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William Witt on Women's Ordination: "Concerning the Ordination of Women: Preliminaries"

8/18 Update:  Dr. Witt has been quick to reply.  I will, however, likely forgo responding to whatever replies he posts to my series of rebuttals until I completely make my way through his articles, and that will be awhile.  In the meantime, get your popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the show!

8/19 Update:  Matt Colvin comments.


As noted in the blog entry below, this is the first in a series of replies to the articles William Witt has posted at his blog in defense of the practice of ordaining women to the Anglican priesthood.  This blog post is in reply to the first of Witt's articles, entitled Concerning the Ordination of Women: Preliminaries, dated September 9, 2013.

As you can discern from the title of Witt's article, its intent is to set forth some preliminaries.  Commendably, Dr. Witt lays out for all to see some of the biases with which he begins this series of articles.  In fact, he is so commendably straightforward that he just about gives up the store.  Let's take a look.

He begins by stating his credentials as a defender of orthodox Anglicanism in the vein of C.S. Lewis:

Most of what I write, I hope to be in the flavor of what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” I prefer to be an apologist for Evangelical Catholic theology from an Anglican perspective. Theologically, my approach tends to be ecumenical, looking for areas of agreement and consensus among orthodox Christians. On the occasions where I have ventured into polemics, it has been in response to the challenges of those who reject this perspective. So I have consistently written against liberal Protestantism, which I think is the great heresy in the church today. I have engaged in argument against those who have challenged the catholicity of Anglicanism on such questions as the development of doctrine.

With that statement of his essential orthodoxy being made, he begins a discussion about the exception to orthodox Anglicanism that he will carve out and defend:

But there are some issues on which I have not written precisely because I have preferred to avoid the kinds of heated polemics that these issues raise. I have not yet written on Christianity and politics. I have not written on women’s ordination.

However, in recent years, a number of people have asked me to write something on women’s ordination, either because they wondered what my position was, or because they knew my position and wanted me to put it in writing. I do endorse the ordination of women, and it is a position endorsed by numerous orthodox Christians. T. F. Torrance, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Michael Gorman, Robert Gagnon, and Alan Padgett are just some of the male orthodox biblical scholars and theologians who have written in favor of gender equality or women’s ordination or both. The number of orthodox Christians endorsing women’s ordination is not a small or insignificant group. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, they are not as vocal as those opposed to women’s ordination, and, especially among orthodox Anglicans lately, the loudness at least of those opposed to women’s ordination has reached such a crescendo (at least in public discussion) that one might get the impression that this was a decided issue.

Now, it's of course fallacious to argue or even imply that because a number of noted "orthodox Christians" defend women's ordination ("WO" going forward) that Witt therefore stands in good company.  It may be the fact that each and every one of these ostensibly orthodox Christians happens to be heretical on this particular issue, and defenders of the traditional view believe that they are in fact so, their commendable orthodoxy on all the other issues notwithstanding.  Also fallacious is the argument that "the number of orthodox Christians endorsing WO is not a small or insignificant group."  Size doesn't matter in this discussion.  What matters is whether or not WO is an unbiblical and uncatholic innovation.


I have also known a number of orthodox ordained women clergy who are my friends, and whom I greatly admire, and, at the seminary where I teach I have been privileged to have as students women who were among the best students, finest preachers, and some of the most promising theologians of any of my students. I think it would be a great tragedy for the church to deny these women the opportunity to use their gifts and pursue their callings, but, even more,  to be served by them. I am writing this series of posts primarily for these women.

So we see here something of the emotional motivation for Witt's series of articles.  He has close female friends who have been ordained to the priesthood and valued female students who are headed there.  I again want to commend Dr. Witt for his honesty, because there's a lot of emotional fuel here at work in his thinking and writing.  Enough emotional fuel, in fact, to create a very bad argument.  As I will attempt to show in subsequent responses, this is in fact what happened in Witt's series of articles. But Witt also begs an essential question when he refers to these women's "calling" to the priesthood, for the very question to the apostolic and catholic Christian is whether such a "calling" can even exist.

Dr. Witt continues,

Where I Stand

First things first. I am strongly in favor of the ordination of women, and have been since I was in my twenties. I was raised in a church that did not approve of the ordination of women, and still does not. I left that church for a number of reasons and became an Anglican. The journey from free church Evangelical to sacramental Anglicanism was a long story that took a number of years. My path to Anglicanism and my path to the approval of women’s ordination was the same path, and the theological arguments that led me to the one were of the same kind of arguments that led me to the other. I have never been attracted to theological liberalism, and my reasons for becoming an Anglican had nothing to do with the liberalism of the Episcopal Church. Indeed, I became an Episcopalian because the Episcopal Church was the American representative of Anglicanism. Because the Episcopal Church embraced liberal Protestantism as its official theology at General Convention 2004, I am no longer an Episcopalian, but I am still an Anglican.

