Owen Higgs replies to Bishop David Gillett’s article suggesting that his reading of Scripture is the wrong way round, subsuming Christ to Adam

In last Decembers New Directions the Bishop of Bolton explained why he believes the ordination of women to the presbyterate and episcopate is demanded by Scripture. This article examines his most detailed argument.

The main thrust of the bishops article was an exegesis of Genesis 1-3, because ‘the teaching of Jesus looks to the opening chapters of Genesis to provide our basic understanding of the place of men and women in the order of things.’ Well, up to a point. In Mark 10.2ff (Matt. 19.4ff is substantially the same), the Pharisees question Jesus about divorce and he replies, ‘From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

This is the only record we have of Jesus quoting from Genesis 1-3. None of the other Genesis passages which the bishop refers to are cited by Jesus. It may be significant that Jesus quotes from Genesis, but to say he ‘looks to the beginning of Genesis to provide our basic understanding of the place of men and women in order of things’ is to place a great weight on a little text.

Jesus reading Genesis

Did Jesus use Genesis 1-3 to provide the bishop’s ‘basic understanding’? The key verses are 1.27-8, ‘So God created mankind in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Now, what Jesus takes from this passage is not what the bishop takes from it. Jesus grounds his teaching on divorce in the way ‘God made them male and female,’ i.e. man and woman are created to live together. The bishop ignores the context of Jesus’ remark and focuses on the creation of mankind as male and female in the image of God. This is, of course, going beyond what Jesus says – we have no evidence that Jesus was interested in ‘in the image of God he created him.’ It is pure supposition on the bishop’s part, that because Jesus quotes part of verse 27, we can infer Jesus’ understanding of the rest of the verse (and the following fifty-one), and so know Jesus’ ‘basic understanding of the place of men and women in order of things.’

Indeed, the bishop’s own words might have alerted him to a problem here: ‘It is a theological statement of the equality of man and woman without parallel.’ In other words, whatever we might think should be the case, the equality of man and woman in Genesis 1.27 is not central to the Old Testament, where Psalm 8 contains the only reference, or Jesus’ own teaching.

In any case, did the writers of Genesis mean that man and woman created together in the image of God are, therefore, equal? Well, yes, but equal only in the sense that they are created together. The bishop goes beyond the text to make a universal statement about mankind. Now, he is by no means the first commentator to do this – there is a long tradition in the Church of using this verse to draw out some of the implications of the incarnation. But, as scholars have noted and as Jesus’ own words suggest, the main concern of this verse is the creative activity of God, rather than the making of a general and universally applicable statement about mankind. Genesis 1 is not a foundation charter for human beings (man and woman are equal) but an understanding of how God created the world (God created man and woman together).

So, there is good reason to believe Genesis 1.27 was not intended by its authors to provide what the bishop understands as ‘the place and order of men and women in the order of things’ and that Jesus would not have understood Genesis 1 in the way the bishop does. Furthermore, insofar as traditional exegesis has used this passage in its own way, it has done so typically to bring out what was already there in the gospels.

Men and women together

By contrast, the bishop’s only argument from the gospels is to say that Jesus included women in his ministry and that this foreshadows the restoration of the wholeness of God’s creation. Then, recognizing that Jesus did not choose any women among the twelve, he argues (I think) that this was because of the culture in which Jesus lived. And he believes Jesus challenged this culture with the Genesis myth. In other words, the bishop’s understanding of the Genesis myth determines what Jesus says about salvation, even though this goes far beyond what Jesus quotes from Genesis. Rather than read Christ into Genesis, the bishop reads (his) Genesis into Christ.

The analysis continues with the bold statement that Genesis 1 ‘can only speak of equality and complementarity, not inequality and subjection.’ This begs the question what kind of equality we are talking about, and this the bishop recognizes when he writes ‘equality does not lead to the ordination of women’ – Genesis is not a one clause measure. But then he argues that because men and women have dominion over the earthly creation, therefore women have an ‘equality in authority, leadership and representing God.’ Again, Genesis is more nuanced than the bishop – the only dominion which it gives to the woman is dominion over living creatures other than mankind.

In Genesis 1-3, read as a whole, it is the man who comes first and the woman who is described as his helper (even before the ‘Fall’). Even in chapter 2, where the bishop finds a joyful celebration of equality, it is the man who names the animals and woman is taken from man’s side. And in chapter 3, when it all goes wrong, it is the man who is first addressed by God.

Here we come to the third of the bishop’s exegetical points. Quite rightly he says Genesis 3 describes the world we inhabit. And in his understanding of the pre-Genesis 3 world, he follows a long line of Christian exegetes who have understood the first two chapters of Genesis to describe a prelapsarian paradise. However, we have no evidence that Jesus thought this way. Indeed, we may argue that the stories in Genesis 1-3 are not so much an historical progression (after all, they include two creation stories) but mythic descriptions of the world as it is, descriptions which are, admittedly, in tension.

In other words, the Genesis creation myth should be read as an etiology, a description of how things are, rather than how they were. They function like the Just So stories – we are not meant to be concerned with what the elephant looked like before it got its trunk, nor are we to wonder how Eve might have given birth before the Fall. It follows that the punishment of Eve is over-read in the bishops analysis, as well as in many scholarly commentaries. 3.16 reads better if we understand it to say only that where a woman finds fulfilment and happiness – that is, in marriage and child-birth (one foundation the bishop does not build on) – there she also finds pain and humiliation.

So, Bishop Gillett’s analysis of Genesis 1-3, what he takes as foundational for a Christian understanding of the place of men and women, has only a small overlap with what Jesus himself said. Furthermore, and, yes, many exegetes have done the same, the bishop has taken a text which receives little further biblical reflection and read into it what is not there.

Restoration in Christ

The problem this poses for the bishops overall argument is that the one – yes, one – New Testament text which he quotes to support his position, Galatians 3.28, is not only misused in the standard arguments for the ordination of women, and the bishop seems to recognize this, but it also fails to do what he wants of it in the context of salvation. For he argues that what was lost in the Fall is restored in Christ, but his exegesis of Genesis which provides his basic understanding of what was lost at the Fall has neither the authority of Christ nor is it a sound reading of the text – it is not scriptural.

A short article cannot do full justice to either the bishops arguments, or the counter-arguments to them. This final point is made with that caveat in mind. He writes about the restoration of God’s creation in Christ. For whatever reason, he does not balance this with the equally important point that Christ does not just restore the old Adam, he himself is the new Adam. The Old Testament finds its fulfilment in Christ, not least because in Christ there is a new creation. Christ is both alpha and omega. It is this dimension of Christ as God’s last word which is most missing from the bishop’s article.

This is not to deny that Christ was a man of his time but it is to say that Christ the Word made flesh has full authority over the Bible and creation. The bishop would doubtless wish to affirm this, but unfortunately, unlike those Fathers who read Christ into Genesis, the bishop has read Genesis, his Genesis, into Christ. And so Christ in time, who is God’s final Word to mankind, is made into a culturally conditioned character caught in a trajectory between the old Adam of Genesis and the enlightened Spirit of today. Which is not, I think, what Bishop Gillett intended.