaring that all views on this topic “represent new theological developments in response to cultural changes of the last couple of centuries” (5; italics original). The author, William G. Witt (associate professor of systematic theology and ethics at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, PA), sets forth four such views: (1) evangelical Protestant, (2) traditionalist Catholic, (3) liberal feminist, and (4) orthodox evangelical and Catholic egalitarian. A key to adjudicating between these positions is the statement: “Too many opponents of women’s ordination seem to think that the question can be resolved by a simple appeal to Scripture or tradition” (7). Evangelical Protestants (view 1) are guilty of “simple” appeal to the Bible, while traditionalist Catholics (view 2) are guilty of “simple” appeal to tradition. Witt resists the liberal feminist label (view 3). The best view, this book argues, is the one held by orthodox evangelical and Catholic egalitarians, the group with which Witt identifies. This book may be seen as a thoroughgoing refutation of the first two wrong views, and (much more briefly) vindication of the fourth, new, and sole true view.

The book does not engage the “liberal feminist” view like it does views 1 and 2. This is a loss for the reader, though a covert gain for the book’s argument, because many of the exegetical warrants presented for view 4 are congruent with exegesis by view 3 proponents. This book contains more “liberal feminist” thought than it acknowledges. Witt anticipates this observation and rejects it by calling it a “non-theological” argument (chapter 2). He could be right about the classification of the argument. But it could still be true to fact: just as Witt (and Richard Hooker; see below) argue rightly that there are truths outside of Scripture, there are truths outside what their methodological frameworks are designed to acknowledge.

The main difference between Kümmel (above) and Witt is that Kümmel devoted little time to explaining and discrediting the views that were in place prior to the rise of his outlook. Here Witt can be thanked for the care with which he seeks to dismantle the church’s fundamental error through the centuries in distinguishing between male and female in the ways it has and especially when it comes to (not) opening the offices of pastor (Protestant) and priest (Catholic) to women.

The first three chapters deal with approach and method. Because Witt can detect new arguments in recent evangelical Protestant and Catholic defenses of the church’s historic tendency not to ordain women, he declares their viewpoints novel. Of course, his own view is too since, as he points out, “the ordination of women to church office is (in terms of the entire expanse of church history) a relatively recent phenomenon, first occurring after the American Civil War in the late nineteenth century among churches associated with the abolition of slavery” (3). One suspects that if Witt had not found new arguments in views 1 and 2, he would have rejected their views on the basis of their offering nothing but old arguments.

It is also here that Witt conveniently sets an insurmountable bar for “any argument against women’s ordination”: “it needs to make the case that there is something in the very nature of women as a class that makes it inappropriate or inherently impossible to exercise ordained ministry” (17). I was under the impression that Scripture argues, not from a theory of women’s nature, but from God’s wise, redemptive, and revealed will, which we may or may not be able to corroborate by theories of human nature, of which there are many. But I may be guilty here of a simple appeal to Scripture, which Witt disallows.

“Protestant Arguments” that Witt wishes to discredit and correct are found in chapters 4–9. Chapter 4 takes up “Hierarchy and Hermeneutics.” Witt appeals to Richard Hooker to prescribe an approach to Scripture that makes room for giving our contemporary setting the privilege it demands in determining what applies now and what does not. Chapter 5 offers a reading of Genesis that declares subordination of women even in the Bible a symptom of a sinful world; we are now in a better place where ordaining women “would be a crucial way in which both men and women serving together can demonstrate the partnership intended by God” (73). Chapter 6 is “Disciples of Jesus.” Witt finds nothing in the Gospels to prevent women’s ordination now, especially since he finds there primarily a Christology of subversion when it comes to the roles of women and men. By ordaining women now we can continue this redemptive trajectory which Jesus established though did not follow through on, leaving it to recent generations among a very small segment of primarily academic Western theologians like Witt to fulfill his intention for the church he founded.