Here we get a glimpse into the long-standing nature of Witt's emotional attachment to the proposition that women may be ordained to the Anglican priesthood.  He confesses that he rejected the traditional view of ordination he encountered of his free church past, and that this was one of the reasons he was attracted to Anglicanism -- at that time represented in North America by The Episcopal Church.  Now that Dr. Witt has found himself in something of a pickle on WO due to the move of Realignment Anglicans out of TEC, he finds it necessary to defend his long-standing emotional commitment to the practice against all those Realignment Anglicans who argue for the traditional view -- and who argue that WO was clearly an unbiblical and uncatholic manifestation of the liberalism Witt decries.  (He will go on to argue later in his series that WO and theological liberalism can be delinked.)

Witt then turns his attention to the three basic arguments against WO:

Three Different Kinds of Arguments Against Women’s Ordination

There are basically three different kinds of argument against women’s ordination. The first kinds of arguments are non-theological pragmatic arguments. For example, WO is part of a secular agenda. WO was introduced into the church by liberals. WO will lead the church to liberalism. There is no difference between ordaining women and ordaining practicing gays. These arguments are characterized by their lack of properly theological substance.

More properly theological arguments tend to fall into two different kinds as there are basically two different kinds of traditions that do not ordain women: Protestant arguments and Catholic arguments. By “Protestant,” I mean Christian traditions that have their roots in the Reformation, affirm sola scriptura, do not allow much authority to church tradition or councils, with the exception perhaps of Saint Augustine, and the Reformers, and tend to have a low (if not Zwinglian) view of the sacraments. Some in Reformation churches (such as Anglicans and Lutherans), would not necessarily fall into this category (but there are Anglicans and Lutherans that would). By “Catholic,” I mean Christian traditions that, while affirming the significance of Scripture, also place a high value on church tradition, and have a high view of the sacraments. Churches that fall into this category would include not only Roman Catholics, but also the Orthodox, and some (but not all) Anglicans and Lutherans.

Protestants and Catholics (in the specific sense in which I am using the terms) understand the purpose of ordination differently, and consequently use different theological arguments against women’s ordination.

Witt's assessment at this point is more or less correct, although I would argue that there really isn't such a neat and clean distinction between "Protestant" and "Catholic" arguments as he seems to suggest.  While it's true that Evangelical opponents of WO tend not to argue along liturgiological, ecclesiological and other theological lines as Catholics do, it isn't true that Catholic defenders of the traditional view tend to shun the biblical argument for male headship in home and church.  Manfred Hauke's magisterial work on the question, Women in the Priesthood: A Systematic Analysis in the Light of the Order of Creation and Redemption, is a prime example of a Catholic scholar who engages the issue exegetically.  Conversely, an Evangelical work recently published, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (Ware and Starke, eds.), is largely focused on a triadological defense of the traditional view.  In fact, Catholic and Evangelical defenders of the traditional view are "finding each other", and any Anglican defense of the traditional view will rely heavily on this body of scholarship.

After further detailing the differences between the "Protestant" and "Catholic" approaches, Witt continues with what he believes is another key issue at the heart of the matter,

The Hermeneutical and Theological Difference

It is also important to note that there is a crucial difference between scripture and tradition on the one hand, and hermeneutics on the other. Exegesis and tradition have to do with the difference between understanding what the writers of Scripture taught, and what was taught in the traditions of the church, and how we address the same issues today in a different ecclesial and cultural setting. It is the difference between “what did it mean?” and “what does it mean?,” between what Scripture and tradition said then, and how we apply it today. Too many opponents of WO think that the question can be resolved by a simple appeal to Scripture or tradition. Protestants will appeal to Paul’s prohibitions against women speaking in church or having authority over men. Catholics will appeal to the church’s tradition of ordaining men, and assume that this settles the question. But the question needs to be addressed theologically. Biblical or historical precedent alone is not a theological argument without addressing the theological reasons behind the precedent.

While Witt's previous argument was very straightforward, here he becomes quite obscure.  He seems to suggest that when a modern cultural context requires a different interpretation of "scripture and tradition"  (that is, with respect to WO) than what an ancient interpretation required, this is somehow a "hermeneutical" issue, which he seems to confuse with the "theological" issue.  True, hermeneutics does include the endeavor to understand cultural context in the goal to find modern application, "cultural" arguments aren't necessarily hermeneutical ones.  Both the "Protestant" opponents of WO whose emphasis is on the exegetical approach and "Catholics" who emphasize the theological approach understand well the role that understanding of 1st-century culture plays in conservative hermeneutics, but they would argue that the pertinent biblical material in this case is not culturally conditioned, say, as Paul's comments on slavery would be.  Surely Witt understands that liberal Episcopalians would argue that the Bible's proscription of homosexual behavior is just as much "culturally conditioned" as is its proscription of WO, and thus because of such a "hermeneutical" consideration 1st-century religious culture must give way to 21st-century secular culture.  So, it would seem Witt's argument proves too much.   If neo-Anglicans can undo 2,000 years of tradition with respect to WO on the basis of "hermeneutics", liberal Anglicans can do the same with respect to homosexual behavior.  He can't have it both ways.

Witt ends this first essay as follows:

One last point. Some topics are, by their nature, polemical. Discussions of politics and women’s ordination inevitably raise hackles. That’s just the way it is. It is not my intention to offend, but some will no doubt take offense at what I write. I wish anger and hurt feelings could be avoided, but this is not a reason not to say things that I think need to be said.

