Historical Novelty and Re-reading 1 Cor 14:34

‘Not all historical phenomena that manifest themselves as doctrinal are necessarily immediately doctrinal in cause or origin.’—Carl Trueman (citing a mentor of his)

The relevance of the quotation above came to mind as I was reading a post over at www.reformation21.org by William Castro, pastor of Emmanuel Upstate Church in Greenville, SC. He served as an advisory member of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry in the Church, and his essay, entitled 1 Corinthians 14:34: Did God Really Say … ? was highlighted as a Ref21 post from 2019 that “you may have missed” (and indeed I had). I’ll just summarize it here as a popular-level reflection on four interpretations of 1 Cor 14:34, the most recent of which is what Castro calls the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation. (For those who don’t know, according to that exegesis, the apostle required women to be silent at the time when prophecies were evaluated in the churches’ worship services.) What struck me most about Castro’s discussion of the four views was not his criticisms of those opinions, but his identification of the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation as not just “increasingly … more prevalent” and “more and more accepted and less and less questioned,” but also as “new” and “novel.” As it turns out, this view first showed up in “the literature” in the published work of W. C. Klein (1962) and of Margaret E. Thrall (1965). Today, it is arguably the most popular view of 1 Cor 14:34 among evangelical scholars, having been amplified by James Hurley (1973/1981), further elaborated by Wayne Grudem (1982), and embraced by others such as D. A. Carson (1991).

Speaking for myself, when I realized that this view is new and novel, it gave me pause. Though I no longer hold this view, I realized that, thirty-five years ago, I did hold it and teach it without ever considering its historical novelty. I could have and should have known better. I ought to have handled my adoption and presentation of the exegesis of that text with greater humility and respect toward the history of interpretation. In admitting this, I don’t mean at all to say that a new interpretation is necessarily wrong. Nor do I mean to exaggerate the importance of a novel exegesis of a single text on one’s overall doctrinal conclusions: the interpretation of relatively few individual texts has the power to alter the way we construe the broader teaching of Scripture. I only mean to point out that the historical newness of an exegetical conclusion requires that the evidence put forward in its favor must be weightier than usual. So I agree with Castro when he writes: “I certainly am not advocating for a rejection of all possible solutions to interpretive difficulties. I do, however, believe that we should follow the humble attitude of the divines of Westminster, who—before affirming an interpretation—considered the history of exegesis of the texts.”

One way to apply the concerns of Castro (and Trueman in the quotation above) is to reckon with the fact that exegesis is inevitably and decisively influenced by existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding. Doubtless most who read this blog see themselves as familiar (and comfortable) with the controlling factors that influenced the adoption of the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation by able scholars like Hurley, Grudem, and Carson. Yet the history of interpretation, at least as those scholars and we know it so far, tells us that that view of 1 Cor 14:34 is new and novel. In that light, I’m constrained to ask myself, what can I learn about the existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding in the 1960s that influenced Klein and Thrall to put forward the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation? To answer that question seems a sounder way to proceed than to hold it and teach it without ever considering its historical novelty.

Posted by R. Fowler White

3 Comments

  1. Rowland Ward said,

    January 13, 2020 at 8:45 pm

    I think the context suggest the issue is women talking among themselves rather than asking their husbands at home. Even so, as Calvin notes, women asking the prophets themselves would not be precluded, nor a woman speaking when the circumstances of organised life were lacking.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    January 19, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    Humility in interpretation that comes from a study of the history of interpretation is something that is catching on in some circles, I think, but not in others. Those enthralled to modernist and post-modernist paradigms have no incentive to pay attention to the history of interpretation. Everything that came before is junk, right? However, if we, as Christians, acknowledge that the Holy Spirit has given the gifts of teaching and preaching to people in all eras of church history, then ignoring that history is ignoring the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Surely we don’t want to do that.

  3. rfwhite said,

    January 20, 2020 at 4:30 pm

    2 greenbaggins: Point well taken about the ministry of the Spirit in all eras of church history. Can we add too that humility requires us to guard against the tendency to make idols out of interpreters from this or that era, while granting that we all develop preferences and favorites and even “default settings”?


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