Chapter 7, “Mutual Submission,” argues that complementarian understanding of certain gender-specific roles in church leadership is “simply endorsing either the ‘shame culture’ of the first-century Mediterranean world or the male-centered values of much Western culture and then reading those values back into the Bible” (120). Naturally, Witt is not doing anything like this in advocating a view which did not begin to be set in place until after the North American Civil War and is still rejected by Catholic church teaching. Chapter 8, “Women in Worship and ‘Headship,’” deals with 1 Corinthians 11 and related passages. Witt finds that men and women’s standings are equalized in Christ. Chapter 9, “Speaking and Teaching,” turns to 1 Corinthians 14:34b–36 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15. By now the reader can predict that egalitarian interpreters of recent generations get these passages right, while those who read them to support church ordination practice for almost all of church history are in error.

Chapters 10–14 take up “Catholic Arguments.” They fare no better against the juggernaut of Witt’s methodology and proposals.

While 291 pages of the book are devoted to showing the superiority, indeed moral necessity of Witt’s “orthodox evangelical and Catholic egalitarian” position against its two main rivals as he presents them, 57 pages present his positive case for ordaining women. The purview is limited to the New Testament; no mention is made of Old Testament patterns of leadership among God’s people, in which prophets, priests, kings, and heads of households are (with few exceptions) men. Presumably this was part of a sinful pattern we are now able to see through and correct. In “Women’s Ministry in the New Testament: Office” (ch. 15), he finds that in the New Testament period, women exercised ministries “that would later be designated as office” (315). “Women’s Ministry in the New Testament: Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons” (ch. 16) appeals once more to Richard Hooker to argue that because there is no properly “theological warrant” in the Pastoral Epistles “for excluding women from ordination,” the church today in its vastly different cultural setting should be “willing and indeed eager” to stop denying them the opportunities that the Bible properly understood has extended to them all along (327). A “Conclusion” sums up and extends the insights of the book.

This volume can be commended as a summation and update of egalitarian arguments that have been developed in recent generations. One may question the book’s claim to be “ecumenical” (by George Hunsinger’s definition; 8) when in fact the community of confessing Christians worldwide (where Christians from Africa, Asia, and Latin America vastly outnumber those in the US and Europe) and through history who would agree with it is infinitesimal in size by comparison. Contrary to the view of the book from the outset that not ordaining women to the office of pastor or priest is a new position and cannot be justified by “simple appeal” to Scripture (which appears to mean “primary reliance upon” Scripture, not upon theological method that privileges modern secular conviction[1]), I would argue that it is Christ and Scripture that have led the church in the non-practice of women’s ordination. This conviction can be traced from New Testament times when Jesus and the apostles appealed to the Old Testament and in the New Testament writings did not appoint women to be apostles or pastors, to patristic and medieval and Reformation times, down to our era in which so much of the Bible’s theological anthropology is being rejected (as noted by a truly ecumenical group of German-speaking theologians and church leaders, evangelical and mainline and Catholic and Orthodox).[2]

This is not to claim that either individual Christians or churches have ever adequately conceptualized, lived out, or articulated the fullness of the beauty of life in covenant with one another and in Christ when it comes to the sexes and their interrelationship. We will be working on this project until Christ returns. But it may be doubted that a revisionist reading of so much of the Bible will result in the redemptive outcomes to which Christ’s disciples are called. These are outcomes that have long blessed both the church and societies surrounding it when biblical communities faithfully replicate in their settings the dynamics between women and men enabled and prescribed by Scripture, Christ, and the Spirit in subsequent times.

Robert W. Yarbrough (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary and engages in theological education internationally. He is the author of The Salvation-Historical Fallacy? Reassessing the History of New Testament Theology, co-author (with Walter Elwell) of Engaging the New Testament, and author of five New Testament commentaries. His most recent book is Clash of Visions: Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology.

[1] See, e.g., 329: Current notions “of social liberty and equality means that in all mainline churches—Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican—women are now recognized as having equal ontological status with men. Accordingly, the church has quietly abandoned the historical reasons for opposition to women’s ordination.” This will come as a surprise to Christians worldwide who have always recognized men and women’s ontological parity: they are equally sinful and equally saved only through faith in Christ. Yet most practicing Christians worldwide have not abandoned what they take to be a very historical reason for not ordaining women: it is a church practice, where it is practiced, not authorized by the historical documents Christians call Holy Scripture. Of course Scripture can be parlayed to authorize it, as Witt’s deployment of his method demonstrates.

[2] Accessed April 8, 2021. The article contains a link to the Salzburg Declaration itself, both in German and in briefer English summary.

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