Aimee Byrd’s Book, Chapter 1

Byrd’s book is divided into three main parts. The first main part is called “Recovering the Way We Read Scripture.” This part deals primarily with hermeneutical issues. As someone who claims the Reformed tradition as her own, it is a question why she should feel the need to recover the way we read Scripture. Does she believe that we have lost something earlier generations had? It is not entirely clear what she means by this, but we will simply note this and move on.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Why Men and Women Don’t Read Separate Bibles.” I agree with much of what is in this chapter, starting with her rejection of the idea that men and women need separate Bibles. Her scathing denunciation of reading the Bible “in pink and blue” culminates in this zinger: “If the aesthetics are good, then our sanctification must be on point” (33). Against many feminist scholars, she rejects the idea that the Bible is patriarchal (42). There are many important female voices in the Bible, some of which she points out (Huldah in this chapter, Ruth in the next), and others exist like Hannah and Mary. Whether all the conclusions she draws from them are justified is another question. At the moment, however, I am listing the areas of agreement. Also, and I agree with her, she laments the poor state of theological education for women. The “Bible” studies that are on offer for women are generally hideous. Maybe publishers think that women can’t handle theology. But why would any great theologian of all church history be inaccessible or irrelevant to women? Byrd elsewhere acknowledges her debt to the great theologians, and that they continue to inform her.

There are several points that need to be examined closely for their implications. Not all of these implications have been mentioned before. First, she says that “the books written before the establishment of Christian trade publishers had an androcentric, or male-centered, perspective” (34). She immediately qualifies this statement by suggesting that this does not mean an inherently wrong perspective, but rather an incomplete perspective. This raises a question in my mind, one which I am not sure Byrd ever answers. Firstly, what does she mean by “androcentric” in this context? Does Byrd see linguistic markers like generic “he” as evidence of androcentrism? Does she see something like covenantal headship, via Ephesians 5, as androcentric? Her words here appear to be a critique, but then she pulls her punch a bit.

Next, the historical situation of Anne Hutchinson is fraught with complications. On Byrd’s reading, she was not taken seriously by her pastors/elders (36). Byrd seems to believe that if the church had invested time and energy into teaching her, the story might have been different. That is possible. However, she was given a rather good education back in England (including religious education), being taught by her learned father, Francis Marbury. It is not clear in the record how much of her theology was already in place before she came over to the colonies. Byrd seems to be claiming that the supposed neglect of Hutchinson was the main contributing factor to her later problems. It is possible that such neglect could be a contributing factor. But Byrd seems to be hinting that no blame for the situation accrues to Hutchinson herself. Any pastor, however, would be disturbed by a group meeting in someone’s house for the express purpose of critiquing the pastor’s sermon. That has “clique” written all over it! Byrd might reply by saying that Hutchinson had no other options available to her. I find that difficult to believe. She didn’t have to form a group. She could discuss the sermon informally with other people. If she had any differences with the pastor, she had a responsibility to bring those to the pastor, and him only, not spread discord by critiquing him behind his back. That is on her.

The most disturbing part of the chapter is the section entitled “Revealing a Woman’s Work” (45-6). If her conclusions are correct, and women formed part of the authenticating of Scripture, then there can be no theological objection to female ministers. If they have the greater, they can have the lesser. She describes Huldah as “authenticating the Word of God largely accepted as the heart of the book of Deuteronomy” (46, referencing Christa McKirkland). She quotes with obvious agreement McKirkland’s claim that Huldah might have been “The first person to authenticate the written Word.” Authenticating the Word of God is not how the Bible describes what she did. All the text says is that she passed on the word of the Lord that came to her, which included this statement from the Lord: “all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read.” It is not at all clear that Josiah wanted it confirmed as to whether the book that was found was the Word of God. His words in 2 Kings 22:13 refer rather to his fear that the things written in the book would come true. Huldah confirms that they would, but with qualifications mentioned in 19-20. Huldah was a true prophetess. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt this, nor for Deborah, whose words came true. Some opponents of feminism have tried to argue that the consulting of Deborah and Huldah indicate the failure of male leadership. At least in Huldah’s case, this is not so, since Jeremiah started his prophecies about five years before the consultation with Huldah (thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, putting the beginning of his prophecy around 626 B.C., and the consultation of Huldah about 621 B.C.). The objection could work with Deborah’s case, but not with Huldah. Most scholars I consulted on this passage addressed the question of why Josiah did not consult with Jeremiah by answering that Jeremiah was probably in Anathoth, whereas Huldah was right there in Jerusalem. In any case, there is no indication that Huldah authenticated God’s Word (who does that anyway? The Reformers always said we receive God’s Word, not authenticate it. God’s Word is self-authenticating). In addition, Josiah’s response to the word even before the consultation indicates that he believed it was already authoritative. What he did in consulting Huldah was to ask how the curses would work out (a point I owe to Fowler). Huldah’s gifts of prophecy are certainly genuine but she does not appear in Scripture as one who had the same public ministry of speaking and writing that her contemporaries Jeremiah or Zephaniah had. Rather, she appears as one who delivered oracles in a private consultation with five members of the royal court. Our conclusions about the exact nature of her ministry or that of other men or women have to depend on other passages and considerations. For more, see Thomas Schreiner’s essay in RBMW. I would need to do more research to see what I thought about this claim, though it seems to have at least some initial plausibility.

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