So much for preliminaries. Future posts will consider individual arguments.

Which drew this comment from one Sheri Graham:

Thank you for tackling this issue. I look forward to reading your thoughts and theological reasons for your position. I appreciate your being willing to face the no doubt heated discussion that will arise.

We are compelled to answer Dr. Witt, yes, he has chosen to defend a position that will "raise hackles" and will "no doubt" cause offense.  We only hope he will indeed "be willing to face the no doubt heated discussion that will arise."  He's made it clear that he will not rise to the occasion of facing his critics on his Facebook page, and that is fair enough, for many people don't want their Facebook page to be a forum for theological debates.  But here in the blogosphere and in various and sundry Realignment and Continuing Anglican fora dedicated to the debate of issues that affect orthodox Anglicanism, his arguments will indeed be subjected to scrutiny, not only by insignificant bloggers like me, but by accomplished scholars, Anglican and non-Anglican alike, and of course by our bishops.  

Witt's is an argument that is, by his own admission, rooted in an emotional attachment to a notion that close female colleagues and treasured female students have been "called" into the priesthood.  His starting point is therefore doubly problematic: 1) emotion should not come to bear in arguments such as these, and 2) the notion that these women have been "called" into the priesthood is begging the essential question, especially when we look at the collective and historical way the Catholic Church has approached this issue of "calling."  The Catholic Church -- a branch of which Anglicanism has long claimed itself to be --  recognizes no such "call".   Such "calls" originated in Anglican churches only recently, tellingly rooted in an era of various egalitarian, liberationist and feminist ideologies.  But Witt's attachment to them lies at the heart of his argument in favor of this unapostolic and uncatholic innovation.

My next reply, whenever it comes, will be to Witt's second essay in favor of WO, Non-theological Arguments Against the Ordination of Women.

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Reader Comments (4)

After looking in on this discussion, classicist and biblical scholar Matt Colvin opined on another board regarding Dr. Witt's article. Shared here with his permission:

Unfortunate article.

When evaluating scholarly support for WO, you not only have to take into account how many luminaries there are ranged on that side, but also whether the scholarship they have produced on WO is anything near the quality of their best work. Wright, for instance, is brilliant, but his handling of texts relating to WO exhibits sophomoric blunders of translation and willful blindness to context (e.g., thinking that Martha's diakonia was the ministry of the word rather than hospitality, or that Mary was studying to be a pastor, or that hesychia in 1 Tim 2:12 means "leisure for Bible study with a view to future pastoral ministry", despite the contrast with men in the immediate context).

Witherington is similarly good in general, but engages in grammatical special pleading and unsupportable claims about "epitrepo" in 1 Tim. 2:12 being an ephemeral "true present" in force ("I am not, at the moment, permitting — but I will do so later"). Wright and Witherington are exegetical Titans, but they have made big blunders and have feet of clay on this issue.

I do not appeal to the tradition of the church in order to validate my reading of Scripture. The text's primary meaning is what the apostles communicated to their original audiences. Our job is to discover that meaning by sound philological, literary, and historical research — and to do so no matter whether we end up reading with, without, or against the tradition of the church. (This is one of the reasons why it is deplorable that the opponents of WO in the ACNA are mostly wedded to the "catholic" argument from tradition, sacramental validity, and succession of orders. In other words, not sound historical exegesis, but theologically-driven exegesis that is unpersuasive to all who do not subscribe to these "catholic" distinctives).

The real case against WO needs to be made using a deeper argument about the nature of men and women, appealing to the sorts of considerations that Alastair Roberts uses in his writings on sexual issues. And we need to do at least as good a job of explicating the inner logic and interscriptural connections that are at work in the "texts of terror" that speak against WO as, say, Andrew Perriman does for the pro-WO side. The text really is on our side, but we are being out-exegeted at the moment.

August 19, 2015 | Registered CommenterEmbryo Parson

We are not being out-exegeted. Our opponents are simply ignoring us and the Bible. Their exegesis is so bad that it does not qualify as exegesis at all. The meaning of the biblical texts could not be plainer. These people are not going to listen to exegesis, because the are ignoring the plain sense of the Bible, and they know that they are.

The problem is ethical: it is called wilful disobedience.

August 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoger du Barry

I agree wholeheartedly, Roger. That is precisely why I call women's ordination a "heresy", as defined here. I'll let him speak for himself if he wishes, but I think what Dr. Colvin is referring to by "we" is the ACNA, of which his Reformed Episcopal Church is a member. William Witt seems to be the public point of the spear for the pro-WO side in ACNA, but there appears to be no public counterpart on the pro-tradition side (though some sort of dialectical process is apparently occurring in the ACNA Task Force). Outside of ACNA, however, a number of "Reformation Christians" have done excellent exegetical and theological work. I agree with your assessment that they've won the day, and that the other side simply has no intention of listening. Their willfully disobedient departure from the Great Tradition will eventually come home to roost, however. God is not mocked.

August 21, 2015 | Registered CommenterEmbryo Parson

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